Sunday, September 12, 2021

In search of the tallest mountain

The 71-year quest in search of the highest mountain is adventurous and engrossing

Could there be anything more intriguing than the fact that Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, earned its name much before it was actually located? Credit goes to the imperialist expansionist ideology, led by the known thruster of such approach in Viceroy Lord Curzon, which sought to see the highest mountain within the borders of the British Empire. Unlocking the door to the elusive mountain also aligned with the British geopolitical strategy of thwarting the Russians designs in Tibet, presumably aimed at undermining its influence in Central Asia. In this light, closed borders of Nepal and Tibet proved no deterrent in laying claim on the most prized landscape. 

Named in 1850 but first attempt to climb the peak made 70 years later, in 1921, the hunt for the tallest mountain on the Tibetan-Nepalese border offers a breathtaking story loaded with twists and travails in exploration, adventure, and diplomacy. Known for his inter-cultural writings, Craig Storti builds an engrossing narrative that justifies creation of an institutional base, in the form of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in 1802, which became the pivot that helped map country’s geographical resources, established the British dominance in mountaineering, and had led to cementing the colonial hegemony. With the highest mountain being the coveted trophy, breaking all barriers in its hunt were legitimized. 

Breaking the closed borders with Nepal and Tibet were the first barrier to be politically negotiated with resolute Nepalese and stubborn Tibetans, both of whom loathed the colonialists for their dubious intentions. Political maneuverings worked in the case of Nepal, however, for ignoring Lord Curzon the Tibetans paid a heavy price – 3,000 of whom were killed in the ensuing confrontation at Guru in 1904, south of Gyantse. Intense Russophobia, bolstered by rumors and manipulated intelligence, had triggered the bloody invasion. Not embarrassed that they discovered a total of three Russian-made rifles in Lhasa in the process, the permission to conduct exploration and map-making activities in the hunt for Mount Everest was nevertheless ensured.      

The Hunt for Mount Everest is more than just an adventure story in the quest of an elusive mountain. It is a multidimensional reading of history that is laced with sub-plots on political gamble, diplomatic bungling, geopolitical supremacy, scientific rigor, and genuine bravery. As much an act of laying claim on a dramatic natural landscape, the bullying of the natives was to warn the others in the region of the consequences of conspiring with the Russians. While the Tibetan misadventure by Colonel Francis Younghusband had made him persona non grata inside the government, his defiant daredevilry had earned reassurance from King Edward who approved all that the young officer had done, making him a hero to mountaineers. Such dubious double standards were to become the hallmark of imperial rule. 

In the centenary year of the first Everest expedition, Storti brings a racy narrative on the discovery and subsequent siting of the giant among mountains. Under the leadership of founder Surveyor General George Everest, with Lord Curzon and Kitchener as patron viceroys, Radanath Sickdhar, John Hennessey, and their boss Andrew Waugh deserve all acclaim for their meticulous geographical calculations in confirming the presence of the tallest peak in 1850. The Hunt for Mount Everest is an engrossing account of those 70 years that eventually led to the first ever attempt to scale the highest mountain by George Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine.

Storti has put together a fascinating account of how the mountain was found, and what went into first naming it, and then retaining the same name. The accepted norm that local name should get precedence over the one assigned by the explorers was put to test. Having made stupendous efforts in discovering and locating the highest mountain, it would have been a misfortune for the British if it would have earned a name other than Mount Everest. 

The Hunt for Mount Everest leaves the reader wondering if Mallory and Irvine had been to the peak after their last appearance in cloud as they climbed past 27,500 feet on their way to the summit of Everest. While Irvine’s body was never found, Mallory’s was recovered seventy-five years later in 1999. In this centenary year, the lingering question of whether or not Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were the first to the top of Everest has resurfaced. The answer may be hard to come by, but Storti’s engrossing narrative offers a tribute to the heroic efforts of the first ever climbers who left their footprints for others to emulate. For seventy-one years ever since it was discovered, Everest had remained a mystery, metaphor and a symbol. It was in 1921 that Everest became something more than just a mountain – the highest mountain on the planet. The Hunt for Mount Everest is strongly recommended for anyone interested in the affairs of the world. 

The Hunt for Mountain Everest 
by Craig Storti
John Murray/Hachette, New Delhi 
Extent: 301, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in Deccan Herald on September 12, 2021.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Getting past inbox of anxiety and distress

If email anxiety is consuming you, follow Newport for possible resolutions.

Until it popped up on my computer screen recently I couldn't have ever sensed if something as useful as an email was making us miserable. Curated by Washington University Professor Cal Newport, the message suggests that sending and receiving messages come for a price that we hadn't bargained for. Newport backs himself with survey data and clinical studies to prove that cheaper mode of incessant communication guarantees our misery. Do emails stacked in my inbox generate anxious moments? it does by effecting both our productivity and our mental health. If nothing, it undervalues the concentration of mind to produce valuable output. 

Nearly three decades into emailing in the country may have cost the postal services a great deal but not without letting email users like you and me remain in perpetual low-grade anxiety, and that too unknowingly. Could it be the intangible cost of relying on instant communication that we don't mind skipping a meal but rarely let checking the mailbox elude us. One may shrug it aside as an incidental side effect of a compulsive in-box habit but in reality it may be much more serious than that. And, facts tend to prove it so.

Using time-tracking software, researchers at the University of California found that employees of a large company checked their inboxes an average of 77 times a day, with the heaviest user checking more than 400 times daily. Psychologists contend that such involuntary action induces a heavy cost in terms of mental energy, reducing cognitive performance while creating a sense of exhaustion and reduced efficacy. These dual reactions - admiration of instant communication and detestation due to email burnout - leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation. The unfortunate mismatch may seem unavoidable.  

However, it has emerged as a serious concern in recent times. Enacted in France in 2007, a new labor law gives email users in offices the so-called right to disconnect. Companies with fifty or more employees were required to negotiate specific policies about the use of e-mail after work hours, with the goal of reducing the time workers spent in their in-boxes during the evening or over the weekend. One of its kind, the law aims to reduce burnout of employees, which is more relevant now as the shift toward a more frenetic work-from-home makes life miserable. Not sure if it is being noticed elsewhere, though. 

Our compulsive relationship with email needs serious rethinking, Newport incisively argues in his new book A World Without Email. Since we can't get away from it given our evolutionary obsession with social interaction, the need to reduce the tortuous cycle of increased email workload invariably causing frustrating misunderstandings and confused exchanges has never been more compelling. Far from improving human condition, however, this efficient mode of communication is causing uncontrolled distress to most of us. Look around and one will find compelling evidence for renegotiating our engagement with emails.   

Even if one were to disagree, there are numerous studies which prove that the need to be constantly connected is associated with suboptimal health outcomes. Little gets realized that the more one spends time on email,  the higher is one’s stress for that hour. I have reasons to suspect that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, driving us nuts even if we have serious intentions of ignoring an email or a potential connection. Ironically, we have been condemned to ignore the source of discontent that, if properly managed, stands to improve our work output.  .   

The compulsion of communicating instantaneously notwithstanding, we have been reduced to human routers of digitized information. Just because it’s possible for us to send and receive messages incessantly through our waking hours doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable way to exist. Need it be said that the sheer volume of communication generated by modern professional email degrades our traditional social circuits, if it hasn't done so already. Unrestricted reliance on email has eroded the emotional content of human exchanges. Technology is indeed turning us into zombies.      

The trouble is that not many seem to be complaining, but for those who have been at the receiving end of it. An employee was recently devastated after receiving an email from his employer which read, 'We are still not sure how the office will run without you from next week'. If that wasn't less demeaning and distressing, the message carried a smiley with the signature, and was copied to all other employees' of the organisation. So much for speed and convenience at the cost of degenerating human emotions and feelings.  Unless we open our eyes to the emerging new reality, we will get consumed by technology if we aren't already!  

