December 31, 2010

Good bye 2010! Greetings 2011...

Cheers to:
new beginnings
fond memories
unconditional love
friendships that feel
productive workplaces
relationships that hold
children who care
places that nurture
words that pacify
ideas that intrigue
nuances that excite
touches that tingle
universal health care
nameless ties
minds sans boundaries
technology that facilitates
immigrant workers who weather all worries
globalization that makes differences disappear

a rock bottom economy that can only get better
a winter that makes us think spring
a hand that heals
a gaze that guards
a heart that warms
and a hug that holds promise.

...and that list is endless, so do add your own : )

Happy New Year!

Here are some contributory additions:
a Feliz Ano Nuevo ( Berenice)
a comfortable religion (Georg)

December 12, 2010

Sarah Palin's Run for Presidency - Palaver on a Non Issue!

I am putting myself in the line of fire here, but I am willing to take it on because I believe in the sanity and intelligence of the American electorate, and because I have great respect for the American Presidency. I believe that the American electorate is neither naive nor stupid to want a simpleton like Sarah Palin to govern the country that the entire world calls the superpower, and that we as citizens are so proud of, and also love so much. I am amazed and saddened by all the debating and talk about Ms. Palin's claim to presidency, something that we all know is not even remotely possible. Yet the discussions and debating continue, and I am tired of having to listen to them, and I also feel as if they are an insult to my intelligence. We are a proud people who take immense pride in our nation. Why do we then want the rest of the world to make light of the American Presidency? Which American would jeopardize the interest of this land that he holds so dear? This is, after all, our ' land of the free and the home of the brave', and we Americans 'can see', and our 44 elected presidents are proof of that 20-20 vision!

I wish to apologize to fellow Americans who seeing the complete senselessness of the Sarah Palin claim, wonder why I am posting on it. This is clearly a non-issue for any thinking American. Ms. Palin's run for presidency, if it ever comes to be, will be an embarrassment to the American public, and Americans know it. The issue has been blown out of proportion by the media, worldwide, and we know why. The media always resorts to sensationalism when it finds itself in a vacuum of things-to-report, especially when the next day's deadline hangs ominously close and there are pages that need filling. It is unfortunate that journalism in a capitalistic society sometimes has to sacrifice its ethical core. As a result, non-discretionary readers often get mislead into believing all that they see and hear in the media as the gospel truth. Such happens to be the case with the Palin story, and that is all it is , a story; one that will run its course among the uninformed and the politically naive, but eventually it will die its natural death, and may not even make it into the annuls of US history.

The United States of America is 'a leading political and cultural force in the world', and is termed so for a reason. We, as a people, have exercised our freedom wisely and consistently for close to three hundred years toward the betterment of this country. We have always elected a leader who has had a proven track record in public service and had a sound academic background. Who in his right mind would think we would do otherwise this time?

December 08, 2010

The "Dream Act" Passes in the House of Representatives!

The US House of Representatives passes the "Dream Act" with a 216 'Yea' and 198 'Nay' vote. It is to be voted upon in the Senate at 11 AM tomorrow!

Listening to the House debate over the Dream Act on CSPAN this evening, made it evident that some of the congressmen and women representing us are pretty vacuous and ill informed, even on those issues and causes that they call their own!

For example there were Republicans who said
  • the Dream Act would give illegal immigrants preferential treatment over American citizens!
  • the Dream Act beneficiaries would petition for their parents' naturalization right away!
  • the Dream Act provides 'amnesty' to illegals!
Clearly, these people had not done their homework on the Dream Act or they would not have said all of the above. Yet they did, and sadly enough, what they said may have been accepted as the truth by a majority of American viewers. After all, channel changing is our national pastime, and not very many of us would have stayed long enough to hear the rational and impressive rebuttal of Howard Berman, who pointed out the misrepresentations made by his colleagues, and then provided the accurate information in its stead.

The Dream Act will be voted upon in the senate tomorrow, and if passed, this "legislation would give hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants a chance at becoming legal. The requirements state that, to be eligible, a person must have been brought to the United States before he or she was 16, been in the United States for five years, earned a high-school degree and be attending college or be in the military."

However, I wouldn't hold my breath over the outcome of tomorrow's vote!

November 11, 2010

"Island Beneath the Sea" - Isabel Allende Living up to her Reputation as a Compelling Storyteller.

I really liked the story, though I still wonder at the title " Island Beneath the Sea" or "La Isla Bajo El Mar", as it is called in its original Spanish version. Isabel Allende, as everyone knows, is charming with words, and in her recent novel "Island Beneath the Sea" she has spun a tale that strangleholds both your curiosity and your imagination. The reader is caught in a whirlpool of 'what next' and 'what if' and does not want an out.

I picked up this novel as a light read for my vacation, and it was a perfect fit. Allende tells the story of Tete, an ambitious, passionate, and undaunted slave girl of mixed race who faces a deluge of atrocities and injustice but always manages to resurface, only to take a breath and get swept over by another flood of challenges. The story unfolds during the time of the French Revolution in Saint Domingue, a Carribean island, and later moves to New Orleans.

Allende has all the right ingredients for a delightful romance. The novel is set in a historical period when slavery was rampant and pirates ruled the high seas. The protagonist is a strong and attractive slave who though raped at the age of 11 by her master Valmorain, finds romance, and friendship at almost every juncture. In Tete, Allende presents a multifaceted protagonist who inspires both awe and compassion. Tete in all her roles, whether as a servile concubine or a lusty lover, as a trusted friend or a vengeful slave, as a helpless victim or a shrewd mother, has the reader entranced. Ms. Allende, truly, is a master storyteller in that she can spin a web so tenuous yet so enticing that the reader suspends all his disbelief and lets himself be transposed into Allende's romantic escapade. Allende, a self proclaimed feminist, has a love for romance, and that becomes apparent in the way this novel unfolds; the fact that that she was a translator for Barbara Cartland romances earlier on in her career further reinforces this belief. There is also a distinct flavor of Georgette Heyer in this novel, and given that Ms. Heyer is often referred to as the queen of Historical Romance, a comparison to her is quite the compliment.

