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Short Fiction: Two Views of a Street

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I.

The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.

Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.

It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.

At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.

Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!

As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”

Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”

Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.

“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”

“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”

“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.

Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”

Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.

Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.

Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”

Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”

“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.

“No, not really…”

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be rich like you.”

“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”

At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”

“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.

“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.

“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”

“They’re fine,” said Kumar.

Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.

“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”

“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”

Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.

“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”

Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”

“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”

Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.

This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.

Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.

Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.

Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”

Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”

Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”

Mohan was silent.

Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”

Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”

Parvati was silent.

The driver heard everything.

II.

On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.

He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.

It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.

Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.

“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.

“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”

This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.

Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.

“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”

She grinned a gap-toothed smile.

“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”

In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.

“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.

“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”

Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.

Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.

“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”

Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.

When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.

“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”

Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”

“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”

“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”

“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”

Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”

Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”

Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”

They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.

Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.

Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”

His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”

He left and returned.

“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”

Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

Flowchart: How to Rip Off the Poor

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Courtesy of Mint.com

TheShaft-5
budget planner – Mint.com

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 1:05 pm

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India: Progress and Development

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Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.

And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of  thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.

“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.

“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded,  “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”

It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.

But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.

“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.

Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.

But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.

This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):

About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.

And another view:

Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.

At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?

The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.

On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!

Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.

The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!

Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.

It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?

“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”

He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”.  But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.

India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further  away from whatever independence it may have gained.

And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!

India!

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India! Where the streets run yellow
With the urine of every fellow
Horns blare loud, and crowds roar large,
Where pollution and apathy paint a collage!

India! Thou hast reached your limit
Of people – 5,000 born every minute!
Well, no matter, you’ll make them room,
If it gets too crowded – send the poor to the moon!

India! Bullock cart and airplane!
Where life is a misery, and life is a game!
Light and darkness live side-by-side
And you know one takes the other for a ride!

India! Giant caught in a lurch
Both modern and rural, and you know which is worse!
With coal and petrol, you move farther away,
They’ll never run out – or then, so you say

India! Adidas, Reebok and Nike
Creep their way into your national psyche!
The British have left,  but 60 years hence,
You still view it all through the imperial lens!

India! oh, the world’s largest slum
Where two meals a day means having great fun!
Skyscrapers tower, and tents sprawl beside
And the one and the other will never coincide!

Written by pavanvan

December 24, 2009 at 6:16 pm

The Food Stamp Queue

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I have often heard people remark, “If things are so bad, where are the bread lines?”

Observe:

Food Stamp Participation

There they are!

Written by pavanvan

December 13, 2009 at 3:29 pm

Capitalism in India

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Walking down an Indian thoroughfare in 2009 will strike anyone with previous experience of the country — something has changed. It isn’t so much the visible poverty, the pollution, or the surging, unceasing crowds; having grown, they still resemble their 1990s counterparts. Nor should the lawless traffic, the variety of vehicles, or the belches of black smoke they exude come as very much of a surprise. The rickshaws have multiplied, the cities sprawl, the population grows by, oh, 50,000 per day, but this is all very much as it has been. But one can now buy from any major US or European business; and therein lies the difference.

At the screening of a film on climate change, an audience member remarked, “Three years ago, in Hyderabad, there wasn’t a single shopping mall. Now there are eight on Banjara Hills Road alone. The city probably has twenty by now.” And so it does; great glittering concrete towers dot the dusty roads advertising McDonalds, Adidas, Gucci, and a hundred other brands.  Naomi Klein, in her excellent No Logo, attested that “the most successful corporations don’t sell products. They sell brands.” By that standard the Euro-American conglomerates who have wormed their way to the subcontinent have seen wide success indeed.

Wearing Reebok shoes, owning a Ford automobile, sporting Levi’s and sipping your Coke blares a clear message to the unwashed Indian masses: “I am not one of you. I have made it.” It is undeniable that association with western brands immediately elevates one, sets one apart from the teeming peasants below. They, after all, must wear no-name brands, and many consider themselves lucky to own one set of clothes. Living side by side as they do, the rich and poor occupy wholly different worlds, each as alien to the other as it would be to the moon.

