Friday, September 30, 2016

Hardly A Debate

The year I arrived in this country, an election campaign was in high gear. George H. W. Bush was the incumbent and Bill Clinton his rival. The year was 1992. This is when I was exposed to American presidential politics first hand. On a midwestern university campus in Ohio, terms such as "swing state", "conservatism", "liberalism" were being spoken and I was quickly learning what they meant. It was the first time I found myself immersing myself as an observer of American politics and getting to know the inner workings of the system. Coming from India, which is the world's largest parliamentary democracy, I found some aspects of the process quaint. I could not fathom how there could only be two political parties to choose from and the "Electoral College" seemed like an antiquated system to pick a leader by. But one thing that immediately grabbed my attention was how civil everyone was in contrast to politicians in India. I did see commercials on TV that resorted to mud slinging and taunting, which is to be expected in politics, but there was nothing too acerbic or obscene. The candidates seemed dignified in suits and smiled and shook hands despite the gulf between their world views.

One thing that immediately dawned on me, was how powerful the media was in swinging loyalties. The media machine, which then consisted of radio, television and newspapers, set the agenda and drove the debate by its incessant coverage. The months of campaigning and media punditry culminated at the three presidential debates, which were televised live a few weeks before the election. Since the time Nixon lost to Kennedy in the 60s, for looking awkward on television, TV debates had become the crucible by which candidates were declared winners or losers and optics meant everything.

Two decades later, having seen a number of presidential debates, the eagerness to see the current one, that took place this week, was high. Primarily because there has never been a more contentious and polarized election campaign in the history of this nation. And the rise of the most unlikely candidate Donald Trump, has been controversial since day one, and has only heightened with every passing moment. Even though Hillary Clinton's rise was more predictable, scandal dogged her campaign as well. There are many who still sit on the fence about her candidacy, even though by now it is more than apparent who is more qualified, just based on resume and temperament.

So as the clock struck nine on the east coast, millions of Americans and others around the world, tuned in on televisions, laptops and phones to watch the first great American presidential debate of the season. As Hillary Clinton walked on to the stage in a blinding red pantsuit and Donald Trump in a bland suit and blue tie, the battle lines were drawn. After the customary hand shake, they took to their podiums and the duel began.

The first question posed to Hillary Clinton was about jobs and how her policies would spur the economy, create jobs and put more money in people's pockets. Her response was like any prepared presidential candidate, meaty with policy positions on raising the minimum wage, tax cuts for the wealthy and investing in infrastructure and green technology. When the question was posed to Donald Trump he started his routine of painting a dire image of America and how a "huge" number of jobs were being shipped to Mexico and China and how bad trade deals were hemorrhaging growth. But he did not propose a single policy by which he would create jobs, other than that he would stop them from going abroad. This is when I knew this was going to be less a debate on policy and more of a spectacle of who can "Make America Great Again" with a presupposition that it not longer was. Painting an image of an imploding America, has been the cornerstone of the Republican campaign.

As the duel progressed, it quickly became clear from Donald Trump's body language and facial expressions, that he was rattled. His unpreparedness was apparent. He kept drinking water during breaks, interrupting Hillary with impunity and finally getting to a kind of behavior that he has come to be known for - that of a bully.

And so the debate got reduced to a personal attack shoot out. As Hillary dug into his deplorable history of racism and sexism, he took it personal with unapologetic responses. When called out on not having released his tax returns, which is customary of all presidential candidates to do, he gave his usual lame excuse of being under an audit. Even though the IRS has stated, an audit does not prevent one from releasing one's taxes to the public. When exposed that he had not paid any federal taxes in the past, he applauded himself for calling himself a smart businessman. Today a New York Times report revealed he may not have paid federal taxes over the last 18 years on the millions he has made in income.

The debate got even uglier as he condescendingly accused Hillary of fighting ISIS "all her adult life", and made her responsible for the war in Syria and the chaos in Libya. He questioned her motives behind deleting thirty thousand emails, as though she was covering up something sinister. He then said he would reinstate "stop and frisk" to address inner city crime, which had been declared unconstitutional, as it is racial profiling and has disproportionately criminalized the black community. He effectively alienated the African American community, yet again, by supporting this abhorrent practice. He then went on to reduce the presidential debate to its lowest level in history, by mentioning a childish squabble he had had with Rosi O'Donnell, who he called a "pig", and then justified his despicable behavior by saying she deserved it. As my jaw dropped, so did my expectation of any decency from this man.

When the question was asked about who had the right temperament and the stamina to lead the nation, Hillary quoted her thirty years of public service as First Lady, senator and Secretary of State, when she crisscrossed the globe as a diplomat and survived an eleven hour congressional grilling without taking a break or losing composure. Donald Trump who derives sustenance from insulting people in Tweets, clearly showed he did not have the temperament to be civil let alone be presidential. The verdict was clear.

So what do people find appealing in this man, to put him on a stage that wields so much power and influence? What do people see in him that is presidential? What is it that despite all the scandals and rash and immature behavior, he still garners so much support?

Some say people in America like to vote along party lines, much like they support their favorite sports team no matter what. Many don't cast their vote for the most qualified candidate but for the one who ends up being the nominee of their party. Others say Americans are angry and Donald Trump is feeding into their frustrations. I cannot fathom what Americans are angry about. The American economy is still strong and has stabilized in the last eight years from where it was, and is growing. Maybe not as much as some would like, and not equally across the nation, but at least it is not falling off the precipice like many other developed nations. I think "Americans are Angry" is code for the character of this nation changing and many don't approve the direction it is taking. America is becoming more diverse, power is slightly shifting from the predominantly caucasian ruling class, marginalized groups such as gays and transgendered are finding their legal place in society and non-Christian religious groups are asserting themselves more loudly than before. Movements like "Black lives Matters" and groups challenging Hollywood's implicit racism are questioning the status quo and demanding fair treatment. For many these issues parsed and dissected on relentless social media, seem like a tidal wave hurtling at them, determined to cause a seismic paradigm shift. This fear, restlessness and unease is driving people to rally behind Donald Trump, even though he is part of the very east coast elite and could care less about the interests of a vast majority of Americans. While the Republican establishment see him for who he is, few openly expose him with any conviction. His supporters see him as an outsider, a rabble-rouser who can shake the system which has long been working only for the elite. And they think only a person with wealth and business acumen such as his, can bring the much needed change. There is an amount of delusion, misinformation and a strong belief in conspiracy that drives this mode of thinking. And for obvious reasons his faithful tend to be white and male.

