Tuesday, June 29, 2004

failing the grade

Who says cheaters don't win? In India, criminals are making millions by stealing exam papers. That's casting a shadow over the education system's ability to function as a meritocracy, writes Jason Overdorf in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

more reservations about reservations

Amit Phansalkar makes some interesting points in responding to my post on reservations in the private sector. Among other things, he rightly points out that it's not entirely logical to infer that press coverage of the reservation issue is biased because there aren't more Dalit journalists. I didn't say that, though I can see how a reader might have decided that was what I was implying. To be specific, I simply mention this to point out how easily Dalits themselves can be excluded from this debate. (It is also true, I'd venture to say, that there are very few journalists from backgrounds of extreme poverty). Also: Amit clearly isn't a bigot, and I didn't mean to suggest that he was by raising questions about the voices that should be loudest in this debate--which certainly should not include foreigners like myself, incidentally.

Sunday, June 20, 2004

bjp's modi operandus

Today's Press Trust of India blurb quoting BJP president Venkaiah Naidu as saying the party has no proposal to remove Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi "at this juncture" is a good example of how the press has been left guessing about the stance of various BJP leaders on the 2002 riots (Atal Behari Vajpayee in particular).

More importantly, however, the structure of the blurb reveals the too-credulous attitude of the press that I lamented in an earlier post. After quoting Naidu, the report goes on to state with artificial reserve that the BJP president ended the press conference when journalists pressed him about whether the "issues raised by" Vajpayee were discussed. "Raised by?" Did Vajpayee really raise new issues when he claimed that he'd considered calling for Modi to step down? How hard had he tried to make himself heard on these issues before?

Friday, June 18, 2004

back in the us of a

Shailaja and I are back in the US, visiting my family in Michigan, so the posts may not be coming fast and furious over the next month. I'll do my best to chronicle my reverse culture shock, though. (Gasp: There's not a line at City Hall! And no scrum in front of the counter, either). I'm not one to carp about how easy things are to accomplish in the US, but I gotta confess I feel like there are way too many hours in the day when everything is so easy to do. Yesterday I got a marriage license, opened a bank account, bought a new wardrobe, got a short-term cell phone connection, went out to lunch, cooked dinner, went out to a bar and more. That's a week's work for me in Delhi.

Monday, June 14, 2004

india struggles to meet demand for higher education

The campus of Mewar University, one of 108 private universities established in the underdeveloped state of Chhattisgarh during the past two years, is a two-room house on a busy thoroughfare. One room is empty, except for a telephone; the other -- also a tiny, empty cell -- has "library" painted on the door. There is not a teacher, student, or book in sight, writes Shailaja in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Click here to read the full text of this article on the issues surrounding the rise of private universities in India.

yes or no minister?

Now that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi faces a rebellion from his own supporters, who blame him for the BJP's failures in the latest election, the party's central leadership has decided to declare open season on the hardliner who was once its darling mascot. Yesterday, the rumblings began and today former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself was quoted to say that he favored dropping Modi and asking him to step down after the 2002 riots in Gujarat. In the end, though, Vajpayee claims, he decided to go along with the party consensus and let him stay.

Vajpayee has long proved himself capable of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare, so his latest assertion should come as no surprise. However, the Indian and foreign media alike have been much too credulous when it comes to the dignified former leader. Doesn't he deserve some criticism for so easily putting aside his reservations about Modi--a man held responsible by many for thousands of deaths in Gujarat? Where was his integrity? How much should we believe in Vajpayee's avowed "moderate" beliefs, if he never backs them up with actions? I can think of countless instances in which respected news outlets, both domestic and international, baldly asserted that Vajpayee was a moderate bulwark against the hardliners in the BJP. But never--never--did I see one direct quote from the man himself to back up that assertion. Where did the reporters who made these assertions get their information, if not from statements from the former PM or from his actions?

Saturday, June 12, 2004

reservations about reservations

Amit Phansalkar opens the debate on Maharashtra's possible extension of job reservations, or quotas, for lower caste Indians to the private sector on Living in India. Maharashtra is the first state to consider acting on this proposal, which is part of the new United Progressive Alliance government's Common Minimum Program. Currently, India reserves a portion of all jobs in public companies and seats in government-run schools and universities for members of historically oppressed castes.

