Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Double standards on racial issues

They're both young Indians and they both were brave enough to look beyond the borders of India for a job. But that's where the similarities end. Dr Mohammed Haneef is back in India. As he himself has said at the press conference that his lawyer Peter Russo, his family members and he addressed in Bangalore - he's been a victim of terror investigations. While that may be a very politically and legally correct way of describing his trauma in Australia over the last month, the government in that country has categorically said that his work visa will not be reinstated and there will be no apology issued to him.
That brings me back to the topic of my previous post - glamorous Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty was a victim too! And the UK government went all out to make amends to her - The Queen, then UK PM Tony Blair, UK media, the people of UK, human rights oprganisations and the organisations working on racial relations - everyone was rushing to Shilpa's side to offer her a shoulder to weep on after the Big Brother fiasco.
But no such sympathy wave for Dr Haneef - even though the Australian government has released him without any charges whatsoever. His only strength probably comes from his excellent legal team led by Peter Russo who seems to have pulled him out of his predicament in Australia. Of course, there was support from the India government too. So what would Dr Haneef need to do to turn the tide of sympathy in his favour among the public in Australia and perhaps even in UK - where the media was pretty unfriendly towards him initially. Perhaps hire Shilpa Shetty's PR firm! Shilpa Shetty is a Bollywood actress who has probably entertained Indians around the world with her performances - besides she's glamorous, beautiful etc! But Doctor Haneef too has served his patients at the Gold Coast hospital and played a socially relevant role in Australia. We're all aware about the skills shortages that many western nations face and the need for skilled professionals such as doctors, nurses and IT professionals from India to fill such gaps. Dr Haneef was brave enough to leave the comfort of his hometown in India and go first to UK for training and then to Australia to work. His situation was a real immigrant's story of struggle and not a reality show. Of course, both Dr Haneef and Shilpa were looking beyond Indian borders to make a living and faced racial discrimination in that search. So why is the British government and more importantly the Australian government not rushing to Dr Haneef's support?
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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Are the Brits losing it over Shilpa?

Read this really weird news in Times of India
A leading UK University will confer an honorary doctorate on Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on Wednesday for her outstanding contribution to cultural diversity.

The Leeds Metropolitan University has, in the past, honoured prominent Indian personalities who contributed to India's emergence as a fast developing cinema-proud nation during its 60th year of freedom struggle, a spokeswoman of the University said.

Mangalore-born Shilpa Shetty is the youngest actor from the Indian film fraternity to join ranks of Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi and Yash Chopra who have been earlier chosen for the honour.

Isn't this Shilpa Shetty thing being carried too far. After all, when she joined the Big Brother show, Shilpa knew it was not going to be a bed of roses. She probably joined partly because she needed a boost to her flagging acting career and partly for money - both of which she got, and much more besides.
As for racism - obviously it cannot be supported. But then there are hundreds of Indians and people from other races too, including children, who are dealing with racism at school, on jobs and socially, in different parts of the world everyday. Isn't it time people started doing something for them too rather than go on and on with Shilpa?
As for a honorary doctorate, I think it's really unfair to dole out doctorates to people who have done nothing to earn it even as many students are struggling with backlogs to get their PhDs, even after they have worked very hard. In India, for instance, administrative delays have ruined the careers of many serious researchers, whose doctorates take up to even a decade in coming through. Many of these reasearchers have done pathbreaking work in their line of studies. Should the Leeds Metropolitan University then make such a mockery out of a PhD degree?
Finally, despite all the hungama around the Big Brother show and the Richard Gere kiss, I don't think Shilpa's career in Bollywood is going anywhere. Doesn't that come as a big professional failure for a person whose core claim to fame is being a Bollywood actor? Besides, how exactly has Shilpa contributed to cultural diversity - whatever that means? In fact, in giving her the doctorate and other such honours isn't the mainstream British society sweeping far more important racist issues under the carpet. It's almost like trying to put up a big show by heaping goodies on Shilpa and hiding their poor racist record. Shilpa may be a victim of racism, but it's not the worst form of racism that she has faced. There are much more terrible hate crimes based on racist tendencies that all of the Western society has to seriously face. And it's not even restricted to Western society - many countries around the world, including India, have to deal with racist issues! Shah Rukh Khan's wax model at Madame Tussad's makes sense because he's definitely the most bankable Bollywood star, as does a doctorate for Amitabh Bachchan, who has spent his whole life in producing a huge body of unparalleled work for the Hindi film industry! But Dr Shilpa Shetty - just doesn't make sense.
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Monday, July 16, 2007

