Thursday, December 30, 2004

disaster recovery in chennai

Here are some out takes from my reporting in Chennai after the tidal wave. It wasn't THE place to be for reporting on the tsunami by any means, as the city was spared the huge levels of damage seen elsewhere. But it was frightening enough. NOTE: The figures mentioned below have long since been revised as better information has been collected.

Like every disaster, the tsunami hit India not with cruel indifference, but with perverse cruelty, striking hardest those least prepared to deal with tragedy—poor people with no money in the bank to fall back on. Most of the dead are poor fisherfolk who live in villages dotted along the coast of Tamil Nadu (not including the 3000-5000 odd dead on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are closer to Indonesia than India). One village, called Nagapattinam, was practically wiped off the map and erased from memory, with some 2500 dead The site of the famous Velankanni church—a popular pilgrimage site for Christians in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa—was especially hard hit, as worshippers gathered Sunday morning for a special Boxing Day service that let out just as the first giant wave hit—one estimate pegged the dead pilgirms at around 500. In Nagapattinam, some 500 bodies were extricated in the past 24 hours and mass burials have been going on for the three days since the wave hit, mostly accomplished with hard labor in the absence of many tractors and bulldozers. Julian Teelar, a relief worker affiliated with the South Indian Federation of Fisherman Societies, told me, “There is no one here that has not lost a relative. People have lost their voices from screaming and crying. We know of one family that lost nine members. Today a fisherman pointed out the spot to me where his two children are buried underneath the rubble and we haven’t yet been able to get them out. He knows they are there, but we haven’t got them out.” In this area, there is a strong risk of an epidemic, as officials race to identify the dead and bury them in mass graves, and already families are reporting that their children are suffering from fever and diarrhea due to the unclean conditions in the relief camps.

The state estimates nearly 4000 dead--188 in Chennai, 486 in Cuddalore, 665 in Kanyakumari and 2414 in Nagapattinam. Some 40% of those killed were children. These estimates, like all of them, are probably fairly loose and will keep changing as time goes on. But there’s little chance that they will go down.

In India, however, the focus on the deaths has hidden what may turn out to be a more longlasting and intractable problem: the loss of housing and livelihoods.

G. Anton Gomez - president National Union of Fishermen -- Told me that the organization estimates that some 70-80 percent of all fishermen in Tamil Nadu (perhaps a million fishermen) lost all their boats and equipment, along with their homes. That means they not only have no place to live, but they have no way of earning money to support themselves or their families. This is going to be a huge headache for the govt also because these are people who live their lives almost entirely “off the books” with only a government ration card for identification, and many lost their ration cards along with all their other stuff. Some of my characters emphasize that point – not least because they’re thinking about what they’ll have to do to keep living more than about the people who are beyond help. I’m going to file an addendum on the relief effort and its likely challenges later tonight or tomorrow morning, with any luck.

In Chennai, where I did my reporting, the people who were affected almost all lived in illegal squatter colonies on the beach. In 1991, the government passed a law called the coastal regulation zone notification which mandated that nobody should build anything permanent within 500 meters of the highest high tide line. But because none of the poor can afford to rent apartments or buy land away from the coast, slums made of thatch huts mushroomed on the beaches anyway. In part this is because the fishermen like it that way: they want to be near their boats and they sell their catch on the beach itself. But it’s also because the government has failed to solve the problem of the shortage of affordable housing (and to enforce its zoning laws).

Says T. Mohan, an environmental activist for Coastal Action Network who works with fishing communities:

“Subsistence fishing communities live on the coast. They're used to taking

that risk [of natural disaster]. But we're pushing them closer and closer to the coast because of

urbanization and the rising cost of land. There are also large numbers of

slums that have grown up along the coast because of administrative failure

to build safe & affordable housing for people [other than fishermen] who

don't need to live near the coast. They ought not to have been there." That might be true, but as the characters below illustrate, they plan to go right back to the sites of their destroyed huts.

Below find some local color from Chennai, with a few perspective “characters” for the reconstruct.

55-year-old Walli was sitting in front of her hut in the seaside colony of Orur Kuppam, a cluster of some 500 huts made from coconut thatch, built illegally on public beachfront land in the South Indian city of Chennai, when the tsunami hit. There was no warning. The great wave made no noise. It simply arose, a giant wall of water in the distance, and, traveling at some 500 mph, hit the beach seconds later. A frail woman, prematurely aged from a lifetime of hard work, Walli wasn’t able to run fast enough to escape with the others, and the wave caught her and dragged her into the sea. Tumbling in the boiling foam, she was too stunned to think what was happening as salt water forced its way into her nose and mouth. Then, as abruptly as it had taken her, and with the same relentless force, another wave swept the old woman back up the beach. As the wave drew back, threatening to sweep her out to sea again, it smashed one of the thatched roofs down on her, bashing her shins, but pinning her to the sand and, as it turned out, saving her life. The wave receded, and some of her neighbors ran to her and dragged her to safety.

As she tells her story, it is clear that the amazement has not left her, even as she and the other residents of Orur Kuppam—all of whom lost their homes and all their possessions—struggle to prove to government and private relief workers what they lost and earn compensation. And like the others here, she knows that as soon as she can, she will be back in another hut a scant hundred feet from the water. “We have nothing but the sea,” she says. “All we know is fishing. And we cannot afford to pay rent on what we earn. By god’s grace I was saved because a hut fell on me.”

On Sunday Dec. 26, Marimuthu—a former fisherman who works as a night watchman in the Chennai neighborhood of Besant Nagar—finished work at 6 in the morning and walked back to the strip of beach where he once lived with his wife Sangita and his three children. Known as Orur Kuppam, Marimuthu’s neighborhood was a close huddle of some 500 huts made from coconut thatch, some with brick and mortar foundations, built illegally by squatters on public beachfront land. Since he had taken a vow to make a religious pilgrimage to Sabari Malai in Kerala in January, Marimuthu was abstaining from alcohol, meat and sex for the 41 days leading up to the journey, bathing and praying every morning. So on the day of the tsunami, he went to the temple on the inland side of the slum cluster to pray, along with others who’d taken the same vow. Because his wife, a housemaid, goes to work at 6:30, his children were awake when he finished his prayers and returend home around 8. His eldest child was playing near the house with one of his nephews, and his second daughter was playing with a friend some way away. Exhausted from stayng up all night, Marimuthu fell asleep with his nine-month old baby in his arms.

Suddenly, shouts woke him up and he came rushing out of the hut with his baby in his arms. A huge wave, perhaps 20 feet high, was rushing toward the shore. “The only thought in my mind at that time

was that I should somehow save my own two children and the other two

children, who had been entrusted to me for minding. I dont know how I did

it- but I was carrying the nine-month-old and the three year-old and

dragging the other two along with me and running away from the coast towards

the road, the wave literally chasing me for some distance, till it hit the

huts. Several huts caved in due the impact of the wave , and a lot of

domestic items from several houses which were lying on the floor were

carried away to the sea by the receding wave. I along with several others

who also ran away to safety like me were watching helplessly, when their

precious little belongings were being swallowed by the hungry sea. After

this wave, though the sea appeared calm for some time, nobody dared to go

near their hut. All of us were watching the sea , not knowing what to do


Then , in another 20/30 minutes, it happened again. This time the

wave was much bigger and higher, may be 20 feet and when it hit the cluster

of the tenements, the devastation was complete. On the return the wave dragged along with it all that was remaining of these tenements. Once it receded , the whole place where almost 350 families lived was a flat of sand , strewn with lot of flotsam and jetsam. Marimuthu handed over his sister’s children to his brother-in-law and took his eldest daughter and baby son to a nearby school where people had taken shelter. But there was no sign of his second daughter. Fearing the worst, he asked an acquaintance to look after his kids and, not knowing where to look for his missing daughter, went straight to the house where his wife Sangita was working.

The family searched frantically for most of the day, tramping up and down the streets of the neighborhood, begging the police and neighbors for help until finally, in the afternoon, someone came and told them that she was with a neighbor in another relief camp.

Since then, Marimuthu and his family have spent the past three days in relief camps, though he still manages to perform his duties as night watchman. In Chennai, the relief effort is organized, and everyone is getting food, even though victims allege that some people who weren’t affected by the wave are taking away the food and clothing meant for them. And in any case, no relief package will be enough. “The government has taken the names of the people who have lost their homes and promised some compensation, but we all know that it will be nothing compared with everything we have lost.”

