The end of Race politics in America? Perhaps.

The issue whether Obama's forthcoming nomination as America's first black president can end racial divides in contemporary politics is a contentious one. An extremely interesting anecdote I ran into today sparked what I hope is not just a random entry here. It is definitely a powerful reminder of the fact that in any community shadowed by oppression, pride and bitteness can be hard to untangle.

For black Americans born in the 20th century, the chasms of experience that separate one generation from the next— those who came of age before the movement, those who lived it, those who came along after — have always been hard to traverse. Elijah Cummings, the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an early Obama supporter, told me a story about watching his father, a South Carolina sharecropper with a fourth-grade education, weep uncontrollably when Cummings was sworn in as a representative in 1996. Afterward, Cummings asked his dad if he had been crying tears of joy. “Oh, you know, I’m happy,” his father replied. “But now I realize, had I been given the opportunity, what I could have been. And I’m about to die.”


No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.

-- John Donne

On the Tata Nano as a catalyst for social change

The Tata Nano. A miracle of engineering which promises the moon to whoever buys it. Crash impact certified, cutting edge pollution control, and best of all - a price which puts it in the pockets of the masses - the burgeoning middle class anyway. All good, right?

Not to a bunch of environmentalists who insist on putting a spanner in the works of all thats going well with the car. A few million cars on Indian roads have the capability to convert the economy into a vehicle based one, putting it one step further towards becoming ‘developed’. But, the amount of pressure this is going to put on the global warming phenomenon was never anticipated by any of the world’s may NGOs and organizations who think about these things. They now have to recalculate all their projections. My, what a pity. Recreating a thousand powerpoint presentations is definitely our biggest problem. But let us ignore the wild haranguing and talk about more interesting things.

After the launch of the world’s cheapest car last week, Ratan Tata gave an excellent interview to the Economic Times - a statement from which is quoted below..

I would prefer to just say that I wish I was 10 or 15 years younger, not to do what you have said, but because today the country is really on the move which it could have been five years earlier, but it wasn't. And hopefully it will keep on moving in that direction.

I’m not sure what exactly he was referring to when he mentioned “on the move” - my guess would be the state of the Indian industry, both manufacturing and knowledge. But it also got me thinking about how the Nano can most definitely act as a catalyst for social change in the country. India is known for being a country entrenched in class biases - be it caste, economic or religious. In modern India, I’d like to think the economic bias, as in any other country, supersedes any other by a far margin.

This is in evidence in almost every aspect of Indian society - policemen on the street, are for instance, paid much less than a bureaucrat or the average software engineer. Popular public perception above a particular level of income thus tends to think of them as inferior in some way. It may not be conscious and most people I know will vehemently deny it - but its true. And this is what makes law enforcement ineffective in most cases - a rash driver will have not only the superior attitude, but also the money to pay off a policeman with a bribe superior to his own weekly salary. Similar attitudes apply to household maids and hired help too - they’re seen as ‘servants’ first, and humans second, and are subject to second class treatment by most - specifically the rich and well heeled.

Fortunately, as modern technology reaches the grassroots levels, and per capita incomes rise - this is becoming a thing of the past. People are better informed about their rights, and can do comparisons of how much they should be paid in their respective fields. Cell phones have made communications easier - and standards of living have gone up, since their kids are at least high school or even college graduates. Most have begun working at technology related concerns - call centers or otherwise, and have large disposable incomes.

And this is where the Nano steps in. In a society gearing up to buy scooters and motorbikes, there is now the option of buying cars, however small. Better and safer travel options open up for communities who’ve never before thought of going on a “family outing” because they just couldn’t for one reason or the other. But most importantly, popular perceptions will change once a maid or a sweeper shows up to work in a car. Sure, this might not happen in the next year or two - but it will. No longer will people have the option of looking down upon them - nor will the traffic police or beat constables be as deferential as they used to be - for economic equality, or something moving towards it, is a powerful force - it does wonders for self confidence. And I think this just might be what the doctor ordered for Indian society today.

The champions of democracy..

I've paid my dues -
Time after time -
I've done my sentence
But committed no crime -
And bad mistakes
I've made a few
I've had my share of sand kicked in my face -
But I've come through
I've taken my bows
And my curtain calls -
But it's been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise -
I consider it a challenge before the whole human race -
And I ain't gonna lose -
We are the champions - my friends
And we'll keep on fighting - till the end -

- Queen, We are the champions, 1977

To all those who champion the cause of freedom and democracy, apt words indeed. This song was on right after I heard about Benazir Bhutto's assassination today afternoon. There's not much more I can add to that really, except to probably muse on the fact that whatever her failings, Bhutto was a beacon of moderateness in an Islamic society that is today in the eye of a fundamentalist maelstrom. And that is a stand not easily taken.

