Category Archives: Americas

Bostonian accent and coconuts / Urban vision blind to the poor and their languages

[ Daily News and Analysis, 15 Apr 2014 ; The Independent (Bangladesh), 16 Apr 2014 ; Millenium Post, Apr 23 2014 ]

The greater Boston area of the United States of America has a very good public transportation system. This comprises of buses, local trains, boats and the metro rail. The Red line is one of the metro routes, stopping at Harvard and MIT, the two institutions where I have spent all of my academic-professional life outside Bengal. This means that I have taken the Red Line metro many, many times. One of the stations on the route is called Porter Square. Soon after the metro leaves a stop, there is a recorded voice which lets the passengers know what the next station is. The way that voice said ‘Porter Square’ was in what can be called a Bostonian accent. That is apt since the metro is in Boston, most users of the metro are from Boston and that is the accent they are most comfortable with.

The Unites States of America exists much beyond its territorial limits. Specks of California and Manhattan are scattered in urban centres of the southern world, including our subcontinent. Here, in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and beyond, those specks of Amerikana exist with a lot of vigour thanks to the brown-outside-white-inside coconut desis whose rootlessness attracts them to these ‘cosmopolitan’ areas. The subcontinent lives with such offsprings, proudly alienated, consciously ‘liberated’ and hip. With sentences peppered with ‘like’ and liberally spreading their ‘sh*t’,‘cr*p’ and other four-letter jewels among the rest of us, they constantly want to signify their ‘cosmopolitan’ awareness, maturity and liberation. Picking up the expressions of their own life’s many moments not from their living environment but from but from American/western popular media styles is the principal marker of these types. The problem is, it does not end there.

Given their numbers, they wouldn’t have mattered unless wielded inordinate power over policy and public life, given ‘English mediates our own social hierarchy’, as Hartosh Bal astutely puts it. They speak English in ‘cafes’ and restaurants, Hindi to their domestic helps. They prefer to live within self-created bubbles where they perform predictable ‘firangi duniya’-philia rituals with a commitment that often amuses the West. This is like the amusement of a father who has just come to know that the rape he had committed actually resulted in a child who loves him more than its mother.

Coming back to public transport. The coconuts constantly lament that brown cities are not ‘outsider’ and tourist friendly. This is rich coming from those who are voluntary outsiders in their birth-lands. They lament that the buses often have things written in ‘local’ language. The same goes for street signs, shop names and so much more. This constant reminder of brown-ness is an eyesore that they have successfully removed from their bubbles. Their all-English restaurant menus, their all English working spaces, get-togethers, poetry-readings, book-launches, debates, discussions, malls and supermarkets help them, at least in certain hours during their daily life, forget the horrid brown land whose imprint they carry, whether they like it or not. And so they complain of their spaces being ‘too vernacular’, harbor ideas of transforming the subcontinent’s urban areas into ‘world class’ – which is a code for a place where a firang would not feel lost. The fact is that in the last couple of decades, in the language of street names, public signage, private spaces and much more, the staggering majority of the people have been progressively told to ‘get lost’.

The poor and their language have been excluded for long. Now even the middle-class is under attack. In the brown subcontinent, even a telecaller now starts in default in English or Hindi, irrespective of whether it is Chennai or Mumbai. We are staring at an increasingly exclusionary urban vision which is undemocratic and downright insensitive which consciously overcounts the few and ignores the majority. At the root of this is an elite idea of citizenship, what constitutes a human being, who is counted as a person of value.

Yet, our languages live among the people on whose back breaking work everything is made, while angrejiwalas have their sausage, wine, banter and sophistication, building tapestries and ‘narratives’. If there is good in this universe or there are gods and goddesses who care about human dignity, something must give.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Culture, Education, Elite, Knowledge, Language, Sahib, The perfumed ones

Eight tight slaps from Niyamgiri tribals / On giving up other ways of being human / Slippery slopes of development

[ Daily News and Analysis, 6 Aug 2013 ;  Shillong Times, 9 Aug 2013 ; Millenium Post, 9 Aug 2013 ; Echo of India, 12 Aug 2013 ; Morung Express, 20 Aug 2013 ]

You lifted one fistful of salt

And an empire was shamed.

Lift

One fistful of rubble

Now

And pour it on our shameless heads.

(Written by Gopal Gandhi on 6th December, 1992 – the day of Babri demolition)

In the United States of America, Thanksgiving Day is an example of a rather successful attempt in creating a popular and false impression of a harmonious past of North America – one of peaceful coexistence between White Christian colonizers and the colonized indigenous people. With decades of state endorsement, school indoctrination and mass-market celebration, genocide has been whitewashed into a love-in of sorts. But the descendants of the survivors still live and there is no forgetting. Certain truths cannot be buried by concrete and asbestos.

On one such day, some years ago, strolling in the Harvard campus, I saw a small group of native American youth standing in a semi-circle around a temporary structure that whispered –‘ this is a special space’. Someone elder led the invocations that exuded an unmistakable aura of sacredness to me. Before the genocide, this used to be a community celebration. Now, to the onlooker, it is a bunch of weirdos in strange gear doing their own thing in a campus that celebrates ‘diversity’ – adding to that vaunted cosmopolitan urbanscape that so many hold up as a model of all human futures, that pinnacle of rootless aspirations. Before the genocide, this was public culture. Today it is a curious performance, an act in the corner. How does it feel? I do not know. But I do know that less than 3 months from now the debi-paksha (the lunar fortnight of goddess Durga) will start and my clan-home in a village called Patuligram in Hooghly district of West Bengal will come alive to welcome the mother goddess, like every year. What if we had to do this invocation on the sly, and looked upon curiously? Could I then feel how those young people at Harvard were feeling that day? Probably not. I would not be accounting for the loss of language, community, clan-people, independence. And still they survive. For it is not that easy for everyone to give up other ways of being human.