In Memoriam

Got some photos of Ranjabati Sircar from the albums of a close friend of hers. While these would go well with my earlier post on her - I thought it better to post them separately, considering that her friend sent them to me after painstakingly searching them out and scanning them for our blog
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Sunday, July 15, 2007

New continents & people

Fellow blogger Roma has been busy travelling around the world working on a project - here are some excerpts from her travelogue!

...After a harrowing day pursuing tickets to different destinations and nightmarish logistics, I just sat down in silence...and my Quaker journey starting in Oxford floated past me...I am sharing with all you pilgrims...all of you who have upheld me...

Broken, wounded, larcerated I arrived at Oxford on a supposed academic
journey I had no idea of the Spirit-led journey that I would be taken on
I was unevolved, uninitiated in the ways of the spirit
Moving to Canterbury Road was truly pivotal
There was a certain Presence there
And a sense of Being
But I only had glimmerings of this world
At moments in the Silent House in Taize
When silence released me from preparing a face to meet the faces that one
meets I was released into the peace of being and inner sanctum
But these were transient moments
I was too preoccupied trying to survive with a mindnumbing baggage of the
wounded past Pulling me down at every step
And then came the Quaker garden
That was the beginning of liberation
The true inner journey began to be revealed to me later mainly through
Sylvia Button and her mentor Constance Peters
Sylvia presented me with a book called Strenuous Liberty
In those twilight years in St Theosevia’s I scarcely understood what it
That people choose bondage with ease rather than strenuous liberty…
Years later when scarcely a day goes by without my thinking of Sylvia or
feeling her intense spiritual presence in my daily life when I often
experience her interceding on my behalf
I now understand what it was all about
Now that the garden is within me
I now understand that the contemplative life is about joy and abundance and
being thrice as alive as a normal human being

It has been wonderful these past two years of being without work
Without any constraints
When I could have more inner time
And feel that glow within in harmony with a cosmos aglow with Presence

With my new assignment once more has come the tumult of the outside world
The cacophony of untuned voices, the world of barter and exchange
After a long time I find my inner space being invaded by martians

It may be that I am being taken to a higher level of challenge where I have
to retain the inner garden within the busy-ness, cacophony and tumult
Or be led to rejecting busy-ness altogether and moving on to another way of

I am wordless with gratitude for this magnificent journey that has been
given to me

I pray that I am upheld and I can keep the Peace…

Some of you know that I lost my father rather suddenly in Nov 05 and since
then have been in India in Kolkata/Calcutta taking care of my mother who was
clinically depressed...fortunately she's much better now...and my father who
was a very pure soul...somehow his passing away...released me to more being

Recently I was head-hunted and have
been hired to do a global project and some sample countries
from the perspective of its commitment to gender equality...at one level I
am excited to do this Consultancy as it's years since I have had a global
conversation, but I am very wary of the political minefield of such
I am also being asked to travel rapidly through places where I have very
cherished friends-but it's an express train of meetings through places-New
York from 20th-28th-and a meeting in Hove (UK) from 5th-8th and then to
Amman, Jordan...

...anyway I
would love to stop at 43 for a bit- a core place in my being...

I normally stay with John Linton in a guest room at Oxford at Plantation
Road-as he had kind of become my godfather-but I fear he may be having eye
surgery in hospital and he can't hear so I can't phone him. I will write to
Wolfson to book me a guest room.

