Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Neocolonialism 2.0

Whenever I have nothing else to do my conspiracy theorist alter-ego tends to direct his not inconsiderable energies toward the large pork chop-shaped doppelganger that dangles seductively over every little bit of information that periodically emerges in the public domain about the United States’ notoriously turbid foreign policy. 

While the current administration’s focus right now is on the studiously intractable Israel-Palestine conundrum, it could just as soon be on Sudan next week where unless an independence referendum is held in five months from now, renewed civil war is assuredly forecast (southern Sudan, by the way, is an oil-rich region). At the same time the U.S. government is ostensibly withdrawing its troops from the Iraqi theater of war while still carrying on its military campaign in Afghanistan, all while irrepressibly building up military presence in and around the South China Sea and continuing to prop up dubious governments from the Middle East to Latin America. (There are, of course, hidden skeletons tumbling out of the closet for each and every one of these developments – a clear majority of Palestinians does not support the current rounds of talks in Washington, violence in Iraq is increasing by the day just as American troops are leaving, Sudan’s southern and northern warlords are breeds of violent men so polarized as to make conservatives and liberals in the U.S. seem politically contiguous… etc. etc.)

The question is; where does the wherewithal for all this foreign policy engagement come from, especially during the major local unemployment crisis the U.S. is currently facing due to the continuing effects of the Great Recession? It is easy to see after the events of 9/11 that maintaining peace and security (and business as usual) in the rest of the world works to keep America’s restive middle-class blissfully ignorant of the trials and tribulations that its planetary co-inhabitants face, and thereby ensure a sense of safety and normalcy at home. But even so, with the massive military hardware industry that its leaders deploy as a very obvious elephant in the room in its negotiations with other countries, and as a key proponent in the policy of ‘mutual deterrence’ that their institutions keep pushing down everyone’s throat from which they garner massive volumes of both individual sales of weapons as well as armament-level militarization across continents, it is still difficult to see what a massively burdened U.S. government gains from over-stretching both its popularity at home and its economic potency abroad simply by emphatically stamping its presence so far from home… until you begin to dredge through the corridors of a not too distant past.

Business-wise, it is to the benefit of anyone to search for markets beyond natural realms, and international trade has led to some of the most spectacular modern odysseys in economic exploitation – the most proximate example being the East India Company’s foray into the region of the world from where I now type more than four centuries ago. That it eventually led to the British Crown co-opting the South Asian sub-continent as a colony of its own for reasons that were purely economical is recorded history. Trade, then, initially started on mutually beneficial terms and then rapidly favored the traders of England over local business when British economists saw self-evident benefits in playing one fractious kingdom over another to eventually dominate an entire region of the world. When an administrative colony finally took shape, forays were made further east through reprehensible attempts to turn an entire people into drug addicts, simply for trade’s sake.

That it would be almost impossible for the U.S. today to occupy a country indefinitely and cry terrorism as an excuse is a foregone conclusion – the last time they tried something like that more than 30 years ago they were routed by dedicated fighters from a region so small in size and resources as to be virtually insignificant in comparison with some of its own smaller states. It seems obvious then to expect that any contemporary U.S. administration would identify the key players in the world’s most undisciplined regions and interest them in a mutually beneficial game of kiss-ass, keep them supplied with arms and intelligence, and use every trick in and out of the book to keep such players in power. They already do it in some regions, so why is the strategy not working everywhere? 
This is where, my alter-ego says, the revenge of the subaltern kicks in – we do not live any longer in a mutually exclusive world. Assets are spread over a large swathe of the planet and business interests do not converge within a specific region any more. ‘Globalization’ was a fancy word bandied about by first-world capitalist chauvinists over thirty years ago but the full realization of the term today has meant the revelation of inhuman levels of economic disparity between haves and have-nots, contextual analyses of local issues presided over by trans-national interest groups, and a paradigm shifting new-age media that refuses to shut up. Does anyone really wonder why the UN’s appeal for aid to Pakistan’s millions of displaced flood victims has only raised half the required sum for rehabilitation barely a month after the release of purportedly ‘well-known’ facts about Pakistan’s implicit involvement in terrorism in Afghanistan? The events of 9/11 themselves have been the subject of so many discredited conspiracy theories about the previous administration’s secret involvement in the plot to bring down the WTC towers, that it is blatantly obvious around the world that working-class Americans do not see that just by knowing about how they live, people far away connect dots and start to see beyond the façade of the natural ascendency the U.S claims because of its so-called commitment to freedom. ‘What about our freedom!’, the third-world cries in unison… ‘Don’t we count?’

