Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book Review: 'The Snow People' by Marie Herbert

I suppose we will all promise anything in the first flush of romance. So it was with British Polar explorer Wally Herbert, who offered to take his newly wedded wife, Marie Herbert and their 10-month old daughter to live 800 miles within the Arctic Circle with one of the most isolated people on Earth – the Inughuit or ‘real people’.

The young family came to live on Herbert Island, just off the mainland of Greenland, and took up residence in the middle of an Inughuit village in a small wooden hut where they remained for nearly two years. What follows in Marie Herbert’s account ‘The Snow People’ is nothing short of a magical adventure full of danger, excitement and uncertainty. At the same time, it is also a warm and illuminating portrait of the domestic life of an inscrutable people living in the furthest reaches of our planet. As the walrus meat bubbles in a pot on the stove, as the women get together to stretch and clean polar bear skin, as the children skip dangerously on ice floes near the shore and sadly as the villagers get punch drunk at the beginning of every month (the introduction of alcohol being the ‘white man’s curse’), a picture emerges of how this Inughuit community lived 40 years ago.  

Marie Herbert describes them as a very proud people, as well they should be. They are a testament to the incredible survival instinct of man. But the most beautiful thing about the book is how the central character always remains the grand Arctic itself. It is the protagonist, anti-hero, stage and backdrop; a ferocious presence at all times, central to everything.

The villagers are very welcoming of the young British family and as is customary adults, and children especially, tumble in and out of each other’s houses at any hour. The hands of the clock did not dictate what the Inughuit did. People ate when they felt hungry and slept when they were tired. Besides, with the sun in the sky throughout summer and a long, dark polar night for half the year, it seemed pointless to regiment life into 24 hours.

As they settle in to Arctic life on Herbert Island, they make an important investment in a dog team that will help them travel in the winter months when the sea freezes over. The dog-sledding journeys made in the darkness over the unforgiving, frozen landscapes are some of the most thrilling parts of the book. The dogs are so hyper-active that they are like ferocious tigers on psychedelic drugs. The only way to rule a dog team is through fear and the only thing the dogs fear is the cracking of the whip.

Some of the challenges of such travel in the Arctic winter are impossible to fathom. On one such journey of 90 miles, when they are returning to Herbert Island from Dundas they are forced by bad weather to break journey and hunker down in a tent. Around them the harshest forces of nature are being unleashed as Arctic winds whip past at 207 miles per hour, some of the fastest recorded wind speeds on Earth! Fortunately, they leave their daughter with a local family onthat trip.

When they return, there is much rejoicing in the village as the Inughuits had assumed that they would never have survived such weather.

As winter forces people indoors, the writer describes some fascinating aspects of Inughuit life, especially their diet. On one evening, she stumbles upon a rather scruffy scene at a dinner table with birds’ feathers, bones and sticky juices running down people’s faces. A special winter feast of kiviak is being devoured. During the summer months, when birds are plentiful in the Arctic, the Inughuit catch hundreds of tiny birds called Auks and stuff them, feathers and all inside the body of a seal. Prior to the stuffing, the seal’s entrains are carefully removed from its mouth so that no other cuts to its outer sack need to be made, keeping it as air tight as possible. This seal stuffed with birds is then buried underground with a big stone placed over it and it is allowed to ferment over time with the blubber in the seal skin seeping through to the birds. The writer is forced to discreetly discard her portion in a rubbish heap.

The Inughuits in the village had converted to Christianity and as Christmas approaches the women in the village get really busy creating new clothes and kamiks for everyone. People exchange presents and that year the writer’s gift is a dead frozen fox fresh from its trap! There is an endearing depth and warmth to the friendships that the family forges with some Inughuit families, especially the one with Maria and Avatak. Avatak especially loves their 10-month old daughter Kari, to tears.

As the long winter months make way for a brief burst of animal and plant life in the spring and summer, the Inughuits really come into their element. They move out of their homes into summer camps and use the abundance of sunlight to do some frenzied hunting. During these months there is an interesting, even if slight, divergence in sensibilities towards killing animals. The Britishers take a fancy towards an eider duck that has just laid some eggs and hope that their Inughuit friends don’t discover it, lest they eat it. Sure enough a few days later, the children have made a lip-smacking meal of it.

