Friday, December 24, 2010

The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time

As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it's a truly level playing field. Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate.
This principle is called "net neutrality" - and it's under attack. Internet service giants like Comcast and Verizon want to offer premium and privileged access to the Internet for corporations who can afford to pay for it.

The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 207, Jonathan Franzen

The fear out of which that book was written was that new materialism of the brain, which has given us drugs to change our personalities, and the materialism of consumer culture, which provides endless distractions and encourages the endless pursuit of more goods, were both antithetical to the project of literature, which is to connect with that which is unchanging and unchangeable, the tragic dimension of life.

Paris Review - The Art of Fiction No. 207, Jonathan Franzen

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Faustian bargain

By Gregory A Petsko

An open letter to George M Philip, President of the State University of New York At Albany


Dear President Philip,

Probably the last thing you need at this moment is someone else from outside your university complaining about your decision. If you want to argue that I can't really understand all aspects of the situation, never having been associated with SUNY Albany, I wouldn't disagree. But I cannot let something like this go by without weighing in. I hope, when I'm through, you will at least understand why.
Just 30 days ago, on October 1st, you announced that the departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts were being eliminated. You gave several reasons for your decision, including that 'there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs.' Of course, your decision was also, perhaps chiefly, a cost-cutting measure - in fact, you stated that this decision might not have been necessary had the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed your university to set its own tuition rates. Finally, you asserted that the humanities were a drain on the institution financially, as opposed to the sciences, which bring in money in the form of grants and contracts.
Let's examine these and your other reasons in detail, because I think if one does, it becomes clear that the facts on which they are based have some important aspects that are not covered in your statement. First, the matter of enrollment. I'm sure that relatively few students take classes in these subjects nowadays, just as you say. There wouldn't have been many in my day, either, if universities hadn't required students to take a distribution of courses in many different parts of the academy: humanities, social sciences, the fine arts, the physical and natural sciences, and to attain minimal proficiency in at least one foreign language. You see, the reason that humanities classes have low enrollment is not because students these days are clamoring for more relevant courses; it's because administrators like you, and spineless faculty, have stopped setting distribution requirements and started allowing students to choose their own academic programs - something I feel is a complete abrogation of the duty of university faculty as teachers and mentors. You could fix the enrollment problem tomorrow by instituting a mandatory core curriculum that included a wide range of courses.
Young people haven't, for the most part, yet attained the wisdom to have that kind of freedom without making poor decisions. In fact, without wisdom, it's hard for most people. That idea is thrashed out better than anywhere else, I think, in Dostoyevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor, which is told in Chapter Five of his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In the parable, Christ comes back to earth in Seville at the time of the Spanish Inquisition. He performs several miracles but is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits Him in his cell to tell Him that the Church no longer needs Him. The main portion of the text is the Inquisitor explaining why. The Inquisitor says that Jesus rejected the three temptations of Satan in the desert in favor of freedom, but he believes that Jesus has misjudged human nature. The Inquisitor says that the vast majority of humanity cannot handle freedom. In giving humans the freedom to choose, Christ has doomed humanity to a life of suffering.
That single chapter in a much longer book is one of the great works of modern literature. You would find a lot in it to think about. I'm sure your Russian faculty would love to talk with you about it - if only you had a Russian department, which now, of course, you don't.
Then there's the question of whether the state legislature's inaction gave you no other choice. I'm sure the budgetary problems you have to deal with are serious. They certainly are at Brandeis University, where I work. And we, too, faced critical strategic decisions because our income was no longer enough to meet our expenses. But we eschewed your draconian - and authoritarian - solution, and a team of faculty, with input from all parts of the university, came up with a plan to do more with fewer resources. I'm not saying that all the specifics of our solution would fit your institution, but the process sure would have. You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend. In your defense, you called the timing 'unfortunate', but pleaded that there was a 'limited availability of appropriate large venue options.' I find that rather surprising. If the President of Brandeis needed a lecture hall on short notice, he would get one. I guess you don't have much clout at your university.
It seems to me that the way you went about it couldn't have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn't want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.
The Inferno is the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There's so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders - if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don't.
And do you really think even those faculty and administrators who may applaud your tough-minded stance (partly, I'm sure, in relief that they didn't get the axe themselves) are still going to be on your side in the future? I'm reminded of the fable by Aesop of the Travelers and the Bear: two men were walking together through the woods, when a bear rushed out at them. One of the travelers happened to be in front, and he grabbed the branch of a tree, climbed up, and hid himself in the leaves. The other, being too far behind, threw himself flat down on the ground, with his face in the dust. The bear came up to him, put his muzzle close to the man's ear, and sniffed and sniffed. But at last with a growl the bear slouched off, for bears will not touch dead meat. Then the fellow in the tree came down to his companion, and, laughing, said 'What was it that the bear whispered to you?' 'He told me,' said the other man, 'Never to trust a friend who deserts you in a pinch.'
I first learned that fable, and its valuable lesson for life, in a freshman classics course. Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable - and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don't.
As for the argument that the humanities don't pay their own way, well, I guess that's true, but it seems to me that there's a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I'm not saying it shouldn't be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do 'old-fashioned' courses of study. But universities aren't just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future. I'll give you two examples of that. The first is the science of virology, which in the 1970s was dying out because people felt that infectious diseases were no longer a serious health problem in the developed world and other subjects, such as molecular biology, were much sexier. Then, in the early 1990s, a little problem called AIDS became the world's number 1 health concern. The virus that causes AIDS was first isolated and characterized at the National Institutes of Health in the USA and the Institute Pasteur in France, because these were among the few institutions that still had thriving virology programs. My second example you will probably be more familiar with. Middle Eastern Studies, including the study of foreign languages such as Arabic and Persian, was hardly a hot subject on most campuses in the 1990s. Then came September 11, 2001. Suddenly we realized that we needed a lot more people who understood something about that part of the world, especially its Muslim culture. Those universities that had preserved their Middle Eastern Studies departments, even in the face of declining enrollment, suddenly became very important places. Those that hadn't - well, I'm sure you get the picture.
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
I utterly refuse to believe that you had no alternative. It's your job as President to find ways of solving problems that do not require the amputation of healthy limbs. Voltaire said that no problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking. Voltaire, whose real name was François-Marie Arouet, had a lot of pithy, witty and brilliant things to say (my favorite is 'God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh'). Much of what he wrote would be very useful to you. I'm sure the faculty in your French department would be happy to introduce you to his writings, if only you had a French department, which now, of course, you don't.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly 'dead' subjects. From your biography, you don't actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I'm now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn't just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.
One of the things I do now is write a monthly column on science and society. I've done it for over 10 years, and I'm pleased to say some people seem to like it. If I've been fortunate enough to come up with a few insightful observations, I can assure you they are entirely due to my background in the humanities and my love of the arts.
One of the things I've written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn't a question for science alone; it's a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including - especially including - the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It's also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I'm right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You've just ensured that yours won't be one of them.
Some of your defenders have asserted that this is all a brilliant ploy on your part - a master political move designed to shock the legislature and force them to give SUNY Albany enough resources to keep these departments open. That would be Machiavellian (another notable Italian writer, but then, you don't have any Italian faculty to tell you about him), certainly, but I doubt that you're that clever. If you were, you would have held that town meeting when the whole university could have been present, at a place where the press would be all over it. That's how you force the hand of a bunch of politicians. You proclaim your action on the steps of the state capitol. You don't try to sneak it through in the dead of night, when your institution has its back turned.
No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it's performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get - well, I'm sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don't, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It's awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That's the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven't given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Disrespectfully yours,