A World Without Email
by Cal Newport
Penguin UK
Extent.296. Price. Rs 699.  

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine on Aug 15, 2021.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

On the periphery of change

Seeking change beyond sheer material progress underscores the need for placing dignity and freedom ahead of the prevailing ideology of development.  

Can a solitary heroic deed by one among them uplift the entire community from its century-old demeaning tag as rat-eaters? Could conversion of the culture of pig-rearing into a thriving business move the marginalized into centre stage in society? Has political representation in recent times contributed to giving the habitual drunk an agency to lift themselves out of the hierarchical social construct? Dasrath Manjhi’s landmark efforts in cutting through the hillock with a mere borer and a hammer; Babu Majhi’s success with conversion of pig-rearing tradition into a roaring business; and, Jitan Manjhi’s drawing political capital in the caste-dominated politics has the making of a legend but without rendering any corrective narrative to the stigmatized image of their community of the Musahars who have sizeable population in Bihar, and limited numbers in the neighboring states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal. Five chapters in this thin volume empathize with the lived realities of the Musahars who find themselves at the crossroads of human development, marred as much by the denial of development as their own culture of resistance to the process of enforced change. 

Counting them as one among many of its unintended victims, The Marginalized Self offers a well-reasoned critique on the project of development that contributes to the phenomenon of underdevelopment leading to further marginalization of the excluded. It is in this context that iconic Dasrath Manjhi, the mountain man, had exhorted his fellow community members to take cognizance of their own underdevelopment in getting beyond income poverty in understanding social exclusion as the cause for deprivation. ‘Change should necessarily respect the ethos of the community, and create enabling conditions where they have the freedom of choice.’ 

What gives purpose to the five standalone articles is an attempt to view development from a cultural lens, to position development as if culture matters. The slender volume may have been an outcome of a research project conducted over a decade ago, the insights and observations have not lost out on their contemporary relevance. The Marginalized Self offers an engaging multi-layered narrative, which questions the top down prescription of development. With a deep dive into myths, beliefs and practices of the Musahars, the writers suggest the need for producing a bottom-up version of development conducive with the cultural underpinnings of the community.

Much has been written in recent times on how ‘development’ has come to colonize the world ever since the term was first coined in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. However, there is no denying that the promise of development has failed the marginalized millions across the world. The seductively packaged idea of economic emancipation has continued to persist, a non-negotiable entity that has contributed to strengthening the political economy of the nation-state in the name of the poor. The Marginalized Self is an optimistic undertaking that raises the stakes of the marginalized community as it glorifies the marginal space it has been pushed into. 

All said, it is unlikely if the discourse on development will get a dent in the state where caste-based economic marginalization is more of a norm than exception. However, the fact that the Musahars are seeking change beyond sheer material progress underscores the need for placing dignity and freedom ahead of the prevailing ideology of development.  

The Marginalized Self
by Rahul Ghai, Arvind Mishra & Sanjay Kumar (Eds)
Primus Books, New Delhi 
Extent: 159, Price: Rs. 1,095.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated July 25, 2021.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Exploring the unique factor

There are aspects of human individuality that lack genetic explanation.

Javed Akhtar’s lyrical query ‘Main aisa kyun hoon, Main jaisa hoon main waisa kyun hoon’ (‘Why am I like this, Why am I like I am’ from movie Lakshya) reflects a persistent curiosity that has engaged mankind ever since. By default, nature insists on individuality as a unique trait to sustain diversity for harnessing limitless potential of human ingenuity and endurance. But if inherent randomness is an evolutionary reality, why should understanding the inevitability of human individuality be a matter of concern? It does matter, however, as it not only helps know ourselves better while judging others’ consciously, it also provides a basis for getting clarity on the politically volatile concepts of gender, race and nation. Else, racist supremacists like those in the US and the Hindu nationalists in India will continue to base their policies of racial oppression on population genetics. It isn’t that racial categories don’t exist but that such categories are not hereditary, and hence the need to refute racist pseudo-scientific arguments. 

Unique is distinct and timely, putting to rest the tired and inaccurate nature versus nurture discourse. Combining recent research with credible experiments, the book seeks to ascertain aspects of human individuality that lack genetic explanation. Not all intricacies of human idiosyncrasy are coded in the genes though, making humans more than the sum of all the genes they are born with. It is here that social experiences play up over genes to give the distinction to our individuality. Subject to how you were raised, what diseases you’ve had, which foods you’ve savored, and what weather anomalies you encountered in your formative years contribute to shaping individuality as a trait that sets each of us apart.  

Some of the science around genetics may remain a little hard to follow, but the book offers fascinating insights into an area that has subconsciously remained closer to heart. While stinky armpit is heritable, political beliefs aren’t gene dependent. Curiously, your flavor of wine or cheese is not exactly the same as mine because the sense of smell and taste is driven by no less than four hundred olfactory receptor genes which while applying to all sensory systems express differently in two random individuals. That is why, your green is not necessarily my green.   

Exploring the world of dreams, memories and senses, David Linden looks at everything that makes us distinctly ourselves: our height and weight, food preferences, personality styles, gender identity, racial bias, sexual orientation and intelligence. The findings reveal that gene expression is exquisitely regulated, over both short and long term, to reflect in human individuality as an impact of varied experiences over specific genes. Every experience worth whatever its weight plays a bigger role in making us who we are.

Hrithik Roshan singing 'main aisa kyon hoon..'

Written with authority and purpose, the narrative treads into an area over which scientific consensus is still at some distance. However, what Linden overtly achieves in conveying is that more than just genes, there are wide range of influences that determine our individuality. And, it may eventually seem to be an evolutionary necessity as individuality holds the key to our ability to live together. In this respect, there is no genetic evidence to suggest that racial group differences in genes are linked to any behavioral or cognitive trait. On the contrary, it is the very definition of nonscientific self-serving racial bigotry, asserts Linden. 

Unique addresses the types of questions about human individuality that can contribute to more informed discussion on a subject that often incites political passions. While racial discrimination is one of its crucial manifestations, the science of human individuality has also separated the political Right from the Left for over more than a century. Given this fraught backdrop, the book plays it straight in synthesizing the current scientific consensus and provides the kind of clarity needed from popular science books like this, especially the one that investigate both what makes us human and what makes us distinctly, immutably ourselves.

Individual variations not only define us outwardly but point inwardly too, informing us about the state of our mind and bodies. ‘Each of us operates from a different perception of the world and a different perception of ourselves’. These individual variations get elaborated and magnified with time as we accumulate expectations and experiences. Ultimately, the author concludes, ‘interacting forces of heredity, experience, plasticity, and development resonate to make us unique.’ Well researched and compelling, Unique has the potential to change the way we think about why and how we are who we are.  A fascinating story of human individuality has been told with pace and elegance. The book should provoke some fruitful debate. 

Unique: The New Science of Human Individuality
by David J. Linden
Basic Books, New York
Extent: 317, Price: US$ 30.

First published in the Hindu BusinessLine dated July 21, 2021.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

It is just our style, man!

Susegad manifests itself as a way of life, of being at peace with whatever life has to offer.

Pandemic may have propped scientists to invent ‘anthropause’ as a new catch phrase to describe forced reduction in human activities but the traditions of taking a step back, slowing down and living in the present have been a preferred choice for many societies. Like Ikigai to Japanese and Hugge to the Danes, Susegad for the Goans manifests itself as a way of life, of being at peace with whatever life has to offer. It may resonate a bit differently in the pandemic era though, as survivors may have little option but to embrace such traditions to brave isolation and to address anxieties. By bringing susegad under focus, Clyde D’Souza suggests conscious replacement of mindless consumption with mindful living to strike harmony with self. 

