Saturday, April 21, 2007

Get out of Jackson Heights

The litmus test for acceptability in a media driven society like the United States is how frequently you can make it on television. Everyone knows — you’re somebody as long as you are on TV! So when Sanjaya Malakar, a good American boy of Indian origin, made it to national headlines via American Idol, the question was invariably asked: are Indians finally making it to the American cultural mainstream?

Fame is a measure of success in the US, and to be sure, the Indian diaspora is already visible. Politician Bobby Jindal and hotelier Sant Chatwal are not the only players. Bhangra, yoga, Hinduism, butter chicken have all made their mark. Wall Street is filled with young Indian-American bankers and traders. Silicon Valley has India written all over it. CNN has Indian anchors. But at the same time, the majority of the Indian community in the US is quite happy to lead quiet lives in the suburbs, living in little bubbles, totally unaware of the goldmine they are sitting on. And that goldmine? A post-industrialist capitalist economy that uses culture to fuel itself.

Sanjaya Malakar does not symbolise the acceptance of the Indian in America, but instead, represents the acceptance of America by an Indian. He jumped right into the mainstream — the biggest television show in the country that led to his face becoming as familiar as Paris Hilton’s, and quite predictably, his picture alone sold thousands of newspapers and magazines. And that’s the phenomenon that is the American cultural circus; people are rewarded for making an effort to achieve their goals. The Malakar episode showed millions of Indian-Americans that they too will be accepted if they make the effort to join the mainstream. Simran Sethi’s success as host of the American television show, Ethical Markets, and her environmental website, Treehugger, which led to Vanity Fair profiling her in their 2007 Green Issue, proves just this.

There are, of course, other Indians who are already famous by marketing their unique brand of ‘Indian-ness’. Mira Nair, Deepak Chopra, Aishwarya Rai have all made inroads on the US cultural stage.

Unfortunately, the majority of the 3 million odd Indian diaspora has not yet taken advantage of the free media market, and as a result, has not influenced American culture to its maximum capacity. The one Indian, before Malakar that is, who was a household name was Apu from The Simpsons. That stereotype has partly changed. Indians now appear mostly as doctors and extras on screen. In contrast, African-Americans are cast as leads in movies and their music — from rock, blues to rap — has influenced American society and profited off it.

What keeps large sections of the Indian diaspora from fully integrating into the American mainstream is common to many multicultural countries and communities — the fear of losing their unique identity. Many of the immigrants arrived in America decades ago, and in order to preserve a sense of history and belonging, have clung to their Indian roots. As a result, Jackson Heights, right outside New York, remains a mini-India, complete with jalebi stands and bangle shops, and Indian-American teenagers diligently join desi groups on college campuses and work hard for bhangra competitions and Bollywood nights.

However, the entire idea behind multiculturalism is that a country is ready to open up new space for additional cultures. Instead, Indians fall prey to defining themselves by their consumption, a concept that acclaimed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also explored. He found that segments of consumers are targeted to create particular kinds of desires so that they grow into expressing aspects of their identity through their consumption. And so, the diaspora falls victim to itself.

But the enterprising Indians who have made the transition to the cultural mainstream remind us that Indians do not need to define themselves in a uni-dimensional way. This polarised sense of tradition needs to be loosened. A free economy does not just imply movement of goods, but also people, ideas and culture. And just as the African-Americans have done, and the Latinos are in the process of, Indians too need to make their mark in the cultural churning of America. In fact, this years Oscar’s was talked about more for the fact that nominees had been more ethnically diverse than ever before. This was a result of multiculturalism, and on closer inspection, a victory for the Latinos. As Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1950, “There is no culture in the world which is absolutely pristine, pure and unaffected by any other culture.”