One thing is certain, given the cards that have been dealt, historically speaking, this could be the most important election facing this nation. America has never come this close to putting a person of such character in the driving seat. This nation has had its share of corrupt leaders who have lied, started illegal wars, shown poor judgement and moral fiber, helped the rich get richer and have taken America into the abyss. But America has never had a person with such an openly disgraceful record of scamming people, denigrating women, bigotry, narcissism, personal enrichment, charity and temperament this close to the White House. Hillary Clinton may still seem distant and too much of an insider to many. With two more debates to go and at this moment in time, for those who uphold values of decency and civility above all, the choice is clear. It is what it is.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


For the past eight months, my house has been under construction. What started off as a four month project has now taken more than double the time, with the end nowhere in sight. While we upgrade our more than a hundred year old Brooklyn home, the task keeps getting more exhaustive and expensive. Anyone who has renovated an old house can attest to the fact, that it is easier and faster to put up a new structure than to rebuild an old one. So for the past eight months my family of four have been living in cramped quarters on the second floor, while the guts are removed and replaced in the duplex below. We have been braving the noise and the dust and the loose floor boards, trying hard to be positive, with the promise that the end will have rewards that will blur the pain. But there is nothing more stressful than living in a temporary shelter. Everything is off kilter and every waking day is a challenge. It is to some extent like living as a refugee.

By no means is my current status comparable to some of the people who have had to leave their homes as a result of conflict or dire economic conditions. Over the last few years, the planet has been facing a refugee crisis on a scale not seen since the second world war. It has particularly exacerbated in the last five years as the conflict in Syria has engulfed the region. To put it in perspective, most people who manged to stay alive through the conflict have left Syria. Many are living in permanent camps in Jordan and Lebanon. More than a million refugees have arrived in Germany, in the last year alone. Mostly from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. Germany has been the most gracious of nations to welcome the refugees, though not always with open arms. Even though Angela Merkel's policy of giving refuge has grown increasingly unpopular, she has held firm. The nation seems to be atoning for a refugee crisis it created a few decades ago. Angela Merkel deserves a Nobel peace prize for her unwavering support of those who have lost everything.

Refugees crossing the Mediterranean on over crowded boats from north Africa have become a common sight. The world has grown numb to images of women and children drowning while trying to make the crossing. Almost everyday there is a capsize, as people meet their watery end in an attempt to find a home and a future. To walk in a migrant's shoes is to walk alongside horror. Yet not many can empathize, as it is human nature to take care of one's own and not bother with that which is uncomfortable and alien. And politicians exploit this feeling to spread fear and a right wing agenda of exclusion and apathy.

In America, the current Republican candidate Donald Trump uses it to pander to those who think they are the original owners of this land. Muslims and Mexicans are branded as terrorists, criminals and illegal moochers. In Great Britain the fear of the immigrant was successfully used to remove itself from the European Union. In France, the ban on the Burkini, and incidents of Muslims being singled out and not served, are a direct response to a sense that Europe is being over run by migrants who are not compatible with their way of life or are there to end their way of life via subversive means.

The reality is, it is not only Europe or the west that is baring the brunt of a mass exodus. Many Afghans have lived most of their adult lives as refugees in Pakistan. They fled their native land when the Soviet army invaded their nation in 1979. Countless have grown up stateless in camps which have become permanent homes. Now the Pakistani government is asking three million Afghan refugees within its borders to vacate immediately. They are being uprooted and torn from their families and are being asked to return to Afghanistan. Knowing that their nation is far from finding peace and security,  many are turning west and taking on a deathly journey. Another humanitarian crisis is brewing in a part of the world, which has only seen chaos turn into catastrophe. This means the numbers of people wanting to arrive in Europe and the United States is only going to increase.

People around the globe have always been on the move. It is but human to look for a better future for yourself and your loved ones. Self preservation is at the core of the human spirit. It is this very fact that led to the establishment of the United States of America. It is a nation formed and built by refugees who we now call immigrants. Yet America is barely doing its part in the current climate.
This week United States admitted its 10,000th Syrian refugee, in a resettlement program announced by President Obama last fall. In 2015, just 2% of the 70,000 refugees admitted were from Syria. In 1979, having literally destroyed the nation of Vietnam, the US provided sanctuary to 111,000 Vietnamese, and added another 207,000 in 1980. Having partially created the crisis in Syria, 10,000 is a far cry from the million Germany has taken in.

In reality, every nation on this planet was built by refugees at some point in time. Humans moved around always looking for better climes and laid roots where they could harvest and form community. That is how civilizations got started and nations drew borders.

Now that we have drawn imaginary lines on our tiny planet, the tribal nature of humanity has come to the fore. With visas and passports, we decide who can live where and where one go or cannot. We have organized systems of governance that decide who gets certain benefits and who does not. Based on respective histories, some nations have established systems that are more altruistic than others. Other nations, have shut their doors completely even though people from their tribe needed their help. Many rich middle eastern nations have done very little to relieve the suffering of the Muslim refugees that are on the run. Other nations have simply ignored the crisis.

