ExperimentalExperience

Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

How Hindus Are Destroying New Delhi Or An Exercise In Absolute Foolishness Masquerading As A Stupid Opinion

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion on August 7, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Writer Rana Dasgupta, famous for his book Tokyo Cancelled, has penned a piece on the city of New Delhi and its rampaging obsession with things material, brand-obsessed, consumerist, shallow, callow and crass. Called Capital Gains it appeared in the recent issue of Granta magazine.

Fair enough – one can write similar pieces about pretty much any city in any ‘capitalist revolutionary’ city anywhere in the world. Take your pick, this story though well written and at times funny, could just as well be about Karachi, Rio De Jeneiro , Bangkok, Dubai, Shanghai, Beijing or even the now-under-China’s shadow, Hong Kong.

I enjoyed reading the piece, but the reason why I am writing this post is less the piece itself, since it was rather banal and unsurprising, but that in the midst of it I came across this rather amusing (and I mean that not in an amusing way) exchange that the write has with an editor at Tehelka magazine:

‘No one cares,’ he says. ‘There are no ideas except the idea of more wealth. The elite don’t read. They know how to work the till, and that’s it. There’s nothing: we are living in the shallowest decade you can imagine. Rural India, that’s 800 million people, has simply fallen out of the master narrative of this country. There should have been an enormous political left in India, but people worship the rich and there’s no criticism of what they do. They face no consequences; they live in an atmosphere of endless possibility.’

‘Do you think anything will come of all this money they’re making?’ I ask. ‘Do you think they’ll try to leave behind a legacy?’

‘They don’t care about their legacy! This is a Hindu society: I’m back for a million more lives – how much fuss am I going to make about this one? Indian businesspeople might run a school or feed a few orphans, but they’re not interested in reform because they are bent on making the system work for them. Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it.’

Frankly, and I realize that this is merely the opinion of an individual at a magazine that I otherwise respect, I was shocked that such reductive, essentialist nonsense made it past the editing sessions. This statement is so wrong that it isn’t even wrong, its just plain callous, and frankly lunatic.

A city of tens of millions of people, with a history and a heritage that goes back over a thousand of years and that contains within it an incredibly diverse, varied, complex community of people of all walks of life, beliefs, class, ethnicities, cultures, values, ideas, fears, doubts and dreams can never be called ‘a Hindu society’ alone. This is such a vast idiocy that it can’t even be laughed it. Delhi is one of the world’s great cities and what makes it so is that it is a cradle of the world’s heritage and civilizations and that billions have passed through her, lived there, defined it and more will.

It is a world city. Complete with the full complexity and vastness of what that term means.

The so-called Hindu businessmen with their indifference to reform are pretty much like tens of millions of other businessmen and capitalists around the world. Their being Hindu explains nothing about their exclusivity, pursuit of wealth and bombast, their greed or their general indifference. They are just businessmen, much like all the others (Muslims, Sikh, non-believers, gay, straight, black, white and other) that live and work and play and show-off in Delhi. Business is about profits regardless of who conducts it. There are strands of Hinduism (I use this term broadly) that call for asceticism and abstinence from desire. So by what definition is the tern Hinduism being used here by this editor? And what does anyone being Hindu really tell us about their indifference and/or greed? Nothing I say!

An elite, a capitalist elite, weaned on the belief that success is to the strong and clever is indifferent to the under privileged and exploited in all societies across the globe. I am sure that Dasgupta has been to the USA, or China or even to Pakistan. It has nothing to do with Hinduism. The Delhi elite are in fact too much like those in other nations and cannot be understood through the prism of religion. To attempt to explain what are secular acts – power, wealth, snobbery, indifference by deferring to something as ill-defined as Hinduism is irresponsible to say the least, and dangerous at the worst. I say dangerous because it encourages people to essentialize others, to reduce them to a mass and loose sight of them as individuals. It is the same issue I have by the repeated insistence of journalists, pundits, intellectuals and others to explain socio-political issues in Muslim and Arab nations through the prism of Islam. This is a distorting and randomizing prism that allows us to say anything about any situation based purely on imagined ideas of how people transform philosophies (which is what religions are) into worldly actions. It is near impossible to imagine that everyone does it the same way!

Full disclosure: I remain a big admirer of the Tehelka editor who actually made this inane comment and encourage people to read Tehelka magainze – a real example of courage in journalism.

