Thursday, February 26, 2009

Journals - India, Africa

"They remain slaves because they can't see what is beautiful in this world."

"Any talented decadent can make unreality believable.  To make reality convincing is another matter, a matter for only the greatest masters."

New Delhi, India
December 30, 2008

I am here to prove all those fearful and cowardly people wrong.  Those who doubt, who feel that life happens to them, rather than make life, happen.  

We are here for one reason only:  To choose love and the righteous path in the face of everything and everyone that tells us to act otherwise.  As spiritual love warriors, we have to accept being burned, we need to revel in the risk and insecurity, because the safe way, is death.  

If we choose life, then be prepared for a wild ride, with courage.  Determination.  Perseverance.  Hard work.  Embrace the struggle, and all things will come.      

On a train to Jaipur
January 23, 2009

Travel, like the cinema, is a grand party in this country.  Everybody happy, joyously sharing what little they have, together.  Extraordinary manners for such uncivilized people.  

Traveling in India tempers my cruelty, makes me realize the wonder and magic of this place.  My frustrations and disappointments dissipate in movement.  

Ajmer, Rajastan
January 26, 2009

On the way to the most holiest of shrines, my woman, sitting next to me on the bicycle rickshaw, begins to weep.  The rickshawallah looks back at me, and I just shrugged my shoulders.  

It is a powerful place.

I got off and left her outside, indifferent to her, unable to care.  I was on a mission; to make it to the center of the shrine, give an offering and make a wish.  

Quite suddenly I was approached by a well dressed and handsome Muslim.  I was immediately impressed.  He was a kind of 5 star guide/fakir.  I told him I had a 100 rupees and a wish.  But he looked through me, told me not to worry.  

I waited on no lines and while masses of people packed themselves in, waiting, I was praying with the head priest.  And then afterwards, I was let into the center, thrown in.  This I had to do alone.  It was a bejeweled room, filled with chaos and madness.  Screaming and crying.  And all I could do was smile.  I'd never felt more at peace.  

Money, money, everybody wanted your money.  The inner priests, everybody wanted to bless you, I took what little more I had and gave it to whoever wanted to bless me.  

There was a child inside, being held, his nose began to bleed, and the blood went everywhere.  And it left my heart so tender.  And before I knew it I was thrust back out into the sun.  What a profound, beautiful place.  

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
February 7, 2009

I've come here, passing through, on work, to see a doctor friend of mine from ten years ago who I met in New York.  I met him when I was still on the medical school path and right before I was to go to Namibia, with a grant from UNICEF.  I was 22 and wanted to change the world.  And now I am older and, well, I still want to change the world.  Though I wouldn't put it quite in the same way.  Not change it, more, change myself, work to make myself strong and true, to fight the good fight.  It exists, but in oh so subtle forms I have realized over these years.   

My doctor friend went on a Fulbright 20 years ago and never looked back; adopting children, settling down, saving and bettering lives.  He was an automatic hero in my eyes back then; I was fascinated and in awe.  

But now I was indifferent and didn't want to spend too much time around the horrifically deformed and sick people in his midst.  I admired his courage, patience and honesty - he was a New York Jew who made no airs of sainthood.  But everything else about him left me cold and perplexed.  Everything about him was a mess.  If he wasn't a famous doctor, one would think he was a mental patient who lacked female companionship.  His house was a mess; his car filled with garbage; his nails uncut and dirty.  He was absent-minded as one could understand, but something just wasn't right.  His loneliness and having given up to do anything about it, distracted me from his nobility.  

But it went beyond aesthetic, there was something inhuman in the way he went about his work.  It was as if there was nothing else in the world he could do without completely falling apart.  All I could think about was how much love he needed.  And why it was that he was alone with all these kids in his house, and what was it that prevented him from opening up and sharing his beautiful life instead of being lonely through altruism.  

But he has found his niche, but somehow it felt like he was pouring water into the ocean.  The essence, left untouched.  That it was also more about him than anything else.  

I left, after only some hours with some patients, and didn't want my entire time to be in a clinic, warping my perspective of Ethiopia in the process.  Kind of like all those people who go to Calcutta to Mother Theresa's and leave without realizing the majesty of the Bengali Renaissance.  I knew there was more to this place than sick people and I went in search of it.  

I started wandering the city, an ugly city, a modern unplanned nightmare.  Dead, poor and stagnant, though full of people so beautiful, and a sense of some past greatness.  Christianity is also a profound undertaking in Ethiopia.  As well as coffee and food.  A refinement and confidence not felt in other parts of Africa I have been to.  

I ended up focusing in the hedonism; sex and cigarettes, great conversations and a whirlwind of movement so grand, that I will never forget.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Passion versus Clockwork - Nadal versus Federer

My everyday existence is punctuated by the pleasures of a historic rivalry; passion versus clockwork; Nadal versus Federer.  Like all great things, there is more to it than meets the eye.  This is tennis as transcendence; a battle between two different ways of being.  