To leave a home, where you have found comfort in family and surrounding, is the most disruptive thing that happen to a person. For some it pushes them to find a new home, work hard to make sure a situation like that never returns in their lives, to others it spells death. But these are the people who have the metal to make something of themselves and in the process improve the plight of others. These are the people who have built America and will build Germany and other places where ever they are let in. To make them the enemy and stigmatize them as criminals or alien is not in the interest of humanity or the growth of any nation.

While I go through my relatively benign discomfort of renovating my home which I built as an immigrant to this nation, I do not take the disparaging of refugees and migrants lightly. When people choose to ignore the fact that all humanity is essentially made up of migrants who are just passing through this planet, they loose sight of who they are. It is what it is.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Dinner Conversation

It is not often that I get invited to an Eid party in America. But this year came my lucky day. So I found myself at a friend's sister's house in Staten Island, in a middle class neighborhood, where every other window displayed a sign "Happy Ramadan". Sounds of celebration were in the air welcoming the end of the fasting season. My hosts were from the city where I was born and grew up, Hyderabad. I am a little ashamed to say that my prime motivation to accepting the invitation was driven by my palate. The food in a Muslim house from my city is unsurpassed, and on Eid it is especially good. And the hospitality of a Muslim family is extraordinary, especially when they know you are from the same town.

So as expected my family and I were greeted with warm hearts and hot spiced "chai". We were embraced with a warm hug and the greeting, "Eid Mubarak". We were welcomed into a home which had large pictures of the Kabah hanging on the wall and framed words from the Quran adorning every door frame. Men and women were dressed in their brightest and finest traditional attire. Some women wore the Hijab and others did not. Some men wore beards and Kufi's and others did not. Some had a dark marks on their foreheads, a mark of their religious fervor. The young were in the backyard throwing hoops and being American in every way. The men sat in the living room and women were upstairs having a cheerful time. The atmosphere was festive and vibrant. Being from Hyderabad, I  blended in speaking in Urdu, which always gives me pleasure. Even though I was the only non-Muslim among fifty odd people, I perfectly felt at home. This was partly because I was familiar with the culture having grown up in a city which was half Muslim.

After some tea and biscuits, the men were shown to the basement for dinner. As the aluminum foil peeled off the serving platters, the aroma filled the room. The best Biryani on this side of the planet was on display along with other culinary delights native to my town. I had no choice but to give up my recently acquired vegetarianism for the night. As the men filled up their plates and sat around the table, the conversations began. I soon realized most of the men were in the small retail business or had other low level office jobs. I struck up a conversation with two Pakistanis who were from Karachi.

After the customary introductions, the conversation shifted to my profession. As I often experience at many Indian gatherings, people are surprised and intrigued to find a documentary filmmaker among their midst. It is not a profession of choice among many of my origin. As we spoke, the attention shifted to the film I am directing, which happens to be about an illustrious Pakistani scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1979. The two Pakistanis I was conversing with were vaguely familiar with his name, but knew very little about what Abdus Salam had done.

Abdus Salam has the unique distinction of being the first Muslim scientist to have won a Nobel Prize. Born in 1926 in a small village in Punjab, Abdus Salam was a child prodigy. His accomplishments and contributions to science, especially on the elite field of Theoretical Physics, are unsurpassed. Without his seminal work, the Higgs Boson would not have been discovered. Abdus Salam was a deeply religious man and belonged to the Ahmediyya community, a sect within Islam. Over the last sixty years or so, the Ahmedis have been persecuted in Pakistan for considering their founder to be a Prophet. The Sunni majority in Pakistan, consider them to be heretics for not accepting Mohammad as the final Prophet. For this they have been declared non-Muslims by an amendment to the constitution, and over the years Ahmedi mosques have been attacked and people, discriminated, targeted and killed. As a result many have left the country or live in fear mainly in one particular town outside Lahore.

As I began to elaborate on why I was making this film and how important it was, as Abdus Salam had been wiped out of his nation's psyche despite his patriotism and contribution to his country, just for being an Ahmedi, my audience did not seem very sympathetic. One went so far as to warn me that I was risking my life making a film about Abdus Salam, and suggested other illustrious Pakistanis to consider. Also my Indian origin was a little unsettling to them. They were quite intrigued as to why I was interested in making a film about a Pakistani. I could sense that many people did not have a problem with the status of Ahmedis in Pakistan and believed they deserved to be declared as heretics.

As the comfort level grew more amiable, the conversation shifted to other areas. Many unanimously agreed that 9/11 was an inside job. America had orchestrated an attack on itself to find an excuse to invade the middle east. This is a very commonly held belief in many parts of the Muslim world. A poll conducted in Egypt not long ago revealed that 80% of Egyptians believed in this conspiracy theory. Another point of consensus was that America the "evil empire" was responsible for the chaos ensuing in the middle east and visa-vie the Muslim world. Israel, America's evil cousin was never to be trusted and the Mossad trained the American police and that is why so many African Americans were being killed. The American media was only interested in showing the ugly underbelly of places like Pakistan. They did not care to show the progress other nations were making as it did not serve their agenda. All in all an anti-American sentiment was in the air, which was a little unsettling. I was also aware, that many were being unfiltered in their opinions as they considered me a member of their tribe. But what astonished me most, was that there were a couple of Donald Trump supporters in their midst as well.

There is no question America has a checkered history in the way it has dealt with nations around the world that did not serve its self interest. The list is long and recorded for all to see and parse and volumes have been written and continue to be compiled, as the nation goes through one war after another. The recent illegal invasion of Iraq exposed America's dark side, with horrific revelations of torture from Abu Ghraib prison, CIA rendition sites and Guantanamo Bay. America's ill-conceived adventure not only resulted in the deaths of many Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere, but also gave rise to a cancer called ISIS, which is mostly killing other Muslims, in a battle for survival. As politicians like Donald Trump and his ilk ratchet up the suspicion of all Muslims by their hateful rhetoric, the suspicion of American policies only grow stronger and deeper, spawning recruits for the unending "war of terror".

