Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye 2008

The year ends, and I am here, in India, in awe of the time passing and my life moving in so many different directions.  I usually try and write about something serious and avoid all reality TV fueled excesses about the details of my life and emotions.  But I am human, this blog is more than just an intellectually driven machine, pumping out film reviews and political analysis, it's got soul, dear reader and a heart of gold.  

The backdrop to everything right now is India.  This grand and tragic place, so thoroughly embedded in the collective imagination.  This new year will be even more India- focused.  

I've also gotten very good responses to the film reviews, more will follow.  

Just to spice things up, I will add a bit more from my personal journal, for which there were some requests.  

Keep reading, and thinking and acting.  Something tells me, that 2009, is the year, that small window of opportunity that comes only so often, to change the world, for the better.  It will be a year of great changes.    

Here is to a new year, together, in Gabo World.  2009 got a nice ring to it.  I can already feels its magic and transformative power.  I wish you call courage and strength and love.  Thank you for your support, it means a lot to me, more than you'll ever know.  


A Dialogue on School

I wrote this to X in response to his dismay to his graduate level program in the UK.  I don't know if it will have the impact I want.  His other influences are too backward.  And India, northern India especially, is hard on anyone who wants to study.  It's short term versus long term thinking, the latter predominant mentality, is changing ever so slowly.    It is a very, very anti-intellectual society to the shock of any American, I am sure, who associates Indians with education.  The survival mentality breeds a hyper utilitarianism Bentham would envy.  It's sick.  "Be practical, be practical", I never want to here that word again, Practical, what does it mean?  To have no vision, be a follower and stagnate?  And if I bring this up, at once, in unison, all Indians say:  Because you are an American you can think this way.  Yes, I am, but there is a reason Americans rule the world and its imagination.  We are much more than our wealth and arms.  American didn't become rich and then choose to have wonderful, liberal, humanistic ideals, on the contrary,  it's BECAUSE of those ideals, that we rule and are powerful and will continue to be so despite all the doomsayers.        

I can understand why X feels the way he does.  All those who currently rule and change and transform india, did not spend their free time learning Latin and Ancient Greek, or reading philosophy or history.  They were technically oriented.  Where we come from, is different.  Our highest echelons of power are dominated by people who seriously study liberal arts.  Even our medical entrance exams, the MCAT, a third of it is just reading comprehension.  It is a very different approach, with very different incentives.  But for India to change, and to change fundamentally, it will need to embrace all fields of knowledge and intellectual curiosity. And forget personal gain, for a second.  For a person to have a meaningful and deep life, true education and knowledge, allows you to make sense of your failures.  It brings a narrative to your life and a way to view the world, that nothing else can provide.  Also, in a consumer society, it refines your consumption, curtails it, and makes you weary of what you are force fed.  That is why I am so adamant about studies and education, especially in a democracy.  Ignorant people anywhere are a tragedy, but empowered ignorant people; nothing is more dangerous.     


I have been thinking, very deeply, about your adverse feelings towards your Masters program at your university.  I agree, that many theories, and what is taught, is not always correct.  That "ground" realities are not taken into account, that very, very smart and capable people, mess things up.  That is all true.  But the main point of studying is not the content, necessarily.  There are of course imperfections in the process, but the point is - the process.  The evolving conversation of what is true, and how to apply it.  

There is a HUGE divide between those who make policy and those who suffer from them.  Most people with "ground" reality, who have deep insight into how things really are, rarely have access to circles of power, and if they do, often do not have the tools to communicate it.  You are getting that chance.  

University education, in America, at least, has evolved over the past 40 years to include more people, and give them the tools of argumentation, both in terms of assessment and making arguments.  

It is this process that you must master.  Without this imperfect process, there's anarchy and nothing else.    

Some very concrete goals you need to have for yourself:  You need to write what you feel is true and be able to get assessment from leading scholars in the field.  That feedback is priceless and that is not always based on the content but how you frame your arguments.  It's good writing plus good research, skills that are necessary in whatever you do.  For good writing is what leads to good thinking.  You also need to get to the point of being able to publish an article, write op-ed pieces, in a convincing way.  You also need to be familiar with the pre-dominant theories to understand the mind-set of the outsider, in dealing with them.  Just saying it's Western, or White, or because they are not Indian, is not enough.  You need to attack their ideas, not their identity.  