When I think Oxford, I think mainly of you all and feel humble at all the
love I have received


Greetings from Amman-here on a 2 week visit to collect analysis

Arrived safely from Kolkata/Calcutta-memorable flight over blue green
Arabian sea-I flew to Bahrain-looked like a beuatiful sea resort from the
air and then over Lawrence of Arabia land=over the Arabian peninsual which
was surreal
I remember flying over the magnificence of the Sahara -45 mins of an awe
inspiring vastness
Arabian plateau not that kind of experience
but closer tto Amman the sand dunes waved patterns and then the wind had
made lace patterns on the deseert
rtaher like nerve patterns-very intricate
Amman is full of bright light
beaytiful sandstone houses with lots of date palms
I am enjoying the warmth of my Jordanian colleagues
people are so courteous here

we have hectic meetings all day but I love working dor gender and social
development issues
so it's very rewarding and I feel very blessed to use my education for those
who are excluded by society
I am going for the weekend to see a project in Aqaba a sea side resort
and very close to me is the Jordan river where Christ was baptised
and the whole area is so historic
Petra where I have no time to go
goes back before 8000 BC!!
Thinking of each and every one of you with love


Flew from Kolkata to Bahrain via Muscat- After flying over the
blue Arabian sea with emerald green glints on the water, Bahrain looked like
a beautiful seaside resort with picture perfect turquoise blue sea and sandy
beach-the people were fashionably dressed in latest European fashions and
designer labels (the elite women all seem to be blonde and look like
European/Italian film stars) –just managed to board my plane to Amman-the
Gulf air flight from Bahrain to Amman had wonderful music channels-I
especially enjoyed contemporary Arabic music using pop and rock rhythms and
suddenly found myself flying over the Arabian Peninsula-while I have flown
over the Sahara – and marvelled at its vast awe-inspiring presence-almost 25
mins on an international flight-the Sahara is magnificent and has huge
presence-by contrast the Arabian Peninsula is vast but appears as rather
uninspiring stretches of sand-however, just 20 mins prior to landing in
Amman, the desert suddenly appeared interspersed with dark blotches (which I
later understood were occasional farms) and then the desert became a million
little sandy hills forming a pattern brownness which gave way to desertscape
that looked like a laced pattern rather like T.S. Eliot’s poem where he sees
a nerve-like pattern-the desert appeared like a surreal brown dreamscape
like a lace of nerves, in reality, all it was, was intricate wind erosion

In Amman, in our hotel, I rebelled against eating spaghetti bolognaise and
lasagne that is cooked for foreign visitors, luckily my Canadian colleague
is as adventurous as me so at the first opportunity we joined some local
friends and went to taste typical Arabic food in a more vibrant bazaar area
and ate Mansaf (which is cottonwool soft lamb cooked in a yellow pilau like
rice rather similar to my mother’s Yakni pullao and a desert that tasted
like a pancake made of fried cream rather like the Indian shahi tukra, but
completely different from the latter)-I am constantly discovering Indian
indebtedness to the Arab world in language `duniya’, `vasta’ and `mulkin’ to
name some-in handicrafts-a lot of the brass engraving very similar to
Moradabadi work (but who got it from whom?) and of course the fabulous
mosaics, artisanal motifs-Indian cultural heritage owes much to the Arab

June 28th-We flew south to Aqaba- a fashionable seaside resort that people
in Jordan go to as a weekend getaway-after the desertscape just before
landing we saw the azure blue gulf of Aqaba against a series of endless
brown sandy ridges and date palms silhouetted against the coast-we stayed
for one magnificent night in a seaside resort that combined Swiss design and
hospitality with Arabic physical luxury and owing to a misunderstanding I
got upgraded to a VIP suite! I have never lived in such luxury-it was
aesthetically very Scandinavian in its elegant minimalism in design and
emphasis on wood and sandstone and muted colours where elegance is pure,
marked by restraint, as opposed to South Asian or Middle eastern exuberance
in design - every painting was chosen with taste and added to this we got
Jordanian human warmth in hospitality-the Jordanians are very pleasant
people and the ambience in Jordan is of a people who have found a way of
life that might be slower but they are happy and relaxed and that seeps into
any visitor
We had a private beach with a picture postcard view of the gulf rising in
different tones of blue and motor boats raced and yachts bobbed around and
there was a lot of happy Arabic families with lots of children swimming in a
glassy blue calm sea…a huge contrast to the turbulent and rough Bay of
In the evening one of my Jordanian colleagues’ brother who lived in Aqaba
invited us to a lovely restaurant called Ali Baba and I did feel like a five
year old Bengali girl in wonderland as he ordered so many delicacies for
us-the warmth, generosity and hospitality of this part of the world is

