Sunday, February 21, 2010

Extra Bits of Tid

Just some housekeeping notes today:

My latest India Currents article, "Advantage India", was picked up and syndicated by New American Media under the title, "Why India Has An Advantage Over China".

The photos from my most recent trip to Guyana --described in this recent blog post-- are now posted over on Here's a taste:

It's a photo of a government- or NGO-sponsored mural drawn on the famous Georgetown sea wall. The funny part is that they left out the "c" in "choose" and no one seems to have noticed.

And here's a video of the manatees in the botanical gardens:

The sad part is that their waters are polluted, even there in the park, with pop bottles and other trash thrown in. And due to drought, the levels of of their small pond are not being well maintained.

Depressed yet?

Labels: ,

Friday, February 05, 2010

In Memory of Bo

No, not this Boe:

But rather, this Boa:

Boa was the last living speaker of the language Bo, named for the tribe of Bo, of the Great Andaman peoples who once populated the Andaman and Nicobar islands off of India.

If this link works, you'll be able to see a video of Boa singing in her now extinct native language.

Maybe it's hard for a non-academic pointy-head to appreciate the singular tragedy of Boa's passing, but give it a shot. Beyond the sad tale of military decimation by the British, then the effects of paternalistic colonial-style policies by both the British then the Indian governments, leading to the literal extinction of complete races of these aboriginal peoples, there remains the tragedy of our lost links to human pre-history. Yes, as with all things, the passing of Boa is being characterized first and foremost as a loss to the selfish modern world, and not so much as the legacy of a brutal crime committed by the modern world.

Very few anthropological links remain to human prehistory. It's remarkable how little we actually know about how the human animal lived, felt and thought prior to the innovation of writing and thus the recording of history. To examine such times would help answer some of the most fundamental questions of human existence having to do with what is natural and what is constructed. The perhaps thousands of years of human language prior to the advent of civilization a mere 6-10 thousand years ago reflect a sentient mind emerging from the grace of naturalism and into the realm of instrumentalism and exceptionalism.

With the passing of Boa goes one of our last connections to a language that reflected that ethic. In fact, it's believed that the language of Bo predates the Neolithic period, thus pre-dating what we define as civilization.

The continued paternalistic treatment of the surviving Andamanese concerns me greatly, as does modern civilization's treatment of extant tribal Aboriginals globally. In my review of the movie Avatar, some commenter made the annoying and all too common criticism, "I’m wondering why we don’t call Europeans in Europe with family ties dating back centuries aboriginals as well".

Well, fool, we don't call them that because the word "Aboriginal" refers both to a lengthy historical attachment to a place (typically lasting thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years) combined with a modern political, geographical and cultural marginalization of that extant and threatened race. I'll never understand why so many people feel threatened when the plights of such vulnerable peoples so rarely manages to make it onto the public agenda.

Species, peoples, cultures, languages, religions and ideas all go extinct. That's the way of things. But, you know what? It's not necessarily the fact of it that should worry us. It's the how of it. The Andamanese tribals are the victims of centuries of genocidal policies. As far as I can tell, one tribe remains.

You know what the first image I found when I Googled "Andaman"? This one:

Yeah, it's a British tourist ad. Boa is dead. Her race is extinct. And her ancestral land is now the domain of drunken, shagging chavs from England.

In Other News

My latest article is up at India Currents.

And I've begun to archive my haikus!

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


After literally months of stealing a few minutes here and there, I finally just finished reading the 936 page novel called Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The book is already an international bestseller, and was recommended to me by my Australian friend Phil after I'd related to him my joy at reading Suketu Mehta's Maximum City. While the latter is a non-fiction account of life in Mumbai (Bombay), Shantaram is a novelization of the true life story of Roberts, a New Zealander heroin addict serving prison time for armed robbery, who escapes from prison to Mumbai, where various circumstances compel him to become a slum doctor, a mafia soldier, a counterfeiter and a gun runner to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

It's a very large story, replete with intricate, fascinating detail about multilayered life in Mumbai. But, at its core, it's a study of the nature of love and freedom, in the sense of those words that Plato would have most enjoyed. Before his downfall, Roberts had been on an academic path to become a professor of philosophy. His study of violence and meaning, intertwined with the poetry of pain, both psychic and physical, is in many ways a masterpiece of meditation.

The book is rife with laughable purple prose at times, such as this description of a sex scene: "My body was her chariot, and she rode me into the sun." But more common are somewhat profound studies on the essence of free will, like the book's powerful opening:

"It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured. I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when its all you have got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving,can become the story of your life."

If you're interested in an honest and intimate portrayal of the Indian ethic, and/or a unique perspective on the motivations and fragilities of masculinity, I recommend the book to you. You'll be inundated with talk of it soon enough, though, since Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan are making the motion picture version pretty damn soon... unless, of course, rumours that the film has been shelved are to be believed.

During my traditional post-read research, I came across some interesting lectures and interviews by Gregory David Roberts. First is a five part interview with the dizty Indian hostess, "Sexy Pooja". Part 1 is here. Here is part 2:

And here are links to parts 3, 4 and 5. They're sort of worth it just to see a white dude speak streety Hindi and Marathi.

The next three videos (parts 1, 2 and 3) are of Roberts giving a lecture to some social group. He tells a good story or two.

For those who've read the book, I think you'll really enjoy this four part interview with Roberts on CNN Asia, in which he takes us on a tour of the slums in which his book was set:

part 1

part 2

part 3

part 4

In Other News

My review of James Cameron's new science fiction movie Avatar is now up at Go have a look.

And because I'm sick in bed and sort of bored, here's a great photo I found on the Interwebs. Is this not the definition of elegant?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

India or China?

During the first session of every class that I teach at the University of Ottawa, I relate to my students some of my observations from giving a lecture at Jawarlahal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, back in 2007. Essentially, I tell them about how the students at JNU take their education much more seriously than do students in Canadian universities, about how they don't complain about extra work or the difficulty of classes, but rather appreciate the increasing competitiveness of a globalised economy and therefore the importance of every small iota of knowledge or skills that an educator can provide. This experience is contrasted with some of the complaints I get from some Canadian students, who moan about "too much math" or having to do --gasp!-- written assignments or, Zod forbid, write two exams on the same day.

I tell them this in order to bring home the truth, as I see it, that the West is losing the education war, and that we North Americans need to work very hard indeed to match the work ethic of our Asian competitors. After all, I want my students to be as competitive as their Asian brethren, and to be able to work, produce and excel at a global pace.

This sentiment is touched on briefly in Hans Rosling's famous TEDIndia lecture, in which he states that in his experience students in India study much harder than do students in the West.

I observed a similar trend during my tour of India's major cities in 2007, where I noticed that every young person with whom I interacted seemed willing and able to sacrifice and to endure great hardship to do his part to push himself, his family and his country to the world's economic forefront. I've seem similar work ethics in other parts of the world --China, Indonesia and Thailand come to mind-- but never with the same weird mixture of optimism and desperation.

It's almost a truism now that a handful of formerly impoverished nations are poised to be the superpowers of the next century. The so-called BRIC nations --Brazil, Russia, India and China-- have the world's fastest growing economies, and are posting expansive economic stats, even during a global recession. Two in particular --India and China-- are seen as the great emerging powers of the world. Indeed, it should be noted that in the history of human civilization, the two strongest economies on Earth have always been India's and China's, with the exception of the colonial period of the past 200-300 years.

Currently, most US and Canadian foreign policy, with respect to these nations, has focused on China being the likely rival to the USA's throne of hegemonic dominance. This is reasonable given the overlap between American and Chinese military interests (security of the Formosa Strait and arms deals in Sudan among them), and also because of the current dominance of Chinese products in US markets. Chinese GDP is 7-8 times that of India's, her per capita GDP six times greater, and her inflation substantially lower. China's infrastructure, her road quality, civic amenities and electrical grid, for example, are comparable to those of Europe or North America, making for relatively efficient goods production and transportation. And Chinese military power is well proven and disciplined, making China the great regional superpower of Asia.