My good friend , who is Lebanese, suffered similar problems in the beginning.  He had just come from the 2006 war and sitting in a class about theories seemed so frivolous.  Its easy, when we have direct experience, or when we have suffered, to just say everything is about power and money and might.  If you believe that, why study at all?  Isn't knowledge power?    Aren't we in a knowledge economy?  Knowledge is the motor.  What you are mistaking, is the content for the process.  Theories, most of them are wrong, but the courage and work in putting one together, does move mountains.  India would be nowhere without nationalism, and those ideas, and Pakistan would probably not exist if Jinnah wasn't so deeply moved by john stuart mill's "On Liberty" which argues forcefully about the plight of minorities in a democracy.

Everything you do, every action, the ancestor of it, is an idea.  

So go back now, but be positive and focus on writing and expressing your truth to those white fuckers.  And they will be open to it, they always want to be proven wrong and are open to criticism.  You needn't see the game as rigged, as see all sources as bias, and everyone brain-washed.  And you can't just say it without giving specific examples, and dissecting arguments, and persuading someone.  Right now you are not persuasive at all.  You are acting like a thug.  The essence of your argumentation is:  I am indian, I know ground realities, I have my classified courses, I just know and you don't because you don't know india, are american, are white, are western brain-washed.  Thats just rubbish.  How does one respond to that?  The argument is over before it began.  You shut down all discussion.   


That's it, please don't take this the wrong way, and please don't laugh this off or make fun of my concern.  Your doing this impressed me beyond belief.  It made me see you as someone who is more than just money and business.  Someone who believes in a truth and wants to contribute to making the world better.  You can write my feelings off to me being "weird", but trust me, I am not weird.  I feel much, much more confident in introducing you to people, and collaborating with you, knowing you are going through the process we all went through.  I just want to see you make the most of it.  

My love to you,


MY SECOND RESPONSE TO THE RESPONSE OF THIS LETTER: basically the recipient just saw western education as brain-washing and narrow

I wrote back:

Dude, thanks for taking the time to respond to my concerns.  It is not easy to do, with someone you care about, and who is a great friend, but that is precisely why I wrote you.  A couple quick points to your points.  

1.  I agree that western educated people, The West, whatever you want to call it, is bias.  But it's the only system, that I know of, that has institutional mechanisms, to foster the accountability and transparency you talk of.  It has the possibility to correct itself, though not perfect, it is at least trying to check power.  All significant changes, 40 hour work week, end of slavery, environmental movements, have all been a result of popular struggle and these mechanisms within these countries.  There is at play, constantly, a dynamic interplay between people and their respective governments in the West.  This does not exist in other countries that have no checks on their power.    

I have seen far to many people say, including the Chinese, that the US does what it convenient to it, and then preaches to others, especially when it comes to human rights.  But the West did not change magically, they change because the people within these countries are powerful and influence their government to change.  The change is a result of massive struggle; the civil war in America, two World Wars in Europe, the French revolution, and on and on.  

Is there no difference between Russia, China, Iran, the gulf states with  Europe, US, Latin America, India?    

I agree, on an international scale, there will be little difference.  Because there is no world government, or police, much of international affairs boils down to Realism.  Power is more naked, but on internal levels, the civilization and the quality of life provided by the West is without precedent in human history.  That is why the WTO was created and the UN, to buffer the Realism that takes place when there is no authority.  In their own ways, it makes states accountable on a global scale.  I think you confuse the International effects of the West, and see that as an indictment of everything they are about.  But it's more a failing of the world system.  Don't extrapolate the realism demanded by the international sphere, into seeing all countries as the same, and it all being about power. 

2.  The next thing is your distrust of "rational" thinking based on data and studies.  Of course they can be flawed.  But the logical conclusion of your statement becomes anti-research, anti-science.  The best way is still to cite sources and then challenge those sources.  That takes effort, and investigation, but if we don't commit ourselves to this process, than we can never be sure of the truth.  How to you convince anyone then?  It will all boil down to he said, she said, I heard, and I saw, but that is just your subjective experience.  I am repeating myself, again, but it bears repeating because the scientific method is the BASIS of the Enlightenment and is what took us from Darkness to Light.  It separated the Church from the State and was what was used to challenge traditional hierarchies.  If you give up on this, then you are take a huge step back.    