After all those months spent in the village, the friendships have become so deep and emotional that the family’s friends feel depressed at the thought of them leaving; as they surely will one day. That day arrives the following winter when they receive news that Wally’s father has died.

To return to England, they first need to make the dangerous 90-mile journey once again in the darkness from Hertbert Island to Dundas, except this time they have to take their daughter along. Even as they wonder how they will ever manage a dangerous journey with a baby on board, Avatak says to Wally, “I will take you to Dundas because you are my greatest friend.”

After months of communal life with the Inughuits, they leave quite suddenly, leaving behind friendships that blossomed in a beautifully bleak bit of the earth. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Jill by Philip Larkin

'Jill' by Philip Larkin is an insight into the stratified world of 1940s Oxford University. A young man, John Kemp from the north of England ends up sharing a room at the University with a brash, uber-confident Londoner, Christopher Warner. Kemp's desperation in trying to get with the in crowd even as they mock and denigrate him at every turn reveals some incredible class differences. The reader feels constantly embarassed for John Kemp as the more he gets mocked, the more it seems to sharpen his desire to be part of their circle.

A turning point in the story comes when John feels he may have discovered a possible chink in Christopher's seemingly impenetrable armour. Could it be that Christopher may envy him his warm family ties?  This discovery thrills John so much that he ends up inventing a whole fictional narrative around a loving younger sister named 'Jill' he doesn't actually have.

This harmless pursuit initially involves leaving invented letters from Jill lying around their shared room in the hope that Christopher will secretly read them. John diligent creation of this world of make-believe turns him into something of a writer of fiction. Through this he is hoping all the time that Christopher will take a real interest in his life and start noticing him more, unlike his current interest levels where John may as well be part of the furniture in their room.

For John this is all innocuous stuff till one day his 'character' Jill actually materialises in Oxford in the form of a teenage girl coincidentally called Gillian. John becomes instantly infatuated with the real Gillian, fuelled no less by his own creation of her. He pursues her madly; following her on buses, waiting for her in cafes and showing up at parties where she is likely to be.

Read the book to find out how John Kemp's pursuit eventually ends.

PS: Philip Larkin is considered by some to be the greatest modern English poet. That high stature notwithstanding, there has been increasing attention paid to the personality of the writer, with some accusing him of being a bit of a racist and misogynist. I personally find it very hard to enjoy a writer's work if I know about some of their odious views (although I still enjoyed this book). But if you're interested in reading more about Philip Larkin try this Guardian article here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

'Gujarat Beyond Gandhi'

At the height of the Ayodhya movement, with tension spreading in large ripples across north India, political and social psychologist Ashis Nandy interviewed an RSS pracharak (worker). Despite being very familiar with the Hindu fundamentalist ideology that was leading to those dramatic shifts in Indian political and social life, Nandy emerged from that interview completely shaken.

He wrote about this interaction more than a decade later saying, “It was a long rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only ones ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualising the ideology…..”

The then RSS pracharak he had interviewed had been Narendra Modi, current Chief Minister of Gujarat.

Modi presides over a state that is well-known today as the laboratory of Hindutva where dangerous experiments such as the mass killings of 2002 have taken place. But despite this recent history of obscene bloodshed, Indian businessmen are lining up to praise the state for removing the red tape and inefficiency that they encounter in most other states in India.

Such contradictions and complexities and Gujarat’s swing towards the ideology of the killers of Mahatma Gandhi are the subject of a scholarly new book ‘Gujarat beyond Gandhi – Identify, Conflict and Society. Edited by Nalin Mehta and Mona G. Mehta, it is a collection of essays on different facets of Gujarat and where the seeds of its major communal conflict lie, examined through different lens’ of anthropology, media studies, sociology etc.

If the Gujarat model of ‘developmental authoritarianism’ takes hold in other parts of India where there is an equal middle-class yearning for greater wealth and civic order, will the freedoms of speech and dissent be threatened in the same way as they are in Gujarat? And what will become of the idea of India itself ? These are some of the important questions raised in this book. But the reason I read this book with great interest was to seek explanations for the polarisation between the religious majority and minority that led to the organised violence in 2002 in which Muslims were killed with a brutality not seen since Partition.

