It was with great dismay that I read this morning a news story about how sex-selective abortion in India continues to cause a skewed men to women ratio with 63 million women statistically “missing.”
Ironically for me, the story in The Guardian was reported by the Associated Press (AP), a wire service for which I reported out of Bombay/Mumbai in 1985-86. I say ironically because I was the first one to report for a global audience via the AP how a sex determination test known as amniocentesis was causing significant female feticide in India. I have flagged my AP story a few times on this blog. I had first reported it around July 14/15 in 1986 and it was widely published across the world.
That 32 years later, India not only continues to face this grotesque menace but with a greater intensity is deeply troubling. The latest AP story quotes the Indian government’s annual economic survey. The survey found that “families where a son is born are more likely to stop having children than families where a girl is born”.
When I first reported it amniocentesis, although fairly widespread, was still a relatively new procedure primarily meant to detect potential genetic defects in fetuses. But since the test also helped determine the gender of the unborn child it made abortion easy in case they unborn child were female. Hence the term female feticide.
The Indian government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, who authored the report, said,“The challenge of gender is long-standing, probably going back millennia” and added the country India must “confront the societal preference for boys”.
In reading the survey, particularly the section titled “Gender and Son Meta-Preference: Is Development itself an Antidote”, I found this observation: “Perhaps the area where Indian society—and this goes beyond governments to civil society, communities, and households—needs to reflect on the most is what might be called “son preference” where development is not proving to be an antidote. Son preference giving rise to sex selective abortion and differential survival has led to skewed sex ratios at birth and beyond, leading to estimates of 63 million “missing” women”.
Crucially, it also makes this point: “But there is another phenomenon of son meta-preference which involves parents adopting fertility “stopping rules” – having children until the desired number of sons are born. This meta-preference leads naturally to the notional category of “unwanted” girls which is estimated at over 21 million. In some sense, once born, the lives of women are improving but society still appears to want fewer of them to be born”.
The survey says, “Collective self-reflection by Indian society on son preference and son meta-preference is necessary”.
I find it commendable that an official government document dwells at length on this grotesque problem. However, its resolution is a much deeper societal challenge. I would have hoped for a much more significant positive shift in societal attitude towards it but it continues to remain a major sociocultural and economic stumbling block.
Here is one mineral, above all else, that Afghanistan is so rich in—cruel irony. As is my habit, I regularly check out trailers of upcoming movies. One such recent trailer was “12 Strong” directed by Nicolai Fuglsig and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.
The movie’s website says this in its synopsis: “12 Strong” is set in the harrowing days following 9/11 when an elite U.S. Special Forces unit, led by their Captain, Mitch Nelson (Hemsworth), is chosen to be the first U.S. soldiers sent into Afghanistan for an extremely dangerous mission in response to the attacks. Leaving their families behind, the team is dropped into the remote, rugged landscape of northern Afghanistan, where they must convince General Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) to join forces with them to fight their common adversary: the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies.”
This is a perfect peg for the Hollywood machine to hang a great thriller on. But this post is not about the movie which I am yet to see and am unlikely to see in theater. I will wait for a DVD to reach my local library at some point in the next few weeks and may consider watching it. This post is about how devastatingly and cruelly rich Afghanistan is in irony.
Seventeen years after that heroic mission the country remains so helplessly trapped in utterly dehumanizing violence. In many ways, the Taliban, which was one of the two prime targets of those US special forces along with Al Qaeda, has become an even more ruthless killing machine. An ambulance loaded with explosives blew up in Kabul on Saturday and killed 103 people and injured 235 people. The Taliban quickly claimed the responsibility for the brazen attack in the heart of the most secure quarter of the besieged city.
In keeping with the perpetually sanguine optimism of the U.S. military, the head of US Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, was quoted by CNN as saying that the attack had not diminished America’s resolve to help Afghanistan, adding that victory is "absolutely, absolutely" possible.
I am fairly certain that at the time of the 12 Strong mission that would have been the exact feeling among the special forces. In some sense that optimism in the shadow of the grotesque 9/11 attacks would have been understandable. But to assert it 17 years hence against the backdrop of such an unnerving attack in the heart of Kabul leaves me depressed.
The US military has no option but appear not to lose its nerve in the face of the Taliban’s seeming resurgence. The term asymmetric warfare describing the conflict between an institutionalized military and loosely joined but terribly battle-hardened armed men of the Taliban remains effective after so many years. A force like the Taliban needs occasional success such as the ambulance attack to keep up the appearance of its brutal relevance unlike an institutionalized military which has to be vigilant 24/7.
