Befitting the stature of a rural correspondent, I will take a train tomorrow from Chicago to New York to spend the next ten days reporting India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit. I leave at 6.40 p.m. Sunday and reach New York a little after 7 p.m. on Monday. That is longer than flying to New Delhi from Chicago. Joe Lahsin, an American friend of mine commented on my train journey plans saying, “How very 1940s of you?”
With all my Gaon Connection newspaper credentials in place now, it is official that I will report for India’s first professionally run and major award winning rural newspaper. As Neelesh Misra, the founder of the newspaper, pointed out, “We are committed to constantly breaking the stereotypes about what rural readers should get to read and watch. We created these stereotypes.” So while I might look for some rural angle to stories, I intend reporting the visit very much like I would report it for an urban newspaper. I have never patronized my Gaon Connection readership in whatever few columns I have written so far and I intend to continue to serve them in a similar fashion. I might choose to give them a broader context simply because there are no rural newspapers doing it for them.
I know how utterly choreographed and controlled the media interaction of the US and India leaders are in Washington and therefore have no expectations of being allowed to ask a question of either or both. Given half a chance though, I would like to ask President Barack Obama whether the concerns and aspirations of the world’s rural population even remotely figure in his diplomatic dealings around the world. India alone accounts for over 833 million rural population, according to the 2011 census. In case you have not already understood it, that number alone is the world’s third largest population by itself. I seriously wonder whether bilateral relations between India and any other country, not to mention the world’s biggest economy of America, even factor that aspect in.
I think this is where Neelesh’s point about rural stereotypes comes in. While rural populations may have their own unique demands, their aspirations and concerns are not necessarily distinct from the urban population merely because they live in villages. Of course, developments models have to be tweaked to meet rural requirements but when it comes to aspirational objectives, they are pretty similar. As Gaon Connection has been reporting about the changing attitudes in villages, the information and communication technology revolution has ensured that rural Indians can be as up to speed with what is going on around the world as urban Indians. This is by far the crudest hint I can drop to President Obama and Prime Minister Modi’s media handlers to let me, as a correspondent of a rural newspaper, ask one question at their joint press engagement.
Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) Mars Orbiter Spacecraft Control Center (Image: ISRO)
How cool is it that two spacecraft from Earth will reach Mars within two days of each other! NASA's orbiter Maven is scheduled to reach Martian orbit on September 21 to be followed closely by India's first interplanetary mission Mangalyaan two days or so later.
While Maven's mission is to study Mars's upper atmosphere, Mangalyaan's predominant mission is as a technology demonstrator or, in other words,to show that the Indian Space Research Organization's (ISRO) interplanetary systems work at all levels. Mangalyaan is also expected to carry out some study of the planet, including optical imaging and methane detection.
I don't think people realize how remarkable this is as an achievement for space-faring nations to travel hundreds of millions of kilometers over a nearly ten-month period to precisely catch up with our planetary neighbor. Calculations about the launch of a mission to Mars--or for that matter anywhere in space-- have to precise within seconds because of the complex planetary orbits.
Mars travels around the sun at about 13,000 miles per hour while Earth goes around at about 67,000 miles per hour. Space agencies launching satellites such as Maven and Mangalyaan have to make a lot of calculations before they manage to reach their destination.
It is hard to believe that a race-- a species, really--that can do something so remarkable also has within its fold members who think nothing of beheading others. I feel personally embarrassed and hard-pressed to square accomplishments such as Mars missions with the bloody lunacy unleashed in the Middle East. It is highly disconcerting that two utterly irreconcilable kinds of human material can exist together on a single planet within just a few thousand miles of each other. But I digress.