Susegad is an intimate exploration into what Goa should actually be sought for, beyond its tag of a popular tourist destination. Despite the humbug of modernity hitting the island county like a nasty wave, there is a consciously consistent effort by the natives to stand tall against such onslaught. The humid sluggishness triggered by climate has found comfort in the culture that has in turn led the human biological clock to be automated in favor of happiness and satisfaction. The silent ticking of the clock is so deeply integrated into the Goan habits and rituals that they hardly ever notice it. Even a casual Goan response ‘It’s just our style, man’ has so much unsaid in it.     

Pursuing a hybrid style of writing, D’Souza digs out for susegad in all elements of daily existence with a short story and an interview with a native celebrity to pep up the narrative. From tangy curries to reflective proverbs, and from afternoon siesta to distilling feni, each activity and practice is so paced that the person executing it is in control of life. No wonder, most Goans yearn for susegad, meaning quietness, which the pandemic has otherwise thrust upon all others too. Does that not call upon the others to condition themselves to the new normal? Written as much for the curious as for the discerning, the book offers insights on author’s lived experience on a partially understood and inadequately appreciated subject that has something for everyone struggling to make a sense of living amidst pandemic induced fears and anxieties. 

As an accomplished writer, D’Souza has championed to showcase the intrinsic value of susegad rather convincingly and eloquently. He avoids being meditative but remains somewhat prescriptive in conveying how to stay relaxed and contended without doing anything dramatic. Pandemic may have made the case for practicing minimalism more urgent and compelling, but sadness and unhappiness have prevailed far too long to deserve serious attention. Inspiration for building a case for susegad is pitched on repulsive realities of our times which invariably come packaged with material comforts and physical conveniences. The case is rested!

Susegad is undoubtedly a timely book that lends handy tips on making life more relaxed with an increasing feeling of happiness. It is an easy-to-read book that can be placed in the category of a cultural biography. It indeed is, as it accords a special place to the time-tested cultural practices of the people of Goa. The Goans have long practiced what most of us have been forced to adapt during the pandemic. Far from outsourcing the boring chores, the Goans follow the ritual of in-sourcing. Most of the household activities are done without any outside help, to enforce dignity of labor while building a relationship with the immediate environment and perhaps, adding an element of susegad in one’s life. The lessons are far too many to ignore.     

Susegad is a timely call for course correction to address the underlying fissures and frailties in our societies. With global pandemic having ripped the world apart, nothing could be more compelling than addressing the micro stressors to tide over the macro challenges.

Susegad 
by Clyde D’Souza
Penguin/Ebury, New Delhi 
Extent: 228, Price: Rs. 399.

First published in Deccan Herald, dated July 25, 2021.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Is language not a wild beast?

Language is a human invention that is bound to evolve with time to suit changing communication needs.

Threat to the existence of languages seems unreal to Lane Greene for whom language is like a wolf, robust, organic and evolving to suit the changing conditions in the wild. With infectious enthusiasm, the polyglot columnist considers the deep strangeness of language to be its savior against potential vulnerability. After all it is a human invention that is bound to evolve with time with different users contextualizing it to suit their communication needs. If that be so, why shifts in expressions and meanings of words should be worrisome? It is only the purists who love one dialect may take it as an imminent sign of linguistic ruin.

Written words do abide by grammatical conventions, but it is the spoken language which is continually in flux ‘providing speaker a menu of options for getting ideas effectively into the reader’s mind.’ Each language has two sides to it - one formal and the other normal, with the formal having a limited role. Profiling the changes that are sweeping the language (English), Greene wonders when the purists will appreciate normal English as relevant because ‘formal written language isn’t the only form of language that matters.’ Language is a many-faceted thing. Slang and dialect, jocular and off-beat, teen-speak and text-driven, and, corporate jargon and political ramble. Do these forms pose a threat to language or enhance its versatility? While this could be open to differing interpretations, it does show that each facet fills a distinct need. ‘Not all language is well behaved, nor does it need to be.’

Erudite and ebullient, Talk on the Wild Side argues that decentralized changes are not only acceptable but inherent to language. Else, neither will language live nor will it continue to be spoken by people. Humans have done important things with languages, and continue to do without letting them fall apart into pieces. The wild side of language is that it is adaptable, but that hardly applies to native languages which easily fall prey to the hegemony of dominant languages. That being not the subject of his inquiry. Greene instead argues that language doesn’t fall apart even when people do novel things with it or adapt it to suit varied needs. Every language, therefore, remains a unique product of human genius.

The core idea behind this immensely readable book is that language is always changing, influenced by externalities of the times. The words may not mean the same they did a century ago, and there is nothing wrong with it because languages always evolve towards simplicity. Greene cites the word buxom, which originally meant pliable, then happy/gay, and now, a large-chested woman. The need is to accept language as it remains relevant to the context in which it is adapted. The fact that English language enriches itself by integrating words from other languages (especially Hindi) every other year bears testimony to its absorptive capacity of integrating words from other cultures. That is the dynamic nature of language.

However, there are purists who fear that such integration corrupts language, and which may eventually bring its terminal decline. Such impression may be far from truth. The vast majority of language experts today - those who really understand what language is and how it works, rather than those who focus on how they think it ought to work - sit closer to the descriptivist camp, rather than being prescriptivists. Arguing instead that the latter group is wrong, Greene feels that language can never be tamed or shaped to the will of a select few prescriptivists who keep nuances of grammar closer to their chest without realizing that the regimentation of language may bring its downfall. Language should be allowed to evolve.

Talk on the Wild Side is full of sweet spots that unfold many aspects of language in an ever-changing world. It is both a guide to the great debates and controversies of usage, as well as a love letter to language itself. It touches upon contemporary developments in technology to generate and create languages, or to help with translations. These aren’t flawless! However, letting the power of language slip into the domain of technology is fraught with political control. As language is inextricably connected to power, majority-language nationalism may lead to political upheaval. Allowing the one who’s holding the sword will eventually decide who’s mispronouncing the word. The future of language, therefore, should be in the hands of those who use it. Instead of attempting to tame it, we should allow it to roam freely and evolve in its own way. Greene is clear that neither is thought language nor grammar. Language is culture, dynamic and evolving. 

Talk on the Wild Side 
by Lane Greene
Hachette Books, US 
Extent: 240, Price: US$ 26.

First published in Seminar, #742, dated June 2021. 

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Amidst so-called civilized society

An uncommon narrative on the tribes' emotional conflict with changing reality

Presenting the lives of the members of six tribes with exquisite specificity and empathy, White as Milk and Rice places the discerning reader amid the Halakkis, Kanjars, Kurumbas, Marias, Khasis and the Konyaks. While some of these tribes are marginalized, none of them seems to be complaining, which makes you wonder if there is anything amiss in the way you have been looking at them, and by extension, at the world. Living within their traditional beliefs and distanced from supposedly “civilized society”, these tribes are oblivious of their anthropological worth.

With her ear firmly to the ground, the author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia constructs an uncommon narrative about their emotional conflict with changing reality. Today, these tribes continue to wage a silent battle for existence within their isolated pockets. In doing so, they pose existential questions: should tribes negotiate with a world that pays them no attention? Why have they not been allowed to develop along the lines of their own genius? White as Milk and Rice provides an insight into lives that an urbanite might consider less modern but can’t help but admire. This is especially so with those aspects of tribal lifestyles reflective of an organic bond with nature.