We live in a time when Americans are both impressed and intrigued by India. The world’s largest democracy, we are not only secular but have a booming economy. There is tremendous potential and demand for Indians to market their USP — their Indian-ness — to America. Just ask Kal Penn. And Gurinder Chadha. And Anita Desai. Not only does the American melting pot regularly make space for others, their commercial culture practically demands that the Indian diaspora also throw their hat in the ring. It might be time to change the traditional mindset — doctors, engineers and bankers might be respectable jobs, but actors, musicians and other media related careers are both lucrative and enjoyable!

So Malakar may not be indicative of a paradigm shift — but he is certainly a landmark. Undoubtedly, his success will encourage many other Indian-American’s to leave suburbia and try their luck in the big bad world. It pays to be on TV. After all, there is no business like show business!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What? NO lessons?

You know you live in a media savvy world when a psychotic gunman takes time out during his massacre to mail a parcel to NBC. Cho probably knew this would be big news. He wanted to be painted as an angry young man and it seems he did not want any confusion as to his motives. So his package had a letter that rambled on against rich kids and their debaucheries. His pictures – some chilling – showed him off in these angry poses, armed with guns and knives. Think about it, he probably put the self timer on, chose his poses, made his little clips, because he knew after he killed himself/was killed/ was caught – this way he would be in charge of the discourse in the media, not the other way around. And Harry Shearer (of the Huffington Post) is right – displaying this crap he sent to NBC is feeding into other psychotics who will invariably want to copy him when they decide to go on a spree. After all, according to his writings, he considered the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacres ‘martyrs’. And what is worse is that despite this latest tragedy, John McCain, even Rudy, is still not backing tighter gun control. McCain’s statement is appalling -- that its not guns, but better ways of identifying these psychos. Seriously now, Cho was known as a loner. A woman even complained about him. He used to take pictures of women from under tables. His writing screamed psycho. But he did not have a criminal record and so he could buy a gun. So how does McCain explain this? How the hell would anyone have known what he was going to do? But the fact that guns are so available, that they lose children every year, how is that not causing a policy shift? Actually, Bob Herbert makes an interesting argument in NYT. He says that if you look at the history of these massacres in the US, there is some amount of consistency. They are most white males, quite disturbed yadayadaydada, and feel the need to prove their masculinity and superiority. Unfortunately, in a country that glorifies violence and most especially one that equates violence with masculinity, this need to assert themselves takes a violence turn. Couple that with lax gun laws and this is just an open invitation to a world of trouble.

But back to the media -- the problem with encouraging aspirational lifestyles on TV is that the line between the haves and have-nots is so sharp that jealousy, frustration, poverty can lead to tragedy. It’s happened with the young blacks too. Every time you see one of those 50 Cent etc videos, even Snoop, all they are doing is glorifying money and bitches. When this Imus controversy happened (Don Imus called some women’s basketball team names, people were aghast, he was fired) there was an interesting point raised. That deprecatory slang has become so regular now that even a white 50 year old man has started using the same words on the street. And we need to be careful about how we talk about ourselves, and this goes without saying, about others. The culture of money has spun so out of control that it’s a religion in itself. And the need to be famous is another. Everyone wants to be seen – from Youtube to blogs to your more traditional news (which was clearly Cho’s chosen outlet). Anyway as far as I know, serial killers, and big time massacre-ists (?) want people to know about them. Feelings of inadequacy are only going to go away when they force people to be scared of them, after they violently conquer the enemy. And making it to the headlines is icing on the cake. Perhaps we shouldn’t give Cho so much screen time. Instead use this as fodder to ask the question the real question: How do we control guns. Psychos won’t stop existing. But we can stop guns. And we should. The media spotlight needs to readjust itself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

On the other side of the fence

Haroon Ihsan Piracha; MP, Pakistan Muslim League
‘Below-40 MPs don’t have to deal with the past... People themselves will become change agents’

A few days ago, Haroon Ihsan Piracha, a young MP of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League was in New Delhi for a conference organised by PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency) to observe the parliamentary process in India and meet fellow young MPs here. He spoke to Mahima Kaul about the young parliamentarians in Pakistan and how they could re-imagine its political and economic landscape.

