Sunday, June 28, 2009

Mathur and da Cunha's SOAK revisited

Earlier this afternoon I looked around SOAK again. Dilip da Cunha had written to me suggesting a discussion after reading my previous post, and he sought me out while I was at NGMA. I was gratified to be able to share perspectives.
While our exchange of views did not change my interpretation of the show, I did regret restricting myself to what I felt were its negatives. There is much to commend about the energy and dedication the authors have put into their research. Their ideas about rejigging the way Bombay deals with the monsoon deserve serious consideration by municipal authorities. Though I disagree with da Cunha and Mathur's reading of the city's history, I'm sure that, should their proposals be put in practice, they would be preferrable to the slipshod actions of BMC planners.

During our back and forth, both authors suggested I had misread their writing. After looking at their texts carefully once more, I am satisfied I have not done that, aside from employing straightforward assertions instead of sentences that use phrases allowing for wiggle room like 'not necessarily' and 'cannot be assumed'.

I've transcribed a few panels from the show to provide a taste of the da Cunha / Mathur style and mode of thought. Each bit of text is in italics, and is followed by my own analysis.

"Mumbai's history, in most accounts, pivots on its European occupation -- the Portuguese from 1534 to 1665, but more significantly the British from 1665 to 1947. Little is said in these accounts about an attitude to and vocabulary of terrain that was constructed through this occupation, a vocabulary that rests on a fundamental belief not necessarily shared by previous occupants of Mumbai, namely that land and sea should be divided.
This division was instituted by European seafarers, but more concertedly by English marine and land surveyors in the late 1700s with the drawing of a line on a map. This line traverses rocks, swamps and beaches of an aqueous terrain, asserting entities that are taken for granted today in descriptions, planning and everyday administration of Mumbai. Three of these entities are significant: the island of Mumbai, the coast of the Indian subcontinent, and a major concern following the 2005 flood, the Mithi river. The reality of these entities cannot be questioned. But they are essentially things singled out from the dynamic, at times chaotic terrain of an estuary by an eye driven to simplify, perhaps at a cost that is being paid for by floods in Mumbai today."

Mathur and da Cunha provide no evidence to show that the belief in dividing land from sea was "not necessarily shared by previous occupants of Mumbai". I don't understand how fishermen could ply their trade or sailors could navigate their boats without having a clear idea of what constituted land and what sea.

"Until 1843, there was general agreement that Bombay Island was once more than one island, but no agreement on how many. In 1843 R.X.Murphy put speculation to rest by providing an empirical basis for arguing that the island once comprised seven islands. Based on a study of place names, which suggested a water edge, his conjecture matched a place called Heptanesia that the Greek geographer, Ptolemy, in the second century located off the coast of land that he referred to as India inter Gangem. It is today popular fact. Indeed the islandness of Mumbai has even gone indigenous, with stories of native settlers -- the 'Kolis' -- inhabiting an island; and their goddess Mumbadevi being the 'goddess of an island'. Yet the islandness of Mumbai in the fluid terrain of an estuary cannot be assumed. Mumbai was willed to be off shore."

When Mathur and da Cunha state that "the islandness of Mumbai has gone indigenous", they mean that locals have come to believe the fiction constructed by Brits. In their view, the idea of Mumbadevi as the goddess of an island did not come about because kolis independently understood that the temple was built on an island, but because they swallowed incorrect colonial ideas. Again, there is no evidence provided for this rather strong assertion. My own feeling is that fishermen would know very well what was an island and what was not. Why presume they do not have this knowledge?
The final sentence of this section is unambiguous: "Mumbai was willed to be offshore". In other words, the city was never an island or collection of islands; the idea of Bombay as an island is a social construct, a colonial construct. I disagree. As far as I know, it was never possible under any tidal conditions to walk from Colaba to Vashi or Alibaug back in the 17th century. Bombay was, indeed, a collection of islands, and the locals knew this because humans can walk on land but not on water.
The temptation at this stage is to think, "surely they can't actually be suggesting Bombay was not an island". But that is precisely what they are suggesting, which is why I wrote in my earlier post of contemporary academic theory being fundamentally foolish (I have removed that word because it was too personal. I want to emphasise it is the theory itself I consider foolish, not any individuals).
A kindred example of this kind of argument is Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove's contention that what we call slums are, in fact, not slums at all. You can read my posts about the Srivastava / Echanove theory here and here. Rahul is an associate of PUKAR, one of the organisations that has backed SOAK, and he wrote a glowing preview of the show in his column in Mumbai Mirror.
I mention this to indicate that the da Cunha / Mathur line of thought is part of a tradition of looking at urban development. I wrote sympathetically about it in a post about demolitions in Ahmedabad. Unfortunately, among some academics, the tradition has degenerated into an anti-rational conspiracy theory.

