Understanding Delhi, and The Delhi Walla

8 Jan

The article was written for The Delhi Walla

The Delhi Walla is a journalist’s blog, albeit without the drama and urgency with which journalism and journalists are often associated with today. The writing on the blog represents that prior tradition among journalists which was about subtle observation, gentle humor, as evinced in journalists’ travelogues, and in shows like BBC’s “From our own correspondent.”

The blog is a significant achievement. More so because reporting on cities is generally skillfully and purposefully bankrupt, formulaic and inane, an orgy of crummy descriptions of pointless people, and events, and soulless corporate jingles about places to eat, and entertain, infested almost always with a touch too colorful poorly shot photos.

With an eclectic choice of topics, a choice that is many a times dictated by the city rather than by an urge to puppeteer description in grips of pincers of prejudice, with gentle and subtle humor, Mayank shines a weak but almost always pleasant humanistic light on the myriad facets of Delhi, and the occupations, preoccupations, habits, of its residents. The wonderful aspect of the blog is that it catalogs ‘real life,’ an all too absent commodity in newspapers, be it then a story about the need to find a second home in a city with cramped homes that provide all too little privacy, the rather oddly structured stories on colonies (as they are called in Delhi), or the succession of charming articles on bookstores, and their proprietors. Perhaps seen hence, it is a writer’s blog. And that is probably a more accurate description of the sensibility of the blog, and the author, and explains the void comparisons to newspapers that I make above.

One can try to understand things of interest by disinterring things, breaking them apart skillfully, through analysis and connecting those parts into an explanation or simply description conjoined by some connective tissue. It is a bit like looking at white light through a prism, with colored rainbow being the distillate. Of course, more often we just describe a part of one color, and the rest is at best in the penumbra. Analysis is generally purposive and demands specificity. It struggles to contain, and cast, and organize, and too often the aim is to achieve that aha! moment. For all these reasons, the enterprise is often fraught with problems of myopia, and of force.

Another feature of the analytical method is the method of writing – it is writing through contestation. For example, the account that I provide here is often times a ‘negative’ account — describing what this blog isn’t, rather than simply focusing on what it is. The method may be insightful if the analysis has legs, but it is seldom enjoyable.

The Delhi Walla chooses differently; he observes, describes, narrates, engages in reverie, and gently analyzes. He does it with great modesty and some charm. His method of understanding isn’t analytic introspection, but subtle observation that produces that warm flush of vague but liberalist accepting, even embracing, empathy, and exultation in the shared existence. It is akin to the understanding and exultation one feels while standing on the roof of the house on a pleasant summer evening, and looking over the gullis and Mohalla.

Delhi is an easy city to caricature. It is bleak, dirty, loud, and crowded. And it is certainly all that. But the reality is simultaneously substantially more mundane and textured. Likewise, people sometimes mistakenly make the inferential leap from bleak surroundings to bleak lives; all too often bleak surroundings are peripheral to the fuller psychological lives lived among acquaintances, friends, relations, and more.

Delhi is a city that carries the hopes and aspirations of people living in it, the location of deaths, marriages, jobs, cars, monuments, history, politics, money, and more. One can take respite, if so is needed, in the beauty of some of its monuments, sometimes in just its familiarity, in its traditions and landmarks, even in its oppressive heat, as Mayank occasionally does, food, conversation, and intimacy of friends and family, among other things.

The Delhi Walla
The Delhi Walla is an eclectic account of Delhi. It is an ode to the passions of Delhi Walla — the Muslim heritage of Delhi, books, Arundhati Roy, and gay life in the city. It is an account of his questions, and more interestingly a live account of an unfailingly interesting life.

In the Middle of Nowhere

12 Sep

Given that wealth is hard to measure, the middle class has often been defined in terms of income. Gary Burtless defines it as families earning anywhere between half of median income ($24,000) to twice as much ($96,000). Frank Levy, based on Census data for families in their prime earning years, pegs that range between $30,000 and $90,000. This seems much too wide a ‘middle’ to be meaningful. These incomes likely reflect very different lifestyles and options. But the definition is slippier still. The World Bank defines the middle class as people making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

The middle-class has been described as a rentier class with no social basis but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist system, with the top .01% gaining significantly more than the next .09%, who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric, and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose hands success seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense-making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism — it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. The successful are caught in the need for ascribing their success to their own ingenuity and hard work.

The moralism of middle class can be better understood if we look to its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the middle-class in the Victorian era was its extreme moralism — railing against the corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rabbits poor — and trying to define meritocracy as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society — inclusive yet elusive — inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Media and the Middle Class: Example of India

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way – especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade – as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong-based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels — including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself – at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment.