There are some very interesting essays in there on vegetarianism and the politics of disgust, the segregation in urban geography and the one that I read with most interest - the legal battle between Ashis Nandy and the state of Gujarat.

Anyone interested in Gujarat and the communal faultline in India will find this a useful read.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

States love their secrets but we want the facts

All governments say they want to stop the flow of illicit arms, but listening to many of them at the UN today, it became clear that not many are willing to do anything about it.

This is because it will involve much greater transparency on how they report on arms transfers and this immediately makes governments uncomfortable.

Amnesty International’s findings show that the biggest source of illegal arms is through diversions from legal stockpiles and authorised trade. However, because current reporting by governments on imports, exports and arms transfers is so poor, it is near impossible to establish where and how deadly weapons are getting diverted.

So if States want to be able to find out how this is happening and put a stop to it, then they have to commit to greater overall transparency by reporting publicly. States can’t claim “confidentiality” due to security needs on the one hand and miraculously expect illegal arms transfers to stop on the other. It’s not a one way street.

But another reason Amnesty International wants to see public reporting on arms transfers in the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is so that people like us can actually see what our governments are doing – who are they giving arms to and are they taking enough care to ensure these arms don’t end up in the hands of human rights violators?

Read the rest of my piece on the Amnesty International USA website.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Urban houses for an ancient tribe destroys a way of life in Nicobar

One of the new houses built by the government for the Nicobari tribals. Courtesy: Prince Rasheed.
The force of the 2004 undersea Indian Ocean earthquake was so intense that the island of Trinket split in three. Trinket is part of the Nicobar archipelago of 22 islands that belong to India. The government moved all the local Nicobari tribals to a neighbouring island but Gopinath Jeem and a few others came back because they couldn’t bear the temporary tin shelters made by the government. He says, “All the families want to come back but we were the first because we could not tolerate it there.”

Back in devastated Trinkat they have found their own fresh water source and using trees from the forest, they have built their own traditional Nicobari huts called machans

The Nicobar archipelago is one of India’s furthest outposts. The 2004 earthquake pulverised the islands and the tsunami killed nearly a fifth of the Nicobari tribal population. Prior to the disaster the Nicobarese were primarily a hunter-gatherer tribe living in large joint families in a close-knit societal structure called a tuhet. But after the tsunami there has been such a massive injection of money and new housing that their ancient way of life has changed drastically.

The Nicobar islands are closed to outsiders so the government 3000 kms away in New Delhi along with the local administration in Port Blair felt the need to step in to provide food and shelter. Samir Acharya who represented the Central Tribal Council of Nicobar in negotiations with the government on housing says, “The new houses are bad news for the Nicobarese and bad news for the islands.”

Problems began shortly after the tsunami when Nicobarese demanded tools to be able to build their own houses as they had done for decades. But the government didn’t give them the opportunity. Dr. Simronjit Singh, a senior researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria wrote a paper titled, “Complex Disasters: The Nicobar Islands in the grip of Humanitarian Aid.” In it he criticizes the sometimes well-meaning but generally insensitive forced help given to a people who were in fact keen to help themselves. He says, “The anxiety to begin a new life and fend for themselves, despite a trauma not so long ago, reflects the resilience of the Nicobarese in the face of tragedy along with the ideology that life must go on, and singularly so, aid or no aid!”

And yet the “help” kept coming. First it was in the form of temporary shelters that the Indian Army built for the Nicobarese. They were built in haste to beat the monsoon but were made of tin and were like hot ovens during the day in the tropical heat. The Nicobarese suffered these houses for nearly four years. The National People’s Tribunal on Post-tsunami Rehabilitation declared that the government had failed in its “legal and moral responsibility of upholding the human rights and ensuring the welfare of all those affected by the tsunami.”

The Nicobarese detested the tin shelters and wanted to build their own permanent shelters but again this was thwarted. The negotiating process was bewildering for the tribals who were not used to such a heavy influence of government in their lives. However, Shakti Sinha the Chief Secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar islands says, “Maybe the process was not perfect, but it was definitely consultative.”

Prince Rasheed, a Nicobari who studied on the Indian mainland and is a spokesperson for the Tribal Council however feels that the negotiating power was so unequal, the tribals simply gave in. He said, “In the end we thought we would take the houses since the government was giving them to us for free but we are now realising that we made a bad choice. The government has built colonies.” 