"The articulation of a line between land and sea has largely gone unnoticed. It was a taken-for-granted visualization in the milieu of colonial power and landed property. Today, it is deeply embedded in everyday language and an intrinsic part of imaging Mumbai and imagining its future. Questions have been raised regarding the form of this line from the time Mumbai was occupied by the English. More recently, the purpose and enterprise of its drawing have been discussed. But little is said about its presence, about the battlefront that it sets up between land and sea, and between land and water in general which, in Mumbai, includes the monsoon".

Notice the rhetorical sleight of hand by which a (questionable) argument about the relationship of land and sea is widened to include the rain. It is unclear to me why the drawing of a line sets up a 'battlefront' between land and sea. Maps were necessary for navigation, and they did their job very well. A good map is an accurate and useful representation of reality, not an instrument of imperialist power. Mathur and da Cunha themselves make use of maps of Bombay for their proposals, and those maps, too, divide land from water.

"The monsoon in Mumbai is a moment of fresh water saturation that people once made every attempt to extend through the year. They built bunds to hold monsoon waters where they fell and they made wells to increase the porosity of the surface and allow (and access) saturation at lower levels. But by far the most ingenious way of extending the monsoon was the talao.
Far from being passive collectors as they are often considered to be, the talaos of Mumbai are active landscapes that operate to extend the monsoon at the level of the sea. They deploy surface runoff, earthen embankments, and importantly, the pressure harnessed by tapping into fresh water aquifers sandwiched between strata of blue clay, limestone, littoral concrete, basalt and saline aquifers to keep salt water on the surface at bay. Accessing fresh water aquifers without disturbing saline strata is an art fraught with chance. It was to become a lost art as the search for an assured and abundant water supply led to the idea and project of big dams, reservoirs and pipes, and to making a surface that was not about saturation, but runoff to the sea via rivers and drains."

A fake contrast is set up here. What is this 'extending of the monsoon' that Mathur and da Cunha speak of? All it means is that water that falls in the rains is available for use at a later time. Any sort of storage, then, is a form of 'extending the monsoon'. In which case, the huge reservoirs built by the British and by administrators of independent India are also methods of extending the monsoon. It's true that talaos operate "to extend the monsoon at the level of the sea", while the big reservoirs are on higher ground, but why should one be preferrable to the other in and off itself?

"Contrary to its common use to mean drain, a nullah is a surface of overflows. Its identity hinges on the operation of devices that hold monsoon waters. When seen individually these devices are simple structures like bunds built to allow a spill-over at a certain height. Seen collectively and in operation, however, they activate a surface that gathers and dissipates with a complexity and temporality that beguile the eye. Their workings do not form lines like rivers that run through settlement but rather the field of settlement itself."

I don't understand what is so complex and temporal about the working of nullahs. I confess I have never found them beguiling and never will, but if the squalor of slums can be romanticised, why not the working of drains? The last sentence is this passage is puzzling. "Their workings do not form lines..." what are these workings? "... do not form lines like rivers that run through settlement...". I thought rivers existed prior to settlement. They 'run through settlement' because settlements are formed on their banks. "...but rather the field of settlement itself". You got me. I have no idea what this last phrase is meant to mean.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was an A grade singer-songwriter, an A grade performer, and an A grade weirdo. After 1993, the balance started shifting decisively in favour of weirdo. He gained fame as a child, developed into the biggest star of the MTV generation, and burnished his credentials further in the era of globalisation. His last good album, Dangerous, came out when Russia and China were open for business. As the tallest figure in the entertainment industry at that moment, Jackson could with justice claim to be the first truly global superstar since Charlie Chaplin. Half the sales of his greatest album, 1982's Thriller, had come from North America; in the case of 1991's Dangerous it was less than a third.
The best-known video from Dangerous, Black or White, advertised the new era. It took in sub-Saharan tribesmen, Thai, Indian and Russian dancers, and climaxed with people changing faces and races in front of one's eyes as if by magic. That magic was the technique of digital morphing. It is so commonplace now that the public incorrectly believes any image can be seamlessly replaced by any other. Watching the video today one can identify points where the transitions between actors are rough. Back in 1992, though, one viewed it with wide-eyed wonder; it seemed a perfect match of cutting-edge technology, style and content.
In Jackson's homeland, a number of commentators noted that the singer's recourse to cosmetic surgery to lighten his complexion and sharpen his features cut against the grain of Black or White's message. The weirdo side of his personality had begun to harm his songwriting. When the first allegations of child sexual abuse came out in 1993, things turned ugly. This was not any more a matter of personal eccentricity. There were lawsuits, attacks in the media. Jackson, who never understood why a gentle person like himself who would not physically harm anybody was being hounded for sleeping with his young boy friends, developed a persecution complex. The new songs in the 1995 album HIStory merged his personal grouses with injustices being perpetrated on a global scale. The videos highlighted the uneasy marriage of public and private complaint. When Jackson sings 'They don't care about us' in a Brazilian favela, he implies he belongs with the underprivileged of the world. Who could swallow that?
Beginning with HIStory, joy and playfulness were swept aside in favour of melancholy, tedious ballads, a sententious attention to this or that cause. The life became more interesting than the music, its trajectory spiralling relentlessly downwards: the divorces, the debts and, finally, death. Many fans insist the O2 performances scheduled to start later this summer in London would have afforded Jackson some redemption. I seriously doubt it. I don't believe he had the mental stamina to complete anything close to 50 shows. The weirdo had taken over too completely from the consummate performer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sloppy City: Mathur and da Cunha's SOAK