An outgrowth of Indian capitalism which seems to be on everyone’s lips these days is the dreaded mining mafia. Consisting of large mineral firms and small scavenger operations, this interest group acts wholly outside Indian law, though nearly every lawmaker is in on the deal. Their power stems from the vaunted “deregulation” India underwent in the 1990s. The Indian Government  sold its mining operations then to private corporations at ridiculously low rates. These companies turned around and began exploiting their newly acquired resources at fantastic profit. Many of these mines lie on ‘tribal areas’ – undeveloped forests where dwindling communities carry out a traditional, pre-industrial lifestyle. With their new lease on ‘development’, the mining conglomerates began brutally clearing forests and villages, eager for the valuable minerals below. The villagers organized and fought back in an attempt to preserve their homes, at which point India began its notorious “Operation Green Hunt“, a devastating offensive using modern weaponry on landless farmers, much in the manner of America in Pakistan. Here, too, government acts only in the interest of the wealthy.

A typical report from Operation Green Hunt:

Gachanpalli is a small village some 30 km from the town of Konta in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. According to witnesses, the security forces raided Gachanpalli sometime in late October. They allegedly killed Madvi Admaya, Madkam Sulaya, Madvi Joga, Kovasi Gangaya, Madkam Moiyi. Witnesses say four of the five men were past 60 and too old to escape into the jungle. Madkam Moiyi was apparently crippled and incapable of walking. They were said to have been bayoneted and shot to death in the middle of the village.

Or take, for instance, the actions of Coca-Cola, a brand much beloved in India, whose customers number in the tens of millions:

Tests conducted by a variety of agencies, including the government of India, confirmed that Coca-Cola products contained high levels of pesticides, and as a result, the Parliament of India has banned the sale of Coca-Cola in its cafeteria. However, Coca-Cola not only continues to sell drinks laced with poisons in India (that could never be sold in the US and EU), it is also introducing new products in the Indian market. And as if selling drinks with DDT and other pesticides to Indians was not enough, one of Coca-Cola’s latest bottling facilities to open in India, in Ballia, is located in an area with a severe contamination of arsenic in its groundwater.

One could multiply such examples. The corruption here would shock and disgust anyone used to its coy western counterpart. It is not uncommon for high-ranking officials to retire with tens of millions of dollars in bribes. India’s graft bears striking resemblance to “campaign donations” in the US, but it remains much more powerful, and impossibly more open. In India, enough money can induce the government to overlook anything.

This is a land of beggars and billionaires, where a single person could eliminate hunger, child labor, and slavery if he chose. “Some people in this country have trillions of rupees!” a friend of mine remarked, “They could feed every homeless man here, for generations! Why don’t they?” I admit I could not answer, but if pressed I would say: “Because the poor are invisible in this country.” How many times one sees a well-dressed young man avert his eyes to a destitute on the street! How often one hears a wealthy businessman arguing with a cab driver over what amounts to a few cents! India has finally imbibed that spirit of the free market (“make as much money as you can, and screw everyone else”). Thus, no one pays much attention to the plight of the poor in India. “They’ll get on as they always have, why should I share with them?” seems the overriding sentiment.

In many ways, perhaps more than can be counted here, India mirrors America of the early 20th century. As then, one sees now in India a burgeoning middle class, a vast nouveau riche who can live like kings for the first time. Again, one sees the same disregard for environmentalism or even basic cleanliness, typified by India’s refusal to cut carbon emissions, but truly brought home by the clouds of car exhaust that permeate every major city and the rotting piles of refuse on every street corner. America in the 1950s, before the Clean Air and Water Acts, was incomparably dirty, where open sewage flowed into rivers, where one car in twenty had a catalytic converter, where factories and power plants blew their unfiltered smoke into the shifting winds. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation, the American ghettos were a terrible blight upon their cities, the chasm between rich and poor yawned wide, and one could still encounter open starvation on the streets. Just as one can in India today.