“The big question we must face now is how to rebuild our lives. We have nothing

left with but the clothes we are wearing. We know that no miracle is going to happen. The first thing is to have a roof on top of our heads. Then only we can think of anything else, including the childrens school books and dresses. Now I am praying more earnestly."

His children wake up screaming “The wave is coming” in the night, and will not go near the water. But Marimuthu knows that the family will eventually have to move back to the shoreline slum. “This time I will try to build a house with a brick foundation,” he says grimly, though he must be aware that bricks and mortar didn’t save his neighbors.

In another Chennai slum, on the seaward side of a neighborhood called Srinivaspuram, the fisherfolk were not so lucky. Already, some 80 bodies have been recovered here, and the waves uncover new corpses every day. Along the beach, the only sign that there was once a community of huts here are the wooden poles the former residents have stuck in the sand again to mark out their plots—these people, too, are coming back. The forest of twisted branches stretches as far as you can see down the beach, and if you walk through it, you come upon people squatting on the site of their one-time homes with dazed looks on their faces. Here and there is the remains of someone’s hard-earned concrete floor, broken into slabs of rubble, or a child’s mangled bicycle. Some 2000 homes were destroyed here, displacing as many as 10,000 people. (This is among 75000 homes estimated destroyed in greater Chennai, which means some 300,000 people homeless and in relief camps)

Vasturi, a fifty year old grandmother, saw her daughter and two grandchildren washed away. Perversely, the wave swept her daughter, Saraswati, back to shore alive and unhurt, only to cast the bodies of her three year old daughter Durga Devi and one year old son Vignesh onto the sand a mile away. As I spoke with Vasturi, the bereaved mother Saraswati came to me in a frenzy of grief—like many on the scene—still weeping and tearing her hair three days after the fact. Her thin face was marked with deep, angry scratches that could only have been self inflicted.

Another grandmother, Rani, was the last to see her grandson Jyoti Vishul alive, when the fourth-grader came to her on a break from a sandy soccer game to get a rupee coin to buy a piece of candy. He and the rest of the soccer players were swept away. Some of the others escaped, but Jyoti was drowned. “The fourth grade!” his grandmother says in disbelief. “And he was the tops in his class!” She is pleading with me, like I’m somehow able to judge whether this was fair and can do something about it. Jyoti’s not the only one: at Marina Beach, a wide, flat beach popular with tourists and morning walkers, 20-odd boys engaging in a game of cricket—India’s abiding passion—were all swept away by the first, unexpected wave.

Others will ask me for money. Still others will curse me, some memorably. “You are here to write about our misery,” a woman says with a bitter smile. She has seen this slum colony burn to the ground twice, and seen reporters, too. “Nothing ever changes,” she says. Most, though, beg me to write down the names of the children—especially the children—that they have lost.

Some of these plots are no more than 100 feet from the water’s edge. At a handful, there are signs the former residents were able to save more than the clothes on their backs, and are now drying laundry. Near one, a group of men are neck deep in a hole in the sand, digging. But it is not another body. They are struggling to unearth a fishing net. A few paces on, a child has built a sand castle. Life goes on.


Tuesday, December 14, 2004

after the pedestrian horn

Some readers may remember my unheralded invention, the pedestrian horn, which faded into obscurity after I learned that Delhi drivers use the horn as if it were a forcefield, not to sound a warning. Well, I have another invention -- or one that is needed anyway: A stoplight that burns up the engines of vehicles that ignore the various complexities of red lights and green arrows, or simply electrocutes the drivers. Perhaps you'll think that's a bit extreme. But try driving through the intersections in my GKII - CR Park neighborhood during rush hour, and you'll soon come to agree with me. What is the point of a stop light that tells those who need to make a right turn (me) when they can go with a green arrow if the others simply bull their way through until they achieve a giant snarl that takes hours to unravel (if some good Samaritan decides to direct traffic). Why not just put a girl in a bikini in the middle of the road with two red flags, like in some drag racing flick? As soon as she drops the flags, the demolition derby begins. Another pet peeve is the blinking red light. Do these things serve any purpose? I think I'm the only person in the country who knows that it is meant to signify to drivers that they are to come to a complete stop, look both ways, and then proceed through the intersection if nothing is coming. Everybody else seems to think it means "every man for himself." Wait! I guess they do have the red flag system! Only they've electrified it, and left out the girl in the bikini. Well, I can't say I approve of that innovation.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

the curse of red ink

Former cabinet minister Arun Shourie pulls back the curtain on India's bureaucracy in his new book "Governance, and the sclerosis that has set in," writes Jason Overdorf in Newsweek International.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

the poor and the rich

Vir Sanghvi--editor of the Hindustan Times and perhaps India's only columnist worth reading--this week takes issue with Time Asia's cover story on India in his regular column Counterpoint ("India's Parallel Universes" HT Dec. 5 2004--available online only to subscribers). While to some degree he points out the obvious (following Time's lead), Sanghvi makes some funny observations about Time's conclusions.

For example, he draws attention to the magazine's use of Sahara founder Subroto Roy as evidence that India's super rich have something more than profligate spending to offer the country, quotiing the magazine's statement that Sahara "represents a powerful case for the way in which money can buttress India's traditions." Vir's response: "(Really?)" I'd say that's a good one-eyebrow-raised withering if I've ever read one. My question is: what traditions are we talking about here? Feudalism - with the lord charitably funding marriages for a few vassals alongside family nuptials (in suitably lesser style, of course)? Grand traditions like dowry? This is a laughable observation if I've ever heard one.

His eyebrow still raised, Sanghvi also raises a question that many Indian journalists (and by extension, foreign correspondents) have long asked. "One day," he writes, "somebody will have to explain to an economic dunderhead like me how Subroto Roy manages to keep on spending so much money even though there are no obviously profitable ventures visible to non-business minded laymen like myself."

Funnier still is Sanghvi's subtle lampooning of Time's conclusion that Indians find rich people inspirational and aspirational. He writes this is "a sentiment supported by three quotes. One is from Simi Garewal..., one is from columnist Swapan Dasgupata, who says "people like Subroto Roy 'let us believe we can make it, that India can make it...' [Make what? Ambi valley?] and one from a guest at one of Vijay Mallya's parties.

Keep up the good work, Vir.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

saffron sikh

Tavleen Singh, who has become more and more up front in her blind allegiance to the Sangh Parivar (oh, wait, now she's saying they don't exist, or they're highly exaggerated) in recent columns, finally got her comeuppance when she decided to butt heads with Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad, co-editors of Communalism Combat.

In an Indian Express article titled "The Communalism Divide" Singh backs Zaheera Sheikh's claims that Anand and Setalvad exploited her for money. The saffron Sikh accuses the editors of receiving funding from dubious sources to support an alleged campaign against Hindu fundamentalism--all while ignoring the actions of Muslim fanatics. Singh's readiness to believe that the Hindu right is dead is not surprising. She has been an apologist for the saffron brigade for many columns running. But it bears pointing out that in this article she tacitly endorses the logical fallacy that Zaheera's recanting of her testimony (or "turning hostile") in the Gujarat riots case means that she was lying before and is now telling the truth. When someone changes her story before the court, only one thing is certain: either she was lying the first time, or she's lying the second time, and she has erased any credibility she might have had. Only through other evidence -- and not through the "logic" of the propagandist -- can the truth be discovered.

Here, for instance, it is likely that Zaheera was discouraged from testifying at first by threats of violence from those she eventually accused, decided to come forward after she was promised protection, and recanted when those she'd accused changed tactics and offered her money to drop her accusations. It's just as plausible that she hadn't seen anything, was encouraged to testify with promises of money, and recanted when those promises turned out to be empty ones. We can speculate all we like about which scenario is more compelling, but certainly won't come up with anything "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Worse, though, than Singh's leaps of fallacy, are her slanders. Which Anand and Setalvad ruthlessly catalogue in their response, also in the Indian Express. It's hard to imagine how Singh could have gone so far wrong as to accuse Communalism Combat of being an anti-national friend of Muslim fundamentalism and part of an imaginary conspiracy of the Left to malign Hindu nationalism, at least given the catalogue of forty-odd articles by the magazine which castigate fundamentalist Islam, Bangladesh and Pakistan that its editors provide. And it's beautiful to see the Express being brave enough to hang its own columnist out to dry with no less than a 3/4 page spread.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

India: Playing Its Last Card?

(This article appeared in Newsweek International in December 2004).

