Friday, December 31, 2010

Heritage hero or villain?

This afternoon, BBC World broadcast an episode of Heritage Heroes applauding the work of Mohamed Turshi al Soghayer who was instrumental in conserving the traditional multi-storey houses of Rijal Alma in southern Saudi Arabia. The chairperson of the jury was Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, head of the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, whose statement can be read on the Heritage Heroes site here.
Earlier, I'd read a New York Times article about real estate development in Mecca, including the building of a huge clocktower modelled on Big Ben and a series of highrises right next to the Kaaba. The clocktower is six times the height of its Westminster model, over 1900 feet as against Big Ben's 315 feet.

The apartment blocks and clocktower were built by bulldozing an old Ottoman fortress and levelling the hill on which it stood, to fulfill the demand among super-wealthy Muslims to have a room overlooking Islam's most holy site. Rapid construction around the Kaaba has displaced Meccans who've lived close to the site for generations, and created a divide between the rich who ring the complex and their less well-off brethren who have been forced further afield. According to many this runs contrary to the idea of Mecca as a place where class distinctions, so prominent elsewhere, fade, and are replaced by a sense of oneness and solidarity among all Muslims.
Prince Sultan, head of the Heritage Heroes jury was asked about the kitsch version of Big Ben rising where a hill and fortress used to be. He replied curtly, “When I am in Mecca and go around the kaaba, I don’t look up.” So much for commitment to heritage. It was surprising in any case coming from a member of the clan of Al Saud, probably responsible for more destruction of built heritage down the generations than any other currently powerful family in the entire world.
On a related note, today's Mumbai Mirror has the results of a poll listing the city's 'seven wonders'. It's a bit of hyperbole, but two predictable winners are VT / CST station and Haji Ali. Haji Ali was ruined years ago when a guesthouse was built right behind the dargah, warping the delicate outline of the structure seen against the sky. Now there's a proposal to dilute heritage norms for VT, and to use land on its eastern side to build, what else, shopping complexes and hotels. All of Bombay's municipal corporators ganged up not long ago to push through a scheme to redevelop Crawford market along similar lines. This morning's paper left me thinking: if the skyline around the Kaaba could be destroyed, what hope for a 19th century railway station and market?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rasta to Zion, cut and paste

Bobby Farrell, of Boney M died in St.Petersberg yesterday, in his hotel rather than during a performance of Rasputin. I wrote a column about Boney M and geopolitics a few weeks ago, but since Yahoo! is in the midst of a reorganisation, and all our columns have temporarily gone off line, I'm cutting and pasting the piece here.

Rasta to Zion

The Palestine International Festival of Dance and Music, designed to draw attention to water shortages in the West Bank, isn’t exactly the hottest ticket on the global performance circuit. The only reason the disco band Boney M’s gig in Ramallah gained coverage was that organisers asked the band not to play one of its greatest hits, Rivers of Babylon. The lyrics, derived from the Old Testament’s Book of Psalms, are words spoken by Jews lamenting their exile from Jerusalem, which is frequently referred to in the Bible as Zion:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down

Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion.

When the wicked

Carried us away in captivity

Required from us a song.

Now how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

Any mention of Zion is a tricky matter in the Arab world, where the state of Israel is frequently disparaged as ‘the Zionist entity’. The Wachowski brothers discovered this when their film The Matrix Reloaded was banned in Egypt. The authorities claimed they objected to the portrayal of a Creator, but the real problem probably lay with the rebel stronghold in the movie being named Zion.

The Wachowskis, aware they might be labelled Zionist propagandists, had taken precautions, like putting the rebel leader Morpheus in charge of a ship called the Nebuchadnezzar. That gentleman was a king of Babylon who conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC, and returned to crush a revolt a decade later. The Jews captured or driven into exile in this period constituted the first Diaspora. Nebuchadnezzar may have constructed one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it counted for little in the minds of those who composed the Bible. There, he is forever the wicked king carrying the Chosen into captivity. It is commonly held that history is written by the winners. The Old Testament appears to disprove that theory, as do a few Rajput tracts I know.

Despite the bad notices in the Holy Book, Nebuchadnezzar has attracted his share of fans down the ages, like a certain Saddam Hussein who dreamt of becoming the second ruler from what is now Iraq to conquer Jerusalem. Unlike his predecessor, however, Saddam was a mediocre general. The Nebuchadnezzar division of his Republican Guard found considerably less success in battle than the Nebuchadnezzar of the Matrix series, leave alone the army of the ancient Babylonian king.