The book provides some excellent vignettes: not allowed to integrate with mainstream society, the Kanjars have persisted with their criminal lifestyle; holding sexual freedom valuable before marriage, the Marias have retained their dedicated space for conjugal experimentation; and, despite the pressures of a matrilineal society, Khasi women feel empowered by their traditional inheritance. Each story has sub-stories that reveal how livelihoods and lifestyles are negotiated. What comes out clearly is that the colorful lives of those who belong to tribes cannot be painted with one brush stroke. Indeed, their design of development varies even across households within the same tribe.

Kundalia lets characters speak for themselves and allows the reader to experience the complexity of engagements with the otherness of the “other”. You might despise the desire of the Konyak men to display animal heads as trophies of courage and strength, but it must also be known that the traditional practice of displaying human skulls has been done away with. For them, the display is about a sense of belonging and freedom inherent in such cultural practices. These beliefs challenge the reader to take a deep dive into the socio-cultural underpinnings that characterize the imperatives of tribal existence.

White as Milk and Rice is loaded with details about routines and practices. Take the Kurumbas who skillfully gather honey from hives that hang precariously on cliffs. Even while dangling between life and death, the Kurumba boy gently speaks to the hive. “Some for the forest, some for me,” he says treating the hives with almost familial care. Stories like these reflect empathy and make the reader more aware of the lives and thought processes of these people. Some tribes have no future tense in their conversation and rely on what nature has to offer on a daily basis. No wonder most tribal hamlets celebrate the end of each day as a mark of thanksgiving for the day gone by with an innate desire to welcome the next.

At a time when mankind has been pushed into forced seclusion and is plagued by shrinking resources, this book offers heart-warming narratives on connecting with the inner self and with the aspects of nature that remain bountiful.

White as Milk and Rice
by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia
Penguin, New Delhi
Extent: 244, Price: Rs. 399

First published in The Hindustan Times, on May 20, 2021.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

When the Sky poured acid

Innocent people invariably bear the cost of being nature's custodians at the hands of the colonial design.

Towards the end of Imbolo Mbue’s self-professed grueling novel How Beautiful We Were, the unnamed narrator leaves the readers in a peculiar double bind as the familiar David-and-Goliath tale of tussle between a sociopathic oil company and a defiant forest community veers towards a nuanced exploration of self-interest. Capturing human predicament that germinates in the contaminated soil of such industrial crimes, Mbue delivers compelling vignette of resistance and compliance, neglect and exposure, surprise and provocation, and litigation and corruption that grinds down exploited people to lose their sense of purpose. 

Told through the perspectives of a generation that is willing to sacrifice everything for its people, Mbue allows the full range of human desirability to evolve amidst despair while seeking an answer to the moral indecisiveness that lets humans fight for the same things they all want. Like her award-winning debut Behold the Dreamers about an African immigrant struggling to become an American citizen, the story empathizes with the legal and constitutional inadequacy of people fighting for survival within their own country. 

In this world that is fast turning emotionless and timeless, a fictional place comes alive with people with emotional range unfolding disconnect between what is assumed to be going around them and what is actually happening within them. Not leaving much to chance, the story starts by presuming its own end ‘when the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead.’ Nuanced but somewhat predictable, the possibility of an inspiring defeat at the hands of an inevitable corporate victory turns out to be a familiar story on individual suffering that often gets conveniently dispensed en masse. Mbue’s rerunning the events and repeating the collective voice dilutes the impact of narration, though.  

How Beautiful We Were is about life lived closer to nature, and the cost innocent people invariably bear for being its custodians while contesting the nefarious designs of colonialism. Polemic in structure, the novel peels layers of assertive human behavior that is thrust upon people whether they like it or not. Set in a fictional village, the story is as close to reality as it gets with complexities of human nature colliding in shaded spaces of existence. Allowing her characters the full range of decency and selfishness, Mbue excels in unraveling dichotomies of existence with panache, wisdom, and courage. Such powerful novels rekindle human spirit for redemption.

How Beautiful We Were 
by Imbolo Mbue
CanonGate/Penguin RandomHouse, New Delhi 
Extent: 364, Price: Rs. 699.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated May 16, 2021.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Raging towards a new light

Whether public anger as righteous indignation gets addressed by timely policies or continues to get weaponized by populist politics as tribal energy will determine the future course of the society.  

In this world that is fast turning emotionless and timeless, a serious disconnect between what is assumed to be going around us and what is actually happening within us is intensifying the pressures on life. Anger is the undesired outcome, both at a personal as well as at the level of public. While personal and public anger manifests itself differently in the social and political spheres, there are compelling reasons for this powerful human emotion to pepper our lives without disdain. A hedge-fund manager and an economics professor engage in a series of Socratic dialogues to unravel why the vast majority is feeling increasingly uncertain, consistently unhappy and inadvertently angry despite on an upward swing on the economic ladder of unstinting capitalist growth. That we all live in an angry world is just one part of the gravest reality, the crucial other is to take a deep dive to rid ourselves of this expanding anomaly. 

Angrynomics is an emerging social phenomenon borne out of an economy of heightened uncertainty and powerlessness, as faith in the workings of both politics and markets has been undermined. Brewing anger in society is as much private as public, varying in intensity and manifestation. Whilst private anger needs counseling to calm personal anxiety and stress, public anger becomes fodder for manipulation for political ends by populist politicians. In their free-wheeling conversation, Eric Lonargan raises his concern on the political motivation of capitalizing public anger as neo-nationalism to deflect attention from failings by the leadership.‘Nationalism is a political technology that is used instrumentally by societal elites to secure their privileges’. Whether it is Trump in America, Modi in India, or Johnson in the UK. 

The dialogical approach in the book acts as a primer on why the world is the way it is today, and what can be done to make it different. Perhaps the common mistake we all make is to think that democracy is a majority rule. Conversely, majoritarian electoral systems are actually ruled by minority which not only hijacks genuine political debate but deflects the majority from the issues that really matter – rising unemployment, shrinking wages, increasing inequality, and economic stagnation. Spread over five chapters, the conversations suggest need for veering away from politically-motivated tribal instincts that obscure our judgement on being manipulated by media and politicians who are motivated by vested interests.

Lonergan and Blyth are convinced that at the core of the crises is the system of capitalism that is akin to a repeatedly crashing computer, in need of urgent rebooting. Wage stagnation, asset bubbles, excessive bank leverage, and rising inequality have already bugged the system. However, the trouble is that the political elites don’t see anything wrong with the system as they conveniently ride the populist bandwagon of nationalism. Can public anger be channelized to bring back deliberative democracy to accept new economic policy ideas? Need it be said that the quality of an idea and the chances of it being adopted by politicians are two different things.

However, in the interest of making our economics sustainable and our politics functional the co-discussants take the risk of presenting their list of policy proposals. Tougher bank regulation, a dual interest rates, and a national wealth fund (for writing everybody a cheque) are proposals for wider consideration. These are ambitious proposals to end recessions by sharing our collective capital in building household incomes, however, the chances of their adoption rest on restoring institutions of civil society that give anger a legitimacy towards collective purpose. ‘Anger can be a positive motivating political and social force’. 

More than the economic proposals, Angrynomics provides a good lens to understand the current political events in a broader context. The consequences of not resetting the system has produced deep bout of anger, which populist politics has temporarily neutralized by polarization. By failing to make fundamental changes to a political system that has become a stress generator, private and public anger has been allowed to gain momentum. Lonergan and Blyth contend that unless diffused in right earnest, anger will continue to bubble up ominously. Whether public anger as righteous indignation gets addressed by timely policies or continues to get weaponized by populist politics as tribal energy will determine the future course of the society.      