One no longer knows what the mission is in Afghanistan. If the US military-industrial complex has one which they do not articulate publicly, we have no way of knowing. In August last year, President Donald Trump signaled an open-ended involvement, without an identifiable end game, by announcing a conditions-based approach instead of a time-based approach to the Afghan war. With that being the rationale the Kabul ambulance attack only serves to strengthen that conditions-based approach. After all what is worse than an attack in the very heart of one of the world’s most fortified cities?
Afghanistan has become such a giant vicious circle of violence that it seems impossible to decide at which point to break it. I have no solution to offer other than to perhaps leaving it to the Afghans to slay their own demons. One cannot even suggest a collective national approach to a deeply tribalistic culture with narrow loyalties and crisscrossing animus.
Kailash Satyarthi (Image courtesy: www.nobelprize.org)
As I hear this morning that Derek Doneen’s documentary ‘Kailash’ has won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize : Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, my mind inevitably travels back a quarter century when I wrote an extensive feature story about its protagonist—Kailash Satyarthi.
The documentary’s accompanying synopsis says, “As a young man, Kailash Satyarthi promised himself that he would end child slavery in his lifetime. In the decades since, he has rescued more than eighty thousand children and built a global movement. This intimate and suspenseful film follows one man's journey to do what many believed was impossible.”
I reproduce here a piece I wrote on October 10, 2014 when Satyarthi was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
October 10, 2014
One of the minor rewards of having been around in journalism long enough—33 years and counting—is to be able to say "Been there, done that." As Kailash Satyarthi jointly receives the Nobel Peace Prize and honors the prize in the process, I am transported back to February, 1993, when I walked with him for a short duration of his 1000-mile march against child labor as part of a reporting assignment for India Abroad of New York. The stretch I chose to walk passed through Firozabad, world-renowned for it glass industry which, as it turned out, thrived on the heartless exploitation of child labor. Satyarthi along with Swami Agnivesh were the two most high profile champions against child servitude across India.
I remember Satyarthi as someone unshakably committed to his cause to the exclusion of any material comfort. A recurring question in his life then and perhaps before and ever since is what he told me: “How can a country whose children’s backs are broken by burden be so calm?”
One has reported any number of stories over the past three decades but this one remains one of my most special memories for the sheer magnitude of the problem and the will of a couple of individuals to change that. To mark Satyarthi’s Nobel Peace Prize along with Malala Yousafzai, I would like reproduce some of the passages from the main piece which was a part of a seven-piece Top of the Week in India Abroad in the February 19, 1993 issue.
Reflected glory is rather dim but why not bask in it before it fades for me in the next ten minutes or so?
By Mayank Chhaya
FIROZABAD, Uttar Pradesh:
For 10-year-old Shankar, childhood the last three years has meant spending his days in front of a furnace burning at 700 degrees. His toys have been a red-hot iron rod dripping molten glass. His nights have been sleepless, with unbearable fatigue.
Shankar is among 50,000 children working in Firozabad’s world-renowned glass industry. Like more than 50 million children in India, he is condemned to skip childhood and work in some of the most abject industrial conditions.
But emerging now is the first determined voluntary people’s movement to abolish child servitude, which exists in defiance of all social and legal norms. A 1000-mile march that started Jan. 29 from Bihar, the most underdeveloped state, to New Delhi has signaled the beginning of what the organizers promise will be a nationwide movement against child labor.
Leading the march was an electrical engineer turned social activist, Kailash Satyrathi, and a politician turned social crusader, Swami Agnivesh, whose work in releasing thousands of bonded laborers has been internationally acclaimed. Both say the march is just the beginning of an exercise in awakening the national conscience.
“How can a country whose children’s backs are broken by burden be calm?” asks Satyarthi.
I was particularly struck by how well Satyarthi communicated along the route of the march by employing anecdotes and humor to make a serious sociocultural point. He knew that his audience, burdened as it already was, should not be expected to be subjected to the dense sociopolitical or constitutional constructs. Check this passage out:
Satyarthi spoke (to me) while leading the march through a quaint marketplace at Sirsaganj near here. His approach, while addressing scores of meetings along the route, was informal, highly communicative and replete with cinematic language.
