Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Label for the Rest of Us

Every revolution needs a handy slogan, whether it's "No Taxation Without Representation" or "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité". The latest revolution, born of the economic crisis hitting the world, seems to be centred around the notion of "99%" to distinguish the rest of us from the "1%" to describe our oppressors. Now that we have our slogan, the 1% had better start shaking in their boots. The revolution is on.

The slogan of the Occupy Wall Street protesters was "We are the 99%". Now the respected Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has further fuelled the collective ire in a hard-hitting article by identifying "the 1%" as the cause of all of America's troubles.

This in a country so scared of socialism that a presidential candidate got into trouble for wanting to "spread the wealth around". One could argue that the irrational fear of socialism is what has landed Americans in this mess where 99% of the population is worse off than before, and 1% is far better off. I think it's the misunderstanding of the term "free market". It isn't about laissez-faire, it's about keeping markets truly competitive. I don't believe it was capitalism that has brought the US and the rest of the world to this pass. I think it's crony capitalism as perfectly described in Stiglitz's article, which is a horse of a different colour.

Somewhere, the ghosts of both Karl Marx and Adam Smith are laughing.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Redundant Tautologies

One of the amusing aspects of being an ethnic immigrant in a Western country is encountering repetitive descriptions of things ethnic, mainly food items.

E.g., Chai tea (that's tea tea), naan bread (just naan will do nicely) and raita sauce (ditto).

This is a nice image I found on the web, by the way. I like the stylistic representation of the Bharatanatyam dancer. [And since 'naatyam' means dance, perhaps Bharatanatyam would be 'Bharatanatyam dance'.]

The Japanese might have a similar feeling about the 'Nashi pears' sold in the supermarket (I'm told 'nashi' means 'pear' in Japanese).

I recently came across the latest example of this on the supermarket shelf. Don't miss the handy pronunciation guide ("Arta").

Atta flour is used to make naan bread. Now how about that?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Influence of Mary Blair

Thanks to the Google Doodle, I came to understand that today is the 100th birthday of Mary Blair (1911-1978).

The Google Doodle for Friday 21 October, 2011

Illustrator Mary Blair

I had never even heard of Mary Blair before, but a quick Google Image Search of her work was astonishing. I realise I have virtually grown up seeing her style of illustration everywhere, thanks to Walt Disney. I guess when you grow up exposed to a certain style of art, it becomes so familiar that it never even registers at a conscious level. I never thought to wonder about the person behind these illustrations.

Uncle Remus was a cartoon I remember reading as a small child

Even her still life has the same "look-and-feel" to it

She apparently did commercial ads as well

I guess we either hear of "serious" artists or of cartoonists, but illustrators seem to be unsung heroes.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as ignorant of Mary Blair and her work. Mike R Baker is an illustrator who has consciously produced work in her style. He even has her initials.

A very Mary Blair-esque Goddess Kali by Mike Baker

Great Cartoon on Mumbai Security

So true!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Now What Do They Have Against Liberia?

I had to laugh when I saw this photograph of Pakistani protesters burning what they obviously thought was the US flag.

Guys, this is the US flag:

This is the Liberian flag:

I don't think the Liberians did anything to deserve this.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Etymology of a Name

I attended a technical talk today by a person with the unusual surname of Velummylum. Given that his first name (Piragash) sounded like the Tamil rendering of a Sanskrit word ("Prakash" - Light), I looked closer at the surname to see if that was a Tamil word as well.

Tamil has no simple conjunction word for "and". If you wanted to say, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", you would have to say, "Ant-um Grasshopper-um" (with the Tamil equivalents for Ant and Grasshopper substituted, of course).

So Velummylum on first analysis, seemed to be "Velum Mylum" (வேலும் மயிலும்), i.e., the Vel and the Myl. Now Vel (pronounced 'vale') means 'spear' in Tamil and Myl (pronounced 'mayil') means 'peacock'.

