Bijli, Sadak, Makaan: Art at the Crossroads of Infrastructure and Culture

25 Jun

The questions that Ashok Sukumaran asks of us are to the say the least, unusual. The way he asks them is more unusual still. Yet these are questions are uniquely applicable to India – especially an India that is in throes of globalization, and a technological revolution. Mr. Sukumaran through his art asks us to question the meaning of public and public space, the adequacy of current communication media, the meaning of being digital, and the role of art and the artist in helping pose and answer these questions.
Mr. Sukumaran is foremost an astute and nimble observer. He is also a precocious talent and an incisive questioner. He doesn’t practice art that is produced and hung in galleries and for the intellectual consumption of the cultural elites, who consume art for the singular purpose of negotiating their social and cultural status.

Mr. Sukumaran practices media art. In other words, he doesn’t limit himself to a medium; he uses whatever is necessary to convey a point or understand an idea. And often this means going outside museum or gallery spaces and on to the city street to answer (or pose) questions that can only be understood in the public realm.

In this recent recurrencies project, Mr. Sukumaran explores, via reconfigurations of urban electricity, “new and old ideas of equitability, exchange, pleasure, negotiation, and sociability.” In the installation, 14th-road: where we live, “a remote switch hangs from a tree across the road from [the artist’s] apartment, connected to the lights in [their] balcony”. Mr. Sukumaran uses this setup to see how public infers what this is, what is allowed and what isn’t. People who flick the switch, as the notes alongside reveal, are wary of the claims that artists make about ‘redistributing connections’; they ask questions about how the apparatus works, how much it costs, call to see if there is a “secret meaning” etc.

It is interesting to see how the social structures and expectations become exposed as the days progress. We get to see certain ‘street level epistemologies’ of meaning, authority, social relationships, and technology. When I asked Mr. Sukumaran whether he was concerned about the fact that some of his pieces had become public spectacles, he said no. In fact, he said, spectacle – mingled with the anxieties, expectations of authority, etc. that it invokes – is sometimes the perfect mechanism to explore the relationship between society and authority.

“Infrastructure is culture,” says Ashok Sukumaran while explaining how access to infrastructure comes to define what is possible within a society. There are two particular facets to how we can understand the impact of infrastructure – firstly society rations access to infrastructure in a way that is largely commensurate with its existing hierarchies and priorities, and secondly and more importantly infrastructure– be it electricity or telephone or the Internet – tampers with the existing social hierarchies, and creates its own. Infrastructure comes with its own command economies – be it the petty government Babu or the humble Chowkidar – society installs gatekeepers or gatekeepers emerge as society lays down mechanisms for distributing infrastructure. Infrastructure also signals what is permitted and what isn’t. It thus sets up norms of behavior and social conduct. There are a host of questions that Mr. Sukumaran brings to the table around this issues – how do we react when the norms are broken? Who creates these norms? How are these norms institutionalized and then propagated and socialized? What are the power structures that underpin these norms? How is infrastructure and access to it understood on the street – by the doodhwalla and the fruit juice operator and the Mumbai housewife? These are only a small set of questions that Mr. Sukumaran has been trying to answer. He has many more.

Ashok Sukumaran was born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father in 1974. Mr. Sukumaran spent his childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj which still hosts a somewhat eclectic, variegated set of people, according to Mr. Sukumaran. He describes his childhood as fairly normal, middle-class and “very dal-roti” except for some exposure to Japanese toys and electronics that his relatives sent from Japan. Mr. Sukumaran traces some of his fascination with technology to the access he had to these “smuggled” goods.

After finishing school, Sukumaran went on to study architecture at the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. A certain amount of architectural training is distinctly visible in his work. A fascination with form, color, and space are very much on display, but in a mode that is quite different from traditional design. After finishing up with SPA, Mr. Sukumaran worked for some time as an architect. He says that during this time he got to work closely with local mistris and artisans and found the experience unique and deeply satisfying. Mr. Sukumaran often collaborates with local electricians and decorators and finds it an integral part of producing his art.

In 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sukumaran landed in the Los Angeles to study at the Department of Design|Media Arts at University of California, Los Angeles. Being in this politically charged and emotional moment was edifying in some ways, according to Mr. Sukumaran. After graduating from UCLA, Mr. Sukumaran worked at a variety of places including as the project director for NANO, “an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science at LACMALab, Los Angeles.” He has also harvested a slew of prestigious residencies and awards including winning the first prize in the Universal Warning Sign Design Competition for his breathtakingly creative ‘Blue Yucca Ridge’ at Yucca Mountain, the first Sun Microsystems ‘ZeroOne’ residency, and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award for 2005 for his “poetic yet pragmatic” project SWITCH, a subset of the project described above.

It is a testament to his ability that Mr. Sukumaran has managed to create an impressive body of work in the short span of about four years. Both the variety of questions he has dealt with and the techniques he has used to explore them are striking.

Mr. Sukumaran’s quest for answers to complex questions around society and technology has often extended into the digital realm. Mr. Sukumaran has tried to explore what it means to be digital. In particular, he questions the seemingly infinitely tensile, manipulability of the digital by exposing both the “hard chemical” and “soft social” processes that underpin the digital.

Mr. Sukumaran, to his credit, in spite of the success and accolades that he has received, continues to struggle with the role of art in society. He stridently believes in the importance of art and argues that art is one of the only places left where one can ask meta cross-disciplinary questions. Yet, he seems deeply perturbed by the commercial expropriation of art, and the Kuspitian notion that Contemporary art is merely busy with making clever commentary. To that end, Mr. Sukumaran has striven to distance himself from the commercial aspects of art and dispense with the elitist pretensions of art by deliberately choosing to raise his questions outside traditional venues, and forms.

Final Words

Contemporary Art would still live, defying Donald Kuspit, on the strength of artists like Mr. Sukumaran who produce art with self-conscious rigor and perceptive incisiveness. The hope is that such threads can make the much-abused Contemporary in art intellectually invigorating, fertile, and genuinely provocative.



Sun Microsystem’s page on the artist.

Notes on Partisanship

25 Jun

Manipulating the Median Voter Theorem

It is commonly touted that elites are far more partisan than the rank and file. One would have thought that in accordance with the median voter theorem, a simple majority voting model for single dimension issue space proposed by Duncan Black and later popularized by Anthony Downs, the elites would be under pressure to have public ideological profiles that appeal to the median voter.

This seemingly ‘irrational’ behavior of the elites can be explained in a variety of ways—average voter, which includes only the people who do vote, is on average more partisan than an average eligible voter, an average ‘voter’ chooses a candidate based on vague personality and party cues rather than specific issue position cues (to which they are largely unaware), voter’s issue positions are incestuously linked to the positions outlined by the candidates that they ‘like’, and the fact that elites gerrymander the multi-dimensional issue space so that the salient issue(s) on which an average voter votes are ones on which they have positions similar to the ‘median voter’.

Party and Partisanship

While the overall impact of parties has waned over the years, the party ‘line’ exercises more control on candidate’s professed positions. In this world of continuous media coverage, there is increasing pressure to present a consistent party approved stance. At the other end, there is a strong self-selection process, precedent, and certainly fear of how each ‘off-message’ comments would be interpreted in media, that is driving an assembly line in which generally only candidates who profess abiding faith in party ideology succeed in the primaries.

There is a certainly an increasing gap between the message, the voting record, and the candidate opinion, and a deliberately cultivated one. The partisanship is held together by ‘partisan money’, and custom order research produced by think tanks to justify and corroborate any policy initiative that they are asked to.

Media and Partisanship

Horse Race format of covering policy

The other aspect of media’s impact on partisanship has been driven by how it covers political issues – be it immigration or Iraq. The much-decried horse-race coverage, which was once a preserve of election coverage, has now entered the policy domain. A large number of articles in newspapers give an insider view of politicking and impact of a policy decision on the party rather than on say the nation. Now while covering a news story journalists go from politician to politician seeking quotes which they then use to provide worthless hack analysis in words of politicians. Nowhere do journalists stop and question the policy stances independently aside from what the ‘other side’ chose to point out. By doing this, they do two things – they first of all fail to provide substantive useful information to their readers, and secondly by weaving in partisan cues give readers automatic pointers to devalue certain information.

Partisan Identities: Using anger and satire

The rise of humorous “fake” news shows satirizing politics – most prominently “The Daily Show” by John Stewart – over the past decade has been widely seen as an unmitigated positive by a lot of self-identified ‘liberals’. What ‘liberals’, cozy in the success of a liberal comedy show, fail to realize is the pernicious aspect of satire – it delegitimizes opposing viewpoints without proper analysis. It is only time before right-wing ‘news’ channels come up with their liberal baiting satire shows.

