Monday, December 28, 2015

Full Circle

For 4.5 billion years our planet has been making circumambulations around the sacred sun. In a few days it will complete yet another, and us humans will jump for joy and stay up late, marking the moment with an arbitrary number. We will call it the start of year number 2016, as we have been made to accept that the birth of Jesus was a moment in time worth counting from.

A great many things have happened on our sphere, while it has been making its rounds as a prisoner of gravity. For one, the understanding of our origins is more clearer now, than ever before. Since the moment Eratosthenes showed us the earth was spherical and Copernicus discovered the earth revolved around the sun, and Galileo laid the foundation to modern science and astronomy, it took only a few hundred years for us to discover the Higgs Boson, also known as the "god particle". Today we can most certainly estimate how our universe began and know that the "stuff " we are made off, is nothing but star matter.

A few thousand years is but an infinitesimal point on the timeline of our planet and the universe. But it is our relatively recent shared stories, histories and mythologies that continue to dominate our imagination with enduring force. Stories of miracles passed down through generations, seem to prevail and resonate stronger, no matter how much science unravels.

The power of myth gives identity to large swathes of humanity. The sharing of common belief systems, is the glue that binds us, dividing us into tribes and making us vie for power and significance. One group says their stories are more defining of humanity than others. Others say yours are not in touch with the times and are dogma from a bygone era. Another says ours are more universal, all encompassing and pluralistic and humane in nature. While all seem to agree that there is a master pilot somewhere guiding us through our life's journey and we will be rewarded or punished based on who we follow or how we live this life. 

And so people find meaning, entertainment and solace in ritual, scripture, custom, tradition and mortals who project wisdom and saintliness. Others find meaning in violence and following leaders who propagate visions of the "end of times". The clash of cultures one sees today in some parts of the world, driven by stories some hold dearer than life, is quite appalling. One group feels their stories are misrepresented and another feels theirs are not given enough credence. Another feels there is an inherent phobia against one and another a bias. The polarization that ensues, leaves only disdain and discontent in its path. Leading to violence in thought and action.

While we humans conflict over our shared stories from days of old, the planet keeps spinning and going round the sun oblivious to the behavior of its recent human ant like inhabitants. But now the ants are becoming consequential. Not by their tribal wars but by their very existence. The year 2015 was the hottest on the planet in recorded human history. The human ant colony has become so over powering and expansive, that it is releasing more carbon dioxide and methane than ever before.

And so while a large human colony of seven million in the city of Chennai, India, clung to life, inundated by a deluge of relentless rain, representatives from 196 nations met in Paris to devise a plan to save the planet from the heating. The unprecedented rains in Chennai were partly a product of global warming. The examples of what a planet out of balance can become are more and more apparent as island nations see the ground beneath their feet swallowed by the sea. A recent animation of global emissions released by NASA , shows the extent of the devastating impact industrialized nations are having on the atmosphere. The irresponsible behavior of industrialized nations has put the lives of millions around the globe at risk. If we are to leave a healthy planet for our children, it is they who would have to restore balance. It is also the responsibility of other nations to join hands in the saving, if not restoration of the planet by acting responsibly and learning from past mistakes.

The earth will continue its circumambulations around the sun for millions of years to come. The survival of the human species and its belief in stories and myths is of no concern to it. But it is time for us to create new stories for our children, that talk about a return to balance, as there is nothing more urgent

If we are to inhabit this world, we have to pilot this ship ourselves with grace, humility, unity and action. As for the way things are at the moment, I don't see a cosmic pilot doing that for us. And our undying belief in antiquated stories is not going to save us from the deluge. To come full circle, we have to begin now. It is what it is.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Terrorism of Bigotry

It is lamentable to observe, that in the face of unspeakable human violence, what emerges is more violence and less compassion. We see this cycle repeat time and again, as people lose all rational thought, and replace it with fear, racism and bigotry. As a result every generation has its group of people it demonizes and vilifies. Sometimes the group is defined by its belief system and at other times by its race or region of origin. But for the most part, the whole group is victimized in response to the actions of a few. This time, it is the Syrians who are at the receiving end.

The recent carnage in Paris shook us yet again, as did the bombings in Nigeria and Beirut and in Turkey last month, the killing of school children in Pakistan a year ago, and the senseless attacks on the people of Mumbai in 2011. This list is painfully long and only gets longer. Even though it seems clear that the value and attention put on life lost is determined by where one resides, under the skin, all victims share a common bond. The bond of innocence. And so the grief felt for each innocent life lost must be the same. Every decent life lost to violence is worthy of an obituary in the New York Times or The Economist. It is reprehensible though, how our grieving has become selective and how the media chooses to highlight one over the other. Giving us the impression that it is only the west that is at the brunt of mindless terrorism and it is only "their way of life" that is under threat. When in fact more Muslims have died at the hands of demented terrorists and their way of life matters as much as anyone else's.

The fear, paranoia and hysteria that follows terrorist attacks, especially in the west, has become much too predictable these days. The usual politics of fear enters the debate and the media pundits and politicians blast off with little regard for  facts and no patience for the investigation to reveal reality.

This time around, the Paris attacks exposed a side of American politics that is deeply disturbing. Racism was dished out overtly without apology. All Republican candidates running for the presidency, saw it as an opportunity to play into the fear of people watching gore on television. As it was revealed that these terrorists had links to ISIS and were motivated by their hatred for all things western, it was soon translated into a fear of all 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world. When it was found that one of them could have been among the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria, all refugees were declared dangerous and suspect. And the fear mongering began unanimously across the board.

Republican candidate Donald Trump called for the creation of an exclusive database to track Muslims in America and those entering the country. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz called for only Christian Syrians to be let into the country. When asked how one would determine this, Jeb Bush shrugged and said "well you could tell!". Other candidates unanimously chimed in on barring Syrian refugees from being let into the country for fear of a terrorist attack.

But what was most appalling was when the United States House of Representatives passed a bill banning Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entering the country until key national security agencies certified that they didn't pose a security threat to the nation. Refugees entering America already undergo between 18 months to two years of screenings by intelligence agencies. So what this bill would accomplish in addition to what already is in place, escaped all logic. The bill was hastily passed in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The vote was 289-137, with 47 Democrats joining 242 Republicans in favor of the bill, creating a majority that could override President Barack Obama's promised veto. The bill though faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where Minority Leader Harry Reid said he will try to block the bill.

At the heart of this bill is nothing but fear, bigotry and racism. No one in their sane mind with any integrity can deny, that what lit the fuse to the chaos that is engulfing Syria and Iraq today, is America's short sighted, illegal and ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, more than a decade ago. Therefore the United States is culpable in the misery that has befallen the people of Syria. The least we can do, is offer them a safe haven and not demonize them as terrorists. Earlier as the refugee crises stressed Europe, President Obama offered to allow 10,000 refugees into the country. A minuscule amount in the face of tens of thousands on the run. The congress is now attempting to condemn even those to the dark.

America's generosity, sometimes offsets the chaos that its government's damaging policies unleash upon the globe. Many nations have not stepped up to the task of helping the refugees fleeing war in Syria. The least America can do, is show some heart. There is nothing more shameful for a nation that prides itself in hosting the Statue of Liberty, in my city of New York, than to turn away people in dire need.

What we see today in America is nothing new. In 1938 fewer than 5 percent of Americans believed the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing Fascism in Europe. The vast majority of those refugees were Jewish. Thousands of Jews died as a result of America dragging its feet. Bigotry against the Jews was wide spread in American society then, even though the largest prewar population of Jews in the world, thrived in the US. We see the same bigotry against Muslims now, as the words Islam and Terrorism ring together more and more on our television screens and social media.