3.  I think if you come out of this focusing on the skills and contacts you can get from this experience. it'll be worth it.  Focus on the writing, and focus on getting to know interesting people.  You will, with your alumni network, eventually, be able to recruit top talent to your organization, and get a sense of where they come, and what they study.  There is an aspect of bullshit to what you study in Graduate School, but its so much more than just the studies.  You understand a bit more the complexities of making decisions.  It is hard to rule the world.  So much of the "failings" that hurt you, are a result of the difficulty of running a fair and just world.  Free trade economics was to counteract the corrupt government monopolies that slowed down the 70s.  Ideologies and theories innovate and then they stagnate, and then new ideas are needed.  Free trade and liberalization has done loads for the world, but then it over-shot, and now new thinking is needed.  And that is what is being done.  It is easy to be critical, but much harder to innovate.    

Enjoy your remaining time at University and study your ass off.  You will have the rest of your life for work and screaming at your peons on your mobile, at all hours of the day.  And, please, sleep around and make some white girls happy with your brown love.

Will be in touch with everything else.  Be positive and don't let the white man get you down.    

Much Love,


Friday, December 19, 2008

The Silence - Ingmar Bergman

Two sisters; one dying, the other sexually promiscuous - both haunted by the others presence.  Trapped in a hotel room, in a foreign country, on a holiday gone awry.  With such a simple premise, Bergman weaves together his characteristic obsessions; man alone in a godless world, death, longing, suffering.  Watching his films is like driving a car destined to crash.  You know it'll end badly, but you carry on, for the sake of the ride.  It's worth dying for.

It's not all bleak, just refreshingly serious.  There is not a frame that doesn't force you to meditate on the purpose of our lives.  As so much is said, in Silence.  The acting is magnificent, the scenes hypnotic, technically I can't remember watching something so flawless in a long time.  But Bergman is more than just a master of his craft.  He searches for a morality in such morally confused times.  How is one to act?  How does one live?  If nothing is sacred, is all permitted?  Each of his films, though different, all deal with is these fundamental dilemmas.  And always, there is someone who personifies the way forward.     

This time, it's in the form of a child, the illegitimate son of the sexually ravenous sister.  His longing for his mother and her indulgence of his innocence make for some remarkably tender moments.  The sister's clashing egos are assuaged by his presence, forcing them to pull away from their selfishness.  Both look to him in times of trouble, but he's just a boy, not yet a man; incapable of curing their insufferable alienation.

Language is also an interesting subtext.  Both sisters find comfort in being unable to communicate with the foreign men who enter their lives.  It allows them to soliloquize, this solitude in the presence of another, liberates a feeling, words so often enslave. 

It ends badly.  The car crashes.  But Bergman makes the wind fly in your hair and gives you those moments of exhilaration, only recklessness can give.  This is film, in its highest form, by one of its greatest masters.  It's worth dying for.                

Friday, December 12, 2008

Paris Vs. Havana (NY Times)

By Roger Cohen

Since visiting Cuba a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about the visual assault on our lives. Climb in a New York taxi these days and a TV comes on with its bombardment of news and ads. It's become passé to gaze out the window, watch the sunlight on a wall, a child's smile, the city breathing.

In Havana, I'd spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city's sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro's pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.

Paris, of course, has resisted homogenization. It's still Paris, with its strong Haussmannian arteries, its parks of satisfying geometry, its islands pointing their prows toward the solemn bridges, its gilt and gravel, its zinc-roofed maids' rooms arrayed atop the city as if deposited by some magician who stole in at night.

It's still a place where temptation exists only to be yielded to and where time stops to guard forever an image in the heart. All young lovers should have a row in the Tuileries in order to make up on the Pont Neuf.

Yet, for all its enduring seductiveness, Paris has ceased to be the city that I knew. The modern world has sucked out some essence, leaving a film-set perfection hollowed out behind the five-story facades. The past has been anaesthetized. It has been packaged. It now seems less a part of the city's fabric than it is a kitschy gimmick as easily reproduced as a Lautrec poster.

I know, in middle age the business of life is less about doing things for the first than for the last time. It is easy to feel a twinge of regret. Those briny oysters, the glistening mackerel on their bed of ice at the Rue Mouffetard, the drowsy emptied city in August, the unctuousness of a Beef Bourguignon: these things can be experienced for the first time only once.

So what I experience in Paris is less what is before me than the memory it provokes of the city in 1975. Memories, as Apollinaire noted, are like the sound of hunters' horns fading in the wind. Still, they linger. The town looks much the same, if prettified. What has changed has changed from within.