It is partly an appreciation of this stubbornness that drew some activists, students and ragamuffins to a protest last week in front of the Orissa Bhavan at New Delhi. Niyamgiri, the holy hill, produced the valiant Dongria Kondh who have not only challenged the collective might of some of the most powerful money-gatherers and fixers of the world, but have also tripped up the trajectory of ‘progress’. What obscene cost-benefit calculation can put a price on a god and his abode? To us Bengali Shaktos (worshipper of goddess Shakti), what would be the ‘right price’ to dig up the Kali temple at Kalighat if bauxite were to be found underneath? The Dongria Kondh people have stuck to their main man, their principal deity Niyamraja for Niyamraja (the giver of law) has been sticking to them forever. Ijurupa, Phuldumer, Batudi, Palberi, Kunakadu, Tadijhola, Kesarpadi and Serkapadi are eight villages whose gram-sabhas have rejected a proposed bauxite-mining plan in Niyamgiri. In effect, these are eight tight slaps to an entire industry of consensus building that includes corporate houses, lobbyists, politicians, columnists, economists, ad-agencies, ‘development’-wallahs. CSR-wallahs, FabIndia-DSLR-NGOwallahs and probably your and my dad. Such has been the force of these slaps that the forces-that-be have pushed into action their spin-machine to concoct some ‘depth of Indian democracy’ type of bed-time story out of it. The force of the eight slaps (and there may be more) come precisely from forms of socio-political legitimacy and communitarian rights which are the bane of the forces-that-be. For all their love of swadeshi gods, like others, the saffron-party too has been exposed – that their love for alumina can easily make them sell gods on the sly.

In February, in Lakutia, near Barisal in East Bengal, I saw the ruins of a series of shiv-mandirs – corpses of places of worship. I remember muttering under by breath,  ‘never again’. Many have surrendered to those words, so simple yet so decisive – “it is too late now.” The Dongria Kondh seem to have different ideas about time and action. Far away, in southern Orissa, an explosive experiment in grassroots democracy is shaking the world. If it has not shaken your world, it better did.

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Filed under A million Gods, Americas, Bahishkrit Samaj, Community, Democracy, Displacement, Faith, Identity, Jal Jangal Zameen, Religion

Chavez – a subcontinental remembrance

[ Daily News and Analysis, 7 Mar 2013 ; Kashmir Reader, 11 Mar 2013]

I never met the just-deceased leader of the neo-Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in person. However, living in this subcontinent, somewhat fortuitously, I have seen him in various forms. What does his death mean to the subcontinent? Did he mean anything to us when he was alive? I have a couple of personal snapshots to offer. It can be considered a tribute.

When I say that I have never met Hugo Chavez, it is only half true. I had seen him up on the stage at a mass-rally in Kolkata in 2005. At that point, I was in Medical College, Kolkata and a member of an independent students association, which was regularly threatened and sometimes physically beaten by members of the ‘Party’s’ student wing. Rakesh, a class-mate of mine and now a humanitarian doctor at the Shramajibi Hospital in the Sundarbans, and I saw the posters in the city that the ‘Party’ was organizing a mass rally at the Lake Stadium and Chavez would speak. At that time, the coup that had briefly deposed him and his valiant and popular return had gained wide currency in our minds. We did not have too much access to the Internet and online videos never smoothly streamed anyways. But what we had seen and heard, from here and there, had made us realize that this would be an opportunity of a lifetime. A ‘red’ leader whose action, mannerism and style was in such contrast to the Dodos that walked about in Kolkata neighbourhoods back then – this was reason enough for us to go to his rally that evening.

I must confess that we were rather scared. Rakesh had been repeatedly threatened and assaulted by the ‘Party’ and I was a known face too. And here we were, among thousands of the Party faithful. We hoped nobody recognized us – realistically the chances were slim. Half-jokingly, half-nervously, I whispered to Rakesh that in this 10000 (or more) versus 2 scenario, we could be vanished without trace.

The event was nominally organized the government. But the ‘Party’s top brass was in full attendance – some on stage and some very near it. Events like these were a strange version of universalism that only Kolkata used to experience. Once, the city was also treated to an event where Che Guevara’s daughter had come visiting. Around the time of these events, the public posturing of the ‘Party’ and the tone of the columns in the ‘Party’ daily used to be such as if the dhoti-clad were very uncomfortable in their air-conditioned offices, and were itching to hit the trenches. The last installment of this periodic farce was when Maradona came to Kolkata.

And then Chavez spoke. There was an interpreter who translated his Spanish to Bangla realtime. That poor soul drew angry jeers from the ‘Party’ faithful when he said ‘Karlos Markos’ – a name Hugo Chavez had just mentioned in that form. And I perked my ears up. Over the cacophony of the mujahideen disgusted at the Holy Name being taken in a non-divine Spanish ( and not divine English, but not German, mind you), a different Hugo emerged to us. The person on stage had been engaging with Karl Marx, on his own terms, with a confidence that comes from being deeply embedded in one’s cultural ethos. Rakesh and I were won.

There were layers upon layers of irony that evening. In the Panchayat Elections held less than two years earlier, as many as 5030 Gram Panchayat seats were won ‘unopposed’ by the same party that was hosting the character who had unleashed the most democratic regime that part of the world had seen in recent times – even facing a recall election. At some point in his speech, Chavez mentioned Gandhi (I don’t remember whether it was the Father or the Mother). The crowd fell silent – evidently, Hugo had not been briefed about the time and place. Rakesh and I, dirty-minded as we were, deliberately chose to clap hard at that moment, amongst angry looks of people around us. Looking back, I feel, that bit of bravado was not worth the potential risk.