In Ellen Hopkins’ words ‘Anger is a valid emotion. It is only bad when its takes control and makes you do things you don’t want to do.’ The co-discussants argue that only through the lens of moral legitimacy can anger be seen as a positive energy towards collective response for a shared future. It is a valid proposition. Angrynomics is a timely call for course correction to address the underlying fissures and frailties in our societies. With global pandemic having ripped the world apart, nothing could be more compelling than addressing the micro stressors on top of emerging macro challenges.

Angrynomics 
by Eric Lonergan & Mark Blyth
Agenda Publishing, UK 
Extent: 194, Price: Rs. 1,691.

First published in Outlook magazine on May 2, 2021.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A joyride through philosophy

A neatly distilled narrative on life-changing voyage in pursuit of discovering wisdom. 

Eric Weiner’s love for trains can be termed infectious, as he takes reader on a journey to places that bear testimonies to timeless philosophical wisdom. Like philosophy, suggests Eric, train travel helps unearth hidden perspectives in new ways of being. In these troubled times when most of us are literally ‘misliving’, nuggets of wisdom are badly needed as ‘medicine for the soul’ and hence this journey across continents. In the comforting company of fourteen philosophers – from Socrates to Confucius and from Thoreau to Gandhi - The Socrates Express helps explore joy in uncertainty for turning the tumult at home and at workplace into a veritable cause for celebration. Not an easy task though, but Neitzsche would advise that it is not our actions but reorientation of attitude that alone can help revalue what we may or may not value in our life. The core idea of this immensely readable book is to help the reader enhance the taste for life.    

Written with passion and purpose, it is a journey from the state of sleep to wakefulness that not only typifies a day but an entire life. Organized into three stages of each day – Dawn, Noon and Dusk – it provides specific lessons that can be drawn to make each stage a meaningful lived reality. From ‘How to get out of bed like Marcus Aurelius to ‘How to Die like Montaigne’, the journey of life is packed into a day of learning on how to wonder, walk, see, listen, enjoy, pay attention, fight, be kind, be appreciative, and grow old. It isn’t a self-help book though, but one that helps navigate through the daily quota of anxieties and travesties.  

Philosophy provides clues to ruthless self-interrogation, to not only question what we know but who we are and what we think. In a way, it is an experiment in isolation to capture the reality of nature. To do that, Thoreau used to often look at life upside down through his legs. In an engaging date with each of the carefully curated list of philosophers, Eric pays strict attention as much to their idiosyncrasies as to the essence of their divergent thoughts. What comes out is a neatly distilled narrative that takes the reader on a life-changing voyage in pursuit of discovering wisdom toward reinventing oneself to brace today’s chaotic times. 

Socrates valued ignorance as a necessary step on the road to true wisdom; Schopenhauer wondered if one could comprehend the world without knowing oneself; Confucius elevated kindness to a philosophical linchpin; and, for Epictetus forgoing pleasure was one of life’s greatest pleasures that eventually enhanced our taste for life. With so much on offer, the book works like a cup of coffee. It is not only the pleasant weightiness of the mug but the warmth of holding it that savours the gentle swoosh of liquid in each sip. The Socrates Express is one such cup of overflowing wisdom that can make philosophers out of us all, as it eases simple reading to be both profound and persusive. 

Erudite and reflective, amusing but insightful, Eric makes each of the philosophers relatable as he plays a guide and interpreter along the way. Even amusing trivia gets conveyed as some sort of wisdom. For instance, Japanese philosopher Shonagen could not bear people who wore a white shirt that was slightly yellowed. One might consider it as some sort of irrigating fastidiousness but this pricky attitude can also be easily interpreted as being sensitive, only perfect things could be delightful. Even avoidable things can draw attention to the profound.

Like in his previous bestsellers The Geography of Bliss and The Geography of Genius, Eric’s love for geography comes alive in The Socrates Express yet again. How else could he learn that there is stillness in chaos in India, while patience is the essential take home from Israel. In each of his train travels, Eric picks an add-on lesson to act as an icing on the philosophical cake. What attracts readers’s attention is not only the philosophical ideas but the circuitous manner in which these are arrived at. It enriches the narrative into a work of delightful reading. 

How to read such a book that has skimmed wisdom from some of the best minds? Even if one races through the book, it may not be easy to shelve it away. It ought to kept by the bedside for the ideas to get digested through the day. Given the fact that the ideas have been curiously segregated into aspects that determine how we deal with people and happenings through the day, The Socrates Express can act like a gentle reminder to measure how we embrace wonder. The travel on this philosophical train is worth your time, and will help you shed the extra baggage that we inadvertently tend to carry. There is lot of stuff to be uploaded mentally on board though.      

The Socrates Express
by Eric Weiner
Simon&Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 330, Price: Rs.699.

First published in Deccan Herald, issue dated April 4, 2021.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Everything one can imagine is real

For the generation riding on social media bubble, being on a high seems their ultimate goal with any consequences therefrom being of little consequence.

Is being tempted to mindless adventurism a definitional condition for the millennial generation to remain oblivious of its porous boundaries and dangerous repercussions?  Or, is it the default setting for modern generation to find reassurance against anxiety and depression in an involuntary online embrace? As an attempt to secure quick social recognition, staying relevant has become more important than staying alive for this generation. As a consequence, self-harm has been bargained for instant gratification as the tweens and teens of the generation secretly engage in cooling their raging hormones. Journalist Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava explores the inner lives of this generation who have succumbed to meeting the unrealistic expectations of the modern life, with a sharp uptick in anxiety and hopelessness exacerbated by the constant pressure to outperform online. 

Using a combination of case stories, original interviews, and social assessments, the disturbing narrative draws intimate portraits of young lives for whom ‘everything one can imagine is real’. For the generation riding on social media bubble, being on a high seems their ultimate goal with any consequences therefrom being of little consequence. Such is the irony that smart drugs have stoned them; cyber-bullying has body shamed many; and unrestricted sex has depressed a growing number who have logged into a parallel universe in search of a distinct identity. Social media closet is taking a heavy toll on the innocent lives, and the signs are ominous.  

Bhargava examines how millennial have arrived at this juncture, and explores the influences that are at work within the home, inside the school, and in the virtual world. The illusion of choices in the world of instant connectivity has reduced this generation to be the loneliest, unknowingly forced into being ruthless and fragile at the same time. With blurred moral and ethical boundaries, the confused teen is easily sucked into the world of fantasy that addicts the vulnerable mind to the digital world where drug peddling, anonymous role-playing, cyber bullying, and revenge porn is only a click away. The modern-day school life presents a deeply disturbing picture in urban India, which is making fast inroads into the hinterland. 

Worrisome is the fact that one in four teens in the thirteen to fifteen age group are depressed. At a total of 243 million, the country’s adolescents outnumber the combined populations of Japan, Germany and Spain. A recent survey estimates a whopping ten million teens in the grip of mental health issues. With an estimated 860 million smartphone users by 2022, understanding the role of technological change on mental health has yet to receive the attention it warrants. While investigating the secret lives of urban teens, the book laments lack of mainstream conversations on the topic whose full blown impact has yet to be fathomed. 

Written with deep empathy and grave concern, Stoned, Shamed, Depressed is indeed an eye opener for parents, guardians, and teachers who wrongfully assume to be aware of the teens’ minds. With most homes akin to the internet cafes of the recent past, the confused generation is left to negotiate competition, uphold curiosity, and battle desperation out of their own resources. Barring exceptions, the ecosystem at home and in the school has literally been irresponsive to the loneliness that has taken its grip on this generation. The book shows that by the time the parents and teachers wake up to the stark reality, much of the damage is already done. 