In the comparison of Chinese and Indian economies, a practice increasingly popular in the parlour rooms of academics, China seems to win according to every traditional metric. But there are qualities that hint at a dramatic shift in coming decades. I would like to respectfully suggest that it will be India, not China, that will take the world's economy and culture by the collars and shake it till the human race takes note. Assuming that a global economy still exists, and assuming that Climate Change or some other apocalyptic event hasn't ravaged humanity back to the Stone Age, I predict that the close of the 21st century will see India as the world's leading nation.

Here are my reasons:

The demographic dividend. China has an age profile comparable to that of Western nations, specifically Canada. In other words, the Chinese are old. As a result, they are heading for the same economic precipice as is the West: in 10-30 years, the number of workers will be fewer than the number of retirees. This is a considerable economic strain. India, on the other hand, is a very young nation. The bulk of its population is just entering the work force.

English. There's a reason one of the more dynamic industries in China is English language training. They recognize that English is the current global lingua franca and the language of commerce. This will not be changing anytime soon, due to centuries of British then American global dominance. As a result of their colonial past, the elite and mercantile classes of India are already either functional or fluent in English, affording them immediate linguistic entry into the global market. It is not unusual or difficult to find fluent speakers of French, German, Portugese, Russian or any number of important world languages on the streets of India; the same cannot be said of China.

British law. Another dividend of post-colonialism is the inheritance of a relatively functional, reliable and more-or-less fair judicial system, at least to the extent that it needs to be for business purposes. China's legal system is functional, as well, but individual rulings at the local level are theoretically subject to the whims of the central ruling party. This is relevant to business because trans-border contracts need to have legal heft. An agreement with an Indian firm is guaranteed by the Indian legal system; there is recourse, at least in theory and more-or-less in practice, should a contract go awry.

Politically engaged diaspora. Both nations enjoy large global diasporas which have sought and received commercial success. But the Indian diaspora has gone further by achieving political success. Canada, the USA, the UK, the Caribbean, Africa and beyond... all are seeing elected officials of Indian extraction who, while serving the needs of their electorate, nonetheless maintain a connection to the Motherland. This is serving to accelerate commercial, philosophical, cultural and political connections between India and the world.

Energy profile. Both growing economies are emerging energy hogs. However, China's model is a factory-based industrial one, depending on coal-fired plants to churn out cheap consumer goods that flood Western markets. India does some of the same, but is known more for its virtual products and human resources --information technology, call centres, medical tourism, etc-- all of which have fewer industrial energy demands than does strict manufacturing. The result is that as energy production becomes increasingly prohibitively expensive, the Indian model for wealth generation will become more labile and efficient than the Chinese model. This may be the difference in sustaining Indian growth when the energy crunch really hits hard.

Democracy. It's somewhat propagandistic to suggest, as the West did during the entirety of the Cold War, that democracy is a prerequisite for national wealth; Singapore proved that assertion to be false. However, history suggests that democracy remains the best political system under which to build a thriving, stable economy. India's functional democracy, unlike China's one-party ruling system, is arguably more robust against major perturbations. A revolution, the argument goes, leading to a vitiation of trade deals and dramatic shifts in economic philosophies, is less likely under India's system than under China's.

Soft power. Whereas hard power is military brute force and money spent by one nation to affect the behaviour of another, soft power is that exercised to encourage others to become acclimatized and sympathetic --almost desirous-- of one's lifestyle and perspective. There is official, government-funded soft power and unofficial, cultural soft power that flows naturally from a nation's character and enterprises. Both India and China have pursued the former, by sponsoring cultural exchanges and by investing in development projects and other goodwill gestures abroad. China, perhaps, has been more acutely involved in this activity, especially in regions of specific geopolitical interest, like energy-rich portions of Africa. However, the unofficial kind of soft power is arguably what is more pertinent to assuring a nation's supremacy atop an increasingly monolithic world economic culture. After all, what has done more to promote US interests abroad, America's vaunted military supremacy or Coca Cola, Hollywood and Britney Spears?

Chinese cultural soft power has flowed slowly but consistently over the years, bringing kung fu, acupuncture and Chinese cuisine to all parts of the globe. But in recent years we've seen the explosion of Indian soft power. The ancient art of yoga is now, ironically, a fast growing multimillion dollar global industry. With it has come Indian styles of meditation and Ayurvedic medicine, all the rage in trendier parts of the West. India is now the centre of the English-language book publishing world, surpassing both the USA and UK in this category, and regularly producing Booker and Pullitzer Prize-winners from her sprawling diaspora.

An increasing global acceptance of vegetarianism as a lifestyle, championed by celebrities and medical authorities alike, is being fueled both by rising food prices and by realizations that meat production is not an environmentally sustainable practice at current global levels. With the increased popularity of vegetarianism has come a gravitation toward the world's most recognizable vegetarian culture in India. This, too, is a kind of soft power.

Bollywood is, of course, the dreadnought of Indian cultural soft power. Bollywood images of beauty, athleticism, wealth, talent and vivacity are replacing extant world views of Indians as mystics, fakirs and impoverished indigents. The Oscar win of Slumdog Millionaire has permanently cemented the Bollywood ethic into the global mainstream, and with it a growing comfort with doing business with Indians, in all the ways that that phrase suggests. To paraphrase Shashi Tharoor, in today's world it's not the country with the biggest guns that wins, but the country who tells the better story; and India is quite adept at telling stories.

The import of cultural soft power is being seen in the rise of Indian educational centres; a few of whom, such as the Indian Institute of Technology, are rivaling the top schools of the USA in quality and name recognition, and are attracting foreign students in increasing numbers. China has some excellent schools, as well, but the global branding of Indian schools is allowing their graduates to leverage those brands in trans-national commerce, by force of name recognition alone, a feat that was once the sole domain of top US and UK colleges.

Both India and China suffer from that great worrisome blight of the Global South: the gaping chasm between rich and poor, both within city centres and between rural and urban poles. In the Chinese case, this has been managed centrally, by establishing specific zones of economic activity. But within those zones, tragedy abounds in the form of child workers and conditions rumoured to be occasionally medieval in their brutality.

In India, the oceans of working poor underwrite the middle class's rapid accumulation of wealth. In the streets of Mumbai, street-side sellers, sweepers and construction workers sleep in the streets or in temporary slums so that the important work of erecting skyscrapers and servicing the business class will not be slowed by the inconvenience of worker health or happiness. Neither the Chinese or Indian case is a sustainable model for labour rights or popular stability.

Both nations must solve their worker rights issues before economic stability is achieved. Frankly, the nation who can do so first may, quite literally, inherit the world.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, August 16, 2009

India Independence Day

I am most definitely showing off when I announce to you that this year I received an invitation from the High Commissioner of India to attend the India Independence Day celebrations at the embassy in Ottawa. I could not attend, due to competing engagements in Toronto, but I was itching to bone up on my Hindi!

Yes, August 15th was the 62nd anniversary of India's (and Pakistan's) date of independence from British rule. It comes this year at an interesting time in history, when all the world sees India now as an economic juggernaut (ironically a Hindi word, co-opted into English) and possibly the next true global superpower.

It's important to remember, though, that India's power and wealth are in fact historic norms. In the history of the world, the globe's biggest economies have always been India and China, with the exception both of the past century and of the heydey of ancient Egypt.

It's also important to remember that India's power and wealth come at a great price: the extreme exploitation of the weak, poor and vulnerable. It's for this reason that I've been predicting for a while now a labour revolution in India, probably within the next 15 years.

These are some of the things I hope to talk about at this year's NetIP conference in Toronto. Plan to attend!

That's all for today. It's too hot and humid right now to be blogging. I leave you with the following photo I took in Toronto Friday night:

It's the "women's post".... for hitching your woman to while you get a coffee? Yes, yes, you know where to send your hate mail.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Arrrrgh! Almighty Zod really doesn't want me to walk. My L4/L5 lumbar disc has re-herniated and I am in agony.

But enough whining.

Two things come to mind today. Have you heard the recent news about Hilary Clinton? Video here:

Essentially, a Congolese university student asked her about what Bill Clinton's opinion on something would be, and Hilary snapped back annoyedly: "My husband is not secretary of state. I am... You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channelling my husband."

There are several thoughts that arise from this event. First, the fact is that the student had actually asked about President Obama's opinion, not President Clinton's opinion. The translator had screwed up, apparently. One hopes that the student received an apology for undeservedly receiving Clinton's wrath.