As an outsider, my experience with caste discrimination is limited. (Once untouchables of a sort, we firangs somehow acquired honorary Brahmin, Kshatriya or at least Baniya status sometime in the 20th century, it appears). But through the course of reporting several caste-related stories, I have met with 20 or so low-caste leaders, both from trade union type organizations and political parties. Without fail, every one of them credits reservations in education and government employment for his rise from abject poverty to relative affluence, usually accomplished in a single generation. For example, I met a union leader in Gujarat who began life as the son of a bootblack, helping his father shine shoes before and after school, in a remote town in Kutch. Through reservations, he secured a place in college in Ahmedabad. Commuting by bus (by that time the family had moved to a nearby town), he completed a degree in commerce and gained a job with a nationalized bank, again benefitting from reservations. Far from being a burden to his employers, he earned promotion after promotion until he attained a middle-management position. One of his sons now has a job with a private bank, while the other is planning to go abroad.

I mention this example to refute the notion--accepted as a given by most opponents of reservations--that quotas inherently hurt productivity and/or ensure that unqualified personnel receive jobs. To the contrary, most reservation jobs remain unfilled because administrators insist that they cannot find qualified applicants from the required castes, a claim that low-caste leaders strongly dispute. Countless people told me the same tale: You can get through all the quantifiable portions of the application process, but in the end it comes down to a face-to-face interview. And if you run into a bigot there, he can easily get away with inventing some shortcoming. In America, you'd have some hope with an anti-discrimination lawsuit. But in India? If it weren't enough that an Indian civil suit is "the closest man can come to experiencing eternity," as a wise man has put it, the low-caste plaintiff must plead his case before a high-caste judge.

Job and education quotas are problematic, to be sure. But considering the fact that there is not a single accredited Dalit journalist and only a handful of non-accredited Dalit journos, the debate seems a trifle one-sided, even when the liberal-minded elite join in. Barring the sudden induction of Dalit writers by the press--a move that might happen without reservations in the private sector?--it would be good if all those who enter the debate have met at least one Dalit on equal terms, sat down and shared a meal, perhaps. Otherwise, we're really just talking to ourselves about whether India's elites should share a small part of their "hereditary" wealth.

Friday, June 11, 2004

word moratorium

This is a call for an official moratorium on the word "irreverent," so often used to describe the prose of allegedly humourous columnists. Most often, the columns it describes are not particularly disrespectful, unless this disrespect is directed toward the general standards of prose writing. As in: this column is filled with slang and cliches and silly posturing because it's meant to be filled with slang and cliches and silly posturing, so don't think there's been some ghastly slipup at the copy desk. Irreverent has gone the way of ironic, I'm afraid. Now it means nothing, unless it means "to be read with an exaggerated, sarcastic lilt." Actually, that's not entirely true. What irreverent really means, in this context, is that whatever garbage is to follow was meant to make you laugh but won't. Otherwise they'd just call it funny.

freedom from friedman

What is India's obsession with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman? His column, with its weekly dose of homespun homilies and facile analysis, is syndicated in nearly all the national dailies. Perhaps India likes him because he took a late interest in outsourcing, expressing his admiration for the way desis have built that business? Maybe it's his begrudging support--sometimes--for the Palestinians, at least in the aftermath of Sharon's infamous security perimeter (the new Berlin Wall)? Those stances were admirable, but he always seems to be one step behind the news cycle, making a living out of translating news into conversational prose.

I don't get it. But something about this guy bugs me. Maybe I don't like him because his "plain speaking" reminds me of George W's attempt at folksiness--with his "die-hard" and "evil" "bad guys" he's compiling a dictionary of contemporary propaganda. Or maybe I don't like him because he's one of the many American journalists who've started referring to the United States as we and us, instead of plain old U.S. More than likely, though, I'm just getting tired of his unerring ability to point out the obvious, as in this week's column, in which he explains why Iraq won't be anything like D-Day.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

nationwide strike shuts universities in nepal

A nationwide education strike called by student allies of Maoist rebels in Nepal this week has closed all levels of instruction, from elementary schools to universities, and on Wednesday rebels blew up school buses outside Kathmandu, the capital, to enforce the shutdown, writes Shailaja in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

on my shelf

I’ve always thought it would be good to have a record of the books I’m reading, some kind of “reader’s journal” that records the time and place I read a particular book and a few observations about it. That may or may not happen here, but for now I’m optimistic. I’m going to start by going through the books on my shelf—an abbreviated list, I’m afraid, here in Delhi—once a week or so until I’ve caught up and can start with new acquisitions. (Full disclosure: if you click on these little “buy the book” blurbs, you’ll help me get some store credits with Amazon.com).

Empire by Niall Ferguson—Sadly, unread. The idea was to review this doorstopper, which made Ferguson the pundit of the moment for his baldface support of imperialism. But neither of us was able to strike while the iron was hot. Frankly now it’s just there to impress people. Buy the book?