Of Monarchies, and Christmas in San Francisco

I totally faded there for almost a fortnight. Work, more work and other chores means that even if I'm glued to the computer half the day, I hardly have time to organize my thoughts into something which could be even remotely readable. Thankfully, the holidays are here and ought to put an end to that! Yayyyy. And I've been bursting at the seams to write *something* - do you know the feeling?!

On the political front, Nepal abolished its monarchy today - hot news as of a few hours ago. I for one welcome that change, given the bloodbaths that have been going on over the last 75 years, the most recent one being etched in all our memories. Hopefully, it leads to a lull in the maoist insurgencies too, if they have a half decent government that isn't hampered by centuries old tradition. That said, its also a sad day in some respects - I've always found monarchs rather romantic, and on every occasion, have read up all that I could find on the two most famous current ones - King Bhumibol of Thailand, and of course, Queen Elizabeth II. Its abolishment in Nepal just means another proud line will come to and end, and at best, be the gatekeepers of palaces and treasures that will revert to a government who may not know how best to care for it.

Which got me thinking about how many such governments are left today. Apart from the UK, its colonies (which don't really count) and Thaliand, the other remaining states are Japan, Cambodia, Jordan, Bahrain, UAE, Brunei, Bhutan, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. Malaysia in fact has an *elected* monarch, perhaps the only such system in the world today (or ever?)! The current Yang di-Pertuan Agong ("Supreme Ruler" or "Paramount Ruler") is styled His Majesty, and cuts a pretty impressive figure on his official portrait. Much more so than jowly King Gynaendra of Nepal anyway.

On another monarchial front, QE II recently endorsed YouTube, by launching the Royal Channel. Its got some pretty nifty videos on it, including her first televised Christmas address from 1957 and even the 1923 wedding of HER parents. It was fascinating watching them - televised impressions of London from the early 20th century, and an opportunity to look at people I've only ever seen in portraits as aged royals. Its funny how one never hears of the activities of monarchs from all but a couple of famous countries. The recent death of the Tongan prince and his wife on a Californian highway was heavily telecast in the US itself, but got practically no coverage on the international media. And would we even be able to point the Jordanian King or the Malysian one for that matter, on a photo gallery?

Oh and Merry Christmas to all of you! I’m not even sure how people spend their christmases if they’re not at home eating a family style dinner. Tired as I was of this question, I ended up in San Francisco with a friend for an awesome dinner (Wild Boar with truffle sauce, yummy), finally rode the famous SF cable cars (isn’t it interesting how people who live in a city never actually do all the touristy bits?), watched Beowulf in 3D (Angelina Jolie is hotter than ever), and ended up at a catholic church for a ten minute look at midnight mass.

Ironically, the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in San Francisco is located at “666 Filbert Street”. 666? Really? :) But the church itself is beautiful. Neo gothic (See pic below), and beautifully appointed with colorful frescos, it was very nice hearing a choir sing *live* after such a long time.

St. Peter and Paul's, San Francisco

From the inside

Union Square, San Francisco

Oh, and I finally baked a chocolate cake in honor of the holidays. Turned out prettty darned good too.. :D

Feminism - Part Un

The Punkster has recently finished the 49th carnival for feminists, where she invites a bunch of bloggers to submit entries focussed on (what I assume) were pre-determined categories. While I plan to read (and therefore comment) further on them, I obviously started with the women in tech and gaming sections, two areas I totally identify with :D.

NB: This was actually a comment on her blog, but I hate the concept of having what has become an entire blog entry in the comments section, so its been moved here.

For more information, see this; There’s an episode of a chemistry teacher and a student’s account of the Intel Science Talent Discovery Fair (something I participated and did rather well in *shrug*, a few years ago - so I know a bit of what happens behind the scenes).

".. but a rumor passing around the class that our chemistry teacher had asked two of her favorite students to prepare a project for entry in the fair. These students were, of course, boys.."

From what I can make out, instead of having the entire class involved in the usual exercise of coming up with project ideas, and perhaps selecting the best ones out of them, the two boys were selected in a unilateral decision. But, doesn’t that mean she must’ve left out almost all the other boys too?

