Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Talking Politics

And here we are, all different nationalities, talking politics over pots of coffee. I jump at the opportunity to find out how they view their worlds. I start with the Indian. "I'm for capitalism" she says, "but I believe a developing country like India needs a degree of socialism. I'm very against anything- or anyone- who encourages communalism." The conversation moves to Kashmir. "I like Musharraf's four-point plan. But can he deliver? I'm sceptical. And I don't think I trust Pakistan enough to move troops away." About the civilian nuclear deal with the US, "I'm no expert, but international collaboration is needed if we want to meet our energy needs. But I thought Pakistan was very smart when it protested a regional imbalance would be created if the US did not make a similar deal with it."

The Pakistani smiles, "I'm not affiliated with any particular party either. I believe in free markets but also universal primary education. But most strongly, I am against the army rule. Even the good, like the women's bill, has not been done properly and makes it unstable once Musharraf leaves." She feels more optimistic about Kashmir. "Economic stability with India is in the army's interest, and people are sick of this bickering. I hope he garners support for it because I feel it will sideline the fundamentalists. Let's see." We hit upon Iran and she says, "It has a right to develop nuclear weapons, and I'm quite sure Pakistan won't back a war against Iran. And don't forget, the Iran-India-Pakistan pipeline is very important; we have growing energy needs and need this cheap supply!"

My Iranian friend begins with his political affiliations, a question I have put to all. "Anything that is anti-government and pro-democracy. Young people, seventy per cent of the population, have no opportunities. Unless you agree with the government, you can't climb the ladder", he explains passionately, "I believe in equality for the masses as socialism dictates." We speak about the turmoil in the Middle East. "Iran puts more money into Iraq than Syria because it desperately wants another fundamental Shiite state in the region as its ally. If you get rid of the Iranian regime, you will end most of the terrorism in Iraq," he tells me, "and even if the US pulls out soon, it's definitely going to get worse before it gets better."

My Lebanese friend offers another perspective. "I am a Lebanese liberal orthodox Christian- in that very order. We are yet to find two people that can agree about what it means to be Lebanese. Saying no to foreign influence, for example, does it include Syria and Iran? See?" as I nod along. Like others, he has accepted the fate of Iraq with a resigned sigh. "An all out civil war in Iraq will bring Syria and Iran even closer because Syria doesn't support the Sunnis at all." I ask about the Beirut Rally. "Well, last year Hassan Nasrallah said that Iran is no Ukraine, that rallies can't change governments. But at his Beirut Rally, the rhetoric was despicable and there were personal insults made to religious leaders. Nasrallah keeps saying that Hizbollah would never take up arms against its own people. Doesn't he realise this is just as dangerous?"

I shift my focus to the Palestinian. "Alright, if I had to be affiliated to a party it would be the Fateh party because they are secular and believe in negotiation. But I am adamant in backing the current government." I ask him what he thinks of Syria and Lebanon's relationship. "Many believe they should be one country, and Syrian presence in Lebanon is very high and they are suspected to be involved in many assassination plots. But till today there are no formal diplomatic channels between the two countries. And now opposition against Hizbollah in Lebanon is increasing after the unexpected war with Israel this summer that ended in the destruction of Beirut." And what about Syria's connection with Hizbollah, I ask. "Syria is socialist and does not agree with Hizbollah's ideology but supports it: Hizbollah is more enthusiastic about fighting Israel than Syria, and because it is not a state, Hizbollah can use guerilla tactics. Both oppose western backed systems. Basically, the enemy of my enemy is my friend." He shrugs it off US talks with Iran and Syria over Iraq. "They should have done this sooner because their earlier isolation by the US was not beneficial for the region."

I turn to the American. "I'm a moderate leaning liberal; no party affiliation." he clarifies, "And I really think we should stop messing in foreign affairs so much." I point to Bolton leaving the UN and Baker joining. "Yes, the return of the pragmatists is welcome. In any case, I think a quick withdrawal from Iraq is needed. Let's shift the responsibility to the Iraqi government." About the nuclear deal with India, he chuckles, "I'm not terribly concerned about that one. I think the US is doing it to counterweight China's growing importance! We should look at more options in Asia but our oil addiction keeps our focus on the Middle East."

We look at each other. Next time, more countries.


Also at: http://www.expressindia.com/blogs/showblogdetails.php?contentid=19490

Community in Space

Another one from the Indian Express: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/19421.html

A community in space

Bloggers in India may be turning into a self-conscious and coherent force. They are banding together for social causes. But the shadow of censorship still hovers


This year saw the baby bloggers growing up. After the Indian government’s ban of blogger.com in July, many bloggers who had till then been lost in a sea of websites, banded together to try to fix this problem. Within a week there was an online group created on google, and about 500 bloggers were active on the forum. Many made RTI applications to the government. Others posted helpful proxy server addresses so that people could access their blogs once again. And suddenly everyone seemed to be talking about them. The mainstream media noticed this frenzied activity on the Internet and censorship became the buzzword of the summer. The ban was lifted, but a movement had been created. Most bloggers now look back at the ban as a good thing — because it gave them a coherent voice. But they are still concerned about the government keeping tabs on them.

For the uninitiated, blogs are personal spaces on the Internet. They are small websites where an individual can write about any subject under the sun, post pictures or use as a platform to collect information. “It is a social medium” says Dina Mehta of Conversations with Dina, “And I think the mainstream media did not quite understand it. It is community based. You build relationships with other bloggers as you leave comments on each other’s blogs, and that helps you improve. It is a self-correcting medium and so the good ones become popular and the bad ones left behind.” In fact, many from the blogging community in India have banded together in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi to meet face-to-face. This October there was a Bloggers ‘Unconference’ in Chennai and Delhi Bloggers Meet (DBM) started in 2004. A team from the BBC that covered DBM this year was impressed with the diverse blogs in India. Apart from personal blogs, they found numerous social-minded blogs, and moreover, bloggers who were leaving the anonymity of cyberspace to spread this social consciousness.

Many Indian bloggers became involved with a group called Global Voices, which is based out of Harvard Law School. It is a non-profit global citizen’s media project, which explores how the Internet can be used to build a more democratic, participatory global discourse. It tracks blogs from around the world and highlights some of the more interesting conversations (or posts) for its readers. It also wants to bring more unheard, ignored, or disadvantaged voices into the global online conversation, and this subject was discussed in great detail at its Delhi summit in December. Mehta explained, “The idea is to go into rural areas and set up a pilot project. We want to get the villagers to keep an online diary where they can talk about their lives. But we are still planning it out.”

A similar idea struck Sanjukta Basu, an active blogger, and with her friend Swagat Singh she started the ‘Bloggers Outreach Programme’. The idea was simple. “Mainstream media is limited whereas blogging is limitless. It is not an elite concept — and if we could just introduce people to it, teach them how to blog and encourage them to write about social problems etc. we could spread more awareness about issues.” She invited students and social workers and is happy with her first attempt. She is planning a series now, but also needs funding. “Blogging is a more effective medium that is coming up as an answer to the mainstream media and it is breaking the journalist’s privilege. People use blogs as an alternative to news media. In India it is not a substitute at all; because of their editorial slants and distinct points of view, they appeal to people.” And she is right. Most people, after finding out the news, seek blogs to read an analysis.

However, at the close of 2006, blogging still remains largely in the hands of the tech-savvy. MSN surveyed a random sample of Indian bloggers — official numbers in India are not known — and found that 85 per cent of them were under thirty-five. The majority used blogs as a medium for self expression, while the others for entertainment. Personal blogs are the rage with the younger generation. And if you thought there was no money in blogging, consider this — a Delhi journalist who kept a blog about her life became so popular that its fame spread across India and Penguin offered her a book deal! However, the more serious bloggers have been putting their heads together to try and understand how the phenomenon is developing in India. Questions at DBM up for research ranged from ‘personality of the blogger vs personality of the blog’ to ‘translating blogs from regional languages to English’ and ‘comparing the Indian and Pakistani blogosphere’.

But one question, that of censorship, still hovers above everyone’s computer. Reporters Beyond Borders credits India with more media outlets than any other country in the world, but it also criticises the government for regulating online activity with disregard to individual liberties. While it attempts to tackle cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism, the rights of the Internet user suffers. But as this year has shown, a blow to the blogger is a blow to not just self expression but a new form of social activism. And a free, democratic country like India cannot afford to hold back the not-so-baby bloggers again.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

test this

I’m like the kid in the room, with an alice band in my hair (apparently the cool kids call it a head band, but I insist) perched on a desk with my legs swinging, as my editor discusses the edits for the next day. Andra Pradesh just called for compulsory HIV testing before marriage and everyone seems to agree that this is a violation of individual rights. As does the Express.

Which is really ironic. Yesterday I was reading about it and started browsing through comments left in the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ section. One of them really struck a nerve. Most of the people who objected were from the US, Canada and other Western countries. And their objection was pretty much limited to the fact that they assumed the government was frowning on people’s sex lives. One poster from this side of the planet pointed out, rightly, that HIV was an enormous issue in India and since most weddings are arranged and women have no control over their husbands sex lives, this is one way of ensuring they won’t contract AIDS right off the bat.

But health issues aside there is another question. Now the state wants to make sure that in 2007 there are no babies born with HIV. Which begs a serious question -- If found to be positive, what happens? Does the state now have the right to stop you from getting married? This is even a larger violation of privacy than the HIV test, which I think is a good idea- [when you apply for your marriage license, hand in your blood test results] – but the question de jour then becomes: what can (and cannot) the government do with this information?

