Friday, April 14, 2017

Human nature at its worst

Colonialism emerged out of the opportunistic churning and the resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces.

By discovering the sea route to India for trade and commerce, Vasco da Gama had inadvertently laid the foundation of what would become the Raj three centuries later. That this foundation was to be laid not on the land but at sea exposes lack of imagination on the part of the mighty Mughals, who left the coast vulnerable to petty skirmishes among traders and sea pirates. In hindsight, a protected coastline could have delivered an altogether different nation-state to this landscape. But that was not to be, as history had other design to it. 

Popular history may have painted Vasco da Gama as a noble seaman; while in reality he had only pursued the Portuguese interests in ruling trade over second half of the world as divided by the Pope – the western half for the Spanish and the eastern hemisphere for the Portuguese. Embedded within this directive was to establish contact with what were believed to be the Empires of Christian in the east. Consequently, when accosted by coastal settlements that ‘what brought you here’ the cruise members would conveniently respond ‘Christian and Spices’. The motive was loud and clear. With a long history of conflict with Islam, the newly opened trade route had equal intention of establishing Christian supremacy. With powerful navy at their disposal, the Portuguese inflicted mass casualties on dissenters and forced the gullible into conversion from Goa to Cochin. Francis Xavier was the chief architect who not only supervised mass conversions in Goa but converted over 10,000 villagers in southern Malabar. Trade and conversion had sailed in unholy alliance.      

A known Indian chronicler, Roy Moxham transports readers back to those times when Portuguese were engaged in fierce encounters with the Dutch, English and French in getting strong foothold for plundering the riches from India. Based on published memoirs and eyewitness accounts, The Theft of India highlights the terrible sufferings inflicted on Indians by the European powers during the tumultuous three centuries of coastal onslaught. Caught in the crossfire between invading traders, the local rulers were often trapped between the devil and the deep sea. Often working at cross purposes, limited resistance by the Marathas and the Zamorins could only delay the inevitable to a point. Colonialism, it seems, emerged out of this opportunistic churning and resultant sharing of power between the opposing forces. 

A 19th century painting of  Vasco Da Gama  paying homage to
the Zamorin of Calicut for opening up direct trade
between Europe and India, 1498.
The question worth asking is whether it could have gone the other way. It could have, had the ten-month seize of Goa in 1570 been successful under the united Muslim rulers. Buoyed by this victory, however, the Portuguese fortified their factories, enforced a monopoly on spices trade, and had built large garrisons. But all this was set to change with the arrival of the Dutch and the British, who scrambled for the same resources that the Portuguese were trying to monopolize. With deceit, corruption, forgery and brute force being the leitmotif of the marauding traders, human nature was at its worst in the pursuit of wealth. Part of how they dealt with each other had to do with the ongoing wars between their respective countries. 

Moxham research labels each of the European traders deft in creating windows of opportunity by drawing agreements with local traders/rulers, and then betraying them at another opportune moment. Afterall, they had come to India for swindling resources and not for building relationships. The Theft of India is loaded with anecdotal accounts of political intrigue, ruthless genocide and mindless plunder. In a way, it is reflective of the times the world was passing through. Life was nasty and brutish; loyalties were worth trading for survival.

The English were the late to arrive on the scene but were quick to violate the decree that the East India Company would insist on trade, and not attempt colonization or conquest. Robert Clive, who arrived as a clerk in the company in 1744, was to rewrite the script a decade later. Not only did he acquire large shares in the company, Clive saw opportunity in capitalizing on the political void created following the decline of both the Marathas and the Mughals. In the thirteen years since the Battle of Plassey huge sums of money were transported to Britain. The shocking fact, however, is that the first thirteen years of the British rule did  more damage to the people of India than by all the other European invaders of the centuries before. The Bengal famine was the worst manifestation of this plunder. 

Moxham paints painful picture of the organized loot that the Indians had to go through. The pain it inflicted on local population was beyond the realm of imagination. Several hundreds were put to sword, and millions had starved to death. The life under the Mughals may not have been rosy, but at least the Mughal spoils were generally retained in India. 

The rest, as Moxham concludes, is history!

The Theft of India
by Roy Moxham
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 252, Price: Rs 399 

This review was first published in The Hindustan Times dated April 15, 2017.  

Monday, March 27, 2017

Character as currency

One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence...

Only after living without money for three years and having established his nonviolent credentials could Mark Boyle gather courage to engage with Gandhi over the everydayness of violence in our lives. Having discovered the virtue of non-monetary relationships with people and nature, his contention is that monetary valuation is a form of violence that puts nature into tin cans for easy commercialization. Isn’t the economic paradigm of progress premised on the conversion of our physical, cultural and spiritual commons into cash? Even the materials that make up the human body have been monetized, net worth of what goes in the making of the heart, the hands, the eyes and other limbs has been estimated a measly $56 only. It may be a hard-to-digest perspective but it serves the cause of hidden violence unleashed by the pharmaceutical companies, turning sickness into big business. And, this is one of the several expressions of slow violence in our daily lives. 

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi offers a nuanced understanding of violence, that is indirect but real. But this book is not for those who, according to Boyle, cherish their belongings over a sense of belonging, and whose empathy for nature is packaged into weekend getaways. Neither is it for those who get afflicted by ‘the Avatar effect’, the wave of depression and suicidal feelings that followed the release of the movie Avatar as people longed for the ecologically bountiful and diverse moon of the fictional Pandora. It is for those who consider the worth of nature greater than the tin cans, and who are ready to resist violence to forge a rich and meaningful lives for ourselves. 

Consumerism has separated us from the consequences of our actions, creating the delusional sense of separation – in both time and space – designed into our culture that we remain blinkered to the violence of our civilized lives. One can feign ignorance but being consumers of industrialized products we are but an integral part of the destructive resource extraction that is anything but organized violence on the entire biotic community. The influence of industrialism is so subtle that seeking aspirational lifestyles, aspirational sex and aspirational homes has become the leitmotif of human existence, with cost of development externalized beyond the modern-day gated living. Violence is manifest in the degree of separation between us and what we consume.  

Boyle’s arguments are both experiential and philosophical, pulled out from three years of life lived without the trappings and security of money. Chronicling his moneyless life in The Moneyless Manifesto, the author had argued why the transition beyond monetary economics has become the zeitgeist of the Occupy generation. While the first year of moneyless living was tough, subsequent years were reportedly more content, healthier, and at peace. But if such were the experience of surviving on a ‘gift economy’ what made him to re-enter the monetary world? ‘To share my lessons and to establish projects that would enable others to loosen the grip that money has on their lives,’ he wrote.

Quest for money, more money, makes humans behave like rats, literally. Carl Sagan had long remarked that crowding humans into cities to earn more money would lead to more outbreaks of street violence, child abuse, maternal mortality, gang rape, psychosis, alienation, disorientation, and rootlessness. Years later, ethologist John B. Calhoun had found similar symptoms among rats when they were crowded in a cage. All this is not unexpected in the name of ‘progress’ – itself a linear construct – wherein what finally endures is indignity, inhumanity and humiliation in the pursuit of contentment, which by definition remains unattainable. In his thought-provoking and insightful exposition, Boyle challenges us to do things that make us less violent. 

If you think you have found your own ethical response and have started to fill your kettle with ‘green’ products, then this is precisely what the author detests us from doing. In reality, these minutely small changes, which green capitalists have conned us into believing makes a big difference, are akin to a rapist taking a moment to put on a fairly traded condom before continuing to sexually assault a woman. It may make the utterly brutal act marginally ethical, but doesn’t transform the act of violence any bit! It is for this reason that Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi avoids being prescriptive, and instead provokes the reader to tread beyond the urbane convenience of reduce, reuse and recycle by embarking into a world in which three R’s of radical reformism are: resist, revolt and rewild. 