Having been sidelined by its election loss in May, India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party jumped at the chance to get back in the headlines last week after the arrest of the country's foremost religious leader, Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati, a.k.a. the Kanchi seer. BJP leaders denounced the jailing of the 70-year-old holy man—who was charged with arranging the killing of an employee who had worked at the seer's Hindu temple in southern India—and went on a three-day fast to demand the seer's release. BJP-associated far-right Hindu groups alleged the arrest was a "Christian conspiracy against Hinduism" perpetrated by the Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

The issue was not just religious, but political too. Observers say the BJP is scrambling for an issue to help them recover from the election, and playing the Hindu card has become their best option. BJP hard-liners claimed the party lost because the party strayed from its traditional Hindutva message—an ideology that seeks to transform India into a Hindu state. "They're trying to use the arrest to reintroduce the Hindutva agenda," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of comparative and Indian politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "They have no other agenda. Both [the Congress and the BJP] are doing economic reforms [and] trying to improve ties with Pakistan. Hindutva is the only differentiating factor they have." Last Wednesday BJP president L. K. Advani admitted as much, saying the seer's arrest could help mobilize support for his ailing party. It's worked before. In the early 1990s, the BJP galvanized Hindu support by casting itself as the protector of Hinduism in the midst of nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots. Just a few years later, in 1998, it gained control of the government for the first time.
—Jason Overdorf

on the demise of magazines and other matters of great socio-political import

By now everyone knows that Dow Jones--following in the footsteps of Time Warner, but, as usual, at a slightly slower pace demonstrating not superior integrity but inferior business acumen--succeeded after many years of effort in running the Far Eastern Economic Review into the ground. I do myself no credit by saying so -- since I was a frequent contributor when the magazine was at its lowest ebb -- but although it was once a respected journal of academic-quality analysis, excellent writing and daring investigative journalism, the magazine became, under Dow Jones, a poor imitation of first the Economist and then Business Week, until it was no longer a regional magazine at all but a China magazine with a random selection of articles from around Asia. What happened? The same thing that happened to AsiaWeek. It became a corporation instead of a magazine. It was marketed instead of edited. And it died.

the return of

Admit it. You missed us. Well, we're back. We don't know why we were away. Perhaps it was the usual ennui of life in Delhi. Perhaps it was the booze. Perhaps it was the rabid punjabi bitches picking fights with us in Shalom (and the subsequent soul-searching about what we possibly could have done wrong). Perhaps it was the dozens of hardware crashes, subsequent calls to Technician Sanjay, subsequent realizations that the one crucial article proposal we had finished the day before was completed AFTER we made our backup of our documents folder, and subsequent bouts of black, foul-breathed depression. Then again, perhaps it was the weather, suddenly bearable for a brief 15 minutes before winter sets in and we have to break out our fingerless gloves for computer work in our frigid basarti. The main thing is we're back, isn't it?

Monday, October 11, 2004

past perfect

Ha Jin's latest novel is a solid read, but won't meet readers' high expectations of this writer's work

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2004).

War Trash by Ha Jin. Pantheon $25

A NOVEL LIKE Ha Jin's Waiting, which won the National Book Award in the United States and elicited comparisons with Russian masters Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel, can become a heavy burden on a writer's subsequent work. Though impressive, Ha Jin's fourth book, War Trash, does not meet the same lofty standard.

Set in 1951-53 and written in the form of a memoir by Yu Yuan, a Chinese soldier captured and imprisoned by American troops during the Korean War, the book offers an intriguing view of that conflict. But perhaps because it reads so much like a memoir--the book hinges on Yu Yuan's political development--War Trash lacks the drama needed to make it a successful novel.

Apart from the setting, the story of political disillusionment is well-trodden territory for Chinese authors writing in English. Though Yu Yuan does not begin as a communist, he realizes quickly that he must ally himself with the communist leaders in the prison camp if he is to have any hope of returning to the mainland, rather than emigrating to rival Taiwan. Because he has an elderly mother and a young fiancée waiting for him at home in China, he fights off the overtures of the Nationalists and cooperates with the communist-led agitations at the prison, which include not only hunger strikes and other nonviolent resistance but also the clever capture of the American general in charge of the prison camp.

Yu edges closer and closer to joining the party himself. But his class background as an educated graduate of the formerly Nationalist-run Huangpu Military Academy holds him back. The more he observes the decisions of the camp's party leaders--symbolic struggles to fly the Chinese flag, for example--the more he comes to believe that their faith leaves no room for humanity. "I was ambivalent about the attempt to reseize the flag," Yu reflects. "On the one hand, I admired the courage our men had displayed, and in a way I'd been awestruck by their passion and bravery, which I have to admit I didn't share. On the other, I doubted whether it was worth losing a man's life for the sake of a flag, which, symbolic as it might be, was just a piece of nylon cloth." Making explicit the striking parallel between fervent communism and religious fanaticism, Yu concludes: "I had noted there was a kind of religious fervour in some of these men, who were capable of laying down their lives for an idea."

By the end of the novel, of course, Yu has become a cynic, ready to mouth the party's platitudes if that will get him home--but fully aware that every political machine grinds on without a care for the people who fuel it and even thrives on their destruction. "Without such obliteration of human particularities, how could one fight mercilessly? When a general evaluates the outcome of a battle, he thinks in numbers--how many casualties the enemy has suffered in comparison with the losses of his own army. The larger a victory is, the more people have been turned into numerals. This is the crime of war: It reduces real human beings to abstract numbers."

This passage has resonance today, as the world's collective thinking about political issues again falls victim to the foolish polarity of a theory of a clash of civilizations. But these are not new ideas, nor are they expressed well. All of Ha Jin's books have dealt with modern China's baffling combination of idealism and brutality. But Waiting, and to a lesser extent his other fiction, was remarkable foremost for its understanding of human relationships, not political ones. He captured the sweet tragedy of our frail loves and petty hates with sensitivity and wisdom.

And though he himself once served in the People's Liberation Army and sometimes writes of soldiers, Ha Jin's best stories have, like Chekhov's, always been about love. The chief interest of War Trash, in contrast, is in its value as history. The Chinese prisoners' perspective on the war in Korea and their American captors is not one with which many foreign readers will be familiar, and though the novel's thematic conclusions are thin gruel, the prisoners' machinations make good reading. But these are not the usual pleasures we expect from fiction.

india fails to support disabled, says survey

By Shailaja Neelakantan/NEW DELHI

From the Chronicle of Higher Education - Issue cover-dated October 15, 2004

Indian higher-education institutions show scant regard for the educational rights of India's disabled, according to a recent survey of universities across the country by the National Center for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People.

Of 322 universities that were sent the research questionnaire, only 119 responded, and the survey found that only 0.1 percent of students enrolled at those universities had disabilities.

All higher-education institutions that receive financial aid from the government are supposed to reserve at least 3 percent of their seats for people with disabilities. The survey found that 24 universities were clearly violating this rule, while 7 categorically stated that they did not admit students with disabilities. All the universities surveyed receive government support.

According to Javed Abidi, founder of the center, there are approximately 24 million disabled young people in India.

"Of the total youth in India, 6 percent have access to higher education, which means 1.44 million disabled youth should also have access to higher education, but our survey found that only 1,635 disabled students were enrolled in the colleges we surveyed, which is way off the national average," Mr. Abidi said.

He added that it was not enough to have seats reserved for students with disabilities. "What's the point in having a quota if you don't have the facilities?" he asked. "I have found that even when disabled students do get admitted to universities, many drop out after a few months because it is just too difficult and inconvenient for them." Most universities are unaware of or decide not to take advantage of a government program that gives universities grants to make campuses accessible and to provide special equipment for disabled people, he added.

The survey found that only 18 universities reported that they provided appropriate desks and chairs for students with disabilities, 11 provided wheelchairs, 9 provided access to tricycles, 16 had special computer software, and 10 provided access to books in Braille.

no longer dreaming of america

In India and China, far fewer students consider the U.S. the best place to go

By Paul Mooney and Shailaja Neelakantan

From the Chronicle of Higher Education - Issue cover-dated October 8, 2004

Sun Zhi graduated from China's prestigious Tsinghua University in 2002, one year after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Yet despite getting a scholarship from an American university, the computer-science major was turned down for a visa by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

"It's all because of 9/11," he says with a trace of anger in his voice. "Had I applied one year earlier, I'd have easily gotten a visa."

Rejected twice, Mr. Sun eventually gave up his dream of studying in the United States. "Many of my classmates have changed their plan to go to American universities to earn a Ph.D. due to the tightening of visa approvals," he says. "Since it has become so difficult, we think it's a waste of time to apply."

