Thursday, August 30, 2007

Iranians are comfortable waiting, waiting for salvation, waiting to be saved, waiting for good days

Michael Slackman's despatch from Qom has an interesting quote from a social psychologist on the collective identity of Iranians. On how they love to wait for salvation and better days. Much like Indians who are resigned to their fate – bhagwan ke ghar mein der hai, andher nahin.

Here's the relevant extratct:

Outside, there were lines of men and women heading to Jamkaran Mosque, on the outskirts of the city. And here was another example of what divides and drives Iranians. Many see the mosque as a site where they can leave messages for Imam Mahdi and have their wishes answered. Others see it as nonsense.

The mosque was built after a villager dreamed in the year 974 that Imam Mahdi told him where he would return and showed him the site, which is where the mosque now stands. There is a well there for visitors to leave their letters of request, and the crowds were thick on Tuesday as people packed so tightly into buses they could not shut the doors.

And that, perhaps, illustrates another Iranian trait — a pre-Islamic affinity for waiting. When Iranians practiced Zoroastrianism, they were also awaiting a savior, called Saoshyant. They say that helped cope with the stress of one heavyhanded government after another.

That fit well with Shiite Islam, academics said. “Iranians are comfortable as Shias,” said Dr. Muhammad Sanati, a social psychologist in Tehran. “They feel at home with a prophet coming. They are comfortable waiting, waiting for salvation, waiting to be saved, waiting for good days.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mohammed caricatures... again!

The top illustration shows Jesus with the body of an elephant. The second one shows Mohammed with the body of a dog. The third finally depicts semi dog-semi human Mohammed again but this time with a placard that reads "Islam means human and animal rights".

These illustrations have been sketched by Swedish artist Lars Vilks. One of his Mohammed illustrations was published in Nerikes Allehanda, a local newspaper in Örebro, a city in southern central Sweden. Apparently, the paper chose the Mohammed sketch (not the Jesus one) to accompany an article on self-censorship. I don't know which of the two Mohammed ones was actually published. The articles I read (this and this) don't specify. My hunch is that the one with a placard came as a reaction to the furore generated by the second illustration. And I doubt if he was trying to defend himself and soothe ruffled feathers. It is more likely a smart rebuttal - Vilks thumbs his nose at those offended and drives home his point even more incisively in the last illustration.

To return to his second illustration, I feel it is in bad taste. Just like the one that had Moh
ammed with a bomb as a turban. I have two questions: a) Why do these newspapers have to continuously provoke the Muslims living in the west? And that too by using such puerile illustrations. I don't even get the point Vilks makes other than the obvious one of denigrating Mohammed by fusing him with a dog (despised widely in Islamic countries and elsewhere). It's a vicious circle (the kind Al-Qaeda hopes engulfs the entire civilised world) where provocations only engender more radicalism, and b) Why are cartoons of leaders of other faith rejected? It is the case here was so with Jyllands-Posten.

This is more like a cartoon that I'd enjoy. It's from Charlie Hebdo, a French weekly. The man above is Mohammed. The text on the left says, "Mohammed overwhelmed by the fundamentalists" and the balloon adds, "It's a pain being loved by idiots..." Charlie Hebdo was fortunately absolved of all charges of publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion. The case was brought by the Grand Mosque of Paris, the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) and the World Islamic League.

Will the law treat a policeman and a minister equally?

A police constable was suspended for hugging the actor-cum-convicted criminal Sanjay Dutt. But will a Congress minister guilty of the same crime be punished? I doubt so. Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh insists the minister has committed no crime. “Dutt is like a family member for him. You must understand that police is a disciplined force. The norms applicable to them may differ from those applicable to civilians,” he says. Guess we are still living in an animal farm where all are equal but some are more equal than others.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Is anti-Semitism objectionable enought to be banned on YouTube?

Germany's Central Council of Jews is planning to press charges against YouTube for hosting videos that are anti-Semitic in nature. Right-wing extremists apparently use the free video platform for sharing and viewing propaganda videos inciting racial hatred. A few months back, Orkut too was in problem for hosting a community proclaiming its hatred for Bal Thackeray.