When he left the stadium, he stuck out his torso the car-window, waving spiritedly. For a moment, he waved directly at us, or so I thought. A day later, there was a picture of him in the ‘Party’ daily from one of the ‘agricultural progress’ tours they must have organized. He smilingly held a giant-sized pumpkin on top of his head – with the dhoti-wallas around him not sure how to react. That moment, from the unlikely vantage of a still-photo in a Party daily, he spoke directly to irreverents like us. Such was Hugo.

And then, 8 years later, I saw ‘Hugo’ again, in Shahbag, Dhaka. He was about 25, wore a similar beret cap, and was leading the sloganeering. I saw a few others in Shahbag, sporting the ‘Hugo’ look. Surely Hugo was more alive in the East, beyond the clutches of the dodos of the West.

On Hugo’s death, my friend Aiyan Bhutta of Lahore, improvised an old Pakistan People’s Party slogan that had originally been coined after the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. ‘Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai’. ( From every home a Hugo will emerge, how many Hugo’s will you kill?). I remembered the 25-year old Bengali at Shahbag. Indeed. Tum kitnay Hugo maaro gai. Har ghar se Hugo nikleyga.

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Filed under Americas, Bengal, Democracy, Kolkata, Obituary, Power

The Great veil / A pecking order falls / The veil of civilisation and Hurricane Sandy / The veil of civilization / After Hurricane Sandy blew the veil

[ The Friday Times (Lahore) December 14-20, 2012 – Vol. XXIV, No. 20 ; Down to Earth, 15 Dec 2012 ; Frontier (web), 7 Dec 2012 ; Echo of India, 13 Dec 2012 ; Millenium Post, 7 Dec 2012 ; The Social Science Collective, 9 Jan 2012 ]

“ Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.

Ashole ar nokole take boror moto dekhaye.

Gachher kachhe giye dnarao

Dekhbe koto chhoto.“

–       Shakti Chattopadhyay (poet from Bengal)

Translation:

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

With the real and the unreal, they appear big.

Go stand near the tree

You will see the small-ness.

We live in a world filled with theories of human nature, or more correctly, theories of human nature that explain differences between people. Such theories have a wide ranging currency and explain differences between people in things as varied as poverty, labour efficiency, honesty, graciousness, violence (or lack thereof), scientific progress, cleanliness of streets, alcoholism, sexual prowess and what not. The power of these theories are in that they set the agenda, around which we create our perceptions of ourselves and others, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future, our aspiration and desires. This is why it is important we take such ‘human nature’ theories seriously and critically, for they define our present and limit our future.

The cold-blooded violence of the Taliban, the ‘simplicity’ of Chhattisgarh adivasis, the mathematical ability of Tamil Brahmins, the ability of German companies to build precision instruments, the courteousness (‘How are you doing?’) of a white bus driver in Boston, the ‘sense of justice’ of the British, the ‘spirit of entrepreneurship’ of immigrant Europeans in North America, the dapper look of a New York police officer, the sense of duty, discipline and punctuality that is apparently absent among brown folks – this long list is only a small set of qualities that are attributed to the intrinsic nature of a group of people. The Pashtun are prone to gratuitous violence ‘by nature’. The other examples I cite also have this quality of being explained by the nature of the people, an ethnic-quality, so to say, that specially marks them out, for good or for bad. This way of explaining away differences between people not only obfuscate strands of commonality between them, but also work against initiatives of transformation of societies from within (Pashtun women cannot ‘save’ themselves and Pashtun men cannot have any role in such an initiative). Such ideas also make us permanent prisoners of an inferiority complex (lazy, dishonest, unclean brown men) – piecemeal personal liberation coming through some kind of an internal theorizing that one is among the very few with the ‘wrong’ skin but the ‘right’ nature. Our world has this organization, this ‘civilizational’ pecking order of sorts, which manages to encroach upon our innermost subjectivities, deeply colouring our attitudes and aspirations. It even warps our sense of aesthetics, so much so that we cannot even make ourselves dislike what we may know to be bad. For example, my modern urban aesthetic can only imagine beauty in concrete while I know that paving the ground makes rain-water run off, causing water tables to drop. The alternatives, soil, dust, clay, have lost all aesthetic appeal, irrespective of my public posturing. This crisis has multiple far-reaching implications – environmental effects are only one of them.

It is not easy to see the world bare naked, without the ideological veil of the civilizational pecking order, especially when it has been naturalized. Rare are the moments when the veil is lifted. It is the witnessing of such rare moments that helps one unlearn, cleanse oneself off handed-down ideologies and breathe easy. And here comes the story of the hurricane. For Nature in itself (not our perception of nature) has not been brainwashed.

Because it has not been brainwashed, it can be irreverent, indiscriminate. It can lash Haiti’s coastline and lower Manhattan in similar ways and in one stroke can be the great equalizer when dehumanized Haitians and refined New Yorkers, the ‘animal’ and the ‘ideal’ both are frightened and shiver. Rare are these moments when layer upon layer of ideology, constructed over centuries, can be briefly peeled back to show what is generally concealed by the apparent disparities between the garbage-scavenger of Mumbai and the iphone-totting yuppie New Yorker. The approaching Hurricane Sandy caused panic. People tried to stock up on water and food. There were fistfights to buy water. There was no queue. There was no ‘discipline’. There was no ‘West’. There is no ‘West’ without surplus – the genie that bankrolls the breathing space between mere survival and the life of consumer dignity.