At Sirsaganj, for instance, he employed a highly contrasting imagery often used by the Hindi film makers of Bombay. He told his audience of a wealthy woman driving in a car costing “three million rupees” with her “little puppy.”
“She would take a kiss from puppy even while knitting wool,” he recounted. “I asked the driver why she had to knit a sweater in Bombay where there is no winter, and he said it was for the puppy.”
As his listeners laughed over the irony, Satyarthi continued:
“The madame’s children go to a school whose monthly fee is 10,000 rupees, and look at you. You don’t even get to wear shoes or eat properly.”
The message had already gone home about how child labor is a curse that the parents of the 50 million had to live down.
My piece addressed several other themes and spoke to many others. I also reported a little side story about how devout Hindu and Muslim industrialists who supported the movement for a Ram temple or a mosque at Ayodhya had no compunctions about exploiting children. Satyarthi spoke of two boys Shankar (not the one in my main story) and Suleman, who were freed from bondage in the carpet industry during the march. “They (Hindu activists) are claiming that ‘every child is a child of Lord Ram. Similarly, they pretend to be devout Muslims and see what they do to children,” Satyarthi said.
It is heartening for me to know that Satyarthi is being honored for life’s work and not necessarily because he got the Nobel Peace Prize. I am sure the prize money will help in some ways to keep up his campaign because child labor remains as rampant now as it was then. People like Satyarthi are true inheritors of Gandhi because they get down and dirty without regard for reward. I am sure flaws will be pointed out by some in his campaign but that is neither here nor there. It is satisfying that a fortune made on the invention of dynamite is helping blast away deeply entrenched social ills such as child servitude.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley (Photo: Her Twitter feed)
If a novelist had submitted a manuscript that had the US ambassador to the United Nations denying having an affair with the US president around the same time that there were allegations of the latter having had sexual relations with a porn star, the publisher would have thrown him or her out on the curbside for a ludicrously improbable plot.
Now that it has happened in real life, what are we to do? Every passing day convinces me that we indeed live in a simulated computer game being played a bunch of testosterone-driven teenagers of a much more advanced civilization. There is no other way to explain what has been unfolding every day for the past nearly two years. It is as if those teenagers of a super advanced civilization have entered a wholly new level of their game where anything can happen.
Donald Trump may yet have the distinction of having become apocryphal in his own lifetime. That takes some wickedly serious talent.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has had to take an extraordinary step of categorically denying having an affair with President Trump. Describing the suggestion as “highly offensive” and “disgusting” Haley said in an interview with Politico that it was “absolutely not true.”
The nudge-nudge-wink-wink innuendo of the alleged affair started when, while appearing on ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ on January 19, Michael Wolff, the author of ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’, cock-teased us by hinting at an affair inside the White House House.
The conversation between Maher and Wolff went like this when the former asked the latter if there was anything in the book that people were surprisingly not talking about.
Wolff: “There is, but I can’t tell you what it is. There was something in the book I was absolutely sure of but it was so incendiary that I just didn’t have the ultimate proof…”
Maher: “Is it a woman thing?”
Wolff : “Well yeah, I didn’t have the blue dress.” (The blue dress reference was to the one involving the infamous Monica Lewinsky-President Bill Clinton affair.)
Maher: “It’s somebody he’s fucking now?”
Wolff: “It is.”
Wolff then said, “You just have to read between the lines. It’s toward the end of the book. You just have to...you’ll know it. Now that I’ve told you, when you hit that paragraph you’ll know it—bingo.”
This was a masterful cock-tease by an author who knows how to do these things. I had already read the book and, fortuitously, paused at the very paragraph which is now a subject of much speculation. With Wolff saying that when you hit that particular paragraph—he did not not say which but said it is towards the end of the book—you would go “bingo.” Well, the only point at which I felt “bingo” was this paragraph:
“By October, however, many on the president’s staff took particular notice of one of the few remaining Trump opportunists: Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador. Haley — ‘as ambitious as Lucifer,” in the characterization of one member of the senior staff — had concluded that Trump’s tenure would last, at best, a single term, and that she, with requisite submission, could be his heir apparent. Haley had courted and befriended Ivanka, and Ivanka had brought her into the family circle, where she had become a particular focus of Trump’s attention, and he of hers.”
In my ebook it is on page #302. When I first read it, I may not have gone “bingo” but I was certainly very intrigued by its implication. In light of what Wolff has said without saying which particular paragraph this reference did acquire much more edge.