How does one succeed?  By controlling passions, or letting them take hold of you, drive you, to victory?  The iron dicipline, the unorthodox spontaneity, who are you, and how will you go about fighting the good fight?  One must decide, which side they are on.   

Nadal, so spring-like and ebullient, young and strong, energetic and fashionable.  He makes the heart soar.  Federer, the precision and perfection, the smooth workings of a master of his craft.  

The duality of the universe exposes itself upon a tennis court.

Clockwork fails.  Cannot compute or understand the energy.  Tears of frustration.  Clockwork must be unemotional to survive - and win.  Sometimes winning is not enough.  At times a loss opens us deeper into the unknown; inside ourselves.  

"There is no success like failure, and failures no success at all."  

Clockwork will make a comeback.  Passion will burnout.  The world will re-generate and we all watch in awe because we don't know who to root for, anymore.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Politics of Dignity

Of the many perplexing elements that make up India's political landscape, the abnormally high rates of voting amongst the poor, is most peculiar.  Everywhere else in the world the trend is reversed; the rich outvote the poor and have a greater stake in politics.  But not in India.  The poor mobilize, wait in long lines, undertaking significant costs to themselves, gaining very little in return.  

Government spending on social services in poor districts hasn't improved despite higher representations of lower-caste and historically marginalized groups in politics.  The system co-opts these low-caste elites who obsess over further reservations; engaging in unapologetic patronage politics, instead of policies that bring about meaningful social change.      

Why do the poor put up with it?  What makes them, election after election, vote, and still see no material improvement in their condition?  In a word:  Dignity.  In a country where for thousands of years, the lowest of the low, dare not cast even a shadow on their upper caste brethren, being a part of the political process - courted by all castes and classes - is empowering.  The psychological impact of seeing your caste represented within the higher echelons of power cannot be underestimated; explaining the enthusiasm India's poor have with politics.    

But how long will this all last before the poor desire tangible results?  It's doubtful if politics, in India, can ever be the means for social change.  It's been good for stability; better to have the poor vote and engage in politics, rather than riot.  Caste reservations are also a cost-effective strategy; it costs less than spending on education and health and is a significant reason why the poor are still poor, even though India is booming.   

Lower caste mobilization also takes place within the context of an upper class/elite exodus from politics, in stark contrast to India at its inception in 1947.  The founding fathers, Nehru, Gandhi, and a host of others, all came from elite backgrounds; hyper cultured and educated aristocrats.  They inspired a whole generation of middle classes.  The current elite. rather than mobilize, demand better governance, and take active roles in politics, choose instead, to buy their way out.  Gated communities are on the rise;  private school fees are exorbitant; private health care grows all at the expense of public goods.  Those are left to the poor and the poor vote for whomever gives them dignity.    

India turn the prevailing political science theory, that higher incomes leads to a demand for better governance, on its head.

After Mumbai, in November, there was a sense this might change.  There was talk of a party for professionals; the middle classes.  But this momentum has subsided; politics is still mostly a poor person's game.  But issues of governance and security, which effect rich and poor alike, makes many re-think this exclusionist tendency - especially in a democracy.  

In a country of 40% illiteracy, empowered ignorant masses, leads to mob rule.  And this is what India suffers from.  Parliament is a chappal throwing, paan spitting, buffoonery.  There are a handful of cultured and educated politicians.  Everyone else is in it for the money.  Even Maywati, the lower caste Queen, par excellance, has seen her personal fortune multiply 300 percent since being elected.         

All trends on the horizon point to further mobilization of the poor, ignorant, historically oppressed masses and the continued voluntary exclusion of the educated elite.  I can't think of anything more alarming.  An example that serves as a direct contrast is the United States, which always has had it's best and brightest engaged in politics.  Obama is a by-product of this trend, and if you go to any top American University, the idealist and politically ambitious always abound.  

Indians don't like being compared to America.  It's not fair they say.  India is poor, and has too many people and problems.  I agree that the comparison is not always fair.  

How about Egypt then?  There was no place more happening, liberal, enlightened in the Middle East after its independence.  In 1947 Egypt published over 3000 new books.  In 2007, 300.  (Painfully, a small country like Israel publishes 3000 now, explaining it's rise and it's Middle East neighbors demise).  And let's not even get into the high-quality films, and journalism, and women's groups and over-all air of liberty in Egypt at the time.  All lost, mostly during the Sadat years, when the liberal and secular middle classes disengaged from politics, leaving a vacuum filled by religious fundamentalism.  The reasons for middle class disengagement in India may be different, but modernity, in both case, led to apathy.  Egypt is a disaster now, and India may well be - if it doesn't take these political trends seriously.