Biases, stigma, prejudice, discrimination; we’re all too familiar with these realities. If medical records were easily available things would be very different. Perhaps there would have been no partition if we all knew Jinnah wasn’t going to last long, but I digress. The objection being raised in some quarters is that the state should not order this mandatory test, ‘its too big brother’, but some health authorities should. And what about the fact that when tested positive (and if this is known publicly) this will lead to social isolation- one of the main obstacles this disease has faced since the beginning?

A very interesting argument, which supported what I think, offered this comparison: Making this test compulsory is the same as making vaccination compulsory for children. In the end, if this is a matter of personal choice, it means that the nation does not have a fundamental right to defend itself against plague (or what have you). So even if I know a disease is on the rampage, it is MY choice not to take any preventive measures and thereby risk not only contracting it, but also spreading it. What is your reaction?

I find it fairly interesting that while I am very open-minded about personal choices, I tend to be big on social responsibility. Maybe it is because I'm the kid in the room and haven't taken my blinders off. So let me try -- the real question is this: what is the real implication of such a test? The authority that has these results in its hand, in this case the state government, can one trust it enough to be sure this won’t be the beginning of a HIV-cleansing (if you will). But if we are being hypothetical, then why not consider that the mere existence of this test might encourage younger people- even married couples (if its made compulsory every couple of years) to behave responsibly. Because ultimately, for the most part this is a behavioral disease and with adequate pre caution, can be totally avoided.

So, if we look at the conduct of everyone else who performs a job, why not at the citizens? It’s in our countries best interest to remain as healthy as possible. Somehow the larger picture constantly eludes us.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Catch them young, watch them grow ;)

Latest one printed by the Indian Express (if you want to access it directly, here you go: http://www.indianexpress.com/story/18418.html )

'These Questions of our Age'

Seventy per cent of India’s population is under 35 years of age. Only three per cent of the 14th Lok Sabha (constituted in May 2004) falls in that demographic. (Manvendra Singh and Rahul Gandhi have passed the 35-year mark.) Inevitable questions spring to mind. Who are they? How do they perform?

Five of the 16 MPs belong to the Congress, all from political families. They are all well-educated with substantial financial backing, and the public has high expectations of their performance as parliamentarians. Lok Sabha archives reveal that Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora lead with 237 and 159 questions respectively. The others lag behind. Jitin Prasad has six questions to his credit, Deepinder Singh Hooda has three and Sachin Pilot has none.

In contrast, the BJP has only one candidate who perpetuates political dynasty: Dushyant Singh, MP from Jhalawar, Rajasthan. He has tabled 407 questions in Parliament. Of the others, Adityanath Yogi of Gorakhpur, UP, is perhaps the most politically astute. His call for dwelling places for rickshaw drivers and employment for those evicted from government lands, which they had encroached on, has stood him in good stead with the common people. He openly seeks votes in the name of Hindutva, going so far as to publicly declare, “I want Muslim votes too, but wash them in Gangajal first.” Yogi has asked 90 questions in the Lok Sabha. The MP from Ganganagar, Nihal Chand Chauhan has asked 44 questions on various subjects, while Khiren Rijiju, who is worried about of a separatist movement starting in Tawang, which is part of his constituency, has 72 questions to his credit.

The Samajwadi Party has two political heirs: Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh, who has asked 15 questions, and nephew, Dharmendra, who has asked none.

The BSP’s Mohammad Tahir Khan, from Sultanpur, UP, had opposed the Delimitation Commission’s proposal to eliminate the Sultanpur Lok Sabha Constituency and suggested instead that Amethi be purged, earning the wrath of the Congress, in September 2006. Khan wants to concentrate on poverty elimination and has raised issues 256 times in Parliament. The BSP’s other young parliamentarian, Ashok Kumar Rawat from Misrikh, UP, seems to have his focus set on the welfare of SC/STs and has tabled 229 questions in the House.

Finally, there are only three women on the list. Susmita Bauri’s entry into the Lok Sabha (from Vishnupur, UP) represents for the first time the CPI(M) joining the dynastic bandwagon, as they needed a dalit woman to fill her mother’s seat. She has raised 11 questions so far. Ranjeet Ranjan of Sahasra, Bihar, of the LJSP, has 15 questions on record. Radhika Selvi of Tiruchendur, Tamil Nadu, was absorbed into politics by the DMK after her husband was shot dead. She banks on the sympathy vote, not on debate regarding core issues in the state. She has asked three questions.

These facts reveal much about the emerging face of our democracy. First, that not all our elected leaders are actually active in the Lok Sabha. Coming from a political family does not necessarily translate into being politically active, even if that gives an inherent comparative advantage. While parties are certainly free to groom dynasties, ideally this ought not to be done at the expense of other competent entrants. Second, that almost half the MPs in our list belong to the SC/ST/OBC categories indicating a healthy representation of those communities. Third, that expediency should not be the main reason for parties to put up women candidates. Fourth, that there is only one Muslim in the list.

Thus the composition of this list suggests that political parties do not do at the ground level what they fight for at the national level — consider, for instance, the low representation of women and Muslims.

In the final analysis, it is we, the people, who are responsible for choosing who will represent us in Parliament. As such, we must be mindful of our MPs’ performance both inside and out of Parliament. If it appears that they are non-performers or break the law, we should not grant them another term. Call it consumer consciousness, if you will. Our first time representatives must use these five years to learn and train themselves as parliamentarians and politicians. For us, the electorate, these years are the time to keep track of how the MPs develop. We get a chance only once in five years. Complacency will make us a captive audience in our own democracy.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Opinionated, Not So Anonymous

Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece two weeks ago which basically said that while the US has been busy with the Middle East, they have forgotten that Asia is THE place for economic business. And while they settle fights between the Sunnis and Shias in the backstreets of Baghdad there is opportunity lost. Basically his point was that things are happening all over the world but the US is way too pre-occupied with the Middle East. And just like the British lost their hold over the world because they got too caught up in colonial squabbles and didn’t see the larger picture, the US is at the same risk. Thomas Friedman makes the same point, but his argument is different. He says that America’s dependence on oil is the reason it is so inextricably linked to the Middle East, and unless it changes its energy needs- and develop alternate energy- it will go down with the region. Both valid points, and here’s what is of notice. Rhetoric concerning US involvement in Iraq has been gradually changing. Even the critics of the war could not go all out and cite all the reasons the US should not be there in the first place-- because they would be attacked by the Republicans as not supporting the troops. But slowly things are changing- the army itself is letting out information that Iraq is a total mess and the civil war is not going anywhere. And suddenly, views about why the US needs to get out of Iraq are getting smart. They are no longer about Bush and his incompetence- they are about what America is missing out on because it is there, be it economic opportunities with other countries or the need to focus on alternate energy fuels.

The thing about working for the editorial department of a newspaper is you start getting attuned to editorial positions. I don’t mean this in this insidious way, but most organizations (as we are well aware of) do have opinions about certain issues. That is reflected in the editorial of the paper- for example, Delhi sealing: IE thought it was a good idea. Oil prices going down (courtesy Murli Deora and Sonia Gandhi) IE thinks the market should set the price, not politicians. Because now if the price needs to go up, it will become a political problem. Yadayadayada.

All these positions make me question mine- I’m getting very impressed with Yechury and some of the ideas from the Left. But I’m not a Lefty yet (Boss- don’t worry, you know I’m a capitalist with socialist ideals). But I think taking a stand on issues is fantastic- and I’m able to make my own analysis now because I am actually in the political hub of the country [which makes this shift to India very successful so far].

But I think its good to remember what Keynes said--- I change my opinion when the facts change. What do you do sir?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Jazeera, Al-Jazeera

The channel brings another perspective on news which is both important and interesting

It is unfortunate that Al Jazeera English is not available as a channel in India. Although the existing news channels cover important international events and international news that relate directly to India, we miss out on analyses from an atypical point of view. Media are critical to understanding the internal mindset of different nations and people, which is impossible unless we have a broad spectrum of perspectives made available to us.

Since 9/11, the Arabic avatar of the channel has consistently ruffled the feathers of the American establishment. Al Jazeera’s alleged link to Osama bin Laden and its propensity to make ‘martyrs’ of suicide-bombers are just some of the controversial reasons which helped the channel emerge as an internationally recognised brand. The launch of its international channel, now globally available from the Middle East and Africa to Asia and Europe is a landmark event, because it has given the channel a footprint that is comparable with that of the BBC and CNN. Although it is banned in the US, it has managed to gain some acceptability in western circles by employing some well-known BBC and Sky News names, like David Frost and Riz Khan at its London headquarters.

Reviews of its initial programming were mixed. Some critics felt that it consistently chose to ignore developments in the West — like John McCain’s decision to enter the US presidential race. It focused instead on issues of concern to Africa and the Middle East — elections in the Congo, tribal welfare in Brazil, or the use of fairness creams in Africa!

And that is precisely the point. Al Jazeera’s focus is to offer viewers ‘all the news from all the angles’. The channel makes the point that to recognise what makes a nation tick, it is imperative to understand developments that are central to its life. In the Congo, for example, John McCain’s decision to enter the US presidential race is certainly not news. He doesn’t matter to people there, unless he wins.

Because Al Jazeera has multiple broadcast studios located around the world, its news menu alters from region to region: from Doha to Kuala Lumpur to Washington to London. The idea, of course, is that news in one part of the world does not have the same significance elsewhere.

As the global village becomes smaller, it is imperative to have a bird’s eye view of it; one that allows us to zoom in and to really listen in on what is going on. How well Al Jazeera’s experiment will pan out is yet to be determined. But one thing is sure — it should not be dismissed.