Second, now we see why Obama could never have chosen Hilary as his VP. The spectre of Bill would have always been present. It would have been a three person administration, with Obama's being the smallest personality!

Third, yes, it was a sexist question... maybe. If it had been asked of any other woman, it would certainly have been a sexist question. But, Zod amighty, your husband is Bill Freaking Clinton! Everyone wants to know what he thinks about anything vaguely political! Hilary, your husband might not be Secretary of State, but I don't think anyone doubts he would be an excellent one. This has nothing to do with your abilities, or with your status as a woman, but more to do with Bill's enormous shadow and diplomatic greatness.

If Margaret Thatcher's husband had risen to the equivalent post in the UK, you'd better believe he'd be constantly hectored about what Margaret would have thought, as well!

Lastly, the Secretary of State is supposed to be the USA's top diplomat. A diplomat is supposed to be sensitive to the ways of thinking of othersrs. While visiting the Congo, Hilary was asked a question by a Congolese that is not an untoward question in that culture. Yes, she has a right to be offended, but surely she could have expressed her unhappiness a little more.... diplomatically?

If I were more clever, I'd work in a "ducking from sniper fire" comment somewhere. Instead, I give you leave to insert your own joke.

Item two today is the Chris Kattan miniseries vehicle Bollywood Hero. I haven't seen it, and maybe it's good. What I do know is that in New York last week, I saw the miniseries pushed heavily in the media. It was particularly heralded by Indians as further evidence of their "arrival" into the mainstream, that an SNL regular would choose to star in an overtly Indian vehicle.

The story, such as it is, concerns a failing American actor who chooses to restart his career by starring in a Bollywood production.

My problem is that this has nothing to do with the "arrival" of Indianness. It's more of the same Orientalism dressed up in miniseries clothing. The star is not Indian, but American. It's not even a real star, but a C-list Chris Kattan. The heart of the story is not the Indian production, but the journey of the white American. It's the Razor's Edge and City of Joy all over again, but without the depth and importance.

Okay, gotta go lie down again.

Labels: , ,

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wasn't Arthrotec Some Kind of Japanese Cartoon Robot?

Being laid up at home with a bad back has compelled me to download and watch a LOT of TV, even though I gave away my TV set 4 months ago in an attempt to wean me from the glass teat. Last night, I watched 6 straight episodes of season 2 of Celebrity Apprentice. Jesse James is my new hero! (And Melissa Rivers is just freakish.)

Last week, in full lumbar pain mode, I watched the entire 5th season of Entourage. And since I Google absolutely everything as I watch, know what I learned? That Jason Patric is the grandson of Jackie Gleason! Bet you didn't know that.

And speaking of lying on my back in lumbar pain... three cheers for Arthrotec!

And speaking of TV, Mary Ellen sends us the following photo, the only comment for which I will make is, "But in what order?"

Now, as you know, I sort of play sitar, and I've often had a fondness for a certain Guns'N'Roses song, "Sweet Child of Mine", which I actually sang aloud in India 13 years ago. Well, Sarah M. sends us this:

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Image courtesy of Dawn L. Does it count as a Daily Perv Link(TM)? Sure, why not.

From E.K. Hornbeck comes this story of John McCain's idiot daughter complaining about her love life. Cry me a river, baby. Sample of her idiocy: "I am not only turned off by people who voted for Barack Obama, but I am also turned off by people that voted for my dad." Really? So you're essentially turned off by pretty much anyone who voted... unless he spoiled his ballot or voted for a loser third party candidate.


Meanwhile, Nadya "Octomom" Suleman's story is so ridiculous that I found myself talking about her to my class of first year undergrads today. Here's an interesting take on our own hypocrisy when dealing with her.

Speaking of Octomom, I think I found my Hallowe'en costume for next year:

And here's the "Octomom" Denny's special: "14 eggs, no sausage, and the guy next to you has to pay for it."

Meanwhile, know of an interesting immigrant in Canada? Why not nominate him/her for the Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards?

Meanwhile, Brad Parker sends us this great collection of art work done by prisoners in New Delhi. Here are two of my favourites:

By the way, everyone and his/her dog has been sending me this article about inter-racial dating. I'm not sure why. I have no comments.

I have no more meanwhiles for you today.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Murder in Mumbai

Image from

Anyone who's visited the mind-blowing financial, crime and movie capital of India, Mumbai, knows it to be a transforming and transformative place that tells of centuries of multicultural layering, a miracle of urban concentration well past imaginable limits of popular saturation, and a global leader in all manner of spectacle.

That its latest spectacle is one of terrorism on a dramatic --almost cinematic-- scale is a sad realization that baptism into the corridors of world leadership sometimes means acceptance of the plagues of affluence. On the verge of becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world, India --always a hotbed of terrorism-- is now a more seductive target than ever.

This week, armed gunmen brazenly killed more than a hundred random citizens and have taken hostages --mostly foreigners-- in some of the city's top hotels. The most recent news is that the Taj Hotel was "liberated" by Indian security forces, killing a few of the gunmen in the process.

The Taj has its own fascinating history. Its founder was once, due to his skin colour, denied lodging in a British hotel in Mumbai whose name escapes my memory. So he vowed to one day build the grandest hotel in the country to outshine that of the British. He succeeded. It was a small taste of the grandeur that would be modern India's financial future. And so it's a tad ironic and even more tragic that the Taj would serve as the site of modern India's first urban bloodbath on the world stage.

The world media is focusing on the gunmen's targeting of foreigners, mostly American and British. But, as in all such stories, it's the local small people who bear the brunt of the villainy. The gunmen opened fire on a crowded commuter train. These trains are not like subway trains in the West; they are so jam-packed that bodies sometimes hang outside the doors. They are the arteries, not for the wealthy and foreign, but for the poor and working class. Mumbai, you must remember, is held aloft by oceans of destitute poor, many of whom sleep and work on the sidewalks.

This is, of course, a horrible, foul series of crimes. But in a few months, when these bodies have been cremated and the relatives have slouched off to try to rebuild their lives, a new thing will arise. Terror and murder in India is a circular event. As sure as night follows day, this act of terror will be answered by an equally horrid attack by Hindu extremists on Muslim neighbourhoods somewhere in India. It won't make the world news because men in suits won't be affected; but more lives are sure to be destroyed.

There is strong evidence that this week's events were spurred by foreign meddling, possibly from immediately north of India. But India has enough of its own home-grown nuts and murderers and would-be village Napoleans that domestic organized violence will continue to be its weak underbelly for at least another generation.

Yes, they can build a nuclear weapon and put a spacecraft on the Moon. How about showing me some real advancement? How about showing me that they can keep their people safe?

Aside... unsurprisingly, the gunmen also targeted Mumbai's Jewish centre, one run by the Chabad Lubavitch. If indeed Pakistan is found to be complicit in this event, I'll be curious to see how Israel responds.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 06, 2006

What? Still On About India?

In lieu, and in honour, of the Oscars, Brother Hrab and I caught a double feature last night: Harry Potter and Syriana. Now, I'd seen the latter already, so took this as an opportunity to enjoy an excellent nap in the theatre. When you're as jet-lagged as me, theatre naps are akin to full body massages. Sweeeet.

But I was delighted to learn that George Clooney had succeeded in winning at least one award last night. I'm not one for celebrity or film silliness, but occasionally I do find one member of the industry whom I truly wish to succeed; Clooney is one of them. He does, however, bear a disturbing resemblance to Hamas spokesman Khaled Meshaal, as described here.

This weekend I was also amused to find a number of TV talk shows dedicated to discussing India's emergence onto toe playing field of world super powerdom. TVOntario's Diplomatic Immunity on Friday was on this very topic, and even they were cognizant of the theme of youth I dicussed to death in my travelblog last month. (The show further benefited from the erudite presence of guest pundit and uber-babe, Ananya Mukherjee Reed. Meow!)

In short, the question they asked was which country is the better bet for economic and political might in the coming years, India or China? China benefits from much foreign investment, excellent infrastructure and stable government. India benefits from having an educated, English-speaking population, and from having increasingly close cultural ties to Europe and America, due in large part to the enormous numbers of NRIs living abroad. Both nations enjoy a strong work ethic, a commitment to education and a large, cheap work force.