On days like this, I am especially glad I didn't complete my doctorate. Had I done so, I would have been tempted to settle down in a teaching job at some university in England or the United States. In which case, I'd constantly have had to read books like Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha's SOAK, books by very smart people written in language so dense, only people familiar with the jargon might comprehend the flimsiness of the arguments. Since most of those trained in the jargon have bought into the academic system, they are about as likely to harm their careers in the name of intellectual honesty as Shia clerics in Iran are to say, "Hold on, this whole Islamic republic idea is bollocks, isn't it?"
SOAK is a book presenting Bombay from a novel perspective, and is also an exhibition currently on view at the National Gallery of Modern Art. The bulk of the show consists of text, maps and diagrams, but two boring installations have been created to forestall criticism that the show has nothing to do with art and should, therefore, find no place in NGMA.
Mathur and da Cunha's argument, paraphrased, is this: The British created modern Bombay based on a belief that sea had to be divided from land. Early European maps which vary in their representation of the city's boundaries do so because, in reality, these boundaries were fluid rather than fixed. Locals did not necessarily view land and sea in the same cut and dry, adversarial fashion as Europeans. Their traditional ways of harvesting and draining rain water, namely talaos (ponds) and nullahs (drains), are preferable to the underground sewers and the dam-created reservoirs favoured by colonial administrators and expanded after India gained independence. If we had retained our earlier notion of the land-sea relationship, we'd have been saved catastrophes like the flood of 2005. To reinvigorate the city, it is helpful to use the idea of an estuary, which is neither fresh nor salt water, neither sea nor river, but something in-between. Bombay is an estuary rather than an island.

I take issue with Mathur and da Cunha for the following reasons:

1) The authors have not quoted one single local source to back up their belief that non-Europeans had a different take on the Bombay mix of land, sea and fresh water. It's all very well to complain about the city's history being dominated by colonial accounts, but the complaint falls flat when the people doing the complaining show no evidence of having read any non-colonial writings on the city.
2) There is plenty of evidence that traditional Indian thought divided land and sea very firmly. Islands make an appearance early in the Indian literary canon, the Sanskrit word for them is 'dvipa'. In the colonial era, there are Maratha maps which depict Bombay as an island or a series of islands, proving that it wasn't only the Brits and Portuguese who thought in this fashion.
The foundational dogma of modern critical theory is that everything is a social construct. However, normal humans outside the academic echo chamber know that the difference between earth and water is not something constructed by nasty imperialists.
3) It is incorrect to say colonialists made an absolute distinction between land and sea. They knew about tracts which sometimes appear to be land and at other times are covered with water. The current word for them is, simply, wetlands, and they include marshes, swamps, bogs, sloughs and mires. Wetlands are great for biodiversity, but rarely congenial to human habitation. That's probably why, when we talk of being mired or bogged down or swamped, we aren't speaking of happy experiences.
What is now central Bombay was once marshland. Not only could nobody live in the marsh itself, it made everything in the vicinity inhospitable for humans. The rate of deaths from malaria in the 15th century has not been recorded, but we can guess it was catastrophically high. Which is one reason why, while the mainland immediately to the north and east flourished for millennia, Bombay remained sparsely populated and impoverished.
4) Which leads to the next bone of contention: reclamation. Mathur and da Cunha condemn reclamation as a kind of crime against nature, an emblem of the imperialist desire to fight nature and conquer it. The fact is, however, that Bombay could became a proper city only because of reclamation, particularly the transformation of its wetlands into dry land. One might object to further reclamation today, but to make a general case against it would be to argue that Bombay ought never have become an urban centre.
5) There are towns in India which do not have massive water reservoirs or underground sewers. They retain their faith in talaos and nullahs. The ones I have visited are, without exception, filthy and water deficient. I see no empirical reasoning behind the notion that talaos and nullahs are superior to large reservoirs and underground sewers. In fact I find it hard to imagine the demands for water of a city of 15 million being adequately served by traditional talaos or variants thereof.
6) The flood of 2005 was not exacerbated by planning in and of itself, but by bad planning, or the failure to plan. Illegal construction, and construction legalised where it should not have been, were the primary reasons why water remained standing for days in some areas. It is perfectly possible for a city to reclaim land and build on it on a grand scale while protecting itself from natural disasters; a case in point is Hong Kong, which faces storms regularly without seeing the sort of damage that the July 2005 flood visited upon Bombay. The point is to plan and execute efficiently.