The title of the novel still puzzles me, somewhat reminiscent of Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea", but perhaps I am looking for a deeper connect that doesn't exist. Allende was simply drawing from Haitian Vodou to make her title sound mystical.

Ms. Allende admits that she "love(s) stories", and that everything else including historical accuracy, characterization, and setting are subservient to the storyline. She claims that as a writer she has no intention to 'preach' nor does she have any specific 'mission'. She has this urgent need to tell a story and so she weaves a web of characters, a setting, and some history around a story to bring it to life, and what a life she gives it! One that leaves the reader contented, much like a sumptuous meal that brings about a sense of satisfaction and well being. Having read Ms. Allende's "Island Beneath the Sea" made me feel just that.

November 01, 2010

Laila Lalami's "Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits" Captures the Illegal Immigrant Experience Across the Strait of Gibraltar

Laila Lalami's collection of short stories titled "Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits" was suggested to me by a friend while I was searching for contemporary writings on 'the immigrant experience'.

Lalami's stories proved to be quite the page turners, with a delectable cast of characters sharing a common dream of making it out of Morocco in search of a better future. The theme of illegal immigration in pursuit of better opportunities, is pretty common and well rehearsed, and yet its manifestation in Laila Lalami's compilation of short stories was unique. Foremost of all, the setting for the entire collection is Morocco and Spain, both exotic places from the western reader point of view; the fact that all the main characters are Muslims gives to the reading a 'flavor-of-the century' status . Lalami is clearly aware that "the issue of religious fundamentalism is constantly present in the news media", and so readers have a "particular expectations of these kinds of stories". It was therefore remarkable the way Lalami was able to manipulate those reader expectations through some clever writing techniques. She achieves ultimate objectivity as a writer when she presents one character through two different stories , each with a different point-of view. As a result we see Faten, the headscarf wearing 19 year old presented through the eyes of Larbi, the fiercely protective liberal father of Noura in "The Fanatic ", and a few stories later, in "The Odalisque" we see her again, but this time it's through her own eyes, and in different circumstances. Indeed, a smart literary ploy to break the stereo type of burqua clad women. Faten could so easily have been denigrated by readers as the manifestation of the writer's bias towards or against the emergence of religious fundamentalism among Islamic Women, but Lalami did not let that happen. Instead she used the dual 'point-of-view' technique to bring innate depth and credibility to her characterization. Going forward, the reader now has greater trust and respect for Lalami's portrayals of situations and also for the characters that inhabit those situations.

Laila Lalami is extensively traveled and has also lived in different parts of the world. Her global personality does infiltrate into her writings, and sometimes to her disadvantage. There are times when she appears reticent to commit, especially on issues pertaining to religious fundamentalism and gender discrimination. She has a couple of 'undefined' characters in these short stories that defy any rational explanation like Noura's mother Salma in "The Fanatic", or Haalima's husband, Maati, in "Busrides". It's almost as if Lalami leaves it to the reader to make-what-you-want out of these undefined characters. Why Maati tortures and terrorizes his wife Haalima in "Busrides", and then just hands Haalima the divorce and lets her go in "The Saint" is rather puzzling. In "The Fanatic" why Salma chooses to be a bystander even as Noura, her daughter, is being pulled into radicalized religion by a newly found friend, is hard to rationalize. Ms. Lalami could well have masterminded this obscurity, and for one of two reasons, perhaps. One, that she didn't want to ruffle touchy feathers in the radical Islamic world, like Taslima Nasreen and Azar Nafisi did, or else, Ms Lalami deliberately left a gap for readers to bridge on the basis of their own levels of awareness. For instance, when I was reading " The Fanatic", I saw Salma as an incompetent mother who being overwhelmed by the demands of her profession, neglects her teenage daughter. Salma's gender or ethnicity did not come up for me at all; she could well have been a Janet of an American short story. Similarly, Matti, who left undefined by Lalami, became for me the stereotypical abusive husband, who unable to deal with his own insecurities, was venting frustration on his wife. Lalami cleverly left it to her readers to define such deliberate ambiguities, knowingly or otherwise investing the reader in her storyline. If, indeed that was her plan, then that was some fine literary craftsmanship.

Reading Llami's stories reminded me of other contemporary writers who too have written about the immigrant experience. For example: Adichie, Cisneros, Lahiri, Loraine Adams and Malladi, all of who have stories to tell about lives being uprooted and then the tortuous replanting of those lives on foreign soil amid a strange and often hostile environment. The 'immigrant experience' has set many a creative mind aflame, but what determines the success of a piece is whether the passion of the writer carries across to the reader, and in Ms. Lalami's case it certainly does.

September 28, 2010

"Closures" - An Analysis

Closures all:

Signing those papers.

Putting those trunks away.

Winterizing that car.

Aerating that lawn.

Stop seeing him now

Deleting his folder of emails

Taking him off your ‘contacts’

De-friending him!

The cause for closure is obviously noble:

to start afresh

to conserve

to safe keep

to rejuvenate

to energize...

all for the greater good.

Yet, closures cost:

The lawyer fees .

Lawn maintenance charge.

The mechanic's bill

And most of all...

Closures do tear apart

the human heart.

Quite simply sincere

they may appear;

until those longings,

without warning,

drive you asunder.

September 12, 2010

Serving on a Jury.

". . . We believe that trial by jury is fundamental to the American scheme of justice. . . . The jury trial provisions in the Federal and State Constitutions reflect a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power – a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges." Justice Byron White, in Duncan v. Louisiana (1967)

After my month long vacation outside of the country, I came back to find a court summons awaiting me to serve on a 'petit jury'. To my dismay, the last date to send in the confirmation receipt for the summon had passed, so I had to rush a call to the county office to find out what I had to do. The gracious lady at the office said that I could still send the receipt to the county office. I was relieved, but I still felt burdened about doing 'jury duty'.