The other prominent way to delegitimize opposing opinion is through self-righteous anger. This is, of course, most prominently done by right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

While Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” is a stylized partisan lynching of liberals, Stewart’s satire is the vicious intelligent kind that ridicules the ‘idiots’. The shows use every rhetorical (and editing) trick to not only defeat the opposing party but do so in the most vicious incendiary manner that entertains the partisan viewers.

Both anger and satire are explicit identity building and reaffirmation rituals. What we see when straw man ‘guests’ get grilled on these shows is identify reaffirmation for the viewers – these people in the opposition are actually immoral, corrupt idiots.

Perhaps something of much more concern is the rise of entire partisan news channels. While there wasn’t much ‘news’ on the ‘news channels’ to begin with, and the ‘news’ coverage continues to cede territory to celebrity coverage, whatever shriveled carcass was left is now being preyed upon by explicit partisan coverage. There are no longer undisputed facts—there are now Republican facts and Democratic facts. And of course, both bear little resemblance to actual facts.

Thwarting Failure in South Asia

19 Jun

Six South Asian countries are among the 25 states likeliest to fail on the “Failed States Index”, co-created by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace. The same six countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – (in the same order) were also featured amongst the top 25 in last year’s rankings.

The Indian subcontinent, it appears, has the highest density of states in danger of ‘failing’ in a geographical region, aside from a broad swathe of Central Africa running from Sudan to Guinea. Nearly half a billion people live in the states marked as likely to fail in the subcontinent.

Any failure of state within the subcontinent is likely to have an impact well beyond the borders of that country. In fact, that is exactly why US-based think-tanks and magazines create these ‘failed states index’ to begin with. The co-creators of the index argue, citing the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy – filled with the typical hyperbole that garbs most US security policy documents – that the impact of state failure is likely to be ‘global’. Even if we discount such assertions, the likely impact of state failure in the subcontinent is certainly worrisome, especially for India.

Before we analyze the impact of state failure in South Asia, let me diverge briefly to formalize what we mean by a ‘failed state’.

What is a ‘Failed State’?

One may argue that if a state fails its people, it is a ‘failed state’. But formally a ‘failed state’ is defined as one with a weak government, political instability, and insecurity. State Failure, according to Center for International Development and Conflict Management at University of Maryland’s State Failure Task Force Report: Phase III Findings (Large PDF document – 255 pages) has been defined as a state that may have one or a combination of the following –

  • “Revolutionary wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict between governments and politically organized challengers that seek to overthrow the central government, to replace its leaders, or to seize power in one region.
  • Ethnic wars. Episodes of sustained violent conflict in which national, ethnic, religious, or other communal minorities challenge governments to seek major changes in status.
  • Adverse regime changes. Major, abrupt shifts in patterns of governance, including state collapse, periods of severe elite or regime instability, and shifts away from democracy toward authoritarian rule.
  • Genocides and politicides. Sustained policies by states or their agents, or, in civil wars, by either of the contending authorities that result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a communal or political group.”

India in a ‘Dangerous Neighborhood’

There are a variety of factors that underpin the instability in the region—resurgent Islamic fundamentalism combined with military rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh (two different degrees in both countries), Taleban in Afghanistan, ‘Maoists’ in Nepal, the hermetic authoritarian regime in Burma, and Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka.

Troublingly, a lot of the problems, like Islamic fundamentalism, that plague ‘failing states’ in South Asia can travel well across borders. There is already evidence to the fact that Maoist success in Nepal is having an effect of emboldening Maoists insurgents in the eastern part of India. And if problems in Bangladesh were to set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India, it is likely that the widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east India would escalate into sectarian violence.

Given the fact that India has tangible, probable, and immediate threats, and given India’s crucial role within South Asian politics, it is but obvious that India should play a crucial role in mitigating some of the issues precipitating state failure in its neighborhood. India will have to play its hand deftly though and the choices will not always be obvious. For example, India has for years on end enjoyed a cozy relationship with Nepalese Royalty but has had to put in its weight behind the political parties and the Maoists who wanted the Monarchy scrapped. On the other end India, which has long argued for democracy in Pakistan, has established a healthy working relationship with Musharraf government and even made some moves towards meaningful negotiations over Kashmir.

While India has shown great pragmatism in dealing with some long-running and some ‘unexpected’ political upheavals, it doesn’t seem to have a coherent long-term strategic perspective on how to foment stability in the region. Part of the reason is that India doesn’t really have the bargaining power, as in resources or military muscle, for a more aggressive foreign policy. However it does enjoy a fair amount of credibility among the major powers within the world, and it is time that it use it to chart out a longer term policy towards it neighbors. The key components of the policy should be an enlightened economic policy – for example, making compromises towards creating a regional free-trade block, a more active role in diplomacy – say for example complimenting the role of the Norwegians and the Icelandic delegation in Sri Lanka, taking lead in thinking about ‘sustainable development’ and environment – especially important given the enormous impact that global warming can wreck on the region, marshalling resources from the Western countries for the basics – education, health, and basic infrastructure, and working with authoritarian regimes where necessary to urge for more moderate and sustainable policies.

…to be continued…

Interview: Bapsi Sidhwa

13 Jun

Bapsi Sidhwa is the author of Cracking India and The Crow Eaters. She currently lives in Houston, Texas.

What does your name Bapsi mean? Who gave you the name?

My grandmother doted on the British. She gave me what she thought was an English name. Ironically, an English woman asked me, “You’re quite dignified. How come you have a name like Bapsy or Popsy?” They said it was definitely not an English name.

I would have preferred to have a poetic Persian name, but I am reconciled to it now. It’s short and easy to remember in the US.

I gather there is a lot of biographical detail in Cracking India’s Lenny. But it is hard to disinter facts from fiction. Can you tell me a little more about your parents? What school did you go to? Was it a Catholic school? What do you remember most about your time in pre-partition Lahore?

Even I often don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins. My father was orphaned as a child and his mother ran their wine business in Lahore. He acquired wealth after the war and Partition — he had the Parsi business gene. My mother was the youngest of ten siblings. Her father Ardeshir Mama became Mayor of Karachi, built the Mama school for girls and donated generously to hospitals etc. before going bankrupt. Because of childhood polio, the doctor suggested I should not be burdened with school. I had light tuition, thankfully no math. The roar of mobs and the fires were a constant of my childhood pre-partition. A mob came into our house to loot but departed when told that we were Parsi by our cook. I have used this scrambled memory for the ayah kidnapping scene. I have fictionalized biographical elements in the earlier part of Cracking India. Lenny is not me, perhaps my alter ego.

A novelist is expected to be both, an insider, and an outsider. How did each of the following things that made you an outsider affect your writing—contracting polio at a young age, being a Parsi in Lahore, the short stint in India in your youth and contact with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, and your immigration to the US.

That question deserves a detailed answer. I write instinctively and I don’t quite know how to answer the first part of your question. Having polio as a child, and being a Parsi in Lahore or anywhere except in Bombay, marginalizes one. This creates a distance, and also a pressure—I was a lonely child and motivated to give voice to the silences in my life, I guess. Being with the larger Parsi community in Mumbai, was a wonderful experience for me. It gave me a sense of belonging I had never experienced. I found I shared the same weird sense of humor, tastes, and enormously enjoyed being with my cousins. I loved and still love Bombay.

Lahore, the City of Sin and Splendour

Do you think the title of your book, City of Sin and Splendour, captures the book (or the city)? Yes, there is Heera Mandi and the Badshahi mosque, but I felt the book was more about people and their ‘undying’ love for food.

It is called ‘Beloved City’ in Pakistan. But I think the Indian title is more chutpatta.

How often do you go back to Lahore? How has Lahore changed from the days of your youth?

I still have my house in Lahore, and I go back about once every two years. I spent the nineties in Lahore to look after my sick mother. On each visit I find Lahore improved.

How much of the book is—to the extent that you chose the stories and the writers—an expatriate’s silver tinted reflection on the city of her youth?

Lahore is not just the city of my youth. Until the late nineties, I was more in Lahore than in the US. I chose the stories and articles for the Lahore book for the quality of the writing, my respect for the authors, many of whom I know, and because the pieces engaged me as a reader. I tried to present a broad spectrum to show the many facets of Lahore. I also commissioned quite a few pieces. One Indian reviewer asked why I hadn’t mentioned street-children. Lahore has virtually none. The Lahoris take care of their own: children are adopted by madrassas or orphanages. Visitors are surprised at how well-fed Lahoris look. There are hundreds of langars in charitable institutes, Mosques, shrines, etc and no one needs to go hungry.

You dedicated your Lahore anthology to your daughter Parizad whom you complimented as the quintessential Lahori. What traits should a person have to merit such a title?