I will write more on this issue in a day or two, connecting it with past posts of mine, and providing a taste of the Mathur / da Cunha style by quoting directly from their book. It costs 2000 rupees, and I am not prepared to shell out that amount, so the quotes will have to wait till I can borrow a copy or return to NGMA to transcribe a few passages. For the moment, MTNL has provided me a window of opportunity to upload, who knows when I'll get it again?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Suspend or Fire

If you're Indian and follow the news, you've probably heard of the Shopian murders. Two Kashmiri women out in the evening were abducted by securitymen, exactly who is as yet unclear. The women were raped, killed, their bodies dumped in a shallow canal, and the incident covered up as an accidental drowning. The truth came out, serving to further alienate and inflame Kashmiri public opinion. Now, four police officers involved in destroying evidence have been suspended from service.
When I hear about such incidents, I wonder why these chaps aren't sacked immediately. Suspension, after all, means getting a substantial portion of your salary for doing no work. It sounds more like a sabbatical than a punishment. The only police officer I recall being fired was Sunil More, who raped a teenage girl in a police chowky on Marine Drive.
I've just read an Associated Press article which indicates New York faces the same suspension versus sacking conundrum. 700 teachers in New York are currently being paid their full salaries for doing nothing. They report to an off-campus office each workday morning and spend eight hours amusing themselves as best they can, reading, surfing the Net, playing board games. They're under suspension, but cannot be fired before a proper enquiry is conducted, and that takes months. Many of those suspended claim they're being victimised by bosses they angered.
It's a difficult balance to strike: making state employees more fully accountable will always have the side effect of leaving underlings vulnerable to persecution by seniors with grudges. Solutions, anybody?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Our forensic experts mess up again

It's exactly as I expected. Two forensic labs have come out with contradictory conclusions about the Varun Gandhi footage. Lucknow says the footage is fine, Chandigarh claims it is not. No wonder the BJP wanted to play a wait and watch game. The party heads knew forensics would only muddy the waters, providing the Hindutvavadis with an escape route.
The issue, actually, is what the term 'doctored' connotes. According to Chandigarh's lab, the footage has been edited and spliced together, and that is enough for it to be catalogued as 'doctored'. But the editing was apparent even to casual observers; we didn't need a forensic lab to tell us about it. Part of the footage has Varun sitting down with a group at night, another section has him standing up addressing a large crowd in daylight. Nobody with even a basic understanding of video could fail to see the discontinuity. If mere editing constitutes doctoring, virtually every speech played on TV is doctored, because, except in rare cases, only portions are ever broadcast.
Was Varun's voice over-dubbed? No, say both labs, the voice is his. Did he say what he is alleged to have said? Both labs agree he did. The brief of forensic experts should end there. Questions of context and of how meaning can be influenced by the juxtaposition of two discontinuous clips are not matters about which precise answers can be arrived at through scientific enquiry.
When a task includes ambiguous phrases like 'doctored', contradictions are assured, particularly considering our forensic experts differ even when their brief is crystal clear ("Is the woman in this video Anara Gupta?")
As a sidelight, it is amusing to hear chaps like Vinay Katiyar demanding to view the 'original CD'. Somebody should tell them there is no such thing as an original CD; footage is always transferred to viewing media like DVDs and VCDs.
I can't be too harsh on Katiyar for his ignorance. After all, even institutions of learning like the Asiatic Society don't understand what 'original' denotes. As I mentioned in one of my Time Out columns, Bombay's Asiatic Society promotes a manuscript of Dante's Divine Comedy in its possession as an 'original', though it is one of several copies made long after the Italian poet composed his magnum opus.
If we misunderstand the concept of originality in matters concerning the middle ages, we can hardly be expected to comprehend it in relation to digital media that allow images to be replicated instantly and infinitely.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Bombay: Urban Planning Basket Case : 3

They've been building a 'skywalk' for the past few months to facilitate movement of pedestrians to and from Bandra station on its western side. Now comes news that the three-armed elevated walkway will have to make do with two arms and a stump. The section that was to travel down to Globus has been curtailed, because the entry point at Hill Road is too narrow. The question arises: why did MMRDA take years to discover the inconvenient dimensions of the street? I mean, it was bad enough when these guys tried to build three subways across Cadell Road, hit water mains they didn't know were there, and decided after months of dithering to fill up the holes they'd dug. But Lucky junction's above ground, standing in broad daylight. No new buildings have come up unexpectedly at that spot. It is as wide or narrow as it has always been, and offers few options for land acquisition.
I'm dreading even more the day the MMRDA people get their paws on DN Road and other areas between VT and Churchgate, where a network of skywalks are planned.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Problem with Theocracy