India resembles a spacecraft entering a black hole. As it crosses the event horizon, the front of the craft accelerates faster than the rear, causing it to stretch (theoretically) to an infinite length. The rich in India have become unimaginably richer in the past two decades, while the poor have seen no such gains. Much as the Rockefellers and Morgans of old, the Ambanis and Tatas of today’s India race ahead, amassing billions and trillions of rupees, while the rest of the country makes do with mere thousands. Just as in America, this is ceasing to present a problem. No longer do large sums of money taint one as corrupt, a thief – on the contrary, many young Indians today thirst for the chance to become the next Ambani, to make the next billion. It has become a national obsession, if such a thing can be said to exist.

One need look no further than the legion of “computer science” students choking the halls of every Indian university for evidence. The students I have spoken with give no particular reason as to why they should choose computer science; in fact, they invariably betray a strong distaste for the subject, but it is the easiest way to get a job and the surest way to find a place in America, so students flock to those programs by the million.

And so it goes, the steady, unyielding rhythms of India of old making way for the hyper-consumerist capitalism of New India. Yet more than one half of the country has been left behind. More than 500 million have no regular food supplies, no access to clean water. 400 million are illiterate. Today, the population mired in poverty is greater than the entire population of India in 1947, at independence.

But what grand eloquence we hear on India’s so-called “development”!

India: A Local Perspective

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A young man on the street was gracious enough to share his opinions regarding India:

“Corruption is endemic here. Let’s say, for example, I get stopped by the police. I jumped a red light. Now I can either take the ticket, around Rs. 1000 or so, or I can simply bribe the policeman, say Rs. 200. Who, I ask you, would prefer to pay the ticket? 99.9% of us will just give the bribe and  be done with it. That sort of thing simply cannot happen in America.”

“Oh yes, income inequality is still huge, still a major problem, but I think there is reason to believe it is getting better. If you came here, say, 10 years ago, you would have seen it a lot worse. Come in another 10 years or so, and you’ll likely see it less. Can poverty ever be truly eradicated here? Probably not. The rich are getting a lot richer in this country; they have been for the past two decades. The poor have not seen anything like that; life for the bottom has continued in much the same way.”

“Pollution… well, what can you say about a people who throw their trash on the ground and then blithely forget it? These are cultural problems, but they are also political problems. You think there isn’t enough money to make it so that people don’t have to beg? You think we lack the knowledge and manpower – I mean, you think it’s beyond us to construct a decent municipal trash system, to make sure the sewer reaches all areas of the city, to make regularized trash pickup a basic right? Of course it isn’t, but the political will to enact such programs just isn’t there. The vested interests who run our political system would rather see our resources to go different ends. Their ends. Look at New York City – every vehicle has a catalytic converter, trash is superbly managed – hell, there’s a trash can on every street corner. We’re a long way from that.”

“In fact, I would say we in India are about 100 years behind the West.”

(At this, I demurred.)

“No, certainly we are! The things you take for granted there – social security, regularized pensions, food banks, homeless shelters, scrupulous policeman; we have none of those here. P. Sainath said that all the judges and magistrates in India don’t have the power of a single police constable, and he said it right. We hardly even have a sense of ourselves as a nation, as such. We would much rather identify with smaller communal structures: Religion, race, caste, social status, and so forth. What do the Indian billionaires really have in common with the destitute on the street? Not a damn thing.”

“But – and here is the rub – we are all implicated! Take the example of the policeman. Who will say they have never given a bribe?  I know I have. Our politicians – we say they are corrupt, we complain and moan, but in the end who elected them? We did. It is a vicious circle, without a beginning or end.”

“Perhaps I misspoke, however. If I could point to a beginning of the circle, it would surely be the population. All of our problems stem from that. But again, it is a cultural problem. Everyone gets married here; it is basically a law. And if you get married and don’t have kids, people will immediately assume something is wrong. The gossip one hears! ‘Cheh, did you hear so-and-so still hasn’t had a child? They’ve been married for more than a year! I think his wife may be infertile. Such a shame, such a shame!” One cannot escape talk like that, and one cannot, I think, live with it for more than a short time. So we are compelled to have children by a thousand different pressures. And one is not enough, you must have at least two! And woe unto you if they turn out to be girls, especially if you’re poor! In that case the dominant strategy is to just keep having children until a boy turns up. What can you do in the face of that? We distribute condoms, but nobody uses them – we hold sessions on family planning, but no one shows up.”