Unless the wolf returns to the park, the wild will not reverberate with all living forms. The extermination of the wolf from the Yellowstone National Park in the USA has turned the wilderness into a parched landscape devoured by the high population of red deer. Introducing the wolf 70 years after it had been exterminated brought the park back to life, creating a dramatic upsurge in biodiversity and the health of the land. Boyle argues that there will always be comfortable people who would want to eradicate the wolf from the ecological and political terrains. The task before us is to ensure the constant presence of wolf, waiting for us to enter realms in which we have no right to go without respect for what is there already!

Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi
by Mark Boyle
New Society Publishers, Canada
Extent: 230, Price: $19.95   

This review was first published in HinduBusinessLine BLink on March 25, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

History as a moving procession

Chandni Chowk may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm.

True to her words, Swapna Liddle kept aside theoretical arguments in weaving a chronological narrative of the last three and a half centuries of the lived-in history of Chandni Chowk. Far from being a museum of the bygone era, its unchanged by-lanes have kept alive its distinct culture of adapting to changing times without losing its contemporary relevance. History may be the most cruel of all goddesses, but Chandni Chowk has seen history as a moving procession. It has been part of the making and re-making of the city during its glorious and inglorious journey.    

First part of the book reads like a heritage walk wherein the author guides the reader into the making of the Red Fort and the walled city, much of it during the politically stable period under the reigns of both Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The aura of royal power, which ascended on Delhi on April 18, 1648, only added to the spiritual significance that the banks of river Yamuna enjoyed. By alighting from the boat at the Nigambodh ghat, Shahjahan had drawn upon the spiritual power that the populace associated with the site. This spot on the bank of the river is considered to be blessed by Vishnu, where knowledge of the Vedas could be gained simply by taking a dip. Ironically, it is now known for the city’s biggest cremation ground.  

The second half of the book captures the history as it unfolds following the tumultuous years during 19th and early 20th century, following the decline of the Mughals till the emergence of an independent India. It is intriguing how the city held on to its cultural vitality during this period, developing an education system based on an indigenous language alongside its long-standing literary tradition. This was the age of Ghalib, Momin, Zauq and the Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar/ Their poetry worked as the literary balm for the aching souls and the severed bodies. Though there were only 137,977 people living within the city walls during the mid-nineteenth century, cultural amalgamation was reflected in people taking part in each other’s festivals and celebrations. The city had emerged as a cohesive group for diverse religions. 

History is often written from either of the two perspectives - mysticism or cynicism – the history that lies somewhat outside history or the one that the historian draws meaning into. But Swapna Liddle has viewed history of Chandni Chowk as a constructive outlook over the past, reporting the events based on facts and drawing conclusions based on objectivity. Consequently, the narrative records the past with historical accuracy. One can only concur with William Dalrymple that it is a much needed introduction to the history of the Old City of Delhi.  

The history of Chandni Chowk has known many turning points, where each quest for succession to the throne was borne out of intrigue and violence. The city may have been mute witness to the victor and the vanquished, but the people within its walls rarely resisted their resentment against injustice by its rulers. Noticeable is their angst that spewed out on the streets when Prince Dara Shukoh, heir apparent and Aurangzeb’s elder brother, was publicly paraded and insulted. What followed was a public outcry, stones and dirt was pelted on the procession led by Jiwan Khan who had treacherously captured Dara to hand him over to the Emperor.       

Despite his half century rule over the empire, Aurangzeb was strongly despised by the people. There is a deep repugnance for the manner in which he conducted himself during his long rule even today. Although that part of history cannot be dispensed him, surely his name can be from existing historical memorabilia. It may not be out of place to mention that the road bearing the name Aurangzeb was wiped out from the city. However, the same city acknowledged the contribution of Dara Shikoh recently by naming a street after him. After all, he was the one who drew parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, and had translated the Upanishads into Persian. 

Chandni Chowk makes for an absorbing reading. It may have been subsumed under the great metropolis of the modern capital city but it has held onto its charm. It continues to be one of the biggest trading hubs; its narrow lanes continue to provide interesting insights on its glorious past. There is something mysteriously attractive about the place; its history seemingly still thrives in its narrow streets. Swapna Liddle only adds historical flavor to the unending fascination for this old city. 

Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
by Swapna Liddle
Speaking Tiger, New Delhi
Extent: 176, Price: Rs 399 

First published in Deccan Herald dated Feb 26, 2017. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Objects of political desire

Big dams are political objects which have transformed water into a contested resource.

Big dams epitomize development all over the world. The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called these gigantic structures “temples of modern India” and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie hailed big dams as “treasure troves of wealth”. Over 50,000 big dams have been built worldwide ever since the Hoover dam transformed the free-flowing Colorado river into an energy powerhouse. In recent years, however, large dams have come under scrutiny because of social disruptions, cultural dislocation and ecological concerns. Many of these concerns were captured by the World Commission on Dams in 2000.

And yet, these engineering monoliths continue to fascinate several countries including India and China, who persist with dam-building despite these being the cause for lingering water-sharing disputes between riparian states and countries. While a great deal is known about the social and ecological costs of modern dams, the political dimensions of dam-building have remained largely obscure. Water may seem innocuous, but dams have transformed it into a contested resource through acquisition, diversion and control. And it has seemingly been done on purpose. Geographer Christopher Sneddon traces the 20th-century history of dam-building to conclude that “dams have been exceptionally thick with politics”.

Concrete Revolution offers a comprehensive analysis of the motives behind the proliferation of dam-building in the context of former US President Harry Truman’s ‘Four Point Program’ of international development. Technical assistance for dam-building was the primary disguise for staving off the presumed global expansion of communism. What this also did was enhance the capacity of American business interests to increase their global influence and investment opportunities; dam-building as bargaining chip. The global economic crises being experienced in the US at that time was a critical factor in promoting the role of the federal government in massive public works schemes in as many as 100 countries. Without the economic recession in play, this may not have been feasible.

Presenting snapshots of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s early forays into big dam development across several countries, Sneddon makes a compelling argument in favor of dams as political objects rather than instruments of impartial science. It suited the developing world no less, as dam-driven water resource development traveled geographically without offending radically different ideological and cultural contexts. Notable is the manner in which the concrete revolution integrated construction technologies with techno-political networks. The broader constellation of power and influence triggered the so-called ‘political intelligibility’ whereby large dams and river basin development were perceived as a universal ‘fix’ for water resources development across the world.

It is hard not to concur with Sneddon, whose incisive analysis provides fresh insights on understanding the assemblage of networks that maintain and produce large dams. So effective are these networks in promoting large dams that techno-political proponents of hydropower development perceive ecological disruptions as an unfortunate trade-off against the ‘greater good’ of economic development. No wonder, therefore, that the impact of dams on humans and ecosystems are largely ignored by decision makers.

Sneddon takes a step further to suggest that the assemblages of networks that produce and maintain large dams are not only undemocratic but rarely allow any discussions on alternatives to dams. Loaded as this assertion might be, the fact that the governments have overlooked social and ecological disruptions caused by dam-building clearly justifies it. Even the Bureau of Reclamation had sensed this dichotomy. Backed by information on the less-than-desirable impacts of large dams, the Bureau’s assistant commissioner Gilbert Stamm had proclaimed: “We haven’t learned how to apply our vast technical advances to meet the basic values and desires of people.” This statement was made in 1969 by which time the Bureau’s interest in dam-building had started waning, but elsewhere in the world interest in dam-building persists.