Indians love to call Pakistan a theocratic state, though it is not even close to being one. The only country in the world ruled by a theocracy at the moment is Iran. The argument in favour of theocracy was laid out by Ayatollah Khomeini starting in the late 1960s. Unfortunately for Khomeini, other clerics of the highest rank did not buy the idea that all affairs of state should be monitored and guided by religious scholars. Even today, clerics like Iraq's most senior Shia theologian, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, are known to be opposed to the wholesale takeover by priests of the organs of government.
Khomeini was an old man by the time his Islamic revolution bore fruit, and it became imperative to groom and appoint a successor. He chose Ayatollah Montazeri, not a renowned jurist, but one of the few individuals within Khomeini's inner circle technically qualified for the job. Montazeri, however, began moving steadily leftward after 1979. In Khomeini's last years, his appointed heir came out in support of free political parties and a conciliatory foreign policy while criticising extreme actions such as the fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie to death. Khomeini demoted him and appointed in his place Sayyed Ali Khamenei. Khamenei was not even an Ayatollah, but he possesed the quality that Khomeini was looking for above all: absolute allegiance to Khomeini's ideas. After Khamenei took over as Iran's most powerful man, Montazeri clashed with him over issues like the mistreatment of Iran's Baha'i minority, and was placed under house arrest between 1997 and 2003.
Khomeini had argued that a marja (an Ayatollah qualified to interpret scripture and guide followers) ought to lead Iran. He ended up clearing the way for a non-marja to occupy the highest post in the land. The requisite qualifications were, of course cooked up, and Hojatoleslam Khamenei became Ayatollah Khamenei without producing any scholarly work to deserve the promotion.
For the past twenty years, Khamenei has ruled Iran without ever gaining a substantial following or a place in the hearts of his countrymen. Many of his fellow clerics continue to feel he should never have got the top job in the first place. Now, with the result of Iran's election being contested, the schisms are making themselves evident again. Ayatollah Montazeri has come out against the count, saying nobody in their right mind can believe it was fair. The battle currently being played out is between two factions of insiders, one led by Ayatollah Rafsanjani and Mir Hossein Mousavi, and the other by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. Khamenei has had two decades to appoint loyalists to top jobs like Iran's twelve member Guardian Council which oversees all legislation. He still holds the better hand, but continuing public protests, which evoke the mass demonstrations that toppled the Shah and ushered in the Islamic revolution, could change that. What insiders on both sides fear most of all is that riots will get out of hand and threaten the foundations of Iran's entire theocratic system.
Thirty years of the Islamic Republic of Iran have proved that priests turn every bit as power-hungry as commoners once they are granted secular authority. Not a surprise for those familiar with history, of course. Iran's been burdened with the restrictions that come with theocracy, without gaining the clean government of high ideals promised by Imam Khomeini.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Today, June 16, is known to fans of James Joyce as Bloomsday, the day on which the entire action of Joyce's Ulysses takes place. The day is named after the book's central character, Leopold Bloom. Each year on June 16, Joyce enthusiasts from across the world collect in Dublin to celebrate the revolutionary novel: attending readings, visiting sites connected with the plot, and downing quantities of Guiness in pubs mentioned in the book.
I've wanted to make the pilgrimage since my teens, but haven't got round to doing it even in the era of Ryanair. With each passing year, there are fewer locations left intact from 1904. The pace of erosion has quickened in the past decade, during which Ireland leapt to the front rank of Europe's economies. The Celtic tiger may have been wounded by the current recession, but I suspect the mentality of the Irish has changed for ever. Having been exporters of humans for centuries, they've had to adapt to a substantial influx of immigrants. One Irishwoman I know described her wonder at her first sight of a black man walking down the street where she lived. She'd studied in England, so black people in and of themselves were familiar enough; the man just seemed incongruous in the context of her neighbourhood. Within a few years, she said, such sights became commonplace.
There were a few outsiders in Joyce's time as well, and he made one of them the hero of his greatest work. I call Leopold Bloom a hero, but for Joyce's early readers he was exactly the opposite; a man approaching middle age, of no particular academic or financial distinction, a cuckold, a Jew. Surely the comparison with Homer's epic hero, Odysseus / Ulysses, had to be ironic, an indication of how debased modern life was in comparison with the Hellenic past. It was only as the decades passed that readers began to understand how wise, ingenious and tolerant Bloom was, and how much of himself Joyce had put into his protagonist.
There was a second reason for the misinterpretation of Bloom as a butt of irony, aside from him having none of the common attributes of a heroic figure. Joyce's first published novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, had focussed on his fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. Stephen reappeared in Ulysses, and it was easy to assume that he remained a kind of mouthpiece for Joyce. In fact, the author was much more distanced from his character by this time.
There's no doubt that Stephen is more entertaining than Bloom. He brims with learning and is always ready with witty quotes and incisive interpretations. Early in the book he says something I find particularly perceptive. During a conversation about religious belief, an Englishman called Haines says, "You are your own master, it seems to me".
Stephen replies he is the servant of two masters, an English and an Italian.
Haines, puzzled, asks what he mean by Italian.
Stephen says he's speaking of the imperial British state and the holy Roman catholic and apostolic church.