To me, she is a typical Lahore girl of a certain class. She spends nights with her friends doing tapsaras of Urdu poetry and most of her friends are still from or in Lahore. The way she dresses, relates to her friends, the subjects they talk about, her hauteur and reserve with strangers, her mannerisms, gestures, values and her thought process still reflect the culture of that city. She moved to the US in the late nineties and still functions at the rhythm and laid back pace of that city. Please keep in mind, this is a spontaneous, perfunctory answer. Any more and I’d be intruding on her privacy.

Other Books and such

Usually, it is films that are based on books. But your new book Water is based on Deepa Mehta’s film. This is also your first book that is away from your typical setting—no Pakistan, no Parsis. What prompted you to write it? Can you also elaborate on the relationship that you share with Deepa Mehta?

Deepa Mehta called to say that she wanted me to novelize her film Water and sent me a rough edit of the film. I started with much trepidation because she wanted me to write the novel in three months, to time it with the release of the film. I said I would give it a try because I loved the film, and Deepa can be very persuasive. Once I started writing I didn’t find it as difficult as I had imagined. The child widow Chuyia has much in common with the child Lenny in my novel Cracking India, and once I created an earlier life for the child in her village before the film starts, I had a grip on the novel. I enjoyed the challenge, although I have never worked so hard. I would wake up dreaming of sentences and get to the computer to write them down. I wrote late into the night.

I have known Deepa Mehta since she called me to say she wanted to make my novel Cracking India into the film Earth. She wrote the script for the film but I worked closely with her on it, keeping in mind that it was her cinematic vision of the book that mattered. I was at the film-shoot in Delhi for a good part of the time. I think Deepa and I respect each other and appreciate and trust each other’s work.

You put in a fair amount of autobiographical detail in your novels. Can you briefly comment on it?

I write instinctively, one paragraph giving rise to the other, and have a general idea of where I want to go. Everything, everyone I know and every experience I have or hear of are grist for my mill, like Flaubert, who famously said, “I am Emma Bovary.” I am almost every character in my books.

Pakistan and being Pakistani

Your novels “Cracking India” and “The Crow Eaters” captured the flavor of Pakistan at its dawn. In “The Pakistani Bride”, you dealt with the tribal lores of the Frontier. If you were to decide to write a book on present-day Pakistan, which theme would you like to deal with?

I have just finished writing a collection of short stories. I think that will contain the answer to your question. The stories deal with what you mention above and also my new location in America.

Being a woman in Pakistan, did you think it was a risk to put in sexual humor in your novels? Did it upset the readers? In fact, you self-published your first novel “The Crow Eaters”, which had quite a lot of uninhibited sexual comedy, in 1978, the very year General Zia-ul-Haq announced setting up of the Shariah benches. Did anyone harass you?

I wrote naturally about sexuality because I hadn’t realized I needed to censor what I wrote. Although I am very liberated, my writing is more inhibited now. There were no complaints about this in Pakistan. In fact, my candor was appreciated. When I launched the self-published The Crow Eaters in Lahore, there was a bomb scare at the hotel and the function was hastily closed. I realized later that the Parsi community was very offended and responsible for the bomb scare. No one had written about the Parsis before, except books praising the community, and the Parsis could not stand to see characters fictionalized, warts and all. The general Pakistani community loved it. It was not until the book was published in Britain to critical acclaim that the Parsis accepted it.

The only squeamishness about Cracking India has been in the United States. A mom and her pastor tried to ban it from being taught in a Baccalaureate program in a Florida high school. A committee of 30 people decided it was suitable to teach.

Who are the writers to watch out for in Pakistani literature?

Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie are the most prominent. Tahira Naqvi and a few others who write short stories in America. Aamer Hussain has published three collections in the U.K., India, and Pakistan. He is a sensitive and poetic writer. Among the new crop of writers published in Pakistan, I really like Bina Shah’s writing. All of the above have stories or articles in the Lahore anthology.

Living in the US, do you ever face any discrimination because of your Pakistani passport?

I have a U.S. passport now, and it is a breeze to sail through various countries with it. Pakistan is out of favor in America and Europe and this does affect me as a Pakistani writer. Although I must admit ‘Cracking India’ had a spectacular reception when it was first published and is taught in almost every university.

A ‘novel’ medium

Naipaul has talked about the end of the novel as a literary form. Is novel a sufficient medium to bring forth the complexities of modern life?

The novel is thriving. There is no other medium which can bring out the emotional nuances and complexities of modern life as well as the novel can in the hands of a good writer.

Milan Kundera recently wrote that the novel is the only form in which you can convey the pointless. It can convey the pointlessness of violence, the myriad irrational tugs and pulls that define humanity, etc. History, on the other hand, is an exercise in sense-making when none exists.

There is validity in what he says when it comes to violence, although the sequence of cause and effect, even in the most irrational-seeming incidents, are always present. Novelists like myself use the novel to express their deepest emotions and views. One usually writes the truth as one sees it. Of course, no one owns the truth and there are many valid points of view. Many historians have arrived at the truth. But often their narration is imbued with their own prejudice and can slant history to suit their or their own or their country’s agenda. History in the hands of fiction writers like Tolstoy is often more authentic and vivid than history books.

Azhar Nafisi in her novel, Reading Lolita in Tehran, makes a fascinating point about the democratic structure of a novel – where each character has a voice. Nafisi, in my mind, fails at the task herself, as all we hear is her elitist trauma. Nonetheless, I think it is an important point and one if followed can help readers really empathize with a variety of characters. Virginia Woolf to me remains an epitome in that regard. Is the role of the novel to build empathy? What do you see is the role of a novel and a novelist?

The role of a novelist, and by extension the novel, is to reveal the culture and complexities of a society in a manner that is engaging and entertaining. The emotions we hold in common have to be strongly portrayed: without empathy for the characters the novel loses its value as a narrative.


I am often struck by how few of the stories of my parent’s and my grandparent’s generations have been chronicled. We are soon going to lose a lot of those stories forever as the oral traditions die, and the storytellers grow old. What do you think should do to keep some of these traditions alive?

The partition was poorly represented because the memories were too painful, and people were too busy setting up new lives. But storytellers will tell their tales, and very little will be lost. Writers in Indian and Pakistani languages are chronicling the old tradition. As long as there are writers and storytellers most of what is important will be retained. Writers are the new mythmakers.

I am struck by the ‘unconscious feminism’ (Sara Suleri-Goodyear) of South Asian female writers like Ismat Chughtai. South Asian female writers take on feminism bubbles with urgency, humor, and candid pugnaciousness that rejects the system but does so in a rooted and informed way. Can you expand a little more on the South Asian female writers and their contribution to highlighting the gender inequalities?

I cannot talk for all South Asian women writers but I imagine that as women, consciously or unconsciously, we bring out the problems and discrimination women face and project our aspirations. I don’t like to preach about feminism but the way the stories unfold illustrate their position in the family and in society.

While South Asian writers have grown in prominence in recent years, their books reflect more and more reflect inert globalized ideas rather than alertness to South Asia. Is there a future for the distinctive South Asian fiction or are we seeing the end of it with increased globalization?

The vernacular languages embed South Asia in their narratives. South Asia will continue to be written about and by authors who write in English as well. Indian writers in the Diaspora reflect their new experiences if that is what you mean by globalization. As writers move their writing reflects their new locations, experiences, thoughts, and aspirations.

Ms. Sidhwa’s Favorite Books: Pickwick Papers (Dickens), Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), Black Mischief (Evelyn Waugh), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster), Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz), The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams), Waiting For the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), Things Fall Apart (Achebe), The Last Mughal (William Dalrymple), Poems — Elegies (Rainer Maria Rilke), The Essential Rumi (Translations by Coleman Barks and Joyn Moyne), Urdu Ghazals (by Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz, Zauk, etc.), Short Stories, essays and novels by Saadat Hasam Manto & Ismat Chugtai, A House For Mr. Biswas (V. S. Naipaul), The Mimic Men (V. S. Naipaul [I like almost everything by Naipaul]), An Angry Tide (Amitav Ghosh), A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth), Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie), The Collected Short Stories of Kushwant Singh (Kushwant Singh), Difficult Daughters (Manju Kapur), An Obedient Father (Akhil Sharma), Arranged Marriages (Chitra Divkaruni), Baumgartner’s Bombay (Anita Desai), Meatless Days (Sara Suleri), The In-Between World of Vikram Lal (Moyez Vassanji), Family Matters (Rohinton Mistry), Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Everything by P G Wodehouse, Thrillers by John la Carre, Ken Follett, etc.

Some of the questions are by Mayank Austen Soofi, who blogs at The Delhi Walla.

Arguing Ethically

11 Jun

Everyday conversation is generally a site for exchanging social pleasantries, exchanging trivia and anecdotes or ‘shooting the breeze’, and reaffirming identities, among other things. Occasionally these everyday conversations take the shape of amorphous dilettante arguments about politics and culture, and even more rarely they turn into serious arguments. But the habits of casual argumentation and unfamiliarity with formal argument theory doom most of these ‘serious’ arguments. So rather than proceeding teleologically towards a better understanding of a topic through measured refutation and agreement, the arguments either become pitched ego fights or exercises in using logical fallacies or non-existent evidence adeptly to ‘win’ the argument or some combination thereof.