Concrete Revolution offers an authoritative inquiry on large dams, and presents analytical insights on the processes and actors involved in nurturing the techno-political networks. But the book leaves the discerning reader to dig deeper to understand the local and national political ecologies and political economies that continue to stick to dam building as a panacea to fill the developmental void. Part of the problem is that governments in developing countries have yet to imagine a ‘world without dams’, whereas river restoration and dam removal has started to gain prominence in the developed world. However, there now exists a mature global movement focused on problematising the economic rationales and socio-ecological effects of large dams.

Concrete Revolution is a bold and ambitious undertaking, which challenges the monopoly of dam-building ideology with in-depth theoretical insights as well as revelations shocking enough to trigger social transformation. More than a scholarly book on large dams, Sneddon has put together an impressive treatise on understanding the undercurrents of the geopolitics of development. It makes for compulsive reading.

Concrete Revolution
by Christopher Sneddon
University of Chicago Press, USA
Extent: 270, Price: $45

This review was first published in Hindu BusinessLine on Feb 25, 2017, and a shorter version of this review was published in Current Science in its issue dated Feb 10, 2017 .

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fixing the climate puzzle?

The trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying impact of such interventions at the global scale.

That the Earth is getting warmer slowly but surely and that there isn’t much the global climate negotiations have been able to achieve thus far, geo-engineering the planet to put a plug on rising temperature is beginning to gain serious currency. Despite its social, moral, technical and political pitfalls, discussions on creating stratospheric veil(s) to reduce influx of solar radiations has been projected as one of the most potent  options for slowing down the process of global warming.  

The Planet Remade
by Oliver Morton
Granta, London. Extent 428, Price £ 20
This concept is borne out of the harsh realization that there is not enough being done to cut down the global carbon emissions yet. Having risen from the pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million to a high of 400 parts per million today and with projections that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double before the turn of the present century, options before the mankind are limited by the extent of its current technological prowess. Further, neither is our obsession with coal-fired power plants waning anytime soon nor are carbon-neutral technological options on offer as yet. Solar, wind and nuclear are possible decarbonizing substitutes but their scaling up poses a formidable challenge. Should the world decide to replace coal-based plants with nuclear power, it would need to build one large nuclear power plant per week for next two decades. And, if we were to think about solar instead, it would mean installing solar panels at the present rate for next fifteen decades. 

On top of it, the trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying any potential impact of such interventions at the global scale. It is here that Plan B of mimicking large volcanic eruptions, which inject huge quantities of sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, has been brought into consideration. Reference is made to the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo eruptions of June 1991 in the context of geo-engineering, which caused the average global surface air temperature to cool by about 0.5% between 1991 and 1992. What nature can do, mankind can do better! ‘Using the slowed warming as a breathing space in which to deploy more and better zero-emission technologies would be a good strategy,’ argues accomplished science writer Oliver Morton. Since the planet has been remade, is being remade, and will be remade in future, what stops science to take nature into its own realm?

It is a vexed question that cannot be clearly answered till the working of the earthsystem is understood in its entirety. That the natural system is anything but linear is at the root of getting a sense of geo-engineering predicament in affecting desired effect. Even the veil produced by Pinatubo has not been well understood, in terms of the total volume of volcanic dust it spewed into the atmosphere, the composition and size of different particles, and the interaction between them in space. Yet, Morton, after whom Asteroid 10716 has been named, examines the issue from diverse cultural and scientific perspectives in suggesting that geo-engineering be given more anticipatory consideration such that its impacts and implications are better understood.  

The Planet Remade is an authoritative take on the issue, backed by evidence on manipulating various natural cycles (viz., nitrogen, carbon and sulphur) as a precursor to taking a calculated risk with geo-engineering. To affect such a change at the planetary scale would warrant a governance mechanism that takes into account the geographical specificity of the unintended effects. Those who fear that geo-engineering will do more harm than good feel it on the ground that the atmosphere matters differently to people located in vulnerable areas like the shores and the deserts. Further, that the most powerful countries have the vested interest in manipulating the atmosphere in their favor. 

Morton is a stylish writer who organizes the text on a technical subject with such finesse that it makes for engaging reading. He presents multiple dimensions of the issue for an informed public debate. That geo-engineering solutions are likely to persist in the global policy arena; there is no choice but to take them seriously at all levels. Far from taking a position on whether or not geo-engineering is the solution, the author instead questions if ‘climate change’ itself is a problem in the first place. It is a complex relationship between the industrialized civilization and the earthsystem that is shaping up the formation of imagined catastrophes. The challenge and task is to use technology to convert the doomsday prediction to unabashed utopias.  It calls for a world order wherein people take care of the sky instead of taking control of the sky. 

Can Science Fix Climate Change?
 by Mike Hulme
Polity, UK. Extent 158, Price $12.95
Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits.

Mike Hulme, a professor of Climate and Culture at London’s King’s College, holds no two opinions that the proposals to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet is inherently flawed and deeply undesirable, if not dangerous. Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits for humans and the things that matter to them. Hulme’s argument is that the environmental, political, and psychological costs of designing global climate through aerosol injections overwhelmingly outweigh any assumed benefits.

Research studies show that it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously as regional diversity in the response to different levels of aerosol injection could make geo-engineering a difficult proposition. Hulme evaluates an array of geo-engineering technologies including orbital mirrors, ocean fertilization, carbon capture, and urban whitewashing in his assessment, and concludes that none of it is technically feasible to be up scaled at the planetary level. Add to it is the fact that the computer simulation models are far from accurate to determine possible risks of geo-engineering at a scale. There are limits to human knowledge afterall; our species is a product of evolution, not its author or controller.    

This slim volume argues that human-induced climate change is not the sort of problem that lends itself to technological end-of-pipe solutions. Instead, climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ and would need to be approached differently. Hulme suggests ‘climate pragmatism’ for reframing the problem of climate change: first, by decoupling the energy question from it and second, by recognizing that there are many different ways that alter the functioning of the atmosphere. Viewing the singular problem of climate change through the lens of climate pragmatism can lead the world to a three-pronged strategy: first, enhance social resilience to meteorological extremes; second, reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants other than carbon dioxide as well, and third, meet the growing demand for energy in the world cheaply, reliably and sustainably. By suggesting climate pragmatism as an approach, the author seeks to advance human welfare and human development for fixing the climate change. 

Review of The Planet Remade was first published in Deccan Herald, and Can Science Fix Climate Change review first appeared on AnthemEnviroExpertReviews.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The making of a global villain

While repeating itself, history does leave foot-marks of discerning patterns often ignored by the forces that coerce, invade, or conquer other societies.

There are no laws in history, and nor is history merely a string of facts. While repeating itself, history does leave footmarks of discerning patterns often ignored by the forces that coerce, invade, or conquer other societies. No wonder, each war surprises the invader as the society being attacked responds in unexpected ways. Clearly, power over people stretches beyond technological prowess and territorial control. The scars of humiliation it inflicts on the invaded societies resurface in unimaginable forms, often shocking the invader. Borne out of such pattern is the unexpected rise of the dreadful killers who have been indoctrinated to fight for the creation of an Islamic State. 