The next day, I mentioned the court summon to a colleague at work, a recent immigrant from Africa, and her comment surprised me. "You will be like a judge!", she said, mighty impressed and excited that I would be serving on a jury! I was about to tell her how the impending jury duty was going to inconvenience me in so many ways; I had so many important things planned for that week during which I would now be sitting in a courthouse deciding the legitimacy of a stranger's action! However, her delighted response caught me off guard, and I found myself pondering on what it meant to be a juror in the U.S.A. Those words of my colleague that day, and the words of the swearing-in judge at the courthouse this morning compelled me to write this post about some of the thoughts that came to me while I was waiting in the courthouse. We in the USA are, indeed, privileged to be a part of a sophisticated judicial system where a) the defendant is innocent until proven guilty b) the state and not the defendant has the responsibility of proving the charges c) the defendant is tried by a jury constituting of his peers, randomly summoned to serve d) 'the defense need not prove the innocence of the defendant, only that there is a reasonable doubt regarding guilt'.

The jury selection process can be long and grueling, as it proved to be for me this time. After reaching the courthouse at 8 A.M, I was called in, along with some 40 others, at about 9 A.M. We were taken to a room with a presiding judge, a defendant, two lawyers, a secretary, and two police officers. We were then asked to answer some thirty questions on a survey about our ability to serve on a particular criminal case, the details of which were read out to us by the judge. After two hours, about 20 of us were dismissed, and asked to go back to the waiting room, perhaps to be called in for another case that was to commence that day. At about 11:30, I was summoned again, for a civil trial this time. But I did not meet the fit yet another time, and I found myself back in the waiting room with some twenty others. Ultimately, at about 2 P.M I was dismissed for the day after being told that I had completed my jury summon for the day. Well, I did not get a chance to serve on a jury today; I was not selected from the open pool of about a hundred jurors that reported with me this morning for reasons best known to the lawyers and the presiding judge. Me, and at least 30 others were allowed to leave the courthouse at about 1 P.M, with a compensation cheque of $ 5/-, a letter of excused absence for the day, and an assurance that we would not be called to serve on a jury for at least three years.

At the end of the day, I was in two minds about how I felt: happy at not being selected to serve on a jury, thereby not having to reschedule my calendar for the duration of the case, or did I feel sorry for not being selected to contribute to the health and dynamism of the justice system of this country of which I feel very proud. Maybe I'll get lucky the next time ...

Everyday we read and hear in the news media about countries where the justice system is either archaic, corrupt, or then non-existent. We also know that there are places around the world where the rendition of justice can take years, even outlast a human life! The 'honor killings' in India, the five hundred rape victims in the Congo whose cases may never be registered in any court, the arbitrary punishment meted out to Mukhtaran Bibi, apparently as a form of justice, in Pakistan, the surreptitious handling of the assassination of journalist Natalia Estemirova in Russia, are some tragic examples of a legal system gone awry,when justice was not rendered! In the light of which, we in the United States and those in other countries that follow a similar system, are, indeed, fortunate to have a system in place where an individual is promised a fair and fast trial by a jury of his peers.

Though I did not get selected to serve on a jury today, the five plus hours I spent at the courthouse have left me with a keener civic sense as I pondered over questions such as : If I were ever to be charged of a wrongdoing/crime, would I not rather be judged by a panel of peers rather than by one single individual, even if he were to be a highly qualified 'judge'? Also, would I not be glad for for an efficient legal system that values both justice and time?

I wonder how people around the world view the justice system in their countries....

August 25, 2010

South Africa's "Protection of Information Bill" - A Fledgling Democracy's Struggle to Define the Role of Media?

“This is the threat of a return to the censorship under apartheid,” said Nadine Gordimer, a Nobel Laureate from South Africa whose books have been banned in the country, about the recently proposed Protection of Information Bill by the South African National Congress (ANC).

Sensationalism sells, and that is true in any part of the world. However, does that mean that information be withheld from the public simply because it does not do well for the image of the country; a reason cited by some ANC leaders in favor of the new Bill. The role of the media in a fledgling democracy is always under close scrutiny until such time that the public's need for transparency in government dealings is appeased, and it usually falls on the media to ensure that transparency. As a result, in a new democracy such as SA, the media often finds itself battling with the party in power who, even though they "fought for majority rule, morphed into a kleptocratic elite" within a short span of time in order to "hang onto power", as was the case even in Zimbabwe.

Here are the two sides to this issue in SA:
"The Protection of Information Bill seeks to establish a new regime for the classification of government documents and provides draconian prison terms for those who publish classified information, leading to the criticism that it will effectively shut down investigative journalism. "

The media in SA, with it's disclosures regarding paybacks to ministers for signing off on major business contracts and the lavish and often socially questionable lifestyles of those in power, has come under attack for churning out reams of sensational writings. South African Communist Party (SACP) secretary- general Blade Nzimande had this to say about the role of media in democracies. “While media can be a very important ally to democracy, it can be a severe obstacle to advancement.”

If this Bill were to be passed in SA it would allow the government to classify a large category of information under the umbrella of 'national interest', which is defined as " “all matters relating to the advancement of the public good” and “the survival and security of the state.” While the common man believes the bill will "gag the media on corruption" since it threatens imprisonment of anywhere between 3 to 25 years for journalists who are in violation of the ruling.

The questions many South Africans are grappling with at this time are perhaps:
  • Should media be penalized for releasing information on the corrupt dealings of people in power?
  • What information is to be designated as 'classified' and who defines and implements the 'classification'?
  • Must the media respect the code of silence regarding classified information, and what will be the penalty for a journalist if he releases classified information to the public?
  • How are other democracies dealing with this?
The "Protection of Information Bill" is moving through the South African Parliament as we speak, and what is worrisome is that the A.N.C. has a nearly two-thirds majority there.

August 23, 2010

Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" - Provides a Recipe for Cleansing the Soul.

I was impressed by "The Alchemist"s reputation as the 'most translated book by a living author'; one which has been translated into 56 languages since the time it was written in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho in 1988. "The Alchemist" is a fairly short, feel-good read, that I managed to start and finish on my return flight to the USA.