And so, with the expansion of the sphere of influence of China, the tottering superpower has to project a reiteration of the status quo – that, in fact, they still are the world’s only superpower - and economic and military adventurism follows economic and military adventurism until the world will cease to see the U.S. as a nation at all – only as a vaguely familiar foreigner who once, a long time ago, arrived to trade but stayed to rule… and say to her, ‘Wait… You are not welcome anymore.’

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back to the Tabula Rasa

There was an occasion sometime during the dying months of 2006 when I had cause to mention that ignorance was finally dead. I was in Kerala at the time, a state lauded for its amazingly advanced socio-economic indicators (numbers that are still at odds with most of the rest of the country), and its steady supply of courageous and inventive entrepreneurs to the rest of the world. The circumstances behind making the claim were that I was being challenged by a retired doctor about a certain statement of fact that he was sure I was wrong about. And backed by the whole-hearted belief that in the age of the internet, information about almost anything would be rigorously dissected by hundreds of subject matter experts and an individual’s claim to truth almost instantaneously fact-checked and verified (or exposed) when subjected to the scrutiny of this holy repository of the sum of the world’s knowledge, I challenged him right back. He did not take me up on it – I suppose he was less interested than I about the small and insignificant point of contention at hand, and was also perhaps a little worried that the chance at being found out could have cost him some measure of dignity. In hindsight, I confess that I do sympathize with him - in a notoriously insular and patriarchal society that is Kerala’s (whatever the statistics say), that kind of dignity still means a lot.

I still believe, four years on, that the Information Revolution that is the Internet’s greatest bequest to this generation, holds so much promise in that hallowed quest to defeat pervasive ignorance, and to solve some of the world’s greatest problems…

'...Most true it is, that I have looked on truth askance and strangely...' 
- William Shakespeare, Sonnet 110

Thursday, August 19, 2010


The predilection towards violence is an especially studied feature of humanity, only limited by the lengths that researchers will go to in the means they use to fulfill the end they surmise. Everything we do, it appears, has to do with fulfilling a base, haunting dream of violent death – ours and everyone else’s. This death takes on forms not wholly indistinguishable from the myths portrayed in popular fiction, but when those with the means to put in place what the rest of us can only vacantly fantasize about, actually visit the extent of their potency in reality, a huge longing for the Better Human Being envelopes our collective consciousness.

The philosophy of Absurdity has emerged over the last century and a half in western thought, starting with Kierkegaard, traveling down to Nietzsche and culminating in the seminally popular work of Camus, who taught us that life devoid of meaning only invites us to infuse it with whatever meaning we wish to give it – the absolute freedom to live without hope, in other words. Illustratively, it would mean that I would be free to get up and go down to the store for a packet of cigarettes, witness a beggar being run over by a car, rush to the man’s aid and possibly even check him in to the nearest government hospital, and then leave to welcome my wife home at the end of her long work day and ask her politely how it went. Evocative fiction has to do with what our reactions to a particularly unordinary occurrence are and how they resonate among the recipients of that illustration who momentarily suspend their disbelief to immerse themselves in the fiction. And our reactions to the immersive world of violence easily trump other ways of engaging an audience driven relentlessly to its contemplation by a social conditioning that has had no equal. It is difficult to imagine a world where violence is an end unto itself – it seems that it must lead onto dissertations into anthropology, metallurgy, creativity, philology and yes, even philosophy.

It seems so easy to blame the military-industrial complex for our descent into this collective madness of absurdly fictionalizing the true causes behind being intimidated and threatened by our fellow man. That line of reasoning is only too reminiscent of the blame the tobacco industry bears for the carcinogens infiltrating our species. But what we don’t seem to want to confront is that we are relentlessly driving ourselves into a collective hysteria about a fact of life that we have culpably given rise to by our way of life. The remote farmer in the upper reaches of cultivable land in Uttarakhand faces more of an immediate threat to his existence than most of us just by fetching a bucket of water to cook in from a rapacious mountain stream. But he doesn’t dwell on his mortality for more time than it takes for him to see through his task. But when we contemplate war between Iran and Israel, or death to the environment in Bellary, or the curse of an unfeeling God in Pakistan, the absolute and dire import of the violence we face hits us with an intensity that is unassailable – Why Is Life This Way, is the question that comes instantly to our minds, but Did We Always Imagine It Would Be This Way, is perhaps the more pertinent inquiry in this absurdist conundrum.

"Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world."
William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (3.1.114)

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inertia vs. Industry

The latest academic investigation into modern culture, funded by an altruistic body full of sentient beings ostensibly deeply interested in the insights that a study of a random sample of privileged disaffected youth in what is these days a disaffected country, will provide… has this to say about the youth of today.

There are only two role models left:

One – the macho, steroid-boosted, raging superhero, capable of great feats of physicality and guided by an amoral premise that makes him relatively less harmful to those who share his ideas of good and evil. In short, a Post-9/11 Captain America.

The other – the patented slacker dude, de-docrinated, indifferent and made flesh in Jeff Bridges’ mythical portrayal in the film, The Big Lebowski (1998).

The Money Shot:
Assuming for a moment that these two figures stand before you, both of whom are momentarily self-effacing, incongruous, and unsure of themselves, which of the two do you think will recover sooner when they get kicked in the balls at the same time?

(Dedicated to my dear cousin, Puppy Manohar)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Caesar's Shadow

Politics seems to surround us these days in ways that never seemed possible when the world was a nicer, cleaner, generally more agreeable place to live in – I am referring, of course, to that time in most of our lives when we were younger and therefore thankfully oblivious to the workings of a multi-party and mutinous democracy. Commentators would point to the historical eclipse of the national hegemony of the political party that emerged from the spoils of the independence movement, as a cause. Other movements and more diverse persuasions have now emerged onto a stage from which they espouse their right to represent a million diverse peoples in this country. Another reason would be, of course, the emergence of the calumnious media brigade – an entity that is as divorced as possible from the ideal of one of four necessary pillars of society, and doesn’t resemble anything like that mythical vanguard of the people through which citizens might reach up and grasp a rainbow of enlightened self-rule. 
I propose, though, an alternative reason for this sudden interest in the affairs of representation. When the rate of social change itself is in geometrically multiplied freefall, misrule by government must therefore be blatantly obvious, because Government, by definition, is a behemoth institution – one that by its very nature must accommodate the needs and aspirations of a diverse electorate and adequately represent the baser fantasies of an upwardly mobile, but patently impatient following. Before I appear to be so, please let me state forthwith that I am not in favour of that famous idea marvelously referred to in the first person as the ‘Republic of One’. That was an idea of a much more conscientious human being than I who was railing at the inertia of this nation from a much broader perspective. Neither am I supportive of the basic tenets of what I know of the United States’ ‘Tea Party’ – such multitudes of human beings as we have must necessarily be guided by a strong set of laws and safeguards lest the naturally occurring impulses of a few good men at the top of the food chain drain the rest of this country of any hope of a better life. What I am stating here is a preference towards smaller self-governing regions within this dominion of ours, one that is administered much less federally in which ethnic sections of the populace have a greater say in their immediate affairs. We are constantly reminded of the travails of the Kashmiri people, so too the rights of tribals in the hinterland, not to forget the completely opaque conditions of life of our brethren in the North-East of the country. By slicing up the economic and political pieces of this great national pie, we would be giving ourselves more of a chance to return to those times of lesser strife, when everyone knew what resources they were entitled to and that they were finite, and when a junior member leaving the household was treated as an occasion of reverence and awe. The evils of constant migration, disparate understandings of rural and urban life, the blight of poor education and the standard lack of survival skills to succeed in the professional world, would at once be pondered on from a respectful distance and prepared for with less unrewarding haste… I speak of a time when a high school graduate from Himachal Pradesh views a college in Chennai as distantly as he would view one in Massachusetts, and compares the benefits of studying in either based on what he would eventually hope to achieve professionally. The world sadly is not getting smaller, that illusion persists only in our minds. Perhaps our understanding of the world should consider its real size and its concrete divisions – A world where a young student studying in Tehran is taught that a neighboring country with a military arsenal on a proven short fuse should not exist, where the only God a child soldier in the Congo knows is his commandant, where a Tamil refugee in a camp across the Palk Strait is regarded by a resident in Rameshwaram as a foreigner, where the Government of India does not offer a single paisa in aid to the countless millions of suffering flood victims in a country in which it has the largest incentive to win hearts and minds.