The Pulitzer Prize winning author Joby Warrick traces the roots of the leader who was a petty criminal in his early days in Jordon’s al-Jafr prison. Were it not for a general amnesty given to more than twenty-five hundred prisoners following the demise of King Hussein in 1999, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi would not have gained notoriety as the dreaded founding father of what is now known as the Islamic State or the ISIS. Returning home in 1993 after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Zarqawi had found a sense of purpose in confronting the perceived enemies of Islam, first in Jordon which had an uneasy alliance with the religious fundamentalists and later in Iraq where jihadist were at the receiving end of the powers that be.   

Black Flags offers a gripping narrative on a jihadist movement that emerged out from a concoction of political instability, sectarian conflict and armed intrusion in the middle east, and seeks to establish a caliphate whose zone of influence is projected to cover vast swathe of land across Northern Africa, Southern Europe and West Asia. Though prepared to start small, Zarqawi viewed himself as a modern incarnation of Nur ad-Din Zengi, the 12th Century warrior-prince, who had destroyed the imperialist forces in establishing a single sultanate extending from southern Turkey to the Nile River. By erroneously anointing him as the high priest of terrorism in 2003, identifying him as a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, the US had only served Zarqawi’s cause by launching his career as one of the century’s great terrorist. 

Zarqawi didn’t let the US down, unleashing a reign of terror with his signature act of beheading the American hostage Nick Berg in 2004. The images he posted in the cyber space made him an icon and hero to many thousands of young men and women who saw him as avenging the Muslim nation for centuries of perceived humiliations and defeats. At one time, hard-core jihadist had streamed into Iraq at a rate of 100 to 150 a month to join ‘the sheikh of the slaughterers’. So persisting has been his charisma that years after Zarqawi’s death in the US air strike in 2006, support has continued to pour in from as many as 86 countries in support of the cause. As much a blow by blow account of the unleashed savagery, Black Flags is a study of the multiple-personality disorder afflicting this terrorist mastermind. 

Could deep personal insecurities and shattering religious guilt lead an ordinary convict on an arduous journey of death and destruction? Could the combination of American jets and the Arab jails be the fertile grounds for the jihadist to germinate? Could it be the strategic failure of the ruling elites and the invading forces that helped raise the black banners of violent dissent? Using his reporting skills, Warrick creates a revealing portrait of the man and his enduring legacy. In doing so, he draws heavily on Zarqawi’s personal immediacy with three important persons: Basel al-Sabha, the doctor who had treated Zarqawi in prison; Abu Haytham, the Jordan’s intelligence service officer who had trailed Zarqawi in his early years; and Nada Bakos, a young CIA officer who was the agency’s top expert on Zarqawi.  

There are many what-if moments in the absorbing thriller that lends credence to the widespread impression that by corralling Islamist radicals and ordinary Iraqis in the lawless desert pen, US officials have inadvertently created a ‘jihadi university’ that allows the Islamist ideas to pass from one generation of fighters to the next.  Had it not been for the US invasion of Iraq, the Islamic State’s current butcher, Dr. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, would likely to have lived out his years as a college professor. Instead, he joined the ‘jihadi university’ to keep Zarqawi’s black flags fluttering with a current monetary worth of over half a billion dollars. 

While many believe that the idea of the Islamic state has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert, Baghdadi instead believes that raising the caliphate’s ancient banner would make righteous Muslims fall into line. Will they or will they not, the world is at the cross-roads of its most defining moment in history.   

Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
by Joby Warrick
Bantam Books, London
Extent: 344, Price: Rs 699 

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on November 27, 2016.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Is cash a monetary curse?

A tax regime is incompatible with peoples’ perception of living in a truly democratic society, posing a challenge to balance an individual’s right to privacy with society’s need to enforce regulations!

Cash has undoubtedly proven a curse, irrespective of its color, for those who have been queuing up at the bank counters following the recent currency demonetization in India. The unprecedented cash crunch has made many wonder if cashless is the better way to the future? It may indeed be but despite the proliferation of alternate payment mechanisms – plastic currency and electronic cash transfer – unprecedented amount of paper currency is floating around worldwide. Most people like cash, holding Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead words ‘Money is coined liberty.’

If going paperless was the best option, developed economies would have phased out paper currency several years ago. Instead, citizens across both developed and developing economies have yet to give up fascination for cash-in-hand. In contrast to per capita holding of $4,200 in the US, average Indian holds an equivalent of $171 in cash. Half of this cash remains unaccounted for, beyond the purview of regular tax reporting. No surprise, therefore, that even the US looses $500 billion annually by way of tax evasion despite a well-developed tax regime.

Since information on the ‘underground economy’ remains obscure, efforts to dig it out have not been successful either. Across the world as a percentage of GDP the underground economy continues to garner a significant share. If it is a low of 7.1 per cent in the US, it is as high as 17.9 per cent in Belgium. Worldwide, underground economy averages 14 percent of GDP. Even a country like Sweden, which has witnessed a dramatic drop in cash usage, has not been able to cut down on its underground economy from the present 15 per cent of its GDP. Underground economy has remained an unresolved global phenomenon.

Making a case for going cashless to address the malaise, Harvard University Professor Kenneth Rogoff argues that there is need to have a hard look at its implications before taking a plunge. While maintaining privacy of paper currency in small transactions is critical for a large population, phasing out large-denomination notes can pave the way towards a cashless society in future. For this reason, the European Central Bank has stopped printing the 500-euro note.

To reduce mountains of cash floating all around, many European countries including Germany and Belgium have proposed a cap on the size of retail cash payments. But they have learnt that tax evasion is a much larger issue since 25 percent or more of all cash never gets tendered in any tax swoop. Is going cashless the answer? It may indeed be unless it gets demonstrated at a scale. Rogoff wonders if smaller advanced economies like Japan, whose currency is not used internationally, would take a lead in going cashless! Regulatory challenges would need to be addressed upfront before pulling paper currency out from circulation, though.

While governments’ aim is to recover tax, people tend to avoid falling into the tax-trap. Since the general notion is that ‘big fish’ evade tax nets, even law-abiding citizens see opportunity in evading paying tax. Come to think of it, no one wants to live in a society where rules are rigidly enforced. At a socio-psychological level, however, a tax regime is incompatible with peoples’ perception of living in a truly democratic society. Therefore, the mounting challenge is to balance an individual’s right to privacy with society’s need to enforce its laws and regulations.

Rogoff is seized of the prevailing fascination for cash, and yet makes a convincing case for advanced economies to start phasing out paper currency. Though the world is still far from creating a cashless regime, the fact that cash fuels crime and corruption is at the core of the argument. It is, however, another matter that crime syndicates often circumvent the legal economy, and corruption has ways of reinventing itself because it predates paper currency.        

Putting cashless system into operation poses formidable challenges. The Curse of Cash takes a hard look at multiple implications of phasing out currency notes. How can something as antiquated as paper currency really matter when the total value of all financial assets dwarfs the total value of cash? After all, paper currency is but a zero-interest rate bond. Therefore phasing out paper currency, or charging negative interest rates on cash, remains an emotionally charged issue. On top, will the central banks surrender their monopoly over cash supplies without missing out on their key role to deliver growth and financial stability?

Phasing out paper currency may seem the simplest approach to clearing the path for tax regime to account for every penny in circulation, but the task is to first bring informal economy under the purview of the formal system. Further, any plan to drastically scale back the use of cash needs to provide heavily subsidized, basic debit card accounts for low-income individuals belonging to the informal economy. Raising challenging questions, this book provides thoughtful insights on a subject that is likely to engage monetary policy arena for time to come.

The Curse of Cash 
by Kenneth S. Rogoff
Princeton University Press, UK
Extent: 283. Price: US$17.49

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Behind the curves

With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.