If I were a Martian, the question “Are we alone?” would have been long answered with a resounding no with all these missions from Earth visiting the planet. We are still far from colonizing Mars but in some sense we are already in the early stages of it what with our robotic representatives such as NASA’s ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Curiosity’ rovers on its surface for a considerable length of time. Manned missions are still nowhere on the horizon but they could be closer than we might think. Apart from all the challenges of interplanetary travel, including exposure to solar radiation en route to Mars, there are factors like such missions being one way ticket to the planet. Those who might get picked up for such missions will obviously not be able to return to Earth because we have no capacity to launch from the Martian surface for a return journey. The travel time of nearly ten months may seem inordinately long but once you consider the magnitude of what is sought to be achieved, it may not seem all that formidable. For now, of course, we have to be content with a robotic proxy presence.
China’s President Xi Jinping (left) with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on September 18 (Photo: pmindia.gov.in)
For whatever it is worth, it is my considered opinion that India-China relationship has to be one of necessity and utility. It is time to drain it of any overt emotional content. Casting relations between two ancient, deeply entrenched civilizations in familial context does not and cannot work. The time is opportune under President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to design bilateral relations around what is necessary and utilitarian rather than something that has strong civilizational aesthetics attached to it.
It is from this context that I see the two great civilizations being able to work together without violating each other’s personal space. The Chinese must bear in mind that the world outside its flexible borders is not barbarian. The Indians must bear in mind that the world outside its borders is not one big family. The philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (The earth is indeed family) is glorious and lofty but impractical because territoriality is the supreme currency in the real world.
As I watched President Xi and Prime Minister Modi read out of their statements in Mandarin and Hindi respectively, I got lost in the unfamiliar and familiar rhythms of the two great languages. As an admirer of languages generally, it was striking to see the three big languages—Hindi, Mandarin and English—overlapping into each other during the ceremonial exchange of a series of agreements at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi. I would have loved to hear Hindi without understanding it because understanding it takes away from its intrinsic musicality. In that sense, I found President Xi’s Mandarin rather compelling. Living in America, one often feels linguistically straightjacketed because the official political America is averse to diversity of languages.
Speaking of diversity of languages, the Dalai Lama, in an obvious reference to China’s policy of Sinization in Tibet, made a point about it. "I think the Chinese president should learn some of India's experience. Look, east India, south India, west India, north India, different language, different script. But no danger of separation. Isn't it? Democratic rule, rule of law and free media..." he said. Since I am on the subject, it has been my longstanding view that Beijing must directly engage the Dalai Lama over Tibet even if in its view he is of no consequence. This visit would have been a great opportunity to set the ball rolling in that direction. Beijing generally and President Xi particularly have nothing to lose by holding direct talks with the Dalai Lama. It is not as if the mere act of talking to him would instantaneously lead to Tibet’s independence or even autonomy. The question of Tibet may have been one of geographical territory once but with the Dalai Lama having repeatedly called for a meaningful autonomy within China in recent years rather than complete independence, it is predominantly about the Tibetans’ ability to preserve their ancient culture and language. Language is a defining piece of any culture.
Overall, it is heartening to see that China and India are constantly working on their relationship even if the progress is rather slow and unpredictable as the incursion by the Chinese troops into the Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir illustrates. The timing of the incursion is curious coming as it does when President Xi, who is chairman of the Central Military Commission which directs the armed forces of the country, is in India. It is not my case that a 1000 or so Chinese troops that reportedly intruded into Ladakh’s Chumar area did so under direct order from the president. But the president has to have been acutely aware of the adverse optics of the action.
Vasudeo Gaitonde (1924-2001) Above- Untitled 1963 US$ 600,000-800,000, Below Untitled 1961 US$ 300,000 to US$500,000 (Image:www.bonhams.com)
Friend Chandu Mhatre brought to my attention the auction today by Bonhams of Vasudeo Gaitonde’s two paintings. The works on offer are an untitled 1961 oil on canvas valued at USD 300,000 - USD 500,000 and another untitled oil on canvas from 1963 valued at at USD 600,000- USD 800,000.
I would have happily bid for the works on phone but I cannot because a) I am down with a debilitating flu and migraine and b) I checked my bank account and found I am falling short by the entire asking price.