Most of the terrorists who took part in the horrific attacks in Paris, were French citizens with links to ISIS. The one who was found with a Syrian passport, had entered through Greece, and the authenticity of that passport is still unclear. So to make the lives of thousands of Syrian refugees - many of them women and children- suspect, is not only misguided and misinformed, but evil.

Much like cancer, terrorism has become a disease we all have to live with as long as there are wars on this planet. The reality is, wars in far off places cannot be contained as they used to. The globe has shrunk and violence sees no borders. When you have people who are willing to strap bombs to their bodies to kill, incidents like Paris will return time and again. But that does not mean we accept it and not look for a cure. As we take preventive measures and live healthy to reduce the risk of cancer, we do not stop looking for a cure. Similarly, yes we must defend ourselves from terrorism with all means possible, but we must also take a hard look at why some people are motivated enough to cause harm and change their circumstances. And we must acknowledge that all lives, everywhere, matter - equally.

The phrase "winning hearts and minds" is often used as a remedy to stop young people from sacrificing their lives at the alter of extremist ideology. But if we are going to be bigoted, how does one even begin to win hearts and minds? The double standards of waging war on one hand and deeply being immersed in the commerce of weaponry and talking peace and democracy on the other, does not go unnoticed even to the most uninitiated.

Recently, a meeting between whistle-blowers Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, author Arundhati Roy and actor John Cusak in a hotel room in Moscow, has been in the news, for being both a seminal and a quasi-Hollywood moment. The unflattering photo of Roy, Cusak and Snowden on a Ritz-Carlton bed, undermines all seriousness, but what struck me was what Daniel Ellsberg said in a conversation with Arundhati Roy, which she published in a piece for The Guardian. He said with regards to the US, "One more 9/11, and then I believe we will have hundreds of thousands of detentions. Middle Easterners and Muslims will be put in detention camps or deported. After 9/11, we had thousands of people arrested without charges… But I’m talking about the future. I’m talking the level of the Japanese in the second world war… I’m talking of hundreds of thousands in camps or deported. I think the surveillance is very relevant to that. They will know who to put away – the data is already collected.” So the database Donald Trump said he would like to create for Muslims if he were president, may already exist. It is what it is.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Beef with Beef

It is fairly plausible that before us humans learned how to manufacture hunting tools and make fire, animal protein was not part of our diet. We mainly foraged for fruits, nuts and berries and our diet was rich in fiber and other vital nutrients. Then came the agricultural revolution, when homo sapiens developed the art of crop cultivation. Agriculture began to domesticate humans and the less diverse diet of rice, corn and wheat became a staple source of nutrition. We then started to live next to our fields to protect them from pests and animals. Living along water bodies to grow our crops year round became important. Animals began to get used to help till the soil. Foragers became farmers. Then their milk and meat began to get consumed for further sustenance. Our bodies adapted to digest lactose, and we became the only species deriving nutrition from the milk of a completely different species.

Our extraordinary cognitive abilities began to tame nature and civilization in all its complexity began to take shape. And thus the human population began to grow rapidly. Everywhere the homo sapiens went, other species of plants and animals began to disappear in astronomical numbers. In his stellar book Sapiens- A Brief History of Humankind,  Yval Noah Harari charts the destructive nature of humanity, by categorizing its evolution into the First, Second and Third waves of extinctions. The first was accompanied by the spread of the foragers across continents, the second by the advent of agriculture and the third by industrial revolution, which is still on going. The first two waves of extinctions were largely restricted to land. The third moved into the oceans as well and continues unabated to this day. Hariri says "we (sapiens) have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology". We have singularly wiped out biodiversity to such an extent, that our very own existence hangs in the balance today.

It is forecasted that by 2050 the human population will rise to 9.6 billion and the greatest challenge mankind will face, will be its ability to feed itself.

Today at 7.2 billion, some challenges are becoming apparent. There are places on earth where food is abundant. Then there are those where children die routinely of malnutrition. In the developed and developing world, obesity is on the rise, and discussion around healthy diets and lifestyle choices have given rise to fads and new business opportunities on a mammoth scale. While countless television shows and restaurants tempt us with an ever increasing array of delectable delights, living healthy has become the need of the hour. The need for exercise in a sedentary urban environment is constantly marketed as a key to long life. The rapid spread of cancer and other diseases constantly push people to take pause and examine the impact of their vices. Abject consumerism across the planet has brought us to a point of reckoning and even though the direction to take is clear, politics and greed fails us from seeing the light.

The last century on the human calendar, was marked with great shortages in food across the globe. During the Great Depression in America, the wars in Europe and the great famines of India and Africa and communism in China, Soviet Russia and elsewhere, food was always scarce. Even though for many today, food is still in short supply, for those who have moved up the socioeconomic ladder the desire to celebrate their rise by indulging in a variety of food has become a trend in this century. Eating at restaurants has become a symbol of affluence and in some cultures so has fattening up.

Recently, there has been a frantic debate on what excessive food consumption is doing to our bodies and the planet, especially meat. The World Health Organization  released a report this week, warning that excessive consumption of processed and red meat can cause cancer. Bill Gates and other luminaries have been sounding the alarm for a while now, that the industrial scale production of meat and dairy is causing serious environmental damage that needs urgent global attention. It is not just fossil fuel and smoke stacks that are contributing to global warming but cows are making things worse.

According to a recent United Nations survey, cattle farming occupies 30 percent of the world's surface and its environmental impact will double by 2050. When cows digest their food they produce methane gas as a by-product; around 250 to 500 liters a day according to a Washington State University study. Methane warms the earth around 20 times faster than carbon dioxide and therefore is a major contributing factor to climate change. Cattle also stress our water resources and forests.

As societies become more affluent they tend to consume more meat. In India and China, the two most populous nations on the planet, meat consumption is rapidly rising. Eating meat is seen as a symbol of upward mobility and prosperity. Australia and New Zealand, one of the world's largest beef producers are clearing more and more land to meet that demand.

Some people from the newly elected government in India, recently launched a conversation to ban beef consumption nation wide. The slaughter of cows is already banned in many states across the country, and has been so for a while, but the government thought it was a worthwhile issue to reignite. As a result a Muslim man was lynched by a mob for allegedly storing beef in his refrigerator and other places witnessed attacks on people transporting cows for slaughter.

Hindus consider the cow to be sacred. There are many stories in Hindu mythology that sanctify the cow for being Lord Shiva's ride and as a beast of burden that tills the land and gives milk for sustenance. But there is also vigorous debate among historians over ancient Hindus having sacrificed cows and eaten beef. In the Hindu nation of Nepal, cows are sacrificed every year in abhorrent numbers in the name of a religious festival. Muslims in India and elsewhere sacrifice goats in the thousands to mark the festival of Bakreid.

In India, lately beef has become a meat of choice for both Hindus and Muslims as it is cheaper than goat meat, a staple. Most Hindus in India are vegetarian, therefore Muslims are most often identified as the chief consumers of beef. This latest drive to ban beef consumption by the central and state governments, was largely seen as an attack on the Muslim community. As always the ensuing debate polarized the nation. Arguments ranging from the government infringing on people's dietary freedoms, animal rights to religious fanaticism, all clogged the media sphere. As the debate took on sectarian overtones writers and filmmakers began to protest the intolerance and apathy by returning their government issued awards. The Prime Minister's long silence on this issue was seen as giving credence to right wing Hindu groups to carry out a sinister agenda. Mass hysteria began to spread on all sides.