As the conversation around delicious food moved along, I was trying to process what was being said, in a setting that was foreign to me, but not so alien, that I could not fathom the source of their train of thought. Many of the participants had arrived in the United States seeking a better life and I had to remind them, that no other nation in the world would assimilate them like this one. I also had to make a point, that yes America not always plays its cards right, but one must also acknowledge the good it does with it's generosity towards many humanitarian causes, both from the private and public sector. Recently the Ebola epidemic in a far off land was contained by mostly brave American doctors and forces. In many instances America is on the front line providing rescue and relief when both political and natural disasters strike and other nations fail to step forward. Yes America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, bombed Pakistan, Libya and Syria in a way that has been detrimental in myriad ways. But billions of dollars have been poured into these nations to rebuild and provide basic infrastructure which was absent before. So I had to make a point, that one has to put everything in perspective and historical context and most of all acknowledge that it is only this nation that provides the protection of the constitution, to freely speak your mind without hesitation, as they did.

As the meal ended and the table had to be vacated for the women to gather, I wondered what a young mind sitting at this table would have gathered from the opinions expressed. In a time when we routinely see young people radicalized and brainwashed via the internet by powerful ideologues, a simple dinner conversation can serve as an impetus, if you are naive and trying to navigate world. If no historical context is provided to a conversation, and the complete picture is not sliced and diced, and only a myopic view is presented, it is not hard to imagine someone being lead down a rabbit hole of no return with little provocation.

In the powerful 1989 movie American History X, the Neo-Nazi protagonist played by Edward Norton is menacing and racist to his core. He has a change of heart when he goes to prison and interacts with a black inmate on a human level. A scene that left an impression on me, was when the protagonist as a child is vehemently bombarded by racist rants from his violent father around the family dinner table. And so he grows up with a warped view of the world, eventually becoming a skinhead. The dinner conversation I had on this day reminded me of this scene from the movie, as I pondered on all dinner conversations around the world. I wondered how easy it was to skew a young mind, by only providing a unilateral view of the world with a strong belief in conspiracies.

In today's world, the impulsive conversations on the internet, seem to have taken the place of the family dinner table. As mores of socializing become infused by technology, I wonder if conversations occur in many homes as they used to at all.Yes there is an evil that is to be fought in the world when it morphs into a diabolical ideology, but if we are to create a better world, the real battle to win is at the dinner table, be it real or virtual. It is what it is.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


I am dreaming of a day, when my attention would not be drawn to yet another mass shooting in this land, which I have come to call home. The more gun violence I read about, the less desirable America becomes as a society to live in. Many come to this land seeking justice and protection. Others admire this nation, as to a large extent the "system works". But it is becoming apparent, that when it comes to gun violence, it clearly does not.

Since the time I started this exercise of dispersing my thoughts with words into this void called the internet, I have lost count how many times I have visited the subject of mass murder. I wrote a piece this year alone called "The Disease Within", where I sighted gun violence as a sickness plaguing American society. Much like cancer, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, gun violence is adversely impacting American lives, as more than 30,000 lives are lost each year. Billions of dollars are poured into finding cures for cancer; an insignificant amount is spent in finding a remedy for gun violence.  

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) studies a variety of public health threats facing America. From infectious disease to automobile safety, this federally funded agency is tasked with the responsibility of protecting the public from undue harm. But for 15 years the CDC has not done any comprehensive research on one of the top causes of death in the United States: firearms. The reason: a lack of funding from the federal government. In 1997, an amendment was added to an operations bill that passed in Congress with language that impedes the CDC from conducting research that will “advocate or promote gun control”.

While the CDC keeps surveillance data on gun injuries and deaths, it has not funded a single study aimed at reducing harm from guns since 2001. The CDC is aware from its own research that guns are one of the top five causes of death for people under the age of 65. So the lack of comprehensive research is not only glaring, but is in complete contradiction to its mission. This sends a clear message that the very government we have elected, whose primary directive is to protect its citizens, is in fact working against the safety of its own people. 

The mass shooting that took place in Orlando this month already seems like a distant memory. It has moved of the news cycle, the rainbow flags are gone, the memorials have been swept away, striped filters on Facebook have vanished and we are back to the day before the shooting. While the world debated whether it was a terrorist attack or a mentally ill person unloading his automatic weapon, what was not lost, was the grotesque horror of it all. For a moment when the emotions were high, and as this event was labeled as the second or third deadliest incident of gun violence in the nation, there was hope that congress would take urgent action. As there was hope when toddlers were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. 

When Congress could not respond to the death of innocent children, the chances of anything meaningful happening when gay people were gunned down was rather remote. And as expected the morally bankrupt and ethically corrupt congress did not budge an inch. The dramatic theater of sit-ins and protest by the democrats on the house floor yielded no result. The country went back into the pocket of gun lobbyists and the industry of mass murder.

There is no more a polarizing topic, as gun violence in this country. There is overwhelming support from the public to do something about it, even if on the margins, but the deadlock in congress stifles any change. A similar scenario prevailed decades ago when America was engaged in another arena of violence, the Vietnam War. After a decade, with over fifty thousand body bags returned home, the appetite for violence within the American public had run its course. The war had touched too many, and the pointlessness of it was becoming apparent to all. There were mass protests in the streets, on college campuses and at music concerts. The pressure on congress to end all hostilities was severe. But what to some extent turned the tide was when the war actually began to touch the members of congress. When their family members started coming home in body bags, they began to realize the horror of it all. And the war ended soon after.

The inability of the United States Congress to enact any legislation to prevent gun violence makes them culpable. Their hands are bloodied. And every instance they vote to do nothing as civilians get gunned down, their hands only get bloodier.