“About the future, I am not too optimistic. Our pollution corresponds directly with our need for an “affluent lifestyle”, and there is no getting away from it. We rely on coal to an alarming extent. Our population keeps growing and there seems no power strong enough to check it. 40% of our population is under the age of 30, but that is both a blessing and a curse. What will we do in ten years when they all start to want families?”

Written by pavanvan

November 24, 2009 at 12:59 pm

India: First Impressions

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Moustache Twist

Lack of updates these past two weeks due to my relocation to India, where I shall be for the next four months. I will be interning with The Indian Express, a mid-sized daily newspaper, and living in Hyderabad, at the heart of the subcontinent.

India is a maze, a warren, a crazy mosaic of languages and cultures. And also, apparently, economic conditions. Nowhere else, save perhaps for China, can one so easily view rich and poor, privileged and deprived, hungry and satiated, living side by side, literally on top of one another. The inequality here is so stark as to astound a visitor from the “developed” world, and one needs only to open their eyes to see it.

This is not, of course, to say that America is any paragon of social equality. Indeed, the inequality one finds in America (the top 1% of American earners reap more than 66% of income gains) roughly compares to its Indian counterpart – but devices were put in place long ago to mask this, such that you would have to go back sixty or seventy years to see the kind of open poverty one views today in India.

Aravind Adiga, in his excellent novel The White Tiger, remarked that there were, in fact, two Indias: rich and poor, urban and rural, light and dark. But that betrays, I think, an anthropogenic love for duality. Would it not be more accurate to say there are tens of Indias, thousands, millions? There is still the Anglo-India, kow-towing to all things western, obsessed with “progress”, “advancement”; there is political India, where millionaires sit drinking tea served by “houseboys”, making pious speeches to one another about “the poor” while ensuring their houseboys don’t go anywhere; there is old India, whose fading citizens still carry dim memories of the British Raj, whom the rapid development of the past decades has left in utter confusion. And there is young India, comprising more than a quarter of the population, born after 1980, already in a world light-years from that of their parents. Beset by ceaseless advertisements and consumerism on one hand, and the receding puritanism of their parents on the other, their confusion is the confusion India faces today. Does not every one of India’s 250 + dialects confer its own reality, its own India? And then: do the myriad cities, each variegated in a manner so far removed from American homogeniety, not confer their own Indias? One more India we cannot forget, one which is growing more powerful and ruthless by the day: Corporate India.

Overpopulation is the defining issue of our day, and nowhere does it strike one so forcefully as India. When one steps out into the swirling chaos of the streets, when one stands admidst the teeming masses with faces so much like your own, when one looks down from a rooftop at the quivering mass of thousands, tens of thousands, it strikes: Can there truly be so many? And: What do all these people do? How do they survive?

Badly, as it turns out. My cousin informed me that 60% of India’s population lives hand-to-mouth, on less than 1,000 calories per day. “You could hardly call that living!” she exclaimed. And yet somehow it is. Confronted by the magnitude of the population problem, which is truly that of the whole world, one has no choice but to shut it out of his mind. Doing so, of course, is much easier in the West, where the density has not yet reached critical mass, but even in India, where one must live with it daily, one finds a curious detachment. Not that they don’t realize the problem; indeed, when brought up it is usually met with a disapproving shake of the head and cluck of the tongue, but invariably a shrug and some noises to the effect that “there is nothing to be done.”

Perhaps of a sense of powerlessness, then, one is able to look out the window at the roadways choked with 15 types of vehicle, the cars and motorcycles viciously competing for inches of space, the clouds of blue smoke that never quite disperse, or the thousands, tens of thousands of faces seen once and forgotten with a mere shrug. They have grown accustomed to it, so to speak, and I can already feel myself growing accustomed as well.