So basically, a female teacher at some point in her life gets to the stage where she thinks that the boys are better than the girls. Hmm. Would this be influenced in any way, not by their performance, but solely their gender? The question I'm trying to ask here I guess, is why and how does she get to such a point?

And of course, while I'm at it, I'll touch off the extensive topic of infanticide and foeticide and whatever-icide that people go through to avoid having daughters. To people familiar with this sort of research - has anyone ever done work on why women would do that to their own daughters? Surely not everyone is forced or influenced by their in-laws or husbands?

Turkish serendipity - Movies, Books and Music

I’m in an excellent mood today - a good thing to carry over into a monday morning that begins in less than 7 hours - and brings with it an unending list of things to do. Sigh.

But I’m drawing solace from this weekend , which was undoubtedly *very* productive when it comes to music, film and books. I watched two excellent movies - Head On (Gegen Die Wand, 2005) and No Country for Old Men (2007); discovered the intricate music scene of one of the world’s greatest cities through another (Istanbul, Crossing the bridge), and as a result, have fallen in love with this band (Siya Siyabend); AND am finally half way through a book describing the same - Istanbul, by Orhan Pamuk. I must admit, these are things I’ve been meaning to do independently for quite a while now - but its interesting how the common thread that links them together surfaced serendipiteously!

Head On is a movie I highly recommend you watch. Apart from having the street creds of having being directed by Turkish born Fatih Akin, one of Germany’s star directors; a nomination at the oscars, and a cast which has performed exemplarily - it is an extraordinarily striking movie in the way it depicts the clash of two cultures, and describes the lives of immigrants in a form which hollywood, let alone bollywood can never hope to achieve. Szerelem talks about the story here; it is essentially a love-story between two turkish immigrants living in Germany who meet, at all odds, at a clinic after unsuccessful attempts at suicide - Cahit, who tries to ram his car into a wall, and Sibel, who doesn’t quite know how to optimally slit her wrists (!). The movie is neither overtly dramatic nor sentimental - the tone is just right, and the locales it was shot in (and the absolutely amazing soundtrack) go far in convincing you that such characters can actually exist, marginalised between two cultures. As the movie progresses, you can observe how circumstances visibly mature what were at the beginning of the movie two very flippant human beings. A reviewer online said it best when penning “Akin has crafted an unflinching film with the structure of a romantic comedy and the emotional kick of a nightmare”. Very true. You can totally gauge the tension which springs from the wish to have nothing to do with your own culture, yet have a longing that just won’t let go - beautifully illustrated when Cahit suddenly slips into English when talking to a turkish woman in Istanbul - his transformation from a hard-drinking, punk-rocker to one who is visibly caught between different worlds is complete.

What is even more interesting, however, is the uncanny likeness of the characters to their real life counterparts. At the very beginning when Cahit (Birol √únel ) is completely drunk, he wasn’t acting. √únel WAS in fact sloshed waiting for the shooting to start! And during the filming, he was even told by his doctor to give up alcohol, or risk death by liver failure. Scary. Sibel, the actress who also shares her first name with her on screen persona was recently outed by a german tabloid for having been a porn star a few years ago. This led to some tense moments, when she was all but publicly disowned by her family - an eerie reflection of what her character goes through in the movie. Before this turns into yet another movie review, I’ll just end by saying - go watch!

Which brings me to No Country - another excellently executed movie which in my opinion should win an Oscar whenever it gets nominated for one. Not if, but when. Theres’s the gratuitous violence (bone sticking out of an arm?), the nail-biting-edge-of-the-seat action, and very beautiful cinematography of the texan desert. Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are awesome - but the real show stealer is Javier Bardem, who plays a psychopathic killer named Anton Chigurh, that makes Hannibal Lecter look like your favorite grandma on a sunny afternoon. Of course, being a Coen brothers movie, it has its own brand of an “OhMyGod” ending (the very words someone shouted in the theater as the movie ended) - and I most definitely agree.

Continuing on the Istanbul theme - “Crossing the bridge” is an excellent documentary on the music scene. It led me to discover Siya Siyabend, an unofficial band comprising of buskers off the streets of Istanbul. Named after a mesopotamian folk hero (Siyabend), the name of the band is actually that of its lead musician. Not only is he a fabulous guitarist and singer, his virtuosity with the toor (also known as the Santur in India and elsewhere) is phenomenal. Check out the clip below, where he’s collaborated with Alexander Hacke, a german bass guitarist. But more on their music in a later post!