Myths & Legends of India edited by William Radice—An interesting collection. I dip into this one now and again. Be warned, though, there aren’t too many stories here that you’ll really enjoy. It’s more like a textbook for cultural enthusiasts than a book of wonderful fairy tales. If that’s what you’re looking for, I don’t think you can do better than Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s Russian Fairy Tales (1945). I must have read every story in that collection a dozen times, and even managed to force my parents to buy a second copy when our original went missing for a few years after we moved from Birmingham to Chelsea, Michigan. Buy the book?

Orientalism by Edward Said—A classic work of scholarship. Best known for his role as Palestinian activist, Said was a fantastic literary critic. In this, his most famous book, he argues that the “Orientalists” of the 19th century used scholarship, with its rubrics and definitions, to circumscribe, codify and control the cultures conquered by the West. Imminently readable, like all Said’s work, this book was one of the most important foundation stones of the multiculturalism movement (if that’s an appropriate name). Buy the book?

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

india's quiet revolution

The growing popularity of mortgage financing in India will do more than just enable millions to become first-time homeowners. It will deepen the financial market, boost the housing and construction industries and spur economic growth, writes Shailaja in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Issue cover-dated June 17, 2004

SURESH VARMA, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who runs a small advertising company, recently splurged on a 3.5 million rupee ($77,000) home in the upmarket New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, for which he took a home loan of 2.5 million rupees. Varma began his career living in a two-room house and driving a beaten-up scooter. Now, he owns a (financed) fancy Honda City car and a plush three-bedroom apartment. His father, who is a retired central-government employee, isn't too happy at the amount of debt his son has taken on. "What if his business goes through an extended downturn?" he wonders.

Click here to read the full text in the magazine.

somebody had to say it

How terrible, really, was the poetry of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee? And why can't his supporters from the lunatic fringe of Hindu nationalism accept a cold, hard look at his verse? They were the ones, after all, who criticized him so sharply when he dawdled over building a temple in Ayodhya, even while they kept silent about his equally prudent (from a pragmatic standpoint) dawdling over the prosecution of rioters in Gujarat. Rediff.com columnist Krishna Prasad lays into the grand old man of Indian politics--is he the only funny Indian columnist working today?

the beginning of the end?

The New Delhi government is entertaining a proposal to allow ministers to abandon their Hindustan Motors Ambassadors in favor of more modern cars, including the Ford Ikon, Maruti Baleno, Opel Corsa, Mahindra Scorpio and Mahindra Bolero, reports the Indian Express. Is this the beginning of the end for the beloved Amby--now on display in Washington's Smithsonian gallery?

Government officials claim the Ambassador is notoriously unreliable after a year-and-a-half of service--this despite the thousands of ancient Ambies working the hard intercity roads as taxis. If the Delhi government drops the old standby in favor of something flashier, will that make it cool for the rest of India's politicians to abandon the symbol of self-reliance in manufacturing? If so, that could be a killer for Hindustan Motors, which says 26-28 percent of its sales come through government orders.

To me, it would also be one more sign of the beginning of the end of India's repair, recycle, reuse philosophy. Every town, no matter how small, can dig up spare parts for the Amby, and every mechanic, no matter how rustic, can fix one. Maybe it's true that they're always breaking down, but it's also true that they're always getting fixed. Will we be able to say the same about the old workhorse's replacement? And I can't help feeling that India just won't be the same without them on the road--especially in Delhi. This is, after all, the city with only two traffic rules: every inch counts and white Ambassadors are the enemy.

Monday, June 07, 2004

rats in the house?

This week India's two big weeklies, India Today and Outlook, both have cover stories headlined "New Age Parenting." How did this happen? They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it looks to me that one or both of these magazines has a rat in the house.

From the looks of it, India Today dug up its cover photo from an issue it first published in the late 1970s, perhaps fearful that if the magazine wasted time shooting something new Outlook would hit the stands first. Outlook, on the other hand, has opted for some strange new twist on potty training, which should win the prize for the magazine's ugliest cover of the year. Fortunately for the magazine's designers, it still looks better than India Today.