It appears that the appetite for violence is on the increase. The appetite to not only commit horrific acts of violence, but also the appetite to consume violence via mass media seems to be on the rise. The act of watching more and more grotesque acts on screen has become a norm. Television shows like the global hit Game of Thrones and feature films in general, are pushing the envelope of fictional violence. Recent acts of deplorable violence committed in the name of ISIS, have shaken people to their core, but have also desensitized them in the process. Since I started writing this piece, suicide bombers attacked an airport in Istanbul, boys from affluent families in Bangladesh hacked foreigners to death in a cafe and bombs killed and maimed hundreds in a Baghdad market, all in the holy month of Ramadan. While reading about these acts of violence, I found myself numb. Not just numb to the acts of horror committed, but to the frequency at which such acts are being committed since that ill-fated day when planes crashed into buildings a few hundred meters from my home.

What comes out of violence is fear. And people seeking power can easily exploit fear. Even though less people in America have died from overt terrorism and more die everyday as a result of one on one gun violence, the specter of Islamic terrorism looms larger in the psyche of Americans. Presidential candidates like Donald Trump and his ilk stoke that fear to promote an agenda of seclusion and suspicion of the other. The rhetoric used by leaders who successfully removed the United Kingdom from the European Union, was of exclusion, fear and xenophobia. Right wing parties in Austria, Germany and other parts of Europe are capitalizing on this changing mood to rise from the shadows and feed off of people's perceived insecurities. At the core of this hysteria is a sense of terror and violence that is engulfing our very being. Most of it fueled by the immediacy of social media.

Every time there is a massacre in America, as seen in Orlando recently, flags across this nation fly at half-mast honoring and mourning the dead. Unless there is meaningful legislation to address gun violence, the American flag should fly at half-mast, permanently. It is what it is.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Learning to Learn

For about a year now, I have been focused on a right of passage for my child and myself. My daughter is graduating from high school, and is heading to college where hopefully she will find a path she is passionate about. From almost 1600 colleges and universities to choose from, the task of preparing for this next step can seem daunting. In an ultra-competitive world where brand names drive decisions, the pressure of making the right choice has been challenging at times.

But, the way the American system is designed, there are filters that allow you to narrow your choices. Once the nationally administered standardized tests are taken the first stage of filtration is put in place. High school grades determine the next. Geographical location, the size of the school and its reputation follow. And then the most important, "the sticker price" becomes a major determining factor. An average four year private school education in this country, without scholarships, grants, discounts and other financial assistance costs about a quarter of a million dollars today. And that number is rising every year, leading many to question whether a college degree is really worth all that it is made out to be.

After weighing in on all of the above, and doing your research and having a vague idea of what your child wants to pursue, you are recommended to short list about a dozen colleges to apply to. The application is made through a centralized system called "common app", where you upload your scores, portfolio, essay and recommendation letters. Then with a click of a button, and punch of your credit card number, all your chosen colleges receive your documents. Now it is time to make plans to visit some of the campuses and fairs to get a better sense of where your child will be spending the next four years of her life.

And so I shortlisted some names of colleges and made appointments and did what all families here do. Take a road trip. Most campus tours are essentially marketing presentations. The college president gives a talk, spitting out statistics on how good his/her institution is and how its alumni are pursuing productive careers across all areas of interest at top places. Then you are handed a bright colorful folder with well designed graphics which spell out everything from tuition, room and board costs and diversity and student teacher ratios and so on. And then you go on the grand tour of the campus where everything from the dormitories, library, dining room, gymnasium and the student center are all displayed in their shiny best. These tours are most often given by a senior student so you get a sense of what it is to be a member of that hallowed institution, which in most cases here are over a hundred years old with established traditions. Much like one exhibits allegiance and devotion to a favorite sports team, sentimental attachment to one's alma mater runs deep and lasts a life time. Then for those who are into sports, the athletic program is marketed with great pomp. In America, the mascot of a university and its colors elicit immense pride. It adds to the whole spirit of being a member of the "tribe" by wearing hoodies and T-shirts that carry the logo. In fact once you decide which college you are going to attend, your first expense is to purchase an overpriced article of clothing or a product that bears the name of your institution from the bookstore.

Once you finish touring campuses, comes the hard part. To decide where you would drop roots. The rejection letters you get from some colleges for not making their cut, narrows some of your choices. Others send you financial aid and scholarship packages, to entice you to join their institution. Most colleges, private and public, once you meet their criteria, offer need based assistance helping you offset some of the expenses. All colleges have comparable education standards and facilities. What  mostly differs, is their approach to imparting education. In addition to feeling like the chosen one, the branded ivy league institutions offer an elite alumni network which to many is a bonus to aspire for. To the status conscious a Harvard or a Yale stamp draws attention, much like a Bentley or a Ferrari would.

Having had my undergraduate education completed in India, I found this process exhausting. When I grew up, you had a hand full of elite national and state institutions which you aimed to get into. And if you did not make the cut, you settled on a couple of colleges your city offered. India is the heartland for standardized testing. Sometimes even being in the 98 percentile is not considered worthy. I was never good at standardized testing, and therefore could not pursue a career in Architecture at an institution of my choice. My fallback was to get an undergraduate degree in math, physics and chemistry at a city college. Today, the wealthy send their children to America or to a private college, spending exorbitant sums of money. And the not so wealthy, settle for the next best option and then later find their way to America at the graduate level to climb the socioeconomic ladder. In India, unless you want to be a doctor, engineer or a software coder, your choices are limited to a handful of disciplines that can offer a career with a good wage.

For the most part an Indian education is not very creative. Rote learning is the preferred method.  So when I came to America for my graduate degree, I had to adapt quickly to a whole different approach to learning. Being a student of social sciences, I had to accelerate my reading and writing skills to a level where it had never been. The first six months were the most challenging as a student.