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and the new generation that took reigns of that media – the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intentions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till the early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers trod lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured foreign channels carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign-bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of native media led by clawing young brigade. The recruits to the media industry – young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of middle-class discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with a shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading Times of India with its Leisure sections (something which was started by Washington Post Style Section in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a cause of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

A Walk Down the Memory Lane: Connaught Place

14 Jul

The romance of a Delhi summer can be savored by conjuring up just one image: the vast, cool corridors of Connaught Place.

The Raj-era building, built between 1928 and 1934 though formally opened in 1931, was based on the designs of World War I veteran Robert Tor Russell, Chief Architect to the Public Works Department. Russell had worked in India before the War as an assistant to the famous John Begg, who along with George Wittet is generally credited with developing the Indo-Saracenic style. Thankfully, due to exigency or choice, none of Begg’s influence invaded Russell’s design aesthetic, which was dominated by the understated yet stately stucco neo-classical style popularized by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Russell’s aesthetic, however, did carry distinct echoes of Italian architecture- The opulent gracefully executed Tuscan loggias on both on both levels (the upper-level structures have been increasingly converted into offices) being the defining features of Connaught Place.

Growing up in the eighties, Connaught Place, with its massive arcaded colonnades, circular columnar geometry which was never oppressive, upscale if slightly frumpy shops, as opposed to upscale shops now which have interior designs that are almost always preternaturally youthful, with humming air conditioners, when air conditioners were a rarity, was a source of wonder and awe. It was also the only place where one saw foreigners in Delhi. They, almost always in their sunglasses and shorts, walking unhurriedly yet purposefully.

Going to Connaught Place meant going through India Gate and parts of Lutyens Delhi. As we neared India gate, the temperature dropped a few degrees as bus gathered pace and air shed its molten edge in the leafy embrace of trees, and over the grassy expanse of the maidans. Suddenly the furrowed brow of the bus passengers relaxed as we entered the non-gridlocked, beautiful, stately, tree-lined Delhi, and a near bonhomie was restored.

Getting down at Barakhamba Road, I remember always taking a few seconds to take in the faint yet pleasant excitement of being in this glorious commercial hub, feeling happy, and almost dreamily becoming aware of the pleasant rush of traffic and how the car horns sounded different — more sonorous, here. However, the two things that I remember most about going to Connaught Place are the shoe shops and Nirula’s. If mom wanted a sandal, it had to be from the Liberty shop in Connaught Place, and the Bata shop there was considered absolutely irreplaceable for men’s shoes. The air-conditioned Nirula’s with its exotic pizzas, which never tasted good but were ravenously consumed, and burgers, and ice-creams was heaven, albeit a heaven in which the feet and heart were as timorous as excitement complete.

On the way back home at night, happy with the day, the relatively empty bus with its dull yellow light seemed positively romantic. As we passed the ice-cream wallahs with their fluorescent lights covered in colored cellophane, and the strolling families, near India gate, the adventure was complete.

Why Obama?

17 Jan

Chaste and I on why Obama is the better candidate in the Democratic primary.

The system of democracy that we have been assigned to only allows us to make comparative judgments between candidates standing for election. We do not get to vote for “ideal” candidates but merely the best among the ones who are running. At this stage, Democratic partisans and independents (in some states) get to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. One of these candidates will eventually represent the Democratic Party in November against a Republican candidate.

The past eight years in this country have been an unmitigated disaster – they have not only been financially ruinous (an average of about $12,000 of debt has been added to the already burdened back of an average American, the dollar has plummeted), they have also proven to be catastrophic for America’s reputation and caused grievous harm on vitally important issues like climate change. All of the major Republican candidates running today – while careful in distancing themselves from Bush – espouse positions that are virtually indistinguishable from that of Bush. There is little doubt in my mind that if we elect another Republican to the White House, we are going to see a rehash of the policies that have proven to be so ruinous. So for all who are concerned about having another Republican in White House come January 2008, it is important to pay attention to electability.

As Frank Rich points out in his column for the NY Times, Republicans are all set to dig up the unending mounds of dirt that emerged from the White House under Clinton Era. The Clinton closet hides more than Lewinsky’s stained blue dress; it also contains sodden episodes like the Whitewater kickbacks, the White House as a guest house for donors, pardoning of Marc Rich, the Clinton library donation from the Saudis, among many others. More than that, Hillary is widely seen (justly or unjustly) as a “divisive” candidate unlikely to win any converts among independents. There is now empirical evidence –from the four contests and national opinion polls – that that is indeed true, as Obama has handily won amongst independents in each of the contests and leads amongst independents nationwide.

Let me move next to discussing their stances on the Iraq war –a core issue for a lot of Americans not only for its price tag, estimated at over $2 trillion by Columbia and Harvard professors, but also for the active disinformation campaign by the administration and the complicity of press and “opposition” leaders.