Those who saw The Matrix Reloaded might have noticed a preponderance of dreadlocks at the dance party within the rebel camp before the crucial battle. This arguably echoes a different tradition of longing for Zion, Rastafarian rather than Jewish.

The Rastafarian faith traces its origins to the Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who launched a Back to Africa movement in the early twentieth century. In one of his more fervid speeches, Garvey proclaimed, “Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; he shall be the redeemer”. When, some years later, Ras Tafari Makonnen became Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, it was interpreted by many Jamaicans as the crowning Garvey had spoken about. In Rastafari theology, Haile Selassie, who claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, came to be regarded an incarnation of Jesus. Ethiopia was considered Zion, the land to which the African Diaspora would return from its exile in Babylon, variously seen as Jamaica or the West.

Ethiopia, the Promised Land? What were those guys smoking, you might ask. The answer is: preparations of Cannabis Indica, a plant indentured labourers from the subcontinent introduced to the Caribbean. Rastafaris believe, as do some dreadlocked sadhus, that ganja has spiritual properties. Smoking it is a sacrament.

The songs of the most famous Rastafari convert, Bob Marley, are saturated with the political and philosophical beliefs of the movement. When Marley sings Iron, Lion, Zion or Zion Train; or when he speaks in Exodus of leaving Babylon and returning to the fatherland; he’s referring to places outside Israel and Iraq, and even Asia. This is also true, as it happens, of Rivers of Babylon, originally recorded by the Rastafarian reggae group The Melodians before being covered by Boney M in a version that achieved worldwide success.

Maybe that’s what Maize Williams of Boney M should have told the organisers of the Palestine festival. It’s not Jerusalem the people in my song are remembering, it’s obviously Addis Ababa. There’s more than one Zion in the world.

There’s also, as it turns out more than one Boney M in the world. There are as many Boney Ms, in fact, as there were members in the band’s line-up in the late 1970s. After disco collapsed as precipitously as Arab defences had during the 1967 war, the group spent years in the wilderness before the nostalgic revival of the early 1990s brought them back to the limelight. Each of the four toured separately as Boney M; the only problem was, just two of the four had ever sung a word in the band’s studio records. The other two were there to dance attractively and lip sync in concerts. Maizie Williams, who rocked Ramallah a few days ago, is one of the non-singers. How would she sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Out of tune, unless helped by backing vocalists, with the volume turned low on her microphone.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Contempt of Court

If there's one good thing to come out of the absurd verdict in the trial of Binayak Sen, it is the overthrow of the idea that decisions of courts are beyond criticism. In the past, the threat of being hauled up for contempt restricted public contestation of judgements. This self-censorship has been relaxed in recent years, and appears to have disappeared entirely after the Binayak Sen verdict, which has been called 'shocking' in an editorial of the Hindu, and a 'kangaroo trial' and 'a farce' by members of the National Advisory Council headed by Sonia Gandhi. Today's Times of India carries two articles critical of the way the case proceeded and highlights the flimsiness of evidence.
Essentially, one of India's most distinguished public health practitioners and human rights activists was held without bail for months and has now been sentenced to life in jail because he supposedly served as a conduit between an imprisoned Left wing extremist leader and other militants. The proof of this were letters recovered, not from Dr.Sen himself, but from a businessman who first said he was given the material by Dr.Sen and then retracted the statement. The place where the letters were recovered was mentioned as 'Station Road' in the police report. This was later changed to a completely different location, namely 'Mahindra Hotel'. The court accepted that a typing error led to the police putting down 'Station Road' instead of 'Mahindra Hotel'.
The police, after going through Binayak Sen's home and computer, came up with proof of his sympathy with terrorists in the form of pamphlets and books about Naxalism. Well, if that's evidence, then they could lock me up as a Maoist militant, since I have similar material lying about in my house. There was also an email sent by Dr.Sen's wife to somebody in the ISI; that was the Indian Social Institute, not Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence, but the police were satisfied the ISI label meant the Sens were colluding with Pakistan.
The case sheds light on the working of the whole judicial system in India. If a trial in the world's spotlight, during which two dozen Nobel laureates as well as human rights organisations like Amnesty International have spoken out on the defendant's behalf, becomes such a grotesque travesty of justice, imagine what it's like for the poor of Chattisgarh and other regions. What chance do they have against a combination of harsh laws, merciless police and pliant judges? None. And what happens when large sections of the population feel they have no recourse within the legal framework? They decide to work outside it.
I'm certain the verdict will be overturned in a higher court and Binayak Sen will eventually be acquitted. But he will have spent years in custody by then, and it will be wrong to suggest, the day he is set free, that justice has finally been done.

