Friday, July 6, 2012

Shared Dreams of the Bengali East & the American South

Growing up as a Bengali with roots in East Bengal in what is now Bangladesh, one hears a lot of tales about the prosperous past. A plush villa set amidst a landscape dotted with lakes, tall coconut trees flanking paddy farms is an image one’s mind creates. Besides paddy, the farms also produce vegetables, & maybe even some cash crops. The ponds & nearby meandering river are teeming with all kinds of fish. Add in an East Bengali Bhadralok reading his Shakespeare while sipping his Darjeeling tea, the portrait emerges fully furnished.  This image has also become a joke in some quarters, a stick by which Bengalis from the west of the Padma river have whipped us with. Their claim is that if every Bangal had so much land, then what would the total land area of the East be?
The American South has similar tales to tell. The black soil, the cotton plantations, the black slaves, the Southern Belles have all formed part of the popular imagination. Little known is the fact that during the American Civil War, less than 40% of Southern Americans possessed slaves, but it was the very idea of slavery abolishment that led to enlistment (later conscription) of some 700,000 males for the southern army. Not for nothing is the Civil War known as “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight”.
There are many things that bind these two seemingly disparate people. It is the hope of the seemingly attainable. The slave holders in the American South & the Zamindars of East Bengal may have been way above the level of most common folk, but they provided a bulwark against domination by the ‘other’. In America (South), the ‘other’ was a fear of black resurgence & an industrial dominating North. In Bengal, the ‘other’ included the British & the Muslims. So in both the places, even the most humble sharecroppers as long as they did not belong to the ‘other’ saw the powerful elites as their own people. The sense of belonging provided a bulwark against divisive forces. No wonder the South was able to enlist such a large volunteer army & the East got embroiled in its own religious civil war rather than one based on class.    

Monday, January 9, 2012

My Image to the World through my Tweets

I have lately been reading this fabulous book called- “The White Mughals”. While it is brilliant in its own right, it transpired to bring numerous other thoughts to my mind. William Dalrymple has written beautifully the tale of love between James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a Scotsman & Khair-Un Nissa, who belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s family. While writing about them, the writer extensively makes use of letters written by the two and by all other people connected to this tale. He analyzes the personal letters written during their lifetime to build a picture of their lives in front of us modern day readers. It is typically an art which historians have mastered over generations of sniffing out the truth without actually going back in time using any time machine.
So what if I someday become famous and the world wants to know my story? Will my letters also be read? Alas I have not written too many except when forced on days of examinations! But yes I have written plenty of e-mails. I have also opened my Facebook account which I ‘need’ to view each day & write comments. I recently read that a man had asked for his Facebook records to the social networking organization themselves, he received a 22,000 page ‘document’ in reply. So data available will be aplenty for sure. What will the world think of me when my records are viewed? Will I come out as a voyeur? As greedy? As nasty, or a tyrant? Or maybe the picture I give could be that I am extremely kind-hearted. Wonder what an image of mine the world will make of me. Till then I will just tweet along my next message.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What Next for Cricket After Ireland’s Good Show?

The cricket season has been going on for rather too long this season and I have probably been among the few who haven’t been obsessed by it. However now I take this turn to write on cricket without which the spring of 2011 in India will surely be incomplete.

I would like to talk about the strange aspect of Ireland’s good show in the 2011 Cricket World Cup and the resultant good press. While on the one hand Ireland’s cricket has deservedly got plaudits for the work going on for years, on the other it is perplexing to note that this is not unprecedented. And that is where the International Cricket Council (ICC) has gone wrong. I would refer to the 2003 Cricket World Cup and Kenya’s highly unexpected, romantic run to the semi-finals in a sport where they had been minnows till then. While people who watched that cup in detail would notice that the run to the semis was quite fortuitous, still on paper it has to be accepted that the feat was indeed achieved. What was ICC’s reaction and that of the other Test playing nations? Well, instead of promoting the sport further in Kenya, the powers simply patronized the achievement and Kenya got little competitive cricket over the next few years leading up to the following world cup. Predictably, the momentum was lost by then. If one traces further back, Kenya actually repeatedly beat Bangladesh in competitive internationals, yet it was the latter which achieved test status and not the former. And why was that? Perhaps because Bangladesh’s location in the sub-continent gave them a platform to gain ideas and skills from their neighbours! The clinching factor was that Bangladesh had a decent domestic structure which could sustain test cricket over time. Kenya should ideally have been cricket’s 11th test playing nation and Ireland the 12th eventually by 2020. While on the one hand it is necessary to not dilute the standards of test cricket, it is equally if not more important that cricket has to grow beyond a few countries outside the subcontinent. Over time India has become and will continue to grow as a cricketing superpower, on the field but more so off it. India will then have two options in the future. Either the Indian domestic calendar becomes the most sought after in the mould of American sports league like NBA, MLB, NFL etc. or India will have to cultivate international cricket opponents. Yes, quality and more numerous opponents are required.