The novel is about the journey of young Santiago, searching for a treasure that is going to change his life. There is an aura of mysticism and traces of Sufi thought that Coelho often draws upon to explain some of the events that confront Santiago along the way. For Santiago, as for the reader, the plot of the novel provides for introspection, both of who delve into their inner being and question their actions and the outcomes thereof. Somehow, this reminded me of Richard Bach's allegorical novel, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", though, unlike "The Alchemist", I really liked Bach's novel. Given the metaphorical and philosophical nature of Coelho's novel, the plot appears incidental at times. For me, this was a dampener. An engaging plot-line is, perhaps, the mainstay of any great fiction, and the plot of "The Alchemist" did come loose to accommodate certain profundities that Coelho wanted to include in his soup-for-the-soul writing.

Paul Coelho is a highly acclaimed writer, and my post does not mean to take away from that; I may not have enjoyed this book as much due to a timing issue: I may have read The Alchemist at a time when life felt fair, and my motivation levels were pretty high. The novel may be a perfect read for some,one who is at a low ebb and feels the need for a motivational booster. "The Alchemist" is about finding oneself, and, even though not a trend setter in any way, does provide manna for lost or demotivated souls.

August 15, 2010

Thomas C Foster's Road Map to Literature - "How to Read Literature Like a Professor."

For once I am glad I did not set aside this book because of its title! Thomas Foster's "How to Read literature Like a Professor" is a refreshing and engaging piece of non-fiction that every college bound student should read. In fact, I wish I had read this book in High School as it would have lessened my struggle in the English courses I took during the undergraduate years.

Foster with his catchy chapter titles and a seemingly chatty writing style guides the reader through the 'language of reading' that would facilitate any future reading task that the reader may undertake, be it a Hemingway, a Wordsworth, or even a Junot Diaz. Foster flags conventions that are embedded in Literature which if the reader is made aware of could serve as a key to better understanding of a literary piece; Foster goes as far as to call it the 'grammar' of Literature. It is familiarity with these conventions and the grammar that sets apart a literature professor from his freshmen students. A professor has the advantage of having extended exposure to and practice in the conventions of Literature: a literary memory which comprises of a repertoire of literary symbols which facilitates pattern recognition. Once the student is made cognizant of these symbols and the patterns that exist the reading of literature will cease to be a formidable task.

Foster divides his book into chapters that flag some universal conventions of Literature and points out how they have been used by various writers across cultures and during different time periods. The chapter headings not only make for interesting reading, but also add to the understanding of these conventions. For example, "If it's Square, it's a Sonnet", "When in Doubt it's from Shakespeare or the Bible". Foster ends the book with a test of sorts that allows the reader to practice some of what he has learned in the book; Foster provides a reading, "A Test Case" from Katherine Mansfield and has you use your understanding of patterns and symbols to analyze the text. He then gives you two student interpretations of the reading and points out how the students have used their knowledge of patterns and symbols to comprehend the piece.

Clearly. Foster has spent long hours, years in a Literature classroom and wants to bridge the reading gap between him and his students sooner than it's happening. However, it may be a very simplistic solution he's offered in the book because there will be many pieces that may fall outside of the road map he's provided in these pages. Having said that, as an educator I feel this Foster's book could be a great start to college reading as it makes the reader aware of how vast a gap there exists between his reading and a Professors, and that in itself could be a great incentive for an average reader.

Here are some quoted highlights from the book that may lure you into reading this interesting and informative piece of non-fiction:

In Literature-

"The real reason for a quest is always self knowledge". (be it in Sophocles' "Oedipus" or Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" or Mark Twain's "Huck Finn")

"Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion."

"There is no such thing as an original work of Literature.......there is only one story........intertextual dialogue deepens and enriches, bringing multiple layers of meaning to the text. "

"Myth is a body of story that matters........that is so deeply burrowed into our conciousness that readers may almost automatically consider it whenever 'flying' or 'falling' is invoked."

"It's never 'just' rain or snow...........if you want a character to be cleansed, symbolically, let him walk through the rain somewhere..........rain is also restorative....mysterious........snow is clean, stark, severe, inhospitable, inviting, playful, suffocating.......does well to remember, as one starts reading to check the weather."

"When writers send characters south, it is so they can run amok"

August 14, 2010

Visit to India........

T 3 Indira Gandhi Airport New Delhi

All's well that ends well, and so it was with my visit to India. The much talked about Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport lived up to its reputation. The road access was well marked and easy, the check in was professional and the waiting lounges were comfortable and well kept, as were the bathrooms. I took off from New Delhi very impressed with the new terminal and the staff managing it.

My trip to India was a bag of mixed emotions, but mostly positive ones. India and Indians have a way of growing on you, and it's a growing that completely out-shadows all the dysfunction, discomfort, and disparities that encompass New Delhi. In fact, New Delhi often reminded me of a panorama in fractal geometry, especially when negotiating the seemingly unruly traffic, or facing 'jhuggis' alongside the high rise 'towers' and 'malls'. The dichotomy and the disparity is all so well enmeshed in the mainstream that the overall picture exudes a harmony; truly a baffling phenomenon. The plethora of negatives that I had collected in a matter of a few weeks: the disregard for traffic rules and public hygiene, the flouting of human rights and apathy toward the planet, the suffocating lack of space and clean air, all of these ceased to matter by the end of my trip! I believe this equanimity I felt was not unique to me; most visitors leave India feeling this way because India happens to you, as it did to me!

July 28, 2010

Visit to India ....continued

Empowered women.

The United States of America, one of the most developed democracies in the world, has yet to elect its first female president, but India has Pratibha Patil for President, and she is not the first woman elected to lead this country; Indira Gandhi the charismatic Prime Minister is remembered worldwide as a visionary and a very shrewd statesman.