The house designs are creating a less personal culture. Replacing the large, wooden machans where a joint family would live, the government has built small concrete two-room houses meant for nuclear families. These new houses have also increased the community’s cost of living. For example, earlier Nicobarese did not use electricity in their machans but now many have TVs and fans in their home for which they have to pay. They have also lost the ability to fix things in their homes themselves because all the material used on the homes is exotic. Samir Acharya says, “The way these new houses are built will do very long-term damage to the social fabric of the Nicobarese.” 

The Nicobarese used to be a cash poor but resource rich society unused to hoarding and saving money. After the tsunami many spent their government compensation money in a burst of consumerism buying whiskey, TVs and motorbikes. Now much of that money is spent and they are stuck without even their primary source of income from their coconut plantations which were destroyed during the tsunami. They are realising that the lifestyle imposed by the new houses is unsustainable. Prince Rasheed says, “The government’s food rations have stopped and 95% of the people are finding it hard to survive. Some people are just eating papayas and living.”

Free-spirited Gopinath Jeem would rather live in Trinkat than suffer the government shelters. He knows perfectly well how to survive on his own island without outside help. As night falls over Trinkat mosquitoes descend in droves as though the air were filled with needles but it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He says, “We have a love for this island and we can never leave it.”

Eleven families have returned to Trinkat and built their own homes. But for the many others adapting their lives to the new houses, the government’s costly housing intervention will continue to impact their lives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How I got my water bottle afterall

I was almost halfway to the tube station this morning when I suddenly remembered that I had left my water bottle at home. Since I was running a few minutes late I didn’t bother going back to get it.

Reaching the tube station I went straight into the WH Smith, as always, to pick up the day’s Guardian newspaper. I placed a £1 coin in the hands of the beautiful South Asian woman at the counter and was about to leave when another customer just behind me enquired, “Do you want a bottle of water?”

“Eh?” I thought to myself.

“Not really”, I replied, but only because I was confused.

However it occurred to me to ask the crucial question, “Is the water free?”

“Yes, I get a bottle free with my Daily Telegraph and I don’t want it.”

“Perfect.” I replied and reached out to pick up a bottle of Buxton still water with English cricketer Alastair Cook beaming back from the packaging.

Of all the days in the world for someone to offer me a free water bottle they chose this one!
“You just made my day. Thank you,” I said and walked away marvelling at the coincidence.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A place for philosophy in UK's immigration policy

The world famous Notting Hill Carnival. One reason for starting it, among others, was to respond to the race riots.
I was tempted to put an old college assignment in a Royal Mail post box a few weeks ago addressed to David Cameron, the British Prime Minister.

While pursuing a Master’s degree, I had written a prescriptive policy paper addressed to him, keeping in mind his personal and Conservative party politics, on the subject of immigration and its impact on UK’s race relations. When I read his entire April speech on immigration, I wanted him to answer a question I had raised then – What is the philosophical underpinning of UK’s immigration policy?

You might think this is flaky but it is not. And the reason this question is important is because immigration is generally discussed as a “problem” and as something to be “tackled” despite centuries of immigration to the UK (albeit largely White till the 20th century). So with a history of immigration that you could argue dates back to the Romans, I find it odd that Britain doesn’t have a more positive narrative and an underpinning for this superb diversity.

“Multicultural Britain” is tossed around all the time but having studied last century’s immigration policies and laws, it seems that Britain sort of ended up becoming multicultural rather than actively trying to be diverse. In the early 1920s and 30s when most nations were closing their borders during the economic depression, Britain promoted the free movement of people within the Commonwealth. But this was primarily a way of pursuing foreign policy goals by improving links with the colonies.

The process of decolonization did not result in an immediate change in policy either as Britain continued to see itself as a “mother country.” The open door brought the first big wave of post-war immigrants in the 1940s and 50s from places that Britain had once ruled over in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia and the first Nationality Act in 1948 expressed this expansive policy with no controls over entry from former colonies.

But in 1958 Britain witnessed its first widespread race riots in Notting Hill in London and immigration laws since then have been designed to ensure that it becomes harder and harder for Blacks and Asians in particular to settle in the UK. That’s the blunt truth of the matter… but I digress.