At dinner with people I'd known back then, I was grappling with this elusive feeling when my friend lit a match. It was a Russian match acquired in Belgrade and so did not conform to current European Union nanny-state standards. The flame jumped. The sulfur whiff was pungent. A real match!

Then it came to me: what Paris had lost to modernity was its pungency. Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d'Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.

Gone, in short, was Paris in the glory of its squalor, in the time before anyone thought a Frenchman would accept a sandwich for lunch, or decreed that the great unwashed should inhabit the distant suburbs. The city has been sanitized.

But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.

Havana has also preserved its architecture — the wrought-iron balconies, the caryatids, the baroque flourishes — even if it is crumbling. What has been preserved with it, thanks to socialist economic disaster, is that very pungent texture Paris has lost to modernity.

The slugs of Havana Club rum in bars lit by fluorescent light, the dominos banged on street tables, the raucous conversations in high doorways, the whiff of puros, the beat through bad speakers of drums and maracas, the idle sensuality of Blackberry-free days: Cuba took me back decades to an era when time did not always demand to be put to use.

I thought I'd always have Paris. But Havana helped me see, by the flare of a Russian match, that mine is gone.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bombay Blues

I was there, trapped in the Lawrence Hotel, near the gateway of India.  I somehow find myself in the midst of seismic geo-political events.  The World Trade Center and now this, but I made it back to Delhi, but completely, after many days, still in awe of what has happened and what this means for the world.    

If before Mumbai the War on Terror seemed a paranoid figment of the American imagination, think again.  All of us, no matter what we do, what political party we support, need to come to terms with the severity of what has occured.  The threat is real and the response - the direct response - has to be more than just appealing to the hearts and minds of terrorists.  There isn't enough time.  At this point, appeasement will not work.  Not Palestine, not Kashmir, nothing of that sort can derail what has been further set in motion with the events in Mumbai.

When joe six-pack, in America, is carving his thanksgiving turkey to the backdrop of live minute by minute news of the carnage, you know something is horribly amiss.  Something terrible has been unleashed on our collective conscious.  The level of coverage and global concern is perplexing and bizarre.  The monster that is 24 hour news is making perverse voyeurs of us all.

But on to practical concerns.  The geo-political chess game continues.      

Invading Pakistan, or engaging in a any direct State to State confrontations will be counter-productive and only serve to exacerbate the situation.  Its in our collective interests to have a strong Pakistani state which is capable of governing and dealing with internal elements of extremism.  Any weakening on this front, will lead to further chaos and uncertainty.  

Pakistan is fighting a war on two fronts; the northwestern frontier against the religious extremists and the eastern threat with India over Kashmir.  Pakistan needs to be re-assured that they need not worry about India, in order to focus all efforts on dealing with the religious extremists in the NW territories.  Its understandable that this is difficult and that there is anger at Pakistan for harboring terrorists.  But Pakistan itself is aware, having been victims of numerous and devastating attacks over the past year.  Working with them, makes more sense than working against them.  Pakistan has sent out signals indicating transparent cooperation, and India, along with the US, need to use this as an opportunity to gain concessions in terms of intelligence sharing and taking extreme steps to purge any terrorist elements in the ISI, Pakistan's notorious intelligence agency, which, if early reports are to believed, played a role in training the terrorists that perpetrated the Mumbai operations.    

Besides this, India needs to do a lot more to enhance its competency in terms of intelligence and preparedness.  Early evidence, that warnings of the attack were not heeded and the amateur response (terrorists blazing revolver toting policemen with AK 47s, along with the delay in reacting, or having any serious contingency plan), are unacceptable.  This will be a much needed wake-up call and also an opportunity for meaningful solidarity with the US and other Western nations.   

But I am pessimistic.  India's, so far, wonderful growth and transformation, has been despite the State.  The State remains incompetent and it's never more apparent than in moments such as these.  How will terrorism be prevented if basic simple service delivery(health, education, infrastructure), of which we know how to fix, cannot be accomplished?  Why doesn't someone just come out and say it:  the Indian state is pathetic.  The only thing good thing they have done in the past ten to fifteen years is step out of the way.  That can work for business, but in matters of State, more specifically, the integrity of a nation, it's impossible.  There needs to be something done to increase governmental capacity at all levels, and especially of matters pertaining security.  

It is promising that there is bi-partisan cooperation, but more is needed.  These events have done great damage, confidence is an element of economic growth, and confidence is shaken.  New York can recover quicker, because it's New York.  But Mumbai and India need to work harder to rebuild, both the infrastructure and the faith.