But the kicker is this: China's demographics resembles Canada's -- the Chinese are old. Two thirds of Chinese are over 40. India, as I've oft repeated, is a young country. The majority is under 30. This translates to more personal energy, optimism, aggression, a greater ability to endure personal sacrifice, and ultimately a more reliable and stable economic base.

However, I am concerned that the growth of nations like India will be an unsustainable thing, due entirely to an unaddressed and eventual negotiation with the labour class. See, the gap between rich and poor, in places in India, is beyond what we in the North can imagine. In a mall in Toronto, for example, there are classes: those who buy the top end items for hundreds of dollars a pop, and those who clean the floors for minimum wage. But on his off hours, the floor-cleaner and his kids will shop in that very same mall, though perhaps not spending the same amount of money. In India, the floor-cleaner can never dream of even setting foot as a customer into the shops of the malls he cleans; the gap is so wide.

Much of India's (and China's) rapid growth is on the backs of an army of cheap, disposable labour. You can pay literally pennies to get any menial task done, with no requirements for safety, insurance, health care, nutrition or the worker's environment. That's a powerful economic buffer to absorb what in the West would be serious cost overruns.

As these nations develop, particularly in India where its democratic passions are more likely to support a serious labour movement, this large underserviced labour class will increasingly negotiate for better wages and conditions until, at least for a segment of them, the class gap will have significantly shortened.

This is obviously a positive development, but unless the Indian economy is prepared for such an eventuality, in terms of production and management models, expansion will cease and maybe even reverse. I question how Indian society, so dependent it currently is on class delineations, will weather the coming upheaval. Marxist chatter about class warfare was meant for Europe and America, but I think it's more appropriate for the Indian case.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Impromptu Concerts and Crappy Home Movies

Islamic tombs in Hyderabad.

Well, I'm back. My apologies to those whose emails I've yet to respond to. I'm just a little overwhelmed right now with all the stuff I have to do. Yes, photos from India are forthcoming, but it will take a few days to upload them and label them, etc. But I've given you a taste above. This tomb is from a collection of seven Islamic tombs in Hyderabad, not far from the Golconda Fort.

I am a computer geek, a bit of a history geek and very much a science geek. But I am not a camera geek. Hence, it wasn't until late in my trip that I figured out how to use the video capture function on my digital camera. And it wasn't until just now that I realized that this function comes with audio! Had I been so revelated whilst in India, I would have recorded many more video snippets. Sadly, you must make do with what I managed to film: mostly rickshaw rides and random street scenes.

So for those so inclined, I've provided links to snippets of video from India on my new Home Movies page. Please read and respect the disclaimer at the top of that page.

The flight back to Canada was, as always, an experience. Within 20 minutes of taking off into the 14 hour flight, the woman to my left asked if she could exchange her middle seat for my aisle seat. I'm usually a very courteous and accomodating fellow. But India has taught me that courtesy often goes punished. (I had, on an earlier flight, given up my aisle seat so a family could sit together, and ended up squished between two fat guys for the duration.) So I was quick to say no, since I had specifically requested an aisle seat. But it made the rest of the flight a bit awkward. I wish she hadn't asked.

Arriving in Newark was odd. First, we were held up for 20 minutes while a woman overcame her fear of escalators. Then, US immigration chose to process all the US citizens first, from a series of incoming flights, which meant that all of us non-Americans had to languish for hours until every last US citizen was processed, then it was our turn. I'm not sure why this was done. Doesn't seem very efficient, since one would think that the international travellers (like me) are more likely to have time-sensitive connecting flights to make (like me).

Arriving in Ottawa was doubly odd. I was, of course, the only person selected for a baggage inspection. The customs official asked me to unpack my spanking new electric sitar and to play a song for them. Maybe they suspected that it was fake and filled with drugs? In any case, I obliged. So there I was, jetlagged and unwashed in an empty Ottawa airport, playing unplugged electric sitar to an audience of one.

Tomorrow: back to work. Sigh.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

And I'm Off (Hence The Odour)

Greetings from ther departure lounge at Indira Gandhi International Airport. Allow me to describe my final hours in India.

Today, my hostess Sylvie and I went to a magnificent modern mandir (temple) built by the devotees of Sri Swaminarayan, who was a dude in the 18th century who wowed the people by showing signs of saintliness at an early age; in fact, he is thought by his followers to be another incarnation of the god Vishnu, and has thus been given the posthumous title, "Baghwan".

Now, I'm quite uncomfortable with the idea of worshipping a human being. But that's none of my business, so to each his own. The grounds of the mandir are quite fascinating, though. The style is that of Hindu temples of a thousand years ago, a design that has not been seen since that time. But, in modern Indian fashion, commerce is to be seen here, with an imax movie, a boat tour and other services being offered for a fee. The place is laced by an artificial river filled with "the waters of 151 holy rivers from around the world", and devotees are invited to throw in money and take a dip. I think the holiest man in the world must be the janitor who wades in knee-deep every hour to collect all the change.

More interesting was the temple's overstated Hindu chauvinism. In the garden are statues dedicated to India's history. The ideal women portrayed were all mythological figures known for their fidelity an sacrifice. The ideal men, on the other hand, were all historical Hindu kings, politicians and intellectuals. It is odd that Ramanujan made it onto the pantheon (a great mathematician who killed himself while young) but none of the important Mughal emperors did. Hmmm, I wonder why? Religious divisions are not visible to the untrained eye, but they do run deeply here.

This was also a day for good rickshaw rides! For some reason, all the rides I took today required no haggling, and were all reasonably priced. In fact, at one point, a traffic official stopped us to make sure we weren't getting ripped off! Methinks the Indian government is trying to crack down on the rampant ripping off of tourists. Hear hear! I took great pains to read the devanagari script on the back of our rickshaw. It read, "Maha Pita" which sort of means, "big daddy."

Sylvie said that a clean, efficient India would be a joy to behold. The current India is also a joy, but one rife with characteristics that are less than charming: poor sewage facilities, rampant poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, corruption at all levels, air and water pollution, a seeming disdain for both pedestrians and greenery, and seemingly a dedicated effort to deny courtesy in all its forms! (Not least of which because one quickly becomes trained to ignore anyone saying, "excuse me," because it's always a guy trying to sell you something.)

But there are things here that I will sorely miss: the physical beauty of the people, the food, the charm of individuals when you take the time to know them, the ubiquitous children, the great deals, the great daily tolerance of diversity, strangeness and of one another's space, and of course the great extremes of experience and characteristics which are to be had and observed.

There are also some things I'm still not quite sure what to make of. Like my last visit, I am continually intrigued by the over-staffing of every industry. Tasks that should require a single individual are performed by 3 or 4. Instead of a table to place your belongings as you step through a metal detector, for example, stands a fellow who holds your stuff for you. Instead of an arrow pointing the way to the theatre, there will be two fellows who will point the direction for you. This is what you get with a nation of a billion people and a depressing unemployment rate.

But the story of my trip continues to be the explosion of youth and youthful ideals. I met a 23 year old waiter in Bangalore named Karthik who works 10 hour shifts and never complains, because he is optimistic that his country is improving every day, and with that improvement will come an improved station for him and his family. "We work hard," Karthik said, "But now we must learn to work smart."

With the explosion of Indian power, wealth and influence on the world stage comes its intentional cultural prowess, too. Bollywood is being exported, via the huge NRI population, to the West. Indian fabrics and styles are now commonplace on the streets on London and New York. And, oh yes, the writing thing...

Publisher Ritu Menon was recently quoted in a local paper saying that the current world fascinating with Indian writing is just a fad, like the previous interest in Latin American writing. A professor at Nehru University disagreed. He told me that the influence of India on art, science and particularly on literature is here to stay. "We are the world's largest producers of English language books," he said. "By sheer numbers alone, we will dominate the field."

I jokingly expressed a gratitude for my skin colour but a fear that my quasi-Indian heritage was insufficient, to which the professor said, "Don't worry about not being Indian enough. We will claim you. It won't be your choice."