For more and more international students like Mr. Sun, studying in America seems to be a fading hope -- and a fading interest. China and India, which supply more than one-third of all graduate students to American universities, are being watched particularly closely by worried admissions officers in the United States.

The number of students from China applying to American graduate programs for the fall 2004 term plunged 45 percent from last year, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools released in September. India experienced a 30-percent drop. (About 80 percent of Chinese and Indian students in the United States are enrolled in graduate school.) The total number of international graduate-student applications fell by 28 percent.

While concerns over visa delays and rejections seem to be the main reason for the dip in applications to American graduate schools, other factors come into play as well. The stagnant U.S. economy has shrunk the available pool of financial aid for graduate students and lessened students' prospects of finding good jobs in the United States after they earn their degree. China has pumped more money into its own graduate programs in recent years, making the idea of studying at home more appealing to students. In India, a booming economy has led many recent college graduates into the work force instead of to graduate school.

Competition Grows

One trend particularly troubles American universities: increased competition from other countries. Australia, Britain, and Canada are leading the pack, although some Asian and South Pacific countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore, also have their eyes on becoming regional hubs for international students.

"Earlier the default choice for most top students was the U.S.," says a spokesman for Infozee, a New Delhi-based visa-counseling center for students. "It isn't anymore."

While American institutions tend to market themselves individually or in small groups, other English-speaking countries that have largely public university systems use umbrella organizations to promote all of their institutions through university fairs and advertisements. By using a one-stop-shopping approach, they say, they make applying easier and less intimidating for students.

"The impression the U.S. universities give is that they aren't that interested in getting foreign students," says Pragyat Singh, office manager of Middlesex University in India, which helps students seeking admission to the British university.

"We, on the other hand, provide door-to-door service," says Mr. Singh. "We have a number of offices in India to counsel students right here. Students know me, they can meet me and sort out all their problems. Besides, I can take a spot decision. We are like an education shop and help with everything from accommodations to scholarships. I know of no U.S. universities that do so much."

Each competitor has also learned to play up its strengths. Australia and Canada stress that tuition and cost of living there are significantly less expensive than in the United States. Britain and New Zealand note that certain of their degrees take less time to earn than they would at an American institution. Canada and Britain have experimented with less-restrictive work regulations for students or recent graduates, which are more lenient than what the United States offers.

Boon to Canada

Students have paid attention. Qu Yuan, a sociology major who graduated from Peking University this year, says many of her classmates are turning away from American universities.

"Canada is cheaper and the U.K. requires a shorter time to get a Ph.D. degree," she says, "so many of my classmates are considering these countries."

Anecdotal evidence from admissions officers and academic organizations suggests that fewer international students may enroll in American universities this fall, while early signs indicate that the United States' main competitors expect to see an increase in international enrollments.

In Canada, universities and colleges say that applications from international students for both undergraduate and graduate schools were up for the fall 2004 term, although some campuses reported a significant drop in the number of applications from China.

University officials attribute the overall increase partly to September 11 fallout, but believe that active recruiting has been a bigger influence.

Six years ago the Canadian government created a marketing arm for colleges and universities to promote themselves jointly, and at least five major federally run programs put information into the hands of potential international students. The country has also pumped millions of dollars into university research, which has helped lure international graduate students. The government recently created 2,000 full scholarships for Ph.D. students and another 2,000 for master's students.

"There's a huge infusion of money. ..." says Frieda Granot, dean of graduate studies at the University of British Columbia, one of Canada's big research institutions. "That helps with recruiting the best students." Her institution's international-student enrollments have risen rapidly since 2001. "Last year it was almost unmanageable," she says.

Deepinder Singh, who recently graduated from University College of the Cariboo, opted for a degree in computer science in Canada after checking out Australia and the United States. He says he found that both the quality of education and the quality of life in Canada were uniformly good.

"Why not live in the best place?" he says. "I've found that the people who live here take the time to be friendly and listen to you." Plus, he says, studying in Canada was more affordable than other countries would have been.

Britain also expects international enrollments to rise this year. The number of students applying from China rose 4.5 percent for the fall 2004 term, to 8,261, according to the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service, the central organization through which all applications are processed. The number of applicants from India rose 8.5 percent, to 2,135.

Working Hard

Simon Willis, director of the international office at the University of York, which has seen a steady growth in international students in recent years, says many universities "have been working very hard to build their profiles. We visit countries that we recruit in, to build links with institutions."

Like Canada, Britain has also brought a more coordinated approach to international-student recruitment in recent years. In 1999 the government created the Prime Minister's Initiative, which brought universities and the government together to market higher education in Britain, and created a single Web site through which students can research academic programs, application procedures, and financial aid. It is currently developing an online scholarship database.

Australia's success in marketing itself as a higher-education destination to prospective students over the past 10 years is a matter of record. Among the English-speaking world's major education exporters, it has posted some of the past decade's heftiest gains, with Chinese and Indian student numbers driving much of the strongest growth.

Australian recruiters speak of their marketing style as a mix of strategies, including advertising, education events, Web-marketing, and, most importantly, aggressive follow-up for students who express interest in studying there.

According to IDP Education Australia, the umbrella organization responsible for marketing Australian universities abroad, the number of students from China grew 18 percent, to 26,400, between 2003 and 2004. The number of students from India rose 21 percent, to 14,870.

Abhilash Puljal, an Indian student who earned an undergraduate degree in commerce at DePaul University in 2001, opted for graduate school in Australia. He says the fallout from September 11, in which prospective employers in the United States were reluctant to hire him despite a one-year work option he had on his visa, persuaded him to look elsewhere.

"The world is moving to the Asia-Pacific region anyway, isn't it?" says Mr. Puljal, who now lives in Australia, where he expects to complete his master's degree in international business studies later this year at the University of Sydney.

Visa-issuance statistics from the State Department show a significant decline since 2001, when 32,867 visas were issued to Chinese students and 28,344 were issued to Indian students. As of mid-September 2004, those figures were 25,310 and 21,755 respectively. Given the ever-growing competition for foreign students, will the United States ever hit 2001-level figures again? "I would hate to have to predict the future with regard to student-visa applications," says an official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, who did not want to be identified. "All told, I would think that we have passed the high-water mark."

Changes at Home

While students in China and India are looking elsewhere to study, that shift doesn't fully explain why fewer are interested in studying in the United States.

Many students in China are simply choosing to stay home. In recent years, the government has pumped a great deal of money into graduate education in the sciences, so that students who may not qualify for admissions to a top-tier American university are more likely to consider continuing their studies in China. The Ministry of Education reports that 330,000 Chinese students intend to enroll in graduate programs in China in 2004, up 20 percent from last year.

"There is no doubt that there are greater opportunities in China for both undergraduate- and graduate-level study than what existed a few years ago," says the U.S. Embassy official. "Furthermore, the quality of education offered at Chinese colleges and graduate schools has also improved, narrowing the differences between what is available locally and internationally."

Media reports have also shown that Chinese people returning home with graduate degrees are finding that their foreign credentials are no longer as valuable on the Chinese job market as they used to be. "This is causing a shift in the economic calculations about the value of a foreign degree," the official said.

India's situation is somewhat different. A robust economy, rather than improved graduate schools, has proved to be the main lure in keeping students from leaving.

India's economic liberalization of the early 1990s has boosted consumerism, leading to an increase in the number of restaurants, malls, multinational fast-food outlets, and mobile-phone companies. The boom in the outsourcing of IT services and customer-relations call centers means that high-paying jobs with upward mobility are readily available for young, inexperienced graduates.

The Job Factor

With all these options students are looking to get ahead in their careers rather than continuing to study. "Earlier if you didn't do a master's degree it was seen as a negative, but now parents are not averse to sending their kids out to the workplace," says Vijaya Khandavilli, educational adviser at the U.S. Educational Foundation of India.

K.N. Gupta, an engineering professor who oversees the training and placement division at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology's Bombay branch, has seen this play out in the institute's classrooms.

About 40 percent of the institute's graduates went abroad this year, which was significantly less than in previous years, he says. Next year he expects only 20 percent to go overseas.

"It's not that they are not getting visas," he says. "It's just that there are now a lot of technology companies, including MNC's [multinational companies], who have offices here, and decent jobs here are now almost guaranteed."

"The top, top students still go," he adds, "but the next level, who are also very good, just stay on here to work."