India should watch Al Jazeera more closely. It is now being increasingly understood that the only sound that is louder than a nation’s pulse is the pulse of an alternate world view.

http://www.indianexpress.com/story/17221.html

Monday, November 20, 2006

Cuba, by the way

I don't normally do stories from the vault.. but, here you go:

Old Havana was so much better than the tourist traps

It was just what we needed after a brutal winter in Montreal — a warm sea breeze, rum on the beach, and music wherever you went. I fell in love with Old Havana with its beautiful Spanish architecture. While the presence of the police on the beach was a constant reminder that we were in a communist country, for the most part we stayed oblivious, chatting with locals, building bonfires on the beach, haggling over prices of street art and, of course, cigars.

One day the four of us decided to drive down to Varadero, a city built for tourists. We had to pay a tax to drive in-a convenient mechanism to keep the locals out, and I was disappointed at what greeted us: a long road with big resorts on either side. There was absolutely no character, no music, but ATM machines aplenty!

I felt relieved that instead of this manufactured holiday, we had experienced the ‘real’ Cuba! After spending the day in the comfort of a luxury resort, jet-skiing and the like, we decided to drive back to Havana at about 3 am. Half an hour into the journey, a thunderstorm washed out the road and we could barely see the night! Not sure if we were even on the road, we steered on until we found the light of a cafe in the distance. The locals were stranded much like us, and because my friend Ivan spoke Spanish, we spent a great evening laughing with them, finding out about their lives. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped — as torrential downpours often do!

We got home by sunrise, and went to Havana to have an early breakfast at a popular local restaurant. Women arrived to buy freshly baked bread, and Varadero and its shiny buildings seemed like a bad dream!

The last day turned out to be cloudy and the beach was closed with a red flag. A few of us made our way down there despite the lack of sunshine. I’m not sure how, but Ivan almost magically found a band of local singers to serenade us. Authentic, yes! Comparable to high-end resorts? No, actually, they don’t compare!



http://www.indianexpress.com/story/16921.html

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

drumrolls please, we have a build-up...

*

The last thing I read before I went to sleep was a chapter from the book ‘Shantaram’. He was told- a dream is the place where a wish and fear meet, and a nightmare is when they are the same thing. Interesting, I thought, as I fell asleep.

Well, I had a nightmare, followed by a dream. And let me tell you, when I woke up, I was completely speechless. It made sense, what I’d read. I love dream analyses, I keep an irregular dream diary- but this, THIS- this, was absolutely fascinating. A wish and a fear.

*

A waking nightmare is a whole different ballgame, and as I watched this tragedy unfold in Kashmir on my television, I wondered how it is that I was born into what I believe is a post-materialist generation, while my fellow Kashmiri’s in the state will not understand that concept for generations to come.

Ghulam Nabi Mir hurled a bomb at worshippers at Tahab. He was paid 1000 rupees for the job. He claims the Hizbul Mujahideen paid him, the Army seconds his account, although the militant outfit denies involvement, saying they would never jeopardize their freedom struggle by throwing a bomb in their own stronghold- Hizb’s south Kashmir base.

You know what struck me as the police [army?] questioned him as to why he did it [the camera’s were there]- that he mentioned he had been paid a thousand rupees, (besides the death threats), and he did not realize what a meager amount it was, despite the questioners surprise as well.

‘ONLY a thousand?’

Five people died. That’s the number of an average family. So this is how much life in Kashmir is worth?

It speaks volumes about the poverty and desperation in the region.

At work, I was asked today if I had an opinion on the joint Indo- Pak terror deal. Do I? It’s all well and good to sign a deal, but what is the guarantee that it will work? Do we trust each other to be honest? Will we share information? Will they share information?

Brief re-cap for those joining us now: Especially in the Indian controlled region of Kashmir, intensified insurgency and the presence of the Indian army (for safety measures) has led to an unbearable state of affairs. Bombs, terrorist attacks and more bombs have kept the region from functioning normally- and people like Ghulam Nabi Mir at having the chance for a ‘real’ life. Although we had our problems since partition, after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, Afghani Mujahideen fighters infiltrated the state making things worse. Along with the separatists who wage war to free Kashmir from the clutches of India, this makes for a terse situation.

Now, for the longest time, India has insisted that Pakistan is behind the terrorists. Pakistan toned down their involvement by calling the separatists ‘freedom fighters’ and lamely admitted that they were sure there was cross border terrorism, but somehow avoiding responsibility for it.

Manmohan Singh called India and Pakistan both ‘victims of terrorism’ in Havana. Really? We are victims of cross border terrorism while they set up state sponsored training camps under the ISI which perhaps have a life of their own. To equate the two is wrong, but perhaps he was trying to extend an olive branch and lay the foundation for a peaceful future.

I thought to myself today, why would Pakistan want to sign this deal? After 9/11 Musharraf certainly tried to disassociate himself from the terror groups, and the Lashkar and Jaish were banned. [We know they do exist, just under different names.] Now, this move by him was certainly clever given the international suspicion regarding Islam- and especially Islamic fanaticism- but is it a path he can hope to stay on?

[If you watched Jon Stewart’s interview with the General on the Daily Show, he does admit that when the US asked them if they were with the Allies or not, he thought about the best way out, and took it. When the situation does not apply, will the strategy change?]

A view I’d read on the Internet argued that while Pakistan remains an Islamic state, how will it turn its back towards the Islamic extremism successfully? Is the extremism coming from Afghanistan as they claim or vice-versa as Karzai would?

G. Parthasarthy, former Ambassador, has a bleak view of this new joint venture and calls it a trap. It is a mistake to move away from internationalizing the issue, and now if India were to complain about another Pakistan sponsored attack, we will be told to discuss it in our new forum. The questions that need to be clearly answered before we can trust our neighbors are straightforward: do they still continue to use terrorism to reach their foreign policy goals?

But a differing view was offered by a Professor at Jamia Milia, Radha Kumar, who said the fact that Pakistan had even begun to admit that ex-Lashkar operatives do exist instead of hotly denying their existence altogether is progress; and this platform will make it easier for the rule of law to apply.

Personally, I have so many dear Pakistani friends that at times I find it next to impossible to believe that we should not trust them. But personal friendships forged in Montreal are very different from matters of national security. Personal friendships did not make Ghulam Nabi Mir’s life less desperate.

There is much to gain for both countries if we could normalize relations, but to do that the one unanswerable question of Kashmir needs to be answered. Ask yourself this then: if we move away from Siachen, will the Pakistan army try and re-capture it? Can you say no for sure? Ay, there’s the rub!

*

Jawaharlal Nehru said the only alternative to coexistence is co-destruction. If only hopes and fears meet to resolve themselves. If they turn out to be the same thing, we may never wake up from this nightmare.

*

Sunday, November 12, 2006

police the police: i'll be watching YOU

And what a welcome home it was!

It seemed to me that the city was on fire. On one hand, activists forced the courts to re-examine the Priyadarshini Mattoo & Jessica Lall cases, and on the other, the sealing drives pitted the traders against the government, causing havoc in the city.

This is why I came home.

While talking to Kundan, he pointed out that for every Jessica Lall case there are tons still waiting for court dates. Yes, I said, but the ones that are getting attention are Delhi based cases, and because of the activist mechanism in place- compounded by media attention, it’s a start. And smaller cities can follow this example. Look at the Dalit murder case- it’s because the people have objected that the police are launching an investigation and now the Chief Minister expects some results in a month.

But, the real problem we face is trickier. No, it’s not an over-zealous media that seems to try criminals and deem the innocent/guilty (yes, Manu Sharma should have a fair trial; I didn’t think he would get it, but I have to admit, Ram Jethmalani certainly has my attention. His theory that someone else shot her because of reasons other than the fact that she refused to serve alcohol—is intriguing. I want to see what evidence he has.) No, it’s not even the judiciary per se- (and yes, the move to make the judges more accountable is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be since the judiciary wants to remain independent and will not allow the legislature to judge it). No, what is worrying me is the state of the police. The guardians of truth, justice, honor (yadayadayada)- and how scary it is that we can totally not depend on them.

First, this is for all of you who may not have come across this very troubling incident in the news. So there was an exam to enter the police, which the 17,000 odd applicants found rather tough. In protest they started rioting- destroyed shops, assaulted women, generally behaved like the sort of hooligans that need to be locked up by the police. Ah, the irony.

On top of that, even in the Dalit murder case- and this is one of many in the country- the police did squat to register a complaint or carry out an investigation till there was uproar amongst the people. On a smaller scale, we have all experienced it, the always bribable traffic cop.

The general lack of faith in the police is troubling me- or rather, the general lack of performance by them. When they need to be efficient, they certainly are. So what it seems to boil down to is that ordinary people who do not have the benefit of the media spotlight or a powerful relative/friends can find police co-operation and efficiency an arduous task.

Let me explain. When a crime is committed and one goes to the police in India, they determine if an incident has taken place. In the case of cognizable crimes (capable of being known as is the dictionary definition) the police are allowed to arrest without a warrant- this happens for theft, burglaries and the like. Now, according to the law the police have to take down a FIR (First Information Report) that is accepted by the law without question. The theory behind it is this: when the police are told of a crime, they do not have any prior information so the statement stands and if the person changes his/her story later, they can be accountable for changing it. Now, a lot of times the police wait to see the scene of the crime, question other people and the like so that the FIR has as much information as possible—however, this is not really what the law envisioned. But, on the flip side, sometimes the police don’t even write a FIR unless they are bribed or forced. This can make it very trying and very difficult for the regular citizen who does not have clout to have faith in the police. For example, as mentioned, this was what happened with the recent Dailt murder case in Nagpur. The police only started to investigate the crime after there were mass protests. It figures, a Dalit family would need a mass based support to get any iota of justice.