A friend from New Jersey called. There was no electricity. ‘Whats the correct way to wash my clothes without the machine – you are from India, you know right? Alas, I am from elite Kolkata, but I knew by seeing. Put water, put clothes, put soap. He said ‘ and then spin by hand?’ He wanted to mimic the machine. With the power gone, the powerlessness showed. Notions of differential ‘progress’ due to difference in ‘intrinsic’ nature felt dubious, the arrows pointing to paradise momentarily did not all point in the same direction. Rare are these moments when the inclined plane of progress, where difference in ethnic location becomes difference in ‘developmental’ time, caves in near the peak. It self-corrects fast. Electricity will be restored. But in the intervening darkness, if you remember what you fleetingly saw, you will never believe again.

To be able to look at your belief-system being battered by a hurricane is not easy. It is not easy to see unclean public lavatories that you thought you had left behind in the tropics. Just one day of a Hurricane blessed holiday of the underclass janitors is enough to create a stench that one has learned to associate with some and not with some.  In the gullet of Manhattan, from where the Empire State Building cannot be seen, pecking orders briefly collapse. They collapse without Hurricanes too, on a daily basis, between the rounds that the janitor makes, in the obnoxious splatters in lavatories of Michelin starred restaurants, in the toilets left unflushed in the most exclusive of hotels. The anonymity of the restroom latch lets out a ‘West’ that is more like something we associate with our skin that we have learned to hate. To take away a single-minded aspiration, from those who are otherwise alienated from all other aspirational trajectories, can be destabilizing. The frequent restroom cleaning keeps the ideological veneer on, for us to aspire and be awed. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Surplus makes near-godliness achievable in this earth. For a significant part of the year I live in a locality of Kolkata. This is also where I grew up – a distinctly ‘down-market’ area called Chetla. People often wear lungis on streets and near the rail-bridge, there are lumps of human excreta on the roadside every morning. As I stroll down the manicured streets of Boston, a dirty thought emerges. If the surplus were to evaporate, would the sauve Bostonian come to resemble my people from Chetla? How would the sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue look, early in the morning then? Would the air still be filled with the nauseatingly the high number of ‘Thank you’s’ , ‘Sorry’s ‘and  ‘Excuse me’s’ I say and hear every day? Would this veneer of gracefulness, thankfulness, personal space, yoga retreats and wine-tastings still mesmerize? What does it take to lift the veil? The ease of unraveling might hold better clues to our commonalities and differences than ideologies of progress and development.

Barbarians say that surplus is the stake that holds the veil to the ground. The stake is deeply embedded – it has taken centuries to ram in thousands of them. They are only getting deeper. Hurricanes can only pull out a couple of them, that too very briefly. The stakes have slave labour, usurped lands and colonial extraction written all over them. Reparations can send the veil flying off.

Meanwhile in other parts of global urbania that are playing catch-up, elaborate mechanisms of creating lavatories and frequently cleaning them are being finalized. However they do not have the advantage of acquiring shipfuls of humans from Senegal. Their dreams of creating a ‘world-class’ Delhi need more than a few fingers of Katam Suresh of Gompad, Chattisgarh. One needs many Chhattisgarhs, millions of fingers to adorn the necks of lakhs of unreformed ‘Angulimalas’. To ‘naturally’ fit in to the class of connoisseurs of ‘Belgian’ chocolate, one needs to be better than King Leopold. King Leopold of Belgium. Google him. Léopold Louis Philippe Marie Victor. Even their names sound better between hurricanes.

“ Ashole tumi khudro chhoto,

Fuler moto bagane foto.

Birohe jodi dnariye othho

Bhuter moto dekhaye.

Ashole keu boro hoy na

Boror moto dekhaye.”

Translation :

Actually you are small, tiny,

Blooming like a flower in the garden.

If you stand up in sadness

You look like a ghost.

Nobody is actually big,

They just appear so.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Environment, Knowledge, Kolkata, Non-barbarians, Power, Scars, Under the skin

A Harvard state of mind

[ Daily News and Analysis, 19 Nov 2012 ]

Having been associated with the Harvard University since 2006, I have attended a very many events there. On 13 November, I witnessed an event, which led to some thoughts that I would like to share. At a panel-discussion titled  “ The Supreme Court of India and the Implementation of Human Rights”, I got to hear Altamas Kabir, The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union, Swatanter Kumar, a judge of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union and Ashwani Kumar, the freshly minted Law Minister of the government at Delhi.

I arrived at the newly built Wasserstein building. There were absolutely no entry bars – precisely what a public event in a university should be like. If such an event were held in Kolkata where I grew up, the amount of frisking that would have gone on, can be imagined – apart from the self-appointed managerial positions that young and not-so-young functionaries of the local Youth Congress would have taken up. There were no flower bouquets, no thhali girls.

The event happened in a class-room with a seating capacity of 86. Not all seats were filled. Having studied in an elite college in Kolkata, I could imagine that an event like this would easily fill the huge centenary hall of the University of Calcutta. But during my 6 years (1999 -2005) in the University of Calcutta (West Bengal’s largest university), I had no opportunity to attend an event where the union law minister and more than one sitting judge of the supreme court spoke. More importantly, there was an opportunity for questions after they were done speaking. While I am individually fortunate, I come from that unfortunate stock whose ability to interact with their own minister and high functionaries of the government comes easier when they are out of their native land. In my years at Harvard, I have been in the same room with Pranab Mukherjee, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kaushik Basu, Kapil Sibbal, Nirupama Rao and others. In my years at the University of Calcutta, I had no such opportunity. Harvard University’s own funds are about 30.7 billion US Dollars at present. This figure is close to the total GDP of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. In 2009, the University Grants Commission of India gave about 12 crores to Burdwan University (awarded a NAAC 5-star status) as its tentative 11th plan period allocation. Such is the love for elite spaces in America in the mind of the government at Delhi that in 2008, it donated about 22 crore rupees to Harvard University. We surely have got our grant priorities right. But I digress.