So to entertainment myself and as a tribute to the master, I quickly painted two of my own. See them below. Excuse the fact that my works look like a product of a house painter who is paid $8 an hour. In my defense though, I am suffering from a migraine attack and dreadful flu.
Mayank Chhaya (1961- ) Untitled 2014 Not valued at all
The Sabarmati River Front (Picture: www.sabarmatiriverfront.com)
It is a good thing that China’s President Xi Jinping does not read Gujarati. If he did, he would be amused to be called Jhi Jhingping as an Associated Press photo of a billboard in my hometown of Ahmedabad in India shows.* Xi is visiting India and his first stop is the biggest city in the state of Gujarat, which also happens to be the home state of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
All stops are being pulled out for this important visit for not just the Modi government but India generally. As some media reports suggest “no stone is being left unturned” for the visit. I think it would be wise to leave many stones unturned in Ahmedabad because we don’t know what might be hiding underneath. Reports also say that the city has authorized spending 100 million rupees (about $1.6 million) to spruce it up for the visiting dignitary. These are highly choreographed visits and dignitaries get to see only what the hosts want them to see. In any case, what can President Xi really see during such a short stay?
Given their style of working, which has been described as self-centered and autocratic, when Xi arrives in Ahmedabad tomorrow he will essentially meet the Indian version of himself or, conversely, Modi will essentially meet the Chinese version of himself. In short, it is all good.
I would have liked to report on the Xi visit from Ahmedabad, if only to see how the two men grounded in unshakable self-belief come across each other. The newly developed Sabarmati River Front, a pet project of Prime Minister Modi when he was Gujarat’s chief minister, will feature prominently as a backdrop to the visit. Depending on whom you ask the river front project has been described either as a shining example of modernity or an environmental disaster. I have no particular point of view on such matters because I take them for what they are. The river front on the Sabarmati is already a reality. It would be pointless to debate its necessity now. Xi will be hosted to dinner on the river front inside specially erected tents. It happens to be the prime minister’s 64th birthday on September 17 and it is just as well that he celebrates it with Xi.
One notices a certain sense of urgency to the Modi government’s diplomacy. From quickly engaging India’s immediate neighbors on becoming prime minister to attending the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS)summit in Brazil to visiting Nepal and Japan to receiving Xi and then finally attending the United Nations General Assembly and wrapping it up with two-day talks with U.S. President Barack Obama at the end of September might give you a sense of global diplomacy on steroids. If one has to engage with the rest of the world, one might as well do it sooner rather than later. Once again, it is what it is like the river front. There is no point debating its merits or otherwise. The world is on real time and leaders have to respect that.
I will have the opportunity to cover the penultimate part of this diplomatic thrust when I visit New York and Washington to report the Modi visit. I have told some of my friends to keep calling me throughout September 29 and 30 for no apparent reason but only to afford me an opportunity to tell them, “I can’t talk now. I am at the White House.” It means nothing at all.
* I have not used the AP picture because I do not subscribe to the service.
Poetry may be a written form but it is spoken art. What makes poetry spoken art is its meter. There is a reason why poets are anal about line breaks and stanzas. I am not at all educated in metric variations and prosodic intricacies. However, when I write poetry, I actually speak it in my mind to make sure that its rhythm feels right.
It was interesting to read Alexander Alter’s story in The New York Times yesterday about how e-book publishers have finally managed to crack the peculiar formatting of poetry. The traditional print versions of poetry allows publishers to lay out the content to the exact metric specifications, line breaks and stanzas which was not the case in the early days e-books. Now, according to the Times story, advances in e-book technology ensure that poetry reads like poetry and not ill-clad prose.
I write my poetry almost entirely in Hindi/Urdu (Disclosure: I have never been published) and often on scraps of paper and in poor handwriting. However, increasingly these days I use Google Tool Kit to type Hindi or Gujarati words in English and produce them in the script of choice—in my case Hindi or Gujarati. It is easy to lay out poetry written thus in the correct format. Rhythm or cadence are as much intrinsic to poetry as content and structure. Perhaps the easiest way to guarantee poetry’s metric precision on e-readers is to lay it out in PDF. That way what you are doing is reproducing an image on an e-reader. An image once set cannot be distorted.