Gregory A Petsko


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum

By Chris Hedges

(From truthdig)

The silencing of radicals such as Davis, who had been a member of the Communist Party, although he had left it by the time he was investigated by HUAC, has left academics and intellectuals without the language, vocabulary of class war and analysis to critique the ideology of globalism, the savagery of unfettered capitalism and the ascendancy of the corporate state. And while the turmoil of the 1960s saw discontent sweep through student bodies with some occasional support from faculty, the focus was largely limited to issues of identity politics—feminism, anti-racism—and the anti-war movements. The broader calls for socialism, the detailed Marxist critique of capitalism, the open rejection of the sanctity of markets, remained muted or unheard. Davis argues that not only did socialism and communism become outlaw terms, but once these were tagged as heresies, the right wing tried to make liberal, secular and pluralist outlaw terms as well. The result is an impoverishment of ideas and analysis at a moment when we desperately need radical voices to make sense of the corporate destruction of the global economy and the ecosystem. The “centrist” liberals manage to retain a voice in mainstream society because they pay homage to the marvels of corporate capitalism even as it disembowels the nation and the planet.

The Origin of America's Intellectual Vacuum

Monday, November 1, 2010

Arundhati Roy's Statement on Media and Mobs

Monday, November 01, 2010
(Courtesy: Znet. Link to the source.
New Delhi, October 31: A mob of about a hundred people arrived at my house at 11 this morning (Sunday October 31st 2010.) They broke through the gate and vandalized property. They shouted slogans against me for my views on Kashmir, and threatened to teach me a lesson.

The OB Vans of NDTV, Times Now and News 24 were already in place ostensibly to cover the event live. TV reports say that the mob consisted largely of members of the BJP’s Mahila Morcha (Women’s wing).

After they left, the police advised us to let them know if in future we saw any OB vans hanging around the neighborhood because they said that was an indication that a mob was on its way. In June this year, after a false report in the papers by Press Trust of India (PTI) two men on motorcycles tried to stone the windows of my home. They too were accompanied by TV cameramen.

What is the nature of the agreement between these sections of the media and mobs and criminals in search of spectacle? Does the media which positions itself at the ‘scene’ in advance have a guarantee that the attacks and demonstrations will be non-violent? What happens if there is criminal trespass (as there was today) or even something worse? Does the media then become accessory to the crime?

This question is important, given that some TV channels and newspapers are in the process of brazenly inciting mob anger against me.

In the race for sensationalism the line between reporting news and manufacturing news is becoming blurred. So what if a few people have to be sacrificed at the altar of TRP ratings?

The Government has indicated that it does not intend to go ahead with the charges of sedition against me and the other speakers at a recent seminar on Azadi for Kashmir. So the task of punishing me for my views seems to have been taken on by right wing storm troopers.

The Bajrang Dal and the RSS have openly announced that they are going to “fix” me with all the means at their disposal including filing cases against me all over the country. The whole country has seen what they are capable of doing, the extent to which they are capable of going.

So, while the Government is showing a degree of maturity, are sections of the media and the infrastructure of democracy being rented out to those who believe in mob justice?

I can understand that the BJP's Mahila Morcha is using me to distract attention from the senior RSS activist Indresh Kumar who has recently been named in the CBI charge-sheet for the bomb blast in Ajmer Sharif in which several people were killed and many injured.
But why are sections of the mainstream media doing the same?

Is a writer with unpopular views more dangerous than a suspect in a bomb blast? Or is it a question of ideological alignment?

Arundhati Roy
October 31st 2010

My bright idea: English is on the up but one day will die out | Technology | The Observer

It's been the received wisdom in language technology that machine translation isn't good enough. But all that's preventing it from being good enough is just a problem of scale. The way that machine translation is now being pushed forward simply involves being able to process more and more data in order to find the significant patterns. The power and cheapness of computers is increasing all the time. There's no way that the little problem of incompatibility between languages is going to stand in the way of it for long.
And because it's being done in a data-based way, the techniques which will solve the problem will solve it for all languages, not just the big important ones. So even remote Aboriginal groups will benefit – maybe a generation later, maybe sooner. And when that happens, people will be able to fulfil themselves through their own language, which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
Well, it's happening gradually. But I want to draw a distinction between a language which is spread through nurture, a mother tongue, and a language that is spread through recruitment, which is a lingua franca. A lingua franca is a language that you consciously learn because you need to, because you want to. A mother tongue is a language that you learn because you can't help it. The reason English is spreading around the world at the moment is because of its utility as a lingua franca. Globish – a simplified version of English that's used around the world – will be there as long as it is needed, but since it's not being picked up as a mother tongue, it's not typically being spoken by people to their children. It is not getting effectively to first base, the most crucial first base for long-term survival of a language.

My bright idea: English is on the up but one day will die out | Technology | The Observer

Saturday, October 30, 2010

McDonald’s Workers Are Told Whom to Vote For -

When workers in a McDonald’s restaurant in Canton, Ohio, opened their paychecks this month, they found a pamphlet urging them to vote for the Republican candidates for governor, Senate and Congress, or possibly face financial repercussions.

The pamphlet appeared calculated to intimidate workers into voting for Republican candidates by making a direct reference to their wages and benefits, said Allen Schulman, a Democrat who is president of the Canton City Council and said he obtained a copy of the pamphlet on Wednesday.

The pamphlet said: “If the right people are elected, we will be able to continue with raises and benefits at or above the current levels. If others are elected, we will not.”

It then named three Republican candidates after stating, “The following candidates are the ones we believe will help our business move forward.”

McDonald’s Workers Are Told Whom to Vote For -

Leadership and Leitkultur -


That we are experiencing a relapse into this ethnic understanding of our liberal constitution is bad enough. It doesn’t make things any better that today leitkultur is defined not by “German culture” but by religion. With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism — and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany — the apologists of the leitkultur now appeal to the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which distinguishes “us” from the foreigners.