It’s the same when it comes to checking corruption within the government- because most Public Service Units have their own Vigilance Commissions that keep a check on the activities. However, this is tricky because to register a complaint, one needs to go through a bureaucratic process, and not surprisingly, many of those in the hot seat look after their own, especially with a little incentive. The CBI does step in to expose many crimes, but they do have a limit on how many investigations they can handle.

So while the media allows power to the people, even more today because of the mushrooming channels that take up causes, the police has not yet stepped up its game. And with the possible inclusion of those horrible hopefuls who went rioting and raping because their entrance exam was too tough- the future appears bleak.

But bringing out these injustices in the open is the only way to change things. The RTI (Right to Information) Act has helped many people find justice because when you demand an official answer to why the law was not carried out, authorities have found it easier to perform their jobs instead of making excuses about it.

The law is on our side. Enforcing it is a whole different ballgame. And we must regain the right to be protected fairly and equally. Its time to take back the night.


SIDENOTE:

‘Dantedownunder’, a fellow blogger, asked me what I plan to do with opinions. It’s a question I have often asked myself. Will participating in a rally make more of a difference than my rants (although, I hope my writing is not construed as ranting) on this blog. Now that I am joining the editorial department of the Indian Express, I know a larger audience means larger responsibility. But as they say the pen is mightier than the sword, and I hope this writing leads to bigger and better things in the future.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

"the line is a dot to you!!"

‘The market decrees that the scarcer something is, the more expensive it becomes. But there is a difference between valuing water and putting a market value on it. No one values water more than the village woman who has to walk miles to fetch it. And no one values it less than urban folk who pay for it to watch it flow endlessly at the turn of a tap.’

A friend sent me this paragraph during an MSN conversation, and I haven’t been able to get Arundhati Roy’s words out of my head. The differing values we ascribe to.

My thoughts returned to it when I read that the US military has a law which allows ‘psychological warfare’; and so planting US success stories in the Iraqi media to disillusion the Iraqis was perfectly legal. Republicans called for an apology from John Kerry who brought up the issue in the past, claiming it was immoral to do so and asked how the Bush government could sanction it. So, let me get this clear: Now that it IS legal, outrage is unnecessary? Sometimes laws DO need to be changed, and your instinct might tell you which direction you should be going.

But let me return to India- the mother country; where I have returned to understand it better. No longer the quasi NRI that I have been living as, I am back in Delhi, doing the Delhi things; living the Delhi life. During a conversation with a friend who restores vintage cars, I asked him how much he pays he workers. He said his head mechanic makes 10,000 rupees a month. Is that a lot, I asked him, because I know that is about the starting salary of a HT city journalist? Of course to a large extent, the HT city journalist is probably still living at home and using this starting salary as pocket money, while for the head mechanic, the 10,000 rupees goes a long way in maintaining a family.

Now allow me to harp back to the concept of democracy for a moment. I’ve been reading Shashi Tharoor’s book ‘The Great Indian Novel’ and through the voice of the narrator, VV, Tharoor raises some interesting questions. One of those is the reign of Priya Duryodhani [alias for Indira Gandhi]. The picture he paints is not pretty; perhaps the most horrifying sequence comes to us in the form a dream where Priya Duryodhani and her trusted advisor Shakuni decide to play Yudhishtir at a game of dice (fixed of course) and she watches in glee as Shakuni attempts to disrobe Draupadi in vein. If Draupadi serves as a metaphor for democracy, then her attempted rape for the sake of political victory is enough to condemn our erstwhile Prime Ministers as one of the vilest villains in history. Of course, this is merely a dream, and VV does accept that some good came out of the Emergency although Indian democracy took a severe hit. Now, the question that is raised is this: while democracy was restored and perhaps the Emergency forced a now complacent Indian population to actually use the democratic tools they sweat blood for, can the subversion of democracy really be that easy?

I have to allude to Star Wars at this point. In all the talk about Jedis, the Force and Yoda, one can forget that it is a chilling story about how the Chancellor Lord Palpetine hijacks the Republic by creating a false threat which forces the Senate to bestow him with emergency powers, which he never returns, until his protégé kills him. [Of course this is where the story differs from our own, because Mrs. Gandhi willingly called for fresh elections, although she grossly miscalculated how well the Emergency had gone down with the public]. The lesson in it is that the value we prescribe to things- water, morals, democracy and the like are relative. In a beautiful scene in the movie, Padme watches the Senate hand over emergency powers to the Chancellor who she knows will only use them to his own end and not the greater good, and remarks ‘So this is how democracy dies… with thunderous applause’.

And now here we are, tackling domestic violence. Women can now be protected from their husbands and live-in partners from actual or threatened physical, emotional, economic and sexual abuse. A step in the right direction, certainly. However, perhaps forms of abuse need to be defined closely because this new law is ripe for more and more problems cropping up and enforcing agencies will have a field day with it, as suggested by many including Soli Sorabjee in the Indian Express. On the other hand, and as predictable a development as any, you can see the panic setting in with the male populace who are scared their wives and girlfriends may take them to court for quasi-abuse, or no abuse at all. When it comes to domestic violence, most women don’t even own up to it, law or no law. On top of that, abuse can come for many reasons; bad mood, bad food, crying children, the women went out without permission; you name it, you have it. So qualifying it may serve as a problem. What goes in one relationship can be completely horrific in another. Again, it’s the value you ascribe to certain things, and drawing boundaries can be an impossible task.

So let me end with a quote that sums it up for me: here’s Aristotle who studied under Plato and taught Alexander the Great-

‘We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly’.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

quality v/s quantity

I enjoy watching panelists debating on television. The news is one thing, but opinion about the news is what puts things into perspective: especially when there is a diversity of opinion. Now, when the discussion is side-tracked by pundits trying to build a name for themselves instead of actually discussing the matter at hand, well, intelligent debate takes a hit.

What is even more worrying is that pundits that seem to be crawling out of the woodwork are very media- savvy and know how to build their profile. In a recent Wall Street Journal article that discussed the issue, the main theme was that those who took rigid stands on issues and did not give into the ‘On the one hand, but on the other hand’ mode of operating, were the ones who were booked for more appearances. Personally, I was offended when I read this: “In the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear test, a hawkish Ms. Schlussel hit the radio circuit, saying U.S. officials responded too mildly in calling the test "a provocative act." "A Paris Hilton video is a provocative act," she said. "What North Korea did was an act of war." To get noticed, Ms. Schlussel says, "I've become the master of the confrontational sound bite."”

What is journalism? It is a discipline of collecting, verifying, reporting and analyzing information gathered regarding current events, including trends, issues and people. But this is a step beyond journalism, because unlike journalists who can be held responsible for providing wrong news, pundits can shoot off whatever they want, louder and louder, in hopes that someone hears them.

Now, if there is anything I learned from the much (and rightly) maligned Fox News, it’s this: the more you provoke and infuriate people by being confrontational, the more they react to you. But you win because your ratings go up and more people tune in because it IS entertainment (or infotainment). But on the other hand the ones who research the matter and debate candidly, those are the ones that stand the test of time. Jon Stewart was absolutely correct when he slammed punditry when he said that these people were simply into the theatre of debate, and he did not believe that they made honest arguments. For those in the know, perhaps, the fact that it is political theatre seems exciting. But I can’t help but wonder, how can you want to be famous for being intelligent when you are earning your name as someone who simply follows a strategy of the controversial sound-byte?

The need to be famous is fairly interesting. While fame was restricted to achievers in the past; actors, sports people, statesmen and the like, today with a plethora of media channels available, more people are needed to fill in that space. It is a democracy after all. But when you see clearly manipulative people giving their faux opinion on a news show- you wonder if fame doesn’t need to have some quality control. Sadly, the Ann Coulters & Bill O Reilly’s of the world have made it ok for people to behave badly and be rewarded for it. The louder they are, the more they 'win' an arguement because they drown out other voices, the more shows they are booked for. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. It’s totally in the realm of possibility and probability that high-pitched screaming will pave the way for producers booking guests who can actually debate. We already lost ‘Crossfire’[CNN]- perhaps the formula that pre supposes confrontation will have to change; after all, there is nothing as constant as change itself. Tired formats and pseudo celebrities will outlive their purpose, but in the meantime, one can only hope for a discerning audience who understands what to listen to- and who to ignore. Well, here’s hoping!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Little Kim, Big Bomb

Ah, you can trust Fox News to delve into an issue, and make a complete mockery out of it. You can trust it for asking questions to which it does not want to hear answers- because the questions are just statements of fact disguised with a '?' at the end. No, no, I'm not talking of the Clinton-Wallace interview [which was great TV by the way, see it on youtube if you haven't] but of the latest headline I saw from Fox---- WILL THE NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR THREATS HELP THE REPUBLICANS IN NOVEMBER?

I hope I don't need to explain my problem here.

Alright, to the meat of the matter. I know what America is going to do under Bush, I'm pretty sure screwing everything up is part of the plan. But more importantly, what does this mean? What is China and Japan's role and reaction in the matter- being neighbours- and what is India's position?

Mr Blair has been nice enough to point out there are no parallels between the N-tests in North Korea and India. Manmohan Singh that this test increased the "danger of clandestine proliferation" which actually brings me back to my old friend, Mr Ahmadinejab of Iran. Remember him? Iran and North Korea have been keeping an eye on eachother, and the reaction of the international community with regards to this latest development will have major repurcussions for world affairs. B. Raman has rightly pointed out that Iran will look for a mild protest in hope and Israel with concern. He writes (and I quote): North Korea's nuclear test has proved the limits of the much-vaunted Chinese and Russian influence on Pyongyang. It has also shown the incapability of Japan and South Korea to act decisively. Condemnations such as "brazen defiance", "unacceptable" etc are not going to have any impact on Pyongyang. Nor will economic sanctions alone.