Joyce idolised Parnell, a Protestant who led the Irish nationalist movement before it was riven by sectarianism. The biggest mistake the nationalists made was to see in the catholic church a refuge from the imperial state, or a locus of protest against it. They were merely choosing one harsh master instead of another. That kind of reductive thinking has infected most 'liberation' movements in the past century. When I see Muslim feminists donning hijab as a protest against neo-colonialism, I say to myself, 'I wish they'd read Ulysses carefully'. Which is strange because the novel is considered one of the most apolitical ever written.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iran's Election

I can't pretend to have an insight into Iran's election just from having spent a couple of weeks in that nation. After all, people who have lived in India their entire lives are regularly surprised by results thrown up in national polls.
What I can say is that, if the reported margin of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory was achieved without rigging, it's an extremely depressing result. The world obviously shares this view, which might be the underlying cause for the media taking the idea of fraud seriously. There are, however, other reasons behind the suspicion that some jiggery-pokery went on behind the scenes.
1) Iran's population skews heavily toward urban areas and toward young voters. These constituencies were precisely the ones that appeared to be leaning toward Ahmadinejad's main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi.
2) As the election came closer, observers perceived a wave in urban areas in favour of the challenger. Could they have got it so completely wrong?
3) It is strange that the 2:1 margin that Ahmadinejad had over Mousavi remained more or less steady across the country. Iran may not be as diverse as India is, but it does contain numerous ethnic enclaves with their own preferences. Mousavi, an ethnic Azeri was expected to perform spectacularly in regions where that ethnic group forms the majority; instead he came a poor second to the incumbent.
4) There were no huge celebrations on the streets following Ahmadinejad's thumping triumph.

Presuming protests are quelled and things return to normal in Iran, we will have a situation where the status quo has been strengthened by elections in two west Asian countries. The outcome in Lebanon was good for the future of the middle east peace process, the one in Iran strongly negative. The way forward is now clear: an agreement has to be inked between Syria and Israel. It's the only deal that seems even faintly possible during President Obama's first term.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Hegemony of Would

I am assaulted every day by dozens of instances of would being used instead of will. Everybody's doing it: feature writers, television anchors, cricket commentators, and people sending me emails.

"We would also need a brief bio and picture for our catalogue..."
"I believe the Sensex would be range bound leading up to the budget..."
"Ponting would be wondering what he can do to stop Gayle..."

The misuse has been around in India for decades, but has spread rapidly in the past few years to reach epidemic proportions. Media outlets, unfortunately, appear to be ignoring the infection, though it is far more dangerous than the use of it's instead of its ('the dog wagged it's tail'), till instead of while ('till stocks last') and since instead of for ('since the past five years').

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Times distorts outcome of 'anti-Hindu bias' case

An article in this morning's Times of India is headlined Hindus teach California a lesson, and carries the sub-heading: Group wins $175,000 from state education board for defaming Hinduism. The Sacramento Bee covers the case rather differently; Its headline reads, Hindu group to get just $175,000 in textbook bias suit.
It appears the Bee is right and the Times wrong. The primary contention of the Hindu group, namely that California's textbooks and vetting methods display anti-Hindu bias, was rejected in court previously. The current settlement involves "no curriculum concessions", and the payment will not even cover the plaintiffs' costs. Wikipedia has an excellent entry about the entire case, with a further link to some 70 text changes made by the California Board of Education after consulting scholars in response to protests by Hindu conservatives. The process was transparent and the end result pretty politically correct. For example, instead of saying men have greater rights than women in traditional Hindu society, California textbooks state women have 'other rights than men'. Predictably, vociferous Hindu groups like the Hindu American Foundation stayed away from the consultations, knowing they'd be exposed when they were asked to produce actual evidence to back their claims. Once the process was over, they cried bias and threatened to sue. They lost their case, and are now holding up the settlement money (offered because going through the trial would be more expensive, and California is in a deep financial hole right now) as a sign of victory. They've fooled Indian media outlets, most obviously the Times of India.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Roger Federer: My vote for GOAT