The question then is that since the end of the British empire, what has replaced ‘Civis Britannicus Sum’ (to be a British citizen)? Immigration cuts to the heart of national identity and citizenship but I can’t find any answers to what it means to be British. What is the equivalent of the American salad bowl?

New Labour attempted to tackle this issue in a 2002 white paper titled ‘Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain’ saying “British citizenship encompasses a variety of different models of belonging to the political community. Common citizenship is not about cultural uniformity, nor is it born out of some narrow and out-dated view of what it means to be British.” Nice words but so much of New Labour’s actions and statements undercut this.

And now David Cameron pulled out the oldest trick in the book before the local elections in Britain by saying he wants “good” immigration and not “mass” immigration – whatever that means. Fine, go ahead and try to squeeze the immigration balloon from all sides. But to a recent immigrant like me it speaks of the same sort of pathetic lack of vision in finding a deeper, wider meaning for a rich immigrant history.

So much of what we think of as quintessentially British has immigrant roots – Marks & Spencers, Tesco, Dorris Lessing, T.S.Eliot etc. It is a great joy to live in a city where I can spend a Saturday evening eating at a Georgian restaurant with an American and Turkish friend who leave their child in the care of a Colombian nanny. Surely Britain can come up with a grander narrative rather than this seasonal bashing of immigrants.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

Dear UNSG,

I read the testimony of a survivor of the Sri Lankan war that ended in May 2009. She said many things that moved me but I was struck by the fact that even in the tiny northern strip of Sri Lanka, far, far away from your headquarters in New York, she remembered and hoped that the UN would intervene to rescue her and her children.

UNSG Ban Ki-moon
That was a long time ago. The armed conflict ended in May 2009 and was decisively won by the Sri Lankan government forces. But where is the justice for the survivors?

From everything we know, including the report (leaked over the weekend) submitted to you by the UN panel of experts, there were serious war crimes committed by both sides in this conflict and an independent, international investigation is required. The Sri Lankan government is clearly not interested in accountability as it has already rubbished this report and did not allow the UN panel to visit the country.

As part of a community of people fighting for justice in Sri Lanka, I urge you to firstly, officially make public the report submitted to you by the UN panel.

I then urge you to follow up on the findings of the report as well as Amnesty International’s findings and to ensure that there is an independent, impartial investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. For the survivors of this conflict and in the interests of justice nothing less will do.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cricket made me nostalgic about India

I rarely get homesick. But today, on the eve of the Indo-Pak cricket world cup semi-final, I’m bummed that I’m not in India.

I love what cricket does to the country - how CEOs, housewives, students, peons, society types, slum dwellers and everyone in between is just Indian (or Indian origin, if you want to get technical) for a day.

I remember that feeling so well from a match between India and Pakistan from the 2003 world cup. I was watching it at home in Chennai when suddenly the electricity went out. A collective wail went up around the city but fortunately there were giant screens set up on the two main beaches in Chennai and everyone had the same idea to immediately rush out and continue watching the match there.

When I reached Besant Nagar beach, the atmosphere was surreal. I joined the hundreds, indeed thousands, sitting on the sand, under the stars watching a gripping match between the two iconic rivals of world cricket. An India-Pakistan match is always a zero sum game. For the losing country there is devastation and for the winner delirious joy.

That night, fortune favoured India and we beat Pakistan decisively, winning by 6 wickets. The crowd went berserk and the wild smiles and excitement were enough to light up India’s darkest villages and our own city.

There are very few moments like this in India when we are not so divided and listening to Hindi music this evening in distant London while thinking about the match in Mohali suddenly made me really wish I was there tomorrow.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why your signature matters to the people on the street in Bahrain

On Friday morning the online team at Amnesty International was in for a pleasant surprise.

At work we have our Amnesty website open on our computers throughout the day and are very familiar with trends on the number of people who sign our web petitions.

That’s why when we posted a petition addressed to the King of Bahrain on Thursday afternoon we were amazed to see that in less than 24 hours nearly 13,000 people had signed on. Wow.

But how did that happen?

Read the rest of my piece on the Amnesty International blog - Livewire.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review: Egypt's Road to Jerusalem.