Senator Obama had the judgment and the courage to call the Iraq war correctly from the beginning. This was no happenstance or knee-jerk response. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he had said in 2002. His argument was based not only on the insultingly egregious evidence presented for going to war but also steeped in pragmatism – he accurately predicted that American troops won’t be greeted with flowers in Iraq. His sound judgment is in part the product of his abiding interest in foreign policy: his major at Columbia was International Relations. It is also due in part to his life experiences: as a boy with a Kenyan father and later an Indonesian stepfather, who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii. Fareed Zakaria, a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and currently Editor of Newsweek International, said that Senator Obama is the only candidate who knows “what it means not to be an American”, an understanding critical to a successful foreign policy in our time. Senator Obama is an admirer of the foreign policy of President Truman who combined the establishment of NATO with the Marshall Plan, and of President Kennedy who combined a military buildup with the establishment of the Peace Corps. He wants to make Foreign Aid a strong component of American foreign policy to establish American military and moral leadership. He is currently the only candidate running for office who is open to talking to Iran without any preconditions.

Senator Obama also has a clear grasp of economic policies. Recently, a Washington Post writer decided to grade all the candidates based on the stimulus packages they proposed to address the recent economic downturn. As the candidates put together these responses relatively quickly, they accurately indicate the quality of the candidates’ understanding of the economy. Senator Obama topped with an A-, Senator Edwards and President Bush had a B-, and Senator Clinton had a C+; the best grade for a Republican candidate was a D+. The article is a very good read so I would recommend that you read it in full.

Senator Obama gives us grounds for trusting his integrity because of his record of putting his money where his mouth is. After graduating from Columbia, he worked for several years as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago, not the regulation one year that most law school applicants work to beef up their resume. After graduating Magna cum Laude from Harvard law, he chose to be a civil rights lawyer rather than making millions as a corporate lawyer.

Senator Obama also has a record of bringing people together to get things done. He has done this at least since his days at Harvard Law when he emerged as the consensus candidate as the president of the Harvard Law Review after bitter acrimony between ideological factions (no mean feat as law students like their own opinions very much, and have nothing to lose from being obdurate). In the U.S. Senate, he has worked with respected Republicans like Senator Lugar over the control of conventional weapons like hand-held anti-aircraft missiles and land mines, as well as with Republican ideologues like Senator Coburn over corporate transparency legislation.

Senator Obama’s main opponent, Senator Clinton often offers up her experience as the reason for preferring her. While Senator Clinton was very competent and successful in her long career as a corporate lawyer, her career in public life has unfortunately been marked by incompetence. Her mishandling of Healthcare reform not only resulted in the Republican landslide of 1994 that swept away strong Democratic majorities in Congress; it put off any serious consideration of Healthcare reform for more than a decade.

If part of the debacle of her Healthcare effort may be attributed to political inexperience, no such excuse exists for her vote to authorize the war on Iraq in 2002. At the same time, Senator Clinton also voted against the Levin amendment, which would have required Mr. Bush to come to Congress for war authorization if he failed to obtain a U.N. resolution. The two votes combined make it clear that Senator Clinton’s authorization for the war on Iraq was unequivocal and not conditional on exhaustive diplomacy as she would have us believe. Senator Clinton had access to the entire National Intelligence Estimate. The full report had considerable reservations about the WMD claims spun by the Bush administration. To date, she has consistently refused to say whether she did or did not read the full report, instead maintaining only that she was briefed on the report. Failure to read the report in an important matter like war would suggest incompetence and a lack of seriousness; her vote after reading the report would suggest that she attached more importance to the spin of the Bush administration and TV Pundits than to the assessments of career civil servants even in important matters like war. (NY Times, Hillary on War)

To err may be human, but not to learn from one’s mistakes is incompetence. Senator Clinton has refused to acknowledge that she even made a mistake in her war authorization vote, which suggests a temperament on which experience is wasted. An instance of this was her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman resolution in 2007, which urged the Bush administration to declare Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (numbering about 120,000) a “terrorist” entity. Many saw this resolution as the basis for a possible invasion of Iran in the future. Senator Clinton claimed that her vote would help negotiations with Iran. Yet calling a major state agency “terrorist,” will only make it difficult for the Iranians to compromise, and the “terrorist” label would increase domestic U.S. pressure against meaningful negotiations with Iran. Senator Clinton’s use of such flawed logic as the basis for a possible war creates grave doubts about the quality of her thinking. Fortunately, The Bush administration adopted a much more judicious and restrained approach than that advocated by Senator Clinton and declared only a small subset of the Revolutionary Guards as a “terrorist” entity. The tension was further defused recently when the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran has had no nuclear weapons program for the past few years. It however very powerfully brings into question Senator Clinton’s judgment.