So much has been written about Roger Federer's victory at the French Open, there's little left to add. I'm going to take the easy approach by quoting from the inimitable Bobilli, to whom I have devoted an entire post back in April. In Monday morning's Times of India, he writes, "Oh yes, Federer does not have the smouldering serve of a Sampras, the booming return of an Agassi, the allround play of a Borg."
Hold on, did he mention the 'allround' play of Borg? Bjorn Borg was one of my childhood idols, but even his most fanatical followers would not consider him an 'allround' player. In his early days, he approached the net with about the enthusiasm of a man with toothache approaching the dentist's chair. Later on, he learned to get volleys over the net more often than not, but he never pounced and put them away with conviction.
If one quality marks Federer out from those who are bracketed with him in lists of the greatest of all time (GOAT), it is his excellence in every department of the game. Jimmy Connors is the only other player I can think of with similar all-court ability, but his weak serve compromises his claim to be the GOAT.
Federer's all round ability is proven by his astonishing record in Grand Slams: 20 consecutive semi-finals. That, I believe, is a feat nobody will ever beat. It requires enormous talent, of course, but also incredible consistency, fitness, and commitment. Sampras was barely competetive at the French, Borg burned out at 26, and Nadal's picked up his first serious injury at 22. Whatever Bobilli may say, it is for his all round capability that Roger Federer has my vote for GOAT.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Psychology of Massacres

On June 5, 1989, Chinese authorities completed the clearing up of Tiananmen square and its environs, which in previous weeks had been occupied by pro-democracy protesters who seemed, at one point, on the verge of shaking up the ruling Communist Party hierarchy. That morning, as a column of tanks moved down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, it was briefly stopped by a man who stood in front of the first vehicle, climbed up and remonstrated with the soldier inside, then got down and blocked the path of the tanks once more. The man was removed by security officers, but not before half a dozen cameramen staying in the Beijing Hotel nearby had captured his lone protest on film and video in images that became instantly iconic.

The man has never been identified, but his gesture of protest appears to have been spontaneous. He was, after all, carrying a shopping bag in one hand and his jacket in another; like somebody going about his own business till he felt a sudden wave of revulsion against what was happening around him and decided to make his own suicidal gesture against brute power.
Everybody who witnessed that moment was convinced the gesture was suicidal. Policemen and soldiers had been instructed to give no quarter to demonstrators; they were shooting to kill, and had murdered hundreds of civilians already. Yet, the tanks did not roll over the man in the white shirt. The commander of the lead vehicle tried to bypass the unarmed pedestrian, rather than shoot him dead in the middle of the avenue. His decision, too, was spontaneous. He, too has remained unidentified. If we live long enough for China to turn democratic, we might discover the fate of the man who stood in front of the tanks. I hope to learn, also, about the soldier who spared the life of a protester instead of reacting with extreme prejudice as his superiors had ordered him to do.

The past few days have been filled with stories about slip-ups in the operation against terrorists who massacred nearly 200 people in Bombay on November 26 last year. Some of these issues have been publicised previously: the police did not have good bullet proof jackets, information was not communicated properly between units, commandos took inordinately long to arrive on the scene, many guards within VT station fled their posts, and so on. Some new revelations include: officers sitting in the control chamber at the Taj hotel could tell from security cameras that all four attackers were holed up in a single room for long periods, over an hour in one case. Though there were over 100 policemen at the scene by this time, they made no effort to engage the four gunmen. Later, the four emerged, split up, set fire to the sixth floor of the heritage wing, ambushed guests being led out from Wasabi restaurant, and kept the nation on tenterhooks for a further fifty hours.
I understand why the police failed to act, because I have no respect for their ability or character. They are corrupt, brutal and incompetent, and each of these qualities feeds off the others in a vicious downward spiral. What I have not been able to understand are the actions of the militants. From the perspective of their controllers, I suppose, it was a spectacularly successful operation, apart from one unexpected downside, namely the capture of Ajmal Kasab. Presuming, however, that the instructions were to kill as many people and cause as much damage as possible, the terrorists made some strange choices. There were hundreds of vulnerable men and women at the Oberoi but, after an initial shooting frenzy, few further attempts were made to hunt down and kill guests. Having completed their gruesome assignment at VT, Ajmal Kasab and Abu Ismail sauntered across to Cama Hospital where they claimed a few more vicitims, but spared a number of others, locking them up in a toilet instead of executing them. What was the rationale behind that act? It certainly wasn't lack of ammunition, because they proceeded to battle a posse of policemen, escape the hospital, take over a police vehicle after killing the three police officers in it, and drive away. At the Taj, meanwhile, not only did the attackers congregate in one space and remain inactive for a long period of time, they did relatively little damage to the structure of the hotel, though they had the time and tools to burn the entire place down.
My best guess is that the terrorists assumed they would engage in a fight to the death with security personnel within an hour or two of coming ashore. When that did not happen, thanks to the ineptness and cowardice of Bombay's protectors, the attackers had no fall back plan, and acted in random, unpredictable ways while trying to reach their superiors for further instructions.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is, horrible as the massacres of 26 November were, the toll could have been much higher had it not been for the indecisive behaviour of the terrorists.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