Readers will experience a strange feeling of deja vu if they're capable of wading through both of these lengthy pieces, which tell us that Indians of a certain class are now consulting experts to learn how to raise their kids. Like most supersoft features, both cover stories are vehicles for the magazines to talk about the private lives of the rich, successful and/or famous. India Today starts off with singer Shaan Mukherjee, while Outlook weighs in with Shahrukh Khan and Sushmita Sen. Are star kids now to be the most well-adjusted of the whining lot? I, for one, am looking forward to Stardust 2020.

how to post a comment

Some readers have messaged me asking how to post a comment on the blog. If you click on "post a comment" the server will take you to a log in page asking for your user name and password. If you don't want to register with www.blogger.com, look for a link that reads something like "post an anonymous comment." You can do that without registering or anything. Sign your name if you like so I know who's talking to me.

i read it in the times

Because, as far as many Americans are concerned, nothing happens until they read about it in the New York Times, I'm going to try to keep up with that illustrious paper's India coverage periodically. Here's the first entry.

Sunday, Amy Waldman weighed in on the rash of suicides by farmers in South India (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/06/international/asia/06INDI.html). Beginning with a typical "color lead," she reiterates the line that local coverage has been following, i.e. that these suicides are the result of economic reforms that have eliminated many of the support systems of the welfare state. Like most of Ms. Waldman's articles, this is a well-written piece of reportage. But this piece, like all those I've read, doesn't explore the other reasons behind the thousands of farmer suicides. Surely this is a form of protest as dramatic as the mines that communist would-be revolutionaries used to blow up former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu's car. I'd like to see more about the historical context of suicide protests, as well as some more exploration of whether these suicides are a form of collective action.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

do you wobble?

Not long after I moved to Delhi, I found a professor of languages, Dr. Anand, in a neighborhood near my “posh colony,” took home a satchel full of kindergarten primers and started memorizing Hindi words. But, like many an ambitious expatriate student, I started traveling and missing classes, and soon I stopped going altogether. A good adopted Punjabi, I learned to say “loin” and “royit” for “lion” and “riot,” to pronounce “donkey” as though it rhymes with “funky” and “monkey” as though it rhymes with “honky,” and to say “support” for “sport” and vice versa. I picked up a few cricket terms. But the only part of actual Hindi I mastered was the gestures. With these I can make myself understood with the laconic elegance of a rickshaw wallah.


Technique: Holding your right hand, thumb up, at a little above waist level, roll your wrist as though you are throwing a curve ball, turning your palm upward and curling four of your fingers one after another—pinky first—into a loose fist. At the end of the motion your index finger should be pointed interrogatively into the distance like a gunfighter’s pistol and you should have a Clint Eastwood squint of dyspeptic indifference on your face. As an alternative to the Gunfighter, vary your technique by finishing with your first two fingers and your thumb poised as though you are holding a tiny, invisible, perplexing ping pong ball and asking somebody to look at it. I call this the Beatnik.

Usage: The meaning of this motion is “Why not?” or, to be accurate, its cooler Indian substitute, “What’s there?” (Note: Novices may prefer the relative safety of the Beatnik technique, as with the Gunfighter you must take care not to make your Eastwood squint too combative or your finger pointing too emphatic, or to accompany the move with a forward hipthrust. It is easy to cross the line between “What’s there” and “Up yours.”)


Technique: Draw your open hand toward your chest, as though about to waft the vapor of some caustic chemical solution toward your nose, and then snap your wrist dismissively, fingers relaxed, as if you are trying to flick water off of them. Finish with your hand held, palm down, a span or so from your waist, in the pose of an alcoholic testing for delirium tremens. Tilt your head to the left and back, close your eyes partway and give your head a tiny, resigned shake.

Usage: The meaning of this gesture is “It goes without saying that he would behave so disgracefully,” or, more eloquently: “He is like that only.” When greater emphasis is required (i.e. to get the last gesture in an argument) start the motion with your hand parallel to your eyebrows and finish with your fingers a little higher, pointed in the direction of your interlocutor. Depending on the force of the flick, this variation (“You are like that only”) is akin to outstretched palm of the “Talk to the hand” or the ear-twirling forefinger of “Barking mad, isn’t he?”


Technique: Indians do not nod yes and shake no. Try either one and they’ll stare at you, baffled, and draw their own conclusions about what you mean. This may stem from some aversion to committing too completely to any one course of action, since all things are fated and one can never be sure what one will do, or because it’s never prudent to make promises, or because a betrayal of eagerness is the worst way to begin negotiating. In any case, the preferred gesture of assent—if that is indeed what it means—is the wobble. Facing forward, with your head in a relaxed position, tilt your head loosely from side to side, as though it is wobbling on the topmost vertebrae of your spine with the springy motion of one of those sad-looking dogs people fix to the dashboards of cars.