It may be an adult mind’s preoccupation and a voyeuristic notion that ‘women take more time to dress because they have to slow down on curves’, but for Cambridge University’s reproductive biologist David Bainbridge, the female curve is a work of evolution and biology. Women are the only females in the animal kingdom to have curvaceous bodies. Were it not so, the modern society’s obsession with the female form would not have adorned billboards, magazine covers and museum artefacts.

Being curvaceous adds to women’s public image and societal performance, and a heavy price is often paid to keep the curves in desired shape. With gender stereotyping deeply embedded in our society, women’s self-esteem is traditionally assumed to be determined by how they perceive themselves in the eyes of others.

In an entertaining analysis, superimposing cutting-edge behavioural science over evolutionary biology, Bainbridge lays the foundation of ‘curvology’, which has yet to gain recognition as an exact science. Yet, he draws some compelling inferences. Why are women locked in a prison of self-surveillance, enchained by the idea that they must view their bodies as others view them? Why do women experience body-dissatisfaction as reflected in their innate desire to alter their curves? Not only gender psychology but women’s biology conspires against them, argues Bainbridge, which keeps their body shape and body image under consistent change. Trapped in this biological reality, women often feel torn between the body they live in and the body they must aspire for. After all, physical attractiveness determines women’s social dominance.

Opinions are likely to be divided on this matter, as not every woman will subscribe to such analogy. However, studies indicate that some 60 per cent women experience increased body-dissatisfaction — and are ever-eager to reshape their curves. Added to this is the most confusing question: Why do some women volunteer to suffer bouts of starvation to have a specific body weight and shape? Curvology provides multiple insights to this conundrum: how the female form evolved, how human mind views it, and how the world at large influences the body-mind dichotomy.

The female body is a biological marvel. Even after evolving over several million years, the woman’s body has yet to gain a definitive shape as it keeps reconstructing. Research indicates that not only girls accumulate fat twice as fast as boys; averaging 27 per cent adipose tissue compared to 14 per cent in boys, they continue to keep it unevenly distributed across distinct storage spots in the body. That this is done to negotiate specific requirements during puberty, reproduction and post-natal period is evident, but it isn’t yet clear why these storage spots become curvaceous hotspots for the probing eyes.

It is here that the author enters a contentious territory. Says he, “Male visual fixation on female form seems to have contributed to evolution of curves, meaning thereby that sexual selection has worked hands-in-glove with natural selection.” It may sound politically incorrect but Darwin too had found that his theory of natural selection was inadequate to explain the reason for peacocks to carry the inordinate weight of feathers on their tails. He had thus stumbled upon the idea of sexual selection, which posits that despite outweighed disadvantage, colourful feathers provided an advantage in the competition for mates.

Loaded with complex and unnerving facts, Curvology is a study of one of the most complex species on this planet. We seem to know enough about women, and yet remain adequately ignorant. For instance, why do the breasts of women remain swollen throughout whereas in other mammals, like chimpanzees and gorillas, the mammary glands only swell with pregnancy?

Some of this trivia cries out for further explanation. While an unsubstantiated case for male desire sculpting women’s bodies has been made, it is surprising that, for women, it does not seem to matter as much. Surveys indicate that women apply their cosmetic war-paint to impress other women, and not men. Some feminist writers have even argued that society’s body-chauvinism is the woman’s own creation. Yet, there cannot be two opinions that the age-old power of female body shape continues to be stronger than ever before.

The book leaves the reader craving for more: why women love and hate those curves, desire them and reject them, feel valued and devalued because of them? At the end, it is clear that there is no perfect female body shape, except the one that doesn’t exist.

by David Bainbridge
Portobello Books, UK
Extent: 227, Price: £9.99 

This review was first published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Nov 12, 2016.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Ways of Healing in India

For a country that spends less than 4% of its GDP on healthcare, even war-torn Afghanistan spends 8%, its financially-constrained healthcare system has left millions of people to fend for their own healthy survival.

‘India is everything they say it is,’ and still, ‘has nothing’. Its billion plus population may have only one medical doctor per 100,000, but there are varied prescriptions for disease prevention and control to choose from.  From folk, spiritual, herbal or ritual approaches to ayurveda, yoga, siddha, homeopathy and naturopathy techniques, there is one for every pocket and faith. How people get treated is as much a reflection of their social and economic status as their unstinted faith in the chosen system of health care. Why people are drawn to such alternatives is the leading question Aarthi Prasad, whose maternal grandfather was an Ayurvedic doctor and secretary to the Chopra Committee set up shortly after Independence in 1946-48 to chart the way forward for Indian healthcare, seeks to explore the many faces of medicine in her journey across modern India. 

For a country that spends less than 4% of its GDP on healthcare, even war-torn Afghanistan spends 8%, its financially-constrained healthcare system has left millions of people to fend for their own healthy survival. It is quite simply economic folly for a country to sacrifice its people, and leave them vulnerable to exploitation by quacks and fake doctors who dispense medicines, antibiotics and steroids in a grossly unregulated health sector. Reports of people dying at the hands of such untrained practitioners with dubious qualifications are a common occurrence. On the other extreme, there are social entrepreneurs who have seized the situation to create modules of effective healthcare delivery for the poor that the state and many overseas governments have begun to emulate. That there exists a range of possibilities amidst the healthcare gloom, other than just increasing the number of trained medical doctors, is the central message emanating from In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room.   

In eight well-written chapters, Prasad takes the reader through the maze of health care challenges that are being confronted on a daily basis by a range of health innovators. From a traditional healer who knows the medicinal value of every plant he finds to a group of women who are working together to address mental illness in country’s mega-slum, and from an asthma healer who prescribes swallowing a live fish to a group of doctors who are taking community health system to tribal living in remote jungle, the author treks the length and breadth of the country to provide a unique perspective on health and survival in one of the most fascinating country in the world. The author, however, concludes that capturing the breadth and diversity of the practice of medicine in India is immense in its scope, as the provision of generating such knowledge dates back to several millennia in the country.

But can such good Samaritan efforts be enough to transform the inadequately resourced and underfunded state health sector? Nagging as the question may be, the answer lies in the realization that ‘people have to be the actors and advocates in order to make a difference’. Each of the health innovators featured in the book are optimistic about connecting with right people to influence government resources in the right direction. Though adoption of learning from non-state actors’ initiatives is often frustratingly slow, the trickle-down effect is being observed in few isolated cases. Drs Abhay and Rani Bang’s community-care initiative, called SEARCH, in the jungle of naxalite-infested Gadchiroli in Maharashtra caught the attention of the Indian government only after it was taken up in Nepal, Bangladesh, Malawi, Zambia and Ethiopia. 

The message that comes across from the initiative is loud and clear: reduce unnecessary pressure on the beleaguered health infrastructure albeit government hospitals and take health-care instead to the people by targeting areas that have least of such facilities. Else, reaching out to nearly 800 million people with poor access to healthcare, given that India’s doctor-patient ration is 1:2000, will remain a distant dream. Nothing could be more evident than the plight of 700,000 people confined within 535 acres in world’s second largest slum Dharavi in Mumbai, which is home to a random assortment of skin, mental and venereal diseases. 

What’s more, learnt Prasad, while sick men are taken to a hospital, woman in the same situation is just given a dose of simple painkillers and allowed to suffer in the most inhospitable slum dwelling. Gender discrimination is shocking feature of life in slums, wife-beating, abandonment and divorce are common. Were it not for the timely counseling by the dedicated team of SNEHA, an initiative set-up by social psychology Nayreen Daruwala, women would have been bereft of much needed psychological therapy which is often reserved for upward mobile urban population.