Yes, well lets talk about that. Kim Jong II only warned Beijing 20 minutes before the test. Now considering this is a nuclear bomb that will effectively change the landscape, water, air of the entire area, that was rather polite of him. But, on a more serious note, it does show that North Korea and China have a fairly stable relationship. In 2005 their trade deal worth $1.5 billion made China its biggest trading partner. China was active in the arranging the six-party talks with North Korea and even extended an invitation to Kim Jong to see China- perhaps to show him he could develop along the same lines too. But now, what should China do? In the world, which sometimes I think of as a massive high school, America is clearly the alpha male, but China has maintained its position by non-interference in others affairs; it did not even condemn the missile tests that North Korea had last summer, but now it needs to think of its reaction viz-a-viz Japan's reaction. Not only that, but economic sanctions against North Korea could lead to an influx of starved refugees who would cross over to China. Will this move force Japan to militarilize? As a deterrant againt Kim Jong, would Japan want to build its own bomb?

And Israel must be getting worried. Iran is predictably estatic with this development, faulting western (read: American) actions that have forced countries to develop their own bombs. I bet Ahmadinejad will make this all about him. The nerve!

Now, the way I see it is this: the bomb represents many dilemmas all around the world. I can't pretend to know what Kim is thinking: the most I've seen of him is his solo in Team America where he was ronwery (lonely). But I do like how Fox News has gone straight for glory. And the question is almost rhetorical. They've found their next scare tactic. As for me, the cocktail I'm sipping is a curious mix of worry and confusion. Oh give it time. Come november, I'll be swigging straight from the new alcoholic beverage from Fox, called Little Kim, Big Bomb.

Lets hope, for ONCE, a debate can be around the real issue, and not wasted time in a drunken haze. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Big Fight [or what could have been]

The reason I constantly scream out ‘Debate Ahmadinejad already!’ to Bush when he’s TV is simple. I really want to see if Bush can out-debate a man who he truly believes is in the wrong. I don’t suppose he can, but I’d like to see him try. But this brings me to another question, what is going on with the US and Iran never speaking to each other directly?

I’d written a paper back in college, going over what had happened since the States had helped overthrow the Shah. [I’m going to throw in some highlights]: The Shah had been giving Americans contracts for oil development. As a result, there was great opulence in the Shah’s court while the rest of the country suffered. Islam believes in equality before God, and this concept extends to economic matters as well. America was a capitalist nation, and what followed was Iranian feeling that America was in some way ‘satanic’ because it had regular dealings and good relations with the Shah. As S.T. Hunter remarked the relations between the two countries have made up in emotional intensity what they lacked in duration. In what has been called the ‘original sin’, the United States took part in a coup d’etat that toppled the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. What followed next in the United States were policies concerning Iran that had more to do with the cold war and a possible Iranian- Soviet alliance than any clear concern for Iran itself.

Since the revolution there have been two factions attempting to shape Iran’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States. Although this is a very broad generalization, however, in layman’s terms there are differences of opinion between the conservatives and the reformists. The Ayotollah has long maintained that relations with America are ill-advised, while President Rafsanjani and after him President Khatami felt the need for greater interaction with the superpower. Well, we’ll get to the new kid on the block-- Admadinejad-- in a little bit.

At the time of the Cold War, Iran was not blind to the fact that America was indeed the only superpower left in the world and thus realized she would have to attempt to normalize relations with her. Rafsanjani was a realist, and he decided to adopt a conciliatory policy in dealing with America. This was to work against isolationist tendencies, because the need for external support for modernization was recognized. In keeping with this, attempts were made to change Iran’s image in the international arena. Tehran made efforts to resolve the TWA hijacking, and ended radio propaganda with the Soviets.

The United States recognized the olive branch being extended from the new government, and in 1989 agreed to free $567 million in frozen assets to Iran. However, America’s views on Iran need to be explained. Her actions in 1989 which not only included freeing Iranian assets but also agreeing to pay compensation to the families of the victims of the TWA hijacking showed a definite shift to strengthening ties with Iran. Now the Iranian- US position at the time was different. The US had been helping Iraq by supplying them with crucial information about Iranian military operations. The US had also been caught violating the Algiers Agreement in April 1989. In Iran there was talk about how further relations with the US could lead on a dependence on the superpower. With the call for Salman Rushdie’s death by the Ayatollah, many in the US began to wonder if better relations with Iran were feasible. And the final blow was the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989. It was a time ripe for some kind of change, and Rafsanjani attempted to serve as a catalyst.

The question needs to be asked, why did the US consider Iran such a threat? Sanctions against Iran were part of America’s ‘Dual Containment Strategy’. In his article ‘Rethinking Dual Containment’ Gary Sick defines this concept aptly calling it ‘a policy of balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a means of maintaining a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf.’ He lists out five main areas that the US found objectionable about Iran; her support for international terrorism, her support for Hamas and opposition of the Israel-Palestine peace process, support of Islamic movements in Sudan and elsewhere, acquisition of weapons that may allow her to emerge as the dominating force over the Gulf, and finally, the prospective acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. The Dual Containment strategy involved the US asking China, Japan and Russia not to provide Iran with any weapons of mass destruction, and opposition to loans granted to Iran by both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. However the official line claimed that the US did not seek a total embargo or quarantine of Iran. However, it cannot be denied that the US policy harmed the Iranian economy. The Iranian rial’s exchange rate suffered and Tehran had to institute exchange controls and reduce foreign trade to balance her economy. However, this raises another question, could these policies change Iran’s attitude in the desired way? Lets see what happened a few years later..

In an unprecedented address on CNN in 1998, President Khatami spoke to the American people directly. He condemned the killing of innocents, and while he maintained Iran’s opposition to the Arab- Israeli peace process he promised not to interfere, and finally stated that Iran did not have nuclear weapons and had no intention of acquiring any. Officially the United States had chosen to view Khatami’s election as Iran’s desire for change and saw opportunity for better relations. The television address hit the intended target and six months later Madeline Albright responded positively. This meant that Iran was removed from the narcotics list, it became easier for Iranian nationals to obtain visas to the US and the number of stationed troops was reduced as a ‘signal’. The administration even gave the go-ahead for the pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey as they said it did not violate any sanctions imposed against Iran since there was no purchase of gas from Iran. Albright said that the US government did not intend to ‘cut Iran off’ and there followed only a mild reaction to Iranian testing of medium range ballistic missiles. However, the US government also had to pay special attention that they did not praise the moderate government too much, for that would only give more fuel to the cause of the hardliners in Iran. President Khatami also addressed the UN General Assembly to call for a ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ in 2001. At this time Iran also deployed troops in Afghanistan after the Taliban admitted to killing Iranian nationals. In 2000 President Khatami gained control of the parliament which had been previously dominated by conservatives, and was himself re-elected the following year.

Since George W. Bush labeled Iran a member of an ‘axis of evil’, one must attempt to understand exactly what continues to offends America about Iran. Even before Admadinejad there was a perceived sense in the current American government that somehow Iran should be corrected, that she was wrong to oppose the Middle East peace process or to try and develop nuclear power. In his book ‘American Diplomacy’ George F. Kennan explains the gradual development of American foreign policy. He faults the legalistic-moralistic approach America takes as a handicap to her understanding of why things happen the way they do in other parts of the world. He writes ‘Behind all this, of course, lies the American assumption that the things for which other peoples in this world are apt to contend are for the most part neither creditable nor important and might justly be expected to take second place behind the desirability of an orderly world, untroubled by international violence.’ America’s objectives in terms of foreign policy can be limiting because they are not mere physical objectives but ‘moral and ideological ones and run to changing the attitudes and traditions of an entire people or the personality of a regime, then victory is probably something not to be achieved entirely by military means or indeed in any short space of time at all; and perhaps that is the source of our confusion.’ Iran is a spectator to American action in Iraq and understands that she may be next on the agenda if America feels it needs to ‘free’ the Iranians. Clearly solid grounds for invading a country is no longer required, as has been demonstrated by American lack of evidence against Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destructions, which was indeed the official reason for American troops entering Iraq.

Within Iran opinion has oscillated, with increased propaganda against her by the US, all factions seem to agree on one thing. President Khatami put it perfectly when he said ‘We will not allow a foreigner to interfere with our destiny.’ Non oil exports reached six billion dollars in 2003 due to the President’s economic reforms. Dialogue with America was also difficult because conservatives feared loss of political power if any progress was made, because their position which is based partly on keeping away with the West would be threatened.

Now let’s skip ahead to Ahmadinejad and what’s going on now. Now, in 2003 when Tehran wrote to DC; an olive branch of sorts- the letter was ignored. They offered to tone down the nuclear programme, help stabilize Iraq, and end support for Hezbollah- but they no longer wanted to be referred to as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’. But what it did was help tilt the balance of power towards the hardliners in Iraq because again, American appeared to be insulting them.

Now, everyone is speculating about why Ahmadinejad is taunting Bush so. Firstly, I think history has proven that in this relationship of hits and misses, nothing is too bizarre. Iran already has sanctions against it, it has been called a part of the ‘Axis of EVIL’ and the States even backed EU negotiations that believed Iran’s nuclear program was not peaceful. Both presidents believe they have divine guidance- and both believe they have the right to nuclear weapons, and both claim that their nuclear power is peaceful. The conservative Ahmadinejad doesn’t need approval from the US (unlike some of his reformist predecessors), and that’s the difference. He wants to push Bush’s buttons, he wants to expose the hypocrisy of the Americans (as he sees it)—and I believe he is just looking to balance the scales of justice (or perhaps tilt it to his favor). I need to end this post right now- but let me conclude by saying that--- C’MON BUSH…. DEBATE AHMADINEJAD ALREADY!!!!!