This raises a crucial question. Should we censor content on YouTube? Or for that matter, on any other site? And who should decide what should be censored? Difficult questions with no convincing answers. YouTube’s policy is to “encourage free speech and defend everyone's right to express unpopular points of view”. But it doesn't permit “hate speech which contains slurs or the malicious use of stereotypes intended to attack or demean a particular gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, or nationality”. By that yardstick, I guess the Central Council of Jews is right to insist the videos be removed from the site.

But that still leaves us the question – Who decides if the video falls into that category? YouTube may have an answer. It urges viewers to flag a video if they consider it inappropriate. A clip is taken off when it comes to the notice of the staff at the video-hosting site with several “flaggings”. That is a far more civilized way to deal with attacks on freedom of expression rather than allowing an individual or a few to deal with it. Democratising opinion and enhancing broader participation has been the Internet biggest achievement.

In the real world, we are way off the mark in this debate. Often, the “offenders”, like M F Hussain or Taslima Nasreen, are threatened/attacked for expressing their views. There is little substance in the debate besides shrill vengeful rhetoric. So even if Hussain merits criticism, he doesn’t get it. He ducks under the cover of an assault on his “freedom of expression”. And even if Nasreen deserves to be panned for her searing hatred of Islam, she gets off the hook for being unable to express her opinion freely. It is reasonable to argue that these two would not have been as famous as they are today had it not been for the innumerable controversies centred around them. That is also the problem with the law that makes holocaust denial a crime in certain countries (many of them in Europe, including France). Why should such a law exist in liberal democracies? It only gives them cover whereby they claim an attack on their freedom of expression and draw sympathizers. Why cannot we let them express their views freely and let them be criticized openly and civilly by those who find it objectionable?

BTW, The New York Times still insists on printing all the news that is fit to print. Shouldn’t it change now? Isn’t all the news fit to print?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Would you learn the art of living with death running amok?

Away from the mayhem back home, a clutch of Iraqis are taking a break at Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's (Why does he get two "Sri"s? Ever wondered? And why do the media accept it without a query?) spiritual retreat in Karnataka.

According to a Reuter’s report (a guaranteed puff job, if you read it well enough), they will “follow an intensive meditation and rhythmic breathing regime for a month to learn about an alternative lifestyle”. That means waking up at five every morning, followed by yoga classes, meditation, a stint in the kitchen, spiritual discussions, public speaking classes and spiritual singing as part of their “physical, mental, emotional and social development”. Whoa! As strenuous as life back in Iraq, if you ask me.

Also, I wish the reporter took the pains to enlighten us on what he/she means by social development of a person. Making a person socially more acceptable? And what would the difference be between mental and emotional development of a person? I know what's the similarity - plain good old guru-ish gobbledygook.

The young participants (55 men and women) hope to use their leadership skills learnt at the retreat to lead their communities back in Iraq. One participant says, “With so many problems of endless killings, bombs and war, life in Iraq is very stressful ... we have no hope. After coming here, we see a new ray of hope." Hopefully, you see that hope back in Iraq too.

I really wonder how all this actually helps the Iraqis deal with the war? Is breathing deep enough or a certain yogic posture the first thing on one’s mind when the neighbourhood store is blown away by a fidayeen attack? "We go back and help people come out of depression by teaching them breathing exercise and other techniques we are learning here," is what another participant says. Spirituality comes last in trying times. Iraqis for sure have more mundane and material issues to deal with - their taps have run dry... food's scarce... the neighbourhood school's probably shut down... the naan-wala next door most likely has moved to Jordan... they probably can't even move out of their homes after sundown.

I am curious to find out how many Iraqis have really benefited? Isn’t Ravi Shankar just using Iraqis for more effective international publicity? Why doesn’t AOL, if at all it wants to, help rehabilitate some of the millions of Iraqi refugees that have spilled over Iraq’s borders? Instead of concocting some vacuous Arab-Israeli bonhomie at his ashram. Some Arabs and Israelis are participating in the training together, helping each other with techniques and interacting on issues of life and spirituality. "This (the Arab-Israeli bonhomie) can only happen when the mind is relieved of stress and emotions are softened and refined," Sri2 claims in the report. "This state cannot be achieved by force or violence." Well, I’ll turn into an AOL disciple if in his lifetime Sri2 successfully creates a Palestinian state.

Excuse me AOL devotees, but I just can't take these new age gurus.

It's a mad, mad, mad world!