With a PhD in molecular genetics and an interdisciplinary research engagement at London’s University College, Prasad delves into the technological divide afflicting country’s health sector to reveal how a strategic merging the traditional with the modern system of medicine can help credible healthcare reach out to the culturally and economically diverse population of the country. The pluralist culture of medicine is both a bane and boon, she argues. It is, however, another matter that it has taken decades for the government to harness synergy between different systems of medicine. The Chopra Committee had long recommended ‘synthesis of Indian and western medicines is not only possible but practicable’, but at that time modern medicine was considered the basis for development in the new India. 

It took nearly six decades before the government could create the Ministry of AYUSH, which covers the practice of Ayurveda, Yoga, Siddha, Unani, Homeopathy and Naturopathy, to bring these practices in the mainstream of health care in the country that has long practiced all these form in one way or the other. Need it be said in a country where, according to the World Health Organization, seventy per cent of the population still accesses traditional treatments. And, it is no less revealing that AYUSH hospitals now offer 62,000 beds backed an army of 785,000 health workers. Without doubt, traditional medicine could be most desirable add-on to modern medicine in reaching out to teeming millions with affordable health care.

Full of interesting revelations and intriguing insights, In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room captures the sound bites from the by-lanes of healthcare have-nots. It is country where unflinching faith in magic and medicine flows in an unholy alliance, leading to unsubstantiated assertions like: ‘I prayed to goddess and my wife was cured of TB’. While the cause-effect relationship of such claim may concern a doctor, it matters least to the person whose wife eventually got cured. Such cultural diversity beseeches a system of medicine that is as close to the skin as it is to the soul of its people. 

Aarthi Prasad deserves credit for bringing selected stories from the country’s vast healthcare landscape to life. The writing is superb; the non-fiction story telling format doesn’t miss out on the minutest of details. A reader can’t escape the disgusting stench as the author wades through the filthy water in slums of Dharavi and nor can one miss the exquisite ambiance of the up-market cosmetic surgery clinic as the author engages in discussion on the emerging market of plastic surgery in the country. The author rightly concludes that the challenges and solutions to the health of this great nation are not as diaphanous as it may seem. It calls for a pluralistic understanding of the society and its people. 

In The Bonesetters’s Waiting Room
by Aarthi Prasad
Hachette. New Delhi, 2016
Extent 214 pp, Price: Rs 499 

First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Sept-Nov 2016

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Home is where the market is!

The universal market places, automotive teller machines and chain coffee shops give a false sense of home, and an unrealistic identity.

With increasing mobility and near homogeneity of living spaces ‘home is where the heart is’ is but a reflection of the market. With the same corporations not only invading but in many cases constituting the public space we live in or tend to occupy, the sense of ‘home’ has seemingly been suppressed in favor of a false home that makes us think we are wise and know who we are, while we are in fact utterly lost. The universal market places, automotive teller machines and chain coffee shops give a false sense of home, and an unrealistic identity. 

Conversely, it is a kind of ‘homelessness’ that does not reflect who we are in relation to the places in which we live, because it is more of the same. At a philosophical level, it can be interpreted as a crisis, since all values are gone and, as a result, we have nothing to hold on to. The only thing we hold on to is: what do the celebrities wear, what car our neighbor drives, what brand of mobile phone our friends carry, and so on. Such loss of sense has plunged us into a vicious trap of environmental, immigration, and survival crisis. 

Using Nietzsche’s philosophy to diagnose this unique form of ‘homelessness’, Gerard Kuperus  argues that for lack of any real groundings in the places where we live are ultimately unsustainable and dangerous. Development has turned a majority of humans into nomads, who end up solidifying and commercializing the places around them, As a consequence, this nomadism does not seek a transformation of ourselves, but rather a transformation of the places that we move to and from. Rooted in this are the crisis of our times, we create our home by immunizing ‘ourselves’ from the ‘other’, both humans and the environment. In practical terms, we allow only as much of both. While fewer people are allowed ‘in’ to provide essential household services, a small amount of nature in the form of potted plants is allowed ‘in’ and around our homes to reflect our control over it.      

This perceived notion of home leads people to act with disdain against both living and inaminate objects.  Economic values, according to Kuperus, dictate what we should do in relationship to one another, and to the places that we live in. This is better understood in the context of building a dam: an engineer wants to build a dam because the technology is available whereas an ecologist wants to restore the river instead. While the engineer incorporates nature in the human realm by taming it, the ecologist reacts by immunizing nature from us. Both the mindset of the engineer and that of the ecologist are driven by certain ideas about what should be, and what should not be. Even the ecologist who campaigns to protect the river considers it as a natural entity, the ‘other’ that must be preserved for the ecological services it offers. 

When is a river part of our collective home, integrated with human existence? Addressing this question using diverse philosophical strands, Gerard Kuperus, a professor of environment philosophy at the University of San Francisco, proposes an eco-politics that interfaces a unity of humans within nature. The idea of the interface can be the model for a new eco-politics in which human and non-human actants alike co-exist by acting and re-acting.  It is within this interface that we can find or recover a sense of home.  

Esoteric as it may sound, the proposition has a distinct practicability to it. Using philosophical expositions of Heidegger, Delueze and Guattari, the author seeks a paradigm shift in our relationships with ecology. While it is important to remind ourselves that we are losing eco-systems at an alarming rate, our restoration efforts are nowhere close to keeping pace with it. Perhaps the shift in approach would mean that if we re-store or re-create a forest, we allow more people to live in it and not otherwise. Only by blurring boundaries of what we call home can the otherness of others be integrated into it. 

Loaded with philosophical intrigues, Kuperus gives a wake-up call to think differently, about ourselves, our relationship to other people, and to the places around us. It is a source book to think further on re-inventing our relationships, of letting go the notion of household, of belonging and invasion, of native and stranger to address some of the social and environmental challenges of our times. The challenge is to find ourselves in the wild and the wild in ourselves. Unless the otherness of the other is made part of human existence, we will continue to be distanced from what indeed should be called a home. Else, home will remain an extension of the ‘market’. 

Ecopolitical Homelessness
by Gerard Kuperus
Routledge, London
Extent: 173, Price:  $102  

An abridged version has appeared in AnthemEnviroExpertsReviews

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mathematics may be akin to cooking

Cooking and math may have begun as simple and useful crafts but these have evolved into complex and pleasurable arts today.

Could there be any similarity between mathematics and cookery? Neither do cooks deal in numbers nor do mathematicians indulge in recipes. Why search for similarity when there is none, one might wonder. Afterall, no one eats numbers and neither can anyone order the square root of a muffin. Is it as linear as that or are we missing out on something more vital? Jim Henle, a Professor of Mathematics at Smith College, thinks we often miss tantalizing similarities between the two – both intimidate novices, both pose difficulties, and both celebrate champions. Further, mathematicians and cooks have similar dreams, similar fears, and similar guilty secrets. 

It may be hard for someone who is average in mathematics and rarely ventures into the kitchen to concur with such similarities. Yet, it can hardly be denied that both mathematicians and chefs solve ‘problems’. While Chefs create new and wonderful dishes, mathematicians create new and fascinating formulae. Called fusion, both of them bring together two or more old things to create something that’s new. Cuisines are anything but fusion of the old and new - flavors, ingredients, techniques. So, is mathematics! Come to think of it, algebra was borne out of calculus. The original problems of calculus – calculating areas, constructing tangents – were considered geometric till algebra was applied to get out of them. That could easily be a mathematical cuisine.