Friday, September 08, 2006

So many questions, such little time...

Ignore the last few things I said- I was just trying to be polite. As a shout-out, I went to this thing called ‘astrology café’ or something and it told me many things I wanted to hear but it didn’t move my life along… so I’m thinking… alright then. I’ll smile for the camera.

Okay. So, KARMA. Now according to me it was a simple concept: you do something bad, something bad happens to you. Seriously, the whole past life thing did not appeal to me. But the past few days have made me have conversations that may not have changed my mind… but they made me think. Now, if you believe in past lives [or just do.. for the next few minutes] this is how it *could* work: what happens to you is a result of your actions in your past life. Now, it doesn’t mean that if you were a great person then- only great things will happen to you. Au contraire mon amis, it means [much like physics] every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So the fact that you can deal with the bad things that happen is because you did something good and now you are given the tools to deal with the bad. And you might think, ‘this is BS’ but you are probably missing the bigger picture. To be able to deal is not easy: and this is your reward.

Alright. Fair enough. If you ask me what happens after death or before life as we know it- I have one thing to say, nothing. I don’t know. But this is how I see my life: and remember I’m just 23 [and I know some of you psychos think that’s very old but clearly you don’t appreciate how much better it’s going to get].. As far as I know- this is the only life I know. I don’t need the threat of karma to make me behave better. I think I might try anyway. But then I was asked all these questions: how do you explain why you were born in a happy/ successful/ etc family and someone else was born blind? I said 1) I don’t- cause why do I need to justify every single thing- good or bad, and 2) And if I try to explain it through karma, should I not feel bad for anyone with a disability because they deserved it from their past life OR a mahima translation…. The worst hangover EVER?!

I don’t know if we need to explain everything. Its hard enough figuring out the actions of *now*. I find it tough to switch onto any piece of news and then think, it’s my fate. Or my country’s. Or any other random shit you throw my way.

The difference between spirituality and religion? According to me: Religion teaches you HOW and WHERE to pray. But as I’m told, spirituality is about the inner self. It’s making peace with yourself; learning to look inwards to answer the big questions about life.

What if I don’t need to look inwards? To be very candid: when something goes my way, I look up and say thanks for that. I do. And when things go bad, normally, I figure out why I deserved it and I say, I get it, next time I’ll make sure I deserve better. And according to me, without the religion and the karma and the spirituality, I made peace with myself.

But I have to ask: what was my explanation before I learn to *make peace with myself*? I am really not the most calm person or the one with the answers- at all. But I constantly have to ask, the theories and the prayers, are they essentially the same crutch I use- but named differently which allows me to keep my distance. Once you name something, it has a power over you. If still undefined, you control it because you can keep redefining it.

I should sleep now.

What do you think of it all?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

previously on...

Bill Clinton’s overriding concern was his legacy when he wrote ‘My Life’. I was working in DC at the time he released it and he was all over the news. All said and done, he wanted to be remembered for his political successes, not his bedroom shenanigans. I suppose it was a smart move; take the initiative in writing your own story for the ages.

Can you be a player and referee too? It’s an interesting question. It seems that everyone does it- they start redefining their story the way they’d like it to be told. And not that’s this is a new phenomenon… we always see movie scenes where the dying mother/father’s last wishes are to tell the child ‘he was the one good thing I did’ [sobcakes] .. This is pretty much the reason people write autobiographies. And why do I bring this up?

Joe Scarborough of MSNBC had a panel of guests on his show who debated this new ABC documentary coming out that is rumored to blame Clinton’s term for the no show on the Osama front. Now one of the panelists said that it wasn’t so much that Clinton was going to be blamed for not attacking Osama when he had the chance, but its going to highlight the complications. How lawyers end up making military decisions because it has to be checked if there are going to be legal implications. Well Bill must be freaking out now because I’m sure, after his very long book, he must be livid his entire legacy could be redefined as caught up in red-tape and inaction over what he must have figured would ultimately become a big failure for the Bush presidency.

I have a friend studying for her GRE and one of the topics for essay writing was that there are no heroes; we just seem to define them that way. I said, well even if you seem to find yourself in the right place at the right time, that does not mean that you will make the right choice now does it?

Well some stories tell themselves. Listen up: Having finished my dissertation, flipping through channels of mind-numbing TV, I came across the most horrifying news bulletin I had seen in a long time. As if simply re-capping an episode, NDTV was showing footage of a two ABVP leaders, Shashiranjan Akela and Vimal Tomar threatening Madhav College Professor, ML Nath. The threats were in total hindi-movie style, and one has to wonder how arrogant and above the law the ABVP leaders must have felt if they could make death threats with news cameras rolling in the sidelines. Immediately after, violence erupted, and later, the camera caught the ABVP supporters beating up another Professor. Then the most chilling part of the entire story came: Prof Sabharwal who died as a result of his injuries, was out of the crowd but badly hurt and people were scrambling around trying to figure out what to do. He was clutching his chest in pain and looked very short of breath. I had a chill go through me, the likes that you don’t really feel; because I realized that I was watching a man die on camera. No, really. NDTV caught the entire thing on camera, starting from the threats and ending in death.

The thing is, despite the Chief Minister of MP trying to brush it off as an accident, ultimately charges had to be made against them and there was a backlash to the incident. It’s very difficult to convince people that what they see before their eyes didn’t really happen.

Like Bangaru Laxman and his ‘next time in dollars’!!

Personal PR and strategic communications for companies/ political parties basically have this challenge- there is a scandal, how do you spin it so that you don’t look too bad? This year around all the one hour shows on the life of Princess Diana were decidedly negative about her in my opinion- and granted I didn’t really know too much about her personal life, it seemed ironic that before I had always seen images that fit in with ‘the people’s princess’ and now they were replaced by talk of paranoid and un-princess-y behavior.

The funny thing is that after a re-watch of Reality Bites where they talk about not having any role models for their generation, I had actually started asking people who their role model was. You know what I found: for most people, it was their mom/dad. And the ones who had a famous name… they were quite specific about what they admired. And moral fibre wasn’t one of them; it was business sense mostly.

The media has made it much easier for us to ‘SEE’ public figures in a more personal way. While voyeuristic at times, at other times it is so brutally honest, perhaps this generation will never be able to have a ‘hero’ who’s legacy won’t be tarnished over time. Do we really just live in one big television show that is constantly re-capping our lives and adding more storylines? I wonder. See you on the next installment…

Saturday, August 19, 2006

behind blue eyes

I’ve been a little anti-social of late. I went for a play [Fool for Love with Juliet Lewis and Martin Henderson] and came right back home. In Montreal a close friend of mine would call it my hibernation period where I’d just cut off for a few days, do whatever I wanted [like Superman cartoons?] and be back to normal in a bit. Somehow I’m not afforded the same luxury without my island of Westmount!

Anyway, I did discover something fairly cool. It’s this website called Pandora. [www.pandora.com]. Basically you can type in the name of your song or artist and it not only plays it, but starts building a playlist with songs that sounds similar. And the best part is, you can tell Pandora you like the song and to play more of this kind, or rate the song as bad and have them skip it next time around. I love the fact that any old song can pop into my head and I can listen to it immediately on the website!

At this point I started thinking about how wonderful this democratic set-up was. You give Pandora positive or negative feedback, and accordingly, you have a better musical experience. Why can’t life be like this? [Oh wait] So you know I’d love to work on a campaign right? There is this firm based out of DC and London that helped both the Clinton’s in their campaigns and does similar work now. While reading through everything it offers it really seemed like we have taken ‘thought’ and turned it into a science. How do you think? Why do you think? What external factors can we change to make you think differently? And so, in order to measure thought processes [in a way] there exist all sorts of political tools—polling research, strategic advising, war gaming, issues testing, ad testing, benchmark & tracking polls et al. But is it really possible to do this accurately? Remember ‘Blink’? Well, he said one more thing- that people do not readily admit what they are thinking when confronted with a pollster. In order to avoid embarrassment, they say they will vote for the more acceptable candidate, but come ballot-time, they check the box they really want. Of course, this is not for everyone. Most people say what they want and therefore we have polling. It made me think about what I would like better; the results or every little thought process. Is it enough to know what I think, or why I think it?

It’s the ‘why’ factor that allows you to build on these relationships; be it with the political structure or people in your life. At a personal level, it would probably spell disaster. I don’t know why I think or feel half the things I do, I just do. And while it’s perfectly lovely to share a lot of the time, sometimes it might be better to shut up. But it doesn’t work like that on a national level now does it? Although, sometimes people do need to shut up—hello pseudo—time and energy wasting—mock moral outrages!

‘Could and should’: I’d written this little piece for no one in particular about the disparities of reporting in the Middle East a few years ago entitled ‘could and should’. It came to mind last night when Carrie Bradshaw wondered if women impose restrictions on themselves, and ‘should’ themselves into wanting things they don’t really want. [Don’t laugh at me now, but Tina Fey of SNL who wrote the script of Mean Girls based it on the same idea- the image you have of yourself and become prisoner to it, and should other girls into it]. It might be easier to know where you stand on national matters, but personally? Blink and you’ll miss it.