Women in a Kenyan village are having a hard time chasing some monkeys away from their fields. Chomping on the crop, these monkeys are said to be completely unafraid of the women. Not even if the women put on clothes of their husbands. One harassed woman told BBC:

"When we come to chase the monkeys away, we are dressed in trousers and hats, so that we look like men," resident Lucy Njeri told the BBC News website. "But the monkeys can tell the difference and they don't run away from us and point at our breasts. They just ignore us and continue to steal the crops." In addition to stealing their crops, the monkeys also make sexually explicit gestures at the women, they claim. "The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us," said Mrs Njeri.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

BTW, reportedly there was a headless chicken!

It was called Mike and lived for 18 months after its head was chopped off!
Here's his official story:

The Amazing, true story of this famous fowl dates back to September 10, 1945 when Mike, a young Wyandotte rooster, was about to become the dinner of Fruita, Colorado, farmer Lloyd Olsen.

With a sharp ax in hand, Mr. Olsen firmly held Mike, preparing to make the bird ready for his wife Clara's cooking pot. Mr. Olsen swung the implement, thereby lopping off poor Mike's head. Mike shook off the event, then continued trying to peck for food.

Mike's will to live remains an inspiration. It is a great comfort to know you can live a normal life, even after you have lost your mind.

Thanks, Mike!

Hullabaloo in the nuclear orchard?

Illustration from The Telegraph

Our man in the US, Ronen Sen, has ruffled many chicken feathers with this comment in an interview to Rediff:

"It (the nuclear deal) has been approved here (in Washington, DC) by the President, and there (in New Delhi) it's been approved by the Indian cabinet. So why do you have all this running around like headless chicken, looking for a comment here or comment there, and these little storms in a tea-cup?"

Even after Sen’s clarification claiming the term “headless chickens” was a “tactless observation” on some of his media friends, MPs are outraged at being referred to in such terms. As I argued in the previous post, this debate about the deal is no longer about the deal. We are now arguing who’s a chicken, who’s a vegetable and who’s got chikungunya. Here’s a sampling of some hilarious quotes on this latest fiasco:

If a diplomat called journalists headless chicken, then his brain is nothing but a vegetable.” – Priyaranjan Das Munshi

If journalists are headless chicken, MPs are boneless chicken and government’s got chikungunya" – Mamta Banerjee

"I have been shown to be not just a headless chicken but a brainless one too." - Yashwant Sinha, who was named by Sen as one of those who objected to the deal.

Nobody’s a kid. No chacha (uncle) of any bachcha (child) can accuse our government of playing with India’s iqbal (prestige).” – Laloo Prasad Yadav

We have an ambassador in Washington, who seems to be the ambassador of President Bush, not the ambassador of India.” – Prakash Karat

Monday, August 20, 2007

Why is The Telegraph being so petulant?

Not that I sympathise with the Left in India... I still feel The Telegraph (avowedly anti-left) only discredits itself in the ongoing debate about the merits and demerits of the nuclear deal when it publishes infographics like these. This illustration appeared in the paper's front page today. Neither does it have the aesthetic merit nor the incisive wit that is normally associated with an illustration/a cartoon appearing in one of the country's leading dailies. Frankly, it even fails to make the cut for a good college journal. I might use American goods - sure, I do - but that doesn't make me an admirer of its foreign policy.

The debate about is the deal is no longer about the deal. It's entered a realm of shrill senseless rhetoric. Some facts that the government needs to put out loud and clear (as simple as 123):

1) that India will test a nuclear weapon, if the need be
2) that India will pursue an independent foreign policy (and actually show how)
3) ask the US to keep its political advice to itself

PS: I, nonetheless, admire The Telegraph's stand on not accepting Kolkata as the new name. It still refers to the city by its old name - Calcutta.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Midwifing India and Pakistan

What were Lord Louis Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina, doing on the evening of August 14, 1947, a few hours before Britain’s Indian Empire was formally divided into the nation-states of India and Pakistan? An excellent article by Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker claims they sat down in the viceregal mansion in New Delhi to watch the latest Bob Hope movie, “My Favorite Brunette.” Outside, chaos spread like wildfire as millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs struggled to get to the right side of the border. Thanks to Cyril Radcliffe, a London barrister, who was given forty days to carve out the two nations. He did not visit the villages, communities, rivers, or forests divided by the lines he drew on paper. The article goes on to rightly criticise the sudden withdrawal of the British, which generated more chaos and bloodshed, and how they ended up making religion the defining criterion of one's indentity in the subcontinent.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Who's the best-looking writer?