The reality is, despite the slaughter of cows widely banned in India, the nation ranks as the worlds top beef exporters. According to the US Department of Agriculture, India is expected to export 2.4 million tonnes of beef in 2015, against Brazil's 2 million tonnes. India also has one of the largest leather processing industries in the world.

What was lost in the cacophony was any sensible debate on the real problem and glaring statistics that show that beef consumption is not a sectarian issue but a global environmental issue that effects us all. No government can address this by instituting bans. It can make a difference though by educating the public. But the results there are suspect, as the human species does not respond well to discomfort, especially when it comes to its food.

Apart from being the architect of India's freedom from colonialism, Mahatma Gandhi is known for his self imposed experiments with abstinence, which tested the limits of human endurance. He exerted all his inner strength to see how he could stay free of all temptations and desires. He believed that the first place a person is tempted is on his or her tongue. If one could conquer one's temptation of taste, one could conquer all and change the world. We now know that human addiction to oil has wreaked havoc on the planet. It seems that our addiction to meat is also doing us in. It is what it is.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Papal Pandering

The news of a Pope arriving in any country is greeted with much pomp and fanfare. Streets are cleaned, flags are unfurled, giant posters are drawn up and the news media goes into high gear with round the clock incessant coverage. So the arrival of the Pope in the US this week was treated no different. A countdown clock was set into motion in New York city, eagerly awaiting his arrival from Washington D.C.. Half the island of Manhattan was shut down as a security measure, irritating some New Yorkers, while making others ecstatic. So as the Pope rode down fifth avenue in his compact black Fiat waving, thousands cheered on with cell phones in hand, trying to capture a fleeting glimpse of the pontiff for their Facebook page. There was excitement in the air, but also vexation as many did not get their packages delivered on time and their favorite restaurants were inaccessible for the day.

In Washington the Pope addressed the joint session of congress. A historic first for any Pope, and a little appropriate for this one, as he is very popular in America and the world for his largely liberal, socialist and humanistic views. After ascending to the Vatican throne in 2013, Pope Francis captivated many by his refreshing remarks on issues, which in the past the Catholic Church was unyielding on. In his sleepy monotonous diction the Pope challenged the US congress and visa vie Americans to reform certain fundamental aspects of their society. He called for an end to capital punishment and to the commerce of weapons of war. He expressed sympathy towards the Native Americans who were decimated in the name of religion by the invading Europeans. He made a plea for immigrants to be treated with compassion and respect, reminding that after all America is a nation of outsiders. He called for religious tolerance in a time of religious extremism spreading around the globe. But he stopped short on expressing any views on abortion and gay rights. Two polarizing issues, one that threatens to shut down the government next week and the other, that still faces challenges despite the unprecedented Supreme Court ruling that made gay marriage constitutional.

All in all the Pope made quite an impression on the congress and the thousands who had gathered outside the Capitol Hill to hear him speak. Whether his words actually have any impact at a time when Americans plunge themselves into yet another bitterly fought scathing election season, I doubt it.

So why the pandering? There is no question the Pope is a powerful entity with over 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe seeking membership. Catholicism with all its recent scandals of child abuse and a dark legacy of bloodshed and oppression through the ages, has prevailed and continues to be wealthy and strong as ever. Pope Francis has certainly restored some shine to its recently tarnished legacy. But in the end the Pope is only a religious figurehead to its members, and to others an amusement. He has symbolic political power via statements that catch media attention, but beyond that there is very little the Pope influences in terms of global events. Yet his standing is exceptional, as he is the only religious leader in the world who is given the privilege to address the United Nations.

Socially, the Vatican exerts great power through the riches that it has amassed over time. Through schools, colleges, charitable institutions, churches and social programs, the Catholic church exercises unparalleled influence across the globe. Especially in poor countries where basic services are sparse, thereby bringing more and more people into its fold. Politically it can influence as a voting block on issues such as abortion, traditional family values and contraception. With America becoming more and more Hispanic in demographic, the Catholic church's clout grows, as its membership base is very strong on the continent of South America.

Religion in American society and politics has historically played a significant role and continues to do so even today, even though people would like to believe it did and does not. Even though the constitution clearly makes an attempt to keep religion out of politics, it is always lurking in the shadows as something to abide by to gain public legitimacy. Recently religion was again a part of the political debate when a Republican presidential candidate openly stated to the media that he would not support a Muslim for president. President Obama is still hounded by many on the right for being a closet Muslim, because his biological father was a Kenyan Muslim. When John F. Kennedy ran for president his Irish Catholic background was an anathema. The reality is, even though the constitution says religious affiliation cannot be a litmus test for presidency, it is impossible to be elected president if you are not mainstream christian today. As a Mormon the last presidential hopeful Mitt Romney faced an uphill task. Ben Carson, the presidential candidate who cast aspersions on Muslims as being un-American to be president, himself is a Seventh Day Adventist, which to many is not acceptable. Whether President Obama kneels or stands when he prays, or prays at all is immaterial, as long as he does the job he has been hired to do. But in today's politics optics is everything, and for the president to proclaim and act as a christian is very important, in order to maintain the enduring persona of an American presidency.

A majority of American's today, about 70%, identify themselves as Christians belonging to various denominations, mostly considered as protestants. About 20% of Americans are Roman Catholic. This demographic make up undeniably has a huge impact on the politics of this nation. It is delusional to deny that this nation is not Judaeo-Christian in nature. Despite the constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers, America at its core is without a doubt a christian nation.

Hence this level of pomp and pageantry only reserved for the "Holy Father".  It is an indication of how firmly the christian ethos dictates and influences the decision makers and the power elite of this country. So while the Pope maybe a figurehead with little tangible political power, his influence cannot be underestimated. In a shocking announcement the present speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boenher, a Catholic, submitted his resignation today. He said his meeting with the Pope helped him arrive at this decision he was mulling over for sometime now.

A few years ago I visited St.Paul's Cathedral in the Vatican city. What struck me most about this place of worship was its enormity and its ostentatious ornamentation. The purpose was clear. To dwarf humanity and to proclaim the wealth and power of the church in an awe inspiring manner. In many ways the cathedral was antithetical to the story of their deity, Jesus Christ. That's when I realized that the image of Jesus was just a means to an end. The Catholic church through out history was and is about amassing power, wealth, influence and dominance. The Pope was installed as the caretaker and king of its wealth and power. Popes through out history have used this power to not only grow the church and its riches but to influence people globally. Behind the angelic, humane, civilizational guise the Pope radiates and the charitable acts the church engages in around the world, this fact never changes and never will. It is what it is.



Sunday, August 30, 2015

Migrant Misery

Through out history, fleeing war, famine and disease, humans have crossed oceans, walked over mountains and deserts in search of better climes. As a result civilizations were born and nations started. Humans have always been on the move, as they are today.

Lately, the misery of migrants has been on display, as many trying to cross over from Libya to Europe in search of peace and stability, find themselves in watery graves. The past few months have especially seen a dramatic increase in the influx, and the forecast is that it is only going to get worse. Fleeing war and hunger in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and Africa, refugees pay exorbitant amounts of money to smugglers to find a spot on precarious over crowded floating devices. Landing in Italy and Greece they make their way into Europe with a glimmer of hope. Living in squalor in make shift camps, women, children and the elderly find solace, shelter and respite from the ravages for war. Europe grapples with the enormity of the situation not knowing what to do. On one hand it fears the migrant will change the fabric of it's society and on the other having been through two wars and seen humanity at its worst, it struggles to find a balanced approach to a problem that is overwhelming in magnitude.

