Wednesday, January 24, 2007

the death of a giant

One of my idols has died. Ryszard Kapuscinski was 74 years old. He deserves the Nobel. Read The Soccer War, Shadow of the Sun and everything else available in India immediately if you have not already read them. If you have read them, consider reading them again. There aren't any more coming.

From the AP:

Polish Writer Ryszard Kapuscinski Dies

Published: January 24, 2007

Filed at 2:01 p.m. ET

WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish writer and journalist who gained international acclaim for his books chronicling wars, coups and revolutions in Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, died of a heart attack, his literary agent said. He was 74.

Kapuscinski died Tuesday at Warsaw's Banacha hospital, Czeslaw Apiecionek, one of his literary agents, told The Associated Press.

Poland's parliament honored him with a moment of silence Wednesday morning, and Speaker Marek Jurek praised him as ''a witness of human suffering and a witness of people's hopes.''

''There is no one among Poland's writers to fill in the space left by him,'' said Marek Zakowski, president of the Czytelnik publishing house, which published several of Kapuscinski's books and is editing a new one, ''Lappidarium 6.''

He described Kapuscinski as ''a rare kind of great personality. He was always curious to learn more about the world, he was curious to meet people.''

Kapuscinski launched a career in the late 1950s and early 1960s that would see him become a master of reportage. In those years, he served as the sole Africa correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, or PAP, reporting on the upheaval across the continent as African nations shook off colonial rule and declared independence.

He went on to publish books such as ''The Emperor,'' probably his most popular book, a chronicle of the decline of Haile Selassie's regime in Ethiopia. But the book, published in 1978, was more a reflection on dictatorships in general, and widely interpreted by Polish readers as a criticism of Poland's communist regime.

Kapuscinski once said the book was more about the ''mechanism of dictatorial rule.''

Three years later, he published ''Shah of Shahs,'' a book about the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled Iran's Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

''Besides reporting current events, I studied books about Islam,'' Kapuscinski said, according to his official Web site.

''I wanted to describe the people, their mentality, their way of seeing the world. And experience taught me that from each spot in the world one sees the planet differently. A person who lives in Europe sees the world differently than a person who lives in Africa. Without trying to enter into these other ways of looking and perceiving and describing, we won't understand anything of this world.''

Several of Kapuscinski's books were translated into English. He also wrote ''Another Day of Life,'' about the Angolan civil war, ''Imperium,'' about the waning days of the Soviet Union, ''The Soccer War,'' and ''The Shadow of the Sun.''

In past years, he was often mentioned as a likely contender for the Nobel Prize for literature by oddsmakers and followers of the prize -- though the Swedish Academy itself is secretive about who it considers.

Kapuscinski was born in March 4, 1932, in Pinsk, a chty then in eastern Poland, and now located in Belarus.

He is survived by his wife, Alicja, and a daughter who lives in Canada, Zakowski said.

There was no immediate information about funeral arrangements.

Monday, January 22, 2007

without a trace

A gruesome serial-killing case raises furious questions about whether the police are doing enough to find the 45,000 kids reported missing each year in India.

By Jason Overdorf

(Newsweek Web Exclusive Jan. 20, 2007) - Half an hour from the heart of New Delhi, in the mushrooming grid of houses, cottage industries and tech companies that make up Noida, one of India's fastest-growing cities, a small crowd of protesters are calling for the head of their state's chief minister. "Mulayam Singh," the leader chants. "Murdabad!" the crowd shouts in response. "Noida police," the leader calls. "Hai! Hai!" the crowd echoes.

Their chanting means: "Death to Mulayam Singh!" and "Noida police, shame! shame!" Many of the lower-middle-class demonstrators hold aloft handmade flyers emblazoned with the photographs of schoolchildren, some in uniforms, some in poorly knotted neckties, others in colorful salwar kameez. The kids on the flyers have one thing in common. They have all disappeared without a trace, some of the approximately 45,000 children reported missing each year in India. And now, behind a block-long screen hastily erected to thwart rubberneckers, a backhoe and a team of forensic investigators are digging up their small bodies.

In a case that came to light on Dec. 29, police have detained businessman Monander Singh Pandher and his servant Surindra Koli for interrogation about the abduction and murder of at least 20 women and children. No charges have been filed, the suspects are under judicial remand while the police conduct their investigation. According to reports, the servant has confessed and implicated his boss, but the boss hasn't admitted any crime. Body parts and skulls, mostly from the kids, were found hidden in municipal storm drains attached to Pandher's house. The protesters are furious because the police discovered the alleged murderers and the grisly evidence of their crimes by accident, after ignoring as many as 40 missing- persons reports in the area over the last two years. And their anger has tapped into a deep and growing well of resentment in India, where the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day.