So while we celebrate Ireland’s good run, we must also look back at the perplexing lost opportunity with Kenya. The Steve Tikolos, Maurice Odumbes and Thomas Odoyos of this world never got a chance to showcase their talents on the test field. Hope the same travesty does not fall on the Kevin O’Briens and Ryan Ten Doeschates of this world if they continue to impress in the international arena.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Medieval Superpowers of the 21st Century

A scan through the major national newspapers in India shows a number of familiar traits. One such trait is the constant rubbing-in in almost every other article of how the power balance in our world is changing. The allusion here is to the 21st century being an Asian century and China and India to rise as the two greatest superpowers in the world displacing the United States of America and other great west European powers that have held sway over the last few centuries. While on the one hand this is an extremely encouraging trend, on the other hand it has certain worrying signs. History shows us that it is the natural course over time that superpowers are displaced and replaced by new ones. However, one cannot avoid pondering that China and India’s rise as the big powers may in at least one way herald a leap back in to the medieval age. The reasons for such a line of thinking I have explained below.

Pre-agrarian tribal societies were in essence egalitarian with leaders often elected by consent and power rarely being directly attained by each succeeding generation. With the advent of agriculture, human civilizations became markedly less democratic and power now centred in a few hands. In various forms under various names, it was a tiny elite which now increasingly made decisions for the vast majority of population within the state. This trend continued until industrialization set in. So roughly till the 18th century, major world or regional powers were known primarily by the amount of power and wealth the rulers had. The Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Mughals and the Spanish possessed enormous amount of real estate with millions of subjects. Yet the conditions of the vast majority of people within these empires may not have been much worse from empires barely exceeding the size of a few cities. In fact, the vast majority of people in pre-industrial (agrarian) societies cannot be called ‘poor’, as that was very much the norm and not the exception.

Industrialization brought many problems to this scenario and some of those problems (pollution?) show no signs of solution 200 years on. However over time, one thing industrialization and the coinciding democracy did was to distribute wealth among the people. Production of products reached such unprecedented levels and with increased education and exponentially improved transport networks, wealth no longer remained in a few hands. The common man now had a slice of empire building. Great Britain and other European powers in the 19th century and the USA in the 20th century were not powers solely because the sovereign possessed enormous amounts of wealth. Instead prosperity reached every nook and corner of the nations powered by highly improved technological nous. While distribution of wealth was never equal, the improvements from previous regimes were marked.

The 21st century new powerhouse theory deviates from the trends observed in the last two centuries. Whichever way one looks at statistics and whichever set of data is examined, one thing is for sure: India and China are home to hundreds of millions of people for whom the dawn of each day brings an unsure future. There are various calculations to determine the poverty rate, some say 1$ a day some say 2$ a day. Then there is mass debate on which poverty must be targeted- absolute or relative. But even at the best of scenario there can never be any doubt that China and India each have more people below poverty line than the entire population of every other country on earth (perhaps minus USA and Indonesia). So this brings us back to the pre-industrial era once again. Once again it is mass which counts and not individual strengths. A large country will always be able to generate greater revenue in totality even if individual contribution is relatively limited. The power of the ruling class (plus middle class) is now what is driving these two economies forward. In the medieval age, a rich country purely meant that the king was richer than other kings. Though not an exact mirroring of the medieval age, the modern age’s power balance is imitating the past.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Gurgaon Pigs

The title of this article might be a little misleading. Given the way the last word of the title is generally used, I shall not be in a position to blame the reader for any misunderstanding. No I am not going to launch in to a tirade against some unscrupulous neighbours of mine in the city of Gurgaon. I am not complaining against some corrupt leaders of this city by calling them ‘pigs’. I am not venting my anger against the man who nearly rammed his car in to mine. The use of the word in the title is ‘as much as possible’- harmless.

The reader has got it wrong again. Gurgaon Pigs is not the name of the latest IPL franchise. I meant the word in the literal sense. Yes indeed, I was referring to a litter of pigs which is now the single most dominant specie (after the Gurgaonite) on the streets of Gurgaon. I am talking about a particular litter just outside my apartments (opposite Park Plaza Hotel as I tell everyone). Yes indeed, the Millennium City of Gurgaon also has its fair share of wildlife.