The Times piece says there are publishers who are getting programmers to “hand-code” poetry e-books which guarantees that line breaks and stanzas are accurate.
Unlike prose, which is necessarily time-intensive, poetry, unless it is epic, is more often than not instantaneous. That is because it often results from an evanescent inspiration. It has to be captured in that moment otherwise it comes across manufactured or contrived. I have always considered poetry to be, apart from being an unnecessary talent, an affliction. It results from a massive chemical disturbance inside one’s brain. It has to be expressed as soon as it occurs even if it happens to be rough and raw. For accomplished poets, who have been doing it for a long time, it takes birth fully formed and polished.
Both artworks by MC
On August 22, I received an email from Mary on behalf of www.regencyshop.com, described as a “leading seller of mid-century modern furniture.” My normal impulse on seeing a message from a commercial establishment would be to delete it without even opening it. In this case though, I chose to go against that impulse and opened it. It seemed like a genuine message because it began with “I came across your website and I'd be interested in showcasing your art work on our website.”
I say genuine because a) It is rare that someone comes across my website, b) It is rarer that someone actually thinks that what I do is art and c) It is even rarer still that someone then wants “showcase” my art in order to sell it. Three-in-one, what’s not to like?
What also interested me was Mary telling me this: “We have been getting queries from our customers enquiring about paintings, sculptors and other art work.”
I went to Regency Shop’s website to do quick due diligence and decided to take the next step, which was to fill out a basic agreement and upload two of my works for starters. The two paintings have now gone on sale on the website here and here.
Subject to any of these two selling at some point, there is a possibility that this might become a revenue source for me. I cannot emphasize enough that my artworks, which are primarily meant to be printed as wall pieces, also lend themselves to any surface simply because they are entirely digital and done in the PNG format that allows their transfer to any surface. So while it might satisfy my minor artistic conceit to see some of these hanging on someone’s walls, I am perfectly okay with buyers using these images to merchandize anything, including shoes and underwear.
Kajal Basu is already doing early in his tenure as Tehelka’s editor what I expected him to—produce well-constructed and richly detailed content that presumes a certain level of intelligence, education and literacy among its readers. It is a tough battle to not yield to the temptation of the lowest common denominator that many in the Indian media have already done. His excellent piece ‘The Other Side of ISIS’ is an example of what to expect under his leadership. That journalism ought to be well-crafted scholarship is something Kajal understands intuitively.
In particular, the piece focuses on its main theme of how internationalist the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). What struck me is this passage in the piece: “In many ways, ISIS has a more internationalist doctrine than any militant group till date — certainly more internationalist than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s catchy but meaningless “doctrine of international community”. “Rush O Muslims to your state,” al-Baghdadi had said in his Ramazan-eve speech. “Yes, it is your state. Rush, because Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The earth is Allah’s.” As a beckoning, it is far more seductive than any “coalition of the willing” that Obama can conjure up: It speaks not just of a unitarian pan-Islamism but of a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate.”
It is a disturbing perspective which may or may not come to pass depending on how the world in general and the Islamic world in particular chooses to deal with it. There is the overarching unitarian pan-Islamic aspect to the crisis in the Middle East but as Kajal illustrates under that amorphous cloak there are more complex pieces operating in the ruthless real world of oil politics and trading that I find equally powerful. As an illustration of just how complicated this whole sordid clusterfuck is can be gauged by the sheer number of the terrorist groups as well as their leaders and their increasingly hard to keep track of names. I think universities should start offering doctoral programs in just cataloguing their names and affiliations.