According to summaries of interrogations and other stage-whispering that has been leaked to the press, the alleged murderers were said to be sexual predators who operated as a team, with Pandher supplying his house and veneer of respectability to protect them from suspicious eyes and Koli acting as procurer. Police say they found 17 skulls and a large number of bones in the drain outside Pandher's house and surgical knives, gloves, a butcher's knife, and blood-stained clothes inside the home. Last week, the Uttar Pradesh police turned over the case to India's Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI—a national policing unit similar to America's Federal Bureau of Investigation—after several weeks of bumbling that allowed journalists and curious neighbors to trample all over the crime scene. Dr. Rajat Mitra, a criminal psychologist who has worked closely with the police, admits frankly that the authorities (even perhaps the CBI) are out of their depth. "The understanding of serial killers is virtually nonexistent here. They could not understand what kind of crime it is. It involved pedophilia, gory rituals ... The diabolic nature of the crime was not something they believed happened here."

But the victims and their activists remain convinced that the police failures amount to more than simple incompetence. "This is a failure of our democracy," says Kailash Satyarthi, the leader of a group fighting the trafficking of children, "because it shows that the poor, and especially the children of the poor, are totally neglected." As long ago as September, Satyarthi's group, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement, approached the Noida police on behalf of parents who alleged that their missing-persons reports had been ignored. At that point, 31 neighborhood kids had disappeared. One local TV channel picked up the story. The police, apparently, did nothing. Only after the apparently unrelated kidnapping of the 3-year-old son of a rich businessman made stop-the-presses headlines, and the entire police and government apparatus mobilized to secure his safe return, did Noida's other missing kids draw notice. Even then, they were soon forgotten. Not until neighbors who'd earlier been dismissed once again complained of a rotting stench coming from the storm drain outside Pandher's home, was the first body discovered.

Noida is not the first Indian city to suffer a serial killing. Last year, for instance, a gang of nine taxi drivers based in Gurgaon (another booming satellite town) confessed to robbing and murdering at least 35 passengers. In 2004, a 57-year-old merchant named Sadashiv Sahu was nabbed for murdering 22 elderly and middle-aged men in the small Uttar Pradesh town of Fursatganj. And in 1995, a rickshaw driver nicknamed "Auto" Shankar was executed for kidnapping, raping and murdering six young girls throughout the late 1980s. Although these documented cases are far fewer in number than the cases of serial murders in the United States and other developed countries, Mitra says that police ignorance of profiling and other relevant investigative techniques, the lack of coordination among law enforcement in different regions of the country, and problems as simple as poor record-keeping, make it likely that there are many more serial murders that have never been linked to one killer.

But more than any previous case, the horror of the Noida murders has drawn attention to an unpleasant truth about the safety of children in this intensely family-oriented society. The 45,000 children reported missing each year doesn't include those whose families are turned away or are afraid to go to the police. Eleven thousand youngsters, presumably trafficked for prostitution, pornography or slave labor, are never found. Yet, in large part, the official apparatus continues to treat these cases as though they are a necessary condition of poverty—children running away from starvation—rather than as undiscovered crimes. "Missing children masks a lot of more heinous crimes [like pedophilia]," says Mitra. "That notion needs to get into the police psyche."

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why boycott, when it's so profitable not to?

I was disappointed to open my India Today this week and see a beaming Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani sitting next to--you guessed it--Narendra Modi, good-naturedly grinning at his jokes at the third annual Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors summit. Widely condemned for his role in holding back the troops while rioters executed a pogrom against Muslims in his state, Modi has (according to the magazine) remained the darling of India's top financiers due to the wise approach he has taken to making Gujarat a business-friendly destination. That's sad, as far as I'm concerned, and confirms an impression that I've been getting for some time now that liberal India has shifted from genuine outrage over the Gujarat riots to self-congratulatory mode about their demonstration of the same outrage.

Movies are made showing that the riots were bad, but like movies about the Holocaust (Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful) their focus on the heroes of the struggle give audiences a ready reason to say "I'm not a bad guy." Nope. We're all noble members of the resistance, aren't we? Nobody believes he's the guy who locks his door and hides under the couch while his neighbors are murdered, but when the time comes, a hell of a lot more of us turn out to belong to that category than to the group that fights back.