"The Spear and the Peacock" may still not mean much to a non-Tamil even when translated, but the symbolism is very clear to a Tamil. They are the symbols of Lord Murugan, the Tamil name for Kartikeya, the warlord god born to Shiva and Parvati to destroy the demon Tarakasura. The spear is his weapon, and the peacock is his mount or vehicle ("Vahana"). Every Hindu god or goddess seems to have a favourite weapon and a particular animal or bird as their mount.

I'm told there is a very famous devotional song "Velum Mayilum Thunai" (Succour of Spear and Peacock), an allegorical appeal to Lord Murugan's protection.

I thought I'd dig around the web for some nice pictures of Murugan. Here's a traditional one, the kind that I would see in shops and homes during my childhood holiday visits to Madurai, where my grandmother lived. The peacock holds down a serpent, symbolic of all kinds of evil in human nature, I guess.

This is the version by Raja Ravi Varma, the famous Indian artist who was influenced by the Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson. [The fusion of classical Indian and Dutch Impressionist styles made Raja Ravi Varma one of India's greatest artists. As Aatish Taseer rightly observed in the novel "Stranger to History" that I reviewed, the world is richer in its hybrids.] This version shows Murugan in his six-headed form with two consorts and lots of different weapons. The serpent is bigger than before, but the peacock seems to have the situation under control.

Here's a more modern rendition that I really like. I couldn't tell who the artist was, but here's the site I got it from. They missed the serpent, though.

It's the story of my life. I set out to learn about technology, then get drawn into even more interesting research into linguistics, culture, religion and art!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

India's Strategic Aikido

Much analysis has gone into the announcement of the strategic deal between India and Afghanistan. Under this agreement, India will train Afghan security forces to be able to shoulder the responsibility of holding their country together after the withdrawal of Western forces in 2014.

Even though there is no proposal in this agreement to put Indian boots on the ground, most analysts warn that the aspiration is as hopeless as it is ambitious. There is a feeling that Pakistan holds all the cards and can very easily play the spoiler in Afghanistan. India's influence in that landlocked country is handicapped by geography to the same extent that Pakistan is advantaged by it. When push comes to shove, it seems apparent that India is headed for humiliation. The lessons of India's disastrous excursion into Sri Lanka in the early nineties also come to mind. This seems to be a bad idea, no matter who thought it up.

However, there is another way of looking at this. The New Delhi-Kabul axis is bound to whip Pakistan up into a frenzy, and that may be its very intent among the policymakers in South Block. This could do to Pakistan what Ronald Reagan's SDI ("Star Wars") did to the Soviet Union - push it over the brink into bankruptcy by raising the costs of keeping up.

India can afford an arms race. Pakistan can't. Pakistan's traditional donor of military aid, the US, is increasingly reluctant to supply arms, partly out of pique at the duplicitous role of the Pakistani military, but also partly out of the forced frugality of its own internal financial crisis. The Chinese are vocal supporters of Pakistan, but have been pointedly reticent about opening their wallets to actually help. As for the Saudis, they would probably lean towards India in a conflict, as their behaviour during the Kargil war could attest. They do far more business with India than with Pakistan, and money talks. And that about exhausts Pakistan's list of friends.

Aikido is the art of turning one's opponent's momentum against himself with a minimum of effort and no physical contact. By the mere announcement of the agreement with Afghanistan, India has ensured that Pakistan will devote even more frenzied energy into shaping Afghanistan to its own liking, a diversion of resources that it can ill afford at this point in its history. Pakistan has never been economically weaker. Its GDP growth rate last year was an anaemic 2.5%, when it needs 4% to even stay in the same place. Power shutdowns ("load shedding") are a feature of daily life, not because of increasing demand as in India, but because of decreasing supply. Power, or the loss of it, is an economic multiplier, and this does not bode well for Pakistan's GDP growth next year and the year after. Even without an exhausting military race, the Pakistanis are inexorably bankrupting themselves.

There probably is some even greater wisdom in the Indian strategy, because India is also simultaneously holding trade talks with Pakistan to eventually move towards a free trade agreement. That would of course benefit both countries, but it will benefit the weaker economy much more, since the savings would be all the more precious.