The situation Europe faces could have been foreseen almost five years ago when the uprisings in the Middle East began, leaving failed states in its path. Some of the blame can also be placed earlier, on the illegal invasion of Iraq, which instead of bringing peace and democracy, only brought misery to many. The roots of this situation can be traced even further back to colonialism. Nations and peoples were pillaged and looted to such an extent, that they never had the time or the means to develop into stable nations with strong institutions. The post-colonial era of global economy and exploitation, made sure that some of these nations stayed weak, by propping up regimes that did not serve the interest of its citizens. And so it was only destiny that the children of colonial citizens would one day arrive at the door step of their erstwhile masters. When there are places in the world that are left to fall into the abyss, it is only natural that people will claw their way out to find a future elsewhere.

What is a migrant? A migrant is someone or some being who leaves ones home in search of food and a suitable climate. Animals migrate for this reason as do humans. But animals are not bound by an imaginary prison established by invisible lines of geography. They roam free. Humans live in cages called nations, organized for the purpose of economy and the desire to belong to a certain tribe breeding comfort in identity. When a human wants to migrate, he or she needs a visa, passport or some form of tribal identification. One can join another tribe, but only by giving up his or her previous one on paper. But when you risk your life, climb aboard a boat, cross a border, scale a wall, break the rules in search of food and a future, you are branded an "illegal alien".

I am a migrant. I left my home country and moved to a land founded by migrants, in search of a change in scenery. As a younger person, I did feel an intellectual prisoner in my small town in southern India, and the desire to see the world was strong. Having grown up in a family with plenty and in a stable democratic country, my physical surroundings were never dire. So I followed the rules, boarded an airplane and began a journey that continues almost two decades later, to this day. For many like me, America welcomed with open arms and provided a future like no other. But for millions of others, who live and work in this nation without legal papers, life is on a knife's edge.

The US presidential elections are seventeen months away, but the race to the top has already begun. The Republicans have a cavalcade of candidates who never seem to surprise with the most outlandish things they say and do. One who seems to be presently hogging the limelight with his inflammatory comments is Donald Trump. A billionaire real estate developer, Donald Trump made his fortune bribing and bullying his way through the grimy underbelly of the New York real estate market. He plans to use his fortune and the tactics that made him a real estate tycoon, to win the Republican nomination for the US presidency. His controversial stance on illegal immigration has made him favorable to some and a pariah to others. He wants to deport every illegal immigrant in America and build a wall between the US and Mexico to stop more from coming. In a recent speech he characterized Mexican and Hispanic migrants as rapists and criminals. On face value one could dismiss Donald Trump's rants as delusional and idiosyncratic. But on another, the fear mongering is worrisome and very similar to what has been done in the past to win elections. Making the migrant the monster, is a very easy thing to do. Migrants, especially if they are paperless, are voiceless and disenfranchised. In America it is estimated there are about 11 million illegal immigrants. A majority of them are diligent, law abiding non-citizens working in industries, that many citizens would not. To make them the enemy, is not only short sighted but also counterproductive and harmful to the economy and the character of this nation. One should actually be proposing policies to bring them into the fold, as the alternative is procedurally impossible and detrimental in every way.

The argument always made, is that if we gave amnesty to migrants, then others would see it as a welcome sign to violate the laws of the land and pour into any nation in hoards. America was founded on the principle of giving amnesty to the poor and the weak. The reality is, migrants are going to come to this land or any other seeking opportunity no matter what. We could build walls, put up an army to shoot them down, but there is no stopping people from seeking a better future for themselves and their brood. Just as it is for animals, it is a natural instinct for humans to migrate if things are not conducive for life. The only way one can stop the movement of people, is by ensuring that their homes in their homelands are not turned into dismal places of destitution.

Therefore it is in the interest of wealthy nations to make sure their wealth is spread. Extreme inequality on a national and global scale breeds instability within societies. One cannot afford to live in enclaves anymore. Where you live cannot decide whether you live or whether you die. As the population grows, the world shrinks and good real estate is finite. Therefore it is in the interest of everyone to make sure that nations do not collapse. But this is a tall order, as the tribal nature of humanity is inherently opposed to the ideals of democracy and the sharing of wealth.

In the past five years, half the population of Syria, is either dead, internally displaced or has fled the country. A nation of 22 million people is now but a fraction of itself. Other nations could face similar fates, due to war, poverty and global warming. In an interview to the Washington Post, a Syrian refugee in northern Lebanon, who now begs for a living, said "we are only alive because we are not dead", while others pay thousands of dollars to smugglers to make a perilous journey into the unknown. It is what it is.




Friday, July 31, 2015

Prison Industrial Complex

The suicide of young Kalif Browder in my city last month, was a disturbing, disheartening and demoralizing moment. The society we live in, gives the impression that there is hope, justice and liberty for all. But incidents like these question how true that is for many who find themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Kalif Browder was sixteen when he was arrested for stealing a backpack and sent to Rikers Island, a notorious prison on an island north of Brooklyn. He was not tried or convicted. He always proclaimed his innocence. While the court kept postponing his trial date he languished in prison becoming a victim to an endless cycle of violence. Beaten by correction officers and intimidated by fellow inmates his life became a "hell on earth".  In May 2013, after a thousand days of incarceration Kalif was let go without an explanation or an apology. He tried to get back to life, but the damage was done. At age 22, he committed suicide in his parent's home.

While Kalif's story can be seen as unusual and tragic, what lies behind it is more than just a failure of our criminal justice system. What is at its heart, is the savage culture of incarceration that has become emblematic of American society.

With less than 5% of the worlds population, the United States holds roughly a quarter of the planet's prisoners. 2.3 million people in America are in prisons. 1.6 million of them in state and federal prisons and the rest in local jails and immigration detention centers. Incarceration rates have increased seven times since the 1970s. A third of African American men can expect to be jailed at some point in their lives and one in nine black children has a parent behind bars in the great nation of America.

It is clear from these statistics that there is something deeply wrong in this society. Like almost everything else in this country, prisons have been a business enterprise for sometime now. Prisons are no longer a place one is sent to repent and rehabilitate. The longer an inmate is kept behind bars, the more profitable he becomes. The tax payer on average spends $68,000 per year to keep an individual locked up. There are private companies that are profiting from the tax payer. And it is a proven fact, that the more time an individual spends in prison, the chances of him or her returning goes up. It becomes harder for them to reintegrate into society starting a vicious cycle of violence and recidivism.

There is no question prison deters some people from committing crime, but for the most part the way the prison industrial complex is run today, it has lost its core purpose. It has become a place where people go to find themselves destroyed forever. The tragedy of Kalif Brower is one such example among many, that reveals the true nature of incarceration. The harm caused by mass imprisonment far out weighs any tangible benefits.

There are many reasons for the dramatic increase in the prison population in America since the 1970s. The war on drugs is sighted as one major cause. The Rockerfeller Drug Laws that were signed into effect in 1973, decimated the African American and Latino community disproportionally, whose repercussions are very much the cause of the racial makeup of the prison population today. The gun culture is another factor that has contributed to the increase in incarceration rates. While the debate around gun violence often revolves around 2nd Amendment Rights and more recently horrific mass shootings, one seldom hears about how it is a major contributor to imprisonment, predominantly of black men in impoverished neighborhoods. Possessing a fire arm is treated differently in a poor black neighborhood than in a rich one. Also federal and state "mandatory minimums" and "three strikes" rules have locked away people with impunity in large numbers for relatively minor offenses.

This month President Obama added another "first" to his list. He became the first sitting US president to visit a federal penitentiary. His goal was to draw attention to the fact as to how the prison system is not only failing society but also is becoming obese to a point of no return. After his visit he said "we have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals" drawing attention to the very core of the problem. He was struck by the number of people serving time for "foolish youthful mistakes". He said "its not normal. It's not what happens in other countries". Another glaring statistic he pointed out was that "African American and Latinos make up 30% of our population. They make up 60% of the prison population".