Kajal zeros in on something significant when he concludes his piece saying this: “Many mujahireen are not directly affiliated with the Islamic State, or even the recently formed Jabhat Ansar al-Din. But they share the ISIS’ goal, which essentially entails instituting Islamic governance. Most of them declare they are neutral with regard to the infighting that has haunted the Syrian jihad from its first week.
These are the denominations that the Obama administration isn’t paying much attention to. But it might be prudent to keep in mind that the Chechens gave Russia the shakes. Using none of the brutal flamboyance of British and American mujahireen, the Chechens might just give the COTW (Coalition of the Willing) a long-haul migraine.”
The idea of “a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate” that Kajal talks about is easier stated than achieved because it necessarily and inordinately depends on the Muslim populations in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia which together number over 700 million people. There could well be some percentage of Muslims in these four countries that is sympathetic to aspects of “a gigantic, borderless, stateless caliphate” but the number is not even remotely close to giving it any realistic chance at all. There are powerful cultural forces in all these four countries which attenuate, moderate and even fundamentally influence their respective Muslim population’s worldview.
In all of these countries, the Muslim population is deeply invested in their individual well-being as a nation-state rather than a stateless caliphate and not in the least because three of them are officially Islamic republics. In most ways that matter, the Muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia have already got their own system of government that they have by and large chosen of their own volition. They have no compelling reason to want to be part of a caliphate simply because it sounds grand. In the case of Muslims in India, notwithstanding their well-known disaffections with the state and society, they are very much an intrinsic and defining part of the country’s gloriously rich pluralism. For an idea like that, however absurdly lunatic, to work it requires a critical mass of people to support it and an expanse of territory to house it. I seriously doubt if that is going to be in the foreseeable future. Of course, someone can always make the argument that there are Muslims who are already living in such a caliphate inside their minds irrespective of which country they live in. But then there are also Hindus or Christians or Buddhists or Jains or whoever who are already living in their own versions of Puritanistan. There is no cure for that.
I have had some tenuous connections with Scotland.
One was when my accent was mistaken to be Scottish while talking to a tech support guy based in the Philippines. You might ask how I know that the tech support guy thought I was Scottish. I might answer saying because he asked me, "Are you Scottish?" I responded, “As much as you are a New Yorker.” We both laughed.
There are two other equally tenuous Scottish connections . One is Sean Connery who is Scottish but could well be a country unto himself. Who does not like Sean Connery?
The other is the bagpipe which I was introduced to as a child in Rajkot's famous Rajkumar College (RKC), once meant exclusively for fake princes of erstwhile Kathiawadi kingdoms. During the school's annual tattoo I used to see a bagpiper or two on it’s meticulously manicured lawns. In the interest of clarity, I did not study at RKC but merely peered over from the wrong side of its low black stone wall.
These thoughts come to mind as I read about the impending vote over Scotland's independence from Britain. As a citizen of Britain's former crown jewel—a charming euphemism for a colony—I see a measure of poetic justice in Scotland seeking to hive itself off from a three centuries old union. The number of pieces Great Britain carved out of its former colonies for no reason other than because it could and their bloody consequences, which continue to be felt even today, come to mind.
I was mildly amused to see Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron say this in Edinburgh the other day: "I care hugely about this extraordinary country, this United Kingdom that we've built together. I would be heartbroken if this family of nations that we've put together - and we've done such amazing things together - if this family of nations was torn apart."
I would not be surprised if many in the former colonies look at Cameron's and Britain's predicament and feel a measure of mildly sadistic joy. There is such delicious irony here that it is hard to stay decent about it. In any case, I have never been enamored of the much proclaimed sanctity of sovereignty, territorial integrity and suchlike.
I am sure Cameron genuinely feels what he says he does but somewhere along the line Scotland's rich oil resource is also at the back of his and others' minds. There are estimates of between 15 billion and 16.5 billion barrels of oil and gas still under Scottish waters. That cannot but be a factor in the vote towards independence.
Essentially, Scotland has two very significant things going for it and both are kind of addictive—oil and whiskey.