Alright, I have another question for you. What is feminism? And who is a feminist? Am I? Are you? Do we even understand definitions enough to talk about them? I have all the makings of a feminist- but I don’t think I’ve ever described myself as one. I always joke I’d like someone to open the door for me, but it’s alright, I know how to drag my own ass home. See-- and this is where it gets murky. I’m not describing myself in any real-world terms already. What issues do I agree on? If I was asked by a pollster where I stood on ‘equal pay for women’ I’d say I’m all for it. Perhaps I wouldn’t sign up for a feminist newsletter. Probably wouldn’t unless I needed it for research purposes. So, perhaps the pollsters got it right after all. We compartmentalize different things about the same subject in such an itty-bitty fashion that perhaps it is necessary to break down the thought-process to determine which way the vote would fall.

So this probably explains why I want to be anti-social while at the same time posting on my blog. And if you need any further explanations on the subject, I am available for polling purposes. Just after I finish hibernating! 

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

SNAP

Well I should have known. For all the times I have used Picasa to make sure I come out looking a little less for wear in my pictures- and anyone who knows me knows I’m a picture fanatic- I should have know THIS would happen next. Did you hear? Reuters dropped a Lebanese photographer over doctored images. Apparently the man doctored the pictures of smoke over a bombed Beirut. He said something along the lines that the picture quality wasn’t clear and he fixed up. But when its news (and not a picture of me from some party) the result is completely different. The smoke can look blacker- damage can look more pronounced. Now the same man, Adnan Hajj, has been involved in something even stranger. The buzz over the blogs has been that after the destruction of the village of Qana (in south Lebanon) photographers such as Hajj allowed ‘Hezbollah media management’; which is to say that a man in a white shirt and a man in a green helmet stood around corpses waiting for photo-ops to present themselves as grieving. But (as the theory goes) if one were to put together all the pictures surrounding the incident you can make out that the men were not part of the rescue effort or relatives or people who were actually grieving but that their presence there was simply for the photographers. Well, we all know about uses of the media to manipulate people. But the reasons behind these two incidents can be because of the pressure photo journalists are under to snap that perfect picture.

So everyone has a camera phone now and pictures can reach news organizations from all sorts of sources now. Not just that, but with the mushrooming of news organizations, every photographer is probably trying to bend over backwards to get that poignant- and perfect- shot. Perhaps.

Whatever the reasons, we have entered into some murky territory. I’ve always held that visual images have huge impacts on us. In good ways, in not so good ways. The more images we see of war and poverty and hunger, the easier it becomes to live with these concepts. You start to accept it as a given. Every war looks the same once the bombs go off. But at the same time, pictures can take you into places you never could imagine. I love BBC’s section ‘In Pictures’ because you can go over the most interesting pictures of the week (both selected by BBC and a separate one from the readers). But to now consider the probability that it’s not some political regime trying to sell you an idea that does not exist, but individual people who may not have a sinister agenda at all, just one that allows them to save their own ass.

Have you seen a movie called Shattered Glass? Watch it. It’s a true story- and it’s a crazy movie about how a writer for TNR (The New Republic) made up these stories only to be found out by his editor later. Hayden Christenson stars (Anakin Skywalker of the newer Star Wars) along with a talented cast. Do see it. You know he’s going down but you feel so sorry and anxious for him the whole way through!

On a separate note, I was thinking about the whole ‘what you see is not always what you get’ when I spotted a familiar name in an interview- this Pakistani writer called Mohsin Hamid. Asma (of the previous blog entry) had actually given me a book by him called Moth Smoke that I only read in parts. Anyway, in his interview to Tehelka he talks about how India is probably more jingoistic than Pakistan. It made me realize that even after hours of talking about the situation with people of all shapes, sizes and ages, people from India, Pakistan and practically every other country in the world that cared, I still know NOTHING about the India/ Pakistan dynamic. I mean, seriously. I really cannot figure out what the hell is going on. The images I get from each point of information are different from the other. I know the sequence of events and what everyone says they think, but I can’t imagine how it will be even ten years from now.

And Adnan Hajj? Reuters withdrew all 920 pictures they had from him. This means it prevents their further sale. Moral of the story: Don’t make things up. Things are complicated anyway without you complicating it further.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Dying Art of Conversation

I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’. For those of you who haven’t read it, take the time and look through it. There is something he calls ‘thin-slicing’—how to read people in the first few moments of meeting them. It really got me thinking about conversations and debates. People can be so involved in what they are saying that they fail to pick up on little cues to what the other person is thinking. If you can read the other person, it’s easier to shape your argument in a way that they might end up seeing your point of view. Now in the past few days I chatted about different things to a varied bunch of people: a Professor at Cambridge, a Fellow (and historian) at Cambridge, an Indian politician, a movie star, a successful lawyer and as usual, my friends. Now many of the themes were the same- Middle East crisis, Bombay blasts, Muslims in India, religion, and so on. Now everything is a matter of opinion. Coming home from Cambridge my brother and I were amazed at how well Professor Hoskins could hold a conversation. We joked about he was more of a Master of Conversation than a Master of Science! But then the next day we got embroiled in a crazy political conversation which soon dissolved into a screaming match. But this is what I don’t understand. Unless you only want to state your opinions louder than everyone else, one would assume that you would want to actually *gasp* HAVE A CONVERSATION! But it’s getting tough now. I have started respecting people who actually listen to others- in hopes of absorbing a new point of view- instead of listening impatiently waiting for their chance to start speaking again. [Admittedly I am guilty of doing the same, but that’s only when I have a reaaaallly interesting point I’m dying to make!] What is the point of trying to be smart by entering into an ‘intellectually stimulating’ conversation when you are going to intellectually dishonest about it and refuse to listen to anyone else?

‘Blink’ is about more than just the art of face-reading; it allows you to understand what instinctive reactions are all about. We’ve all had reactions in an instinct—but why do we? Why are we right some of the time, and wrong at the other times? Now take for instance a conversation on Sonia Gandhi- and what right she has to become PM of India. I know this topic leads to an explosion every single time because everyone has very different- but definite opinions about the topic. And when you are having a passionate debate at times- and this is something everyone is familiar with- you end up harassing each other on points that have nothing to do with the topic in hand! But even more interesting to me is the question- especially with my friends- if you and I have lived in the same circles, studied in the same schools, and so on, how do we end up with such dramatically different ways of seeing the world? And such different value systems?!

My friend’s father was just telling me that he appreciated the way I handled myself in a recent heated debate we had about politics. He said he may not have agreed with all of what I was saying but I was able to hold a debate in a really good way. I didn’t step on any toes. Its funny- because little did he know that this is exactly what my post has been about.

So my question is, in all this talking, why do we stop listening? I have spent countless hours arguing with some people for the sake of it- and none of us have gained much from the other. But on the other hand, some conversations are pivotal to my life. I’ve learnt so much. I think this is why I loved History as a subject so much. It taught me more about the world, and every time I walked out of class, I felt I’d become smarter. So I guess it’s crucial to learn- as it is to make allowances for the fact that different views DO exist in the world and instead of rejecting them outright, perhaps understanding where they come from will help you see it better.

How can someone’s entire view point and understanding of the world be dismissed by someone else? Ugh, this is the age of democracy people. TALK.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

To Asma, July 15th: VERY late at night

Oh my god! I think I'm in love with you!!!! YES... delhi is like... no one knows there is a world.. they are just cruising.. i am like!! Dude! Bombay-- blasts??!!! israel and lebanon?>>!!! nothing!
Btw this SIMI group that they think worked with lashkar has been around for a while. In UP mulayam has said all SIMI guys are cool- they weren't involved (perhaps for his vote ;)) people are like dude! But the thing is this, the way it was done it was prtty good, same line, diff stations, within the same time prd-- but get this. Because people have cell phones they can send their pictures of what happened... and they have been able to figure out what happened .. how?! They did that in the diwali blasts to with this market place-- but i was just thinking... Look how technology is changing the way we choose the see the world- like we are looking at the news and the world seems so big, like we could drown in it, but to other people technology also brings about leisure... just new ways to hang out, chill... and thats a whole diff POV but everyone survives/ But back to the blasts. Jeez i dnt get it. Yesterday my mom and i went shopping for clothes -so we were walkng in GK shes like 'isnt it crazy that someone could blow a bomb here because its a pretty busy place..' something, something------ but you know, when i thought of it like this- if they hit delhi, they could hit this exact place cause its a pretty busy, popular place... i just felt... a shiver. You know, its no longer news, if this is something you LIVE with... and then today i saw the pictures of beirut... dude. Bridges in the city have been blown apart, thr airport was hit. Someone left a comment on bbc that said-- its so sad because we went into a lot of debt to build up our beautiful city, and you know what i thought. Indias developing, good amt of money around. But if delhi got bombed... in a lot of key places, how would that be? It would be demolished, scars of war. And when it ever (and i hope never) i .. just dont ever want to have to deal with that. I think thats why its important to do soemthing in a larger sense, even if right now its as basic and talking about whats going on- If we understand that someplaces in life its worse .. and it shouldnt be- we'd help instead of trying to and scamming them .. Ok im just thinking out loud way too much, but i guess i just needed to rant. Third world war you say?! God, i hope not. They are so unpredictable, i mean israel especially, you never know if they suddenly wanna talk or just carry on bashing everything in sight... ok babe. Thanks for listening to me!!! I make everything sound like it may be in my backyard but only cause... alright. Bye now! Miss u!!!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

..take back the night..

The right to information should be a basic and fundamental one. Many times, in a country mired with red-tape and corruption, one can almost forget that we live in a democracy where power lies with the people. The media certainly has a grave responsibility in educating people; its something I'm looking at more closely with Doordarshan and Kalyani (aimed at education people across the states about health related issues). The ongoing campaign, 'Drive Against Bribe' is a step in the right direction. You might have seen it on TV or read about it. Parivartan is an NGO behind the scheme- it has tied together groups like NDTV and HT to remind people that if they come across government officials (etc) asking for bribes, the only recourse is NOT to simply pay it but to get justice delivered by following the rules. The right to information: find out what they are meant to do and use that information against them. We should not need to bribe people to simply do their jobs. Hopefully this is true- the more people look at you- the better you need to perform.