UPDATE, December 28: Rajinder Sachar, the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, has called the Binayak Sen judgement "nonsensical", and said he was ashamed to belong to a judicial system that delivered such a '"ridiculous judgement". I cannot recall any previous Indian verdict being described in such scathing terms by a former judge.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy holidays, Barack Obama

There's finally a caesura in the narrative of Barack Obama's presidency. The stimulus was signed when he'd barely taken charge, leading to an early partisan divide that only became sharper as the months progressed. His first December break was interrupted by a would-be terrorist trying to blow up an airplane. Earlier this summer, with the jobs situation looking grim as ever, an oil well blew up and, though it wasn't the government's fault, Obama's image took a beating. His vacation in Maine and his wife's trip top Spain around that time got them a shellacking from the Right. It's been twenty three months of perpetual crisis.
Now he can relax for a few days knowing he's already fulfilled most of the promises he made during his campaign. OK, it's pretty difficult to live up to statements like, The world will look back to this time as the moment our planet began to heal. But Obama couldn't have got elected without making such grandiose claims, so he has to accept the inevitable feeling among ardent (and naive) supporters, of being let down.
A presidential campaign is like a ramp show with impractical and unwearable but hugely creative clothes on display. It's a hypothesis that needs major adjustments after practical tests. The question is: does the Obama pret line look sort of like his ramp show? I'd say it's a close enough variant and, after the DADT repeal, maybe some on the Left might begin to agree.
The biggest let-down of these two years has been, of course, unemployment. But a President can't create jobs out of thin air, at least not in the long term. The stimulus kept job losses down, the Fed's actions helped keep the economy growing, and now he's managed a second huge stimulus package. Estate tax cuts may be about the worst way to stimulate jobs growth, but there was no realistic path forward without giving in to some Republican demands, pretty much everyone agrees with that. At this point, Obama just wants the unemployment rate down to between 7 and 8 % in two years; if it remains around 10%, he's likely to lose the next election. I doubt any man could be re-elected President after having near double digit unemployment for virtually the entire term of his presidency.
To get unemployment down, companies have to start hiring. And for companies to start hiring, they have to feel a sense of stability. The health care law and new financial regulations appear to have created a sense of insecurity among entrepreneurs. They will not expand while they feel uncertain, any more than an old-time trading vessel would leave port during a storm. Having pushed through much of his long-term agenda, Obama requires to calm public discourse so owners of firms feel they can chart their own course without interference.
The START victory gives him the impetus to turn seriously to international affairs, where Republicans will provide less opposition. Unfortunately, both Israel and Iran are saddled with the worst imaginable regimes, so progress in the Middle East, which should be his first priority, looks improbable.
It'll be interesting to see how he decides to steer. Meanwhile, I hope he gets some deserved rest, without some lunatic attempting a terrorist strike against American citizens.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tendulkar and Bradman

Now Sachin Tendulkar's got his 50th Test century, the media have predictably revived the debate about whether he's the greatest batsman of all time. Well, of course not. Donald Bradman's clearly the greatest batsman who ever lived by a wide margin.
Batting averages have not shifted all that much in the past century. After a long career, a good Test batsman typically ends with an average of between 40 and 45; an exceptional one with an average of between 45 and 50; and an all-time great with a 50 plus average. That, at least, was the case before helmets became the norm, grounds grew smaller and bats more powerful. When helmets were rare, in the late 1970s and early 80s, there were four batsmen in the entire world with an average of over 50: Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards and Javed Miandad. Chappell was replaced by Allan Border as the 50 plus Aussie in the 1980s. In the first sixty years that India played Test cricket, Gavaskar was the only batsman to end a substantial career with a Test average above 50 . Contrast this with the fact that the current Indian team itself has four batsmen averaging 50 plus: Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag and Gambhir. Pretty much every major team has one or two players in that category.
Judging by the stats, batting's become easier than it used to be; certainly no harder. It is reasonable to assume, then, that batsmen of the past would have had more or less the same success if transported to the present; their average would be in the same ballpark.
How, then, is there even a suggestion that Sachin Tendulkar, with an average in the mid-fifties, might be the equal of Bradman who averaged virtually 100? There simply is no comparison. Bradman is one of those outliers that defies comprehension; he is so far above any other batsman to have ever played cricket that he becomes a serious contender for the title of greatest sportsman of the twentieth century. I can't think of any sport where one person has left his contemporaries quite so far in his wake.
In any debate about the greats, Bradman should be left out of the equation, he's way greater than everybody else. What Sachin's done in the past year, I believe, is to put himself at the top of that group of 'everybody else'. About five years ago, Brian Lara and Sachin had similar records, and there was a valid debate about who was the preeminent batsman of their generation. Ricky Ponting had hit such a purple patch it seemed he might in the end overtake both Lara and Tendulkar. Well, Ponting's career graph has described a trajectory quite normal among great batsmen: a peak between the ages of 28 and 32, when the career average rises to the high 50s, and then a gradual falling off till it gets to about 50 at the time of retirement. Dravid's graph shows the same pattern, a rise to 57 or 58 and then a decline back to 52 - 53; The careers of Richards and Miandad also followed a similar arc. Sachin has defied this trend, by getting an improbable second wind late in the day. Having played more tests, scored more runs and hit more Test and ODI centuries than any other batsman in history, he's cemented a place as the second greatest batsman to have ever lived.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The death of the Hollywood star-driven drama