Image from The Daily Telegraph
While reading articles on 60 years of freedom in India and Pakistan, I came across two intelligent articles by the Bangladeshi Tahmima Anam (here and here). A Google image search also revealed that she is equally beautiful as her prose, pushing me to build this post into a series of posts on good-looking writers. Keep coming back for your dose of beautiful people and prose. Your nominations, if any, are welcome. We'll try and keep their origins as varied as possible.

60 years of freedom? Only for some

As much of urban India holidays and indulges in vacuous patriotic talk, let me be the party pooper. Two stories of the day to remind why freedom still eludes us:

a) A 22-year-old Dalit, the first from his village to get into an engineering college, is killed by upper-cast men in UP. Read it in The Indian Express.

b) Fundamentalist Hindus from Shiv Sena ransack the Mumbai office of Outlook, a news weekly, after it included Bal Thackeray's name in its list of villains. Where is the freedom to express ourselves? More here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Could you write a country's history in 50 words?

As India and Pakistan celebrate 60 years of freedom, reams are being written on their past, present and future. Of all that I have read, this one by M Ilyas Khan on the BBC stands out. In two paragraphs (49 words) he sums up succinctly Pakistan's history:

"The story of Pakistan is one of remorseless tug and pull between the civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and the liberal and religious forces on the other.

In the process, the country has failed to become either a democracy, a theocracy or a permanent military dictatorship."

It also makes a very intresting observation: the US has always
selectively used its financial and military support against democratic governments in Pakistan. In other words, the biggest aid from America came for the dictators there and not for the leaders its people elected to power. It still holds good now with Musharraf in power.

Monday, August 13, 2007

It's a mad, mad, mad world... So are the media

Protest "faked" for TV

They should have been on stage, pulling rabbits out of their hats. An enterprising band of political activists created magic of sorts during a televised protest that showed a cyber café where none existed.

Many watched the Republican Party of India troopers descend on the outlet — shown to be located somewhere in Thane — rip apart cables and smash computers.

he café was punished for a cardinal sin: allowing a porn site that featured lewd photos of a woman posing next to a Buddha bust. The depiction was illegal anyway — cafes can’t permit such sites to be opened — but the self-appointed obscenity busters were taking no chances. They also wanted to be “seen” going about their business.

That the “reality show” was fake came through when police, looking for the café, discovered that the activists put up the “Sigma Cyber Café” banner outside a vacant shop. Computers shown during the “smashing act” turned out to be empty CPU boxes and faulty monitors.

Asked about the stunt, RPI’s district chief Sunil Kambe said that theirs was a “symbolic” protest. “We did not know whether a cyber cafe existed or not,” he said.

From The Telegraph, 13 August 2007

Friday, August 10, 2007

Is Indian science overwhelmingly "kshatriya"?

Carl von Clausewitz once declared famously that war was an extension of politics by other means. This letter in Current Science questions whether science now has become an extension of war by other means. While the letter doesn't say much, it does provide an interesting table with the soldier-scientist ratio in various countries. Japan tops the list with 2.85 scientists for each soldier and Israel is at the bottom with 0.06 scientist for every soldier. India has 0.13 scientist for each jawan.
Military muscle? Yes. But is it true scientific muscle?
Many have criticised Indian science's "kshatriya" bent, implying how defence research tops other prerogatives. That is true to an extent, I think. Some of India's most celebrated scientists are weapons/missile experts. To name two - APJ Abdul Kalam, former president, and R Chidambaram, the current principal scientific advisr to the government of India. Kalam is hailed as a scientific idol but he doesn't even have a formal PhD. We can't even claim a living Indian to be a world-beating scientist but for the probable exception of Ashoke Sen.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Taking the love for French films to an extreme

A Bengali teacher from Alliance Française in Bangalore has been accused of raping a woman for two days and three nights and video-graphing the acts. All this horror to replicate scenes from French films! And the story is as complex as any French film's plot. The man, Sourav Bose, claims to be an aspiring film-maker, influenced heavily by French cinema. He lived in France from 2000 till 2006, studying mass communication at Rennes. Wait till the right wing conservative loonies get to this story - it fits perfectly into their argument that foreign music/films/serials/products/literature have led to the degeneration of the Indian society. Yawn!