I'd mentioned Rang De Basanti in a previous post- it impressed on me the need for action. Well, this is the basis of a mass movement. Sometimes I feel almost fake talking about issues that face our country. Let me explain; if I don't put on the TV to find out about the massive power cuts Delhi is facing, I may not even know it. I live in the NDMC part of town where electricity is practically guaranteed. I've had a fortunate life no doubt, but that doesn't mean that it should necessarily lead to complacency.

Now, I've been thinking about the possibility of a people's movement since my mother suggested that is the only way we can have change in this country. Watching 'The Big Fight' where politicians played the "blame game" about everything from electricity and water shortages to poor urban planning its impossible to imagine any constructive solutions ever coming up. But as was pointed out, in assigning blame we often delude ourselves into thinking that everyone in the government is corrupt and the few honest people calling for change are kept out of the powers of corridor, unable to do anything. Its institutional change that is the problem. Beyond that, how do you get people to DO things? The promotion of the RTI act is one way. Compel people to do their jobs, force the bloated bureaucracy to get some exercise.

Talking to your representatives is key. I think, often, we expect problems to be taken care of and bitch about the fact that they still exist, but we never file an official complaint ourselves. When I was working with Orion Publishing I would often have to go through authors post. I would be amazed to find that so many people wrote to authors telling them how much they enjoyed the book, sometimes making a correction or telling them a fact the author may be interested in and so on. I love reading but I've never written to an author expressing my admiration. Which is odd after all; I write too and I look forward to feedback. Yet I haven't really given any myself. The same can be said of democracy-- we expect the government to work but we don't want to participate in it. Change doesn't happen from couches in front of the television.

Voices need to be heard. Journalism paving the way for social change? I hope so. Its time the media really mattered. But lets not forget the role each and every one of us has to play in this.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Does the world need Superman?

After his long absence from Earth, Superman returns home to his farm. He flips through the television channels only to accosted with images of war and pain. Later, when he takes Lois flying, he asks her what she can hear. She says 'Nothing'. He tells her he can hear everything, all the people crying out for help. This is why he knows he is needed.

As heroes go, Superman is my favorite-- ever since I had a supergirl costume as a kid and tried to 'fly' by jumping off my window sill onto my bed and convincing myself that I actually flew for a few seconds. No, really, I did! Hee. I remember having these conversations with friends- about how Superman is the real superhero- and his disguise is human in nature. As compared to everyone else- Spidey, the Hulk, you have it, he doesn't mutate into a superhero, he IS one. His challenge is to be human. He doesn't want to rule the Earth, given his ability, but he just wants to belong. He wants to help the world that took him when his own was lost.

So does the world need a Superman? A savior? The parallel with Christ is unmistakable. The savior who hears our cries and comes to save us. Mull over this: Created by two young Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was the product of the Great Depression. Although Krypton was about to be destroyed and Jor-El had to save his son, the booming voice of Marlon Brando cannot be forgotten as he tells his son that humans need to be shown the way and "For this reason I have sent them you, my only son." Like Jesus, the son of God, Kal-El (Superman) too is an immigrant; wandering. He comes from a distinguished blood, he rights wrongs, performs miracles, saves people and so on. [Actually, Richard Donner (who directed the older movies) received death threats from people who were upset about the parallel.] In later years- 1992- Superman died, only to be rumored sighted and to return a year later.

But the question remains, what is the role of Superman? The last movie which many people did not like (I did) posed a very interesting internal debate for Superman. His father had told him not to interfere with the course of human history and to let it play out. But a little boy asks Superman to get rid of all nuclear weapons in the world. He is torn, but ultimately decides that he WILL do so. In this movie, he goes away for five years and people move on. They survive. Perhaps experience a loss of faith, as is evident by Lois Lane's Pulitzer Prize winning article titled ''Why the world doesn't need Superman".

Of course, for me the religious parallels don't make a difference. I love the concept of a hero. One who fights for truth and justice. What is interesting is Tarantino's take on Superman (in Kill Bill 2)- that Clark Kent is Superman's critique of humans. I suppose you could read that as him regarding humans as eager and honest and perhaps a little helpless and lost. And if that is the essential human being, then does this mean we do need a Superman?

Well, duh, yes we do! Not having the real deal (and by that I mean the man in tights himself) we have created heroes all around us. Role models are aplenty as are people who sacrifice themselves to just causes. To me, Superman is a testimony to faith. Faith in- no, not God (after all, he is Super MAN) but faith in the power of good. And with this new movie, there is a new facet. Faith in the fact that we can pass along this 'good' to our children and that every new generation holds promise and hope. The backbone of Superman is the story about fathers and sons; that if you teach them right, they can grow up to do many wonderful things. Unlike General Zod and his cronies (the second movie) Kal-El has learnt well. The next installment of the Superman movie will certainly take this concept further with a little superkid waiting in the wings.

Plus, you gotto love someone who saves an entire plane of people from having the most horrible crash-landing, but takes the time out to remind them that statistically flying is still the safest way to travel. He is just SO cool!!!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

who's there?

When I was in boarding school, one of the girls in my class legally changed her name. The word was that her father had changed the family name to suggest a lower class so that by the time she was old enough to go to college, she would be eligible to get in via the SC/ST quotas. For those who may not know, this is the reservation category. In many educational institutions and so on, places are kept for the classes that never had a chance. This way they are ensured a leg up. When the whole reservation debate came about I was still studying in Delhi. I remember hearing about a young boy lighting himself on fire because he was protesting how unfair it was. You see, while it helps the people who never had a chance, it also ensures that candidates who are qualified and worked hard now have lesser seats to compete for. And now the argument is on again. I've been wondering what my take on it is. At one level I do agree it is important to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to education. But at another level I feel it’s unfair to those who work hard but do not get seats in these educational institutions because they do not belong to a special quota. Many who argue against the system point out that many of these reserved seats lie vacant in colleges, and many of the students who do get in via quota do not even finish their degree. The fault, of course, lies in the level of education PRE college. If your basics are weak, even if you are granted a place (or the place made easier) in medical school or engineering college, it really is not your fault if you cannot keep up- or be able to complete it. So what does one do? In a country where reservation is a highly political and contentious issue, there is no easy answer. However, basic education- and good education IS.

When I was about 15 or so, I set off to make a documentary about a village in the Himalayas with some friends from school and our mentor Mrs. Chandna. On the trek up to Neuri we passed a bunch of village men, enjoying their afternoon. We stopped and asked them questions about which political party they supported and about life in general. A day or two later we went to see the local school up in Neuri (the village we were staying at). The previous night some school children had come to us to recite poetry in front of our video camera and through them we learnt that their school-teacher had been a no-show for a few months. So when we got to the school, we found it empty. But soon we had a visitor. He introduced himself as the school teacher and made up petty excuses for not taking class when we grilled him. Much later, back in boarding school, we noticed that he was one of the men we interviewed during our trek up. So he had just given up on performing him duty altogether, although still collected his government pay check. Mrs. Chandna went up to Neuri later and told us that we had caused quite a stir in that part of the hills. Because we were asking questions about education and classes, the school teacher thought we were from Doordarshan (the Public Service Broadcaster) doing an expose. That’s why he came to the school to justify what he had been upto. Power to the media indeed.

For my dissertation, I am looking at the role of the public service broadcaster in India. With a plethora of private channels catering to every demand- entertainment, sport, news and so on, what need is there for a government sponsored channel, otherwise called BO-ORING! Well, there certainly is. And in my opinion, education is the name of the game. I'm looking at the AIDS awareness campaign in India (DD and the BBC). I don't think I realized how much I was interested in the AIDS epidemic till I realized I was. Sounds wierd; I know. It’s just that I get very angry at situations when people are victimized for no fault of their own. If you know how you can contract the disease and are still not careful, then you're an idiot. But for the majority this is not the case. The first time I ever addressed the issue was (again) in high school when we had to come up with a play for an Inter-School play competition where the topic was 'Life in the next century'. I scripted it. Others went on to perform these plays with space suits and aliens. We had a simple plot. A young girl had AIDS (we never mentioned how she got it) but her mother was furious and wanted to disown her while her best friend was being supportive- but asking some poignant questions. The point was this: the next century is now. (This was in 1998 or 1999). If you don't deal with diseases and issues you are facing today, your dreams of a futuristic world will remain just that- futuristic. The message was education. It’s the best way to help people not only deal, understand but prevent such tragedies from taking place.

This issue of Newsweek (June 5, 2006) has a special report on AIDS. In many instances it talks of women being powerless to insist on condom usage. But in some communities the health workers managed to unite the sex workers to insist on using them- and it worked. As someone says in the report- you cannot just ask people to make better choices but you have to give them the power and tools to make them with. A slogan will not cut it. It needs to be hands on. And it needs to be sensitive to what people feel and think right now.

One of my best friends recently said to me about his job-- that he knew that he- and everyone else in the same line was just in it for the money. I didn't think much of it then but something about that line chills me to the bone. No doubt we need these financial geniuses to keep the world going round but it made me feel desperate about finding a calling. Something I could give my life to. It makes me want to learn more and more so that I can help people to open their minds. It makes me want to be better.

And so, back to the quality of education and what it can lead to. We all know this. I just really, REALLY, really don't want to wake up one day and read an article about how India could have been a superpower but lack of education and the spread of disease stopped us. India. I guess it might just be calling??