“Unethical” (explained later) argumentation can leave people flustered as they realize – much too late – that the other party has changed the entire argument or distracted them with some contestable irrelevant data, or through an outright fabrication.

I use the word ‘unethical’ in reference to argumentation in the paragraph above and it is incumbent upon me to explain what I mean by that. An argument is generally understood as “discourse intended to persuade” and the idea is to stipulate ethics of persuasion. In other words, stipulating that one follow the rules of inference, logic, corroboration, and procedure ‘ethically’. Broadly construed ‘ethics’ in an argument can be seen to convey a person’s conviction in coming up with a better understanding of the issue at hand, and general introspection to all facets of argumentation. Of course ‘ethics’ alone won’t help construct a ‘better’ argument for there are objective criteria for what constitutes a better argument.

I here briefly go over some key tenets, as I see them, of conducting an ‘ethical’ argument.

Issue, Topic, Question

Most ‘arguments’ in everyday life start with an anecdote or an example and not as formally constructed questions. The conversation then slowly slides into an ‘argument’ as somebody identifies the anecdote as a hypothesis and engages with it.
It is important to be alert to this juncture and to take time at this point to think through the ‘hypothesis’, and where possible turn into a broader question devoted to understanding the ‘topic’ underlying the hypothesis. More importantly, it is necessary to pin down the question or hypothesis with more precision. Additionally, one should think through the breadth of the question and see to what degree is the question tractable.

During the course of the conversation, one can renegotiate the wording of the question as more information comes along the way and conversants develop their understanding of the topic or as interests shift.

The pattern of argumentation will differ depending on the topic and question at hand. If one is to say argue about a causal claim then one must iterate through possible causes and see which ones apply to what degree and why. On the other hand, if one wants to understand the historical context around say origins of democracy, the task then becomes listing possible historical aspects including socio-economic and elite key actors.

Hypothesis and Data

One can use deductive or empirical reasoning (or both) to support one’s claims. Both obviously lend themselves to different types of problems. For making empirical arguments, one needs to rely on data and there it becomes necessary to think through how applicable the data is, how generalizable the instance is if you use an instance to say corroborate a claim, and any major data or instances that exist that will rebut the hypothesis or sometimes provide insight into contextual variables. Aside from applicability, there is also the issue of how probable each of the datum is and how large the effect sizes are. Of course, part of argumentation also involves judging other people’s data. You can judge data using the criteria I describe above.

One may run into problems of insufficient data or unreliable data and there you can choose to continue the conversation at a later stage after getting the data or pursue the argument by making conditional arguments. For example, if X were true, then the following event is likely to occur.

The caveat that accompanies all empirical reasoning is that it is easy to think that you know more than you do, especially about topics that seem familiar but go largely un-inspected. Systematic analysis of an issue will often uncover troubling gaps in one’s own knowledge and one must allay the instinct to fabricate and instead be conscientious in acknowledge the gaps.

Psychology of argumentation

The most pernicious and bankrupt argumentation occurs when the ego gets involved. To avoid it, focus your critiques on the data or argument and offer them in a manner that is broad-minded and acknowledges opposing contribution. The unsaid point here is that your commitment should be towards reaching a better understanding of the issue at hand rather than ‘winning’ or whatever that means.

An important part of conducting an ethical argument is to acknowledge gracefully where you are wrong. This habit goes a long way in ameliorating any tensions that may emerge during the course of argumentation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that almost always people don’t start from polar opposites of an argument (that I believe is a function of conversational norm and selection bias as in whom you choose to ‘argue’ with), though there might be sub-arguments where they may have opposing stances. Hence there would be a large number of cases where both arguments can survive.

Avoid Common Logical Fallacies

Straw Man – “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw-man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

You can find other common logical fallacies at the bottom of Wikipedia’s page.

Qualitative Vs. Quantitative Methods

9 Jun

Epistemology of Causality

How do we know that something is the ’cause’ of something and how do we impute ‘causality’ through data?

To impute causality in quantitative models, we rely on the argument that it is unlikely that the change in Y could be explained by anything else other than X since we have ‘statistically controlled for other variables’. We ‘control’ for variables via experiments or we can do it via regression equations. This allows us to isolate the effect of say variable x on y. There are of course some caveats and some assumptions that go along with using these methods but robust experimental designs still allow us to impute causality in a fairly robust way. Generally, the causal claim is buffeted with a description of a plausible causal pathway. All of the analysis and the resulting benefits of reliably imputing causality are predicated on our ability to ‘correctly’ assign numbers to ‘constructs’ (the real variables of interest).

Let’s analyze now how qualitative methods can impute causality. While it seems reasonable to assume that ‘systematic’ ‘qualitative’ analysis of a problem can provide us with a variety of causal explanations and under most circumstances provide us with a reasonably good idea of how much each of the explanatory variables affects the dependent variable, there are crucial problems and limitations that may induce bias in the analyses. Additionally, we must define what constitutes as ‘systematic’ analysis.

Another thing to keep in mind is that ethics and rigor are not enough to impute causality. What one needs are the right epistemic tools.

A lot of qualitative research is marred by the fact that it ‘selects on the dependent variable’. In other words, it sees a dependent variable and then goes sleuthing for the possible causal mechanisms. It is hard in that case to impute wider causality between variables because the relationship hasn’t been tested for varying levels of X and Y. It is useful to keep in mind that sometimes it is all that we can hope to achieve. Additional problems can emerge from things like “selection bias” and logical fallacies like “Post hoc ergo propter hoc”. Partly the way qualitative research is written can also impose its own demands and biases including demands for narrative consistency.

It is unclear to me whether a system exists to impute causality reliably using qualitative methods. There are however some techniques that qualitative methods can borrow from quantitative methods to improve any causal claims that they may be inclined to make – one is to use a representative set of variables, the other is to look for ‘natural experiments’, and pay attention to larger sociological issues and iterate through why alternative explanations don’t apply as well here – a sort of a verbal regression equation.

There are of course instances where deeper more in-depth analysis of few cases allows one to get a deeper understanding of the issue but that shouldn’t be mistaken as coming up with causes.

Epistemology of generalization in empirical methods

There is very little space that we get edgeways when we think about a systematic theory of generalization for empirical theories unless. To generalize we must either ‘know’ fundamental causal mechanisms and how they work under a variety of contextual factors or use probability sampling. Probability sampling theories are built on the belief that we know nothing about the world. Hence we need to take care to collect data (which ideally transposes to the constructs) in a way that makes it generalizable to the entire population of interest.

Causal arguments in Qualitative research

For making ‘well grounded’ causal arguments in qualitative research – say with a small n – the case must be made for generalizability of the selected cases, use deduction to articulate possible causal pathways, and then bring them together in a ‘verbal regression equation’ and analyze which of the causal pathways are important – as in likely or have a large effect size- and which are not.

Epistemic standards in interpretation and methodology

Quantitative methods share a broad repertoire of skills that is shared across the disciplines while comparatively no such common epistemic standards exist across a variety of qualitative sub-streams that differ radically in terms of what data to look at and how to interpret the data. Common epistemic standards allow for research to be challenged in a variety of ways. From Gay and Lesbian studies to Feminist Scholarship to others – there is little in common in terms of epistemic standards and how best to interpret things. What we then have is merely incommensurability. Partly, of course, different questions are being asked but even when same questions are being asked – there appears to be little consensus as to what explanation is preferred over the other. While each new way to “interpret” facts in some ways does expand our understanding of the social phenomena, given the incommensurability in epistemic standards –we cannot bring all of them to a qualitative ‘verbal regression equation’ (my term) through which we can reliably infer the size of the effect of each.

Caveat Lector
The above article deals with the debate between qualitative methods and quantitative methods on a small select sample of issues – generalizability and causality – that are explicitly more tractable through quantitative models. It would be unwise to construe larger points about the relevance of qualitative methods from the article.

Orwell Times: Corporate Beneficence

9 Jun

Corporate Beneficence, which was once limited to the rarefied realm of funding Opera Houses and Classical Music, has lately found itself immersed in a variety of ‘charitable’ activities to ‘advance’ human welfare.

As identity and consumption have become conflated, corporations have aggressively spent money on a variety of ‘charitable causes’ to reposition their brands.


“Apple has agreed to host music for an organization that uses African music to help people caught in the escalating ethnic violence in Darfur, Sudan.” MacWorld. Apple really understands its upper-middle-class pretend-liberal bourgeoisie customers, whose participation in liberal causes starts with Gay rights and ends with attending music concerts about Darfur, and never ever extends to any substantive political action. By the way, where is Darfur again?


The mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities is to “provide a “home away from home” for families of seriously ill children receiving treatment at nearby hospitals.” The other, better known, mission of McDonald’s is, of course, to get those children to be sick.


The company which has been accused of depleting groundwater resources in rural India and which earned a profit of nearly $5 billion in 2005 announced that it would invest “$20 million over five years to improve global water conservation. The plan is part of the company’s effort to adapt to global warming and to address a crucial constraint to growth in emerging markets.”


“Shell Foundation’s mission is to develop, scale-up and promote enterprise-based solutions to the challenges arising from the impact of energy and globalization on poverty.”

Beyond Petroleum
British Petroleum, the company that was once part of the Global Climate Coalition, an organization set up to promote global warming skepticism, and a company that is facing criminal charges for “allowing 270,000 gallons of crude oil to seep across the Alaskan tundra” (Wikipedia) is now ‘Beyond Petroleum’.

Crystal Geyser

The bottled water company is a ‘proud sponsor’ of “American Forests”.


Walmart, which has been widely decried for its low wages, inadequate healthcare benefits, and for ‘burying’ local mom and pop stores (pdf), and a corporation which had a net profit of close to $11.2 billion in 2005, had the following statement on its website, “Walmart charity begins with giving the local community financial support through community giving. Our community giving programs provide direct contributions to the local communities from the Walmart charity fund. Last year, Walmart charity initiatives were to exceed $170 million in support of local communities and non-profit organizations.”


The company sponsors a Charity Golf event. “The 2006 event raised more than $625,000, and over the past 13 years, I’m happy to report that this event has now provided more than $2.1 million to more than 48 local nonprofit charities.”

Bechtel Corp.

The corporation accused of trafficking women in the Balkans and myriad other charges of fraud in handling its contracts in Iraq generously helped fund an International Center at Stanford University.

Democratic Pandering

9 Jun

“Mr. Bush said Putin’s recent harsh comments toward the West suggests he may be trying to build support for his party in advance of next year’s elections, and the president saw that as positive. He said, quote, “When public opinion influences leadership, it is an indication that there is involvement of the people.” (Fox Transcript)

The argument that Mr. Bush is making here is that when leaders deliberately pander fear and do warmongering, it is a signal that the country is democratic. Alternatively, deliberate unethical manipulation of public opinion to garner votes is a positive.

Articles of Interest

2 Jun

I have too much to do…
“American workers, on average, spend 45 hours a week at work, but describe 16 of those hours as “unproductive,” according to a study by Microsoft. America Online and, in turn, determined that workers actually work a total of three days a week, wasting the other two….

And, with due respect to Mr. Gilbreth, all the energy that’s been poured into trying to force everyone to work at the same pace and in the same way — it seems that’s the real waste of time.” [ NY Times ]

*The first paragraph only applies to most well paid white collar jobs.

‘Flexible relationship with reality’
Leonhardt on Dobbs’ claim about leprosy and immigration NY Times column

“And the official leprosy statistics do show about 7,000 diagnosed cases — but that’s over the last 30 years, not the last three.

The peak year was 1983, when there were 456 cases. After that, reported cases dropped steadily, falling to just 76 in 2000. Last year, there were 137. …

…What about the increase over the last six years, to 137 cases from 76? Is that significant?

“No,” Mr. Krahenbuhl said. It could be a statistical fluctuation, or it could be a result of better data collection in recent years. In any event, the 137 reported cases last year were fewer than in any year from 1975 to 1996.”

Politicization and mediocrity
Monica Goodling, who recently resigned as the Public Affairs Director at the Justice Department had the following education –

“Goodling received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1995 from Messiah College, a Christian institution. She received her J.D. in 1999 from Regent University Law School, a Christian institution founded by Pat Robertson.” [ Wikipedia ]

*Regent University Law School is a Tier 4 law school.
A NY Times article discussing politicization of Justice Department using another case – “Rachel L. Brand, [who] by her own admission, has never prosecuted so much as a traffic case. But in January 2006, when Justice Department officials began to discuss removing some United States attorneys, Ms. Brand was proposed as the top federal prosecutor in the Western District of Michigan, an e-mail message released on Friday shows.”

Foxy Facts
Fox news commentators were discussing global warming recently and during the course of the discussion, a commentator casually stated that like every ‘story’, global warming had two sides to it and that only one side was being highlighted.

Lush Green Hedges

NY Times article on the out of control incomes of top hedge fund managers quoted Brad Delong, UC Berkeley Economist, as saying –

“There is some question as to what the hell they are doing that is worth” that kind of money …. “The answer is damned mysterious.”

Britain canceled a criminal inquiry into bribery allegations linked to a multi-billion-dollar arms deal between BAE and Saudi Arabia citing economic and national security concerns. Jubilee Research (pdf) from Dec. 2006 when the news was first broken.

The arch-conservative
Fred Thompson has emerged as a conservative champion having exceeded or met all the requirements – he is an actor, a divorcee, has a deserved reputation for being lazy, and married to a woman who is four years younger than his daughter who died in 2002 of an accidental prescription drug overdose.

Goodbye Lenin!
A Polish man woke up from a 19-year long coma to find communism has given way. Facts follow fiction – Wolfgang Becker movie, Goodbye Lenin! has about the same story.

‘Wax’ing poetic

23 May

“India has a growing middle class estimated at 300 million people.” Emily Wax

300 million is an astounding figure and just a shade below the US population. If indeed India has a “growing” middle class that is 300 million strong, then the US and the rest of the world better take notice. There is just a small problem – the figure is almost entirely meaningless.

The middle class is a phenomenally slippery concept. The term was initially used to refer to the urban bourgeoisie. In its modern avatar, it was meant to refer to people who could afford certain amenities. As amenities have become the norm in the West, calls have been made to redefine the term again. The term itself though has a lot of emotional cache and almost 90% of the people in the US, according to a survey in 1992, thought themselves as middle class. Statistically, we can define “middle class” as the class of income earners that is within one Standard Deviation of the mean. But for a country like India where the mean wage is less than $2/day, the statistical definition as above would be thoroughly bankrupt.

Main Course: Pass me the knife, please

Let’s briefly analyze Wax’s claim about the numbers in Indian middle class. According to World Bank, India’s GDP was $796 billion in 2006. Assuming that all economic activity was produced by the 300 million (about 1/4th of the real population) and the gains spread equally among them, Gross Income Per Person would be $796,000/300 = $2600/year or $7/day. All hail this “middle class”.

It is fashionable to use terms like “middle class” and then attach numbers like 300 million but both the term and the number are grossly inaccurate.

Newspaper Gestalt

Over years, stories on the economic miracle in China and India have become de rigeur in newspapers. The stories are uniformly bankrupt for they fail to get even the basic figures right and put things in proper perspective.

A new foreign correspondent to India, like Wax, is expected to file in his/her share of these formulaic stories along with the expected special report on the heartrending poverty in rural China and India.

There is little hope that we will ever have better coverage or even that different topics will be covered, except the occasional Shilpa Shetty-Gere kiss induced frenzy, given that most foreign press reporters go to other countries with doltish prior hypotheses, look for confirmation, confirm them, and sigh with relief and move on to their next story. The whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that the tour of duties for journalists have shrunk.

Sidhwa’s Lahore, A Lovingly Embroidered Family Heirloom

21 May

Every great city deserves a worthy admirer. Lahore has just found one. Bapsi Sidhwa’s edited volume is a tribute to the city, a celebration of its landmarks, its cuisine, its gourmets, its brutalizing summers, its people, and its stories.

The book strikes an immediate rapport. It is akin to being invited to a Punjabi family gathering. Reading it, I felt, alternately, like a kid sitting on the lap of his maternal uncle and being told stories about the city, a young adult guiltily listening to adult conversations about brutal episodes from the city’s history, and an objective adult reflecting on the city’s history and politics.

There is a warm intimacy that suffuses each of the stories in City of Sin and Splendour: Writings on Lahore. The emotional immediacy comes from familiarity with subjects and surroundings. And from the naturalistic storytelling. Authors rarely go beyond what is known. It is an important talent. For authors are often tempted by superfluous cleverness. Here, they practice the Jane Austen method of writing — they write honestly, perspicaciously, and often with great wit about what is known, without flirting with the unnecessary or the arcane. It is grounded writing. The authors use words that are well worn and apt, not those with peripatetic grandiloquent pretensions. The resulting atmosphere is educated and homely.

I have never been to Lahore. Yet the city stands alive in front of me. Though I don’t eat meat, I savor the morning Nihari with Irfan Hussein. I share the pain of partition with Ved Mehta and Sadat Manto. I celebrate the indomitable spirit of Ismat Chugtai. I stand ringside as Bina Shah describes the long-standing tussle between Karachi and Lahore. And I wear my heart on the sleeve when I read Urvashi Butalia’s Ranamama. (Butalia’s phrase, “cracked pistachio green walls” perfectly describes the color of the walls of some subcontinent homes.) I admire the honest revolutionary spirit of Habib Jalib’s Dastoor. How did he know the story of Pakistan before it was ever written?