Bhargava has dealt a complicated subject in its entirety, taking the discerning reader into a secret world of dangerous possibilities where young generation has unknowingly put its life at stake. As the virtual world of technological choices is unlikely to curtail itself from arousing curiosity, it is for the parents to get their children back into the offline embrace. With the pandemic having built the walls of confinement around us, it is an opportune time to reconnect with families to explore and address emotional and systemic vulnerabilities. In matters like these, prevention is always better than postmortem. The time to act has never been more urgent.

Stoned Shamed Depressed
by Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 269, Price: Rs. 399.

Friday, February 26, 2021

The News Today, Oh Boy !

The all-you-can-eat-menu of daily news is toxic rubbish.

Audacious, provocative, and utterly persuasive, Stop Reading the News does what a vast majority may be secretly contemplating, but often lack courage to act in recalibrating not just what is possible, but what is increasingly necessary. One of those rare books that sets out to argue a point that you are likely not to have a deeply settled opinion on, but forces you to work through a whole series of interconnected views and assumptions to take a call. Witty, clear, and concise, even when the narrative may fail to convince the die-hard news lover, it does succeed in making one think. Really think, on how to avoid both reading and watching news for a happier, calmer, and wiser life. 

Having banished the obsession of news reading and watching from his life for over a decade now, Swiss journalist Rolf Dobelli provides a step by step guide on following his footsteps to reward oneself with less disruption, more time, less anxiety, and more insights. The economics and politics of news generation has made the output so addictive that before one realizes, news becomes to the mind what sugar is to the body. Digitalization has made news even more potent, its corrosive impact sidles automatically into the brain. No surprise, the all-you-can-eat-menu of the daily news has become a toxic but compulsive diet. 

Stop Reading the News peels many layers of news production and its persuasive marketing which forces the reader into believing that without the news our life would be worse off. Despite most of what one gets to read or see is superfluous and exaggerated, little gets realized that the news is opposite of understanding the world. It only reports events – events without contexts. Yet it remains dangerously addictive for a vast majority, making the consumer overconfident about carrying a permanently inflamed and completely pointless appendix that can easily be done away with. The illusion of empowerment is overwhelming!

Packed with delightfully readable chapters, Dobelli propels readers to the compelling need to build one’s own crap detector as the media has gradually stopped acting as a crap filter for its readers, listeners and viewers. Confirming Sturgeon’s Law which states that ‘ninety per cent of everything that is published is rubbish regardless of genre’, the media has only degenerated to the extent of losing its relevance. Sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon did face widespread condensations for his sweeping statement that later became a law, but novelist Ernest Hemingway had little doubt on the ‘need for having a built-in automatic crap detector’ as media’s business model involves shoveling the greatest possible magnitude of rubbish over the greater possible area. 

The trouble with the news is that our brains are deluged with information on which we have a remote possibility of acting upon. Once our impulse to take action fades, we not only become passive but assume the role of a victim, defined as learned helplessness. Dobelli’s intuitive but engaging style of writing asks questions on our obsession with the news at the cost of inner peace and creativity. The theoretical basis for banishing news is as compelling as the proposed thirty-day plan to take the mental step of staying away from the news. The news-contaminated lifestyle needs time to detox. Once out of it, the book lists myriad other ways of engagement that could be mentally more nourishing. 

Stop Reading the News would not have come about had the author not been invited to talk to internationally acclaimed journalists at The Guardian newspaper, precisely critiquing a subject that they spent their days producing it. On the following morning, Dobelli’s arguments appeared under the title ‘News is bad for you’ on the newspaper website. It remained most-read newspaper articles for the year 2013. It is interesting to note that Dobelli could tease the bunch of distinguished journalists by concluding that ‘what you are doing here is basically entertainment’, without anyone contesting it. The author sounds as much convincing now.    

Dobelli has dealt a complicated subject in its entirety, taking the discerning reader into a world of dangerous possibilities which most of us have unknowingly put our life at stake. It is light reading on a serious subject, insightful and reflective. It is a timely book on a subject that is not only affecting our lives inside out, but causing disturbing influences on our society and polity. Anybody reading this book would think twice about switching on the television news or glancing through the pages of the newspaper.  

Stop Reading the News
by Rolf Dobelli
Hachette, New Delhi
Extent: 160, Price: Rs. 399.

First published in the Outlook magazine, issue for the week ending March 8, 2021

Friday, January 22, 2021

The landscape of contradictory impulses

Mystics, monkeys and murders have come to be identified with parts of the Ridge. 

Delhi may have been slowly forgetting its past but the Ridge, the green lungs of the sprawling megapolis remain living fossils in the history of its making. Between its stones and soil are held the political, economic, and ecological tensions between the rulers and rebels, the orthodox and the liberated, and the civilised and the wild. Spread over 80 square kilometers of reserved forest in the city, it is as much a place for lovers, joggers and stoners as for landlords, administrators and politicians. All said, it is a blissful reality in an otherwise polluted city. 

While there is little denying that mystics, monkeys and murders have come to be identified with parts of the Ridge over the decades, such contradictory impulses nonetheless harbor crucial vantage points for understanding the interconnectedness that can help in healing its ecological scars. Thomas Crowley views the sacred and the profane with empathy to create a new vision for the Ridge, one that has something for everyone with its riches redistributed and enjoyed by all. Till it remains a contested territory with rights and obligations skewed in favour of the powerful, the future of this green zone will remain vulnerable to both manmade and cosmic challenges.   

Fractured Forest Quartzite City is an absorbing and engaging read on the subject of urban development. In the quest for international investments, most cities go for style over substance and keep a shiny surface atop a chaotic subsurface. A city as big as Delhi has slowly turned into a shadow of its glorious past. The foundations of this degeneration were laid in 1911 during the establishment of the capital by the British. Later, not only were the quartzite structures inherited, the many British laws and attitudes too became part of the legacy. The Ridge was to become its intended victim, supporting both production and consumption to sustain the city’s economic transformation.  

Like a curious child exploring the inner functioning of a mechanical toy, Crowley has not left out any detail in his investigative narrative on the Ridge. If the Tughlaqs, the Khiljis, and the British appear as part of its bloodied  history; the Rajputs, the Gujjars, and migrants contribute a socio-cultural narrative; and, the likes of the Jagmohans, Ponty Chaddhas and the monkeyman fill the political-economic perspective. It seems the  Ridge has never existed in a vacuum as many aspects of its economic, social, cultural, and political history remain entangled in its geological existence. Peeling the layers exposes the realities which have been ereased from public memory. This book is a plea to reconnect with the Ridge’s past to build a common heritage of shared responsibilities.              

Lucid and well-researched, Fractured Forest Quartzite City presents the Ridge as a living entity. The Ridge is to Delhi what lungs are to the body, pumping oxygen into its air for its inhabitants to realize their dreams, their fantasies, and their unspoken desires. Without the story of the Ridge, the history of Delhi too would be incomplete. Crowley’s painstaking efforts in recreating the legacy of the Ridge is a tribute to its geology and ecology that made many cities rise and fall around it. However, it is now up to the contemporary city to ensure that its lungs stay healthy for a vibrant engagement with its populace.  

The book helps readers discover how the Ridge and the city have shaped each other, and will continue to co-evolve. Crowley’s aim has been to broaden the scope of thinking about Delhi’s environment by reconnecting its past with the present, and exposing how consumption effects the immediate environment. Fractured Forest Quartzite City provides a comprehensive account on the evolution of the megapolis and leads the reader to understand that growth cannot be at the cost of ignoring the Ridge.  

Fractured Forest, Quartzite City
by Thomas Crowley
Sage, New Delhi
Extent: 350, Price: Rs.795.

First published in the Hindustan Times, Jan 21, 2021.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Illusion of a makeover

That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority. 