To grasp the finer details of this litter, one has to go back in time and space. One has to find out the ownership or wild status of the litter. However I do not have that luxury as I was not staying in the city for nearly two years. Since I have come back to my city, I have been observing this litter over time. Everyday I have been reaching office 5 minutes later (not late but later than otherwise) primarily because of this observation time. In the summer, I observed frantic mating. It was as if the heat in the air had brought out the best of the lust in the gentle-pigs arousing their virility to the fullest extent. In the winter the piglets came out. The she-pig has been scouring the ends of her earth (between Park Plaza and Gold Souk) for forage to suckle her babies. Recent observation tells me the piglets are maturing in to pigs and scouring the earth themselves. A highlight in the lives of these piglets came about a month back, a day which surely hardened them for the toughest challenges they will face. A lot of us love pork and in fact the internet tells me that it is the maximum consumed meat item in the world. I am one of those who love pork and I could totally empathize with the street dogs on this fateful day. While I was on my way to office, I was met with a scene straight from the Savannah (the Savannah might even be shamed). A duo of street dogs drooling about pork set their sights upon these piglets. The two were attacking from either flank, while the target was being protected again from the two flanks by mama and papa pig. Street dog A attacked from the right wing so the father charged on it with the mother providing protection at the back. Now with A behind, it was the turn of street dog B to attack from the left but now the mother pig from her rear bazooked forward from defence to attack. This went on for fifteen odd minutes at the end of which time it remained a stalemate. I caught the next metro to office hoping to catch on the action after my return. While going I observed another couple of pigs in another corner doing what they do best in the winter chill. When I came back to the spot around twelve hours later I counted the number of piglets. They did not show any change in number. I assumed it was too early for the new couple on the locality so I heaved a sigh of relief for the ‘still safe’ piglets but felt a pang of sadness for the street dogs who missed the royal treat.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hitler’s Loss: America’s Gold

A quick glance at the 10 most destructive battles in human history tells a clear story. 9 of those 10 deadliest in human history happen to have been fought by only 2 nations against each other in a period of barely 4 years. Not surprisingly the nations were Germany and Russia and the years 1941-45. The two nations were tied in on an apocalyptic battle fighting on racial, religious and most crucially ideological fronts. Germans and Russians fought for every inch of their soil and the battles had no feel-good heroism, it was true barbarism.

Britain was the other major European power which fought Germany toe to toe in the Second World War. Due to their relative closeness on the ideological front and their supposed racial similarities the battles were more gentlemanly and fair in nature. These two countries did most of the German (& Italian) killing during the war while it is often constructed that America was more busy with Japan. However this misses a very crucial point- America’s economic might. While not directly as responsible for the German deaths as the Russians, Hitler’s ultimate bad decision might as well have been to take on the might of the American economy.

A key fact of utmost importance can be used as a vital indicator. Just prior to WWII, France was the world’s 4th largest industrial power and it accounted for 5 % of its capital goods production. Germany and Britain were tied 2nd with 14% each, with Britain being just ahead on decimal figures. These three countries thus together accounted for roughly 33% of production. Japan and Russia, 2 of the other major powers had even less contribution. U.S.A. accounted for a whopping 42% share. And this at a time when America was still not totally out of Depression, while Britain and Germany were quicker to come out of it. During the war, America sold/lent millions of tons of food, winter clothing, tanks, railroad coaches, heavy vehicles and other essentials to Britain and Russia. Britain was more self sufficient with industrial goods but the Battle of Britain would have long been lost without American food crops. Russia enjoyed a 2nd industrial revolution of sorts during the war, with large production facilities shifting east from the traditional belt of Moscow-St. Petersburg-Kiev. However, the lightning quick pace of movement and starting of production units would have been impossible without American steel.

The formerly miserable ‘Okies’ or immigrants from Okhlahoma’s dust bowl were now eking a life of prosperity in California. While Europe, Asia and north Africa were ravaged by warfare, America sacrificed by sending its men out to war. But on the home front, America ended the war with an economy marginally smaller than the rest of the world combined.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Football: Mahabharata Way

Continuing on the theme of getting my blog to work again I am posting this article which I had written quite some time back. But it is a decent read so here it goes. A crazy idea once struck me and I decided to merge an article on two things which fascinate me a lot- Indian Mythology and Football. I have tried to create an article encompassing these two passions together.

The heroes in the Mahabharata were remarkable characters in every sense of the word. I say heroes because this is the only work of the ancient world which does not give a clear demarcation between good and bad, plus and minus and all other diametrical opposites. In many ways it is the oldest version of objective journalism, something which we are still struggling to achieve. So why cannot these characters from the epic play the Beautiful Game. Okay it is the virile Englishmen who framed the rules of the world game, and then the Brazilians probably perfected it. But in India we have always been romantic about the past and about history. We always tend to see the past as an ideal age, so lets just think for once what would have happened if all the Mahabharata characters would actually have got down to testing themselves out on the football pitch. Following is the detailed description of the team I would have played if I had been the greatest Acharya ever-Drona.