Senator Clinton has chosen to run a divisive campaign making liberal use of the gender and race cards. She has recruited surrogates including her own husband to launch a vitriolic campaign, which has only divided the Democratic Party. These are the actions of a candidate who is in ONLY to win. Senator Clinton was already a polarizing influence in the nation as a whole (though this is not entirely her fault). Her calculated dividing of the Democratic Party bodes ill for her chances in November if she is the candidate, and for passing her agenda if she becomes President.

The foregoing shows that when it comes to the qualities we seek in a president, such as soundness of judgment, clarity of understanding, quality of thought, and integrity, Senator Obama is by far the better candidate. He has a much clearer understanding of both foreign policy and of the economy. The domestic programs of all three Democratic candidates are substantially comparable. Senator Obama’s proven record of uniting people and working across the aisle gives him a much better chance of turning his program into legislation.

For all these reasons, I urge you to vote for Senator Obama in the primary on Feb 5.


Get Involved

On February 5th 22 states go head to head in contests that will essentially decide the Democratic candidate. If you support Obama’s candidacy, and would like to get involved, please go to Barackobama.com to learn more about how you can contribute. You can donate towards the campaign by clicking here.

Hindu Pride: Akshardham “Spiritual Theme Park”

26 Oct

The huge red sandstone and marble monument, visible from the nearby highway, stands alone, proud, and out of place.

The local road abutting the walled complex has a few informal ‘checkpoints’ where men in plain clothes check cars. As our Maruti Zen lurches into the ‘complex’, the true enormity of the ‘operation’ – the beehive of activity that keeps this place running – becomes clear. The complex employs at least a few hundred people (almost all men), mostly young, eager, full of self-importance, and too prone to giving directions where none are necessary. The job of frisking visitors, shepherding them through metal detectors, collecting parking tickets, maintaining order, among other things, at this massive complex clearly leaves the workers flush with tepid excitement akin to what one feels when one stands in the back lines of a violent mob.

Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex in Delhi is a large red sandstone-and-white marble structure built on a 100-acre plot on the Yamuna riverbed, opposite the disintegrating dingy hovels and narrow lanes of Pandav Nagar. The prodigiously carved temple, which took about five years to build and reportedly employed over 7,000 artisans during its construction, cost around Rs 2 billion (or about $50 million).

The construction of this gargantuan complex right on the dried up riverbed attracted the ire of environmentalists concerned about its impact on the river’s future sustainability. Their protests seemed a bit misplaced given that the Yamuna is not more than a sickly nallah, and isn’t expected to do much better in the future. However, it is widely believed amongst the knowledgeable elite that construction of the temple, as the first building on the riverbed, was a master move by babus at the Delhi Development Authority interested in opening up the riverbed for commercial development. Being a temple, the structure will never be torn down, and under the aegis, corporate developers can furnish claims for future development. The plan seems to have borne fruit with a Commonwealth Village for Commonwealth games scheduled in 2010 scheduled to come up next to the temple complex in the very near future.

The temple is run by the Swami Narayan trust or more precisely, the Bochasanvasi Aksharpurushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS). The current leader of the group, Pramukh Swami Maharaj (which roughly translates to ‘leader’ ‘saint’ ‘king’ respectively), is credited with inspiration for the temple. Apparently, the guru had a vision in which he saw a temple near the banks of Yamuna, an erstwhile preserve of Mughal monuments, and voila in a few years, the dream was realized. A useful biography of this great man can be conveniently found on the web.

The complex, featuring a Disneyland kind 12-minute boat ride to allow visitors to sail through displays of Indian culture, and a large food court serving everything from Burgers (vegetarian) to Dosas, takes its name from the Akshardham temple in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar. The temple in Gujarat was the site of a deadly bomb attack and hostage drama in 2002. Given the history, the temple in Delhi features extraordinary security measures – people are barred from taking in any electronic equipment, they are frisked thoroughly, and even asked to open up their wallets for inspection (strictly inspection, fortunately).

The Swaminarayan temple complex is a strange mix of architectural styles, ranging from Deccan to Mughal to Mewari. The intricately carved marble interiors are reminiscent of opulent Mughal tombs and palaces, the main building’s red sandstone facade seems to pay ode to Deccan style temples (most prominently Meenakshi temple in its ostentatious carving), while the boundary wall and supporting structure seem to be inspired by a mixture of Mewari and Mughal styles. Walking on the tiled pathways perpendicularly crossing its wide lawns (reminiscent of Mughal garden layout), dotted with garish faux roman (painted cast iron with paint starting to peel) sculptures narrating major Hindu allegories, and showcasing prominent Hindu mythological figures, I still vividly remember catching myself staring at a boundary wall that seemed deceptively similar to Red Fort’s. Similarities to Mughal architecture aren’t that surprising given that Mughal architecture itself borrows heavily from (Hindu) architecture in Rajasthan during the 16th century, but the effect is ironic indeed.