That perhaps explains the remarkable female population I see in New Delhi that seems to have infiltrated every aspect of society despite its apparent male dominance. This is true at every level; for example, though it is the 'dhobi' who owns the 'ironing stall', it is his wife who appears to be running the show. The 5 feet nothing woman has borne some eight plus children in the last 15 years, and still flashes the widest smile while limping (due to polio in childhood) door to door collecting clothes for ironing, which she brings back to you at the end of the day neatly ironed by the 'dhobi' who sits put in the stall. However, that is not all she does; she also cooks two meals a day for her family and packs lunch for two of her sons who work on daily wages. It was she who came to me with that charming smile flashing from ear to ear asking me to recommend her sons for permanent jobs somewhere. She blessed me profusely and praised me to the skies making it near impossible for me to refuse her request, and soon after I found myself asking a rich and influential friend to find the 'dhobi's" son a permanent job! Clearly the illiterate, 5 feet nothing woman had done her job well.

Women all around me seem to be at par with the men, be it riding a motorcycle to go to work, or working night shifts at call centers to make good money. Even the construction sites, that are innumerable due to the oncoming commonwealth games, have a fair number of female labor which would shock a foreign visitor. The women appear frail, but manage to balance with ease loads of at least 30 pounds on their heads, some of them carrying an infant tied on their backs!

Well...the power and capability that women of New Delhi possess may be a revelation to any westerner who has grown up on PBS and National Geographic documentaries that have for decades depicted Indian woman as demure and voiceless. That is not how I see them here! Indian women seem to be running the show today in this land known for its practice of 'Sati' and 'dowry deaths', and the world needs to be aware of that.

July 24, 2010

Visit to India ...continued


There are multiple modes of public transport available in New Delhi for a tourist. The recently introduced 'Metro' is fast becoming a popular transport with fares ranging from Rs. 15/- to Rs. 50/- (approximately Rs. 50/- to one US dollar). However, the Metro has not reached all parts of the capital, and there is a lot of construction ongoing in and around the capital as a result of the 'Metro Project'.

Prior to the Metro, DTC buses were the most commonly used public transportation which in the last few months have evolved into 2 types of buses the 'green' and the 'red'. The Green Buses with fares of Rs. 5/-, 10/-, and 15/- for those on a tight budget, and the air conditioned Red Buses with fares of Rs. 15/-, 20/-, and 25/- for those who cannot withstand the extreme temperatures. I will probably not get a chance to travel on either because of friends who send me their cars whenever I need to go out.

The CNG (compressed natural gas) Auto-rickshaw is another intriguing 3 wheel mode of transport where the minimum fare is Rs.35/- ; apparently, the rickshaw driver pretty much decides on how much you will pay despite the existence of a tariff meter.

Then, there are of course the yellow top cabs which run in most places in Delhi, but I am told that even there the cab driver overrides the tariff meter. Besides the yellow tops, there are private taxis that you can rent on an hourly, daily, and or weekly basis. I hired one of those a few days ago at Rs.800/ - for a period of 8 hours. Apparently, this mode of transport is a hot favorite with NRIs (non resident Indian).

Transportation, in the Indian context, is very varied. There is also a sizable population that travels on bicycles, cycle rickshaws, and also bullock carts, and the presence of all of these on the roads affect the travel speed in this capital city. The speed on most of the inner city roads is between 25 - 50 km per hour, though I have to admit that I have yet to experience a speed of more than 40km per hour. In fact, just yesterday I was on the road from 10:30AM to 9:30PM, and the average speed of the car must have been 25 km per hour. Talking about my day on the road yesterday...I witnessed the most interesting interaction between the drivers of two vehicles that were both moving side by side on a packed highway where, if I put my hand out the window, I could touch the outer rim of the auto-rickshaw that was driving alongside! Well, it so happened, that my friend, who was driving me around in Connaught place (the Times Square of New Delhi), was unsure of the route to our next destination and needed directions. Given that the GPS has still not made an in road into the Indian market, and that road maps are an unknown commodity, even at the gas stations, my friend resorted to doing what she always does when in need of directions: she rolls down both the driver window and the passenger side window and within less than 5 seconds an auto-rickshaw draws up on the passenger side, the driver of which is busy talking on a cell phone. My friend then yells out to the driver, who hears her over the din of that bustling neck to neck traffic, and then, through monosyllabic sounds and hand and neck gestures, gives directions to my friend. She, in the meanwhile, is driving and negotiating turns and aggressive drivers like you cannot imagine, and is therefore only able to hear but the first two directions the auto-rickshaw driver gave, so after following those two, she again rolls down the window and has another brief conversation with yet another auto-rickshaw driver, and we finally succeed in getting onto a road that my friend recognizes! This was clearly better than any GPS experience that I had ever had!

July 21, 2010

Visit to India ....continued

Public Hygiene…
Most Indian households are dusted, swept, and mopped everyday, if not twice a day, yet that cleanliness manifests itself only within the confines of individual homes, or so I guess. In East Delhi and NOIDA, the two parts of the city that I have been in so far, there is trash strewn all around especially on the roadsides and any open piece of square footage. The garbage disposal system, if it can be called such, is strange. I am not sure I want to call it archaic, because the Indus Valley civilization had a sophisticated sewage system and even had flush toilets according to ancient texts. However, today, as I see it, household garbage is taken in small plastic bags from households by a hired help who leaves that bag at the first open space that he finds within walking distance. As a result, on my morning walks the putrefying organic waste emanated an overwhelming stench that was so overpowering and pervasive that I could smell it on my clothes every time I came back into the house. As you may have guessed, the morning walks will have to be discontinued while I am in Delhi. Clearly, public hygiene is not a priority; the dichotomy between the public and the private levels of hygiene still has me baffled!

Child Labor….

Child labor is rampant and practiced blatantly in India. On my way from the airport I saw several road construction projects that had young boys working as laborers which caught my attention. In the course of the last week, I find that the daily wages labor force has a very large percentage of underage workers; in fact the driveway of my residence is swept every morning by a young boy who could not be more than twelve years old. All the rag pickers I have seen so far are young children who are obviously malnourished and or emaciated with scant clothing and usually barefoot. Childhood has clearly been taken hostage by poverty...