We ate delicacies from different salads, baba ganoush, olives, fried
calamari, falafel, meat chops, and then our main course was seafood (prawns,
crabs and cuttlefish) with rice (I of course ordered the rice!!)

In contrast to all this, the whole day we had spent with meetings with a
very fragile Palestinian refugee group –girls, boys, men and women who had
grown enormously in terms of a better understanding of their social
attitudes and leadership thanks to some innovative development programmes
that we are assessing-it was unbelievable to see the energy, vibrance and
creative ideas of adolescent girls and boys and to sit with a bunch of young
teenage leaders (every expressive face I have taken away with me) created in
a most confining of life spaces thanks to some innovative socialization
programmes –I was speechless with admiration-knowing that just over the
border young girls and boys were living in a scenario of armed conflict-I
couldn’t help thinking what if they had had the benefits of these programmes
and learned alternative ways of living eschewing violence…

What a difference progressive socialization makes-to have not just education
but to be trained in critical thinking –that’s what young people need the
world over
It was equally amazing to see middle aged and elder gentlemen from the
refugee camps speaking so reflectively about new attitudes to women, their
wives, sons and daughters after the workshops…it was a very moving
experience…social attitudinal change is never easy to facilitate and when
one witnesses it through the courage and determination of men and women who
are battling with serious life challenges, observing such a process is an
education in itself…the glaring inequality of their lives and the lives of
wealthy holiday makers in Aqaba was very disturbing for all of us…not
dissimilar to the inequalities we see in countries of South Asia-when
inequality is just taken for granted…
The night flight back the next day from Aqaba to Amman with a full desert
moon wraithe-like gliding over a blue black desert sky and miles and miles
of brown, lifeless ridges will be difficult to forget…
Today my first day off work in weeks I visited Bethany, the site by the
river Jordan where Christ was baptised and then to other amazing historic
sites (Petra which is the remains of a whole civilisation from 8000B.C. was
not possible to visit as temperatures here are searing! And the hot desert
winds are …!! )
I was equally moved by the simple waters of Jordan and the wild shrubs and
trees where John the Baptist had escaped to, from the persecution of the
Roman empire living as a hermit eating locusts and honey and where the boy
Christ was baptised-the physical simplicity of the place was very moving-and
more so as it was sandwiched between two militarised zones of Israel and
Jordan on either side of the river
My Jordanian driver, who knew hardly any English, even less about
Christianity or even Christ seemed to me a most Christ like character in his
simple human gestures-he took care of me like a mother hen and in his broken
English and my almost non existent Arabic I tried to make him stop to buy a
quick lunch and juice for both of us on en route-we did stop and eat but he
insisted on paying!!!…I really felt he was the saint in the story, a taxi
driver from Amman who had a value system that others take a lifetime to

This whole experience is one of contrasts-on the way back from Aqaba when I
told a colleagues’ daughter that I was worried about my family and friends
in India as there were floods, she replied: “Isn’t it strange that your
country has so much water and we people pray just for a drop…”

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Of women born and unborn

Two stories caught my eye as I read the BBC with my morning coffee. In Bangladesh, classmates of 13 year old Habiba Sultana was able to save her from a forced child marriage. Habiba comes from a poverty-stricken family and her father had decided to marry her off to her 23 year old neighbour. A not-so-unfamiliar story of the gender dimensions of poverty.