Nevertheless I do not have the impression that the appeals to the leitkultur signal anything more than a rearguard action or that the lapse of an author into the snares of the controversy over nature versus nurture has given enduring and widespread impetus to the more noxious mixture of xenophobia, racist feelings of superiority and social Darwinism. The problems of today have set off the reactions of yesterday — but not those of the day before.

Leadership and Leitkultur -

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recovering the humanities, revitalizing democracy

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

There was a time, not very long ago, when the humanities were under attack. Now they are just ignored. It is as if the case for 'job-oriented' education (to use a tasteless phrase that rules the journalistic writings on education these days) had been decisively and finally won. So long as someone was speaking against the humanities, a dialogue –howsoever worn-out and tattered– was at least alive, though not with any great kicking life. But a silence now reigns over the fate of the humanities.
            It is a symptomatic silence. Symptomatic because it comes at a time when cultural commodities become most expensive and attract increasing investment under the shadow of speculation. As canny communicators and cool gurus swarm the cultural marketplace, it is nevertheless being proclaimed that an education in the humanities no longer pays.
            While the humanities shrink and decay in their old homes in colleges and universities, new institutions –private, corporate– prosper, spinning money out of a booming culture industry. Clearly, cultural production has become a protected economic activity for an elitist minority that collaborates with corporate media to produce culture for consumption by the masses.
            Timely infusion of critical funding could have renovated the old homes of humanities and built them into competitive sites of cultural production. But this was not done. Why? One can speculate. Along with marketable cultural production these sites might have spawned some unwelcome offspring: critique and dissent. Something the corporate education apparatus can be relied on to kill before birth. ‘Reforms’ in their first, fragile blossoming couldn’t have been exposed to any menace, least of all to seductions of forbidden knowledge.
            The National Knowledge Commission's professions of love for good old humanities for the sake of a better future are already rotting in mouldy archives. And the spectacular dream of resuscitating the Nalanda University, with its international cast of star faculty and wages in dollars, mocks the great old Nalanda's soul: that becoming, not being, is the truth. Institutions are not made of bricks and mortar alone but of ideas and the free, questing spirit that animates them. In its erasure of the boundaries between the past and the present, Project Nalanda avows the refusal to face either. A strange avowal. Uncanny, to be precise.
            How do we go about the task of recovering the humanities? Certainly not by trying to dig out of burial some pristine version of them. In the humanities, as elsewhere, we must affirm 'becoming'. And in our time, that affirmation ought to be performed democratically and for democracy. The humanities must today be recovered as the democratic trial of truth(s). For too long have we, the children of modernity and enlightenment, stood guard over an idea of democracy that brooks no fundamental interrogation. At the very least, the humanities can begin to revitalize democracy through their textual practices, as they have been famously doing for several decades now, in which the enactment and trial of democracies take place. These simple and basic exercises can pave the way for a larger mobilization of thought dedicated to our common democratic futures. Otherwise, government by management will completely erode and replace government by democratic politics.
            Yet for this to materialize, the space of the humanities must be protected against brutal depredations of the market. The law of the market is not a natural law, notwithstanding the appearances concocted by an ideologically committed corporate media. In an era of cognitive capitalism when creativity becomes a premium input for profit maximization, we need to restore some sanctity to the Holy Muse and learn to deposit our mundane calculations outside the portals of its shrine. Only then shall we hear other voices. Only then shall we be able to speak in other tongues. Democracy's survival demands nothing less.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

CM's Media Adviser Lifts the Veil

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The open letter of Harcharan Bains, media adviser to the Chief Minister of Punjab, should be archived in the cultural studies departments of the world's universities.1 It is such a model illustration of how ideology functions in these times. 

If it is a calculated attempt to put the case of 'injured merit' (here the government's) before the 'discerning' readers of The Tribune, the calculation appears to have gone fatally wrong. As a signed statement that purports to answer a former minister's charges against the leadership of the principal ruling party and the CM and the Deputy CM, the letter merits serious scrutiny. But what a scrutiny reveals is that the answer does not really answer anything. The official media adviser has penned, actually, a personal letter.

But then why give it wide public circulation? 

The answer lies in the nature of the letter.

It is a fine, indeed admirable, exercise in rhetoric. Bains exploits to the hilt the resources of literature and language. He evokes archetypal tales of trust and betrayal, specifically that of Caesar and Brutus immortalized by Shakespeare. Against this charged and theatrical backdrop, he tells his contemporary tale of personal relations gone sour, of kindness returned with ingratitude, of sentiments wasted over an unworthy object.

Yet where are the questions of economy and politics that a letter coming from the CM's media adviser is expected to address? Is it a lapse, or a ruse? Is this an instance of unprofessional media management, or of really professional media management? Does the letter suggest that the government is not interested in answering the real questions, and so this recourse to an exhibition of personal sentiments? Or does it mean there is no one in the government who can ably articulate what is at stake, including the tangled issues of state-centre relations, federal funding, electoral promises, and grassroots governance versus top-down management?

There is no reason to believe that the government and the party have a dearth of talent. So there is only one key to read the letter: silence babbles.

Hence the right way to read the anguished missive is to be deaf to what is being said and to listen to the silence, to what the letter does not say out loud.  The excess of words actually carries only silence; but it is silence that tells the untold tale.

Clearly, the neat lines being drawn, in facebook kind of amateurish political comment, between good and evil are not realistic. The hard and significant fact is that neither side is discussing the issues. Manpreet Badal, who is seen as a winner of middle-class hearts, would have won, if he had the ability, the hearts of his party and the cabinet. He had a long enough innings to prove his mettle for leadership. So instead of finding in him an object to indulge our surplus, TV-induced pity, we might ask him: Recount your accomplishments as the Finance Minister and spell out in concrete detail your programme for a resurgent Punjab.
1The letter appears in The Sunday Tribune of 17 October 2010 and can be accessed at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Response to S. Malhans's remarks on my review of Shikargah

(S. Malhans's remarks appear below the post 'Book Review of Shikargah' here)

Dear S. Malhans,

I take your observations with gratitude. You have obviously spent a good deal of time and care to comment on my short review.

I will try to respond one by one to the points you have raised.

My ideal reader is not a lazy person. I do not write for those who would expect me to "summarise" the text for them. Moreover, I do not see how a reviewer's summary can be treated as objective and hence relied on by a reader to arrive at a fair assessment of the review.

I do not deny the uses of "structural logic" but I would like to be alert to its own logic. The search for structural logic may, in some cases, arise from a deeply insecure conservative impulse. Structural logic can function as the Great Secret Validator: to explain away and justify everything. Indeed I do not think that in the name of structural logic we can even condone a writer's poor handling of dialogue and lack of homework. The writer as an artist and thinker is answerable to her readers by virtue of her decision to publish; she cannot hide behind any "structural logic".

But I would like to also ask: By what logic can the structrual logic of a text exclude its unconscious and subconscious? 