Usage: Though the gesture is most often translated to mean “yes,” as if it exists in direct correlation to the nod, the wobble is layered with nuance, like a Twilight Zone devil’s “as you wish,” and the motion ranges in meaning from “Right away, sir!” to “I feel your pain, but honestly can’t be bothered to help you.” The shades of meaning generally depend on the number of wobbles. For instance, five or six wobbles in either direction indicates servile humility (perhaps concealing a significant hike in price), while a detached half-wobble to the left, eyes partly closed (see “You are like that only”), suggests near total indifference. (Note: Be forewarned that the wobble is addictive. I recently caught myself trying to do it over the phone.)


Here’s how it works.

Autowallah: Zzzzzzzzzzz.
Customer: “Khali hai, Bhaisahib?” (Are you free, brother?)
Autowallah stirs, takes his feet off the useless meter, and rubs his eyes.
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward windscreen, eyes closed).
Customer: “Defence Colony janna hai?”
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward passenger seat).
Customer: “Kitna hoga?” (How much will it be?)
Autowallah: (Half wobble toward passenger seat). “Baitho.” (Sit down.)
Customer: “Kitna hoayga, Bhaisahib?” (How much will it be, brother?)
Autowallah: (Complete but nonchalant wobble). “As you like.”
Customer: “No, no, no. You say first. That way no argument.”
Autowallah: “As you like. No arguing.”
Customer: (What’s there?) “Kitna hoga, Bhaisahib?”
Autowallah: “Pifty rupees.”
Customer: “Pifty! Er… Fifty! Bis dengey” (I’ll give you twenty).
Autowallah: “Porty.”
Customer: (He is like that only).
Autowallah: (You are like that only!)
Customer: (Up yours!)
Autowallah: Unprintable (Hindi).
Customer: Unprintable (English).

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Friday, June 04, 2004

the neverending battle

OK, I’ll confess. We use Satyam Infoway’s (NYSE: SAY; Nasdaq: SIFY) Sify broadband service. Never mind that the local cable provider strung our lines through the neighborhood trees, bushes and streetlights like Spiderman on a bender, so that every time it rains we lose our connection. Never mind that an unknown rival from a competing service keeps climbing the tree on the corner and cutting our cable (“Aap ko yaad hai jis din hum us ped ke neeche mile the?” the cable guy told Shailaja with filmi sincerity. “Wahin par koi roze aakey wire cut karta hai.”). Never mind that the idiots connect us all through a giant LAN so I can see everybody’s machine in my “network neighborhood” and print out documents and save files all over town if I wish. The real trouble is the spammers.

Actually, they’re spam relayers, I guess. I see them on my firewall screen, requesting http:// from our server, every day. We’re talking about thousands of hits an hour. They used up most of the 2 gigabytes of traffic we bought in our first package before I started consigning the IP addresses they’re using to “black holes.” Don’t get me wrong: I take inordinate pleasure in logging into my firewall, checking the latest addresses they’re using, and typing them into the ban list. But this IS a US-listed company we’re talking about, isn’t it? Shouldn’t they have SOME concept of security—and I don’t mean a chowkidar standing under the tree to catch the guy with the wirecutters.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

the little things

You know what’s funny about India? The little things, to paraphrase Vincent Vega.


You can order a DVD from the video shop and they’ll send a guy to deliver it, but they’ll tell you the DVD is in whether they have it or not, and then keep lying to you when you call back asking why the delivery boy hasn’t turned up. You only catch them out if the guy slips up and tells you the boy has just gone out to get the DVD, and only then can you give it to him good with your “Then why’ve you kept telling me he’ll be here in five minutes?” Then, even though the agreement’s for an overnight rental, you don’t have to take the disc back. You wait for the boy to come back for it, and if you haven’t watched it yet, you tell him you need it another day because there was a power cut the night before, and imagine some other poor bastard having to hound the shop guy for hours before he finds out he’s not getting his movie. They’ve taken convenience to the point that it becomes a hassle.

Another one?

When you go to the gym to work out, half a dozen servants follow you around to load and unload the weights. You can get a personal trainer, too, to motivate you, and he calls you “sir.” As in, “COME ON, SIR! PUSH IT, SIR!”

How about this?

If you’re in a Delhi bar during happy hour, you can book your drinks for the rest of the night at two-for-one or whatever. The waiter comes around with last call for cheapies, and you tell him ten beers and he doesn’t even blink. They’ll keep ‘em on ice for you and keep bringing ‘em out, too. They don’t even try to shame you by piling them all on the table at once, outing you as a skinflint. It’s not so great though. The bars make up for their liberal definition of happy hour by charging five or six times retail for drinks. That’s a New York markup in a St. Louis kinda town.

Any other ideas?