Indeed, history has shown that, like China, India's tack has always been to absorb. When Buddhism erupted as a rival religion, the Hindus claimed Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, as they did for Jesus. When the Mughals came, they were quickly absorbed --and vice versa-- into indigenous Indian culture. When the microchip arrived, India made it their own. At this rate, we might all be singsong-accented curry-eaters in a generation or two.

This century belongs to East and South Asia. I am completely convinced of this now.

Labels: ,

Comment Moderation....

...Is back in effect, since I will be back in Canada in 24 hours. If you post a comment and it doesn't appear immediately, it means it's been placed in the moderation queue awaiting approval.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Last Night In India

Once again tipsy on cheap whiskey. Ahhh, India. Today I did my much anticipated book reading at the literature class of Prof Harish Narang at Jawarlahal Nehru University. Many thanks to Prof Narang and his students for making the experience truly a wonderful one.

I was veritably overwhelmed by the students' interest in what I had to say, their diversity and impressive ability to quickly access some challenging concepts. In fact, I was impressed by J. Nehru University on the whole, as it represents the trend I've been alluding to throughout this travelblog: the rebirth of a powerful, youthful, optimistic and brilliant India.

It helped my mood that there was a strong anti-Bush sentiment on campus. One impressive sign: "When Bush comes to shove, shove back." It reminded me of the sole positive influence George Bush has had on the world-- as a polarizing figure, he has managed to unite the otherwise fractious Left.

To top off the day, my hosts and I decided to see the movie I've been mentioning often, Rang De Basanti. With my eight words of Hindi, I was nonetheless able to follow the minimal plot. The film is beautifully shot and well acted, but the story is predictable and thin. But it is nevertheless an important achievement in Indian cinema.

See, it's about the modern urban youth of India awakening to the corruption in their country and doing something about it. Though it stars 42-year old Aamir Khan as a college kid, the film succeeds in conveying many of the same themes I've been expounding in this space, specifically that there is something new, youthful and exciting happening here, and it has everything to do with the enormous bulk of Indians under the age of 25.

The film is worth seeing if only for its wondrous images of India's diversity. Mind you, it is suspiciously lacking the stray dogs, touts, street dwellers and pretty much anyone who isn't seemingly middle or upper class.

Perhaps more important was the experience of being in the theatre. Recall that India is a nation in love with its film industry, more so than I've seen in any other country. Families are encouraged to attend, and indeed the theatre was filled with ancient grandmothers and howling abbies, and no one seemed to mind. It was also an audience that interacted with the film, in a very positive manner. Film is India's most important artistic medium, as it touchs everyone and is taken seriously by all.

Well, the whiskey is pushing me to my bed. This has been an excellent day in India, starting with an inspiring experience at JNU, and ending with a poignant viewing of India's biggest film. Tomorrow is my final day, ending with a trip to the airport.

Labels: ,

Monday, February 27, 2006

Well Hello Delhi

One thing I forgot to mention was that coinciding with Bush's visit to India is the Indian launch of "mecca cola", an Iranian brand designed to be an alcohol- and caffeine-free alternative to imperialist American colas. Seriously. I will attempt to abscond with a bottle.

I know I'm ready to come home because the old ultra-violence is percolating in my blood. It began when I foolishly opted to fly cheap-ass Air Deccan to Delhi. This airline is so inefficient that when the flight was an hour late in departing, no announcements were made, and indeed no airline officials could be found anywhere in the airport. The same thing happened when I arrived in Delhi: no signs, no announcements indicating where the bags were to emerge. And again, no airline officials anywhere in sight.

Speaking of bags, mine were 8 kg overweight. But instead of paying the 560 rupee fine, I instead bribed the Air Deccan official with 300 rupees (which is all I had). Consider what happened: my 8kg were no longer accounted for. If there were more rupee-challenged, dishonest and overweight travellers like me, the plane might have been hundreds of kilograms overweight, and no one would have registered that fact. Corruption truly can kill.

Arriving at Delhi, I was accosted by someone dressed as an official who led me to one of the standard pre-paid taxi booths, which is the only way to avoid being scammed-- or so I thought.

Turns out it was a front for an expensive livery company and the "official" was a fake. I was conned out of a chunk of cash for what should have been a cheap ride. I knew I had been conned the second I handed over my money, but by then it was too late.

But here's the best part. The fake official had the nerve to ask me for a tip after he'd just conned me! So I explained to him in great detail all the delicious ways that I was going to beat the shit out of him.

He didn't stick around very long.

Labels: ,

Sunday, February 26, 2006

What? A Tolerable Rickshaw Driver?

This is what I have learned from more than 12 years of blogging: the online world is filled with illiterates and fools, none of whom realize they are illiterates and fools.

India has been graced of late with visits from two, um, luminaries. Actor Wil Smith is making many friends with his over-the-top praise of Bollywood actors and music. And George Bush is being feted like a returning white Raj. You think Canadians are pathetic with their fawning appreciation for any scrap of American praise? The Indian papers are downright embarrassing as they trip over themselves to report --as front page news, mind you-- that Bush "approves of Indian democracy".

What they don't report is that Bush has been careful to praise Pakistan, as well, with each official statement. Bush is here to smooth the way for a US-India civil nuclear partnership, and has given implicit approval, so the papers say, of India's (and presumably Pakistan's) military nuclear programmes.

What is encouraging is that Bush has inserted himself into the Kashmir peace process. Heck, nothing else has worked, so the dude can't make things much worse --can he?

Other big news here is that avian flu panic has gripped the nation, as a few cases have been identified. The predictable result is that people are afraid to eat chicken and eggs, even though you can only get the disease from contact with a live bird.

To quell concerns, in cities all over the country, the so-called "Poultry Welfare Association" is giving away hundreds of kilograms of cooked chicken and boiled eggs. It makes for good newspaper photos! Though I have to wonder how it's in poultry's welfare to kill them and eat them.

Today was my last full day in Hyderabad, and it was a relaxing one. I overpaid a rickshaw driver to take me to some tourist locations: the Golconda Fort --India's Masada, where a local king staved off the Mughal imperial army-- and a series of majestic Islamic tombs.

Now, I hate rickshaw drivers. They are guaranteed to make a stressful day worse. After an uncomfortable flight, when you're lugging big bags around, having newly arrived in a new and scary place, you can always count on the rickshaw driver to try to take you somewhere other than the hotel you reserved, and to try to make unscheduled stops at vendors where he gets a commission. I've come very close, in many nations, to physically assaulting taxi and rickshaw drivers when they have refused to take me directly to my stated destination.

But today's dude was surprisingly tolerable. He proved knowledgable about his city and quite pleasant, and even brought his 5 year old son along for the ride. I now know that my Hindi truly sucks because I can't even communicate with a child. But of course I had in my possession the ultimate child communication device: the digital camera. Kids with cameras have a way of making language moot. (The price being scores of useless photos of the backs of hands and feet.)

But the highlight of my day was when the soda vendor, a young man of 24, wanted to know my exercise routine, since he wanted to become as "muscular" as me. Hey, I'm just reporting what he said! Maybe he was trying to pick me up, pick my pocket or sell me something --I don't care. I'll take a compliment however it comes!

Tonight I head back to Delhi. Tomorrow I read for Nehru University. And the day after, I fly back to Ottawa via New York. Can't believe it's almost over.

Labels: ,


As I enter the last 4 days of my stay in India, it's useful to look about and realize where I am. I'm in Hyderabad, the Muslim cultural capital of South India. Tomorrow I head back to Delhi. A couple of hundred miles east of Delhi is China. A little further away in the Northwest direction is Pakistan. Two hundred miles beyond that border lies Afghanistan. By Canadian standards, a couple of hundred miles is nothing. This is where the history of the early 21st century is being played out. And this is where the future of this century will be written. All rather exciting, really.

JJ send us this link about the present Miss India contestants. No, I've not seen them wandering about. But it brings up a topic I've been deftly avoiding: women in India.

Despite my base persona as a hetero perv, I have in fact been very careful not even to look at the women here. You just never know what cultural lines you might be crossing and what jealous boyfriend you might be pissing off --a good rule for travelling in any foreign country. The women I have dealth with have been: customer service people, fellow travellers, quasi-relatives, Aurovillians or friends with whom I've had prior contact. And even with those women, I've been careful not to show any public displays of affection.