The temple exteriors seem to have been carved to inspire awe rather than convey a more aesthetic sense of beauty. The impulse to impress is most clearly seen inside the carved white marble interior sanctum, generally the most unadorned place in a Hindu temple – in line with the philosophy that devotees symbolically leave the world behind at the sanctum and enter a distraction-free meditative space. The effect of all the embellishment seems strangely contrived, much like that of sets from religious mythological shows on television.

More pointedly, as a monument to both Hindu pride and ‘Shining India’, it is appropriately both a religious monument and a theme park. Hindu pride stares at emptily from the narrative sculptural montages, the embellished shell, and the self-satisfied awed masses that congregate here while ‘Shining India’ gleams in its insipidity in the food court, in the boat ride, in the musical fountains, and in the multimedia museum devoted to Hindu mythology catastrophically crossed with Indian history. But then it is mere natural progression from gaudy television dramas based on religious epics to gaudy monuments inspired by the same mythological television dramas. It is a mere natural downward progression – to be precise- towards a not-so-unique blend of pride, philistinism, money, religious fervor, and entertainment.

Bemoaning Delhi

6 Oct

Delhi doesn’t look like anything. It is amorphous, and as misshapen as only third world cities can be. It is but a mass of hutments, box-like houses built to occupy every available inch of space (and a couple more created by bribery) crammed together across narrow lanes interspersed by indifferent wide diseased roads full of traffic and nauseous fumes, covered in brownish dust that suffuses the air, with a deathly sun beating over it.

People live in this place—a lot of them. But the city was not created for them. Instead, people have wrested savagely whatever little piece they can. And the combined savagery of poverty and corrupt government has created this tired undifferentiated mass of bricks, tar, garbage, and people.

It is as if the houses have come up, lanes been laid, roads built, with no thought, or care except the most pressing, the most basic one—to survive. To talk of architecture is a presumption, and to talk about the city’s “character” an even more absurd pretension still. It is weird to see Delhi through Western eyes, even their pictures of poverty with cute children with distended bellies due to malnutrition are exotic. There is nothing exotic about Delhi. There is no mystery that is lurking beneath its hutments, or its Nirulas, or behind the empty eyes of its ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class. Not that the brand conscious or the carefully brand weary middle class in West has something to boast about. But leave the pretensions home.

Delhi is there. People are living, driving, pissing on the disintegrating walls plastered with tattered posters that line some of its streets, fucking in their bedrooms, and coming out blank-eyed in the morning from their cells. It is a city of elbows and impatience. It is a city full of people bent upon joylessly eating, and consuming, to fill that enormous chasm that opens up when you live such warped lives. It is a city of broken men, and women – with distended pot-bellies, cracked hands, and tired disfigured faces. And no – they don’t want your fucking sympathy, or even your ‘understanding’ for there is nothing to understand, they exist only to dig up another day from the bowels of another sleepless night.

There is no redemption in Delhi, even for the rich. Why should there be? Rich can hide in air-conditioned cocoons but must give in and sadistically abuse their servants, generally young boys 10-12 years old – if the nimbupani isn’t cold enough.

Since the north excels in aborting female fetuses, and ‘protective’ attitudes towards women by their parents, and predatory attitudes towards them by young males stifle their movement, you only see hordes of young men on the road. Since there is little impetus to implement child labor laws, kids sell – sometimes surprisingly high-end books to people who will never read them but will talk about them– at red lights.

Delhi, as Dalrymple points out during one of his sane moments in the largely delusional novel dedicated to the city ‘City of Djinns’, is a refugee city. Delhi, until the economic reforms of the mid-90s, was defined by two things: entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees who came after partition and built their lives piece by piece, and the largish babudom. Post ’95, it increasingly became a grotto for the myriad poor – predominantly from North India, and simultaneously an embodiment of Delhi government’s aspirations, and the rich Indians’ aspirations, both mediated by the reality of poverty, corruption, philistinism, and greed. Both aspirations fed each other, as they still do, to sap soul out of the city – leeching the richer neighborhoods of languorous bungalows shaded by Gulmohar trees, and with walls draped by Bougainvilleas – carefully replacing them with multi-storied boxes, replacing town roads with enormous highways to accommodate the rapidly multiplying cars, and tearing down some of the poor localities and eviscerating small businesses based on their ‘unauthorized’ status. Whatever vestiges of culture Delhi clung on to were preyed upon and consumed during the last decade or so as Delhi grew one enormous housing project – endless grid-like arrays of shabby quality 4-5 story flats- after another. The taps dried as water shortage became acuter, and now aunties in ‘good’ neighborhoods rejoice if they get water for three hours every day. The sad part is that Delhi is the capital city and boasts of some of the best infrastructure that the country has to offer. There may be some joy still. The umbra of carnage wreaked over the past decade may still yield to the faint light of the globalized penumbra. After all, McDonald’s is here and Ronald, the jovial and orange clown, seems inclined to show us the way to perennial peace and civilization.