In India, the government has proposed that all pregnant women register with the government so that it can regulate abortions. This is, on the face of it, a ridiculous proposition both in terms of the norms it embodies and the institutional impossibility it entails. What we will effectively have is a black economy which will make back-alley abortions even more rampant and all sorts of new and creative arrangements for the harassment of women will become institutionalized. I am not sure if this proposal is any better than the cradle scheme or the 'palna' project. "Under the scheme, baby girls can be dropped off at government cradle centres - akin to orphanages - that would be set up in each district in the next couple of months. Cradles will be placed at various government agencies including primary healthcare centres, hospitals, nursing homes and short-stay homes. Later, these babies would be transferred to specialised adoption agencies for rehabilitation.." (link)

Of course, I do not wish to suggest that the alternative is just to allow the continuation of foeticide. But I do wish to suggest that this is not a problem where governmental efficiency can be put on display as a solution. The problem in India has many dimensions which cuts across social class and education female infanticide is not limited to "the poor' - in fact the "new" Indian middle travels to the US to take advantage of the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis technique). One of the reasons often cited for this "cross-class" gender bias are institutions such as dowry - and hence the efftors to link the question of foeticide to the economic value of women.

This value analysis of human beings, is in my opinion, ethically and politically unacceptable - and as long as we make economics the main argument against killing foetuses we will get nowehere. Neither will we get anywhere by taking away women's freedom of choice and her basic reproductive rights. The solution lies in two things: the strict implementation of the laws preventing sex selection, and political, legal and institutional support to (men and) women who try and resist this terrible practice. Just as Nisha Sharma made news by resisting dowry, there must be women in India who are refusing to kill their unborn daughters. We must find them and bring their stories into the realm of public knowledge.
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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Bong connection & beyond

Last weekend found me going out and doing something politically correct - watching Anjan Dutta's latest movie - The Bong Connection. The backdrop of this was that I spent the earlier part of the evening with a friend and a group of Delhi 'Bongs' who have connected through Orkut and had got together for a book reading session in Bengali. Well how did I feel at the end of the evening?
To begin with, the movie was very average. The new genre of movies on cross-border Indian families and individuals has caught up with Bengalis too. But then the phoney accents of the central characters didn't leave much of an impression as didn't the laboured parallel drawn with Satyajit Ray's Apu. Also there seemed to be an element of wardrobe dysfunction with one of the central characters lounging around in what appeared to be a cross between an overcoat and a raincoat in Texas! The guy is a Bengali IT whiz working in an Indian start-up - surely he didn't have to overdo this peculiar dressing style when everyone else was suave and well turned out!
In any case, I object to the concept of "Bong" - which was even stretched to encompass a Bangladeshi cab-driver in a Crash-esque immigrant sub-plot. Bengali is a language and a culture. Bengal is my home which is full of idioms that are very close to my heart as an immigrant Bengali - but what is Bong? I frankly don't understand. It may be a hip and happening concept - but I can't quite relate to it. This is despite wanting to call this blog - BLONG - since so far all us participants are Bengali Bloggers! OK, so Bong may be just another smart word!
To digress a little beyond the movie, cutting all the literature and poetry out of the immigrant experience - as a day to day story, it seems to have changed many of our families into dispersed entities. My mother and sister, for instance, are in Silicon Valley and I'm in Delhi - and I'm not even beginning to calculate those miles between. Our home in Santiniketan, meanwhile, is desolate and I don't even want to go there alone. Often, it's a logistical nightmare organising a visit by aged parents to Europe or America as the case may be - not to forget the visa hassles. So here's where I'd say cheers to the many new flights between India and US and Europe that are scheduled to be launched in the coming months - Continental, Air-India, Jet Airways and Delta. I think actual air connections are far more comforting than far-fetched Bong connections.
As for the Bengali poetry & prose reading session - I'm not sure that one can really share such personal experiences with a group of folks that one connected with on Orkut?
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