James L Brooks' How Do You Know, one of the rare recent examples of a big budget spent mainly on actors, is doing very poorly at the box office, as is The Tourist, starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. This is probably because they're bad films, but it makes me wonder what happened to the star-driven drama. I can think of few hit films of the recent past that compare with Brooks' previous Jack Nicholson starrers, As Good as it Gets and Terms of Endearment.
Thirty years ago, the second highest grossing film of 1981, behind the leader Raiders of the Lost Ark, was On Golden Pond, starring Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda. In 1983, the aforementioned Terms of Endearment, in which Jack Nicholson teamed with Shirley McLaine, was second behind Return of the Jedi. Dramas had been overtaken by comedies and special-effects laden blockbusters, but movies with big star casts that not only became hits but were contenders at the Oscars, retained a secure niche.
I guess there were three films in 2009 that might make that category: The Blind Side, Up In The Air and Julie and Julia, though I'm not sure if the latter two qualify since they ranked no. 38 and 34 respectively in the annual box-office standings. There hasn't been a single release of the kind I'm talking about so far this year. Nor was there in 2008, when Angelina Jolie's The Changeling was 80th, and Sean Penn's Milk 89th; or in 2007, when Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd ended 49th, George Clooney's Michael Clayton 55th and Daniel Day Lewis's There Will be Blood 66th on the annual charts.
The last Oscar winning, box-office topping, star-led drama I can think of was A Beautiful Mind. The Academy awards are shifting to niche movies as a result of the drying out of powerful mainstream dramas. Not a happy trend for their ratings. But I wonder why Hollywood's no longer making movies of the On Golden Pond, Out of Africa, Rain Man and Dances with Wolves variety. Any thoughts?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The new Australia

It was a painful experience that recurred over a number of years. I'd wake up, switch on the television and find Australia on approximately 165 for 1 on the first day of a Test match. By the end of the day, typically, the team would have put on something like 350 for 3, with Ricky Ponting 85 not out. On the odd occasion when early wickets fell, Adam Gilchrist or Andrew Symonds hit a run-a-ball century and the home team would get to 400 before the opposition fully understood the balance had shifted. Then, McGrath, Brett Lee and Warne would use the pressure of that first innings total to squash visiting batsmen.
It's all different now. Missing an established opening pair, and with middle order stalwarts out of form, Australia typically lose half their side before hitting 200, and it's left to Hussey to play the kind of role VVS Laxman did for India before Dhoni's emergence, and Steve Waugh adopted during the early phase of Aussie dominance (though Waugh, typically, took a tally from big to enormous, rather than from meager to respectable).
Out in South Africa, India can only pray for more rain after the first day of the first Test. I didn't watch any part of that match because it's on a new channel called Ten Cricket. I've already paid for Ten Sports, and now the firm has shifted some of its previously acquired and advertised properties to a new channel and is charging separately for them. How is this allowed?
There's also a channel called Ten Action which I can't get because TataSky has a problem with it. There's no point asking any customer service chaps what the issue is, they don't know, or won't tell. Ten Action was previously Zee Sports; TataSky cut deals with every Zee channel except Zee Sports, and the stalemate has evidently continued after the channel's change of name.
Ten Action broadcasts La Liga, which means I miss watching the two best football teams on earth. On the bright side, it also means I get a little more sleep.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Assange conspiracy