A richer India has also meant that more parents are paying for their children's education abroad. That means the absolute numbers of Indian students going abroad is climbing, but the new applicants are looking for cost-effective universities rather than chasing scholarships. That has been a boon to Australia and Canada.

Ms. Khandavilli says the U.S. economic slump has also affected Indian students. American universities have had to tighten their budgets and reduce the amount of financial aid they offer. Most Indians going to the United States rely on scholarships, and conventional wisdom is that a hefty scholarship can influence the visa department to look kindly on a student's application.

"Doctoral students are still getting funding, but scholarships have declined for master's students," says Ms. Khandavilli. "And U.S. students are also competing for these funds as, due to the economic downturn there, students are choosing to stay on" in school rather than enter the job market.

The weak economy in the United States also discourages students from going there to study because it prompts worries about their job prospects after graduation.

"The primary reason people went to the U.S. was because they had the chance of settling down there to the big American dream," says the Infozee spokesman. "That's looking pretty tough these days, and while there is a global economic downturn, the one in the U.S. is much more hyped."

Not That Bad?

While the United States may never regain the market share it once had, it is unlikely to lose its dominance, especially at the graduate level, according to educational advisers abroad. About 600,000 international students currently study in the United States. Britain enrolls less than half that figure. Australia and Canada enroll 130,000 and 106,000 respectively. (Canadian figures do not include the estimated 150,000 to 200,000 students in vocational schools or studying English as a second language in short-term programs.)

Two reasons why these advisers think the United States will remain the most popular choice among students are the quality and quantity of its academic programs, particularly in the sciences.

Thus, despite the perceived difficulties, America remains the top choice for many Chinese and Indian students, even if this means delaying their studies for a year or two until they feel it is easier to get a visa.

"Lots of people still want to go to the United States compared with other countries," says Julie Zhu, a Chinese student who hopes to study journalism in the United States, adding an often-heard claim that England and Australia don't offer Chinese students much in the way of scholarships, a major concern of many who often cannot afford the high cost of overseas study. "The U.S. is the biggest place offering financial aid, and U.S. universities have a better reputation."

There are a few positive signs already on the horizon for American universities. The number of student visas issued in China this year is above last year's figure, although the number issued to Indian students is down.

The New Oriental School, famous for its Graduate Record Examination cram classes, says student numbers were down last year, but are increasing again. During the Chinese Spring Festival break, classes were packed.

"There were 300 students in my class," says Ms. Zhu. "And everyone was on time all the time."

Karen Birchard, David Cohen, and Aisha Labi contributed to this article.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

yet another cross to bear

Yet Another Cross To Bear

A new state law that seeks to extend the reservation of jobs for low-caste Indians from the public sector to private companies has business worried that the government is turning back the clock, writes Jason in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Follow the link to read the article and then, if you're curious, read the post below to see how the focus of the piece changed in the editorial process.

cutting room floor

I thought some readers might be interested to see the way articles can get revised during a magazine's editing process. In this draft of a story on a possible change in India's caste-based affirmative action program, you'll see I took a different focus--more sociological, I believe the editors called it. Because of the section of the magazine it was intended for, it needed a change in tone. Compare this to the way the story appeared in the magazine (also posted on this blog). Did the message of the story change? Perhaps a little. For better or for worse? (Note: I threw a headline on this draft for the heck of it; you'll notice that the headline chosen by editors for the magazine "Yet Another Cross to Bear" did a good deal of work to spin the story as anti-affirmative action, though the text was pretty evenhanded).

Creating Equals?

India’s new government—elected on promises of an improved life for the poor—is edging closer than any of its predecessors to forcing private companies to implement affirmative action for low-caste Hindus. But the opposition is entrenched.

NEW DELHI—Chandrabhan Prasad, India’s only newspaper columnist from a caste once considered untouchable, lives with his wife and one-year-old daughter in a modest four-room apartment in East Delhi. It’s not a luxurious life, but it’s a happy one, filled with hope. And Prasad believes it’s a life he’d never have known, but for constitutional provisions that reserve a portion of all jobs in the government and government-run public sector units for historically underprivileged Indians.

“My brother was able to get a reservation job in the police,” explains Prasad. “Because of that, I and my brothers and sisters were able to go to school, instead of going to work ourselves.” Reservation policies also helped Prasad make the “big leap” from a poorly financed, Hindi-medium college where professors wrote out Shakespeare in Hindi script to the highly respected Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he began writing editorials for the Pioneer and other national dailies. “The only question is how to get that opportunity,” he says.

For most Indians who come from what the Indian Constitution describes as “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” the answer to that question is reservations, or the quota system that India adopted in the 1950s as its answer to affirmative action. But as India dismantles its socialist-style economy and sells off more and more of Nehru’s public sector units, the number of reservation jobs is shrinking at an alarming rate. And along with those economic changes, the call for expanding the program to include private sector jobs is steadily increasing in volume.

For 2,000 years, Hindu belief has divided humanity into four Varnas, or groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Once, the caste you were born into determined your social status and the job you could do. Brahmins and Kshatriyas, at the top, were the scholars, priests, rulers and warriors of the society. Vaishyas were traders and the Shudras were menial servants. Beneath them all were those forced to perform tasks deemed by the Hindu religion to be polluting--making shoes, treating leather and scraping human excrement from primitive toilets, among myriad other jobs. To low-caste leaders like Udit Raj, national president of the Indian Justice Party, those were the most unsavory reservations of all. “Right from the Vedic period, the Brahmins reserved the top positions for themselves,” he says.

But in recent years lower caste Indians have gained substantial political power as the long-domination of Nehru’s Congress Party has given way to an era of coalition-based government. Though economic advancement has proven more elusive, former untouchables, who now call themselves Dalits, and lower caste Indians commonly called “Other Backward Castes” or OBCs—who together make up around 50% of the population—are essential to any electoral victory. For that reason, if no other, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government elected this May listed a call for a national dialogue on the expansion of affirmative action to the private sector in its post-coalition mission statement. President APJ Kalam then threw down the gauntlet on behalf of the new government in his June 7 speech at the opening of the new parliament, saying, “The government is sensitive to the issue of affirmative action, including reservation in the private sector, and it is committed to faster socio-economic and educational development of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.”

Soon afterward, the Congress government of Maharashtra—home to Mumbai and many of India’s largest corporate interests—became the first to take action to make good on the promise. Working through a law passed earlier this year, Maharashtra vowed to implement by July 30 a 52% quota for the underprivileged in "any Government-aided institution: those that are recognised, licensed, supervised or controlled by Government." Like all reservation policies, the quota did not mean that companies would have to fire upper caste workers and hire lower caste replacements—a common misconception—but would apply to all future recruitment. Indian industry responded immediately, opposing the plan on the basis that any limitations on recruitment would hurt corporate efficiency and make it more difficult for India to compete globally.

“We’ve already been suffering under many constraints, like socialist economic planning and labor restrictions,” says Rahul Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto, the world’s largest manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles and one of India’s largest companies. “If we implement reservations, we’ll have no way to become internationally competitive.” Though he is not without sympathy or a sense of social justice, Bajaj is convinced that now is not the time to saddle industry with responsibility for achieving it. Also, he believes caste-based discrimination is rapidly fading away. “There are poor people,” he says. “The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are suffering. Nobody says nothing should be done about it. We must do something. But we can’t correct one wrong with another wrong…. Most of us do not have that prejudice. That is nonsense. Bajaj Auto, out of my total employees of 10,500, today Bajaj Auto employs 28% [people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes]. Where is the discrimination?”

A spokesman for another of India’s top companies asked not to be quoted by name for this article because, he said, “As it is our hiring practices are based strictly on capability and on the fit in the [company] culture and the overall organization.” He said the company was unaware of how many of its workers came from historically underrepresented groups because “We don’t capture any data about caste, only about education and job history.”

Likewise, Nandan Nilekani, chief executive of Infosys Technologies, India's billion-dollar software-services giant, said in a statement, "We compete with the best in the world and recruit people who are the best, without any consideration for age, gender or caste. We believe that to retain its competitive edge, the country has to invest in training and developing our talent for the global market place."

In a more candid television interview, Nilekani sympathized with plans to help create a more equal society. "There is no substitute for economic growth and globalization to remove people out of poverty," he said. "The point is, how do you make sure that the wealth creation is funnelled into social causes? Clearly we need to have affirmative action. We really need to give people an opportunity. But I think the focus has to be on education and making sure that we create high-quality education opportunities for everyone and then provide, obviously, the jobs that can absorb them. Reservation in a company, per se, may not be a great idea."