MTNL saga: the 'engineer' arrives

After a month and a half of harangues, a man was sent to fix my broadband connection. Mr.Mishra arrived at noon, and the conversation with him went so:
Girish clicks on the Firefox icon, gets a page saying no connection could be established.

Girish: As you can see, the connection isn't working. It comes on for five or ten minutes at a time at most.

Mishra seats himself at the machine and switches the mouse pad to the right side (I am not a lefty, but changed mouse position after suffering carpal tunnel pain a couple of years ago from too much online Scrabble). He removes a brand new router from its pack. It is Huawei's MT882 model.

Girish: Actually I have bought myself a new wireless router, I want to to fix that so I can connect from a laptop in another room.

Mishra: Let me first try with this modem to check if the problem is with the line or the router.

Girish: It is definitely with the line, since my mother, who also has an MTNL broadband connection, has been suffering the same problem for exactly the same duration.

Mishra pays no attention. He connects the MT882 and starts checking things like settings and pings. After ten minutes of this he gets up and seems ready to leave. I open the browser window; it still will not connect.

Girish: It isn't working.

Mishra: My job is only to set up the connection, this must be a line problem, I can't check it from here.

Girish: Earlier, when this green tick mark was on, I could browse the Net. Now it isn't opening any sites even though Skype's green tick is showing. Obviously you've messed something up.

Mishra: How could I mess anything up? I did nothing, didn't change any settings.

Girish: You changed the router.

Mishra: this is a new router. Your problem is with your line.

Girish: So who can fix the line?

Mishra: Talk to Kore or Rangale.

Girish: I've been talking to them for over a month. Why have they not checked the line so far?

Mishra: I don't know. Ask them.

Girish: I'll ask them right now... (dials) can I speak to Kore saheb?

Kore comes on the line: Shahane saheb, what is the problem?

Girish: Mishra is here, he changed the router, but that fixed nothing. In fact, earlier my connection worked in spurts, now it isn't working at all. Why did he change the router when it clearly is not a router problem?

Kore: You have a D-Link router, right? D-Link routers are getting corrupted.

Girish: Corrupted? Mine's worked fine for two years. Why should it get corrupted suddenly? Also, did my mother's modem happen to get corrupted at the same time?

Kore (exasperated): I have received an order from above saying all D-Link routers are to be changed, they are corrupt. I'm just following orders.

Girish (to himself): Is it D-Link's routers that are corrupt or MTNL officers? I wonder how much they can skim with these MT882 thingies?

Girish (to Kore): Anyway, this new router clearly doesn't work, I'd like my wireless modem to be connected instead of the MT882.

Kore: Mishra can do that, but then we will not take responsibility for your connection working.

Girish: So will you take responsibility if I keep the MT882?

Kore: How can I give any guarantee?

Girish slams the phone down in disgust.

Girish (to Mishra): OK, I want you to undo what you have done.

Mishra: But I didn't do anything.

Girish: Put my old router back. At least I know it worked off and on.

Mishra reluctantly does as told. Girish connects the ADSL wire. His home page opens properly. Mishra looks mystified.

Girish: I think what you did was to replace a perfectly good router with a broken one. Thanks a bunch. Please take your MT882 and leave.
(To himself) Back to square one. But square one is better than square zero.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Massacre versus Collateral Damage

How countries tie themselves up in knots, justifying one war while condemning another. Britain, which has been in the forefront of protests against Sri Lanka's victorious assault on the Tamil Tigers, has lined up behind the United States in support of Pakistan's drive against the Taliban in Swat. 'There will be consequences', Gordon Brown thundered, when the Lankans refused to cease fire. No such threat has been directed at Islamabad from 10 Downing Street, even as entire towns are destroyed by the Pakistan army's artillery and millions are driven from their homes.
The Times of London claimed, citing an unnamed source, that more than 20,000 Tamil civilians died on the beach that witnessed the final conflict between government forces and the LTTE. If, indeed, so many civilians were killed, an impartial enquiry ought to be conducted to determine if the actions of Sri Lankan armed forces constituted a war crime. Funny thing is, while Tamil parties cried themselves hoarse for weeks about the plight of trapped civilians, not a single Tamil politician has raised his or her voice against the government of India's stalling, at the United Nations, of any international investigation of the last battle.