Wolff also writes, “The president had been spending a notable amount of private time with Haley on Air Force One and was seen to be grooming her for a national political future.”
Referring to Wolff’s claim in the book that the president had been spending “a notable amount of time with Haley on Air Force One”, the ambassador told Eliana Johnson of Politico, “I have literally been on Air Force One once and there were several people in the room when I was there.”
“So the idea that these things come out, that’s a problem,” Haley said, “But it goes to a bigger issue that we need to always be conscious of: At every point in my life, I’ve noticed that if you speak your mind and you’re strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that and the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows, lies or not.”
Wolff has not commented on Haley’s rather strong rebuttal. Quite cleverly during his Maher appearance he did not name Haley but merely teased the viewers towards a particular passage near the end of the book. He knew anyone with a reasonably functioning brain would find the passage and figure out who he was referring to. With that as his defense I wonder whether he would feel obliged to respond to Haley’s strong denial. He did say that he did not have the “ultimate proof” of the alleged affair.
This plot twist too would have been laughed at by any publisher had it been a part of a political novel. It is just as well that this is real life.
With Haley’s denial the matter should end there but we live in times when nothing really ever concludes with any finality. Life has become one open-ended epic scandal which feeds on its own lack of veracity.
Until yesterday I had only heard about the heady effects of the fumes from permanent markers. I experienced it firsthand while finishing the painting above. Out of paint, I used an old permanent marker to shade it black. The task took about ten minutes or so.
During those ten minutes I began to feel progressively woozy. By the time I finished I thought I was slightly out of sorts. A quick search revealed that permanent markers contain volatile solvents which when inhaled can produce a high similar to alcohol. Being a lifelong teetotaler I had no idea what it felt to be high until yesterday. I wouldn’t say I liked it.
If this painting looks a bit kooky blame it on the marker fumes. I lost my innocence to this work. The least I would expect from it to make me some money.
Gandhi at Dandi by Mayank Chhaya
I have to look for opportunities, even those that may seem too far-fetched, to sell my art. So here is one falling tomorrow, January 26, to mark India’s 68th Republic Day as well as another on January 30, the 70th death anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.
Innumerable acts of righteous mutiny since 1858, when the British rule over India was institutionalized, eventually liberated the country from the relentlessly cruel subjugation. However, there are some extraordinarily powerful acts of defiance that capture one’s imagination. One of them is the Salt March or the Dandi March of March-April, 1930 led by Gandhi.
In the annals of politically and culturally weaponizing a massive collective wrong, no one did it more effectively than Gandhi and perhaps there was no single act that was more remarkable than the Salt March. I would characterize the Salt March as the final act of corroding and eroding a predatory imperial rule. Although it would take another 17 years for the British to be driven out after the Salt March, it was that single act of walk of defiance that began on March 12, 1930 and concluded on April 5, 1930, that fired up the national imagination.
Of many predatory acts of the imperial rule that Britain practiced, prohibiting Indians from collecting or selling salt under the draconian Salt Acts was perhaps the most cruelly ingenious. The British ruler knew that salt was at the heart of existence, a mineral that everybody used and directly affected the poorest of the poor. Under the Salt Acts, the British exercised a monopoly over the extraction, manufacture and sale of salt. They taxed it in a way that the revenue filled up the colonial coffers. Gandhi saw through the inherent cruelty of that act and mounted the Dandi March. He symbolically made salt triggering such symbolic acts involving tens of thousands of people in many coastal areas. This civil disobedience shook up the foundations of the British empire.
With that quick history lesson, I offer via Fine Art America various versions of my original watercolor ‘Gandhi at Dandi’ that hands in my bedroom. Consider buying various types of prints, including canvas, and greeting cards from here. Many of you would find them eminently affordable. I can pretend to donate a portion of the sale to charity but for now I am the one where charity must begin. So go buy it in the name of Gandhi.
The Umbrella Man--MC
Now in the midst of writing my fifth book as a ghost writer I have a few insights to share; the foremost being that the ghost writer is not that different from an actor. What one writes is often not even remotely connected to one’s worldview or life. In fact, the more alien it is the better it as a challenge for the ghost writer. The actor simile is in terms of authentically feeling the part and projecting it—for an actor, on screen or stage and for a ghost writer, on paper.