At the height of the February uprising in Egypt I happened to come upon former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s book ‘Egypt’s road to Jerusalem’. I thought this was a good time to read his story and found a cautiously written tale about the inner workings of the negotiating teams of Egypt and Israel that led to the signing of the historic peace treaty between the two countries in March 1979.

The book starts with the rather sudden and unexpected appointment of Boutros-Ghali as a Minister of State in President Anwar al-Sadat’s cabinet before Sadat’s ground-breaking trip to Jerusalem in 1977. It details the various conferences and characters that populated the peace process after that visit till the time the peace treaty was eventually signed two years later.

The book’s strength is not so much the overall insider’s history as much as it is the countless anecdotes Boutros-Ghali provides about world leaders. It is surprisingly limited however in its portraiture of the main actors such as Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Jimmy Carter, and most importantly Anwar al-Sadat. Of the personalities of these men, there are only glimpses.

The impression of Sadat I was left with through the vignettes was not a visionary of peace but more a secretive, unpredictable military man bent on winning back territory (Sinai Peninsula) through peace since he hadn’t been able to achieve it through war. That’s why the Israeli lack of sincerity in engaging on the question of Palestinian autonomy (something the Egyptians wanted to club with the return of the Sinai) didn’t eventually derail the peace treaty. Of course I could be horribly wrong.

Sadat was also strangely impervious to Arab, African and non-aligned countries’ criticism. Boutros-Ghali observes, “Sadat seemed ready to do with Egypt what Kemal Ataturk had done with Turkey – cut it loose from its most important historical, religious and cultural roots and become an integral part of the West.”

The Israeli side comes across as hard and unyielding. The Camp David Accords which led to the peace treaty were signed even as Israel launched its first invasion into Lebanon. A year later, Israel reversed a 1967 decision and started allowing Israelis to buy land in the West Bank and Gaza. Negotiations on Palestinian self-rule didn’t go anywhere and Begin successfully put pressure on Sadat to stop Boutros-Ghali from constantly raising the Palestinian question.

The best bits of the book however are Boutros-Ghali’s descriptions of his swing through Africa drumming up support for Egypt and Latin America requesting troops for a multinational peace-keeping force in the Sinai.

There is a great anecdote of his bizarre meeting with Ugandan leader Idi Amin. Amin took him on a boat to a place called Paradise Island, where he insisted on having the meeting in his bedroom without any aides.

Boutros-Ghali noticed that there were three doors designed to give Amin several escape routes in case of an assassination. Idi Amin saw everyone as a potential assassin. As if all that wasn’t weird enough, Amin suggested that Boutros-Ghali lie down on the bed to rest next to him. Hardly what you expect to happen when diplomats and world leaders meet!

The book’s final chapter is gripping in its description of the events of sixth October. The annual military parade is held on this day to commemorate the breaking of Israel’s Bar-Lev Line on the Sinai front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As a Minister, Boutros-Ghali was expected to attend and would probably have been seated close to Anwar al-Sadat except he and his wife broke with protocol and decided to visit friends in Alexandria instead.

What is utterly fascinating is how Boutros-Ghali got to know of the attempt on Sadat’s life, especially because it is inconceivable in today’s well-connected world. As he relaxed on the beach, an old lady, recognising him, walked up to Boutros-Ghali and told him that she had heard reports on a foreign radio station about some trouble at the parade in Cairo. Boutros-Ghali gently told her not to believe the foreign press which he said was always fomenting trouble.

But she returned shortly afterwards for a second and a third time to say she had heard it on the BBC so he must investigate. Sure enough, when Boutros-Ghali went back home, he already had officials waiting to take him back to Cairo by train in a specially reserved coach.

Boutros-Ghali broke down and cried for Anwar al-Sadat had not survived his assassin’s bullets after a brief battle in hospital. Sinai had not yet officially been returned to Egypt and the architect of the peace treaty would not live to see the completion of his dream.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Net-savvy granny blogs about life in a long-forgotten India

Lalitha Ramakrishnan at her daughter's house in Chennai
A young Indian man working in the Home Ministry in Delhi received an urgent telegram in 1945 from his parents in south India. It said, “Start immediately. Marriage fixed.” Even as he dutifully began preparing for his travels to marry a woman he had never met or spoken to he received another telegram. “Don’t come. Marriage cancelled.”