Now that my time had come to send my child to college, I recalled my time fondly as a student on an American campus. A four year college education is more than just about getting a job, and finding something you are passionate about and acquiring a means to payback the debt you accumulate while there. It is the experience of belonging to a community and learning the ropes of becoming an adult, that is more defining. And nothing offers it better in the world, than the bubble called an American college campus.

Having visited half a dozen campuses, it became apparent, that no matter where our child would go, she would get a decent education. What we were looking for is something that would not only meet a high standard, but an approach that was more in tune with the times. Therefore, we were interested in finding a liberal arts college as we were certain that it would be a better fit than a large university. Liberal arts colleges tend to be smaller and have an open and creative approach to education. While being rigorous they are intimate and far more open to new ideas and initiatives. We found what we were looking for in Goucher College.

What drew me in, were the things that would normally turn me away. The marketing spiel presented by their college president. He was so unconventional that he left a lasting impression on me. Not only did he convince me that this college was unique, but also gave me some words of wisdom to live by.

A jazz musician by training, he was running a major institution, that was in itself unusual and interesting. He had a simple approach and the way he delivered his speech, was more motivational than business as usual. He started by saying, degrees and accolades really don't matter much in today's world. A profession that is lucrative today can become obsolete tomorrow, as technology  rapidly erodes the way we live. All the information you need, is in the palm of your hand in a smart phone. So you really don't have to go to college to acquire knowledge. The problem is, good information is buried under heaps of garbage. And the skill you need today, is to see through the extraneous "stuff" and find that which is important and real. That is the challenge we face today. He said that at Goucher, most importantly they teach their students how to "learn to learn". Therefore strong reading and writing skills are paramount, no matter the discipline of choice. He then went on to mention the three Rs of education that he believes makes a student strong. The first is "relationships". Relationships are fundamental to everyone's growth. The relationship you have with your teacher, colleague, family member and others, dictates whether you are going to succeed. The second is "resilience". It is a forgone conclusion that you will always face failure. On campus and in life. But only a resilient person recovers from failure and does even better. And the third is "reflection". If you do not recover from failure and reflect on what lead you to fail, then you are bound to make the same mistake again.

Only time will tell if Goucher College is the right choice we made. Whether and how the president is able to instill his ideas through the campus is something that remains to be seen. But as ideas, they seem rather inspirational and reformative in a world where rote learning is still the norm. Children are still pushed to pursue math and science and the notion that if you did anything unconventional you would end up on your parent's living room couch without a job, is still a popular mode of thinking.

In the world we live in, there is no question; a college degree necessarily does not provide you instant monetary gratification. But it certainly offers you a way of thinking, which cannot be imbibed any other way. Finding the passion to chase a dream or be comfortable in a career choice, no matter the monetary reward, is a personal metric dictated by an individual's choice, circumstance and aspiration.

An American college education is expensive and is only going to get more so, as it is a business. Colleges and universities are meant to be non-profit institutions. But in a capitalist system, they are as corporate and competitive as any company on Wall Street. Many in the United States are underwritten by gigantic endowments, some generated from the slave trade eons ago, as discovered recently in the case of Georgetown University. In response to escalating costs, in the present election, Democratic candidates are floating the idea of offering a total or partial free four year public education to all. On the other hand the Republican nominee Donald Trump is dealing with allegations of starting a for profit unscrupulous failed business venture called Trump University, which is now mired in law suits. It is clear that it is in the universities and colleges is where America's true power lies. As it is from its institutions are created the presidents and the power elite that shape our world. But it is only those who learn to learn, as the world rapidly changes around them, who succeed. It is what it is.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Water of India

As a child of the 80s, I remember seeing for the first time on hazy black and white television in India, a magic trick called "water of India", performed by the legendary magician P.C. Sarkar, Jr. He would have a tumbler in his hand filled with water. He would loudly call out "Water of India!" and then empty its contents into a bucket. He would then turn the container completely over, as if to show there was no more water left to pour. Then he would wave his wand three times over the vessel, and again shout out "Water of Indiaaaa!". Water would come pouring out of the container. People would break out into loud applause, as he would keep repeating the trick until a whole bucket would gradually fill up. In the heat of summer, as most of India cooks under average 42 degree centigrade temperatures, most people wish they had this magic tumbler in their homes, now more so than ever.

Growing up in the southern city of Hyderabad, I remember summers to be hot, but not searing. Occasionally the noon temperature would hit 40 degrees centigrade and people would take a siesta. I do remember getting a heat stroke every now and then from being out in the sun. But I also remember my summer holidays to be joyful and filled with juicy delights. Watermelons, mangoes, cantaloupes, ice cold sugar cane juice and other local succulent fruits and chutneys kept you going through the summer with cool contentment. Ceiling fans on high speed would do the job. Air conditioning was unheard of. We would use water soaked curtains made of woven Khus (a kind of fragrant grass) roots, and hang them around the courtyard to keep the air cool inside. In the night my mother would soak a towel in water and cover herself to keep her going through the night. Some people would have air-coolers blaring through the night. Three months later, the monsoons would arrive, soaking the land, releasing a special fragrance. A cool air would blow over the steaming plains bringing in the much-needed relief. Life would return to normal. Summers are etched in my memory as some of the best times of my childhood.

The average temperatures in Hyderabad this summer, which has barely begun, have been 42 degree centigrade in the shade. In some parts of the state the thermometer has breached the 44 degree mark. People have been dying on a daily basis from heat stroke. Much of the nation is gripped in a heat wave, and the water is being sucked from the land, leaving it parched and cracked.

As long as I can remember, water has always been a precious commodity in India. In the summers it would become even scarcer. This year things seem to have gotten only more extreme. Climate change is definitely a reason for the crisis facing many in India. Without a doubt, the bigger culprit is human mismanagement of resources.