July 20, 2010

Visit to India

I am currently in India, labeled as one of the fast growing economies in the world, even as the west is in the grip of an extended economic crisis. While on the flight to New Delhi, the capital city, I chatted with a group of American students who were traveling to India for the first time. They were extremely excited at the prospect of touring a nation with ‘so rich and diverse a heritage that is documented by literary texts going back some 3000 years’. They were also curious about an India which has now become ‘the world’s go to country for tech support’. The young tourists could not wait to experience the famous hospitality of Indians who always ‘made time’ for a visitor. Their enthusiasm was so contagious that when the flight landed at the New Delhi airport, I too found myself excited about my next fortnight in New Delhi.


Confusion and lack of clear directives was the impression I got as I waded through the ‘custom check’ and ‘baggage claim’. Collecting my baggage took me close to an hour even though I was surrounded by at least 12 Airport employees who kept asking me if I needed any help, yet they could do nothing about the baggage delay. While waiting for my baggage I kept thinking of the check-in counter at EWR, Newark, where there were but 3 Continental employees directing and guiding passengers at the check in which took us less than 20 minutes.


The flight landed at 8:20 PM and I reached my destination at 11:30 PM. The distance between the airport and the place where I was to stay is about 20 miles but the traffic, both in diversity and density, and its complete disregard for traffic rules made my drive seem endless. I wondered how those American students had fared….

My abode….

The variety of foliage that surrounds this residence is incredible. There are palm trees, deciduous firs, rubber plants, money plants, cacti, jasmines, gardenias, bougainvilleas, crotons, grape vines, guava, pomegranate, and mango trees to name a few. It is a bungalow with high ceilings and covered verandas both in the front and back. This place is like a mini rain forest in a concrete jungle.

to be continued....

July 04, 2010

"Grandes Ecoles" in France - Facing the threat of Social Engineering in Education?

Sarkozy addressing students at Columbia University earlier this year in NYC had the following to say about US higher education "...we admire your university system....equality is not uniformity, it is tailored to the needs of each and everyone...France has to open it's universities to creativity...". He seems to be following up on that stance in the light of current developments in France proposing reforms in its higher education system, specifically its push to diversify the predominantly white "grandes ecoles" which have, for generations, sent forth numerous luminaries in various academic and non academic fields.

The "grandes ecoles", that number about 215 across the country, admit only a few hundred students each year from all over Europe and from other English speaking countries across the world. Of these 200 + institutes, there are a handful of them at the top which are considered the creme de la creme in the group, not very different from our Ivy League Schools in the USA. The "grand ecoles" recruit the top students around the country and internationally every year. However, for those students that don't get recruited, they have to take a two year preparatory course, Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Ecoles (CPGE), which culminates in a highly competitive nationwide exam which determines whether a student secures admission to one of the "grand ecoles". In France, "families celebrate acceptance at a "grand ecole more than graduation itself." How different is that from a high school student in the US trying to get into an Ivy League Institute like Princeton or Harvard?

Apparently, being a graduate from one of the "grand ecoles' ensures a life time of opportunities, alongside of lucrative and meaningful employment. The Government of France is now asking these elite institutes to bring in under privileged students who cannot overcome the hurdle of the current entrance exam, which apparently is not geared to the economically and culturally disadvantaged status of the immigrant population. The "grand ecoles" meanwhile, are worried that this 'social engineering' thrust on them may 'dilute' the quality of a "grand ecole" education, something that has been prized by the French for centuries. The government, regardless, is determined to provide an equal opportunity environment at their institutes of higher education including the "grand ecoles".

Why is the French government prodding the "grand ecoles" to make this move? Given that it is a political move, there could be no altruistic agenda for sure. It could perhaps be the realization by the ruling party heads that diversity can no longer be ignored. They fear that a disgruntled immigrant minority with strong feelings of being marginalized may prove a serious threat in France. The riots of 2005 previewed what could be in store if the issue of separatism were not addressed in matters of education and health. The USA is still battling to work out a fair and relevant way to address this, and the passing of the "Dream Act", if it happens that is, may be a major breakthrough in the impasse called the US Immigration Reform Bill, a legislation that has hung ominously over US decision makers in the senate and the congress for the last so many years.

France's proposal to revamp the admission process to the "grand ecoles" seems like a double edged sword; quality is pitched against equal opportunity. The promise of a quality education must stand, as must the right for equal opportunity. How does one strike a balance there without compromising at either end? Why should one have to make a choice?

June 09, 2010

Hunger Strike for 'Dream Act' - A Fair Proposal for Education instead of Deportation for Children of Undocumented Immigrants

"In New York City since June 2nd, a group of 10 undocumented students continue to starve themselves outside of Sen. Chuck Schumer's office, living off water and salt as a way to pressure him to pass the Dream Act as a standalone bill."

The Dream Act is "
a proposed legislation, introduced nearly a decade ago, would allow qualifying undocumented youth to be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship, provided they obtain a college degree or serve in the military."

If passed the "Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) would grant children of illegal immigrants who have completed high school education and two years of college the opportunity to apply for citizenship and thus be able to apply for post secondary education....students will get the chance to get higher education through attaining citizenship. Around 70,000 undocumented students graduate from high schools in America every year."

Juan came to this country when he was 10 years old. He was heartbroken to leave his grandmother behind in Honduras, his native country; she had been the sole family he had had for the first ten years of his life. His father left Honduras before Juan came into the world, and his mother left shortly after, seeking a new life in the USA. Some ten years later, Juan is told that his parents have sent for him, and he boards a plane to come to the USA to join his parents who are now illegal immigrants as their visitor VISA had expired within a few months of their arrival.