If India’s employers are so committed to social reform, why is the opposition to affirmative action so strong? Just as in other countries with such policies, like the United States or Northern Ireland, there is a huge gap in opinions about how much discrimination exists, especially between the privileged and the disadvantaged. While many of the elite, like Bajaj, believe most prejudice has been eradicated, most lower caste Indians believe discrimination is so prevalent that it defines every social interaction. That is why most industrialists think the government should focus on uplifting the poor, regardless of caste, while lower caste leaders believe such a shift in emphasis would mean only that the lion’s share of the benefits they now enjoy would be transferred to poor Brahmins.

Dr. Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit who moved from state-run Bharat Petroleum to become managing director of Petrolnet India, a private sector company, says this debate reveals a fundamental misconception about the purpose of the reservation policy. Most people believe the policy is intended to uplift the poor, rather than to offer redress for 2000 years of discrimination. “There is never an iota of reference to the intrinsic disability of the Indian society to treat all people equally and justly,” he says. “It is not the disability of the Dalits but the disability of Indian society that necessitates reservation.” Meanwhile, when industry suggests that requiring companies to fill positions with Dalit personnel will erode efficiency, it implies that Dalits are by nature incompetent, he argues. “I would say the very tone and tenor of these reactions against reservations from the corporate leaders constitutes reason enough for reservation in the private sector…. None of them seems to consider the possibility that there could be people from these castes with requisite merit and capability.”

“The opposition to reservations in the private sector on the grounds of efficiency is not acceptable to me,” agrees Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar, a Dalit who is vice chancellor of Mumbai University and a member of the national Planning Commission, speaking on his own behalf and not for those organizations. “Can efficiency be caste based or religion based or language based? Efficiency is acquired. Efficiency is the outcome of circumstances.”

But however offensive industry’s statements about efficiency are to many low-caste Indians, there is at least a kernel of truth to the argument that too few Dalits and OBCs receive top-quality education and skills training. And while low-caste leaders believe their people will more than make up for that handicap if they are only given a chance, the industrialists have a point when they say that will take time and time is money. At the same time, the growing number of low-caste Indians who do have the requisite credentials and experience to win coveted jobs say they still face discrimination—some conscious and some unconscious—in the job market. People may talk about meritocracy, says Prasad, but often the competition goes no further than language and culture. The English-speaking elite, educated in expensive convent schools or British-style public schools, have a decided advantage in interactions with their peers over low-caste Indians. “His language, his style, his mannerisms, the way he dresses, in everything he will look very smart. But those are external qualities that don’t reflect your genius. That reflects your culture, your manner, your sophistication.” This is a statement that gives new meaning to corporations’ claims they weigh a perspective employee’s “fit with the company culture” when making hiring decisions. Nor do those who believe they are victims of discrimination have recourse to law. Although the Constitution has provisions to protect Dalits from being denied access to public places or facilities and from the atrocities that are still all-too common in rural areas, India has no equal opportunity laws to protect them or any of India’s minority groups from job-related discrimination.

Concerns about efficiency also mask greater worries about what will happen to high-caste Indians if as many as 50% of new jobs are reserved for their low-caste countrymen. And those fears can translate into vitriol—even violence. The last time India increased the scope of its reservation policies, when former Prime Minister V.P. Singh decided to implement the findings of the Mandal Commission and extend job quotas to include not only the scheduled castes and tribes but also Indians from “other backward castes,” fanatics burned themselves to death in protest and riots broke out across the nation, eventually leading to the end of Singh’s government.

Tempers still run hot. “There are so many so-called backward castes. Take the Nadas [a South Indian caste]. They’re filthy rich and yet they get preference over Brahmins everywhere in Tamil Nadu. For all the things Brahmins did 100 years ago, you can’t keep penalizing them,” says K. Mahesh, chairman and managing director of Sundaram Brake Linings. “They can screw up their government departments by having more backward castes there if they want. We don’t need to do that. It’s about time they uplifted themselves.”

“A lot of people feel there is this class of people that are being pampered and so much is being done about them,” says Narendra Jadhav, a Dalit who is principal adviser in the department of economic analysis and policy at the Reserve Bank of India who also spoke on his own behalf. “Most people do not recognize that actually in every single walk of life the extent of actual implementation of reservations has been extremely poor.” Despite more than 50 years of reserving 22.5% of public sector jobs, intended to govern promotions as well as recruitment, members of Scheduled Castes—who make up about a quarter of the population--hold only 10% of group A positions (the top), 13% of group B positions, 16% of group C positions and 21% of group D positions in central government services. Meanwhile, 44% of the sweepers—a designation that includes jobs like cleaning toilets and collecting garbage that Hindus consider “polluting”--come from Scheduled Castes. Even fewer good private sector jobs go to low-caste Indians, say Dalit leaders, though statistics aren’t available.

“We’re not saying make every Dalit a leader or a doctor or a television anchor. That is not possible. What we’re saying is among hundreds of persons, let’s consider having ten or twenty from Dalit backgrounds as well. We’re saying: Give us an opportunity. Then you can fire us. If we don’t satisfy you, then fire us. But give us an opportunity.”

Sunday, August 22, 2004

maps for lost lovers

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Aslam has captured the British imagination with this remarkable second novel, Jason writes in Newsweek. The award-winning British-Pakistani writer spent 11 years in cloistered penury, laboring over the story of the so-called honor killing of two unmarried lovers. Aslam, a lapsed Muslim, is a stern critic of the faith. But his focus on the exotic "Oriental" may earn him as many critics among liberal Asians as among fundamentalists.

fascinating books to buy me

Terry Castle has generated a terrific list of "astonishing memoirs by (and about) deeply repellent people" for the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly. I wish there were a Borders or Barnes & Noble around here.

Among the books he recommends are the following.

Liber Amoris: or, The New Pygmalion, by William Hazlitt (1823).
The hilariously squalid (and strangely affecting) record of the great nineteenth-century critic's erotic obsession with his landlady's daughter.

A Disgraceful Affair: Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bianca Lamblin, by Bianca Lamblin (1996).
A sapphic J'accuse! directed at Simone de Beauvoir.

<>A Madman's Manifesto, by August Strindberg (1895). Strindberg intended this scabrous roman à clef about his tormented marriage to the actress and feminist Siri von Essen to serve as a suicide note. He got cold feet about killing himself but decided to humiliate her anyway.

Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, by Art and Laurie Pepper (1979).
An American genius going down the toilet. Some think Pepper the greatest jazz saxophonist after Charlie Parker.

Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche, by Ben Macintyre (1992).
The intrepid Macintyre took a boat trip into the Paraguayan jungle in 1991 in search of the surviving inhabi-tants of Nueva Germania—an abortive "Aryan" colony founded in the late nineteenth century by the ghastly Elisabeth Nietzsche, racist sister of the philosopher.

Monday, August 16, 2004

more on olympics coverage

The Indian press will go to any length to print a photo of a woman in a bikini (or wet sari, or hot pants, or silver spandex catsuit, or fluorescent pink tube top, or artfully arranged collection of gravity-resistant rose petals). This is a bit of surprisingly market-savvy journalism for which I can express nothing but admiration, of course. But it does lead to the odd cock-up now and then, if I may be permitted a small pun (and Britishism). Witness the various agency photographs selected to accompany our respected newspapers' Olympics coverage. The Brazilian women's swim team (Brazil has a swim team?), the Brazilian beach volleyball team, the controversial Athens beach volleyball cheerleaders (misidentified as the Brazilian beach volleyball team--do I see a theme here?) But then, once in awhile, they get it right. Witness the Asian Age's August 17 photo of a Greek beach volleyballer (women's, of course) digging for a spike. Somebody deserves a medal for that one.

basic incompetence

If there's a better argument that government and media don't go together unless one is lambasting or lampooning the other than Doordarshan's Olympics coverage, I don't know what it is. The state-owned TV channel's coverage has been so bad that I've actually broken out laughing during the broadcasts.

(1) They use an absolutely hilarious fade-in screen for the various sports. For those of you away from India, it has the title of the next event (say, "Women's Gymnastics") written in a font nobody has used since the initial enthusiasm for desktop publishing wore off, surrounded by (I'm deadly serious here) clip art. That's right. Just the stuff they used to sell in little cut-out books for my high school newspaper, so we could put some "graphic element" on the pages when none of our photos turned out.