Another disturbing side of the prison industrial complex, is the system of solitary confinement. An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in United States. Before he was exonerated of murder Anthony Graves spent 18 years in a Texas jail, 16 of them in solitary confinement. In an interview to the New York Times he said solitary confinement "is designed to break a man's will to live". Solitary confinement takes a severe mental toll on individuals. Studies have shown the extent of damage it can do to a person's self worth, causing depression, anger, anxiety and host of other behavioral issues. It is no wonder why people subjected to solitary confinement find it hard to blend back into society. They are permanently damaged. Weighing in on this situation President Obama said "That is not going to make us safer. That is not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? Its not smart."

Solitary confinement is an effective tool used by prison officials to discipline violent activity and chaos. It is clear though that it cannot be used to the point of destroying someone, no matter the situation. It only exacerbates a situation rather than remedying it. President Obama can have little influence over the state prison systems, but he hopes that changes at the federal level could trickle down creating a more humane situation.

If we are to build a safer and more civilized society, it is not only important to hold those who break the law to account but also pay attention to how they are held to account. A criminal justice system that punishes criminals by demoralizing and dehumanizing them, contributes to an endless cycle of violence. If we are to decrease violence and crime it is important to make the prison system a place of rehabilitation and reform and not a place of business and profit.

There are many things that are broken in society, A growing prison population is a direct reflection and gauge of how badly things are broken. If America does not address this problem, it will be contributing to a false notion, that things are okay. It is commendable that President Obama in the last months of his presidency is shining a light on this issue. It is time for laws to be passed to shed some weight off of the obese prison industrial complex.

In 1962, Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange. Set in a dystopian world this novel follows the life and times of its protagonist Alex, a hardened remorseless sociopath. The story ends with Alex being sent to prison, where he is chosen as a perfect candidate to take part in an experiment that would rid him of all criminal instincts. Alex is subjected to a series of situations where he is shown extreme acts of violence to a point where he is repulsed by it. Alex finally walks away seemingly cured, but we never know if he really was or was he just playing along to please the powers in order to get out of jail. This book is a seminal meditation on crime and rehabilitation. The verdict on whether the prison system can actually decrease crime and reform some criminals is uncertain. But what is certain, is that Khalif Broder could have lived and returned to society as a productive citizen if the conditions he was subjected to were not as damaging. It is what it.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Act of Terror

When I first read about the mass shooting incident in South Carolina this month, where nine people were gunned down in a church of all places, my instinctual reaction was that of numbness. Mass senseless gun violence has become a norm in America to a point of desensitizing the public. When I saw a picture of the shooter, his cold demented expression immediately put him in the category of killers before him. He seem to fit a mold that has become all too predictable. Young, white, disturbed, abandoned and brainwashed by a culture of violence and hatred, that is pervasive in this country today. I had written a few pieces in the past on such senseless murders in America and the impotency of the system to do anything meaningful about it. I felt there was nothing new to say here, that had not already been said. The incidents keep happening like clockwork and the nation has an intense momentary debate and then everything goes back to the way it was until the next horrendous act of terror.

When little children were gunned down at a school in Newtown, Connecticut,  I thought the nation would be shaken enough to do something about it. When people watching a movie were senselessly murdered in Colorado, I thought that would be a turning point. Now people have been gunned down at a place of worship, will anything change? I doubt it. Even the President acknowledged his disgust about the government's ineffectiveness and apathy in stopping such murders from being committed with relative ease, by passing any meaningful gun control legislation. 

As the usual media mania raged with relentless punditry, many have tried to separate this carnage, from previous ones. The first distinguishing factor that was vociferously expressed was that the shooter in this case was not clinically insane. His Facebook postings and allegiance to white supremacist groups revealed the depth of his hatred towards African Americans, Jews, Hispanics and anyone who did not qualify to be "white". He went into that particular church on that day with a clear intention to kill black people. And he chose that very church for its importance in the community of Charleston. Therefore the act was premeditated, driven by hate and racial prejudice.

The shooter may not have been clinically insane. He may not have heard voices in his head to kill and be killed, like many of his predecessors had. But it is hard to disagree, that he did suffer from another kind of mental illness called racism. I firmly believe anyone who harbors racism in this day and age is at some level mentally ill. All mental illnesses have degrees of severity on a spectrum. Some have it less than others. Some don't know they have it. Others are working on a cure. The shooter in this case, was on the extreme end.

In America, the disease of racism is more rampant than one would imagine. The fact that the Confederate flag still flies on a mast in South Carolina, shows that this disease is alive and present.
Though great strides have been made in stemming its spread, it is very present and shows its ugly face every now and then. Most recently it was seen entrenched among policemen in many parts of the country. The police shootings across the nation revealed its malignant spread.  

In 2011, I made a film called 300 Miles to Freedom. The film documented the journey of a slave in the 1800's from captivity to freedom. While researching and shooting the film, I got a glimpse of what it meant to be a slave in the darkest period in American history. By any account, slavery was the most evil system of oppression ever engineered by mankind. Its unholy legacy still reverberates to this day, reminding us of the human capacity to do evil. Only Hitler through his pogroms came close to the level of inhumanity slavery inflicted on fellow man at its peak.

No matter what one might think and believe the Confederate flag means in the present, under no circumstance is its legacy worth celebrating. Whatever Caucasian people in the south might feel nostalgic about, it is pale in comparison to the evil that was engineered and inflicted in its shadow. The flag as President Obama eloquently said, "belongs in a museum", a museum that rightfully shows its place in history in all its gory glory.

Another point of debate was whether this mass killing was a "terrorist act". If a Muslim person was pulling the trigger, there would be no argument. Even though according to a recent New York Times article, homegrown non-Muslim radicals have killed more people than Jihadists. The FBI director proclaimed this was not a terrorist act as it did not have an overt political agenda. In my mind there is no question this was a "domestic terrorist act". When a group of people feel terrorized by an individual or a group, it is a terrorist act. The black congregation in the church was most definitely terrorized. There was a clear political agenda of "hate" against a certain group of people expressed. It was a terrorist hate crime as most terrorist crimes are. What differentiates one from another is only the act's scope and its impact. 9/11 was a terrorist attack, as was the invasion of Iraq by the American forces, as has been every shooting that has taken place in this country at the hands of its citizens.

A few days from now, after the grieving is done and another man is condemned to die for having fallen victim to a disease that clearly has no instant cure, life most likely will go back to the way it was. When there is no immediate cure for a disease the next best thing to do, is to change the environment within which it breeds. The NRA slogan "Guns don't kill people, people kill people" has expired in its logic. People do kill people, but people with no guns, kill less people, that is indisputable and it is a vision worth aspiring for, as a people and a nation. In current American society, the 2nd Amendment enshrined in the constitution, makes sense only to the delusional. It is time to act beyond politics and bipartisanship and rethink and imagine a time of no violence. There is no place for guns, torture, unfettered surveillance, racism and hate in a civilized society. America has come a long way to distance itself from its past. It is clear, it has a long way to go. There is no rest for the weary. It is what it is.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Colossal Inhumanity

There are moments in history, when humanity as a collective takes a gasp. The space shuttle disasters, the assassinations of Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon, the 9/11 attacks, the Asian Tsunamis, the German, Rwandan and Cambodian genocides,  the recent earthquakes in Nepal are but a few that come to mind, that have given us pause. Natural disasters while being overwhelming in their impact do not evoke the same response, as when humans resort to acts of unfathomable horror. One such moment that left an indelible mark on my conscience was when in 2001 the Taliban stuck dynamite to the imposing 6th century statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and blew them to smithereens. Watching it on grainy video my heart sank and I was repulsed to my core. Monuments that had stood the test of time for centuries were destroyed in a moment. The loss dealt to humanity as a collective was immeasurable.