‘Shining India’: Marvel of Marble

26 Sep

The Singapore Airlines flight SQ 408 landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi at 8:45pm, a full 15 minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, there was no gate available to greet the early arrival. After waiting for about 15 minutes, a gate was found and the weary passengers started “deplaning” into a stale-aired tunnel devoid of any air conditioning.

Passing through it, we reached a smallish marble-floored concourse also devoid of functioning air-conditioning. India is perhaps one of the few nations in the world where the government spends, what is undoubtedly an exorbitant amount of money to cover the floor with marble, and then leaves the air-conditioning unplugged. Marble in my memory is inextricably linked to the beautiful elegant toy-like tomb of Arjumand Banu Begum, better known as Mumtaz Mahal, and the marble floors that line the homes of the nouveau rich in Delhi. The concourse of Indira Gandhi Airport is also one such tomb – a tomb to India’s bureaucracy, the babudom (a pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucracy) whose dried pan spittle adorns the lower extremities of the walls, and higher areas of corners, and one such hanging statement about clueless money.

I was soon making my way through the staircase to a smallish area that had the immigration counters, as passengers from another flight – this time from Malaysia as my surreptitious sideways glances at people’s passports and immigration forms later revealed – poured in. The area became crowded as people flowed over on to the staircase.

I belong to a class of people who are unable, or perhaps unwilling, most of the times to be assertive. So the waves of people pushed me back to my due spot- near the end of the line. In the interim melee, a man in his mid-30s behind me called out to his wife, ‘Arrey issey main dekhta hoon tum jaldi say line mein jaa kar lago (I will look out for him – the kid – you go hurry up and stand in the line). The passengers though were generally quiet and undemanding showing a detachment that only comes from having lived in plush comforting environments for some time, or when you are a young ‘foreign tourist’ and all ‘this’ is part of being in a new country. Of course, the fact that all of the Indian (expatriates or natives) passengers, a majority of the total passengers, belong to the super elite for whom pretending patience in front of fellow elites is important and also helps keep the verbalizing of resentment to a minimum.

The other airplane that had come from Malaysia was full of Muslims in full regalia—skull caps, flowing robes, and slippers. The foreigners in our line wondered. I wondered too.

In due time, my number came and I handed over my passport to the clearly overworked and unsmiling man across the counter; the job is perhaps lowly and the government babu (pejorative term used to describe Indian bureaucrats) at the counter looked impoverished – he had a noticeably dirty collar, the shirt was yellowing and worn, and his tie was little askew. He stared briefly and stamped.

Then came the robust baggage trolleys – not the dainty ones that I saw in Hong Kong – on which I plunked my suitcases, which came slowly and sullenly over the conveyor belt looking worn and maltreated. And I was off into the dusty crowded outside, and into the hands of my parents.

The Role of Argument in Natural Sciences, Law, and Social Sciences

20 Aug

The following article has been written by Chaste, who has contributed to this blog before.

I will assume for the purposes of this piece that argument is the dominant form of writing in academia. This is also true of public discourse, but this piece will limit itself to academic writing, and more specifically to writing in the social sciences. If academia aims to produce worthwhile knowledge then the argument is the form that mediates our view of the object studied, and academia is the structure that mediates the production of the specific types of knowledge.

Mediating forms are layers of abstraction that can help understanding. They define a process for understanding that prevents distortion due to visceral or other perceptions. Yet as Adorno warns us, forms of viewing and the structures that regulate those forms can limit our understanding of the object studied. To take a simple instance, researcher-teachers argue a position to get published, and the success of such arguments in staking out and establishing a specific position within the field gets them promoted. Yet we expect researcher-teachers to conduct independent research, and train students to think with an open mind and to acquire comprehensive knowledge in a field. We must be wary lest the form of the argument and the structure of academia advance original/individualistic positions at the expense of responsible scholarship. We must also worry about the lure of political power for academics. Politics desires simple, narrow and sharply defined positions, whether for political posturing or for public programs. Succumbing to this lure can only exacerbate the effects of argument on knowledge.