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you. I'm warming to the notion that the rape charges against Julian Assange are part of a plot, at the centre of which is not the elder of his two accusers, Anna Ardin, an activist who has hogged most of the media's attention, but the other woman Sofia Wilen, who has more or less disappeared since the charges were framed.
Consider the timeline (based on one of Guy Rundle's articles and an interview with Claes Borgstrom):
August 13: Assange has sex with Ardin, who hosts him in Stockholm during his Sweden tour.
August 14: Wilen attends a meeting addressed by Assange, makes contact with him, gets herself invited to a party that evening.
August 16: Assange is invited by Wilen to her home in Enkoping, and has sex with her twice; once with a condom, the second time without.
August 18: Wilen gets in touch with Ardin and they share notes, after which they decide they've been raped.
August 20: They file charges, which are immediately leaked to the press.
August 21: Eva Finne, chief prosecutor for Stockholm, rejects the rape charges. The same day Ardin says in a newspaper interview that Assange was not violent and she didn't feel threatened by him.
August 23: Claes Borgstrom, a lawyer - politician, inserts himself into the case.
August 30: Borgstrom approaches a prosecuter in Gothenburg, Marianne Ny, who agrees to resurrect the charges against Assange.
August 31: Assange gives a deposition before the prosecutor, and applies for a Swedish work and residency permit.
After Assange leaves the country, the prosecutor decides his deposition wasn't enough; so an Interpol notice, an international manhunt, and an incarceration in London follow.

It was apparent for a long time before Assange's application for residence that he was thinking of moving his centre of operations to Sweden. It would have been politically embarassing for Sweden to be the headquarters of Wikileaks, but such embarrassment was preempted thanks to the rape charge. A well-connected politician and a pliable prosecutor got in the mix, but they needed a complaint first. Most people have pointed fingers at Ardin as the plotter, but she just seems like a borderline loony activist to me, a curious mix of right- and left-wing ideologies. After the complaint was made, she erased embarrassing blog posts and tweets, but they remained easily accessible through caches. Wilen, on the other hand, has whitewashed her cyber presence with great proficiency; techies say only a professional could manage such a thorough job. Unlike Ardin, Wilen appears to have no history we can track; she just appears, seduces Assange, gets in touch with Ardin, cries rape, and vanishes. Very suspicious.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Defence land and squatters

I received a number of responses, almost unanimously negative, to my column about armies and cities. One of the best exchanges was with a respondent named Harjodh, who disputed my statement that defence land was commonly encroached upon: "Secondly – as regards army land being occupied being squatters, could you give specific, concrete examples of it? As far as I know, if any squatters enter army land, they are thrown out." He said I was taking a very Bombay-biased view, and that even in Bombay encroachments were on civil land outside defence boundaries: "yes there are squatters in Cuffe Parade area. But they are outside the walls. Thirdly, again.. with the examples you give, you are taking a narrow view of defence land on Bombay more specifically in Colaba (not in santacruz or madh island). When you say in your article 'The army itself has not been able to stop some of its land being occupied by squatters.' I would presume you are talking of the entire lands of the army all India. The squatters are on the lands situated outside defence lands."

At the time, I could not find much material to back up my claim, which was based on personal conversations from the past. However, in the forty days since then, a lot of information about defence land has been made public. We were first told what a huge bank of unutilised land the forces own. Now we have details of how much of that unutilised land has been taken over illegally.
"The defence ministry has now admitted that around 11,052 acres of its 17.30 lakh acres of land across the country has been encroached or occupied illegally.
Leading the list of states where the maximum number of encroachments has taken place is Uttar Pradesh (2,949 acres), followed closely by Maharashtra (2,285 acres), as per information provided by defence minister A K Antony in a written reply to Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.
Some others in the list include Haryana (961 acres), J&K (722 acres), Assam (617 acres), Punjab (494 acres), Bihar (456 acres), Madhya Pradesh (448 acres), Rajasthan (418 acres), West Bengal (406 acres), Gujarat (304 acres) and Delhi (107 acres)."

11,000 acres may be a lot of land, but accounts for less than 1% of the total holdings of the military. The land currently being used in legal ways is 2 lakh acres. That leaves over 15 lakh acres unutilised or under-utilised.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hindustan Times: Thanks for the virus

I stay away from Indian newspaper sites as much as I can because of the intrusive ads they use, but can't avoid them completely. So ,this morning, a link from Google News took me to the Hindustan Times website; about five seconds later, I got a virus alert. I hit 'Heal' on the virus guard and thought I'd caught it. I was mistaken. I found I couldn't access any files on the machine because, ostensibly, a disk defragmentation was required. I've seen that kind of thing before: run the defrag and it eventually says there's a problem with the system and only buying HDD Plus (the malware in question) will solve it.
The last virus that attacked my machine came from the Indian Railways online reservation system. That was particularly infuriating because it's a site that generates revenues through ticket sales and has no business foisting bank loan ads on clients.
Luckily I'm not in the middle (or worse, near the end) of a long article with an urgent deadline. Also, I use a wireless modem that allows me to surf from my laptop. Small mercies.