Mullah Mohamed Omar, the Taliban leader, is said to have issued the order to remove the statues. They represented to him and his creed something reprehensible. The sanctity of beauty had forsaken the diseased mind. While many Muslim invaders in the past had tried to destroy the statues for this same demented reason and had failed, the Taliban leader succeeded to everyone's horror and dismay.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It is a mystery why they chose to destroy the statues at the end of their brutal regime. The reasons given were many. They wanted international attention and were protesting against western money being spent on maintaining the statues, while the people of Afghanistan were starving. But the most common and acceptable one was that the statues were deemed un-Islamic as they were symbols of idolatry, and therefore had to be destroyed. The statues had been defaced before by an Afghan monarch as he fought a Shia Hazara rebellion. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had also tried to destroy the statues of Bamiyan and failed. Many Hindu temples in India and in the region were also destroyed by Muslim invaders over centuries for being idolatry in nature. So it was safe to assume that the Taliban, a vestige of that same archaic ideology would resort to something of this nature.

To read this week that the 2000 year old Roman ruins of Palmyra in Syria could face the same fate as the statues of Bamiyan was truly disturbing. ISIS, the dreaded group that has been wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria has become notorious for destroying antiquities to make a statement of its demented code. ISIS has bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq. It has posted videos on youtube showing its soldiers destroying ancient Assyrian statues at a museum. For all its religious fervor and fundamentalist rhetoric, it has destroyed mosques all across the region, mostly Shiite ones, as they are the enemy for having colluded with the infidels, the US. ISIS a Sunni group considers it's religious brothers, the Shiites, to be heretics over an age old tribal dispute over a religious claim. The extent of what has already been lost will only be realized when the dust settles. The prospects of that happening anytime soon seems more distant than ever.

Their recent victories over the Iraqi and Syrian armies in Ramadi, Mosul and in Tadmur, sent shock waves through the region. As the Shiite militias were activated to take on the task where the Iraqi army had failed, one thing became very clear, ISIS was here to stay. The air campaign launched by the United States over months has done very little to "disrupt and degrade" ISIS. The chaos that President Bush and his henchmen ignited by invading Iraq on a pretense with deception and lies, continues to spread unabated. Five years on, the inability of the world to tackle the despicable Syrian dictator Assad, who continues to exterminate his own people with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, has exposed the impotency of real power. In the absence of oil or any immediate riches to be had, Syria seems to be more or less condemned to its current fate.

What at risk now are the true riches given to humanity. They may not be as precious as oil or any other natural resource, but when parts of our collective history are demolished, the damage done is irreversible. When it was confirmed that ISIS had in fact gained control of Palmyra, the panic within the community that cares was instant. Irini Bukova, the head of UNESCO pleaded all sides to cease fighting in the interest of saving probably the most important antiquity in the Middle East. Whether that will actually happen is a gamble it seems the world has no choice but to take. So far the current reports say the ancient ruins are intact, but 20 people were killed inside the ancient amphitheater in front of an hostage audience.

The nature of war is such, that its long term consequences can never be fully grasped. War causes a chain reaction, that is highly unpredictable as seen in the Middle East today. Rape, murder, plunder and pillage have always been quintessential aspects of war. The beauty humanity creates when it is not at war, loses value the instant the first bullet is fired. History shows us this time and again exposing the schizoid nature of humans. In Syria, the exquisite Umyyad Mosque, a UNESCO world heritage site now lies in ruins. Aleppo's Souk Al Madina, a beautiful ancient market, has been burned to the ground. The all too familiar images of completely bombed out Syrian cities makes one shudder. No one knows how many other ancient sites have been reduced to rubble in the monumental scale of destruction that is taking place. But in the face of millions of refugees on the run and countless children and innocent civilians murdered, the concern for lost antiquities seems rather inane.

When the colossal inhumanity of war is exposed for history to record, there is no question an account of lost archeology will have to be taken. Unlike Dresden, Germany, which was completely rebuilt after it was destroyed during the war, there is little hope that the Buddha's of Bamiyan will be resurrected or the ancient Assyrian statues will be reattached. The rehabilitation of the psyches scarred by war would have to come first. Maybe by reclaiming all that remains and making sure that our collective heritage stays protected for posterity, we could begin to repair the wounds of war. It is what it is.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Water

Where I grew up there is a term in my language Telugu, "Manchi Neelu", meaning "good water". First thing anyone coming in from the summer heat asks for is a glass of "Manchi Neelu". I never paid attention to this term until my father told me that it came into usage when there was no potable running water in homes and the purpose was to differentiate from water that was kept in the outhouse or verandah to wash ones feet before entering the home. The term in context actually means "drinking water".

I grew up in Hyderabad, India, where as long as I can remember, water was always a commodity in short supply. In the summers it was the most precious resource to have and hold. People's lives revolved around the art of collecting and hording water. In many parts running tap water was and still is a luxury.

I remember my father waking up at dawn to take advantage of the daily two hour city water supply, to fill up over head tanks and buckets to the hilt. As a teenager I remember staying with my sister in Bangalore, where my daily chore was to wake up at sunlight, walk my bicycle down the block with two buckets on either side of a bamboo stick to the local watering hole. A single municipal water connection to the entire neighborhood, with yawning faces standing in a long line holding colorful buckets and copper pots waiting for the water to flow. Then at 6 am sharp the tussle would begin and I would walk back cautiously hoping not to spill a drop. Then repeat the trip a few times until the storage tank was full for the day. This is still a routine for many in India and we were middle class. Reliable clean municipal drinking water through a faucet into one's home, is a rarity even today and so, many urban dwellers have resorted to buying bottled water or use filters and other contraptions to make water potable. The poor hygiene conditions, which India has come to be known for, are partly due the lack of adequate water. In many parts of rural India, people tread miles to secure their water.

In the last two decades, India has boomed, its cities have expanded beyond imagination, but the infrastructure has not kept up. Apartment towers that dot city landscapes sometimes buy water and fill up their over head tanks when their underground wells run dry. There is a black market for water to meet the demands of an ever expanding thirst. There is an illusion that there is enough water for all, but in reality, the swimming pools in luxury resorts and apartment towers are a rouge, just like the opulent water fountains of Las Vegas in the middle of the Mojave desert.

I came to America in 1992. Arriving at the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago after a disorienting 24 hour flight, the clean shiny stainless steel toilets with hot and cold water running down my fingers on demand, was priceless. I thought I had arrived in the land of luxury. Soon taking a shower was a pleasurable new concept I had to get used to. Back home we mixed hot and cold water in a bucket and used a tumbler to pour it over our heads. A more efficient way of using water but a little cumbersome indeed. When I saw the car washes, dishwashers, private swimming pools, bathtubs, hot-tubs, sprawling grass carpets for golfing and manicured lush lawns, I knew I had arrived in the land of excess.

Today, the reasons behind the water crisis that is brewing around the planet are many and were always in plain sight. Poor management, regulation, conservation and infrastructure are huge contributing factors. Planetary fresh water reserves not being able to keep up with the needs of an ever expanding human population, is another. But climate change, is the most defining factor of our time, that will dictate how we quench our thirst and survive into the future.