Written by pavanvan

November 16, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Globalization in the East: A Cultural Perspective

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Urbanization and Pollution in India

Urbanization and Pollution in India

Very often, as you stroll down a major Indian thoroughfare, you can see spiritual tourists from the West patronizing the corner-store rishis. Wide-eyed, glowing with excitement about “enlightenment” and “finding themselves”, they dutifully perform the rites and chants as prescribed by their eastern philosophers-for-hire. And when they have finished, they leave for their homes in the West full with thoughts of their “life changing experience” in India: a land of swamijis and rickshaws, a country of mystics and philosophers, an ancient civilization of enlightenment. That such a vision corresponds very little to the actual picture of India is immaterial. Even the fact that the world of Indian spiritualism is being quickly dismantled in favor of a “market-oriented” culture bears little importance. To the cultural imperialists descending from Europe and America, India exists as a spiritual haven, a land apart, which no amount of development can truly change.

But change is occurring – apparent to those with eyes for it, and faster than any observer from the 1990s could have dreamt. Already a tourist can stay at a Sheraton, dine at Domino’s, Pizza Hut, or McDonald’s, shop in a mall, use wi-fi internet, and find themselves beset by advertisements and eager entrepreneurs, supposing of course, they should want to. Bollywood now blares open sexuality on television and film screens, and many youth in India have embraced rock music, rap, alcohol, dating, and myriad other social cues from Western youth. Belief in religion persists, but its meaning has changed beyond recognition. And the growing ranks of diaspora, already large in the 1980s, have given rise to a new class of Indians, raised in the west with only a very vague connection to the subcontinent or its people.

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Written by pavanvan

September 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm

Humanism in the 21st Century

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I wrote in a previous entry about the population crisis currently in the offing, and I wanted to put down a few more remarks regarding its implications from a humanist perspective. The trends of the 20th century have thrown much of what we hold as sacred truth into serious question. In particular, I am concerned with what exponential growth implies for our long-cherished beliefs of “freedom”, “equality”, and “the greatest good for the greatest number”. For if the evidence before us is correct, we are analogous to a germ or a peculiar strain of bacteria, and we are no different in substance to that bloom of algae over the pond next door.  Having held a stable population under 1 Billion units for our entire previous existence, we passed that mark in 1804 and have quickly doubled since, hitting 2 Billion in 1927, 3 Billion in 1959, 4 Billion in 1974, and so forth up to today, where we stand at just under 7 Billion. Clearly some questions need answering.

Nearly all modern conceptions of morality have a strong dose of humanism at their root. Certainly all ideologies “to the left” have appealed at one point or another to a self-evident nobility of mankind. Modern humanism derives from the enlightenment philosophers, but one can trace its origins to the birth of monotheism, the human-centric universe, and the benevolent creator deity. One finds always a strong undercurrent of  human exceptionalism, the belief of man apart from his surroundings and capable of choosing his own destiny.

We want to believe we are different from the other manifestations of life, and even those who smugly declare that “man is an animal” do not truly believe this to be so.  It is convenient enough to compare aspects of our behavior – our will to dominate, for instance, or our obedience to authority – to that of the  lion or sheep. Some would go further to observe that our essential characteristics – the propensity to multiply or the DNA structure – are found throughout the animal and floral kingdoms, and conclude we are no different. But very few would dare compare humanity to those of the lower orders, the bacteria and fungi. Few can deny that there is “something more” humanity possesses, some special trait usually called  a “soul”, or if you are a scientist, “cognition”.

Thence flows much of our philosophies regarding “brotherhood of man”, “deliverance from suffering”, and so forth. “I think, therefore I am” implies much more than an affirmation of existence. It declares our separation from the natural realm, our unique and fundamental essence. It would be as if a housefly were to declare: “No other creature can fly or feed as I do. This is my natural essence and the only way I can be sure I exist. All matter exists outside of me, and my “essence” exists wholly outside the physical realm.” and then proceed to multiply at an exponential rate.