I heard the minister speak. Hearing his crisp English, I remembered how many people were concerned at the possibility of Mayawati become the prime minister. The anxieties were not about policy but about public speaking and interaction skills at the global stage. As I sat hearing the minister, I realized how much like music must this accent of the minister sound to ‘global Indian’, how much his seamless comfort in suits soothes their nerves. The event had no surprises except for a brief moment when Altamas Kabir felt thirsty and reached for water that was on the table in front of him. Someone from the front-row, probably some government functionary, literally leapt to assistance without being asked, trying to get the bottle and the glass to the judge before he could get to them himself. The agile response looked oddly out of place but then most of the spectators were also from the subcontinent. They understood.

Humans from the subcontinent seem to acquire more rights and privileges and access to the eminent, when they are in some elite centre in USA. They can ask question without intermediaries. They can walk up without being stopped. However transiently, it feels like the eminent are also fellow citizen. Back in the subcontinent, this is not possible unless one belongs to a certain bubble. This is precisely why the pronouncements of the government on human rights have to be compared with the reports on the status of human rights in India, coming from the United Nations agencies and other human rights organizations. A good human rights record speaks for itself and does not need public relations acrobatics from the government. Which is why even a St.Stephenian accent is not enough to sell a positive human rights record to the AFSPA affected Manipuri youth. It is easier sold at Harvard, or so the government may think.

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Filed under Acedemia, Americas, Class, Elite, Power, Rights, Terror, The perfumed ones

The art of brewing a telegenic storm / Hurricane Sandy

[ Millenium Post, 7 Nov 2012 ; Echo of India, 14 Nov 2012 ]

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston. This is not a town in the USA. It is a city in Jamaica, immortalized among many people by Harry Belafonte’s soulful voice in ‘Jamaica farewell’. It is very probable that by now audience in many parts of the world through TV and newspapers know of very small town of eastern USA. Some might have picked up names of neighbourhoods in New York City. In an iniquitous global media regime, the size of the basic unit of human assemblage, that is capable of capturing attention and only thereafter be injected with properties of humanity, varied widely from place to place. If it is an OECD nation, chances are you will have heard and read not only stories of neighbourhoods but also of individual people and their struggles. But I digress.

I came across this ‘wind-map’ of over the North American subcontinent. This was quite an internet rage for sometime – a strange thrill of sorts, of being in the midst of it, and hovering over in a helicopter at the same time. This participation has limits. For if the map was not insular and showed places were other people lived, one would have known that when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, its highest winds were blowing at 130 kilometres per hour. For good or for bad, there was no minute by minute live update.

If the media cameras has panned away from New York Mayor Bloomberg’s press meet, one would have seen the death and destruction in Haiti and Cuba where not whole towns and settlements have been destroyed. However, we do not know of the names of those towns, let alone specific neighbourhoods. Their pictures, their human conditions, will not flashed across front pages half way across the world. Lesser people have lesser print space, if at all. While every human being is equally precious, the fact that most media outlets have carried no follow up of the news of the 100 fishermen who were stranded off the Carribean coast during the Hurricane, tells us that beyond the quantity of humanity, there is a notion of quality of humanity – a conception of quality that is sickening to the core.

While we had so much sympathy about loss of electricity in North America, that nearly 70% of Jamaica lost electricity is something that I had to try hard to unearth. This is especially rich and sad at the same time as the contours of such reporting are replicated dutifully even in those parts of the world where the reach of electricity does not even reach 70%., including the Indian Union. In that feverish reportage of flooded subways of New York, not only a large part of the Carribean coast gets flooded. The appeal for emergency aid from those areas also got drowned.

Hurricane Sandy made landfall in Kingston, Jamaica and has killed over 70 in the Carribean till now. This is greater than the total number of casualties in the USA, till now. Carribean islands, Haiti, Dominican Republic. Hispaniola actually. Columbus had made his landfall there.

But I was not watching some US channel – why did they only show the US part of the hurricane on Indian TV? May be it’s the same reason why even storms, hurricanes and cyclones that have killed many more in India also did not get so much live coverage.

In his live-beamed press conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sounded so confident and reassuring and looked so smart in his coat and tie. The New Yorkers were giving such articulate interviews to the channels. What do we have? Our cyclone-affected are a bloody disgrace. Remember Cyclone Aila? They show themselves half-naked on TV, stare weirdly at the camera and cant even speak English. I hope they show New York subway water removal when Cyclone Neelam makes landfall. Much more civilized. And in any case, Haitian, Dominican and Jamaican companies don’t own stakes in Indian media outlets. At least somebody has got their priorities right. I mean, anchors sitting in Delhi looked seriously worried about the disruption of public transportation in New York.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Our underbellies, Power, Under the skin

The United States of non-Walmart America

[ Millenium Post,  24 Oct 2012 ]

USA or ‘America’ is as much an idea as it is a swathe of land with people. It lives in different forms in minds of people all over the world, beyond the USA. A serious number of non-poor urban youth from the Subcontinent have grown up with American sitcoms. Now they partly live that reality, fired by ‘onsite’ assignments and contract-labour opportunities in IT of the last 2 decades. This first-hand experience of  by the prodigal children of the middle class also comes with second hand experiences of America in the extended families and friends, back in India. Visiting parents lodged for a few weeks in the suburban homes of their children see the America of the malls – a place where anything one think one might need ( or not) exists, the warehouse of Santa Klaus. The ease of the push-cart, the smooth and snappy non-bargaining retail experience is an important part of the legend that is relayed back. In the pantheon of these multi-brand retail palaces, Walmart is the unquestionable Indra. Almost all of what it sells is also sold by others, and is indeed, made by others, mostly Chinese others. It is the brand of brands – it sells cheap but easy buying as a fundamental right.