News Update on Aug 14th 2010 - The Indian Government finally gives birth to a conscience.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Child as Father of the Man

Of what I can remember from my earliest days of life, the resonance of some of the books I read and some of the movies I watched as a child seems to linger on in my consciousness – strangely unaffiliated to the places they were imbibed at, and dissociated from any memory of my concurrent passage through real life at the time. Furthermore, the sensations I experienced through the world of fiction in both these mediums are more readily called upon in my memory than most of the feelings I had when life-changing things were happening around me. To be sure, a perfunctory reading into trauma and its after-effects in children could very well be applied to my case as a boy growing up through constantly tumultuous personal change, but I still wonder why some of the feelings I had while reading and watching certain stories should take up so much of the long-term memory we are told constitute the ready-reckoners of the intelligence we eventually grow into as adults. A Need for Escape is, of course, the easy answer, but I am still not convinced. Though trauma is generally associated with deprivation and a lack of proper guidance through profoundly confusing occurrences to a child, I did always have a very large support system when certain tragedies that no one could do anything about happened over the course of my childhood. The reasons for the conditions of life being what they were for our family, were thoroughly disseminated in my evolving understanding of the world through overwhelmingly compassionate parenting, the grace of which I can now recognize in hindsight. All in all, mine was as sheltered a childhood as the circumstances of life could allow. Perhaps, the world of fiction provided me an avenue through which I could indulge an imagination that was struggling to gain free rein over a reality filled with a sense of despair. But that does suspiciously sound like a whole bunch of words I would use to mask a sense of ignorance about the past. All I know, at this stage in my life, is that I would have been a much poorer man if I did not have recourse to the beloved books and movies I dove into as a child… And perhaps my continuing obsession with both these mediums of distraction is what should point to the fact that in my case, the child is verily the father of the man.

Some of the Movies I refer to:
Jesus of Nazareth, Ben-Hur, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music, Kutti-Chaitan (Tamil in 3-D), The NeverEnding Story.

And some of the Books (abridged versions for children):
Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Great Expectations, The lies of Boyo Butler, Momo.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My Corrupt Confession, in words

Short synopses of three current news stories that are doing the national rounds even as I write this:
(1)    The organization of the XIX Commonwealth Games, to be held in less than two months from today in New Delhi, is mired in controversy regarding international money transfers being made by local government agencies responsible for the provision of infrastructure for the Games, to overseas companies that don’t seem to exist.
(2)    The Revenue and Tourism Ministers of the current Government of Karnataka together own iron ore mines that have a turnover of over Rs. 1200 crores.
(3)    Local elected councilors in the city of Bangalore are up in arms over the currently active online (and transparent) bidding process for the awarding of government project contracts to contractors for any project greater than Rs. 10 lakhs. Their joint statement, across party lines, expresses concern that they will not be in touch with the projects undertaken and, by extension, the contractors responsible for them.

Corruption in public life is endemic – this seems like the typical cynical statement for the times we live in, couched in language that is vaguely academic and even somewhat pedantic.

I live in a world where people with no ethics thrive – a statement that seeks, this time, to instill an objection to the reality it refers to and perhaps even excuse it as being inevitable.

I have had no recourse but to sometimes bribe my way out of a headache when dealing with public officials – a statement that is clearly an admission of guilt couched in a reference to a powerlessness that is naturally a non sequitur to the uninitiated.

If I did not take it, someone else would have… and then what – a statement made by a person caught in the act, maybe? Or even something we in the middle class might have said when it came to getting our driving licenses, voter IDs, gas connections, college admissions and even job placements?

I will not stand for it – possibly the most uttered statement of all when it comes to a reference to corruption; a statement that is at once a challenge, a demand and a verbal stand forcefully being taken, the consequences be damned.

What about these –
It makes life easier,
Just grow up,
If you have a problem then why don’t you move on out of here?,
We are like this only,
Don’t focus on only the bad things all the time,
Stop playing to the gallery,
Get off your ass and do something about it,
What to do?,
They will be punished one day,
Karma begets karma.

Shakespeare, as usual, will have the last laugh –

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty
Hamlet (III, iv)