See, in India it's not typical to see men and women showing affection in public. Men will hold hands with other men, but to many it is unseemly to do so with a woman. Of course, this, like everything else, is changing. In Delhi, I once saw a couple kissing in the darkened shade of the Lok Sabha buildings at night time. In Bangalore, there was the occasional tender brush of finger against hand among couples shopping in the more upscale malls.

Like everything else I have discussed in my exploration of the new urban India, the appropriate behaviours between men and women are confounded by education and class: what is newly permissable among the educated and wealthier classes many still not be permitted among the rest. I'm sure I'm going to be buried beneath a mountain of emails from middle-upper class Indian women telling me that they feel perfectly free to smooch in public. But before you write to me, please ask yourselves if you can reliably speak for the other classes of women who co-exist in this enormous nation.

This is a nation of sexual segregation. There are necessarily women-only train compartments and hostels, because the rate of harrassment against unaccompanied women is so great. Less convincingly, there are separate women's and men's lines for airport security and at liquor stores. Like America prior to the 90s, every disco has a cover charge for men only; women are universally allowed in for free. The flipside to this is that there is an unabashed sexist remuneration policy in the workplace. Ten years ago, a businessman once told me that it's his policy to pay women less than men for the same work, because "men have to support a family, women don't".

You would think that these sentiments would also be reflected in the public treatment of women, perhaps in something resembling deference. But I regularly see women, both old and young, jostled and bullied by larger men in crowds, on buses and airports. And thanks in part to media depictions of scantily-clad film stars and skanky Western women, and in part to a failure of this society to teach its men appropriate behaviour, some cities (particularly Delhi) are known for their poor treatment of unaccompanied women. Stories abound of groping, cat-calls and even of actual sexual assault against single women, both Indian and foreign. I'm told that Delhi is the worst for this. I'm also told that Bombay, Chennai and Bangalore are perfectly safe, in comparison.

Even in Auroville, a friend said she once happened upon a man on the side of the road, masturbating to the sight of her. At one of the Auroville beaches, buses arrive regularly from Chennai, jam-packed with Indian men desperate for a glimpse of white flesh in a bathing suit.

Hidden from the eyes of travellers is an on-going epidemic of domestic violence, fuelled by the parallel epidemic of alcoholism. I am further told that a particular plight of the educated class of women is that they are bred to lead and excel, but ultimately must subvert these skills in favour of becoming housewives. In fact, A. and I met one such woman from Bombay who had moved to Auroville specifically because it was one of the few places in India where she, as a married educated woman, was able to own and run her own business without community disapproval.

Having said all this, I must comment on the physical beauty of the Indian woman. This is a culture that has produced the ultimate sex manual, the Kama Sutra, and one that once elevated the station of courtesan to the level of artist. The woman Roger Ebert calls the most beautiful in the world, Ashwairya Rai, is of course a Bollywood goddess. And indeed, the pantheon of Bollywood beauties is remarkably one of sheer physical perfection. But I am reminded of what a non-Indian friend once said to me: "Your women come in two categories: either they are perfect goddesses or they have mono-brows." I offer no comment on that assertion.

But I will say this: out of all the women I've tried not to look at during my journey, the most purely beautiful tend to be of the lower classes: the beggars, street urchins, sweepers, etc. In India, class is genetically correlated, since class is linked to caste which has traditionally determined marriage and reproductive patterns; so it is in fact scientifically defensible to say that, here, a certain class can share certain genetic characteristics. These women are typically darker skinned, have high cheekbones, strong lean bodies, brilliant eyes and dazzling smiles. Perhaps the roughness of their lives instills in my naive eyes a sense of inaccessible purity that is largely undeserved, I don't know. But it is a surprising observation nonetheless.

Furthermore, the most intriguing women are the burqa-clad Muslim women of the bigger, wealthier cities. It's true: slinky black burqas draped across statuesque and dignified forms, with only a slit for piercing bright eyes is a surprisingly alluring vision. In many ways, less is more.

It really does make one wonder why all the Indian men trip over each other to get a glimpse of the fat German chick wobbling to the post office, while their own goddesses saunter all about them.

Labels: ,

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Hi From Hyderabad

In classic Indian style, I sat down last night and wrote a long blog post, only to have the power go down in the internet cafe, thus causing me to lose all that I had written. You have to sigh and walk on. Frustration will be the end of you here.

Chai T. Latte sends us this good article about Oscar fever in India, today and in the past.

And I just discovered Eric Margolis's post on the Danish cartoons. Unsurprisingly, he and I are of similar minds.

I have arrived in Hyderabad, the southern capital of Muslim India, though there are strong Hindi and Buddhist influences here. The city is built upon the Deccan plateau, supposedly the oldest geological formation in India, and is clean, bustling and seemingly well organized. It is yet another example of urban India successfully straddling the old and new worlds. The city's centre is a giant new statue of Buddha in the middle of the lake, much like the Statue of Liberty. Apparently, the thing to do here is to parasail around the statue. I'll see if I can swing that.

But Hyderabad is also called Cyberabad because it competes with Bangalore to be India's computer capital. Yet, unlike in Bangalore, I've had to struggle to find an internet cafe, and so far hardware stores are nowhere in sight.

Another strange thing about Hyderabad: it doesn't seem to wake up until about 11:AM. I had yet another unplanned fast forced upon me when I fell asleep last night after a day of imbibing only breakfast and, um, whiskey, then waking up to find a city devoid of open restaurants! It's a surreal thing, really, suffling past street kids defecating on the sidewalk as I, in my calory-deficient state, must have looked like a drunkard with expensive sunglasses. After about 20 hours without food, I finally found a place selling "vegetarian sandwiches", which are esentially two slices of bread with raging hot chillis pressed between them. But it was food, dammit!

Some initial impressions of Hyderabad: it doesn't have a tourism focus, since travellers' services are much more sparse than I've seen in other cities, and indeed I've yet to see a single white person here. And it seems to take the traffic thing seriously! There are actually traffic police at all the major intersections, controlling the flow of cars and allowing pedestrians to cross!

This is no small thing, as urban India seems to be at constant war with pedestrians. First, traffic jams and the flood of vehicles makes crossing streets nearly impossible; I risk my life hourly, it seems. Part of the reason for this is the plethora of motorcycles, scooters and rickshaws, all of which fill any space on the road that opens up, thus preventing cars from shifting lanes. The constant lateral movement of vehicles makes it very problematic for a pedestrian to find an opening to cross.

Second, there is a constant rejection of the ethic of the sidewalk. Wherever public planners have built footpaths or sidewalks, you will instead find sleeping families, sleeping dogs, parked motorcycles or rickshaws, vending stalls, feces of questionable origin, or just some fellow standing in your way. As frustrating as this is, I remind myself to shrug and deal with it. This is their country, not mine. They are entitled to run it as they please.

As I've stumbled about this town, I often see scrawled on the walls: "Don't pass urine here." Then, along one of Hyderabad's busiest roads, I found a series of public urinals. And sure enough, businessmen were stopping to drain the dragon then shuffling off. So civilized! If not for the odour, and the penchant for attracting pervs, I'd recommend the same for Canadian cities.

Well, I have two and half days to spend in this metropolis. I'm so drained and calory deficient that all I want to do is lie in bed and read Harry Potter. But hey, it's my vacation, so I'll spend it how I choose!

Labels: ,

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Buggery Makes Baby Jesus Cry

(Note: Before reading this post, please consult the very serious disclaimer.)

Sigh. Finally finished writing a short story I started weeks ago. It is officially a month past the due date, but what the fuck.

I told myself that while I'm in India, I would not blog about anything unrelated to my trip. That meant that my traditional topics --war, terrorism, the fool in the White House, etc-- were supposed to be off limits. However, my time here has overlapped with an important global crisis: those dang Danish cartoons. As I mentioned, there were riots in Bangalore just before I got here, all in response to the cartoons.

For those not in the know, Darth Vadum proudly reproduces the cartoons here. As you can see, some of them are innocent and innocuous by Western standards, while a handful really are racist swill. Whatever. I'm not here to critique the quality of the cartoons. Rather, let us look at how the debate has been framed by the Right, as a battle between "freedom of speech" and "intolerant islamofascism".