In the east-coast of USA, stand two famous cities – New York City ( with over 8 million people) and Boston ( Metro Boston’s population being upwards of 3 million). Together, they are home to more than 3% of Americans. Both are iconic and enduring symbols of America to the world. But there are no Walmarts. I live in the Boston area. As I do no have a car and locally travel on a bicycle or by public transport, I simply do not encounter a Walmart.

This is peculiar as America has nearly 4000 different stores all across the nation, with presence in every state and multiple stores in many major cities like Houston and Philadelphia. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. I slowly started finding a clue among the ‘No Walmart’ signs that started popping up in my neighbouring towns – Watertown and Somerville. None of these two cities had any Walmarts, but on inquiry I found that it had plans to set up shop there. Many people from the area had been organizing against Walmart. These are but everyday people who do like low prices. But many of them feel that they would pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite Walmart’s ‘low price’ bait. A moneyed entity like Walmart left no stone unturned in its public relations offensive  to make people see the ‘benefits’. The civic opposition gathered steam. Their elected representatives in the municipal council, many of who were supportive of Walmart, started feeling the heat. This year Walmart announced that they were suspending plans of setting up shop in these two areas citing profitability issues. The reasons might have been something else.

These towns too were divided on the issue, but the current was clearly on the side of the opposers. Much north of Boston is the picturesque state of Vermont. In the town of St.Albans, Vermont, residents have been debating whether to let Walmart in, for 19 years now. With the lowest number of Walmart stores among all the states, Vermont has been an especially tough nut to crack. If St.Albans falls, it will open up newer markets in northern Vermont to Walmart. That has not happened, yet.

These clearly are not stories of every town and urban community – the huge number of Walmart stores all across the USA is a testament to that. But towns that have successfully blocked Walmart are not just a handful either. From Hercules (California), St.Albans (Vermont), Hood River (Oregon), Damariscotta (Maine), Skaneateles (New York), Taos ( New Mexico) and many others. Join the dots and the contours of the United States of non-Walmart America emerges. That too is America, if we care to look.

How exactly can a town or a  municipality oppose a the entry of a perfectly legal business? Democratic deepening is an important feature that can be seen in the governance of these town by which they can veto or oppose many kinds of decisions that they deem inimical to the interest of the local community. This includes railways, roads and other ‘development’ projects. Walmart and other such retail giants  profit and outcompete many partly by having huge warehouses and stupendous variety – a question of scale. This requires the availability of a large amount of floor area. Rather than target one specific big-box store company (that is what Walmart type of stores are called because of their shape and size), which is not legally tenable, the city councils opposing the entry of such stores effectively ban such stores by setting an upper limit to the floor area of the shops they allow in their jurisdiction. This favours small and medium size, largely local stores over super-size big-box stores. In this way, people’s opinion matter in policy – what they want and what they do not want.

This right to host a Walmart is what the Union government in India has used in its framing of the Walmart debate. They ask why states which want Walmarts should not be allowed to have them? The core appeal of this logic is of democratic justice – if a fraction of the people want something for themselves, others should not be able to deny them that. The union government untiringly tomtoms its purported advances in promoting local governance, does not have the courage to give municipalities and village councils the right to embrace or veto Walmart or other projects that might affect them. Singing paeans to democracy and people’s will is one thing, taking democratic empowerment and devolution seriously is another matter. More Nandigrams and Koodankulams can be avoided if local government becomes real government and not an elected but powerless charade under bureaucrats who take orders from the top. Attitudes and aspirations differ between states and within states too. If people of Walmart’s home country have a greater say on where Walmart can or cannot be, why should brown folks settle for any less? They may chose to embrace Walmart, they may chose to block it. But it is important that they do the choosing directly.

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Let grass roots decide on Walmart / This land is your land – Walmart and the other America

[ The Hindu, 12 Oct 2012 ; Down to Earth, 31 Oct 2012 ; Globeistan, 16 Oct 2012; IndiaResists, 13 Oct 2012; The Shadow (Jammu) Oct 2012 ; The Morung Express (Nagaland) ]

There is the United States of America and then there is the ‘idea’ of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes all across the globe. How this looks in real life varies slightly according to the region of the world, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the subcontinent, the latter idea is increasingly not made in a Hollywood basement, given the ‘IT-coolie’ fired traffic to the USA. One important element of the newer idea of USA that flows back daily by television, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and emails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless – from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain-stores, a super-brand. Viewed in another way, it is a ‘shop’ whose name is more famous that than the brand names of the things it sells.

I have been living in the United States of America for the last few years, more or less in  east coast cities. The last 6 have been in the Boston area.  A map of the area (Figure 1) shows the many separate municipal towns that constitute much of the Boston area. My location however deprives me of the quintessentially ‘American’ experience of shopping at Walmart. In the map of the area, B and C represent the two Walmarts in the vicinity. I live in Cambridge and hence I am atleast 10 miles away from each of those. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible for me. Walmarts and stores like that cannot exist in the USA in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the ultimately unsustainable mass-culture of individual car-ownership that makes such stores reachable. However, the map (Figure 1) may be misleading as it gives an impression that Walmart stores are relatively sparse in the United States of America. That is far from true, as evident from this 2006 map (Figure 2) of Walmart locations in the nation. This corresponds very well with a population density map of the nation, in case anyone was inquisitive about the large patches of virgin territory in the western half. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact they tried and tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dirty dishes and similar chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into the house, I saw a sign on the lawn that said  “No Walmart – No more big boxes.” ‘Big box’ incidentally is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Given that I knew that there weren’t any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours were over, I talked to the house-owner and he informed that he was part of the burgeoning local citizens movement ‘Sustainable Watertown’ which was opposing a proposed Walmart ‘big-box’ store near the central square of Watertown. In the United States of America, citizens of town and villages have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals – be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they have been getting a lot of support, which had translated into some elected city councilors getting pressurized not to court Walmart.