Your comments suggest that you treat the reviewer's introducing/summarising the text and explaining its structural logic as the essential components of any review. This is, in my opinion, a rather narrow view of the review as a form of critical analysis.

As for your remark about sexuality, it seems you missed my point by a wide margin. I am not commenting on the appropriateness or otherwise of a village girl's reaction to her encounter with lesbians, but on the writer's reluctance to engage with sexuality in this instance and others. And please remember that I have traced a triptych of sexuality, class and war. See them together as I do, and then you may see what I mean.

Your related (un-relatable by me, to speak the truth) admiration of the "exposure" of "'terrorism'" is something on which I cannot go with you. You may disagree but I am of the considered opinion that only a naive reader would be impressed by such an "exposure". Similarly, what you think is a "[delicate handling and description]" of a romantic situation is to me a pedestrian and stock treatment. (It could be a matter of taste, mine being rather perverse).

You ask why my reader should accept my "interpretation" as "objective ...[and] accurate". I shall only say, with all solemnity, that I'd be guilty of a grave logical error if I expected an interpretation to be objective and accurate  An interpretation can only be an interpretation; it cannot claim to be more.

Now to return to where you begin. To state on the basis of only two reviews you have read and commented on that my evaluations are "often harsh" is not a very rigorous way of judging a reviewer. In the present instance, you somehow ignore the several good things I have said about the book. Critical integrity and forthrightness should not be perceived as "harshness". If these are, so be it. Criticism is not the craft of making pleasant noises but the art of a patient and sympathetic surgery.


Rajesh K Sharma

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Book Review of Shikargah

A novel in Punjabi by Surinder Neer

Published by Chetna Parkashan, Ludhiana, 2010

Price: Rs. 300

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Surinder Neer's maiden novel Shikargah shows she is a gifted story-teller. I choose the word 'gifted' to indicate her ability to tell her story engagingly and without straining herself. Besides, she has a profuse invention: she does not run out of absorbing situations and manages to sustain the reader's interest in most of them.  She has as much strength to dwell on sorrow and death as the sensibility to register the magic of everyday life. Dying and loneliness do not scare her, which is no small virtue in a writer in these days of profit-driven cultural production.
            Romantic situations are not her forte: the conversations between lovers are generally stilted and unexciting, and the colours of passion are faint and borrowed. But she is at her best in handling encounters across the generations, even when these take place only in memory. Among the most memorable of her characters are the lonely figures struggling to hold the moldering ruins of memories. Relying on their power and human vulnerability, she weaves a tragic epic, albeit somewhat unconsummated, of human relationships blighted by 'all too human' considerations such as those of politics and religion.
            Neer could have been more attentive to the tempo of the novel in its totality. The earlier part is over-paced: a good deal happens, without being allowed to sink in and find its space in the text. There are moments when the narrative demands to enter stillness, to turn inward and step into reflection. But the writer squanders these moments in her race to reach the next post.
            This, however, probably suggests that Neer stands on the edge of another order of artistic reality. She has to listen to the story her story-telling tells. If she knocks, the doors may open. And  yet, she may just never knock. Many do not, only to wither on the threshold, unaware where they happen to be standing. For example, the hasty and somewhat evasive treatment of sexuality, class and war points to the political unconscious of the novel's text which could have been unconcealed in its concealment with some more art. Instead of touching sexuality (including lesbianism) and running away horrified, she could have allowed her ambivalence to work itself into the texture of the novel. Likewise when class forces itself into the landscape of the text, she tries to pull a cover over it with the promptness of an embarrassed housewife:

Muslim men and women worked day and night in the fields. The landownership of the Sikhs depended on these Muslim wage-earners....
...                     ...                     ...
So these diktats did not work and the cultural and economic sharing between Sikhs and Muslims continued the way it had been going on for centuries.

Similarly, when it comes to dealing with war, Neer is in an unwriterly haste. The Kargil episode is disposed of in less than two pages. In fact, she writes more than once that no one knew how all this (political turmoil and violence) had come to happen. The novel would have been better if she had tried to figure this out and not evaded an encounter with history.
With a kind of run-of-the-mill treatment of some 'sequences', the novel as a fictional artifact appears to have succumbed to the cinematic spectacle: a point of contact between the fictional and the cinematic which could have been turned to better creative advantage by bringing out the simulated nature of reality itself in these times. Who says life isn't filmy at all these days? Why shouldn't fiction, too, be such then? But yes, on its own terms – consciously, artistically, politically.
            Neer has earned the gratitude of lovers of Punjabi fiction by extending its canvas in terms of both its thematic-political concerns and its language. Kashmir and Kashmiri deserve a greater presence on the Punjabi literary scene. If she has not been able to do greater justice to the long, complex and rich history of her subject matter, the fault lies equally with the Punjabi academic culture. How adequate is Punjabi language in resources on Kashmir? We cannot reasonably expect the writers to read in all languages except 'our own' yet write in no language except 'our own'.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ayodhya and what it Implies

By Badri Raina

The Supreme Court having dismissed a Special Leave Petition seeking deferment of the Allahabad High Court judgement which was slated to be delivered on the 24th of September, the decks have been cleared for the said judgement to be pronounced now at 3.30 afternoon tomorrow, the 30th of September, 2010.

At the heart of the issue in court is a title suit to determine who is in rightful possession of the site where the demolished mosque stood—a Muslim organization or a Hindu one.

Remarkably, after some sixty years of litigation in the matter, all parties to the dispute have welcomed the prospect of a legal determination regardless of who wins or loses, or whether the judgement-to-come confronts the parties with a mixed bag of determinations. But leaving the way open to all to go in appeal to the Supreme Court depending on how the chips fall.

It is to be recalled that one justification preferred for the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 was that the courts were taking forever, and that the Rambakhts were thus obliged to take matters into their own gruesome hands to level the ground for the construction of a “grand” temple to lord Ram, who they simply believe was born at the very exact spot where the main dome of the mosque stood.

Interestingly, the BJP whose stalwarts were in the forefront of the demolition event on December 6, 1992, and which till now had been holding to the view that the Constitution and the Courts have no locus standi in the matter of “civilizational” convictions, seems suddenly as fervently favourable to the judicial pronouncement as the Muslim litigants who have consistently argued that any final legal determination of the matter will be accepted by them without demur, however it turns out for their side.

The BJP’s new stance of course may not be as straightforward or upright as it seems. As much as we can forsee, having understood that the national mood in India is visibly transformed, it will be their further tactics to “go to the people” come national hustings and ask for a legislative majority in parliament so as they can legislate that “grand temple” to be “lawfully” constructed at Ayodhya—something they have tried before and failed to achieve. Which suggests importantly (something that tends to be brushed under the polemical carpet) that however they have sought to make the temple issue a “Hindu” one, endorsement for such a read has not been forthcoming. Remarkably, to this day, the BJP has failed to obtain the electoral patronage of some 70% among the Hindu electorate.