Juan joins two strangers, his parents, in a strange land and starts in a strange American Public School setting where his native language, Spanish, is of no help. He is enrolled in an ESL program, and that is the beginning of his academic career. The 11 year old gradually gets acclimatized to his new parents in the new setting, and is gladdened by the arrival of his baby brother who till date is the only one Juan considers as his real family. Within months of his arrival, Juan too becomes an illegal alien, a status he is completely oblivious of until he is in his junior year at high school and is thinking of college as his next step toward living the American dream. What is more is that Juan is now a star soccer player who has been the MVP in the county for two consecutive years scoring the highest number of goals. At the All Star Game, the recruiters all make a beeline for Juan only to lose interest when the coach tells them of Juan's undeclared legal status. In the meanwhile, Juan is slowly awakening to to the reality of his situation; he sees his team mates, who played soccer only so that they could put that on their resume, being accepted to colleges on full and partial scholarships. His high school coach tries to find Juan a spot in a community college only to find that the college cannot give Juan any money because he is undocumented. Juan's parents in the meanwhile, decide to separate, and decide that Juan will go with the father and Jose the younger would stay with the mother. Juan cannot bear the thought of separating from Jose, the one human being he feels connected with! He protests but to no avail. His father, who is a part owner in a construction business, has to relocate because of the non availability of jobs in the current recession. As a result of the financial crunch, he will also not be able to help pay for Juan's college. Juan is devastated; his dream of going to college and being able to play soccer at a college level is shattered!

Juan has since done odd jobs accompanying his father to construction sites every now and again. He plays soccer whenever he can on adult leagues that call him when they are short on players for practices. That may perhaps be only reason why Juan hasn't sunk into depression despite the hopeless situation he finds himself in.

Why should this trusting 19 year old have to pay a price this big for something he really is not responsible for? Why should Juan have to suffer for the decisions made by his parents? Why does he have to suffer the illegal alien status when the USA is the only place he recognizes as home, a home he has never been outside of since he first arrived here?

The 'Dream Act' can bring hope into Juan's life and into the lives of thousands of other Juans who live their life in fear, in a kind of limbo that they cannot find a way out of. Life is passing by for the Juans of this country, and we can change that if we support the Dream Act that will give the children of illegal immigrants their life and the opportunity to live out their American Dream!

June 02, 2010

"Spin" by Robert Charles Wilson - Science Fiction at its Best.

Folding the Map's intriguing review of "Spin" has definitely put this book on my reading list. According to the reviewer, this science fiction novel may be a contender against classics such as Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", my most favorite piece of science fiction.

"Spin, science fiction at its best

Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, starts out as a seemingly average bit of modern science fiction. There is some “event” that is inexplicable to humans and, over the course of the novel, the event, its origins, and its consequences bear out in ways that can be either interesting or uninteresting to the average reader. That is what separates good science fiction from bad and also where Spin excels! The reasons for and consequences of the event in Spin are absolutely fantastic and make the book more than worth reading by any fan of science fiction.

So, to begin with, let’s describe the “event” in the novel. At some point in the near future, the entire Earth is suddenly covered by a membrane that selectively lets things through. For instance, electromagnetic radiation is not let through in either direction but satellites, rockets, and the like are (note: the membrane generates a sort of artificial sunlight in order to allow life to continue on the planet). Even more interestingly, the membrane effectively slows down the passage of time on the earth such that, for every decade that passes on the earth, a billion years pass by in the rest of the galaxy. Effectively, this means that humans have 50 years left before the sun’s expansion makes Earth unlivable (thanks to a variety of reasons, including deadly radiation and unbearable temperatures). That is the “event”. While quite intriguing, it is not the most exciting premise for a science fiction book that I have read.

What happens thereafter, in humanity’s attempts to save itself from extinction in 50 years is what makes this book spectacular. First, in hopes of providing itself the time necessary to develop technology to defeat the looming extinction of the species, humans decide to launch a colony on Mars. As Mars does not have a membrane around it, time there flows regularly and people on Mars have the full length of time till the death of the sun to come up with a way to save their brethren on Earth (or at least allow the human species to continue). This much we get from the back sleeve of the book. And here is where the fun starts. Beyond lie spoilers…

Within a hundred thousand years (real time), Mars is also enveloped by a similar membrane. At this point, it is believed that the membranes are the hostile actions of an intelligent alien species. But to what end is unknown. As the years (and decades) pass, humans go through various stages of coming to terms with their seemingly inevitable destruction: hedonism, religious fervor, hysteria, suicide, looting, etc. It seems that we are doomed.

However, the Martian colony, before being enveloped by the membrane, sent a representative back to Earth with tremendous amounts of technology not yet developed on Earth. Among these technological treasures were replicators, also known as von Neumann machines. [On a side note, I feel like it is rare that von Neumann machines are meaningfully brought into science fiction novels and really appreciate the inclusion of the concept into this novel by Wilson.] After much debate, these replicators are launched into outer space in the hopes of, at the very least, understanding the origins of the alien intelligence out to destroy us.

What these replicators report back (and how they fare) is far too interesting and exciting for me to simply give away here. It would be a disservice to any potential reader who happens to come across this review. So, I close out this review simply by saying that Wilson successfully manages to weave together human, geological, and galactic time spans in this novel, while incorporating a number of speculative concepts that are thrilling for any science-fiction fan. Enjoy!

PS, There is some amount of storyline about the characters in the book, which I intentionally omitted. The human interest plot was well-written but I just don’t consider that to be the real core of a science-fiction book.

PPS, If you don’t know what von Neumann machines are, you really should click on the Wikipedia link I inserted in the text. And here. It’s a really interesting concept that doesn’t get enough air time, in my opinion."

May 22, 2010

"Write the Future" NIKE Style !

This NIKE advertisement, released on Thursday, heralds the hopes, the challenges, and the anticipation surrounding the Soccer World Cup in South Africa scheduled to start less than a month from today.

May 08, 2010

Burqa Niqab Ban in Belgium - Equality Overrides Freedom?

A well thought out write up on the "Burqa and Niqab Ban" in Belgium.
The writer of this post is an individual whose ideas and opinions hold a lot of weight for me.

"My thoughts on the niqab ban

In my opinion, there are two major philosophical issues that underlie most serious discussions about banning the niqab: the balance struck between freedom and equality within a society and the marginalization of individuals within that same society. Therefore, before giving my thoughts on such a ban, I want to consider both issues.

First, it is important to determine whether the use of the niqab is a space where the government has the right to legislate. Being a warm-blooded American, my immediate answer to whether the government has a right to legislate anything is usually “No!” But is that actually fair? Recall that the legislations in question ban the niqab in public spaces. Therefore, governments like Belgium’s are saying, where free interactions may take place between any two residents of this nation, we feel it is our right, as the elected representatives of the populace, to legislate the bounds of acceptable clothing. To some extent, even here in the United States, we legislate what people can wear in public places (just think about how many naked non-arrested people you see on the streets [the answer is zero]). Therefore, I believe that it is within the purview of a government to legislate on the outerwear of its residents and, as a result, the use of the niqab.