All our humanistic ideals, our desire to make the world a better place (for people), the philosophy that “man is the measure of all things”, and the conviction that man is an animal apart stem from Descartes’ famous declaration, refutations for which have since become apparent. Cognitive science dismantled, partially, the idea of mental phenomena as wholly separate from the physical realm, while our frightening proliferation across the globe throws the concept of human society removed from nature into serious question. And from these observations flow a few salient implications:

1) That plant and animal life is incompatible with human existence, save for those species directly involved with human survival.

By this I mean all lions, tigers, zebra, snakes, primates, etc. The only surviving animals will be the cow, the horse, the sheep, the chicken, etc. This trend already has a name (The Holocene Extinction Event), and has progressed to a marked extent, some sources estimating up to 250 unique species extinctions per day. Likewise our last remaining great forests, the Amazon and Congo, are being extracted at a rate of several thousand square miles per year, further exacerbating the problem. The point here is that such developments are inevitable – or at least highly encouraged – under exponential human population growth. It is significant that much of the deforested land has been converted to farms and cattle pasture.

2) That humanistic impulses to eliminate poverty, deprivation, suffering, etc. have a hidden restriction.

The restriction, of course, being the constant addition of new humans and the constant depletion of non-renewable resources. The poorest countries in the world also have the highest rates of growth, so efforts to eliminate poverty are always hampered by the ever-increasing number of persons actually in poverty. Likewise, many of the things we consider to reduce poverty – steady food, shelter, transportation, running water – have energy implications which are frightening to contemplate. As oil and coal are virtually the only sources, the question becomes: is there enough?

3) That resistance to climate change is anti-human in nature.

By this I mean that the expulsion of carbon dioxide is necessary for the proliferation and comfort of human beings – and if we are to stop emitting CO2, we must necessarily reduce our numbers or standard of living, or both.

We live now in a frightening world of resource depletion, exponential growth, and overpopulation. The most salient question of the 21st century is whether or not we can reconcile our humanistic beliefs with the situation before us.

Written by pavanvan

September 25, 2009 at 5:36 pm

(Very Briefly) Why People go Homeless

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A doorman in New York City explained to me briefly the path to homelessness:

“Well, people just give up, you know? Life is a hassle. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, you gotta get up, go to work, buy groceries, pay rent, do a million other things. The whole time you’re worried: ‘What if I can’t make rent this month? What if I get fired from my job?’ You learn to accept it. Becoming homeless is like a process – and that’s the first step.

Most people is just tired. They’re tired of being behind on their rent; tired of their landlord yellin’ at them, tired of working a shit job for shit pay; tired of the whole grind.

So say they get fired. Happens to a lot of people nowadays. Maybe it takes them a while to get another job. Maybe they don’t look as hard as they could’ve. Well the landlord – he don’t care if you’re depressed; first of the month comes around and you don’t have your rent, well buddy, you outta there!

So he gets kicked out. Maybe he applies to some shelter programs or whatever, but maybe he says “all that paperwork is a bother – and this city ain’t done shit for me yet”. So he’s on the street. One week, two weeks, all of a sudden he’s not washing. He smells. So who’s gonna hire him now?

Then maybe he gets in some trouble, drugs, fighting, whatever. Now he’s got a record, and ain’t nobody gonna hire his ass. You got a felony, even a misdemeanor, you gotta put that down on your application. I know somebody who lied about that stuff – he got the job, but they found out in like 2 weeks and said ‘see ya!’

So now you’re really on the streets, been there for a few months. You got no bills, but you also got no income. You gotta sleep on the subway, live off of whatever change people give you. You see a cop, you gotta move in the other direction. But worse, you don’t care. You’re used to it. You can barely remember life used to be different. Especially once you get into drugs and that shit, it becomes a cycle. Now you definitely can’t go for help.

It all starts with the apathy, y’know? People just give up. I see it a lot. That’s why you gotta find some reason to be happy, some reason to be thankful, every single day. Because a lotta these guys – once they dig this hole for themselves, that’s it. They never gettin’ out. You gotta stay positive.”