Cannily, most Hindu Indians who after all are not averse to a Ram temple being built also understand that it is not the temple so much that the BJP and the Sangh Parivar want as an anti-Muslim political and civilizational assertion, and a seal on the fascist view that the concerns and convictions of the sectarian-cultural majority must take precedence over electoral majorities as mandated by the Constitutional regime. A programme that ordinary Indians across the board do not concur with.

We have often defined India’s democracy as indeed still work-in-progress. There has been no better evidence of that than the manner in which two momentous arms of the state have through the years tended to deal with the Ayodhya imbroglio, namely the Executive and the Media.

In 1992, the year of the watershed demolition of the mosque, the central government led by the “secular” Congress party simply went into deep siesta the whole day long, allowing the vandals and the criminals to finish off the job in glee and glamour. And even now when there is overwhelming demand on all sides that the court be allowed to pronounce on the title suit, the characteristic pusillanimity of the Congress remains unaffected: it would much rather avoid having to assert the Constitutionally obligatory mandate of the State to sort out the publicly disorderly consequences, if any, of the judicial pronouncement, but will reluctantly do so if the parties to the suit fail to reconcile—something they have failed to do over six long decades of trying.

All that in stark contrast to its willingness to launch “operation greenhunt” against recalcitrant tribals in some six states of India and to fire real bullets at stone-pelting teenagers in the valley of Kashmir.

At the heart of the pusillanimity, let us repeat, has been the peculiar version of secularism adopted by the State from its inception, namely not a separation of church and state, but an “equal” regard of all religious faiths.

Clearly, where some 85% of all Indians are Hindus of one kind or another, that mandate of “equal” regard finds its own disequilibrium in the politics of “mainstream” India. Just as dependable citizenship remains coloured by denominational proclivities and preferences.

For those reasons, therefore, (and especially when a “new” young India refuses to be much drawn to the dispute), it will remain to be seen how the Congress party and the state led by it now rise to the occasion. No more inspiring words than those of the Supreme Court that just as the judiciary cannot be prevented form doing its job, it is for the State to do its.

As to the Media, especially of the big corporate variety: its class allegiance willy nilly obliges it to oscillate between the Congress and the BJP, its dream of long that such a two-party dispensation comes to gel to the exclusion of the plethora of other political formations whose agendas tend to be either inimical to big business or wholly localized and “socially retrograde.”

And between the Congress and the BJP, it has tended to prefer the latter for its more openly and completely market-friendly predilections. And where the BJP practices a non-lethal variety of religiosity, this is also seen as a boon, to the extent that such a stance taps the energies of the mass of working Hindus whose devotions to the deities are legendary, keeping them away from mobilizing on livelihood issues. No better ploy to keep the pretentious politics of the Left in its sidelined place. It is only when a communal mayhem is let loose that the corporate media begins to fidget, since the image of an India on the march to accumulation and profit maximization is then severely dented and thwarted.

In the current moment, there is evidence that some sections of this media are more boldly out to support the Constitutional assertion of the judiciary and the state than they have been hitherto.

Some others who have been more closely in embrace with the BJP are strangely and distressingly heard to counter the general mood in favour of a judicial determination of the Ayodhya issue with the old “tea party” argument about the non-justiciability of “faith.” A sort of back-up to the clandestine BJP position which the party itself for now seems to have suspended in the hope that any further prolonged career of the dispute in the Supreme Court will open the route to its demand for an electoral majority so that the temple construction be legislated.

But, finally, more than all these, a great deal of what may or may not transpire will depend on new civil society and mass attitudes to the judicial verdict due tomorrow.

A distinct watershed moment then in the post-Independent history of “modernizing” India which will tell us whether the Constitutional clock moves ahead or suffers a circum ambulatory regression in time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Games

By Badri Raina

However you may cavil,

We got the game, the game;

However it may unravel,

We have no shame, no shame.

Only a hundred workers lost their lives,

Only a footbridge fell;

Only the beggars were put to the knives,

Our hands remain in the till.

The white man does not appreciate

How well we negotiate

Reality and bluster,

Third world and first world state.

Our metaphysics teaches us

To look with benign eye

On scoundrels and scalawags

Who leave us high and dry.

O India we assure you

Your image shall not be dented;

However the shit may hit the fan,

Our glories shall be scented.

Be not the anti-national wag,

Sing praise to national pride;

Whatever be the price to pay,

We shall bring in the bride.

And when we do the beggars will

Be back where we know them;

And they will so rejoice with us

When we show them

All the infrastructure we built

While they were in quarantine;

They will dance to national pride,

They will say it is fine

If they never have a belly full,

Or a shanty in their fate,

So long as the Queen acknowledges

How the games made India great.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Science of Happiness: New Research on Mood, Satisfaction -- Printout -- TIME

from TIME

Seligman, in contrast, puts the emphasis on the remembering self. "I think we are our memories more than we are the sum total of our experiences," he says. For him, studying moment-to-moment experiences puts too much emphasis on transient pleasures and displeasures. Happiness goes deeper than that, he argues in his 2002 book Authentic Happiness. As a result of his research, he finds three components of happiness: pleasure ("the smiley-face piece"), engagement (the depth of involvement with one's family, work, romance and hobbies) and meaning (using personal strengths to serve some larger end). Of those three roads to a happy, satisfied life, pleasure is the least consequential, he insists: "This is newsworthy because so many Americans build their lives around pursuing pleasure. It turns out that engagement and meaning are much more important."

Science of Happiness: New Research on Mood, Satisfaction -- Printout -- TIME

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

David A. Bell Reviews Mark C. Taylor's "Crisis On Campus: A Bold Plan For Reforming Our Colleges And Universities" | The New Republic

Taylor is obviously right to say that university systems today, in this country and abroad, face an unprecedented crisis. Costs continue to spiral upwards even as revenue shrinks. Successive cohorts of graduate students move from the Ph.D. to the unemployment lines, or to the wilderness of adjuncting. While magnificent advances in knowledge continue to take place, many tenured professors produce little of real scholarly value. But it is one thing to say that universities have problems. It is another to argue, as Taylor is effectively arguing, that the universities are the problem—that the system that allegedly began with Kant (in fact it began much earlier) has reached the end of its intellectual and social usefulness, and needs to be swept away in favor of something radically new and untested, in accordance with technologies that are still evolving at breakneck speed. That is a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future, even if it puts a buzz on an op-ed page.