There is really only one principled reason to even consider banning the niqab: shifting the balance between freedom and equality within the nation further towards equality. It should be fairly obvious that the banning of the niqab impinges upon the freedom of some Muslim women. Either it limits women’s freedom to dress as they please (within the bounds agreed upon prior to the enactment of the ban). Or it limits the Muslim individual’s right to practice her particular flavor of Islam. Therefore, without a doubt, the niqab ban is an impingement upon the freedoms of a subset of any society. How does the ban increase equality? The key is that everyone can see everyone else’s face, which, I believe, is quite important for a functioning western liberal society. Essentially, the ban on the niqab levels the playing field in any interactions between people involving talking, arguing, bartering, playing, fighting, etc. While we may not be conscious of it, we take millions of cues from the facial expressions of the people with whom we are interacting. By allowing the niqab wearer to hide her facial expressions, the niqab puts her in an unfairly advantageous position in situations where displaying emotion is disadvantageous (just imagine how you would fare against a semi-competent niqab-wearing poker player). Similarly, women wearing the niqab are at a disadvantage when facial emotion is useful, for instance, when persuading the jury while arguing a case in court. However, that is unlikely to be why various western nations wish to ban the niqab. But, it is entirely reasonable to believe that governments wish to ban the niqab in order to allow for fairer interactions and improve the level of equality amongst their residents.

More pragmatically, the banning of the niqab is likely to interact with marginalization of Muslims within western society in ways that we would not like. First, recall that the sects of Islam that require women to wear the niqab are already fairly conservative. By banning the niqab, the government is telling these conservative Muslim women and their families that, in order to continue living in the country, they must change their religious beliefs. Such a demand is bound to marginalize most such families and practically drive them into the arms of radical Islam. Therefore, the ban undoubtedly leads to the radicalization of a number of Muslim youths who may not otherwise have sought out radical Islam. Such radicalization leads to the sort of “home-grown” terrorism that we hear about on the news constantly. Considering the strategically devastating outcomes of the ban, it is unlikely that any nation considering the pragmatic consequences of the ban would implement it.

Having considered the points above, is it best for a western nation to ban the niqab or not? On principle alone, a western nation would be best served by implementing such a ban, in order to foster a sense of equality alongside the freedoms long ensured by its constitution. On the other hand, pragmatically, a niqab ban is quite likely to increase the threat of home-grown terrorism in the nation and therefore an inadvisable legislation. However, I strongly believe that laws regarding the freedoms of individuals should not be made on the basis of pragmatic security concerns; such concerns are what bring about legislation like Arizona’s recent immigration law. Ultimately, leaders of any western nation must think of their populace’s beliefs regarding equality and freedom. Where on the spectrum between those two ideals does their country lie? In the cases of Belgium and France, it is quite likely that a ban is the right decision, as both of them put a great deal of emphasis on the notion of equality [see: liberté, égalité, fraternité]. However, as I put more weight on freedom than equality, I do not agree with the ban on the niqab. While the notion of increasing equality by implementing a ban is an alluring one, I do not think it is worth the price of the corresponding reduction in the freedom of the populace."

May 02, 2010

"Sita Sings the Blues" - A Storm (if even), in a Teacup?

"Horrible depiction of the most revered scripture of ancient India. Nina Paley has no rights to compare herself with Sita." (Reel 13)

Nina Paley's animation film "Sita Sings the Blues", released this month, was recommended by a friend who normally refrains from giving recommendations, and so I had to see this one.

As we all know by now, religion and the rendition of it in any artistic genre, comes under immediate and intense scrutiny. The Danish cartoons on Muhammad, M.F. Husein's paintings of Hindu gods, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, or the most recent controversy about a "South Park" episode on Comedy Central, created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone; all of these have received unprecedented coverage in the press, worldwide. No surprise then that Ms. Paley has been receiving hate mail after 'Sita Sang Her Blues' in the voice of a 1920 jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Moreover 'Sita', the much worshiped epitome of Indian womanhood, has a"Betty Boop Goes Hollywood' appearance in the film as she croons and swoons to the fickleness of love and lovers; a far cry from the sari clad traditional image of Sita in Hindu mythology.

Ms. Paley had several things going on simultaneously in the film besides the plot line of the Indian epic, The Ramayana. She inter-twined the story of Sita with the story of her own heart break in marriage, all within an 80 minute movie. Clearly, this was taking a monumental risk given our current day religiously sensitive audiences. Ms. Paley was obviously willing to take that risk and more because she introduced yet another controversial feature in this film; she had three commentators with pronounced Indian accents interpreting events in the Ramayana, and they did it with obvious uncertainty like that of second generation Indians living in the US. Those comments are made in a lighter tone like the one used among close friends, but to an avid Hindu they could easily sound blasphemous. Nothing the three say is really new or essential and yet Ms. Paley chose to have them in the film. The movie was certainly not ground breaking, in fact quite ordinary as far as the storyline was concerned; a lack-luster retelling of an ancient epic. Hanshaw's jazz vocals were perhaps the saving grace. Luckily for the movie maker, the Western audience, seeing an Indian Epic in animation mode, may perhaps be intrigued and then impressed by what Ms. Paley created because, “We see so many films, and when you come across one like this, you just feel like you’ve stumbled upon a gem.” (Alison Dickey, a film producer and one of the jurors at Spirit Awards).

I don't think I would recommend the movie though"Sita Sings the Blues" has definitely generated immense interest among staunch Hindus as also with Hindu bloggers who feel affronted by Ms. Paley's blasphemous presentation of 'their gods'. Consequently the movie will draw an audience, recover its making cost, and the artist Ms. Paley will not be faced with penury for having ventured into new grounds. No artist deserves that fate; certainly not Nina Paley, a respected comic strip writer.