The effects of climate change, though very early in their cycle, are already showing their devastating impact. The recent mass migrations into Europe from Africa, are partly due to war and conflict, but are also due to lack of food, water and other basic resources that are decimating livelihoods. The drought in California has been unrelenting for more than four years now. The historic low snow and rainfall experienced this past year has caused Californians to wake up to a new reality. California is America's food basket and 80% of its water consumption is set aside for agricultural land. With ground water levels rapidly falling, and reserves in lakes and reservoirs dropping to shocking levels, suddenly people are being asked to change their luxurious ways of living. Watering lawns is prohibited, long showers are to be constrained and restaurants are to reduce water use. Tax incentives are being given to people replacing their current appliances with water efficient ones and there is a demand to reduce water consumption by 25% this year. Last year the goal was 20%, which was barely met. Even though the farmlands of California feed America tomatoes, almonds, strawberries and other produce, they only contribute to about 2% of the states revenue. The reality is, computer chips and Hollywood can only feed one's imagination but not one's stomach.

Historic low rainfall in the island nation of Taiwan, has created a grave water crisis. More than a million homes are affected, where water supplies are now cut entirely for two days a week on a rotating basis. The situation there is only expected to get worse with climate change.

As the planetary engine changes its patterns, it will no doubt bring humanity to its knees, but it will also push us to innovate and adapt. But humanity's capacity to destroy what it already possesses is relentless. The pollution and damming of rivers and other water bodies around the world, is a contributing factor to the water crisis as well. The Colorado river in the United States has not reached the ocean regularly since 1960. It's waters dammed and siphoned for golf courses and farmlands as far away as California, have caused massive ecological devastation in the delta region. A new treaty between the US and Mexico is beginning to restore some hope, but some damage is irreversible. The river Ganges in India, which is considered to be sacred to Hindus, is being choked to death by the very devotees who gain spiritual sustenance from it. The factories and tanneries along its banks complete the job by spewing heavy metals and other effluents into its sublime waters. Global warming is shrinking the glaciers that feed the river more rapidly than ever. The Prime Minster of India made a campaign promise to clean the river, but the progress has been slow. Attempts to clean the Ganga have been in place for thirty years, but the conditions have only steadily worsened.

Humanity's capacity to do harm to that which gives it sustenance is astounding. It is the only species on the planet that is able to achieve this task by its very existence. And to meet the demands of its insatiable appetite and unquenchable thirst, it will empty the oceans if it has to. To adapt to California's forecasted misery, the world's largest desalination plant is being built in Carlsbard. When it opens in 2016, the $1 billion project will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day to San Diego County. Desalination plants are notorious for being environmentally unsound projects.

An average adult human body is made up of 50% to 65% water. And there is a reason nature created us this way. Air and water are the very basis of our existence. For this reason clean drinking water is a basic human right that is non-negotiable. When I came to America in 1992, I was shocked to come to a realization, that a gallon of Poland Spring water at a super market valued more than a gallon of gasoline at the pump. It used to be a running joke when I called home to relay my experiences, "only in America". When I left India there was no such thing as bottled water. When I used to return home on trips, I was told to drink bottled water so as to not catch water born diseases. Soon the bottled water industry began to thrive, catering to tourists and expats.

Today affluent Indians only drink bottled water, and the country is awash with plastic bottles polluting the environment. Bottled water in America has become the most profitable beverage, even though tap water is safe to drink without hesitation in most places. San Francisco's tap water comes from the pristine Yosemite National Park, and New York City gets its tap water from the Catskill Mountains. Yet an average American consumes 167 bottles of water per year and 30 billion are sold every year. The amount of plastic that has entered the environment has quadrupled as a result, and bottled water consumption is only going to increase as the water crisis intensifies. 

While most of California is in drought, the food conglomerate Nestle is in the spotlight for continuing to bottle water from a spring which is located on an Indian reservation for a profit. The reservation is located in a Mojave Desert oasis at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains, 85 miles east of Los Angeles. Drawing water from that location, where just three inches of rain falls each year, prevents water from seeping downhill to fill aquifers of nearby towns struggling for water during the drought. While this is only a small part of the California water problem, there is something deeply dishonorable and corrupt about selling bottled water when water is scarce. There is something vile about the idea of selling bottled water for a profit, period. Next we will be selling packaged air for a profit. To no one's surprise, this has already been pioneered by a millionaire in China as a response to the acrid Beijing air. Humanity at its worst.

The ever growing human appetite to consume meat, is also rapidly causing the depletion of precious ground water in far off places. Beef farming in particular, is causing unprecedented environmental harm as farmers drill deeper and deeper into aquifers to feed their gigantic herds. As the appetite for beef rapidly grows in populous countries like India and China, the rush to meet the demand is already in high gear in places like Australia and New Zealand. It takes 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat. Newsweek once broke down the equation by saying "the water that goes into a 1,000 pound steer would float a destroyer." Eating meat is no longer a health issue, it is clearly an environmental issue which we have to contend with if we have to save our planet.

Last year I visited Bombay on work and was put up at a fairly fancy hotel in a congested part of the city. While my room was comfortable with all the amenities one would expect from a three star hotel anywhere in the world, the view from my window was not. It looked into a back alley of a grimy apartment tower with window air-conditioners hanging from every floor and black rain water stains on green paint from top to bottom. But what made my day, was the best shower I ever took anywhere in the world. A heavy volume rain shower with a dial that set the temperature just right, hit the mark. While it was heavenly, I was aware this was a privilege reserved for a few, not for long. It is what it is.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

"India's Daughter" is my Daughter

I grew up in the old-fashioned southern city of Hyderabad in India, in the eighties. I was born into a liberal family and quickly came to realize that the world out side was not a reflection of my family's values. There were invisible rules in the real world that gave more freedom to boys and less to girls. The rules for young women, mostly as an excuse for their own safety, did not apply to men. Women had a curfew, they could not be seen walking with men unless they were married to or in some way related. Women were trained to clothe themselves keeping in mind the "male gaze". Riding behind a man on a motorcycle was seen to be sexual, unless married. If you were to ride with a male friend, there was a certain distance that needed to be maintained on the seat and certain decorum to be followed. Show of affection in public between the sexes was taboo. While young men and women on college campuses enjoyed some freedom, in public spaces they had to adhere to a different set of rules. The separation was subtle and permeated through the culture as a code.

As a teenager, I recall stories of my sisters being harassed for wearing jeans or being too "western". My older sister gained notoriety on college campus for once slapping a man on a bus who tried to grope her. She was brave but also fearful of reprisals and sought protection of her male friends. I also remember my sister being shot on her arm with an air gun while walking down a street, a victim of someone's twisted idea of fun. I experienced harassment from the police in my youth first hand, when I was out with my girlfriend past curfew time. It was 9:30 pm and we were sitting by the lake talking and a police van pulled up. The questioning by the police constable was direct. Who was this girl to me? Was she my sister, wife etc.? If not I was breaking the law. Confronting him was dangerous, so we had to scurry. Life in most cities in India was comparable, but there were some exceptions.

Some things have changed in India since my time, but others have not. Women in India still feel harassed and preyed on. In cities like New Delhi, they fear for their safety after dark. Today more and more women work the night shift in call centers across India servicing the west. Bringing them home safe is a task all companies take seriously. More women in urban India are financially independent, and therefore ambitious and are challenging established norms, demanding freedom and equal rights. This is causing a seismic shift, as traditional mores are challenged and families are forced to adjust to the winds of change. At times when that adjustment is resistant, it leads to violence and shocking human behavior, like acid throwing and honor killings.