Nature of Argument and its Role in Academia

I will quickly lay out the nature of the argument as used in academia. The argument typically takes the form of a declared purpose, followed by a description of the theoretical method, which the researcher will use for his analysis. It then applies this method to the selected data to come up with a conclusion that mirrors the declared aim. The primary critique of this form of argument uses a simple piece of reasoning. Applying a theoretical method to a selection of data should always produce the same result and conclusion. Therefore if “reasonable” (sic) minds disagree, this can only be because their aim/conclusion has pre-determined their choice of theoretical method and/or their selection of data.

The primary virtue of argument is its clarity. This is due to two qualities: consistency and discreteness. Yet consistency provides much greater explanatory power when we combine it with complexity than when we use it to support a single point. The argument often achieves discreteness by excluding other perspectives. We can gain greater explanatory power by defining relations between disparate issues perspectives, rather than by limiting them. “Cohere” is useful as it suggests both cohesion and coherence.

The popularity of the argument is doubtless because it mimics similar forms in science and law. Despite its recent success, scientific research is hardly a model of philosophical rigor. Recall the search for the “gay gene,” where scientists confused the biological phenomenon of sexual urge with the likely social phenomenon of sexual attractiveness. Or witness the ongoing fiasco about the continuous upward revision of global warming estimates because scientists had missed such obvious factors as the methane release from a permafrost melt, or missed the systematic differences caused by changes in methods for measuring temperature over the past century. Most scientific research is simple because it deals in the existence of facts. Reporting the properties of an element at 1000c has much scientific value. On the other hand, reporting my thoughts at any given moment has little value even though it may be an appropriate object of study for psychology or political science. Most scientific research does not involve speculative selection and aggregation of data. When it does, as in astronomy, public health, and climatology, its conclusions are no more reliable than those in the social sciences. “Speculative” is crucial when dealing with a seemingly infinite number of variables and infinite data. It underlines the necessity of an a priori judgment when faced with infinite variables and data. The analysis then turns into a test of the speculative judgment. It is at this point that ethics become crucial in such research. The researcher can choose his theoretical methods and select his data to prejudge the outcome in favor of the a priori judgment. Alternatively, the researcher can choose to be ethical. He could either come up with a new hypothesis and test it, or he could simply state the conclusion supported by the most appropriate selection of data and choice of methods.

The argument also mimics the dominant form used by law. However, the legal context is also quite different from that in social science research. It is true that lawyers select and even slant the data. However, the data is very limited. Again, the lawyer has no choice in the theoretical methods. Every legal point in dispute has a clearly established set of legal elements, which the lawyer must prove. It is this systematic exhaustion of every relevant legal element that makes legal briefs both thorough and thoroughly tedious. In academic arguments, exhaustive lists of theoretical methods are not possible. The infinite data and variables provide infinite scope for cherry-picking: the only criterion is that the method or data support the argument. Cross-disciplinary studies exacerbate these dangers. They make it easier to ignore any agreement in a discipline about the criteria for selecting relevant data, or about the best methods to analyze a particular type o data. In this instance, the proliferation of theoretical methods simply provides even more tools to derive a conclusion of one’s choosing. An extreme case of this phenomenon is that of the cross-disciplinary case study, which narrows the selection of data to a single instance, providing fertile ground for any conclusion whatever.

I do not suggest that such lax cross-disciplinary studies or case studies do not have any value. Their value is that of interpretive works and is similar to the value of literary works. Literary works sometimes reveal networks of meaning that cannot b openly discussed in their time. Cross-disciplinary case studies can straddle the boundary between what can and cannot be viably discussed in academia. As such, they can provoke thought and provide insights and skeletal structure for further analysis. An excellent work of this kind is Patricia Williams’ “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” which weaves together insightful arguments and moving, thought-provoking life experiences on various issues.

Another critical difference is that the law uses argument within an adversarial context. There is no counterpart in academic writing wherein a counter-argument immediately follows the argument. In this sense, an academic piece resembles an ex parte hearing in which the lawyer is required to disclose all facts favorable to the absent opponent. No such requirement exists in academic writing.

When used in the unsuitable academic context, the primary disadvantage of an argument is that it induces a loss of perspective by giving disproportionate emphasis to the position argued for. To a reader without extensive knowledge of the field, it is not possible to infer anything about the validity or worth of any claims. Unless the argument is part of a conversation, the only appropriate response is skepticism and a reserving of judgment. Judged by the credibility of its claims, the argument becomes worthless except as a data point in a survey or as part of a meta-reading.

Reforming the Argument

I will briefly examine a few alternatives to the argument as typically practiced. The first option is to abandon the argument in favor of a meditation that densely weaves together patterns of related insights. Meditation need not imply any loss of evidentiary or logical rigor, merely a flexible structure. The form of the meditation has several advantages. It dramatically reduces the problem of disproportionate emphasis on the one position. The substantive part of most arguments is less than 20% of their length. The rest is low-value elaboration masquerading as thoroughness. The more flexible structure of the meditation will encourage authors to replace the low-value elaboration with related information/insights. The weaving of patterns will become a pedagogical exercise, which will train the reader to map and relate the data in the field.