The team would have played a modern day 4-2-3-1. Yudhishthira was the custodian of all the virtues which made our land celebrated by the Greek travelers in Antiquity. So he will have to keep goal for my ‘dream team’. I have gone for a combination of sheer strength and wisdom at the centre of my defense. Lord Balarama will be there to win all the headers and to topple any opponent trying a trick too many. Balarama wasn’t always the most headstrong of characters, so the wise patriarch Bheeshma becomes a necessity to complete the heart of the defense. The son of Mother Ganga was the wisest man in his generation, even the battle field on Kurukshetra remained untainted as long as he was leading one side of the confrontation. In probably the saddest scene of the entire epic, Bheeshma comes face to face with Arjuna, his favourite nephew. Thankfully this time they will all be on the same side. Perhaps no worldly treasure is worth fighting your own blood as Arjuna said at the time of this greatest tribulation, but perhaps no worldly fight could be bigger than if the entire clan is involved on the same side. Now coming on to the full backs. Nakula and Sahdeva for all their worthy deeds will perhaps always be confined to supporting roles. So from their full back positions the twins will maraud the wings supporting the more illustrious wingers, and while defending they shall lend a helping hand to the senior centre halves. The midfield generals will be Bheema and Ashwatthama. Bheema was the font of courage and someone who never cared for political niceties. In times of trouble he was often someone who took up the fight alone to the opposition. Similarly, on the football pitch the midfielder has to co-ordinate the entire team and drive the team forward at times of distress. One can imagine the box-to-box Bheema defending at one point and then immediately running with all his energy towards the opposition before giving the ball to more gifted players. He will also make those crunching tackles so important in a game and break up the opposition’s play. Partnering him in midfield will be Drona’s very own son Ashwatthama. The latter will be the coach’s eyes and ears on the pitch. He always possessed a healthy envy to the Pandavas from a young age. This will sting him to impress against the opposition at the same time maintaining his father’s discipline. His ethereal pace and intelligence will make him Bheema’s ideal foil, as a deep lying play maker and neat passer.

The last furlong of the team will have probably the four most famous personalities from the Mahabharata. Needless to say Krishna has to be on the wing with his brother from a bygone era-Arjuna- occupying the other flank. Krishna’s trickery and winking genius can actually be picturised. Step-overs, cutting in then going out, then coming back in and then out again, mesmerizing the opposition defense, he will be the ultimate showman for the team. His touches will be fewer in the game, but the ones he will take ought to be nothing short of sublime. Arjuna will be less showy but equally effective on the other flank, the intended torment of the opposition might be slightly lesser. But who knows the presence of a certain dark beauty in the stands might just get the mischievous side out of him too. Arjuna will start left because of his ambidextrous nature, perhaps he will also be two footed. Drona will have to ensure that happens. And then finally we come to the front attacking two. Brace yourself for the best attack combination the world has ever known. Telepathy is a word to be used for lesser mortals, not the son of Surya Deva on one side and the eldest of the Kauravas on the other. This will also be one of the most emotionally charged attacking pairs ever. The night when Karna was taken away from mortal life, was the worst in the whole life of Duryodhana. He took the death of his own brothers as the play of Fate, but could never reconcile himself to the death of a friend who gave away his life for him. Life had been extremely cruel to Karna, but in Duryodhana he found an ally who was always there for him, in both sorrow and joy. Karna announced himself to the world by stunning the pride of Arjuna on a day of a competition, but being appreciated was not to be his fate. It was Duryodhana indeed who reminded the world that origins do not matter. The great Ganga river starts as a small trickle not even a meager stream. Great men are all born as little babies, no one is born full grown but a Kshatriya is one who proves himself to be one through his deeds in life. Karna had proven himself to be all this and much more. Now Karna and Duryodhana have the chance to be together for one more time and this time to create magic on the football pitch. Duryodhana would be the target man around whom the three creative wizards would weave their magic.

The coach of course will be Drona, with Acharya Kripa his second in command. Bheeshma will lead the side out of the tunnel. Vaisampayana and Sanjaya would be doing the commentary dishing out the story to the gods and goddesses of the highest altar.

Opposition will have to be quality enough to be able to challenge these starts. Let us invite the Greek gods and heroes from the Iliad & Odyssey series to compete. More on that team later when we discuss the opposition’s line up in detail. The lineup of the Mahabharata team is as follows-:


Nakula Balarama Bheeshma Sahdeva

Ashwatthama Bheema

Krishna Karna Arjuna