Right wing bloggers and pundits have been quick to jump on this issue as an example of how Muslims are intent on curtailing everyone's civil rights, especially that most cherished right, the one of free speech. This is a disingenuos argument. For one thing, there is a common misperception of what "freedom of speech" really entails.

Some of you may recall the mentally deficient poster to this blog who caused me to temporarily suspend commenting functions. He continued to email me, insisting that I was being censorious and "Rumsfeldian" by not permitting him to post. See, people, "freedom of speech" means that each of us can say whatever the fuck we want (with some caveats, which I will discuss below). It does not compel anyone else to publish what we say. I, as the blog publisher, was in my right to allow or prevent content on my site as I saw fit; I was in no way curtailing stalker boy's right to wail away elsewhere, or his right to get his own blog. (This analysis gets more complicated at the national level where media becomes consolidated and the number of publication opportunities diminishes; but that's a topic for another time.) In short, only governments can truly censor, because only governments have the power of criminal law at their disposal.

Having said that, the Danish editors were within their rights to publish whatever the heck they wanted to publish. However, do recall the basic axiom of ethical behaviour: we are ultimately ethically responsible for the reasonably forseeable consequences of our actions. To cite a cliche, if you shout "fire!" in a crowded theatre, it is reasonably forseeable that the consequences will be panic and maybe injury or death. It is your right to scream "fire!" or whatever else you want, but you are legally and ethically responsible for the consequences. (In most places, the law goes further and criminalizes this act, with the assumption that it will almost always lead to injury.) And if your free speech includes lies about a person, be prepared to face the litigation which is a reasonably forseeable consequence of your speech.

The editors who published these cartoons are ethically responsible for the consequences of their decision, since any fool should have guessed what was going to happen. It was also within the rights of the cartoonists to make the cartoons, however offensive some of us might find them, and to submit them to the editors. Responsibility falls upon the editors for ultimately publishing them. So I will always defend someone's right to say whatever fool thing occurs to him, and I will also defend the right of a publisher to grant or deny the publication of any material provided by a contributor; but I will also insist that the speaker face the consequences of his speech, and that the publisher face the consequences of his decision. And yes, that means that I am opposed to so-called "hate speech" laws, since we are either free to spout our thoughts or we are not; I err on the "are" side.

So the poor Danish editors are scared now? Well, what did they expect? Boohoo. It was all reasonably forseeable.

Given that dire consequences were pretty much inevitable, let us examine why the editors woud have chosen this path. Many suggest that their choice is a reflection of the growing rightist, anti-immigration sentiment in Denmark. When Europeans talk of anti-immigration, they really mean anti-Muslim, since the European underclass is made up in large part by North Africans who are mostly Muslim. They are like Mexicans in the US, arriving to do the low-class jobs the locals don't want to do. Denmark, in particular, is experiencing a wave of anti-immigration, anti-dark skin intolerance, led from the top down by its fire-breathing rightist government, and supported by its echo chamber media.

A popular past time among the right wing media in both Denmark and the USA is Muslim-baiting. They publish extremely insulting content generalized to an entire race, culture, religion and civilization, that they would never reproduce for a more powerful or influential group. Examples from the USA: Mark Steyn writing that the Islamic world is "economically, militarily, scientifically and artistically irrelevant" or Ann Coulter calling for the mass conversion to Christianity of entire Muslim nations, or Coulter again using the offensive term, "raghead" to describe Muslims. Do you think these kinds of characterizations would be tolerated in Western media of any other group, race, religion or civilization? Keep in mind that Steyn and Coulter still maintain influential positions in the media world, despite their clear racist tendencies.

In a childish response, an Iranian paper is soliciting entries for the best Holocaust denial cartoon, which they will publish. As stupid as this sounds, maybe it's a good test of the Rightist claim to simply be defending free speech. Let's see how many of them print the Holocaust denial cartoons without disclaimers, irony or opposing commentary (as was done for the anti-Muslim cartoons).

But here's the thing. Many of you will secretly say to yourselves, "what's the big deal?" Terrorism perpetrated in the name of Allah is a real thing, after all, which makes it fair game for political lampooning. Okay. I'm a fan of lampooning everything and everyone, so I guess I agree. But remember when Catholic priests were being prosecuted left and right for molesting youths under their charge? Remember that? Why weren't the Danish cartoonists drawing pictures of Jesus buggering little boys?

Oh, I can hear the gasps out there already. Well, think about. As much as Islamist terrorism is real, so was buggery in the name of Christ. Let's say that an Iranian decided to draw a picture of Jesus ingling little Bobby, halo and all, and that the pic was picked up by hundreds of newspapers around the world and reproduced on thousands of blogs, how do you think the so-called Christian world would have responded? More to the point, would these Danish editors have published them, being, after all, the great defenders of free speech that they are?

Of course, as I said above, the editors are free to pick and choose what they wish to publish and censor. So what is my point? It is simply this: claims that these editors are heroes of free speech are bullshit. They would likely choose not to publish Jesus buggery cartoons for fear of offending one group, but clearly delighted in publishing anti-Mohammed cartoons because it would offend another group. Their motivations have nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with a racist compulsion to insult Muslims and to incite their predictable violent response.

And, right on schedule, the Muslim street gave them what they wanted. Stupidly, stupidly, stupidly, these riots play right into the hands of the neocon set. I will never condone such pointless, random rage. But, really, what else can they do? Protest? Write to their politicians? What a laugh.

So, Danish cartoonists and editors, what the fuck did you expect?

Labels: ,

A Shitty Day

Email continues to arrive about my earlier post about young Indians' sexuality and relationship experience. This time, much of it is supportive of my position. (Post a comment already!) But I give up. It was only a theory. If you think I'm wrong, so be it. It wouldn't be the first time.

I am still in Bangalore, though I think i will head to Hyderabad tomorrow. I was supposed to visit the scenic Nandi Hills today, which is a 2 hour bus ride away. But I am reluctant to board a bus due to the, um, first twinges of "Bangalore Belly"; interestingly, having experienced its polar opposite earlier this week, I think this condition is preferable.

Yesterday, I wandered away from the hyper-modern shopping core of the new Bangalore and ventured into the demesnes of the city's labour class. Ahhh, that's more like it: the grime, chaos and shit are what I recall of this place from 10 years ago; change has not been universal. Indeed, it's the ubiquitous feces that first berates the senses. One side of a particularly long street is caked in fresh and dried turds, clearly human in origin (as best as my non-expert eyes can conclude). As one traveller in Bombay told me, "Indians have a unique relationship with feces."

Indeed, feces is an issue in urban India. Mehta writes that in Bombay, the number of people who must shit on the streets numbers in the millions; this in a place known for its water shortages. Ultra-orthodox Jains must deposit their waste in an open area where it must dry quickly (it's a religion thing). And, of course, this nation is also known for its digestive disorders and diarrheal diseases, even among the locals. For the underclass, shitting at your leisure is a luxury; line-ups at the pay toilets are commonplace, with people banging on the door for you to hurry up, seconds after you get comfortable. So to truly experience urban India in all its horrors and glories, one must be prepared to deal with a little shit, either one's own or that of others.

I quickly tired of all the shit. (It occurred to me, as I wandered past one particularly caked sidewalk, that I was breathing in flakes of turd as they dried under the berating sun. Quite an image, no?) So I made my way to Lalbagh, quite literally "red garden".

Lalbagh is a very large natural park at the centre of this busy, noisy and polluted city. I sat on a bench, drank some grape juice and had a nap. I was awakened by a very large raven next to my left shoulder. "I'm not dead yet," I told him, and he flew away. Above me, falcons chased smaller birds who raced for protection among the branches of an enormous, arching banyan tree. It occurred to me then that I was taking India for granted. In Canada, in any urban park, a single falcon or a single raven that close up would prove the highlight of a day. Here, I just shrug it off.

It also occurred to me then that I had been here before, in this very spot, 10 years ago. Some unacknowledged memory had led me to this slice of shade beneath the banyan, where I once snapped a photo of me and 14 friends.