(2) The studio backdrop is even funnier.

(3) They commit the most amateur technical blunders without apology. For example, during women's gymnastics, the studio people will cut away to women's swimming on camera, but the audio will continue with the gymnastics commentary. This will continue for 15 minutes before anyone notices. Without fail, the channel will opt for an insignificant contest over a significant one, as in when they cut away from a compelling upset of a Polish boxer seeded for the bronze medal to show the last five minutes of a women's basketball game between the USA and New Zealand, in which the USA was 50 points ahead. 50 points! (This might not seem that insurmountable, if you didn't know that New Zealand didn't manage to score 50 points in the whole game.... which means they could play for the duration of a whole game without the USA scoring another point and still not catch up....) But the most infuriating, to the mad boxing fan: DD will stay on boxing through the third and the fourth round of a bout, find out who wins, and then keep us watching for the five minutes it takes to announce the judges for the next match--almost as long as a match lasts. Then, just before the fight begins, they'll cut away to the studio commentary.

(4) Which is the most pathetic of all. Some brain trust has decided that DD needs to educate the viewers in the basics of all the sports -- we know how well this works from USA soccer broadcasts or Mandira Bedi's cricket commentary -- so they force us to listen to the most inane drivel imaginable, first in English and then paraphrased in Hindi, usually separated and punctuated by long, awkward pauses, during which the anchors look at each other in quiet desperation. I rank these guys--the channel seems to have an endless stable of incompetents--well below the play-by-play that the communications class at my provincial high school provided for the school's basketball games on "Chelsea Radio." This is like watching Bob Ross (the white afro guy of The Joy of Painting) do sports.

Friday, August 13, 2004

good news from the atlantic

The Atlantic Monthly has finally managed to answer its Internet problems, and is now offering full online access to the magazine to subscribers, as well as digital-only subscriptions. After entering the Internet game early on, offering full access very soon after the Internet boom began and even bringing up substantial online-only content, the Atlantic discovered that online readers were hurting subscriptions.

For those of us in Asia, this was terrible news. Though subscribing to the magazine is very cheap, shipping overseas can double or triple that cost. The only dim-witted thing they've done, in my opinion, is they seem to have eliminated all "free" articles. These were excellent teasers for the magazine, and had the potential to attract subscribers (print or online). Now, I can only foresee people like myself taking advantage of the new offer. (As indicator of where the Atlantic comes in this field, the New York Review of Books and New Republic have been offering full access to subscribers for many months, while Harper's and the New Yorker provide limited content for free, mostly from their rich archives).

forgettable books

This morning I awoke to find the library littered with books. Shailaja had gone on a midnight purge fest that was long in the making. Our bookshelves were full, and we don't have room for any more shelves, so it was get rid of some books or stop buying more.

Here's what we're getting rid of -- for the benefit of the "On My Shelf" stream...

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - too similar to Richard Russo's book, whatever it was called, without being as funny
Trotter-Nama by Allan Sealy - Dunno
Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible - tried her recipe for Garam Masala and it tasted like ground cardamom seeds... If I want paan, or something equally vile, I'll go to the paan shop
Half a Life by VS Naipaul - I used to love VS until I moved to India and found out about his new love of fascism. Oh for another House for Mr. Biswas
Journalism Since September 11 - No, it doesn't have any of the crucial tidbits, such as, add Osama to every South Asia headline to ensure publication, as in, "Looking for Osama in Kathmandu" or "No Love for Osama in Colombo."
Selected Fiction by O.V. Vijayan
Memories of Madness - an anthology about Partition
Myths & Legends of India - already in the On My Shelf file... We never read it
Empire by Niall Ferguson - ditto. I challenge anyone to say honestly he waded through this entire book before weighing in with a review. Same challenge to anyone who claims to have read it who is not a professional book reviewer.
The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe - Not bad. Funny stuff about English boarding schools as I recall, but no William Boyd
The Last Jet Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi - Think I might put this one back on the shelf. Been meaning to read it.
The Narmada Damned - I'm sympathetic
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri - I dunno... Maybe I just can't stomach all that adulation. And the guy's named after Gogol, for god sake! As a friend wrote, Isn't that pretentious and precious at the same time?
1996 Expatriate Guide to Beijing - The amusement about the pace of change has warn off
Cities of India - Filling up space, and little more
River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester - How can such an interesting writer come up with such a boring book? Stumped.
The Sari Shop - More desi fiction... Can't stomach the stuff if I'm not getting paid to read it.
Mandala of Sherlock Holmes - Confession: I never got into the original, so why would I read the homage?
Kashmir, the Untold Story by Humra Qureishi - I think the title overstates the case
Socrates: Poisoned Again After Centuries - Was Rajneesh aka Osho like Socrates? This would be an interesting book if it presented convincing evidence that Osho was offed by the CIA or something, but it mostly presents the case that he was like Socrates in being dull and impenetrable or simply tautological.
The CIA's Secret War in Tibet - Did I say a book about the CIA would be interesting?
Contemporary India by Satish Deshpande - Again, the kind of book I get paid to read
Breaking the Big Story - Shailaja has vowed never to teach journalism again apparently
If You Are Afraid of Heights by Raj Kumar Jha - the best thing about this guy is his hair
Delhi: City Improbable - Neat little collection, but not worth saving
Gould's Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan - I went to great lengths to pick up this book in the US after reading a review that was, frankly, a load of shite. Apparently, the author's innovative use of different colored inks blinded the reviewer to his numbing boredom.
Eats, Shoots & Leaves - A book about commas. Soon everyone will recognize this fact, won't they?
Timeline by Michael Crichton - Ashamed to have liked this one, especially after seeing the movie, after which I know that nobody will believe me about the book. Gotta expunge this one from the record.
Mr. Naipaul's Round Trip & Other Essays - Suspect title. Have I mentioned my plans for a blog devoted entirely to unconvential reviews - e.g. based on book jacket, the movie based on the book, the people you observe reading the book, etc. This is a brilliant scheme, I can say with complete modesty.
The Origins and Development of the Tablighi-Jama'at - I couldn't even finish the title
Competing Nationalisms in South India - zzzzzzzzzzz
The Beauty Game - Has potential. India's Naomi Wolf.... Wait, India's Naomi Wolf?
Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis - I've given up trying to discover if Kingsley was ever funny before or after Lucky Jim. Maybe he was, but the wasn'ts are too dispiriting.
The Liar by Stephen Fry - An actor who writes novels. Even if this part-timer's book is moderately good, which I'm told it is (no Ethan Hawke, here), that would be tooooo depressing.
All Those Philip Pullman Books - Good, fun reads. OK, I said it, the number one enemy of Harry Potter. I, an adult, have recently read a kid's book.
Flavours of Delhi by Charmaine O'Brien - (1) Delhi's flavours are pretty disappointing (2) This book should be called "Guide to Delhi's Five-Star Hotels and their In-House Restaurants (3) How does one get one of these Lonely Planet Publishing contracts to write a useless book?
Elsewhere - An anthology of Indian travel writing. Interesting idea. But Indian editors should wield a fiercer pen.
Yaraana - Yaaaawwwn... Ahhh
China of the Lam - Guy walks from Hong Kong to Harbin, sleeps in rain, talks to peasants.
Translating Caste - Good counterpoint to the endless procession of books about how tough it was to go to boarding school in the UK with brown skin, then take up daddy's failing business when you really wanted to be a writer, or about how tough it was to leave the verdant fragrance of Kerala-Goa-Mangalore behind for the cuthroat world of US academe.... Which was that one, The Blue Scent of Transient Emotions? The Perplexing Fragrance of the Brown Sahib? I can't recall. Here, though, you get a story where the characters watch the assholes of a herd of buffalo so they can sing out "Mine" when one of the beasts lays a turd. Black gold.
Translating Desire - See above.
Children of Light by Robert Stone - One of the Intrepid Traveler's lesser works, but worth a read. After trying to convince a lot of people to read Outerbridge Reach and getting lukewarm responses, I'm beginning to think I'm the only self-consciously macho, tightass, emotionally impaired intellectual guy out there these days. What the hell is going on?
Zen Poetry - I never read anything with Zen in the title.
Hindoo Holiday by J.R. Ackerley - A classic, written between the lines, about a Raja and a British public school toff bonding over the availability of young brown boys. Great embarrassing bits about falling in love with servants.
Hindu Gods and Goddesses - I'm putting this one back on the shelf. It's a silly little chapbook, but come on, I can't remember all those gods. I'm used to one, or three, or whatever.
One Last Look by Susanna Moore - I reviewed this book for Asia Times, but they never printed my brilliant thoughts. I realize after seeing In the Cut that my hype for Moore as the author of that novel probably did me no great service.
The Long Recessional - A biography of Rudyard Kipling by David Gilmour. Good stuff. Gilmour has decided to make himself known as a biographer of lesser subjects, I guess, with Kipling, Curzon, et al. One can only wonder why.
Manual of Zen Buddhism - See above
Song of the Turtle: American Indian Literature - Dunno
Voice of the Turtle - What is this obsession with reptiles, and who is The Turtle?
The Rachel Papers - What? What? How can we be selling this to the idiots at Saket Community Center? This has to go to a good home. I cannot stress this enough. Shailaja will receive stern words, believe me. We're holding onto Are You Experienced because it's funny and we're selling Martin Amis' best book? (Yes, I'll go that far)....
The Gin Drinkers by Sagarika Ghose - Shailaja says its good, but based on the tone in her voice I've decided to take her word. I can't be bothered.
White Mughals by William Dalrymple - Everybody loves Willie, but this one is too heavy to lift, let alone read
Children of Kali by Kevin Rushby - Veerappan, Thugs, Dacoits....
Somanatha by Romila Thapur - I'm tempted to slog through this because of the hate Thapur inspires from the far right, but then I read a few pages....
Flappers 2 Rappers - a book about 20th century slang, given away by the Corner Bookshop
Babur-Nama: Memoirs of Akbar - We have another copy, lighter and less unwieldy than this one
The Buddha and the Sahibs by Charles Allen - Credits plucky Brits for the rediscovery of Buddhism - I say old boy, have you noticed the wogs over the hill are worshiping a right chubby little bloke without an elephant's trunk?
Monsoon Diary by Shoba Narayan - Review book. Shailaja found it a saccharine memoir, laced with apologies for India's pernicious caste system, as in "It's just our way of life." Yuck.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Indian Government Reverses Practice of Controlling Donations to Universities