David A. Bell Reviews Mark C. Taylor's "Crisis On Campus: A Bold Plan For Reforming Our Colleges And Universities" | The New Republic

Frank Kermode

Mary-Kay Wilmers

from London Review of Books

Papers speak through their writers. And of all the London Review’s writers Frank Kermode was the one through whom we spoke most often and most eloquently. In all he wrote nearly 250 pieces for the LRB, the first in October 1979, a review of J.F.C. Harrison’s book on millenarianism, the last, in May this year, a review of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. ‘Eloquently’: was that the right word? Not really. Frank’s writing was so much more exact, more stylish, more patient, more ironic, more playful, more attentive, more cunning, more cagey than ‘eloquence’ can suggest. ‘Stealthy’ is another possibility – a word Michael Wood used in introducing the collection of Frank’s essays we published to mark his 90th birthday. But as I pile on the epithets I hear Frank’s voice in my head and I stop.

LRB · Mary-Kay Wilmers · Frank Kermode

Sunday, September 5, 2010

May sanity prevail

Here is an urgent message from Amritjit Singh, Langston Hughes Professor of English, Ohio University, USA

Dear Colleagues,

Much is happening around the country right now to inflame hatred toward Muslims and Arabs. As one dear colleague noted today with understandable alarm, “I am deeply worried about the poisonous environment swirling around the Park51 initiative. Glen Beck and his ilk have given public permission to revile and attack Muslims and their institutions. Mosques are being burned, there is a threat to torch Qur'ans on 9/11, and individuals are being physically assaulted.”

Further, those of us with origins in South Asia or the Middle East (Muslim or not) – that is, those of us who are perceived as Muslim or Arab based on our phenotype or our dress – are also beginning to catch the fire.

As educators or as individuals otherwise concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, we need to be on the alert and be prepared to do whatever we can to speak up and to educate.

At the very minimum, we could take a few minutes of class time to address this burgeoning social issue and help in raising our students’ awareness of how such bias might hurt and scar real human beings around us.

We could also consider developing and sharing information sheets or power-points on Islam & Islamophobia for our courses and offer some programs for campus at large.

Have a good Labor Day weekend, Amrit

Friday, September 3, 2010

Daily Targum - Electronic books turn new page in literature

It wasn’t until recently that I was forced to reevaluate my stance on the e-book. While researching the negative effects of e-book sales on brick and mortar bookstores, I came across an essay by the science fiction author Charlie Stross. In the essay, “CMAP #5: Why Books are the Length they Are,” Stross lends his support to the e-book, stating that the success of the e-book may lead to a revival of non-novel formats, like novellas and serials, which have been floundering for some time.

With this one simple statement, Stross brought me over to the dark side and showed me the brilliant light I’d been missing there all along. If the e-book can revive dead formats, it can also create new ones. We are now in a position wherein we can drastically redefine what counts as a book. As Stross says in his essay, the processes and costs of printing and binding usually dictate the lengths of books, and we have come to define books according to the very narrow specifications of publishing companies. But the e-book frees books from these constraints, giving writers more room to experiment and making it easier for readers to engage with these experiments.

Daily Targum - Electronic books turn new page in literature

The War Artist | Online Only | Granta Magazine

‘When do I start?’ the war artist asked.

The captain glanced at his watch, his thin lips pressed into a sliver. Thirty seconds passed.

‘Today,’ he said.

From down the hallway a pistol shot rang out, followed by the sprightly pop of a champagne cork.

‘Right now, in fact.’ He handed the war artist a neatly folded uniform, saluted her, and walked out the door.

The War Artist | Online Only | Granta Magazine

Remembering my teacher

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

A friend, who also is a teacher, recently sent an sms: satinder singh passed away this morning.

Satinder Singh introduced me to the art of reading literature. He taught us to read patiently, to wait like birds even as reading hatched taking its own time. And he taught us to navigate literary works like wayfarers exploring the labyrinthine patterns of some Persian carpets.

I remember the day -it must have been in 1980- I first went up to Satinder Singh. As always, he was there outside the classroom well before the class began. I had been reading a poem by Tennyson and had some questions. He heard me out and asked me to see him again the following day.

'Read this book over the weekend and come back to me,' he said, handing me The Complete Poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson. I looked apprehensively at the forbidding tome but he reassured me, 'You'll read it through, I know.' And he smiled, patted my shoulder and walked into the class.

I was in the first year of my Bachelor's course and full of doubts, including those about my ability. But he seemed to know his students better than we knew ourselves. He believed in us and made us believe in ourselves as if by magic. He was the only one who used Goethe, Kierkegaard, TS Eliot, e e cummings, Stephen Spender, Milton and Voltaire in composition and translation classes. He would often stay with a word or line for a whole hour, mining and polishing its gold. At times, he would spend days on a short passage. He taught, and taught us to read, unhurriedly.

It so happened once that he had to share a course with another teacher. He taught Julius Caesar, while she did poetry. She sliced her way through poems at such a pace that she often ended up finishing off three poems in forty minutes. 'A teacher's test is how long his cupped hands can hold water,' he had once remarked. He was so right, I realized.

After one of his brightest students did his Master's with a gold medal, he said, 'I want you to be a teacher. Because you are one of the best.'

His house overflowed with books just as he did with kindness, affection and modesty. Such men are lonely seekers of wisdom. Several among his colleagues secretly envied him, often letting the envy show itself, in unguarded moments, as scorn. They bought shares and land and enlarged their houses, while he quietly laboured to enlarge his library and mind.

When I went to Panjab University to continue my Master's, he was probably the happiest among my teachers at Government College, Hoshiarpur. 'We've given you whatever we could. Now you need more. Learn and grow.'

I last met him some fifteen years ago. He asked me, 'Do you still read books? Or have you stopped reading?'

Thursday, September 2, 2010

So, What Colour Is Terror?

By Badri Raina

From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives

/“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,/

/Stains the white radiance of Eternity.”/



Shelley was never more wrong, but to that I shall return.

Currently, one of the “burning issues” on media channels here in India is what colour we may ascribe or not ascribe to terror. A conundrum, if there ever was one.

The matter has arisen from a comment made by the honourable Home Minister (read Minister of the Interior, incharge of “security” of the realm) to a conclave of senior law-enforcement officers on the state of alertness required of them in these troubled times.

Detailing the many sources and forms of terror that now bedevil the even march of the country towards progress and “development,” he made a politic or impolitic “depending on who is listening” reference to a newer source of terror, namely, “saffron” terror, since many cases have come to notice since 2006 that involve terrorists aligned to organizations with classical Hindu names: Abhinav Bharat, Sanaatan Sanstha, Hindu Janjagruiti Manch and so on.

Individuals close to the RSS as well seem under scrutiny, while many are indicted and in jail.

At which the cry has gone up from predictable quarters that such a nomenclature is calculated to malign all Hindus, since saffron is a shade sacred to Hindus, and one that adorns Hindu rites and rituals. There is also the case that saffron forms the topmost strip of the national tricolour. That the tricolour also has a green (an Islamic hue) strip is another matter, and usually a discomforting reminder to the espousers of Hindutva who regard India as in essence a Hindu nation. Reason why the RSS refused to acknowledge the tricolour as the national icon till some two years after Independence, being then forced to do so as a quid pro quo to the release of its Chief from jail where he was placed after the murder of Gandhi.