When did the riots become an isolated phenomenon that we've stood up against and beaten? Nothing has changed, folks. Look at Bangalore this week. Riots are an endemic part of Indian politics, and communalism is still the principal organizing force behind more than one important political party. Narendra Modi remains in power. The BJP never decided his resignation was required, and to all appearances, they were right. Yes, the party lost heavily in the national elections and some attributed that to anger over Gujarat. But most in the know saw the shift as (1) India's usual anti-incumbency and (2) poor Indians' anger resistance to an "India Shining" campaign that vividly showed that the party's interests lay elsewhere and they'd been forgotten.

Not only that. The willingness of Tata, Ambani and his brother Anil, Kumarmangalam Birla and others to continue to pump money into Gujarat and (worse) be photographed on stage with the man still believed to have caused a greatd deal of the carnage shows that there's no longer any moral sanction against his vision of a "Vibrant Gujarat." I don't know how the Birlas or Ambanis feel about Hindutva--nor do I care, really, since this shows that their PR guys also have no concerns about how the public will react to the association with Modi and there's never been any public outcry against associating with him in business or at social functions, other than the NRIs who (brilliantly) sought to deny him a visa to the US. But I had higher hopes for Ratan Tata, who has previously shown himself to be a man with strong moral convictions.

Boycott Gujarat until Modi resigns, should have been the rallying cry. If it ever came, it wasn't very loud. As a result, now Modi is welcomed with broad smiles and embraces, an honored member of society.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

a perfect match

With all the really-on-again, not-really-on-again surrounding the Ash-Abishek "link up" (see, I DO read Stardust), I never got the chance to think about the implications of the marriage between India's most beautiful woman and most eligible film-family bachelor. Now that I have, I'll concede they're the perfect couple. Here's why:

(1) Ash is a career-killer for boyfriends who hooks up with rising stars and derails them, while Abishek has a track record for failing stupendously while he's hooked up and then suddenly taking off when his loser-dom is confirmed by being dumped. I predict this go-around Ash's career tanks (if the family lets her continue to work outside the home) and Abhi's hits the even-faster track.

(2) Both are supercool when they are acting, but almost unbearable to listen to when they are being themselves. This means MAJOR groan-moments on Simi Garewal are coming soon. Yes! (And I DO know all the words to the "Speak, so I can see your soul" theme song).

(3) Govinda never officially hooked up with Rani, so the spot for unbelievably media dream couple was open (though G-R would have been MUCH more fun than A-A).

(4) Abhishek is a brilliant dresser who makes the most out of mediocre looks, while Ash is a knockout who manages to look terrible whenever she chooses her own clothes.

(5) The Bachchans are tight with Subrato Roy AND Amar Singh, while the Rais are just plain old folks who receive anonymous packages in the mail with twenty thousand dollars inside. There has to be a connection.

Friday, January 05, 2007

serial killers, mass murderers, and spree killers--a note to reporters


Stalin is a mass murderer. And, in a pinch, maybe Charlie Manson. The Washington DC sniper of a couple years back and the guy who drove around Indiana shooting people of color "Natural Born Killers"-style are spree killers. John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter are serial killers, as are the guys out in Noida. Get it right.

good news and bad news

Just when you think things are looking up, as the mobilization of the Rang De Basanti generation brought Manu Sharma to justice, a new "hot story" happens to remind you that the more things change, the more things stay the same. In this case, it was the Noida serial killer (or killers) and the strong evidence that the cops ignored the pleas of the poor people they'd sworn to protect. That is, unless the oath specifies that their meant to serve the rich--which would explain a lot.

Naturally, there's been a lot of furor following the discovery of the bodies in Noida (at least 17 children according to the last update I read, for those of you in foreign lands who don't trawl the AP and BBC updates). But I think one aspect of Indian policing and its faults hasn't gotten the attention it warrants: To an outside observer, it looks like their investigative procedures, both in terms of following clues and collecting evidence for subsequent trials, are far from adequate. I'm no expert, mind you, and I'm speaking in my unofficial capacity as a guy who sits on his ass watching TV, not having done any reporting on this story or spoken with anyone in the police about how they work. But both the Manu Sharma case and the Noida case suggest to me not only malfeasance/negligence/corruption, but also simple incompetence. For instance, with the TV cameras rolling, the police seemed to be digging up the Noida property without any effort to take note of how the bodies had been concealed or even taking much care to make sure they didn't damage the bones etc. In one shot, I distinctly remember seeing some constable-type standing back sortof holding his nose (ok, not literally, but he had that "I'm not touching THAT" posture) while a laborer-type got his hands dirty in the pit picking up a skull or something and wiped it off with an old rag. Now, I'm guessing CSI is pretty much bullshit. But this did not strike me as cutting edge police work.