Monday, August 06, 2007


Image from Olga's Gallery
This Claude Monet painting (Cliffs Near Dieppe) is one of the four "invaluable" paintings that raiders have escaped with from the fine arts museum in Nice on Sunday!

History comes around... and how!

Salaam, my long-lost pal: Ortega (left) greets Ahmadinejad
Image from AFP
If you are a keen history student, you will remember the Iran-Contra Affair in 1987. In short, that was when the Reagan administration sold arms to Khomeini's government in Iran (a sworn enemy of the US and with whom they had no diplomatic ties) to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua who were fighting the government. Scruples were brushed aside with ease on both sides. America did not bother selling arms to Iran, who was then fighting Iraq, as long as it stoked the heat on Ortega. And Iran did not question the credentials of its suppliers, even if that included the Great Satan, as it struggled to wipe out Saddam Hussein. It needed the weapons urgently. (In fact, Iran even imported arms from Israel during the Iran-Iraq war!) Daniel Ortega, known for his anti-American stance, came to power in the 1984 elections were perhaps "the freest and fairest" in Nicaraguan history.

Now that Ortega is back, he is getting close and personal with none other than the firebrand anti-American Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, Iran's president. The two have just signed a barter deal under which Iran will help Nicaragua develop its infrastructure and the latter will supply Tehran with farm products. Your past does indeed come to haunt you - in this case the US. It has already warned Nicaragua that closer ties with Iran will come at the expense of its ties with Washington.

Holocaust redux?

Image from AP
For a state that claims the holocaust as one of its founding cornerstones, and probably the most important one at that, it comes as a super shocker that survivors of the shoah should be treated with such disrespect in Israel today. About 240,000 live in Israel and many of them went on an unprecedented and provocative strike on Sunday protesting the measly $20 monthly handout that the state has offered them. Some of the protesters even put on clothes of concentration camp inmates, sparking off a vigorous debate in Israel. It's even way below what Indian freedom fighters get - Rs 10,000 per month (about $243)! It's a crying shame...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

In defence of tap water!

Image from
NYT has an eminently readable editorial urging New Yorkers to switch to tap water. It does some straight-talking by arguing that if one chooses to get the recommended eight glasses a day from bottled water, he or she could spend up to $1,400 annually. The same amount of tap water would cost about 49 cents.

And it makes great ecological sense when it says this:
"Water bottles, like other containers, are made from natural gas and petroleum. The Earth Policy Institute in Washington has estimated that it takes about 1.5 million barrels of oil to make the water bottles Americans use each year. That could fuel 100,000 cars a year instead. And, only about 23 percent of those bottles are recycled, in part because water bottles are often not included in local redemption plans that accept beer and soda cans. Add in the substantial amount of fuel used in transporting water, which is extremely heavy, and the impact on the environment is anything but refreshing."

Tap water is perfectly safe in these two cities. In fact, authorities in New York and in Paris (I lived there for a year on tap water and never fell sick) have launched campaigns urging people to switch to tap water. Wish we could do the same in India. The water I get from the tap in New Delhi (it is supposed to be "potable") leaves white residue after boiling and makes tea from home in Assam taste awful. Result: I have to depend on the 20-litre canisters that cost Rs 40 each. And, thereby, I leave my mark - my carbon footprint, however small it maybe. In return, it leaves a dent in my pocket!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The evolution of emoticons

Image from NYT
Did you know the earliest emoticon can be traced back to 1912? That was when the writer Ambrose Bierce proposed a new punctuation device called a “snigger point,” a smiling face represented by \__/!, to connote jocularity. More here.

Guess how much does a kilo of sugar cost in Zimbabwe?

$ 200,000! And I am dead serious. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is soon going to circulate a $200,000 note in a desparate bid to control the threatening hyperinflation rate - it is close to the 5000 per cent mark! The value of the note is worth $US 13 in the official exchange market and just $US 1 in the illegal market. Worse, a single banana cost as much as 15 times a four-bedroom house seven years ago! Read this illuminating Q&A on BBC. It beats me how Mugabe, if we are to believe the reports in the West, has screwed his country, turning it into an economic nightmare from the "bread basket" it once used to be.