So what are we to think and do?

The naming of names remains a fraught enterprise; and the current lot of protestors are right that many peace-loving and secular Hindus who oppose Hindutva the most are also likely to feel uncomfortable with the “saffron” allusion.

Such, infact, has been the argument adduced by civil society at large whenever Muslim names have come up during investigations into terrorist activity that rubrics like “Islamic terror,” or “Jehadi terror” etc., likewise malign some 99.9% of Muslims who equally oppose terror conducted in the name or on behalf of Islam. Never mind that the Hindutva brigade never quite admitted that argument until the boot came to be on the other foot.

Thus it came to be that on a talk show the other day, a happy resolution was found. Ergo, if terror has a colour, it can only be “black.”

Now, as any student of world history would know, black has been everybody’s bug bear. If among the Christian world, Satan is the Prince of Darkness, and all things evil happen by night (God, you remember, is the “Light”) among us dried-in the-wool Aryan sun-worshippers, it is no different. The authentic Brahmin brow has always been thought to be /“tejaswaie”/, to wit, burnished with light, since the Brahmin was anyway born of Brahma’s brow, and the shades got darker with declension into the shoulders, the limbs, and the feet, as the lower orders of castes also emerged. You can see why some historians should conclude that the genesis of the Indian caste system lies in a racial idea (/“varna” /in Sanskrit literally meaning colour).

Now if all terror, in essence, is “black,” it must be concluded that the chief terrorist sits in the Whitehouse, not to speak of the whole continent of Africa and wherever else black folks live and do good work. Not a workable idea, you would concede.


Which brings me to my own take.

Any good Physicist will tell you that black is infact the most unmixed and uncontaminated of colours, wholly itself and none other.

And that the colour that has gone down in history as the purest of the pure is the one, in scientific fact, that harbours a conglomerate of colours, namely White.

No finer lay evidence for that startling fact than the rainbow. It is when white light is refracted that them colours can be seen which make up the “white.”

Now apply that discovery to the history of the world and you might get a colossal rainbow of terror -- 50 million dead in the slave trade (all black), millions during the colonization of the Americas, of Africa, and of Asia, hundreds of thousand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 6 million we are told in the Holocaust, millions in the Gulag, hundreds of thousand again in Vietnam (ah that saffron Agent Orange), a million or more again in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who knows what is to come.

And all under the camouflage of the colourless (sic) White, with the black, the brown, the pale, and all shades in-between at the receiving end.

I say therefore that be it the red, the black, or the green, or the saffron varieties of terror, they are all midwifed by the great White. That is the one that has the hugest of Jaws, and the most insatiable appetite for violence and grab. Is it a surprise that many hopefuls worldwide who had expected peaceful and peace-loving things from Barrack Obama today conclude that he is proving to be just another White, after all?

What the lovely Shelley seems not to have known is that the “many-coloured glass” of his lament is indeed the manifest of Eternity which he supposed to be an unsullied White.

If you have a better case, do let me know.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

At Bookstore, Even Those Not Buying Regret Its End -

from The New York Times

It has been a bumpy year for Barnes & Noble, the country’s largest book chain, with 720 stores. Sales and store traffic have suffered as the book business has shifted online; Amazon has held its early lead in the e-reader war; and early this month, Barnes & Noble put itself up for sale and is now in the midst of a battle for control of the company with Ronald W. Burkle, the billionaire investor.

People browsing at the Lincoln Center store on Monday lamented the loss of one of the city’s largest and most prominent bookstores, a sprawling space with a cafe on the fourth floor and an enormous music selection. For devoted theatergoers, it was a reliable site for readings and events that focused on the performing arts. (Still on the fall schedule are appearances by Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige.)

But many of those same people conceded that they have not bought as many books there as they did in the past. Some said they were more likely to browse the shelves, then head home and make purchases online. Others said they prized the store most for its sunny cafe or its magazines and other nonbook items.

Complete text:
At Bookstore, Even Those Not Buying Regret Its End -

Amritsar Journal - A Sikh Temple Where All May Eat, and Pitch In

from The New York Times

It is lunchtime at what may be the world’s largest free eatery, the langar, or community kitchen at this city’s glimmering Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Everything is ready for the big rush. Thousands of volunteers have scrubbed the floors, chopped onions, shelled peas and peeled garlic. At least 40,000 metal plates, bowls and spoons have been washed, stacked and are ready to go.

Anyone can eat for free here, and many, many people do. On a weekday, about 80,000 come. On weekends, almost twice as many people visit. Each visitor gets a wholesome vegetarian meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious and ethnic mosaic.

Amritsar Journal - A Sikh Temple Where All May Eat, and Pitch In -

Monday, August 23, 2010

British literary critic Frank Kermode dies at age 90

As a scholar, Mr. Kermode sought to bring new ideas on literary theory into the classroom, helping introduce French theorists such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault into British academia in the 1960s. He later distanced himself from some of their more arcane notions of literary interpretation but remained committed to academic freedom.

He left his prestigious job at University College London in 1982 after an unsuccessful battle to achieve tenure for a younger colleague who advocated a structuralist view of literature and film.

British literary critic Frank Kermode dies at age 90

The Face That Launched a Thousand Drones? | ShahidulNews

The much talked about August 9 Time magazine cover, unabashed in its aim to shore up support for the war effort in Afghanistan, has left many still shaking their heads in disbelief at such brazen exploitation of a woman’s suffering. It’s not the first time the plight of Afghan women has been used to manipulate public opinion. It’s a narrative we have become so accustomed to since the 2001 invasion, that many of my most intelligent female friends did not recognize it for the subversive emotional blackmail that it is. More important, they said, was the attention it brought to women’s issues. Well, let us talk about those issues in earnest, then.

The Face That Launched a Thousand Drones? | ShahidulNews

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Frank Kermode | Tribute | John Naughton | Books | The Observer

He was the most erudite man I've ever known, but he wore his learning lightly. And he had a way of alerting one to one's ignorance in the gentlest of ways. Once, for example, we were discussing a very eminent scientist whom we both knew and who had been the recipient of numerous honours and awards. I confidently, but mistakenly, asserted that the man in question was a Nobel laureate. "Oh, really," said Frank, "I hadn't known that." And I immediately realised the extent of my gaffe. But nothing was said, and the subject was never mentioned again.

Frank Kermode | Tribute | John Naughton | Books | The Observer

Friday, August 20, 2010

Frank Kermode, Literary Critic, Dies at 90 - Obituary (Obit) -

Frank Kermode, who rose from humble origins to become one of England’s most respected and influential critics, died Tuesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 90.