I repeat a comment made by Robert Musil in his masterwork A Man Without Qualities that I am reading now as I wrote in an earlier blog piece called In Bed With Robert Musil Part I

…it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters; a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. (page 30)

The point being not that there are nine or three or ten or twenty characters, but that individuals are more than just one things and that a religion is simply one piece that can be at times a major and other times a minor influence of their decisions, priorities, values and behaviors. To attempt to blame this on religion, and worse on a religion as varied, complex, and near-impossible-to-define, as Hinduisum is even more egregious.

What is happening in Delhi though disappointing is in fact taking place in cities all across the globe and is not unique to India, or to Hindus. It cannot be understood, explained or blamed on something called Hinduism or the Hindu.

In Bed With Robert Musil: Part I

In Musings On Confusions, The Daily Discussion, Writers on August 7, 2009 at 7:43 am

I am traveling with Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities.

I have a bad habit of writing in books I read. I will usually do it on the inside flap of the cover and never on the pages of the book itself. Readings will provoke thought, but more often, I will simply note down a page where I found a sentence or an idea particularly interesting.

What I love about Vintage International’s edition of Musil’s book is that it comes with a number of blank pages towards the end. This is not the only excellent thing about the version; the bindings are superb and allow the reader to bend and fold the book comfortably into his hands without cracking the spine. And its porportions are an excellent example of the size a book should actually be – easy to hold, carry, bend, store and pack.

Any by the way, one copy of A Man Without Qualities read with focus and reflection far outweighs the value of a thousand random and insipid books on a Kindle (who came up with that retarded name?) or any other electronic book readers. Do you really want to carry yet another recharger? Call me backward, old fashioned or just 43-years of age, but I can’t see how a reading medium that reduces your gazpacho soup recipe to the same form and flow as your The Adventures of Amir Hamza can really work for anything other than simple, easy, low-concentration fare.

Call me sceptical, but never thickheaded, I remain open to the idea that it may be more convenient to carry your entire library with you wherever you go, but is it really what reading is all about? And why is it that I can read 100 pages from the printed edition of A Man Without Qualities without tiring, while I can barely make it through a digital, multi-page online article on Salon or The New York Times Magazine?

I ponder.

So, back to Musil. I am traveling in India with him by my side, and I am taking you along for the ride. Over the course of the next few weeks, some snippets of insights that perhaps will also encourage others to read this wonderful European novel.

Patriotism remains a disease despite all attempts at modernity and greater moral civility. This passage could just as well have been written about Pakistan, India and a number of other nations determined to ‘celebrate’ their purity and superiority through banal and insipid and definitely artificial symbols and rituals:

Patriotism in Austria was quite a special subject. German children simply learned to despire the wars sacred to Austrian children, and were taught to believe that French children, whore forebears were all decadent lechers, would turn tail by the thousands at the approach of a German soldier with a big beard. Exactly the same ideas, with roles reversed and other desireable adjustments, were taught to French, English, and Russian children, who also had often been on the winning side…But in Austria, the situation was slightly more complicated. For although the Austrians had of course also won all the wars in their history, after most of them they had had to give something up.  (page 13)

The following passage should be read by most in America’s conservative and lunatic fringe right wing, including the making-too-many-apperences-on-TV and clearly determined to outline his warmongering credentials, the hideous John Bolton, former Permanent US Representative to the UN during the repugnant George W. Bush Administration:

Uninitiated observers have mistaken this for charm, or even, for a weakness of what they thought to be the Austrian character. But they were wrong; it is always wrong to explain what happens in a country by the character of its inhabitants. For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters; a professional, a national, a civic, a class, a geographic, a sexual, a conscious, an unconscious, and possibly even a private character to boot. (page 30)

And a wonderfully funny moment when Ulrich considers the consequences of his choice of a career in the field of mathmatics:

We have gained reality and lost dream. No more lounging under a tree and peering at the sky between one’s big and second toe; there’s work to be done. To be efficient, one cannot be hungry and dreamy but must eat steak and keep moving. It is exactly as though the old, inefficient breed of humanity had fallen asleep on an anthill and found, when the new breed awoke, that the ants had crept into its bloodstream, making it more frantically ever since, unable to share off that rotten feeling of antlike industry…The inner drought, the dreadful blend of acuity in matters of detail and indifference towards the whole, man’s monstrous abandonment in a desert of details, his restlessness, malice, unsurpassed callousness, money-grubbing, coldness, and violence, all so characteristic of our times, are by these accounts solely the consequence of damage done to the soul by keen logical thinking! (page 36)

I loved this statement that had me thinking since I read it:

Then Clarisse and Ulrich took a walk through the slanting arrows of the evening sun, without Walter; he remained behind at the piano. Clarisse said:

“The ability to fend off harm is the test of vitality. The spent is drawn to its own destruction. What do you think? Nietzsche maintains it’s a sign of weakness for an artist to be overly concerned about the morality of his art.” She had sat down on a little hummock. Ulrich shrugged.