India's new education minister, Arjun Singh, has scrapped a controversial order that routed donations to public universities through a special government agency, writes Shailaja in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

the free market

Keeping your markets unfettered by pesky social concerns is not the only way to organize an economy, writes Lawrence Mishell in the American Prospect. And, surprise surprise, it may not even be the best approach. Over the past four decades, "Major European countries [with] policies that are far different from ours: a strong social insurance system, government provision of health care, higher taxes, and far less inequality...have seen faster productivity growth -- the gain in economic efficiency -- than the United States." Meanwhile, what has happened stateside?

  • The top 1 percent of families earned 9.3 percent of all income in 1980. By 2000, this income share had increased to 19.6 percent. Correspondingly, the income share of the bottom 90 percent declined from 66 percent to 53.9 percent. There were small gains (1.9 percentage points) in the income shares of the remaining group, the 90th to 99th percentiles.
  • From 1980 to 2000, the incomes of the upper 1 percent increased 179 percent, while those of the bottom 90 percent increased by 8 percent.
  • In 1970, the ratio of top executive earnings to that of the average worker was 38.6 to 1. This ratio increased to 101.1 by 1980, to 222 by 1990, and to 1046 in 1999.
Something to think about.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

the little things continued

The things people ask of their servants crack me up. It's especially bad at the gym, where everybody has a sweeper, driver, trainer and personal valet on loan. Example: The boss comes in every day with a gym bag and a briefcase. After his shower, he carries the gymbag out to his car, and gets one of the menials to carry the briefcase a few paces behind him. What is he carrying in his left hand? His keys. The other day I noticed that one of the reasons the gym has such a large staff is that the patrons are incapable of dressing themselves or taking care of their own belongings or picking up a glass of water. Taking off his lifting gloves, the typical gym user says, "Sushil, put these in the side pocket of my bag," and heads off to the shower. When he's finished, Sushil wordlessly hands him his clothes. Does he have somebody to do this kind of thing for him at home, or is he going the extra mile because it's an unusual pleasure? Other people will even go out of their way to find a servant to, say, fill them a glass of water, when it is actually closer and faster to walk to the water tank. Stunning. It reminds me of something my mother used to say: "What? Are your legs broken?"

All that aside, I'm getting into it now, myself. One of the kids who works there has sort of adopted me, and now he stands by while I dress to hang up my shirt, hand me my shoes, dart upstairs to retrieve my forgotten jumprope, etc. It's let him do it or wrestle over the privilege. My unavoidable valet.

Monday, August 02, 2004

put down that book

Another thing that distresses me is the fear that I may not be able to read all the books in the world. Of course I know that's impossible, but until I was 28 or so I kept the fantasy going by not looking into it too closely. Then, about the time I was slogging through The Magic Mountain, I decided to come up with a ballpark estimate. OK, I'm an obsessive reader, and a fast one, I'll admit. I read an average of a book a week. (Note: at this level of consumption, the idea that reading is somehow of greater merit than watching TV starts to unravel). That's 52 books a year. That's 50 more years if I live to 83, which means just 2500-odd more books if I never slow down. The first time I did this simple calculation, I was stunned. 2500!? I immediately chucked Thomas Mann, I can tell you that, and vowed not to continue reading anything that couldn't convince me that it needed to be read--either because I was enjoying it or because I believed, like bad-tasting medicine, it was doing me some good. No longer would I finish books because I felt guilty about quitting on them.

By that criteria, the two books that most justified themselves to me over the past year were The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh and A Coffin for Dmitrios by Eric Ambler. Neither are particularly high-brow endeavors--I haven't been able to read literature for about a year and a half now, because of some constitutional weakness. But both of these novels deliver the goods. Consider this passage from The Choirboys, a grim, very lewd, black comedy about the lives of policemen that was inspired by Joseph Heller's Catch 22--and to my mind outdoes Heller's classic, with a sounder, more sincere voice and greater commitment to the bleakest of world views.

"Lieutenant Treadwell, after his hair started falling out in tufts, earned his way back into Commander Moss' good graces by authoring that portion of the Los Angeles Police Deparment manual which reads:
SIDEBURNS: Sideburns shall not extend below the bottom of the outer ear opening (the top of the earlobe) and shall end in a clean-shaven horizontal line. The flare (terminal portion of the sideburn) shall not exceed the width of the main portion of the sideburn by more than one-fourth of the unflared width.
MOUSTACHES: A short and neatly trimmed moustache of natural color may be worn. Moustaches shall not extend below the vermillion border of the upper lip or the corners of the mouth and may not extend to the side more than one-quarter inch beyond the corners of the mouth.
It took Lieutenant Treadwell thirteen weeks to compose the regulations. He was toasted and congratulated at a staff meeting. He beamed proudly. The regulations were perfect. No one could understand them."

one more thing you didn't see

Yes, one of the big disappointments of my life in India is HBO. For some reason, they don't think it's necessary or profitable to show boxing in India, and boxing has no body of interested partners, like the corporate associations that make up the NBA or NFL or MLB, to take the responsibility of promoting the sport. Maybe that's why it's slowly fading away. So I didn't get to see the sad end, or the latest development in the sad end, of Mike Tyson this past Friday. I didn't expect it to be very exciting, but I still have feelings for old Iron Mike. Every generation has its heavyweight champ, and he was ours. The saddest thing about it, though, was that Reuters called it "one of the biggest upsets in the history of boxing." That lent a Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show feel to the thing, which might have been more dignified, as Tyson has always been in defeat, if not always in victory. Anybody who didn't see this coming shouldn't be writing about the sport.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

new book: the places in between

First-time author Rory Stewart roars out of the gate with The Places in Between, an account of his walk from Kabul to Herat in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban. This one's definitely worth a read--as I explain in my review of the book in this week's Far Eastern Economic Review--but also serves as a reminder of Stewart's terrific essay in Granta 78. You want to know why the Afghan polls are destined to fail? Stewart's your man.

Monday, July 26, 2004

comics: off to save mumbai

That's right, loyal readers. Spiderman India hit the big leagues, with an even trimmer version of my story appearing in the US edition of Newsweek.

stop the presses

Sometimes the foreign press does something that you just have to serve up for general ridicule. This week, it's the Christian Science Monitor with its news flash that India's "cultural elite" has revived a muckraking magazine--yep, Tehelka. I thought it was bad enough when the NY Times weighed in on Tarun Tejpal's persecution following the bribes-on-tape scandal a good nine months after the fact, but that was (arguably) news.