My ghost writing assignments have not been a fraction as lucrative as it was for Ewan McGregor in Roman Polanski’s eminently watchable and even thrilling ‘The Ghost Writer’ (2010). They certainly do not involve political intrigue and murder the way it does in the movie which I watch frequently just to keep my juices flowing to tackle rather banal themes that I have to chisel and shape into something approaching a cohesive book.
More often than not I get saddled with scraps of paper containing ideas and constructs which I have to expand and build on to create chapters with an identifiable narrative structure. My current assignment is with someone for whom I ghosted a book four years ago. The advantage here is that he has a Ph.D. in chemistry and has considerable clarity in what he wants to say. Also, it builds upon his last book that I constructed for him. So to that extent our tuning is well set.
One of the challenges for me particularly is resisting the temptation of sprinkling my ghosted manuscripts with pithy lines and epigrams that I specialize in. I have to be selfish and keep those for my own works of which four are currently in the pipeline. At the same time though the compulsion not to produce humdrum, forgettable prose also surfaces frequently. The other day while discussing my commissioning party’s ideas, he recalled a particularly memorable line. “That’s a compelling line,” I said to him. He laughed and said, “I hope so because it is yours from our last book.” I had forgotten about it.
That is another challenge. One writes so much that one might forget what one writes. The most important thing to bear in mind for a ghost writer is that it is not their material. One ought to view it from the standpoint of the person who is commissioning it. One must become that person. Like an actor.
Another point to remember is that do not get emotionally attached to what you writer because, again, it is not your material. I face no such danger because I do not get emotionally attached to even what I write for myself.
It is important for a successful ghost writer to get to know the commissioning person beyond the material that is being shaped. That helps in getting into that person’s mindset which in turn helps produce a book closest to what that person had in mind.
I cannot emphasize this point enough—what you write as a ghost writer is NOT your material. You are like a surrogate lending your literary womb for a period of time. What is born at the end of that term is NOT your baby. Do not develop any parental affinity.
Do I like ghost writing? No, I do not but with the state of print journalism being what it or more accurately the status of my career being what it is one has to find ways to use one’s craft to survive. None of the books that I have ghost-written has made any impact whatsoever. That is not on me simply because it is not my material. However, all of the books that I have ghost-written have been praised by the few readers who bothered as having been eminently readable despite some of them being aware that the person whose name appears as the writer is not necessarily readable at all on their own. I suppose that is my failure because that means I have tried to rise above the raw material and brought myself into it.
One of my minor desires is to act as the ghost writer for myself. I hope that happens soon.
Note: The image has nothing to do with the post’s content.
Rose Pot—Mayank Chhaya
The City—Mayank Chhaya
What was once an Apple MacBook Pro box has become these two works of mine. They both hang on my home-office wall. ‘Rose Pot’ took me about four minutes to finish with crimson deep red in acrylic executed with broad swirling brushstrokes for the background. The roses and the pot were done with a knife quickly before the background dried up.
‘The City’ done with pastels using a wet rag and a couple of brushes took a little longer—about ten minutes. I have tried to incorporate the white glossy surface of the MacPro box by letting it peak out from various spots.
This morning, I first wrote a post about author Michael Wolff’s cock-tease on “Real Time with Bill Maher” about an affair in the White House that he darkly hints at in his book ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House”. I even knew the particular paragraph that he talks about containing the “between the lines” hints of what he calls an “incendiary” affair. I chose not to publish that post and instead settled for something, hopefully, more charming. There is a man and there is a woman and they might have fucked. Meh.
‘Eisenstein1’ by Mayank Chhaya
Google doodle usefully reminded us that today is the 120th birth anniversary of the great pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (January 22, 1898-February 11,1948). Inevitably, the anniversary prompted strong visual memories of his path-breaking movie techniques, including the much celebrated montage which he invented, and, of course, the great Odessa steps scene in ‘Battleship Potemkin.’ (1925)
A lot of what Eisenstein did then has become deeply embedded in filmmaking over the decades with many modern filmmakers not even realizing that they are paying a direct tribute to the master. The Odessa steps scene has been reworked by other filmmakers numerous times. That people running down steps in a frenzy to escape something constitutes a powerful visual drama was a brilliant cinematic device that Eisenstein invented.
To mark the anniversary I offer two works of mine, one acrylic (below) and the other watercolor (above), titled Eisenstein1 and 2.
‘Eisenstein2’ by Mayank Chhaya