It's not good to go back to places. Things change. Always go somewhere new. Hence, tomorrow I will try to fly to Hyderabad, a new place for me.

ps. JJ, I have yet to see any potholes!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Lactating Cows, Detection Bias and CNBC

Oh, I'm embarrassed. I just crouched down to take a photo of 1912, a famous night club here in Bangalore, when I was spooked by the appearance of yet another sunglass tout. This time I snapped at him. "Look," I said, indicating my face. "I've already got a pair!" Now, I said it with a smile on my face, and the fellow sheepishly walked on, but I feel like crap. Really, the dude is just doing his job. But why try to sell milk to a lactating cow? (Geez, the Indian penchant for metaphors is rubbing off on me!) Thirty seconds later, of course, I was beset by three other fellows also trying to sell me sunglasses.

Then another weird thing happened. I was accosted by CNBC television to talk about euthanasia in India, which I did. The interviewer seemed a bit shocked that I was able to lecture on for 6-7 minutes on a topic that was just dropped into my lap. But therein lies the advantage of having a blog: you tend to have ready-made and verbose opinions on everything. But consider what has happened. In small-fry Canada, I struggle to get PR for my various careers. But here in a land of a billion people, in less than a month and without even trying, I've been on television twice. And next week I will speak at the enormous Nehru University in Delhi. Yes, I'm scared.

I continue to get irate emails about my earlier post about India's youthfulness manifesting as inexperience in romance. All the emails are from educated middle-upper class Indians who have moved to the West, and who insist that young Indians are as, if not more, sexually and romanticlly active as their Western counterparts. They might be right. I'm certainly not an expert in this, but merely proposing some theories. However, consider what I just wrote: all the emails are from educated middle-upper class Indians.

One thing that is clear here is a gaping disconnect between the educated middle-upper classes and the ocean of the labour class beneath them. India is one of the few rapidly modernizing nations whose population is still mostly rural, despite her enormous and growing cities. The values, behaviours and lifestyles of the urbane, educated middle-upper class set are not those of the village class, nor of the enormous urban underclass who keep the cities running. Do you think the chaiwallah's daughter is freely dating and exploring her sexuality with her peers? Or the hundreds of millions of teens in the villages? How about the young touts selling maps and sunglasses 14 hours a day, do they have time, let alone the familial tolerance, for such a lifestyle?

Yet all go to the movies and all help define the totality of Indian values. It is thus inaccurate to claim that one group --urbanite or underclass-- defines the geist in isolation. But the latter group is certainly more populous.

Do keep in mind that everything we of the West learn of the new, emerging India is provided by a specific class of people: middle or upper class, English-speaking, Hindi- or Tamil-speaking, and largely Hindu --and almost always men. India's exported publications, diplomats, intellectuals, celebrities, business leaders, etc, are mostly of this type. Who speaks for the rest?

I once interviewed a Delhi publishing company, Kali For Women. Their entire mandate was to give voice to this enormous, unrepresented underclass. Sadly, after decades of producing excellent books, they have folded. But they were adamant in convincing me of one thing: the India we of the world are presented with is not the India of the masses, but of a minority ruling class who probably don't even realize they are a minority ruling class. Certainly, haunting the wealthy and asset-strewn streets of Bangalore, it would be easy for me to conclude that 99% of India is shopping malls and IT millionaires; their attitudes and values are shouted most loudly. But clearly that would be a mistake. In epidemiology, we call this "detection bias", the tendency to make conclusions based solely on the factors most easily accessed, which may or may not be a representative sample of all actual factors.

So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the subcontinent is a hotbed of teen dating, sex, revolving door relationships and the like. Or maybe I'm right, and those who insist that India's teen-romance conservatism is a thing of the past are really just accessing their own peer groups, who tend to be of the upper-middle class and thus not truly representative of the whole. Remember this axiom, it is the key to all science: the plural of anecdote is not data.

Please, if you have an opinion on this matter, leave it in the comments below.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Selling And Buying of Crap

I knew that that last post would piss somebody off. Please read the comments to get a more clear handle of what I was trying to say. Hell, I am Indian. I would never suggest that Indians are "dumb" or "unsophisticated". Rather, due to the increasingly dominant youth ethic here, some cultural miens are reflecting youthful ideals and attitudes. And in my way of thinking, youthful can be both good and bad. The good is manifested as confidence, energy and optimism. The bad is aggression, confrontationalism, hormonalism, and simplistic ideas about the roles of men and women and their relationship with one another.

Enough on that topic.

My time in India has seen a marked decrease in my fitness level. Due to a lack of gym, my upper body has lost 20-30% of its muscle mass. (Though my enormous head remains its mutant size.) The good part of this is that my clothes size now matches the typical Indian's. In fact, one of the great joys of this place, for me, is that the clothing industry caters to my bodily dimensions, which are, now that I am muscle-free, standard Indian! (Though I, a dwarf of a man in North America, am on the tall and stocky side in South India!)

This morning alone I spent $300 on clothes which would have cost me over $1000 in Canada. This is the tourist pull of India: the fundamentally unfair consequences of global monetary policy, which sees the rupee devalued against Western currencies. One rupee is worth about 2.6 Canadian cents, and you can get a very good meal here for under 30 rupees. Due to this fact, peons from the West are treated like kings here. It is seductive, but deeply unjust. The average Indian works 10 times harder than the average North American, with no social safety net, and receives a tiny fraction in remuneration for the true value of his labour. Let us not forget that this devaluing of labour is the reason we in the West/North can afford our daily items: they are all manufactured using cheap Southern labour.

But who am I to preach? I'm just another fat, monied tourist sustaining this bloated industry of exploitation and excess. Yes, I have given money to some beggars, but like most people here, I avert my eyes and ignore most of them. There is a practical aspect to this behaviour, since to open your wallet to one means being inundated by a sea of others. The same logic applies t the various touts who accost you as soon as you step onto the street. Which brings me to my observation for the day: the Indian man on the street really needs to learn some basic marketing and sales theory.

Yesterday I walked into a swanky store and purchased an expensive pair of high quality sunglasses, which I wore as I walked back onto the street. Immediately, I was beset by five young men, each trying to sell me cheap knock-off sunglasses. The foolishness is innate: first, why would I want to buy cheap sunglasses when I'm already wearing a pair of expensive ones? Second, if I say no to the first, second, third and fourth fellow, why would the fifth fellow waste his time trying to sell me the same unneeded item?

I don't mean to belittle their plight. Far from it. I fully understand these men, as I have relatives in similar situations. Most of them are key breadwinners in extended families; the few rupees they bring home feed dozens, might send younger brother to school, might pay for sister's wedding. Some work so hard that they sleep on the same sidewalks on which they tout, rarely seeing the families they support. They work 10-15 hour days slogging this crap on the hot city streets, and they don't even get to keep the money they make from the sale, since more than half goes to the fellow they work for, the uber-dude who pushes the knock-off sunglasses onto them.

For this uber-dude, of course it makes sense to blanket the city with a thousand men all selling the same crap; he has nothing to lose, no labour overhead. But for the young sellers, it's a losing proposition; no salesman will ever get rich in this line of work. I doubt he'll even break even. But at least sunglasses are somewhat useful. Sadder still are the men selling enormous maps of India; I can't imagine a single tourist buying one of those monstrous things, yet tourists are beset by mobs of men selling maps at every turn. The children try to sell meaningless items, like safety pins and ball-point pens --items we get for free and toss away without thinking.

I can imagine a young man deciding that he needs to start selling. But sell what? He is approached by several of the uber-dudes, or sees his friends selling crap. What possesses him to choose big honking maps to sell? What further possesses him to hang around the other map sellers, knowing that in the unlikely event that a buyer approaches, only one of them could make the sale?

I think a business professor could do a lot of good by giving a couple of free seminars to the wandering vendors. Simple concepts like choosing a territory (ie, one where no one else is selling), recognizing a customer (ie, not touting sunglasses to a guy wearing sunglasses) and selecting an appropriate product (ie, what traveller has room in his backpack for a gi-normous map of India?) would do a lot of good for these fellows.

I think, as a result of this environment, those Indians who have evolved a shrewd and calculating business mind quickly rise to the top. Is this why, despite the ocean of seemingly hopeless salesman, there are also numerous very wealthy merchants who also deal in crap? The Indian streets as a Darwinian laboratory for business: there's a thesis there for somebody, methinks.

Labels: ,