Fast -forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the Watertown City Council came very close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced that it was shelving plans to set up shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build in a store in the neighbouring town of Somerville. The Walmart spokeserson Steven Restivo said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns – both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing the entry of Walmart in their areas. In response to this, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement that read “”We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighborhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.”

This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large multi-brand retail chain stores and their pros and cons vis-à-vis the local community. This simply is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. Those gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices.  But at the same time, many of them feel that they would have to pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite the ‘low price’ bait. These gaps, in the shadow of the glorious network of Walmart, when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters, also forms a USA. It extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages all across the nation which have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a ‘shop’, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico), San Diego (California) and many more. Join the dots and you see the contours of a nation. This is a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but it exists nonetheless.

The central government of the Indian Union has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital-power to the already existing scene of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture of state’s rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual states can chose to not permit the entry of foreign multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The centre has made a lot out this enabling clause, and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to state’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of certain provinces should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmarts. This is quite reasaonable, in my opinion. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and ‘development’ trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the ‘central’ and ‘concurrent’ lists. The Indian Union never tires to tout its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system.  In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not accord the lower units of the local government to veto decisions and policies that affect the area but the local body thinks is inimical to the interests of the area? By feverishly canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer, this apparently libertarian rhetoric is exposed when the centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them veto powers over most decisions that govern life on the ground, including the right to refuse certain kinds of entities to set up shop in an area. As long as the fundamental rights of the individual citizen are not compromised, what does the centre fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, Nandigrams of the future could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmarts or not. On being liberated from ‘New’ Delhi notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like. There is no second-guessing the potentialities of human plurality.

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Two-party system in US

[ The Echo of India 23 Aug 2012 ]

 

Many middle-class people in subcontinent are attracted by the discreet charm of  an authoritarian state – ruthless and decisive. A pluralist democracy is deemed to be slow and inefficient by them. Which is why they also regard a two-party system as the next best thing. This of course is said keeping the United States of America in mind, which is the pre-eminent poster child of a two-party system. Of course a two party system is not one which limits participation to two parties or two poles. Rather, it is a system that has been developed so that it manages to keep other voices out, or co-opt them. In fact, that a nation of 300 million has 2 parties to represent nearly 95% indicates a serious representation crisis that needs to be addressed. Far from its strength, a two party representation for such a large populations weakens the democratic foundations. This project is ably served by systemic forces including the mainstream media, who take it upon themselves to herd popular opinion along narrow bipartisan lines.

The outcome of presidential elections in the USA has its ripple effects in every part of the world. The powerhouse that it is in many respects – economic, military and academic, a slight twitch in the behemoth causes ruckus in some other part of the globe. Hence, US elections have undeniable effects on the world. So much so that some have even suggested that the world ought to have voting rights in US elections. Leaving that aside, in this presidential election year, the world is watching and so is the subcontinent. Having lives at both places, certain differences are worth discussing.

As the presidential election campaign will gain more and more momentum, there will be rallies. Now, in the USA, if a candidate manages a turnout of 10000 at one of these rallies, it will be considered outstanding, a groundswell of support and what not. In most parts of the subcontinent, a turnout of 10000 at a centrally located rally of a senior politician would be considered a failure. In fact, very few politicians would dare to even call a central rally if they think that the turnout would be around that figure. The rally turnout in the subcontinent is largely managed by political organizations who pack such rallies with adherents by enticements and threats. Some also attend by a since of belonging and loyalty to a party and its ideology. But typically, such gatherings have few ‘innocent bystanders’. The US rallies I have been to, have less of a stage-managed quality in its turnout but the stage is managed quite well. In such management of the stage, often trivial aspects of a speech like diction, voice, or things like posture become points of judging a person. This does not mean that political issues are not involved, but simply that in the USA, only a certain kind of grooming makes the cut, irrespective of political inclinations.

The politics of the subcontitent, due to its robust multi-cultural reality, with a million fault-lines, is a different game altogether. This is partly why ‘big tent’ parties have had their limits. Politicians of every level have to contend with more parameters than his or her US counterpart can ever imagine. This kind of politics requires a grade of acumen, one-upmanship, posturing and brinksmanship that more homogenuous societies cannot even start to fathom. If one imagines a video game form of politics with controls, knobs and joysticks thrown in for all the possible parameters, the typical US presidential candidate might not even be able to figure out the function of all the controls. In such a contest, Laloo Prasad would bodyslam George Bush every single time. Add to this the explicit role of armed violence in politics, and also the management of violent partisans. The subcontinental scene is filled with such proto-generalissimos and cunning politicians rolled into one. In the United States, explicit and large-scale political murders in the domestic scene, is more or less a thing of the past. The difference partly comes from a electorate whose concerns have moved somewhat beyond life and death, to starve or to eat, to be killed or not. Questions of the latter kind inject a kind of viciousness to the political competition that finds expression in murder of political opponents and a serious democratic deficit. A  person who vociferously opposes or heckles Barack Obama or Mitt Romney can be booed and firmly pounced upon by ‘security’. There might be background checks. However, if someone does that to Mamata Banerjee, Biman Bose or Uma Bharti in a rally, depending on the locality, one can get into serious trouble. So much so that hardly any sane person who is alone ever opposes or challenges such politicians in public.