• You met our young MPs, and talked about thinking outside the box on India and Pakistan, the fact that young people don’t carry excess baggage...

One of the points Navin Jindal made was that the below-40 parliamentarians don’t have to deal with the past as much as the older politicians. I believe that measures like the removal of visa restrictions will help. People themselves will become change-agents. Student exchange programmes — today’s students are the policy makers of tomorrow — will also help us. Another suggestion I made was that we should work towards a joint youth parliamentary forum so that our channels of communication become more formal.

• Also, the added benefits of trade.

India is a very, very big market. Pakistan is a thriving economy. If trade opens up between India and Pakistan there might be losses in certain sectors but in the long run it will become more efficient. We don’t just have to look at industrial output; there are added benefits in terms of new markets opening up, and revenue to the governments.
Movies are another area. I noticed in India that theatres are a big source of revenue for your government. Our theatres could play your movies. In my parents’ time, they tell me, they used to go to the theatres. Now people can start going back to them. Movies are available on DVD and on cable in Pakistan, but the theatres are a different experience.

• In India, did you notice a buzz around the ‘young MPs’?

There are more young MPs in Pakistan, we have 60 — you have about 40 — and over 90 per cent of them are foreign educated. They are businessmen, bankers, lawyers... Our government has done a very good thing — our federal ministers are experienced politicians, but the ministers for state and parliamentary secretaries are young. It’s a very good combination. You can see the change in parliament.

• But the tickets go only to the educated, political families.

Many do, but at the end of the day the criteria is — is this guy winnable? Many of them have never been in politics before. But yes, the majority are foreign educated.

• Do you think it can also bring about a disconnect? You may think on macro issues, but the common man is still wondering about his sadak, paani, etc

Yes, at the end of the day it is about electricity and roads. It’s easy to say, so what if we produce one million cars today instead of 10,000? But you forget, these cars are being produced in a factory. So if they were hiring 1,000 labourers, now they are hiring 10,000. The service industry, the automobile industry, who works there? MNCs have come to Pakistan. I am happy to find young people, good in English, from lower middle class families, finding employment with them.

• The novelist, Mohsin Hamid, wrote in a recent article that he also voted for Musharraf, and felt he got freedoms, but now it’s changed. He talks of Geo TV offices being broken into.

Please distinguish that that was something that the state did not order. This was not in a remote village — this was in the capital. This was not ordered; there was a local scuffle. Our information minister reached right then, the president condemned it and there is an inquiry going on. Unfortunately you will find incidents like this anywhere. There will always be opposition.

• And what about the unrelenting reports of extremism? Do they worry you?

I’ll tell you, it’s only perception. There are some cases, especially near the border with Afghanistan. But generally the madrassas are just teaching Islam. It does worry one, but it’s not so prominent.

• What are the key issues for the youth in Pakistan?

Number one is jobs. What everyone has to understand is that if you have a simple degree it’s not enough. But if you can repair a phone or a computer, you can find a job. We have also started internships in government departments that pay Rs10,000 per month. Pick up a paper in Pakistan and you see that in the IT and engineering sections, there is a shortage of people. There is a huge requirement in the cellular industry. It’s hard to find skilled workmen in the construction industry.

• So let’s end with cricket. What’s your Woolmer theory?

It’s very unfortunate. It’s hard to believe that the team lost to Ireland. Obviously something very bad happened, but we will have to wait and see.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

U 2 can Youtube: Connect with GenNext

It was just a little political advertisement on the internet. There was Hillary Clinton in an Orwellian Big Brother-lite persona, mesmerising a catatonic audience. The logo at the end was of Barack Obama’s campaign. It caused a frenzy. Who made this ad? And the answer was not surprising. It was made by an ordinary American, and then uploaded to Youtube.