Third World
Many of the big cities in South Asia are shabby and poor and slung in unending mediocrity. The heat is often brutalizing and the atmosphere, dusty and arid. Trees and grass struggle to take root in face of hot summers, scarce resources, and petty corruption. Globalization, self-serving politicians, immigration, sprawl, and poverty presses from all sides. Yet the cities thrive in crevices, in neighborhoods and families, in visits to each other’s houses, in stories exchanged, in chai, and love. People exchange stories with their doodhwallahs (milkmen) and their kaamwaalis (maids). Everything is held together by talking. It is these relations, these conversations, the unsaid courtesies, that Sidhwa celebrates in her book.

Colonial Rule
The British Raj left its mark on Lahore. Kim’s gun haunts the hollow haunches of the emaciated old city. The gardens and separate civil line quarters for the English are a vital part of the city’s social topography. But more importantly, the Raj has scarred Lahore psychologically. Chastened by West that races ahead, and surrounded by pockmarked skeletons of pre-English architecture, Lahoris are unsure of what to make of their heritage.

Delhi and Lahore
Delhi is seen as Lahore’s twin. The cities have similar climates, both are (or, used to be) Punjabi dominated, have similar histories, similar old-new city Raj-inspired distinctions, and similar heartaches of partition. One can easily find flavors of Delhi in the book—the ‘gates’ of the old city, the civil lines area, the colonial bungalows, the partition stories, and the oncoming McDonald’s culture. In getting to know Lahore, you learn about Delhi.

Contemporary Conditions and History
He whose light shines only in palaces
Who seeks only to please the few
Who moves in the shadow of compromise
Such a debased tradition, such a dark dawn
I do not know, I will not own

Dastoor, Hajib Jalib
Lahore has suffered from the vicissitudes of the people in Islamabad and Washington. The onslaught of globalization and technology, unleashed without prior thought, continues unabated. People try to craft their lives around one technology while being led by their noses to the next. It is unsettling when you stop and take stock of all that will be lost to time.

The Elite Lahore
The remembrances of a city and the love of a city only come naturally to those with time for leisure. To that extent, this book is about the padshahs of Lahore. The book is an ode of the ruling class to itself, to its culture, and to its landmarks. Yet, often, the book is much more than that. The everyday street is never far in this book. The everyday street may not have the kaamwaali in it, but it does have the patang baaz, the halwais, the rickshaw wallahs, and more. It is that everyday street that I carry in my heart.

Movie Review: The Namesake

9 May

The Film

The Namesake is a mediocre film based on an equally middling eponymous novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning London born author of Indian descent. It is a coming of age story of an ABCD by “another badly confused Deshi” (ABCD – Lahiri) [Washington Post]

The novel traces the story of Gogol Ganguli, son of first-generation Indian immigrants – Ashoke and Ashima – presented in the movie as cardboard characters, whose one-dimensional struggles superfluously adorn the movie –and his struggle to come to terms with his cross-cultural identity. Gogol goes through various expected phases of someone shooing away a psychological ghost – unexpressed anger, rebelliousness, and then rapprochement that comes at the behest of his father’s unexpected death and later through his wife’s infidelity. While the issues are real, they seem to have been frozen and then perfunctorily staked over by an inane screenplay by Nair’s usual collaborator – her Harvard peer Sooni Taporevala. It appears that by trying to cram in too much – a bi-generational story – it fails to do justice to any of the stories.

Samosas, Rasogullas, and Indian Relatives

Nair captures the perversities of an immigrant’s life with great humor and a great eye for detail. We get to sit in the endless uncle-aunty parties full of Bengali food and watch as our little ABCDs squirm when talked to by the way ‘uncool’ uncle and aunties. We get to see how the American raised children take in the soot-laden, chaotic Indian cities and the clinging relatives on their visits to India. Of course, the Indian relatives themselves remain caricatures of humans.

Gogol wants his overcoat back

Gogol’s overcoat has been done a disservice. Much like the name of Virginia Woolf was expropriated by the mediocre and unrelated eponymous play, “Who is afraid of Virgina Woolf?”, Lahiri leans on the exoticness of Gogol to rescue her. Lahiri doesn’t have the intellectual depth to even throw in a line about why Russian authors were popular in India. Gogol’s deeply ironical and existentialist short story Overcoat becomes a peg on which Lahiri tries to hang ‘the namesake’, Gogol Ganguli’s pretentious superfluous problems.

Visual Metaphor and Nair

The Atlantic Ocean shimmers exhibiting a grey luminescence; the humid chaos of Calcutta streets is viscerally alive; and the forlorn winter landscape of New York, marked by decay, stoically real. Mira Nair is a master auteur. She has an astute eye for capturing the elemental affective truth of a place. Nair is also edacious. While she has a wonderful aesthetic eye, she uses it with the indulgence of a nouveau aesthete. Nair unhesitatingly and unfailingly puts her camera in front of every scar, every photogenic shot, and includes it.

Editing: Weaving a tapestry with unusual neighbors

The movie has been edited in a way that provides for abrupt transitions between different environments. It appears to be a deliberate strategy to highlight the often times almost schizophrenic existence of an immigrant in multiple environments, and continuation and disruption that characters feel as they straddle (or travel between) different microcosms.

The Missing Women of Asia

9 May

According to China’s fifth national census, conducted in 2000, there were around 117 men for every 100 women. The sex ratios in much of Europe and the US are quite the reverse, with there being around 105 females for every 100 males. Amartya Sen in an essay for NYRB argued that the reason behind the discrepancy was misogyny. Emily Oster, who was a Harvard graduate student at the time, published an article in 2005 arguing that “perhaps as much as 45 percent of the gender imbalance observed in the Sen (1992) missing women populations in the period 1980–90 can be accounted for by hepatitis B.” Oster further argued, “that the explanatory power varies significantly across space: 75 percent of the missing women in China are accounted for, versus around 20 percent in India.” Oster’s article received a lot of attention on its release. Luminaries like Steven D. Levitt used Oster’s research to take a jab at Amartya Sen. The paper was seen as a signpost of how sometimes prejudicial seemingly convenient explanations can be completely off the mark. The article also produced a fair amount of backlash with Monica Das Gupta, a senior researcher at the World Bank who had prior produced scathing articles documenting female infanticide in Punjab, arguing that Dr. Oster’s methodology was flawed. Das Gupta’s critique didn’t go unrequited and soon the argument had turned into a narrow academic debate. Just recently Das Gupta has renewed her assault with an article that uses some innovative statistics to dig a hole in Oster’s hypothesis. “Das Gupta found that data from a huge sample of births in China show that the only women with elevated probabilities of bearing a son are those who have already borne daughters.” World Bank

The argument Gupta offers is persuasive, and there is little doubt in my mind that Gupta is right.

Further Reading –

May 22, 2008

Oster admits that she was wrong

Andy Gelman on Monica Das Gupta being right all along

Interpretive Approaches in Art History

4 May

If social sciences have been sprinting breathlessly towards positivism, art history has been running, equally fast, away from it. Art history’s subjectivist turn can be traced back to postmodernism, and particularly hermeneutics and phenomenology, which pretty much gave immunity to virtually all kinds of interpretations–as long as they were not blatantly wrong in hard facts or flimsy with inconsistency and incoherence.

Art history concerns itself not only with intentions of art-making, but also acceptance and reception of artworks — audience’s reaction and understanding of artworks, which can veer far away from original intentions (if any) of the artist. When audience’s interpretations are sanctioned as legitimate, art historians argue what they feel might as well be what others perceive from the artworks they’re looking at, relaying the legitimacy to at times highly personal feelings.

Ruing the loss of the historical perspective in Art History

Richard Meyer is an engaging and impassioned speaker. While presenting, he regularly stops to regale the audience with one of his many endlessly entertaining stories based on astute observation. Meyer has been recently touring the lecture circuit giving his well-rehearsed lecture on “What was Contemporary Art?” His lecture is about many things — it is about the history of Contemporary Art, a lament against increasing ahistoricism in Art History, and how ahistoricism helps commercial expropriation of Contemporary Art by the culture industry.

Meyer’s historical argument, which is just based on three ‘events’: Alfred Barr’s art course in Wellesley College in the early 20th century, a Harvard dissertation by Roselyn Krause on David Smith in 1969, and the 2001 (pre 9/11) advertisement campaign for Museum of Contemporary Art in LA led by Chiat Dey – also ironically provides an unwitting expose’ of the rich but particularistic accounts that pass off as history in Art History. Meyer, arguing for historicism in art history, is quite oblivious to ethical norms for practicing history. Art historians look at history as a way they look at art – they look at it to interpret and find hidden tapestries. By doing this, they can always convey a point – though never a historically accurate one.