Francis Fukuyama had professed that the post-war evolution of mankind will spur the ideological universalization of liberal democracy. In saying so, the author of The End of History and the Last Man had assumed that the world of globalization will subsume spiritual values and national identities. However, in her innovative analysis Ravinder Kaur, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, questions this assumption and argues instead that identity politics is being capitalized as a brand in recent times to gain greater economic value. India's recent mega-publicity campaigns aimed at transforming the nation-state into an attractive investment destination has been one such utopian vision of a twenty-first century nation building. It is built on the optimistic illusion that ‘good times’ are just round the corner, strengthened by the attention-grabbing spectacles that keep its consumers constantly hooked. 

Brand New Nation is a thoughtful enquiry into the capitalist project that has transformed the state into an authority that holds the power to brand, legislate and rearrange the nation as a market-ready investment enclosure. The populist nature of this new image building, driven by necessary infusion of global capital, has led to the fragmentation of a plural society into a polarized mass of individuals who are ready to compromise in the pursuit of self-interest. That the populist image-building force has developed into an instrument of coercion isn’t the concern of the large majority. These seeming contradictions have come to characterize the image makeover.  

It is indeed a seductively repackaged idea of image building wherein ancient cultures and modern ambitions have been made to co-exist in a democratic set-up that has majoritarian autocracy at the top. Not many seem to be complaining though as capitalist growth and hyper-nationalism has created social enclosures that have come to characterize the brand new nation. In an engaging multi-layered narrative, Kaur unravels how seemingly contradictory positions cohere in rearranging the so-called liberal political order. Where else can one find identity economy and identity politics hold joint currency in creating a populist notion of good times that harbors seeds of sectarian violence triggered by an exclusionary economic growth agenda? 

Much has been written in recent times on how India has expressed its ambitions of becoming a global power, however, the market logic of reconfiguring the nation-state as a cultural hub of profitable business enterprise of a specific kind provides fresh insights on the subject. Brand New Nation bridges the past and the present in proposing that the re-imagination of the country is rooted in its past, albeit packaged in a tech-friendly software utopia embraced by the younger generation.  "Put simply, the Brand is manufactured and marketed on a well-calibrated play of attention and diversion, of secrecy and excessive publicity that creates its own truth and public secrets that people know not to know". However, culturally troublesome fact in the new brand is the political push for the pre-Islamic imagery of the country – tactically evicting minorities and the others (the Muslims, the Dalits) from the image frame. It is here that the new image holds potential to develop serious social fissures.   

Can the country hold on to its new image beyond the current political dispensation that nurtures it? Can the brand new nation remain afloat in the permanent anticipation of good times? Can the state of optimism be sustained under falling economic growth? Unless we begin to make sense of the return of ethnonationalism with a majoritarian impulse, argues Kaur, understanding the limitations of branding the nation-state will remain incomprehensible. Outwardly attractive it may seem, but the unabashed illiberal majoritarian politics taking over the liberal democracy has yet to stand the test of time in addressing the pressing economic challenges. 

Brand New Nation makes interesting and absorbing reading but leaves the reader to draw his/her inferences on the transition that the nation-state is passing through. While the imagery of a brand new nation offers an optimistic sales pitch, the consequences of the socio-political experimentation that conveniently categorizes those who doubt or raise troubling questions has yet to be fully assessed. Whether it strengthens the political leadership or will lead to its weakening will determine the endurance of the new image. All said, a history is in the making with the promise of a new tryst with destiny. Kaur deserves appreciation for taking the reader on a tour of the changing trajectory of re-building a nation-state. .

Brand New Nation
by Ravinder Kaur
Stanford University Press, USA
Extent: 346, Price: Rs. 1,524.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated Jan 10, 2021.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Politics and the sexual lives of women

Neo-liberal ideologies have commercialized basic human emotions; leaving women vulnerable to exploitation.

Human relationships are rarely equal when partners do not enjoy economic independence. The lack of equality not only inversely impacts relationships but the experience of sex itself. Shrouded in uneasy dealings between the sheets, the role of different structural relationships to something as fundamental as sex has rarely been acknowledged. In the capitalist world saturated with real and virtual sex, neo-liberal ideologies have commercialized basic human emotions; they are things to be bought and sold, and these transactions have left women vulnerable to exploitation both within the household and at the workplace. Can it be argued that capitalism’s triumph is indeed a calamity for most women?

Kristen Ghodsee’s book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism accomplishes the difficult task of engaging readers on a subject that may have lost much of its relevance in an era dominated by capitalist claims on undeterred human progress. Provocatively written and deftly argued, the book, published in 2018 but now available in paperback, spans an impressive intellectual scope and is based on Ghodsee’s extensive research on the status of women in eastern European countries. She prods us to think about the invisible workings of power and the ways in which it has filtered into people’s daily lives, so much so that most cannot detect the political hues it tends to take on. In this deeply researched book, Ghodsee wonders if capitalism has proven to be a worse influence on the lives of women than state socialism, a system that women were once so eager to cast aside. She convincingly lays bare a few hard facts to underscore her argument.

The American ethnographer argues that privatization and liberalization of the economy have disproportionately eroded the safety nets that allowed women to combine work and family responsibilities with equal ease. Combining facts with lived experiences, she navigates the socio-political realities in countries that were once socialist to emphasize how policies and programmes were designed to invest vast resources in education and training to guarantee full employment, which to some degree ensured economic freedom for women. While Bulgarian women were pursuing careers during the post-World War II economic boom, American women were stocking their kitchens with appliances. One among many, this comparison reflects how political and economic structures insidiously pushed women into the world of social disparity and income inequality.

However, Ghodsee, a professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in no way advocates a return to any form of 20th-century state socialism that had failed under the weight of its own contradictions. Instead, she suggests the need to combine the good aspects of both models (socialism and capitalism) while rejecting their obvious drawbacks.

Organised into six lively chapters, each beginning with a personal jumping-off point, Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism is a fascinating study of sexual economics which makes a compelling case for a more expansive understanding of feminism. It helps a reader gain multi-layered insights into the impact of the political organisation of society on the intimate lives of women and their freedom.

With this book, Ghodsee explores a subject that has remained under wraps for long. She compares the socialist vision of free sexuality based on equal rights with the capitalist idea of commodified sexuality to conclude that women under socialism enjoyed more satisfying personal lives. It is no secret that the reintroduction of free markets in Russia shockingly coincided with a return to the commodification of women, she writes. That many East Germans too believed that their pre-1989 sexuality was more spontaneous, natural and joyful compared to the “commercialized” and “instrumentalised” sexuality they encountered when they joined West Germany.

Ghodsee argues that unless women begin to question their fait accompli status, their capacity to remain willfully ignorant about their rightful status will only grow and flourish. Although switching economic systems for having better sex may seem a tad trivial, embracing certain aspects of socialism alone can ensure freedom for women from the transactional ethos of sexual economics theory, which determines how men’s and women’s sexual thoughts, feelings, preferences and behavior follow fundamental economic principles. It is difficult not to agree with Ghodsee, whose experience of living in the socialist world comes handy in connecting academic theory with social practice.

Written with academic clarity and professional empathy, this book takes the reader into an insightful journey on why women are pushed to the economic margins of a highly unequal society under capitalism. As socialist ideas have begun to enjoy a renaissance among the younger generation in countries such as the US — recall the youth support that Bernie Sanders enjoys — an alternative political path to a more egalitarian society is indeed a possibility. After all, all that they told us about communism is not a lie but many claims about virtues of capitalism are indeed turning out to be untrue.

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism
by Kristen R Ghodsee
Bold Type Books, New York
Extent. 225. Price  ₹599

First published in The Hindu BusinessLine dated December 07, 2020.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Resetting the clock to rethink life

De-growth can help people engage life journeys with patience and compassion, rather than investing in material acquisitions to escape the daily quota of pain, sadness and frustration.