The incident is important for three reasons. First, given the technology that exists today, it is not difficult to make a quality ad in the comfort of your own home. Second, politics can generate so much interest that a homemade ad on Youtube can make international headlines; and third, politics has become far more personal than anyone had bargained for. In the US, people participation just became easier, and the internet has proved to be a democratic tool no one imagined. The rules of politics have changed.

In contrast, India still seems to be the land of mass rallies and uninspired political posters. Although the country is touted as the next IT giant, there is a lack of awareness of the internet, and especially of its potential power.

Internet penetration is certainly higher in urban India. A study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) put the figure as 37 million users — a sector dominated by youth under 35. IAMAI also found in November 2006 that within urban areas, Mumbai has the largest number of users — 3.24 million — followed by Delhi, 2.66 million; Chennai, 1.48 million; Kolkata, 1.34 million; Bangalore, 1.31 million; Hyderabad, 1.29 million; Pune, 1.02 million and Ahmedabad with 0.78 million users. Also, it was noticeable that the internet penetration share of the top eight metros had declined from 58 per cent in 2001 to 41 per cent in 2006, which means that smaller towns are also fast getting online. Though figures indicate that these internet users, mostly youth, are a minority, it is crucial to remember that they are a significant minority. Because they constitute a demographic section that is eligible to vote, but largely do not. In other words, they represent a largely untapped political constituency that could be accessed through the internet.

Over the last year, Indian youth have shown their activist genes. Candlelight vigils, SMS campaigns, even Bollywood films stand testament to this trend. That IIT is banning the internet because it is worried that students are becoming anti-social by spending too much time online is an indication of the affinity youth have to the net. Just walk into any cyber cafe, from Dehradun to Manipal, and it will be filled with teenagers browsing through a social networking website called Orkut. In fact, it’s the Orkut revolution that can tell the story of the desperate interest of young Indians to expand their horizons and connect with others. Some popular sites have active forums that discuss topics, ranging from creating a road map for peace in the Middle East to debating reservations in higher education in India.

One only needs to step into the blogosphere to really appreciate the political buzz the youth have created. Log on to blogs that keep comprehensive coverage on Nandigram updated, and then consider that they are manned by Indian post-graduate students studying at prestigious colleges in London. Websites that keep track of all the current debates on the Indian blogosphere reveal that topics range from cricket to the analysis of the impact of e-commerce in India. Hindi blogs are also very active, and regional language blogs are gaining ground. It becomes clear then that connecting politically with urban youth today requires non-traditional tools and strategies.

Conventional politics or the average political campaign lacks imagination. It’s important to remember GenNext does not like to be talked down to, but certainly likes to talk. And that is why Indian bloggers incessantly track and discuss political happenings among themselves — because on this forum they are the ones interpreting their world, where opinions are not being handed down. The Hillary Clinton Youtube ad in the US became popular precisely because it came without the stale air of authority.

But accessibility to information is the key — and that’s what makes the internet so appealing in the first place. So if a political party were to be internet-savvy, and keep a regular online newsletter, ask for opinions, or even start a forum for the discussion of national and international events (with a competent moderator), it would earn the respect of the online news hounds. If the party were to engage the youth on issues at a cerebral level, it would find itself pleasantly surprised.

And chances are, many of the former couch — now desktop — potatoes may then be more inclined to get up, come election day, and cast a vote for his or her party of choice.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

i guess you had to be there

At the Indian Express, about once a week, we have this event called ‘The Idea Exchange’. A politician, businessman or academic is invited. He/she gives us – the reporters, desk people, what have you although its strictly for IE employees – a talk after which anyone can ask questions. It’s great because you actually get a lot of information straight from the source and sometimes it provides a good background. I enjoyed the Arun Jaitley session a lot. There was Kapil Dev last week. Sunil Mittal day before. And this French academic who writes about India, Christophe Jaffrelot, yesterday.