For most of last year and this, I have been working on a film titled Holy (un)Holy River. Three American filmmakers traveled the 1500-kilometer length of the mighty Ganges, from its very source where the first snowflakes melt, to the very end where the water gushes to meet the Bay of Bengal. Along their journey the film reveals the crisis facing the river as half a billion people who live along its shores scramble to draw sustenance from it. The film exposes the frightful state of affairs as the river struggles to breathe, having been choked from pollution, damming and religious activity. As a cautionary tale, the film sends a clear message of urgency, that if things don't change very soon, the Ganges would cease to exist as a river and would be transformed into a sewer.

Some of the issues the film highlights are not new. Over thirty years successive Indian governments have tried to address the problem and have failed. Things have only gotten worse and there is no hope that they would get better any time soon. This week one of the largest power stations on the river, at Farraka was shut down, because of lack of water in the canal. A thousand families, which live in town servicing the station, ran out of water. Thousands of bottles of packaged drinking water had to be brought in. Fire engines rushed to the river to extract water for cooking and cleaning.

For the first time in its 30 year history, the power station that generates nearly a quarter of India's electricity was shut for 10 days. Further downstream ferries were suspended as sand bars breached the surface.

The Ganges is but a single water body in India that faces a monumental crisis. The three-month summer has barely begun, and the water availability in India's 91 water reservoirs is at 29%. In one of the nation's largest states, Maharashtra, the situation is most desperate. A 12 year old girl recently died from exhaustion and dehydration after trying to gather water from a hand pump. Underground water tables have receded to historic lows and trucks and trains have been deployed to ferry water into remote districts and villages. 330 million people in 256 districts through out India are severely affected by the drought and intense heat.

India's water woes have largely been a result of failing monsoons. Year after year, in recent memory, the monsoons have been weak, there by failing to rejuvenate and recharge the land. Climate change and deforestation have been cited as primary reasons for the failures. But there is no dearth of fresh water in India. The Himalayas hold the largest amount of fresh water outside the polar caps. India is home to some of the largest rivers in the world. Granted, there are 1.3 billion people to quench, but better water management, good infrastructure and conservation could alleviate a lot of the pain on a daily basis.

Humanity's ability to destroy that which gives it sustenance, without a thought, has always puzzled and amazed me. The title of my film Holy (un)Holy River, highlights that sentiment. On one level the Ganges is the most sacred body of water for most Indians. The river is a goddess that is worshiped. But without a care, Indians also take part in its destruction in every possible way, making it "unholy" in every sense of the word. The question we pose in the film is that, if you pollute the physical river, does it still remain spiritually pure?

There is no magic wand that can fix problems humanity faces. India's current crisis is only part of a global water crisis that has been simmering for some time. Thailand currently is facing the worst drought in decades. California's situation is still stressed. Conflicts over water resources are on the rise around the globe. Water is fast becoming a commodity, which the rich can easily afford in a plastic bottle and a gated community and the poor have to trudge miles for a sip. But this imbalance can quickly shift if the situation becomes untenable.

The "water of India" magic trick was an amazing illusion that brought joy to me as a child. In reality, water is becoming more and more illusive to more people under the hot sun. It is what it is.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Trump Conundrum

In the year 2000, I happen to be in Des Moines, Iowa, where the Iowa Caucasus take place, which in many ways is the true launch of the American election cycle. Along with my brother-in-law I was strolling about the grounds making sense of a circus I had never seen before. We walked into a giant white tent, where I soon realized, we were the only two people of "color" in a homogeneous crowd. Onto the stage walked George W. Bush the candidate and the crowd burst into applause. He started his speech in Texan Spanish pandering to some Hispanic people in the front row. He then went on to do what candidates do at such rallies. I was left aghast. I said to my self, well if this man becomes our president, we are "screwed". Even though Donald Trump is no Neo-Con, I have seen enough of him to feel the same, with a higher degree of anxiety. And I am afraid to say it loud, with a fear of making it come true.

It is an election year in America. On the 8th of November, people in this country will exercise their inalienable right to choose a candidate to the highest elected office of this land. That candidate will come from one of only two parties, and for the next four years, will shape the course of this nation to some degree. If you peeped into America today and turned on the television, you will find that election mania is on overdrive. The two parties, Republicans and Democrats, are taking part in something called the "primaries". The primaries are essentially horse races to choose a final candidate for the presidential runoff. The rules by which someone gets chosen as the front runner are as arcane as some of the candidates and for the uninitiated, could seem bizarre and undemocratic. State by state each of the respective parties and their voters, throw their weight behind a candidate. After an insane number of televised debates, advertisements, analysis and a plethora of faux-pas and histrionics, the horse race gets into high gear. By summer the candidates are chosen, and the real run for the white house begins in earnest.

The first Republican debate was held in August of last year. They had seventeen candidates in the running and the Democrats had four. At this stage, there are two on the Democrat side and three on the Republican who are left standing. The final candidates are chosen at the respective parties' conventions, that take place in the summer. The wide speculation is that the final two presidential candidates will be Hillary Clinton on the Democrat side and Donald Trump on the Republican. But there is still no absolute certainty of that.

The most controversial candidate to surface on the political scene in decades, is undoubtedly the real estate businessman Donald Trump. He is the quintessential outsider who has never held any position inside any government at any level. He is a businessman with name recognition and a sizable bank account and has been able to stage what many are calling a "hostile takeover" of the Republican party. Donald Trump had floated the idea of running for the presidency in 2000. He even did some preliminary campaign appearances then, but soon realized that his appeal was limited. Over the years his successful reality TV show The Apprentice, and his dogged campaign to prove that President Obama was not born on American soil, got him more media exposure than he could have ever wished for. With that confidence he decided to join the race, seeking a Republican ticket. Even he did not imagine he would get this far, as he watched all establishment candidates wither away, casualties of a corrosive political landscape and a media frenzy intoxicated by Donald Trump's obscene antics .

Today America is faced with an unthinkable conundrum. It is plausible that Donald Trump could in fact become the "leader of the free world" and the tremors of that reality, could be seismic to say the least.