Epidemics have happened in the past but the speed and scope of the present contagion has left the world reeling under its brutal impact. The interconnectivity of accelerated global economies with encroached habitats, exhaustive agriculture and commoditized wildlife has helped the virus to move without any inhibition to expose the weak fundamentals of the existing economic systems. The billion dollar question that begs serious attention is whether the existing systems would be capable of scaling back production at levels and in ways that do not cause further loss of livelihood and life? And, will the growth of society slowed down by an unprecedented disaster emerge more resilient later, with the goal of mitigating the economic and ecological crises which has led it to the present situation?

Pursuit of growth cannot address the growth pangs, much like addressing a problem by applying the solution that caused the problem leads nowhere. The core problem with the capitalist model of growth is that it leads to mounting debt, increasing inequality, rising unemployment, and shrinking finances, and sacrifices made in its pursuit lead to externalizing costs that are forced on both poor people and mute nature. What it does though is to keep billions under the illusion that trickle-down effect will get them leftovers of accumulated wealth year-on-year, but the broad architecture of the economic construct remains exclusionist at the core.

Confronting the idiom of economism head-on may seem preposterous, but slowing down under the current pandemic with ideas on frugality having caught on seems an apt time to press home the case for degrowth. After defining the term in their first book, Degrowth - A Vocabulary for A New Era, the authors take the idea forward in their second outing half a decade later by suggesting a way of living with less, however, with the aim of living differently by promoting well being, equity and sustainability. Degrowth, according to the quartet, should help people engage life journeys with patience, compassion and care for self and others, rather than investing time and resources for material acquisitions to escape the daily quota of pain, sadness and frustration. After all, how long should the cycle of sufferings remain self-perpetuating? 

While the political system is obsessed with a growth-driven model based on private property, paid labor, and a consumptive market, The Case for Degrowth provides numerous cross-country examples of eco-communes, transition towns, and co-living communities that need support, strengthening, and scaling up. Spread over five sections, with an add-on section elucidating the frequently asked questions, this pithy book offers well-argued critique of the growth systems while presenting policy packages for promoting degrowth that will help people produce only as much, consume less, share more, enjoy time, and live with dignity and joy. There are clear directions being proposed in the book to make degrowth a reality, however, it by no means should be read as a euphemism for ‘green deal’ as it is a low resource use transformative process that ensures universal basic services for all, with an assured universal basic income. 

Offering deep analysis, the book argues for a transformative politics that is not back-to-the-roots journey but one that provides multiple options and strategies about recreating frameworks for engaging communities in playing an active role in designing their own life support systems. Ever since it was launched at a global conference in Paris in 2008, degrowth has caught on as an idea for researchers and movements to pursue as an alternative to growth-obsessed politics. With GDP driven global economy taking a serious beating during the pandemic, the book could not have come at a more appropriate time. 

The Case for Degrowth is a bold new statement on re-ordering values and resources to support the development of diverse life-making processes operating in different logics under differing conditions. The writers are convinced that by adopting diversity of approaches can resilience be achieved in the face of the existential crises. Written with empathy and concern, the book is an open invitation to its readers to play a proactive role in pushing the idea at levels that can generate political support for a non-GDP growth. 

The paradigm shift in proposed policies and actions in the book take into account historical, cultural and social contexts which may have its share of pitfalls, but the pandemic has indeed shown that modest living, enjoyed in solidarity, amidst shared living is indeed a possibility.

The Case for Degrowth
by Giorgos Kallis, Susan Paulson, Giacomo D’Alisa, Federico Demaria 
Polity, Cambridge (UK)
Extent: 151, Price: US$12.95.

First published in The Hindu, issue dated Nov 22, 2020.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Don't Wanna Know

Our taste for ignorance is a strategic tool for autocracies, a drug spurring mindless consumerism and turning crucial profit.

The cover picture of this pithy book says it all, ignorance could be a blissful reality as it does not involve not knowing but constitutes an abject surrender to denial in the event of reality becoming too hard or painful to grasp. Nothing matches this better than the abject denial by leaders at the first ever online G20 Summit in late March, proclaiming that the world ‘will overcome the pandemic’. Such collective denial by world leaders has cost the society valuable lives and livelihoods while the corona virus has continued to rampage the world, confirming thereby that democracy has become a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.  For Renata Salecl, a professor of philosophy at the University of London, intriguing is the overwhelming relevance of ignorance in post-truth era when we are effectively swimming in constant surge of information and misinformation. 

Ignorance is not a new invention though, but an age-old human trait that plays out in many different aspects of daily life. Instances from daily existence do reflect that feigning ignorance in matters of love, illness and trauma has been found critical in keeping the desire of being active and alive. But why being ignorant at times works better than being knowledgeable is the question that Salecl explores through the realm of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and popular culture. While there is little denying that people in the grip of anxiety use ignorance as an efficient defense, it is baffling that the so-called knowledge economy has turned upside down as an ignorance economy. As a result, ignorance holds both social and political currency that knowledge does not. 

One would tend to agree with Salecl that in this technology-driven world, to embrace ignorance is more a matter of choice. ‘To know or not to know’ is context specific and of vital importance for any individual. The French philosopher Michael Foucault may have equated power with knowledge in his seminal work during the mid-twentieth century, understanding how power relates to ignorance today holds much relevance. More so, as the rise of cognitive inertia in the post-truth era has helped leaders persist with bundle of lies while more and more people increasingly show indifferent to making a distinction between what is a truth and what is a lie?

A Passion of Ignorance could not have come at a better time as ignorance is fast gaining increased legitimacy in the public space, and there is little by way of explanation for this growing trend. The book cautions that collective ignorance is emerging as a passion, letting it be manipulated as a strategic tool for autocratic politics. Lack of knowledge is no longer a matter of concern as a search engine such as Google is only a click away. Alarming though is the fact that with an easy access to information, everyone has become an amateur expert while casting serious aspersions towards any form of professional expertise.   

Are we then staring at a future when the society will greatly depend on its ability to inhibit intellectual capabilities? Current skepticism for knowledge may indicate so but Salecl considers it as a transiting phase that has light at the end of the tunnel. With a rising number of people actively choosing not to know and with little by way of distinction that can be made to ascertain what is known is true or false, suggests Salcel, the world may indeed be heading towards reclaiming the role of knowledge. Since our anxieties for lack of knowledge have yet to reach a critical threshold, it is anybody’s guess when the end of the tunnel will indeed get sighted. 

A Passion for Ignorance remains inconclusive but unfolds aspects that explain why acquiring knowledge has taken a backseat in the quest for economic growth, and how the process may be reversed? However, it offers a multi-layered narrative on how ignorance manifests itself in various facets of science, technology and psychology, and why technology-driven capitalism will continue to nurture ignorance to remain in the business of profit. Little gets realized that be it packaged products or acquired information, consumers have little clue how the algorithms are at work to promote ignorance in order to make profits. Unless people begin to question their trust in pre-packaged knowledge by pressing the anxiety button about the unknown, our capacity to remain willfully ignorant will only expand and flourish. 

Written with academic clarity and professional empathy, Prof. Renata Salecl takes the reader into an insightful journey on why we are what we have become, not realizing that we are increasingly being left out in our highly unequal society. The corona virus onslaught has only exposed our systemic vulnerability at the hands of the powers-that-be to remain ignorant, and thus exploited. A Passage for Ignorance is a call for breaking free from the interplay of circumstance and choice that only aims to keep all of us trapped in the sphere of ignorance. 

A Passion for Ignorance
by Renata Salecl
Princeton University Press, USA
Extent: 195, Price: $24.95

First published in weekly Outlook, issue dated Nov 7, 2020.