Written by pavanvan

September 1, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Looking for Poverty in New York

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The lack of conspicuous poverty in New York City is quite astonishing, given the financial holocaust of which it stands at the epicenter. Unemployment has spiked here, as everywhere else, and sits just below the national average: 8.7%. Yet to an untrained observer, the city still bustles with activity. Pedestrians either walk with focused strides or the confused gait of a tourist. Tourism, incidentally, has continued unabated – if anything it has quickened its pace. Times Square is so choked that the city has seen fit to close Broadway, freeing the herd to graze.

The property values in Manhattan are absurd, and continuously become more so. To live in Manhattan implies one of two things: either the adult a) has resided in their apartment for more than 15 years or (b) has an income in excess of $85,000 per year. If children are involved, the number almost quadruples. South of 90th street, it costs approximately $1500 to share a two-bedroom apartment, $2000 for a studio, $2500 for a one-bedroom, and upwards of $4000 for a three-bedroom suite. On Park Avenue, those values may be doubled, or south of 70th street, tripled.

Even in the boroughs, little visible poverty shows. Low income areas have residents who certainly don’t seem well-off, but everyone appears to be making a living, if sometimes only just. Still, a two-bedroom apartment in Queens costs $1700.

Every so often on the subway an odoriferous, disheveled, pot-bellied, yet clearly well-fed gentlemen will commandeer the car’s attention. Very rarely, he will have a crippling injury. After excusing himself, he’ll launches into a brief speech as to his misfortunes, add a plea for some small change (invariably so that he may get “a decent meal”), and end with an emphatic “God Bless You!” Most ignore, but a few can always be counted on to give a dollar or less. I have also seen five dollars donated, but never more. On average, if one spends eight hours a day at such an occupation, at five minutes per car, allowing breaks and lunch one can expect to make a very rough approximation of $85 per day (at an average of $1 per car).

The crisis’ evident lack of effect in New York City (compare to Detroit, for example) I think can be attributed to two major state-run programs, both of which amount to a seniority-based incentive structure. The first is affectionately referred to as ‘Section 8′ by longtime residents. Tenant unrest forced the city to enact rent stabilization in the ’70s, allowing long-term residents to pay only 30% of their net income as rent, while the city covers the rest. One low-income resident told me gravely that if the city were to revoke the Section 8 clause, “There’d be a whole lot more homeless people”

The second is New York State’s unemployment insurance program – generous, inclusive, and a far sight off from it’s Michigan counterpart. Claims have increased at such a rate as to induce the Department of Labor to set up an expedited online claim process. Newly laid-off workers can file a claim the very day they receive the news. The catch, of course, is that one has to have held a job in New York for a significant period to qualify. Still, I have spoken with seven or eight well-dressed bourgeois in Manhattan parks who told me they had been unemployed for months. They did not appear overly worried.

No discussion of poverty in New York could be complete without this anecdote, which occurred in Central Park two months ago. On a bench far off the path a visibly dirty homeless man with half his yellow teeth missing sang some nonsense into the wind. I approached him to make conversation, which he did in a jester-like fashion, and I asked what he did for a living.

“Me? Nah, I don’t work”, he replied.
“But surely you had a job at one point”, I suggested
“Oh, yeah, I worked at the S&L for years!” he laughed. I expressed confusion. “That’s Standing and Leaning!” he got out between laughs. Then, more seriously – “No, I’ve never worked”.
“Then where do you live?”
“I live here. This is my park. I’m homeless.”

During the conversation he ripped open a high-fructose “cream pie” package – Little Debbie was the brand, I believe – and scarfed it in two bites.

“I tell you what though,” he said between mouthfuls, “I get $300 per month food stamps, $200 per month from the shelter, and a place to stay – so I’m makin’ like $800 per month”

I mentioned this was more than I made, and asked if he felt he should give something back to society for the livelihood it allowed him to draw.

“Give something back?” And here I must say to his credit that he at least considered it. Then he declared: “I do give something back! I’m puttin’ on a show for these people!”

Written by pavanvan

July 23, 2009 at 8:50 pm

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