More in the coming days on this wonderful work, but I highly recommend it!

India Diary: August 6th 2009 The Aftermath/Tufts University Photography Workshop Sessions

In Journalism, Photography on August 7, 2009 at 6:41 am

I am back in India to teach a workshop and to continue my work on The Idea of India project.

I, along with The Aftermath Project founder and photographer Sara Terry, am teaching a two week workshop in Ajmer, India to students from Tuft University’s Institute for Global Leadership.

Thanks to a wonderfully imaginative collaboration between the grant program and the school, we will be spending an intense two weeks with nine students exploring stories that speak to issues of cultural and religious pluralism, and social and civil conflict aftermath.

Though the actual workshop will run from August 1oth till August 22nd, the students have already been working on their stories for at least a month now. They started to develop story ideas about four weeks ago and both Sara and I have been working with them to review, revise and approve the ideas. Some of the students have made contacts on the ground and carried out extensive background research on the subjects they are covering and the institutions and individuals they will be working with. Suffice it to say, it has been an intense learning process and we are not even starting until next Monday!

These workshops concentrate on the challenges of researching, structuring, executing and producing narrative documentary stories. They are less about the aesthetics of photography or the mechanics of producing it. Though of course some relevant details will be address. The focus does reflect the priority that both Sara and I place on the need to explore social, economic and political issues from the perspective of individuals and the worlds they occupy. Sara and I have had the privilege of helping students identity stories that relate to issues of cultural and religious pluralism, and stories about those dealing with the aftermath of economic, political, sectarian and other conflicts. We are pushing students to engage with the complex, to shy away from cliche’s about India and about her culture, and to prepare to explore and discover the autonomy and determination of even the most dispossessed and marginalized of her citizens. We are pushing them to see and document real people, in a real country, without prejudice and preconceived simplicities. It will not be an easy two weeks for the students, and for the teachers, that is for sure.

If possible I will try to blog about the progress of the workshop. Perhaps some of you are interested in following the work and sessions and to stay engaged with what we are struggling with and discussing. A lot depends on my internet access and of course time, but I will do my best to update the India Diary in a consistently.

The Palestinian Wedding Or More Studies In Farce & Fanaticism

In Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars, Photography on August 7, 2009 at 6:09 am
A Wedding At Masara, West Bank Photo By: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org

A Wedding At Masara, West Bank Photo By: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org

This post today celebrates a Palestinian wedding thanks to the photography of Israeli activists at Activestills and Haggai Matar who was in fact beaten by Israeli soldiers while participating in this event, as he explains here in this piece called Assault-A Personal Story

And a different union of sorts, where yet another Palestinian family, living in Israeli-occuppied East Jerusalem is united with the long, painful and tragic history of the rest of the Palestinian people.

Update: By the way, this is not some random event; the transformation, or ‘Judaization’ of East Jerusalem is a project financed by many in the USA, including Irving Moskowitz about whose direct involvement in the hideous, and yes, racist, project is well explained in a recent Guardian piece called Irving Moskowitz’s Bingo Madness by the wonderfully clear headed Richard Silverstein who also rights a fabulous blog about all things Israeli and its associated illigal occupation driven pathologies, obfuscations, lies, and brutalities called Tikun Olam – which means  ‘healing the world’ in Hebrew.

There is an odd silence amongst the world’s finest photojournalists when it comes to the West Bank and Gaza. Few if any of the self-proclaimed best-in-the-business are anywhere near the determination, courage, dignity and civility of the Palestinian struggle to overcome the Israeli occupation juggernaut. Quick to rush to cover ‘spotlight’ events – those making it to the front pages of the daily press and the prime-time TV news broadcast, their cameras are silent about situations that actually require the strength of their voices and the power of their images. Citizen documentation of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in fact towers over anything that is being produced, or has been produced, by the professionals.

There is a growing and extensive archive of photographic and video documentation of the brutality, inhumanity, and infantile banality of the Israeli occupation and the horrors and humiliations inflicted on an unarmed and defenseless civilian population of the West Bank and Gaza. And its all being shot by amateurs! And when you compare it to the simplistic works being produced by the professionals, you get a sense that the professionals are simply afraid to confront the realities – with all its humiliations and brutalities, of the occupation itself!

But I digress.

Lets celebrate today, a Palestinian wedding!