In other words, there is a carrot and a stick for Pakistan in the Indian strategy. An adversarial attitude towards India will hasten the onset of bankruptcy and the chaos that will ensue. A thawing of hostility can conversely ease the pain and gradually lead to a return to normalcy and eventual prosperity. The choice is entirely Pakistan's to make. But the path to redemption will require submission to the idea of India's superiority, a swallowing of pride that the Pakistani establishment has never been willing to accept.

They may have no choice. The reality they face is harsh and uncompromising. Pakistan's quest for strategic parity with India was always an unachievable dream. A country with just a seventh of another's population can never aspire to anything resembling parity. It may seem unjust, but India will always dominate South Asia on account of its inherent advantage of relative size. The pygmies (and yes, Pakistan is among them) may understandably chafe at it, but all the rest have come to terms with it. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and even Burma and Afghanistan further afield, are realising the benefits of warming to an economically resurgent India. [One only hopes that India will resist the tendency to arrogance and hubris, and maintain a "light touch" in its dealings with its neighbours, because India's greatest potential enemy is India itself.]

The economic carrot and stick may be just the tactic required to get Pakistan to accept the reality of its situation. With some deft footwork, India can get Pakistan to lurch to where it wants it. Like with the five stages of grief, Pakistan for its own sake needs to arrive at an acceptance, however bitter, of India's dominance in every sphere. Otherwise, survival itself will become a problem.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Terror Takes Two To Tango

I have no sympathy for terrorists. In fact, as an Indian, I consider Americans to be johnny-come-latelies to the anti-terrorism party. We in India knew of terror first-hand decades before 9/11, so it's amusing at one level to see how quickly Americans developed a sense of outrage at terrorism once it started to be directed at them. Till that point, Indians were being lectured on patience and restraint, and told to sit down and talk to the sponsors of terror to "resolve differences".

Yeah, we did see a lot of sitting down and talking between the US and Al Qaeda right after 9/11, didn't we?

In fact, after 9/11, we began to hear new vocabulary and new concepts. It was OK to detain people without trial because they were "enemy combatants". Er, wasn't there something called the Geneva Convention that specifically addressed the rights of enemy combatants? No worries there, no less a person than the US Vice-President (Dick Cheney) informed us that waterboarding was not torture. And if you were talking about real torture, that was called "enhanced interrogation" and outsourced to authoritarian allies like Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, because that wasn't something the US did. But then Abu Ghraib entered our vocabulary as well, letting us know exactly how the US itself treated its prisoners. The name didn't quite rhyme with My Lai, but there was a definite resonance.

This week, it appears American hypocrisy has reached new levels.

The radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed, and it appears that a Justice Department memo authorised his killing. We don't know for sure that Anwar al-Awlaki actually plotted any terror attacks, because State Secrets privilege was reportedly used to keep all discussion of his targetting out of the courts and out of the public eye. Sure, he preached hatred and terror, but one could argue that as an American citizen (he was born in the US) he was just exercising his First Amendment right to free speech. Hate speech is actually protected in the US, as Neo-Nazis are smugly aware.

So how is the Justice Department memo any different from a fatwa, and how is this killing any different from an assassination?

Again, let me repeat that I have no sympathy for a jihadist, because my country of birth has suffered from the effects of a jihadist philosophy from the eleventh century. I'm just pointing out that Western countries lecture others on human rights, the rule of law and due process, so what's happening here? I guess it all just means that when the chips are down, all pretence of being civilised is discarded, and it's the law of the jungle once more.

What a bunch of creeps all around, eh?

However, as they say, the wheels of God grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Now the news every day revolves around how the US is slowly turning on a country that it more and more reluctantly refers to as an ally. Call it nemesis or call it karma, decades of terror directed at India are finally receiving payback from another direction, and that's usually the way things work in this world.

And so, while the US and Pakistan are circling each other, snarling and spitting, Indians are minding their business with a studied indifference, biting their lips hard to suppress a grin. Don't look now, but doesn't that couple look absolutely made for each other?

That's some memo from that Justice Department in the sky!