So we start this conversation with Jaffrelot’s defense of reservations which he feels is a corrective measure to liberalization – because it can be used as a tool to ensure that there are no widening gaps when it comes to the redistribution of wealth. This, he feels, is one of the building blocks of our society. See, the point is that you can always talk of class v/s caste and now caste is what is being held back. But in a way, caste becomes a class if they are so held back. So, although the courts have said that reservations cannot be implemented because there is no relevant (updated) data on the OBCs available, this should not be a reason to not do it. What should be done, instead, is that this data should be called for. His suggestion then is to go ahead with it, and keep this policy open to revision as and when new data emerges. A few important points were raised (some by my boss who I would never like to debate against, even in another life, and others). To go through a few – reservations do not hit the nail on the head – the problem lies in the fact that quality education is in short supply. So, if only ‘x’ number of seats are being reserved, they are really not helping anyone except perhaps in a symbolic fashion. Also, if his suggestion of going ahead with the reservations are carried out, in all probability, when it comes up for ‘revision’ there is no chance in hell it can be scaled back because of (unfortunately) entrenched political interests in this entire debate.

Jaffrelot has also done muchos work in the field of caste politics in India, and the question being put to him was the nature of BJP and Hindutva today. He feels that while the BJP has given more tickets to lower castes than the Congress has (on the whole), yet BJP leadership does not reflect such assimilation. But, the lower castes who have made their mark – Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti etc – (as was pointed out) – have in fact behaved more fundamental than less. I have to add here that I’ve been racking my brains for a very similar phenomenon elsewhere and I’ll edit to add, but the same thing happened in another community where the newcomers just wanted to fit in so they behave even more extreme than the extremists in the first place. Argh. Alright, moving along…

Now the problem is that perhaps caste politics has been too divided, and parties are now beginning to realize things may have gone too far. (A point I shall return to) Jaffrelot feels that the BSP has been ideal in trying to expand its votebank and dilute caste based politics. He says that the fact that their leadership stems from the lower castes as opposed to the Congress, BJP is where the strength lies -- but makes an interesting observation – that he feels Buddhism is gaining ground, especially in Maharashta.

He was asked, do you think the rise of caste politics in India was inevitable? It is a signal that this was the building blocks of society. He quoted Amedkar on this – that caste is not just a reflection of the labour, but the labourer. So, as I’d mentioned in the last paragraph (and a point brought up by another senior staffer), while caste politics might be a natural extension of how castes and classes are placed in Indian society, politically, its becoming a liability. Its said now, for the BJP to go from 0 to 100 seats it needs Hindutva, but to go from 100 to 270 seats, it needs to dilute its agenda.

This brings us to the BJP itself. After its defeat three years ago, people thought the party was done for. Clearly, that is not so. Now, is this because there has been a re-think in its ideology, especially when it comes to fundamentalism? For example, in the early 90s, they called for only Hindi – that’s gone. But what Jaffrelot pointed out was that he thinks that in states where the BJP is in the minority, this is not the case. And look no further than Gujarat. There the party certainly does not mind treating the Muslims as second class citizens – those that need to be ‘kept in their place’. Its unprecedented that the Modi government sent back the money meant for Muslim victims to the centre.

This next point was the cause of much debate: Does liberalization mean that social policy suffers? He pointed out that the RSS/BJP did not object to liberalization beyond a point because, after all, it mainly affects the middle classes and not the lower classes. (Read: the lower castes are not getting any benefits, so all good). But it is things like this that allow fundamentalism to take root, because the poor will grasp at any solution. But what of the fat middle class? Does this mean that the more economically liberal you are, the more politically illiberal you become? In other words, like the middle class, if you are comfortable, you do not particularly feel the need to vote? And that capitalism lends itself to fundamentalism? But as was pointed out, we might be able to -- and I say might -- make a case in India. But look at the US – it’s the fat cats who are involved in politics more because they need to protect their interests. So you could spin it either way.

Phew. Anyway, I have clearly left many gaps and questions and observations in the middle but its 2am and I’m quite exhausted. But this session was followed by a regular day at ze office, but twas so interesting – to me anyway – that I really did want to share. And so I did. Woohoo.