Perspectives from the End

Contemporary art is obsessed with making ‘clever clever’ comments, says Donald Kuspit in The End of Art. He argues that it is the loss of aesthetics, and Contemporary Art’s singular obsession with sham intellectualism, that is behind the decay. Art, according to Kuspit, should be like a religion. It should brook no dissent. It shouldn’t be a cultural tome over which the philistine poseurs negotiate their cultural identity and status.

Art’s Hubris and Art’s End

Only ethical practices can escape being subsumed from the oncoming onslaught of commercialism. Art History and criticism, which pride themselves in providing subjectivist approaches open to all distortions and all arguments, are fighting a losing battle. Artists have tried to fight by burrowing themselves in the anti-commercial ethic, but they have found repeatedly to their chagrin that commercialism and culture industries have made them cultural items. It is a losing battle because artists rely on the same cultural industries that they fight against. It doesn’t mean that ‘good’ art has nothing to say – it just means it will never have an impact beyond dinner table conversations.

Solutions Solutions
There are two ways to fight it — make Art a religion by bringing back focus on non-negotiable aesthetics (Kuspit), or spend time creating a normative framework for art, art history, and criticism.

The Political Dollar

29 Apr

BBC reports, that according to UN over 100,000 people have benefited from a $1.5 million solar loan project that provides $300-500 for setting up solar lights. If the math is right, $1.5 million would have yielded, assuming perfect distribution, about 3100 such lamps (with the average cost of $400). In other words, each of these 3100 lamps benefits 30 people each.

Cross the $1.5 million figure with the $125 billion, which the US has spent post hurricane Katrina to “help” about 5 times as many people. [Washington Post, 2000 US Census put New Orleans population at 484,000] In other words the US government has spent an estimated $200,000 per person.

In many respects, the above comparison is a false one. It compares money needed to emerge out of a disaster, which requires rebuilding houses and infrastructure, with providing loans for buying solar systems that provide electricity for a few appliances. It does, however, provide one with a barometer of how much the world spends and on whom.

Social Science and the Theory of All

22 Apr

Social phenomenon, unlike natural phenomenon, is bound and morphed not only by nature (evolution, etc.) but also history, institutions (religious, governance, etc.), and technology, among others. Before I go any further, I would like to issue a caveat: the categories that I mention above are not orthogonal and in fact, do trespass into each other regularly. We can study particular social phenomena in aggregate through disciplines like political science, which study everything from study of psychology to institutions to history, or study them by focusing on one particular aspect – psychology or genetics – and investigating how each effect multiple social phenomena like politics, communication, etc.

Given the disparate range of fields that try to understand the social phenomenon, often the field is straddled with multiple competing paradigms and multiple theories within or across those paradigms with little or no objective criteria on which the theories can be judged. This is not to say that theories are always mutually irreconcilable for often they are not (though they may be seen as such – which is an artifact of how they are sold), or that favoring one theory automatically implies rejecting others. The success of a theory, hence, often depend on how well it is sold and the historical proclivities of the age.

Proclivities of an age; theories of an age

Popular paradigms emerge over time and then are discarded for entirely new ones. It is not that the old don’t hold but just that the new ones hold the imagination of the age. Take for example variables that people have chosen to describe culture over the ages – Weber argued religion was culture, Marx argued that political economy was culture, Freud proposed a psycho-analytical take on culture (puritan, liberated, etc.), Carey proposed communication as culture, political theorists have argued institutions as culture, bio-evolutionists argue that cognition and bio-rootedness are primary determinants of culture, Tech. evangelists have argued technology is culture, while others have argued that infrastructure dictates culture.

It is useful to acknowledge that the popularity of the paradigms that were used to define culture had something to do with the most important forces shaping culture at that particular time. For example, it is quite reasonable to imagine that Marx’s paradigm was a useful one for explaining the industrial society (in fact it continues to be useful), while Carey’s paradigm was useful to explain the results of rapid multiplication (and accessibility) of communication (mass-) media. I would like to reissue this caveat that adopting new paradigms doesn’t automatically imply rejecting the prior ones. In fact intersection of old and new paradigms provide fecund breeding grounds for interesting arguments and theories – for example political economy of mass media and its impact. Let me illuminate the point with another example from Political Science which a decade or so ago saw a resurgence of cultural theory at the back of Huntington’s theory of ‘Clash of civilizations’. Huntington’s theory didn’t mean an end to traditional paradigms like economic competition; it just postulated that there was another significant variable that needed to be factored in the discourse.

The structure of scientific revolutions

Drawing extensively from historical evidence from the natural sciences, Thomas Kuhn, a Harvard physicist, argued in his seminal book, The Structure of scientific revolutions, that science progressed through “paradigm shifts.” While natural sciences paid scant attention to the book, the book provoked an existentialist crisis within the social sciences. To arrive at that crisis point, social scientists made a number of significant leaps (not empirically based) from what Kuhn said – they argued that growth of social science was anarchic, its judgments historically situated and never objective, and hence the social sciences were pointless – or more correctly had a point but were misguided. This self-flagellation is typical in social sciences that have always been more introspective about their role and value in society as compared to the natural sciences, which have always proceeded with the implicit assumption that ‘progress’ cannot be checked and eventually what they produce are merely tools in service of humanity. Of course, that is quite bunk and has been exposed as such without making even the slightest dent in the research in science and technology. Criticizing natural sciences, especially the majority of it that is in service of ‘value-free’ economics, doesn’t take away from the questions that Kuhn posed for the social sciences. Social scientists, in my estimation, put disproportionate emphasis on Kuhn’s work. Social science is admittedly much behind in terms of coming up with generalizable theories, but they have been quite successful in identifying macro-variables and phenomena.

The most intractable problem that social scientists need to deal with is answering what is the purpose of their discipline. Is it to describe reality or to critique it or engineer alternative realities? If indeed it is all of above, and I believe it is, then social science must think about melding its often disparate traditions – theory and practice.

Rorty and the structure of philosophical revolutions

Richard Rorty in his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, launches a devastating attack on philosophy – especially its claims to any foundational insights. Rorty traces the history of philosophy and finds that the discipline is embedded, much more deeply than social science, in the milieu of paradigm shifts – philosophers from different ages not only offer different “foundational” insights but often deal with different problems altogether.

Battling at the margins

Those who argue that the singular purpose of social science should be to normatively critique it and offer alternative paradigms are delusional. Understanding how a society works (or how institutions work, people work) is important to craft interventions – be it drug policy or engineering new governance systems. Normative debates often times are nothing but frivolous debates at the margins. The broad overarching problems of today don’t need normative theorists devoted to analysis – though I don’t dispute their contribution – they are evident and abundantly clear. When we take out the vast middle of what needs to be decided, normative theory becomes a battle at the margins.

Post-positivist theorizing; and the sociology of research

The most significant challenges for social science as discipline lie within the realm of how the discipline aggregates research and moves forward and how that process is muzzled by a variety of factors.
Imre Lakatos sees “history of science in terms of a continuous competition between alternative research programs rather than of successive conjectures and refutations on the one hand, or of total paradigm-switches on the other.” Lakatos argues that any research program possess a kernel of theoretical principles which are taken as fixed and hence create a ‘negative heuristic’ that forbids release of anomalous results, and instead scientists are directed to create a “protective belt” of auxiliary assumptions intended to secure correctness of theoretical principles at the core. Finally, ‘positive heuristic’ is at work to “Defend and extend!” (Little, 1981)

Post-positivist scientific philosophy, like the ones forwarded by Kuhn and Lakatos, raise larger questions about the nature (and viability) of the scientific enterprise. While we may have a firmer grasp of what we mean by a good scientific theory, we are still floundering when it comes to creating an ecosystem that foments good social science and creates a rational and progressive research agenda. (Little, 1981) We must analyze the sociology, and political economy of journal publication as the whole venture is increasingly institutionalized and as careerism, etc. become more pronounced.

The worth of a military man

13 Apr

Marx Weber in 1946 gave a lecture on “Politics as Vocation” in which he described three preeminent qualities of a good politician—passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. It is the missing last one—the sense of proportion—that I declaim in this column.

NY Times carried an article today about the V-22 Osprey helicopter whose debut “on the battlefield end(ed) a remarkable 25-year struggle for the Marines to build a craft they could call their own.” The specificity of technology being built primarily for the military is mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the amount the military is willing to spend. “The Pentagon has spent $20 billion so far and has budgeted $54.6 billion for it…Each V-22 costs about three times the price of a modern helicopter and nearly the same as a fighter jet. The Marines will get 360 Ospreys, Air Force Special Forces will get 50 and there will be 48 for the Navy.”