Every cuisine is a work of mathematics, though. Sample this: a puff pastry is but a single layer of butter surrounded by dough to begin with. The combination is then rolled out, and folded in three, creating three layers of butter within four layers of dough. This is quite obvious! The unobvious is once it gets folded further, say three more times. Each time the number of layers of butter is tripled: 9 layers, 27 layers, 81 layers. As a consequence, it creates 10, 28 and 82 layers of dough. For the chef, the numbers of layers are significant as these reflect in ultimate appearance and taste of the puff pastry, for a mathematician it is the fun of creating 82 layers of dough in just four operations with implications beyond sheer numbers.     

The self-taught cook-cum-gourmet mathematician makes it clear that cooking can be as much fun as mathematics, and vice versa. The bottom line is that if you are an avid cook, you can do math. And, if you are a successful mathematician, you can cook. What if you are neither of these two? It is so because neither does our education inculcate mathematical preparedness in us nor do our mothers coax us to try our hands at the frying pan. To be able to engage in either of the two subjects, argues Henle, one ought to be playful and fun-loving in life. Simply put, if you have fun doing something you will keep doing it. And, if you keep doing something you will get better at it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of both mathematics and cooking. 

The Proof and the Pudding is a non serious book on a serious subject; half of the book is filled with recipes while the other half is devoted to mathematics. The author finds perfect escape in pursuing his culinary skills to recreate the magic of mathematics in loafs of breads and layers of cheese. The lessons he draws are cross-cutting, and may not relate directly to either math or cooking. Enjoyment in failure holds the key to get good at any creative endeavor. Both math and cooking can help in being bad at something and yet be able to cross the dead ends. 

Exploring the two subjects from diverse perspectives viz., vanity, sloth, parsimony, lust, and gluttony, Henle finds amazing similarities in both math and cooking. But it doesn’t stop him from drawing mathematical parallels on aesthetic features like elegance, simplicity, complexity and usefulness common to both. If a recipe could be elegant, so could be a mathematical formula. From sticky buns to fennel pizza, and from cheese sandwich to vegetarian cassoulet, there is one for every taste that the self-taught cook could dish out with its associated mathematical proof using games, doodles, puzzles or card tricks. Afterall, the proof of the pudding lies in its taste. 

Cooking and math may have begun as simple and useful crafts but these have evolved into complex and pleasurable arts today. Ironically, while chefs have attained higher social recognition, mathematicians are still languishing in obscurity. No wonder, Henle makes a case for mathematicians to be chefs. Else, the glaring dissimilarity will continue to linger with Chicken tikka persisting over Euclidian geometry. Is it because mathematics exists in our minds and doesn’t deliver anything on the plate? 

The Proof and the Pudding
by Jim Henle
Princeton University Press, UK
Extent: 164, Price: US$26.95

This write-up was first published in Current Science, issue dated Sept 25, 2016.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No, I'm just looking!

Is the iconic secret agent transforming both as a figure of desire as well as the figure who desires?

The sensuous secret agent is past 50, and is not done yet. With its all twenty-four releases under Eon productions, Ian Fleming’s iconic James Bond with a pre-script 007 has continued to seduce women as if there is no tomorrow. Providing a visual guarantee of the maleness of the secret agent, from Dr. No to Spectre, the female characters have been treated with disdain by James Bond. No wonder, Bond has been personified as a guilt-free voyeur with a license to seduce and bed women, and if need be kill them too. Without doubt, the legacy of the most-wanted secret service agent has been built at the expense of women of all hues.

How has a character, who has been accused of sexism, endeared itself on the silver screen for five decades? Having studied the James Bond franchise for over a decade, Lisa Funnell has come up with a nuanced but complex understanding of gender, sexuality and female representation in the immensely successful series. Pulling contributions from over two dozen established and emerging scholars, the compilation provides breadth and depth that goes beyond the assumption that the masculine genre of action is created by and for men. In reality, however, Bond has been scripted both as a figure of desire as well as the figure who desires. More than mere beautiful objects, the Bond girls from Ursula Andress to Monica Balucci, have given momentum to the story with their often underrated skills in armed combat and espionage knowledge. 

Funnell, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, has often been asked how being a woman and feminist has she followed aggressive heterosexual masculinity and consequent suppression of women by James Bond. Positioning herself in the complex space defined by the patriarchal nature of film, she discounts the problematic nature of the films in favor of consumption of male culture which defines female fandom. Why should gendering of consumptive practices work to delimit pleasure? In the Bond fantasy world, both good and bad women, have a pivotal role to play in furthering the narrative. These characters can easily be viewed as symbols rather than individuals, their position being a reflection of their disposable physical attributes as mere functions of the narrative. No surprise, therefore, that the Bond girl is usually characterized as being independent and willful. 

Does it mean the Bond stories reflect a progressive view of women’s sexuality? On the contrary, the manner in which James Bond ends-up possessing the girl(s) reflects a traditional, and culturally problematic, male fantasy of women’s sexuality. Sample the iconic scene of rising Ursula Andress out of the surf in a white bikini in Dr. No. ‘What are you doing here? Looking for shells?’ she asks. Without missing the gaze, Bond replies: ‘No, I’m just looking’. Sigmund Freud would view such ‘gaze’ from the notion of scopophila, creating a voyeuristic viewing situation in the darkness of the theatre. In drawing greater sexual freedom for women, Ian Fleming extracted greater sexual opportunities for men. And, it has paid dividends at the box-office.   

The social consequences of the perpetuation of gender stereotypes have far from clearly understood, and neither has it been easy given the complex nature of patriarchy and feminism. The book explores tensions between the progressive and the conservative viewpoints, offering scholarly perspectives on the representation of women in the franchise. 

There is an interesting twist to the tale, though. The first Bond novel was published in the same year as the launch of Playboy, lending credence to the assumption that the story emerged in the context of mass-market pornography. It captured the emerging consumptive characteristic of post-war Western Europe and North America. And, there hasn’t been any looking back since then. If graphic account of sex wasn’t enough, the Bond girls were given sexually suggestive names - the most risqué and famous being Pussy Galore, played by Honor Blackman in Goldfinger (1964). Plenty O’Toole and Octopussy were other sexually suggestive names for Bond girls in the series. 

Ever since the iconic character was created, socio-political developments have shaped the depiction of women in the franchise. The book captures the influence of feministic undercurrents on the franchise through the decades, and makes for serious scholarly reading. The most significant change being the transformation of Playboy in recent months. With the magazine having started covering its girls, so has James Bond responded by bedding few women than his predecessors. Spectre, the latest Bond flick, has Daniel Craig in more serious romantic relationship.   

For His Eyes Only
by Lisa Funnell (Ed)
Wallflower Press, UK
Extent: 309, Price: $30  

This review was first published in Deccan Herald on Aug 28, 2016.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The inability to think of the unthinkable

Public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of widespread denial and overt activism.

Like tigers in the Sundarbans, where the beast remains elusive but not its footmarks, climate change is seemingly everywhere and yet found nowhere. Despite its improbable though astoundingly real occurrences, the climatic events have been restricted to our fleeting consciousness. So far, only 19 countries have inked the non-binding Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C. All this is taking place while social media has made climate change research a part of the public discourse. The aim is to trigger action towards a credible policy response. Far from it. Discomforting as it may be, the eerie silence around the dangers of climate change has come to rest on the skewed awareness that we are all living in a ‘new normal’.