Donald Trump thus far has the highest number of delegate votes going into the convention which takes place in July. Each state is allotted an arbitrary number of delegate votes and Donald Trump as the leader of the pack has 678 and needs 1237 to clinch the nomination. He in his boastful usual self thinks he deserves the nomination, as he has rightfully earned it. The Republican establishment believes Donald Trump is not a true conservative and is only playing one personal gain. They detest him and think he is not electable in a general election for his views and his demeanor, and are determined to derail his candidacy at the convention. Having a sense of the forces he is up against, Donald Trump threatened violence and rioting, if there were to be a contested convention and he were not declared the winner.

Donald Trump rallies so far have been marred by violence, divisiveness, protests, bigotry, racism, misogyny, antisemitism, white supremacy, xenophobia, demagoguery, egomania and the kind of human behavior which is considered uncivil around the world, not just for a politician but a human being. But then again Donald Trump proudly proclaims he is not a politician. And his supporters applaud him for that, and get charged as he urges them to attack those who do not support him. He was even welcomed to applause at the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) convention, the strongest and loudest Pro-Israel lobby, as he pandered to get Jewish votes.

What Donald Trump has bought with his bullish and boorish behavior, is free 24/7 media coverage visa vie advertising. And that media exposure has brought out supporters who one would think never existed in this country. The rise of Donald Trump is a reflection of a section of American society that you rarely see or hear from and are not represented in the mainstream. They have coalesced around him to push an extremist monochromatic agenda, which in their mind, is a return to what America was originally envisioned to be. His supporters tend to be predominantly white, working class with low levels of education. They are those who think America is no longer "great" as it elected a Black President and has let too many immigrants into its borders changing the fabric of this nation.

The creation of Donald Trump can be directly linked to an extreme aversion to the last eight years of President Obama's leadership. Fox Television, the extreme right tea party and the evangelical movement, have steadily been leading the charge, in drafting a corrosive narrative of mostly lies and deceit. They believe America has strayed from its roots and has become a liberal non Judaeo-christian nation. Even though there is no evidence to prove it, that narrative translates to every aspect of their argument, ranging from the economy, security, military to the state of the nation's moral compass. President Obama's passing of the Affordable Care Act, the Supreme Court giving equal rights to Gays and Lesbians, the Iran deal to the ending of America's combat operations abroad, are all seen in the framework of that narrative. Those who have swallowed that story have come to project their hopes and fears onto Donald Trump. Even though the other establishment candidates like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio have pandered to that outrage, Donald Trump with his outsider credentials usurped a majority of the support from right under their noses.

Many in America compare Donald Trump to Hitler. Donald Trump in power can be reckless and dangerous but he is no Hitler. At the most he is a megalomaniac, much like Italy's infamous billionaire philanderer Silvio Berlusconi. He could be an embarrassment and take the nation backward with his ill-advised policies. While he may look and sound Hitleresque, and his supporters may dabble in racism and antisemitism, the American system of government has enough checks and balances in place to keep power from absolutely corrupting a leader towards destruction. But having created a place like Guantanamo Bay and having presided over a horrific war in the middle east, whose effects are still engulfing that part of the world, the prospects of putting someone like Donald Trump in power are grave. In a recent report the Economist Intelligence Unit has sighted Donald Trump's presidency among the top 10 risks facing the world today.

What we are seeing today reflected in the rise of Donald Trump, is a phenomenon that is sweeping  the globe. Right leaning parties are gaining momentum in many nations in response to a changing mood. In the largest democracy on the planet India, the right leaning nationalist BJP party came to power with an overwhelming majority. In many parts of Europe, right wing fascist movements have been steadily gaining ground in response to a refugee crisis inundating their borders. Jean-Marie Le Pen, probably the most divisive figure in French politics, endorsed Donald Trump for presidency.

While there is a perception that Donald Trump is leading the pack and is garnering massive support, the reality on closer examination is somewhat contradictory. There is no question, that his support within the Republican voting block has grown substantially. But what has truly worked to his advantage is the apathy of the voters, who have chosen to stay home rather than be proactive. According to a Pew research study, turnout in the Republican contest around this stage is at its highest since 1980, but still averages just 17% of eligible voters. Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the states where he has won is dwarfed by the potential pool of voters who refrained from taking part. If more anti-Trump Republicans, and Democrats and independents in states that have open or semi-closed primaries, had turned out, they could have dampened his momentum. So far, the vast majority of Republicans have not voted for him and that is why the establishment hawks rightfully feel that he is not electable in a general contest.

Despite being lauded as one the largest democracies of the world, America's voting record in terms of turn out is pathetic. Almost half the eligible voting population in this country, always chooses to stay home on election day. If the voter turn out crosses 50%, it is considered a good election. When Obama became president in 2012 the total voter turn out was 54.9%, which for America was high. For a nation that is supposed to be developed, with fairly high levels of political awareness and education, that number is discouraging to say the least. If the voter turnout continues to stay low in this election, it could give candidates like Donald Trump an advantage.

What some are predicting, is that a contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, will lead to more voter apathy, than voter energy. Both candidates are not well liked by a sizable majority of either party. Hillary Clinton's Democrat rival Bernie Sanders, has been able to energize the youth, with his socialist agenda and incorruptible image, but he is seen as too radical by the older demographic. Hillary Clinton is seen as an insider, and there are many who are not in favor of another four years of a Clinton administration, having been through eight of them which were not particularly stellar.

If the choice is between the lesser of two evils, then the risk of electing Donald Trump, if he in fact is confirmed as the eventual Republican nominee, increases exponentially. And that is the unthinkable scenario that could become a reality, if the voters do not wake up now and step up to their fundamental responsibility as citizens. Never before have the values and the future of this nation been at stake to this degree. The world is watching and the temperature is rising. It is what it is.