The gung-ho patriots may be OK with figures except the program is blighted by safety questions. “On April 8, 2000, 19 marines were killed in a training exercise when a V-22 descended too fast and crashed near Tucson. It was the third V-22 to crash — seven people were killed in two previous crashes…In December 2000, four more marines, including the program’s most experienced pilot, were killed in a crash caused by a burst hydraulic line and software problems.” The hilarious part is how Colonel Mulhern, the V-22 program manager, defends it: “The first marine it saves makes it worth what we paid for it. And I have real confidence that the V-22 will do it.” Yup, it won’t take 20 marines—one more than those killed in testing this white elephant—but just one marine to make it all worth it. And just for the record, a marine’s life is about $54.6 billion. (The “value of a statistical life” is about $7 million or just about 1/8k of a marine’s life. So we would be willing to sacrifice 8k Americans for 1 American Marine.)

All Politics is Identity Politics (Or Soon Will Be)

13 Apr

Identity politics is a phrase that is traditionally reserved for politics of third-world nations with deep ethnic cleavages like India and Fiji. It is rarely used in the context of American politics, yet identity politics is rife in America.

More boldly, I would like to say that in fact, all politics is identity politics and the relative success of parties can be solely judged on how successful they have been in peddling robust identities. I use the word “robust” because it is important that identities be “essential” and fundamental to how one sees himself and hence immune to pressure (or logic) unless of course your identity is based on being data-driven. I make this claim because there is vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in the general population and it reasons hence that people must make decisions based on identity affiliation, an assertion that largely bears out in the data.

There are two caveats to the claim that I am making – one is that very few political identities are infinitely tensile – they eventually brook to contrary evidence. Identities can be resilient and make people delusional but often times they have limits. Secondly, political identity for many is a shifting idea determined by what is sexy (a reference to meaningless radical positions held by students) and by what is appropriate or comfortable or stokes one’s prejudices the right way (for example – people don’t ever explicitly call themselves racist. they just feel that all black people are lazy and deal in drugs. and that is true isn’t it – Bill O’Reilly certainly thinks so)

A measure of success would involve the percentage of partisan media one consumes. Identity politics involves a reshaping of the kind of media one consumes, the kind of messages one gets from it, and how s/he chooses to interpret them and “update” (in a Bayesian way) their thinking.

The law of stable yields

Identity politics is the only system that is capable of yielding stable yields and creating a strong unwavering kernel. It is no surprise hence the party in power in the US is the one that has had considerably more success in engaging in identity politics.

The Economy of Everyday Conversation

11 Apr

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means “to make common.” We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. The two major localities of communication are the consumption of mass media and everyday conversation. While both inform how we view the world, and what is considered important, scant attention has been paid to understanding the nature and shape of everyday communication and charting its impact.

In the entire realm of human communication, arguably the most important part is the everyday conversation — the repeated mundane conversation. Everyday conversation isn’t the most important because it occupies the most time, for admittedly consuming mass media does that, but because the everyday conversation is still the primary site where people seek approval. While the motivations for entering into a conversation have remained largely the same, the nature of everyday conversation has changed dramatically over the last century.

Firstly, today the conversation is carried out between socially competitive peers rather than empathetic family members, and secondly the things that provide value, or things that people seek approval on, have changed from “being a good son or daughter or some other social relation” to fickle, competitive identity markets based on consumption of commercial products (or related training like cooking shows, home improvement shows, travel shows) and entertainment. In other words, with increasing atomization and resulting heightened anxieties about identity, for we no longer get most of our identity from family or some other archaic system, but through consuming the right kind of entertainment and consuming appropriate products, everyday conversations have effectively become negotiations of cultural identity among social or (generally “and”) economic equals.

The negotiation of commercialized cultural identities is done via issues like sports, movies, and other cultural products while contentious topics like politics, religion, and race with little or no commercial value are frowned upon as conversation topics. The key ideal in conversation is politeness (and conformity) and it is just not polite to bring in contentious topics except to mention harmonious approval, cues for which may have been exchanged before.

Given that the motivation for everyday conversation is garnering social approval, attention is paid to storytelling, artful handling of anecdotes, sarcasm etc. and not on “accurate” objective reasons. Additionally, the exchange of product preferences is liable to be subjective, and hence not eligible for closer scrutiny, and anchored to some accepted commercial shtick or parameters of “coolness” or “hipness.” This ineligibility for closer scrutiny is there for a reason for it is in the protection of that kernel of ‘irrationality’ and some vague notion of ‘individuality’ can one sell absolutely anything. The fact is that trillions of dollars in this economy rides on the fact that tomorrow millions of people will wake up and make a suboptimal decision, or perhaps more accurately, be convinced about their economically sub-optimal decisions.

The other important facet of everyday conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is that it now happens primarily between economic and social equals. Conversation between classes has altogether dried up. This drying up can be seen as a result of drying up of places where these interactions used to take place. Cross-class interaction or conversations always took place when the person from a lower class offered a service to the person from the higher class. The fora for these exchanges of anecdotes and stories between economic classes have almost dried up under the current economic regime. For example, the mom and pop stores manned by neighborhood people have been replaced by chain stores that hire salaried employees with high turnover and whose only focus is to provide an efficient economic transaction and offer an empty courtesy. These routine commercial interpersonal transactions not only keep us from learning the difficulties across classes and hence possibly build empathy, but also have a profound impact on our everyday interaction with other people- even of similar social status. Let me weave in another anecdote here to illustrate the point. When I first came into this country, I was often asked some variation of “how I was doing?” at the beginning of each conversation. I frequently responded by providing full descriptions of how I was doing. It was only after many months and after receiving numerous impatient glances that it dawned on me that people expected nothing but empty curtsies.

The normative point is that our everyday conversation affects the nature and extent of our knowledge and style of argumentation. For example, it affects whether one is interested in politics or not, and the political proclivities one may have. The site of “everyday conversation” needs to be reclaimed to build a healthy body politic. Specifically for politics, we may need a revival of public conversational spaces what Habermas writes about and what Tocqueville observed.

Selected Ethnography of Marketing in India

7 Apr

Biscuits (cookies) in India are marketed for their glucose shakti (power), bathing soaps for their ability to get rid of germs, hair oil for its efficaciousness in keeping the lice away, and a “fair and lovely” cream for its eponymous abilities (fair=lovely). We have popular biscuits made by Britannia, a popular red tooth-powder that leaves chalky marks on your teeth and turns your spittle red, neem (mainly known for anti-bacterial properties) soaps and toothpastes, a farmer (kissan) brand ketchup, Brooke Bond tea (after English tea retailer), clinic shampoo, kwality ice-cream, and prickly heat powders. We have multiple competing mosquito repellents including the popular “tortoise” mosquito coil and ‘good knight.’ We have ads showing joint families cheerfully celebrate and lighting fire-crackers and earthen lanterns after getting their houses painted with Asian paints, or buying a Maruti car, or for that matter a Chetak (after the horse of Rana Pratap Singh) or a Hero-Honda. Our movie studios often have introductory banners that are full of religious signage.

India is a poor country. It is a post-colonial country. We are as nostalgic about British era quality as we are about the merits of herbal remedies; though popular herbal concoctions like Chyavanprash contain mainly sugar.

India came of age, the IT age that is, celebrating its kissans (farmers) and jawans (soldiers). India entered the age of economic liberalization with its own baggage of history – colonialism, and its familial structures, religion, and government propaganda. The specificity of ads, the perversities of the pitches, all are merely scavenging over the body of this skewed, troubled body politic.

I grew up in this strange India. I grew up drawing my houses with slanted tiled roofs even though I lived in Delhi which only had flat-roofed houses. I drew spare free-standing houses, in the middle of nowhere, with a long winding walkway and green brushes even though I had never seen such houses while growing up. I drew colonial beauty — the mimesis of colonial aesthetics in India is deep and resonant. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were government “servants.”

Commercial advertisement traditions in the country are still cognizant of India’s deep poverty – they focus on the practical and not merely the aspirational though that is rapidly changing. I suppose as the economy grows the ratio of practical pitches to aspirational pitches increases. It is an artificial line – the line between practical and aspirational- and a line that blurs often, but a line nonetheless. The fact remains (for now) that most Indians haven’t reached a level of material comfort where each additional major or minor purchase isn’t looked on as something that materially and significantly improves comfort.

India in some sense is a prime market for marketers, except of course for its soul-sapping poverty. Indians, ever aware of the social position and with brains hardwired to equate price with quality, are almost always willing to buy something costlier that shows better taste or portends better quality. Of course, their instincts are roped in by positive social perception about buying something for a “good value”. There is little doubt in my mind that the most successful advertisements will make both pitches. Similarly, the most successful advertisements would also pitch to both its modern commercial aspirational soul, and its traditional religious soul.