Amitav Ghosh questions this notion and our inability to think about the lurking dangers of climate change, and challenges the uniform expectations rooted in the ‘regularity of bourgeois life’. Need it be said that unstinted faith in such perceived regularity has driven the modern world to the point of derangement. It follows that we cannot recognize the environmental problems created by our way of life. As every individual is incentivized to improve his or her standard of living and the state is driven by the capitalist model of double-digit growth, what will drive us to exit the comfort zone of this ‘new normal’ remains a vexed question.

Being a celebrated story-teller himself, Ghosh wonders why climate change has not been taken seriously by fiction writers and literary journals. Although the subject has figured obliquely in his own writings, he contends that a broad imaginative failure arising out of a personal predilection to climate change has prevented writers from negotiating the currents of global warming. The Great Derangement is thus a call for writers to pull climate change out from the realm of scientific research into the literary domain such that contemporary culture may find it easy to deal with it. After all, the climate crisis is as much a crisis of culture as a crisis of the imagination, an inability to think about the ‘unthinkable’.

There is a difficulty in accepting such consideration. Research shows that people do not learn about climate change through personal experience or act on the issue unless it evokes strong visceral reactions. Why would people think about climate change, which involves thoughts on death and their own mortality? Most individuals rarely take seriously even predictions on water scarcity. No wonder then that a film like The Day After Tomorrow, with its depiction of glacial meltdown leading to a submerged Manhattan, served merely as action-movie entertainment and did not lead to serious climate discourse among movie-goers.   

The literary mainstream too has remained on the margins of the crises and has been restrained on the forest fires, cloudbursts, tornadoes and tsunamis that have been pounding our world with ferocious regularity. As public response to climate change is caught between the polarities of widespread denial and overt activism -- which is also under surveillance by the military-industrial complex -- literary minds do have the power to free society from the shackles of cultural cognition and motivated reasoning. Ghosh argues that there can be no compelling period in human history to recognize the urgency for such an engagement.

The Great Derangement views the history and politics of climate change through personal stories. It is a refreshing take on a subject that has just about moved from the post-scientific consensus stage to a pre-social one. Scientific knowledge in itself is never socially or politically inert, particularly when it prompts changes in people’s beliefs or actions. However, it takes time for social acceptance to emerge. Only by acknowledging and addressing this underlying subtext of climate change can the cultural schism be bridged.

The author’s anxiety on the subject of climate change comes through clearly in this erudite narrative. But science does not have the final word when it comes to bringing about a shift in our culture practices. Even the scientific ‘proof’ of a causal connection between smoking and lung cancer has been hard to establish. Science can only describe the problem; it is for cultural processes to guide social and political change. Rather than forcing people to acquiesce, the better goal would be to prepare society to address the full scope of the climate change issue.

Written with ecological passion and literary flavour, The Great Derangement is an absorbing narrative on the subject, the impact of which is getting closer with each passing day. Shorn of scientific jargon, it is an interesting exposition on the most urgent task of our time.

First published in The Hindustan Times dated Aug 27, 2016.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The voice of the vanquished

It is human nature to find everything about the victors virtuously rosy, and everything about the vanquished a vicious black.

Mythology and history have often been unkind to the losers, as these are either written by the victors or by those who eulogize their heroes. Over time, such exaggerations acquire a reality of their own, told and retold as the ‘truth’ of the times. After all, it is human nature to find everything about the victors virtuously rosy, and everything about the vanquished a vicious black. And, the vanquished are forever the whipping boys of posterity, as the Kauravas have been since the days of the Mahabharata. And, the title of the chief villain of the epic war has been bestowed on Duryodhana, the eldest among the hundred siblings borne to the blind King Dhritarashtra. Rarely has anyone questioned the veracity of the story, which has been passed on from one generation to other. But if the narrative strength of the epic lies in its multiple renderings, should Duryodhana not be given a chance to make a case for himself? 

Known to constitute the ruling and the military elite, it is ridiculous to assume that the kshatriya parents would knowingly consider Duryodhana as a chosen name for their child, as it means the one who makes wrong use of weapons. In reality, the crown prince of Hastinapur could not have any other name but Suyodhana, the one who is adept at wielding weapons. And, there is hardly any account of him proving it otherwise. It seems the chronicler of the epic saga chose to identify the crown prince otherwise, a name that eased in anointing devious sub-plots aimed to demean his character. Subjecting mythological facts to logical reasoning, V Raghunathan brings the much maligned prince to life to narrate his side of the story in Duryodhana. 

Candid in his confession, the protagonist argues that if the Pandavas were as good as they have been painted to be then the Kauravas had their share of good deeds as well.  The epic war is stated to be the handiwork of Duryodhana whereas in reality it was on account of the Pandavas staking unsubstantiated claim to the throne, while none of the brothers were sons of Pandu as the scheming Kunti had made everybody believe. Sage Vyasa had himself put the facts across in the epic: Yama, Vayu and Indra were the respective fathers of Yudhistra, Bhima and Arjun whereas the younger two Pandavas, Nakula and Sahadev – born to Pandu’s second wife Madri – were also not sired by Pandu but by the renowned physician twins, the Ashwini Kumaras. Given the non-Kuru lineage, Duryodhana had a far greater right to reject such devious claim than the Pandavas ever had to make that claim in the first place. 

It is tough not to believe Duryodhana who brings the already known facts to light. In doing so, the protagonist builds a compelling case for the version of the epic being flawed because the facts were misrepresented to disfavor the Kauravas. It is equally true that the story may not have been fascinating had it been painted merely in white and black. The Mahabharata is not one story, but there is story within a story and each character is not what it may seem to be. Fact and fiction blend flawlessly, making it quite a task to separate the grain from the chaff. 

It is often believed that just because Krishna fought on the side of the Pandavas, they must have been in the right. If that be so, why did Krishna’s elder brother Balaram, along with many other noble souls like Karna and Jarasandha chose to side with the Kauravas if they were pure evil? Presiding deity he might be but Krishna had his share of ‘grey’ in the epic when he had partnered with Bhima and Arjun to murder Jarasandha by stealth. Duryodhana equates his attempt to kill Pandavas with Jarasandha’s murder as pre-emptive strikes for the protection of their respective kingdoms, but wonders why his attempt was singled out as a crime?    

Duryodhana’s version of the epic is iconoclastic, engaging the reader's attention to the bygone characters and incidents from a fresh perspective. The idea is not to rewrite the great epic but to pick essential lessons from it. Says Duryodhana: ‘We might ascribe disproportionate credit or disgrace to ourselves for our successes and failures whereas the truth is that, we are bit actors in a grand scheme of random events.’ Afterall, like the Pandavas, Duryodhana and his kin were the product of their times over which they had little control.

Duryodhana leaves the reader with a volley of intriguing questions to ponder over. Was it my fault if Yudhisthira chose not to heed his brothers’ advice against accepting the invitation for a game of chauper? Was it my fault if Yudhisthira considered his wife to be his property (though it belonged to his other four brothers) and wagered her in the game of dice? Was it my fault if Shakuni was a better player of chauper than Yudhisthira? Am I to be faulted for winning back Indraprastha by strategic statecraft rather than open warfare?  Why history doesn’t credit me for upholding the personal liberty of the Pandavas by sending them to exile? Why I’m not being credited for letting Draupati her freedom with her good-for-nothing husbands? 

The Mahabharata has been told and retold for thousands of years. The epic has engaged readers and scholars to understand the story from the perspectives of its secondary characters. V. Raghunathan makes a convincing case from Duryodhana’s perspective, which is highly absorbing and immensely thought-provoking.  It adds yet another dimension to the labyrinth that is the Mahabharata, 

by V Raghunathan
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 307, Price: Rs 350  

This write-up was first published in Speaking Tree dated Aug 7, 2016.