Blogging about this story six decades later is Lalitha Ramakrishnan, the woman who did eventually marry him. At 83 and as a great grand-mother, Lalitha is a unique member of India’s crowded blogosphere. She is a good bit older than most others and the subjects she writes on – everyday life during pre and post-independence India are a time young Indians know little about.

She started blogging in 2006 after years of writing down her thoughts on paper. Being on the web suddenly generated interest in several quarters and research scholars, the media, friends and family from different continents started contacting her. “I’m really surprised. I never thought when I started that my writing would bring me to this day talking to you.”

Her blog gained instant popularity because her simple, evocative style is reminiscent of India’s earliest Indian writers of fiction – R.K. Narayan. Except in her case the anecdotes are real. There are fascinating stories about how cataclysmic movements such as the Quit India Movement, the Partition and Indian independence were experienced by ordinary people.

For example she witnessed a lot of killing in Delhi in the run up to Independence and while the men were at work, housewives like her had only themselves to rely on. With a home telephone being a luxury in the 1940s she says, “Most of the women used to be inside the house with red chilli powder and their vegetable cutter by the front door. We could attack intruders with that.”

Lalitha was born in 1927 in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore in south India and moved to Delhi after marriage. She also briefly lived in Pondicherry for six years. After her husband passed away in 1987 she has lived with her children in different parts of India. Many Indians her age have never used a computer let alone blogged. But on many mornings Lalitha can be found bent over her laptop emailing or typing up a post about the long-forgotten past. 

She blogs here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

10 things to know about the injusitce done to Dr.Binayak Sen

Dr.Binayak Sen's appeal hearing is coming up on Monday, 24th January. Any reporter will tell you that covering a legal battle involves so many twists and turns that audiences and readers end up getting overwhelmed and bogged down in the detail killing their interest. To simplify things, here is a brief background and some key things to know about Dr. Binayak Sen.

Introduction: Dr. Binayak Sen is a pediatrician from Kolkata. He has lived in the central-Indian state of Chhattisgarh since 1991 where he founded an NGO that provides medical care to 20 adivasi villages through a network of community health workers. He has also set up a hospital funded and run by mineworkers. He is the vice-president of one of India's leading human rights organisations - the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

In Chhattisgarh where he works, a violent armed conflict between the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and a militia group Salwa Judum, which is allegedly supported by the state government, has led to widespread human rights violations and abuses against members of local communities. Dr Sen has been a vocal critic of the conflict, drawing attention to these abuses and calling for the protection of the rights of local communities. 

Here are 10 things to know about Dr. Binayak Sen’s case:

1) Dr.Binayak Sen has lived in Chhattisgarh since 1991 where he has been heavily involved in running rural community health projects.

2) Dr. Sen was arrested in May 2007 shortly after he publicly criticised the Chhattisgarh police for killing local adivasis & not armed Maoists as the police claimed. 

3) He had also publicly criticized the Chhattisgarh authorities for enacting state security legislation which put excessive restrictions on human rights.

4) The lower courts repeatedly refused Dr. Sen bail until May 2009 when the Supreme Court finally ordered his release. 

5) Then again on 24 Dec.2010 Dr. Sen was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of sedition and conspiracy after an unfair trial. 

6) Dr Sen has been convicted of sedition (Sec. 121A of the IPC) and conspiracy (Section 124A) and under various sections of the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act 2005 (CSPSA), and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA). His trial commenced on 30 April 2008.

7) On 5 Jan. 2011 Dr. Sen challenged his conviction and life sentence by filing an appeal in the Bilaspur High Court.

8) The vaguely worded provisions of the security legislation used to charge Dr Sen – the CSPSA which is only in force in the state of Chhattisgarh and the UAPA – are so broad that they may be abused to restrict and criminalize the peaceful exercise of rights and freedoms.

9) The shockingly severe life sentence handed down to Dr Sen will set a dangerous precedent, leaving open the possibility that state level authorities will seek to impose harsher sentences against outspoken human rights defenders across India. 

10)  Demand Dr. Binayak Sen’s immediate release and tell the Indian government to drop all charges against him. Click here to take action.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Travel blog updates

Apologies for the drought here in recent months. I've been working, worrying, traveling, thinking etc. etc. There have been a few updates on the travel blog so let me direct you there while I think of something sensational to say here.