Most of the top-level ‘new’ generation leaders who have emerged in the subcontinent are sons and daughters of established politicians. This has led to the political system that increasingly looks like a multi-tiered dynastic oligarchy, with enough stakeholders spread in the various layers of the system to give it a pretense of the popular.

The US presidency retains a monarchical imprint and I do not mean the ornamental kind. Legend has it that the first US president, George Washington, was even asked to become king. It was possibly an apocryphal story but you get the drift – templates out of which it the presidency is partly moulded. This includes being an over-arching commader- in chief. That is why female aspirants to the US presidency like Clinton had to be appear tougher than the toughest to allay any doubts.

Neither in the US or or in the subcontinent does one need a majority of the votes to win an election. For the US election, the Electoral College system allows even for the minority candidate to win if the numbers so stack up. And it has happened as recently as 2000 when George Bush won the presidency with Al Gore winning more votes nationwide. However, an implication of a first-past the post system as it exists in US Congress and Senate elections and in the subcontinent at all levels is more ominous for a multi-party democracy. Due to the absence of proportional representation, shallow pluralities spread tactically can return commanding majorities. Democracy and decentralization means nothing when one can achieve majorities with about 1/3 rd support, as in the Indian union. Devolution means asking the powerful to legislate the relaxation of power from their own hands. Such debates are there in the US too, on the issue of 3rd partiesand on state rights versus central rights. The states in the USA, though more homogenous, have lots of power and autonomy, In the Indian Union, the states are alm-seekers during the day, cash-cows at night.

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No closure in sight: the US Republican primaries

[IPA – March 29, 2012; Echo of India, April 1 2012]

In the United States, the presidential candidates are chosen through a far more democratic process than the one we follow in India. In India, the political parties and their bosses unilaterally announce candidates and force them on the people. The problem of a deep democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that most of the major political groups are ancestral parties. The organizational elections are either stage managed or worse still, the panels ‘announced’ by the incumbent cabal (generally a family or a group of powerfuls) go uncontested. The US system is radically different in some ways. Large numbers of people vote in what are called ‘primaries’ – which are designed to choose a party candidate for the general election against adversaries from other parties. Very few primaries go uncontested, ensure a say of the party loyalists and supporters in party affairs, candidates and directions directly.

The US is now in the middle of the primaries for the Republican nomination. This primary would throw up the person who would challenge the obvious Democratic Party candidate and incumbent president Barrack Obama for the US Presidency in late 2012. Starting with a much larger set of competitors, only four candidates now remain in the race – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with Mitt Romney leading the pack having come first in nearly 2/3 rd of the primaries that have happened in different states. Generally, the nomination is grabbed by this time, but that has not happened this year, giving Republican Party loyalists and supporters a lot to be concerned. Why this concern with the primary process dragging on till the Republican party convention in Tampa Bay, Florida in the last week of August. The character of a primary can be very different from the general election. In the primaries, the typical voter is more often the party loyalist, or the ‘base’ or ‘core constituents’ of a party. The message and the rhetoric that is employed by candidates to win primaries are naturally tailored towards the party faithful – such messages may not work on the general populace and would generally backfire. The more a primary process drags on, going on from one to another, more internecine bad blood if spilt by the candidates within the same party, thus weakening each other and also providing useful fodder and attack points by contenders from Democratic party, come general election time. The longer this process is, the less time the winning Republican nominee will have to substantially modify his message for a wider electorate. This system of speaking from a certain ideological slant and tone during the primaries and then after having won the nomination, changing the message to pragmatism is at its core nothing but cynical manipulation. It is precisely this that a major section of the Republican primary voters have not come to terms with this time and hence the primary is still on.

Mitt Romney, the most ‘moderate’ among the Republican candidates is the front-runner. A corporate animal, Romney has outspent his opponents many times over. This means, his face is seen in TV advertisements, his glossy campaign material is seen stuffed in letter boxes all over the country, much more than other candidates. While this visibility has translated into a kind of reluctant acceptability, an important part of the Republican base, namely the Christian conservative segment has not warmed up to his candidature. This segment, nurtured by Barry Goldwater’s insurgent campaign decades ago, is now a major force that has played a very important part in the agenda setting and campaign platform positioning in this election cycle. There is a view that Romney is simply a career politician, one of those slithery one without principle who whose conservatism on display during the primaries is largely false. That Romney is also a Mormon, a very non-mainstream Christian sect, much like the Ahmadiyya sect in the Muslim world, does not really help him, in general. This segment and some other have been desperately seeking an alternative to him, the ‘anti-Romney’, so to say. First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, even Newt Gingrich, but now it seems to have coalesced around Rick Santorum whose Christian conservative credentials are impeccable. That is largely why even after being outspent by Mitt Romney by huge amounts of money, Rick Santorum has won state after state in what is called the ‘Bible belt’ in the deep south of the United States, at times by very large margins, as in Lousiana and Kansas. There are increasing calls for the other 2 candidates – Gingrich and Paul to bow out – calls that they have not heeded till now.

It can be assumed that Mitt Romney will be the eventual nominee, after a little more intra-clan warfare among the Republicans. At the same time, the Democratic candidate, Barrack Obama, supported by both large corporate donations and shallow pocket party loyalists has amassed a war chest of 172 million US Dollars, as of February. This amount is 12 times the cash on hand as Mitt Romney at the same time. Though certain large Republican funders are holding off till the nominee is clear, it is not easy to close such a gap. Unless Republican Politican Action Committees (PACs) get into serious fundraising, the half-black Goliath will trounce all white David come November. The anti-immigrant posturing by most Republican candidates, including Romney, will only hurt them, as the Hispanic-Latino (persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American ethno-cultural origin) vote becomes more crucial than ever before.

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