Meditation may be the ideal form; its practice is very likely to be something else. Authors will be tempted to spawn patchworks of recycled insights. This will make the editor’s job both time consuming and difficult.

Another solution involves a minor modification of the form of the argument. Editors can insist that the articles be self-aware: that they demonstrate how different conclusions can be drawn with different selections of data or variables and different choices of theoretical methods. This is the least resource-intensive of my three solutions. However, it runs the risk that the author will demonstrate only those alternatives that support rather than undermine his conclusion.

The most pragmatic solution is to have peer-reviewed publications. Unfortunately, most “peer reviewed” journals are a misnomer since they are only peer approved. The journals should publish the peer reviews, and allow the author to respond to the reviews. The reviews themselves should be an engagement with the material, and not merely indicate the quality of the piece. The editors must choose reviewers from different methodological expertise and disciplinary backgrounds (where that is appropriate). This will deter the author from making expedient selections of data and of theoretical methods and traditions. It will also give the reader an adequate perspective on the author’s argument. The interactive nature of the reviews and response will have pedagogical value not only for the reader but also for the author and the reviewers. It will enable the author and reviewers to possibly expand on the conversation outside the journal, and provide networking-related scholarly and career benefits. The article will come with a relatively objective assessment of its worth, which will help both readers and anyone else who may be interested in evaluating the work of the author. The editors should keep the approval process separate from the review process, and keep the submissions to reviewers anonymous. The editors should take care that the reviews not mimic the journalistic practice of seeking input from hacks representing stereotypes of established positions. However, this is achieved relatively easily in academia.

Peer review is reduced to peer approval in the sciences because unlike the social sciences, scientific research often deals in results rather than conclusions, and because the researcher is the only person with direct access to the results. Therefore, peers in sciences are largely concerned with fraudulent claims of results rather than with the validity of conclusions. In social sciences, the data is often public, and the value of the article lies primarily in the validity of the conclusions. Peer review will help determine this validity. It will also encourage responsible scholarship from authors. Not only will every article have to survive a more rigorous engagement; this engagement will be invigorating for all. Above all, it is achievable in practice because it does not impose unacceptable burdens on editors.

Vague Apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policymakers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility, we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

How Are Academic Disciplines Divided?

18 Jul

The social sciences are split into disciplines like Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, etc. There is a certain anarchy to the way they are split. For example, while Psychology is devoted to understanding how the individual mind works, and sociology to the study of groups, Political science is devoted merely to an aspect of groups—group decision making.

One of the primary reasons the social sciences are divided so is because of the history of how social sciences developed. As major figures postulated important variables that constrain the social world, fields took shape around them. The other pertinent variables that explain some of the new disciplines in social sciences are changes in technology, and more broadly changing social problems. For example, the discipline of Communication took shape around the time mass media became popular.

The way the social sciences are currently divided has left them with a host of inefficiencies which leave them largely inefficacious in a variety of scenarios where they can offer substantive help. Firstly, The containerized way of understanding the social world provide inadequate ways of understanding complex social systems that are imposed upon by a variety of variables that range from the individual to the institutional. And secondly, the largely discipline-specific theoretical motivations lead academic to concoct elaborate theories that often misstate their applicability in complex ecosystems. We all know how economics never met common sense till of recently. It isn’t that disciplines haven’t tried to bridge the inter-disciplinary divide, they certainly have by creating sub-disciplines ranging from social-psychology (in psychology) to political psychology (in Political Science), and in fact that is exactly where some of the most exciting research is taking place right now, the problem is that we have been slow to question the larger restructuring of the social sciences. The question then arises as to what should we put at the center of our focus of our disciplines? The answer is by no means clear to me though I think it would be useful to develop competencies around primary organizing social structures/institutions.

Role of Social Science

Let me assume away the fact that most social science knowledge will end up in the society either through Capitalism or selective uptake by policymakers. Next, we need to evaluate how social science can meaningfully contribute to society. One intuitive way would be to create social engineering departments that are focused on specific social problems. The advice is by no means radical— certainly Education as a discipline has been around for some time, and relatively recently departments (or schools) devoted to Public Health, Environmental Policy have opened up across college campuses. Secondly, social science should create social engineering departments that help offer solutions for real-life problems, much the same way engineering departments affiliated with natural sciences do and try experimenting with how for example different institutional structures would affect decision making. Lastly, social scientists have a lot more to offer to third world countries which have yet to be overrun by brute Capitalism. What social science departments need to do is lead more data collection efforts in third world countries and offer solutions.