His death was announced by The London Review of Books, which he helped create and to which he frequently contributed.

Frank Kermode, Literary Critic, Dies at 90 - Obituary (Obit) -

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

River and Life

from ShahidulNews

They meander and glide. They unfurl with the rage of monsoon fury. Quietly they flow in the misty winter morn. Rivers thread the fabric of our land. Embroider patches of fertile delta. They are the nakshi kantha of our rural folklore. Life giver, destroyer, enchanter, they have inspired the greatest myths, formed the tapestry for the most endearing love songs. Our Bhatiali has been shaped by the lilt of the boatman’s lyrics drifting across the waves.

Kabir Hossain homeward bound

Monday, July 19, 2010

Women’s Role in Holocaust May Exceed Old Notions


From The New York Times

JERUSALEM — Amid the horrors of the Holocaust, the atrocities perpetrated by a few brutal women have always stood out, like aberrations of nature.

There were notorious camp guards like Ilse Koch and Irma Grese. And lesser known killers like Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer and a mother who was convicted of shooting to death six Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Poland; or Johanna Altvater Zelle, a German secretary accused of child murder in the Volodymyr-Volynskyy ghetto in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

The Nazi killing machine was undoubtedly a male-dominated affair. But according to new research, the participation of German women in the genocide, as perpetrators, accomplices or passive witnesses, was far greater than previously thought.

The researcher, Wendy Lower, an American historian now living in Munich, has drawn attention to the number of seemingly ordinary German women who willingly went out to the Nazi-occupied eastern territories as part of the war effort, to areas where genocide was openly occurring.

Link to complete text

Friday, July 16, 2010

GDP vs GDP: The Story of Indian “Development"

Badri Raina

(From Badri Raina's Znet Page)

O Brave New India that hath such Creatures in it.


Clap clap, and clap again.

India’s GDP is set to grow at 9.4%, sayeth the oracle of the World Bank.

So, where is the high table, and why aren’t we on it yet? And what is a mere G-20; it is the permanent membership of the Round Table we seek and deserve. Our knights now shine too resplendentally, O Arthur-Sam. So, move over, you defunct old inheritors of defunct old glory. Our charge now resistless indeed.

Which is perhaps why the evil ones conspire to stymie that charge with ill-intended facts and figures. Familiar colonial perfidy alive and well still, epicentred where else but in that decrepit Oxford.

They now unleash another GDP to undermine our Icarian flight, namely, Gross Destitute People.

Some busybody Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative brings out a Report on world poverty based on Multi-Dimensional Indices, calculated wickedly to show us down.

And it would have us believe that actually, in point of fact, as they say in Oxford, there are an aggregate of more poor people in just eight Indian states than in all of Africa’s poorest 26 countries; roughly, more than some 410 million Indians. That them Africans there have better access to “good cooking fuel,” “schooling,” “electricity,” “nutrition,” “sanitation,” and so on than eight of our resource-rich states! Perish the perfidy.

And, as if to mock our GDP I thesis, they also rub in the view that “low per capita GDP income doesn’t necessarily mean high poverty.”

Clearly, waka waka Shakira, whom Oxford loves, brand ambassador for the rainbow nation down south in Africa, must have something to do with this inspired computation. We love Shakira too (or do we?) but to say that 26 of the poorest African nations are less poor than Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chattisgarh—well who else but the knowledgeable would believe such calumny?

And who cares for the knowledgeable? Certainly not our corporate channels and print media who spread the word on India’s GDP of the first order, namely, Gross Domestic Product. Gross indeed.

As to GDP II, did you tell us something we did not know? And is it to be thought that any nation can increase GDP I without simultaneously increasing GDP II as well? Dammit, somebody has got to pay the price for the frontline few to conquer the world.

Progress—it poureth like ungentle torrents from heaven (as it is doing now in India’s showpiece Capital); and when it does, is it your view that roads, shanties, bridges, trees, electric poles and mobile towers, even neighbourhoods next to where the Primum Mobile lives will not, or should not, be washed away? Or that only a few should lose their lives? Strange notion of progress you must have indeed.


Don’t think for a moment we are not wise to you and your anti-national shenanigans.

You are of the tribe who filed that writ in the Supreme Court of India, challenging the validity of Section 2 of the Constitution (42nd amendment) by virtue of which the word “socialist” was inserted in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

And who also challenged Section 6 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1989, which makes it incumbent on every political party registered in India to pledge allegiance to the socialist ideal, failing which such a party can be deregistered.

So you would blow the whistle on us, would you? You would like to tell the world how we are not a Democracy but a Hypocrisy. As if the world does not know.

You think good governance entails an honest adherence to what we profess rather than what we do. Alas, how Kautilya and Confucious must turn in their realpolitik graves at the enormity of your naivete.

Know then that good governance means first and foremost feeding words to the 410 million, with an odd “gurantee scheme” thrown in, and wealth to the handful whose accumulations alone may take India to the Round Table. Elementary, my dear nincompoop, who it seems takes too much to heart what ablutions we make to the “socialist” ideal when them votes are needed.

Just as we pay homage to the Father of the Nation, that naked fakir, when all else fails to mollify the mob. Returning to designer lifestyles the minute the mayhem dies down.

As to those 26 African nations; have you no concern for Africa where, after all Bapu Gandhi first blew the whistle? How is Africa to seem to move forward if we do not step back that little bit? And what is 410 million but precisely “that little bit”?

Your problem is that you dig for dirt because you are at bottom a leveler. And you think God truly created all of us as equals with them unalienable rights etc., Not true. Read any of our Hindu scriptures and you will know otherwise. Why else would we fall into unreconcilable castes and gotras we ask you? And not a one of those 410 human beings, we tell you, may seek parity with a Garuda, a Ganesha, or a Hanuman, although not even human those. Such is the genius of mystery. Such are the things between heaven and earth that your philosophy will never understand. Your problem entirely.

When in the history of our colonial slavery did Oxford bode any good to us? So, why should it now?

It made us slaves then, and it sheds crocodile tears at the slavery we have made for ourselves as free republicans. Surely, a perfidious second colonization is being forged, using, cunningly, the very tools we supply. To Oxford we thus say, leave us be; our poor are our own, and they understand us better than you do. So do not stir the pot, which is already on the boil anyway. What is a nation where everybody is fed the same ration? A spectacle of dead uniformity from whence no great deeds can emerge. Know that it is difference, as the philosopher has taught us, that lends meaning to us severally. Sameness of well being is a mere recipe for sloth and slouching. It is hunger in the extreme that seeks new recipes and transforms the cuisine. Worry thou about quality, not about quantity. And learn for god’s sake that Indian “socialism” is different, pretty much now like the Chinese, and finds directions to glory through indirections of policy. Too much for Oxford to understand.

Which is not to say that we will not send our children to Oxford if Oxford


Just a way of the empire striking back, you moron.