The predicament of Indian women suddenly came into sharp focus in December of 2012, when two students boarded a bus after seeing the film, Life of Pi. What happened next shook everyone to his or her core. The man was brutally beaten and the woman was gang raped by six men, one among them a seventeen year old. They were then discarded like trash on a dark New Delhi street to fend for themselves. The woman was badly mutilated and later succumbed to her injuries. As the details of her ordeal emerged, the nation was enraged. The youth protests in the capital sparked pitched battles with the police, the city was on edge. To calm things down, the rapists were caught in a record seventeen days and were "fast tracked" to hang. The juvenile rapist was sentenced to three years, as that is all the law could deliver. New laws were quickly passed to make punishment of rapists more severe than they already were. The story of the victim and her parents captured the imagination of the public and there was an earnest push for some tangible change. 

Suddenly the reporting of rapes in the media saw a dramatic increase. Almost every week a grisly rape story greeted the front pages, and outrageous statements began to emerge from men in power who saw rape a woman's own doing. Many of India's power elite expressed outrageous opinions, which exposed a medieval mindset that was no mystery to many. Asaram Bapu, a powerful religious leader said "She should have taken God's name and could have held the hand of one of the men and said I consider you as my brother and should have said to the other two, brother I am helpless, you are my brother, my religious brother. She should have taken God's name and held their hands and feet...then the misconduct wouldn't have happened”. 

This month to commemorate International Women's day BBC television planned to air a documentary titled India's Daughter across India, United Kingdom and elsewhere. The film began to attract controversy before its broadcast, as graphic excerpts were released to the press. India's Daughter is a hour-long television documentary, constructed in the "true crime" genre that meticulously re-imagines the December 2012 rape and murder of Jyothi Singh. Through interviews of her parents, a friend, one of the rapists, his lawyers and other experts associated with the case, the film walks the viewer through a sequence of events as they occurred on that dreadful night to a young woman who we learn was filled with dreams, aspirations and a zest for life. For the first time in two years the name of the victim is revealed and the harrowing nature of her trauma is laid bare on the screen for all to digest. What caused most controversy was not the telling of her tragic story, but the lack of remorse exhibited by the rapist who candidly expressed his motives and rationalized his actions. The egregious mindset of his attorneys, who openly blamed the victim for her misfortune, was more shocking. But what was most unnerving was the Indian government's decision to trample on its citizen's rights, by calling for a ban on the broadcast not just in India, but the world. In the days of the Internet, a hope to achieve this was folly. What they instead accomplished was exactly the opposite. 

The reasons for doing so, as usual came from a place of fear, weakness, insecurity and prejudice. Not having faith in its citizenry to make decisions about important issues, exhibits an impotency of a nanny state. With many male members of parliament facing rape and other criminal charges, the response was not surprising. Then there was the usual mudslinging and discrediting of the filmmaker, that she was white, exploitative, Eurocentric, undermined Indian feminists and was out to smear the image of India with her imperialist, post-colonial world view. And then there were the legal issues, which to some extent were a valid concern. The rapists have an appeal pending in the Supreme Court, on which a decision has yet to be made, and a worry that this documentary could influence the legal process was valid, but highly unlikely. The rapists had already been convicted in public opinion and "fast tracked" to death by the media frenzy that engulfed the nation soon after the incident. So to assume that this film, two years later would cause interference in the judicial process was asinine.

India’s Daughter is not exhaustive in its purpose, intent or treatment. It is not a film about "rape" as a social evil in the context of India. It is not an in-depth investigation into this subject matter with all its nuances and does not pretend to be so. It is only interested in telling this particular story in the way that it happened. But by telling this singular story in gruesome detail, it hints and reveals very effectively how rape is a horrific social evil and how its perpetrators come to be formed. It puts a human face on the monster. It shows how poverty, destitution and a lack of education and a healthy family structure, can lead to a total collapse of humanity. The rapist's lack of empathy reveals the true nature of crime, both internal and external. By listening to the rapist we come to learn, how when men come of age without structure or a space for healthy sexual interaction and expression can become deviant. As a result, the rapist believed and continues to believe, that the purpose of a woman is to serve a man's libido - that is all. The seventeen-year-old juvenile rapist is a victim of his fate. His family was so destitute that he had to run away to live in the city slums, making a living among deviant men. When his family was informed about his crime, they had not heard from him in three years and presumed he was dead. Monsters are created by society, but that does not give them impunity to commit crime, but it should give us pause and not a knee jerk response as we have witnessed in the media and on online diatribes making a case for the film’s demise. 

While the documentary is set in India and is about an Indian crime, it in no way makes assumptions that this is an Indian problem alone. It definitely makes the assertion that it is a "male" disease.

Ever since this particular rape in New Delhi, the western media has made India the rape capital of the world by focusing its attention with undue concentration. The west's fascination with all things dark and dismal when it comes to India or the "third world" is not new, but it need not necessarily be a cause for every defense leading to senseless bans and over reaction. The reality exists for all to see, people should be given the freedom to make a decision on the lens they wish to see by.

While the plight of Indian women has been a cause for concern since as long as I can remember, India in no certain terms is the rape nation of the world. In numbers, more rape cases are reported in South Africa, Sweden and America than in India. But in the same breath, it is safe to say that large numbers of cases go unreported in India and many are never investigated as they take place inside marriages and in villages where law and order is fragile or non-existent. Blaming the victim for her own rape is widely prevalent in the culture. Justice for rape victims is far from real or its lynch mob or crude rural justice as seen in a recent case in Nagaland. In America for the most part, the victims are front and center and justice is swift. Even when evidence is hard to come by, the victim is given the benefit of doubt. Why women in such large numbers are violated in the west, where it is assumed they have a better standing in society, is a quandary, but it is not hard to find the symptoms in an over sexualized environment that is all too pervasive.

While Indian women face sexual harassment and other challenges, as women do all around the world, they have achieved more than what they get credit for. The feminist movement in India is strong and powerful. Women in leadership positions are spread across all strata of society. Indians love to flaunt the fact they have had a woman prime minister govern them for more decades than any other nation. Though grossly under represented, there are many women in politics and in position of power all across India even today. Much like President Obama's ascendancy did not bring an end to racism in America, having women in power has not brought any significant reform to the mindset of Indian men. In many instances there has been a regression.

While India may not top the list in rapes committed, it certainly takes the lead in female foeticide. Decades of families discarding their girl child in the womb, has resulted in a lopsided sex ratio that is troubling. Data between 1951 and 2011 shows that the sex ratio decreased from 983 to 918 women for every 1000 men. While sonograms have been made illegal in India to fight this scourge, it is not improving the situation in any significant manner. This is also a contributing factor to rape and harassment of women. 

I live in New York City now, with my wife and two daughters. There is no denying, women I have known, including my wife, who have moved here from India, feel a sense of liberation. My seventeen year old takes the subway everyday to school and while you see women on trains alone at all hours of the night, you also see women being whistled, honked, heckled at and lewdly approached. I am sure my daughter has been on the receiving end of some if this diseased behavior. While my daughter does sometimes have to deal with this, in no means does she feel unsafe. Most women who live here, feel rather safe in one of the largest cities of the world. But rape in America is a reality one cannot shy away from. A misogynistic culture is pervasive in the media. Over sexualized movies and books, such as the world wide smash hit 50 Shades of Grey (which was incidentally banned in India), while asserting they empower women, also spread a deviant and skewed image of what women want and desire. The abhorrent extent of rape in the American military was documented powerfully in the film The Invisible War. Women being treated as mere disposable sex objects in rap music as "bitches”, is widely prevalent in the youth culture of America. The statistics on the phenomenon of "date rape" on college campuses is frightening as one in four women, will be a victim of sexual assault before she completes her academic career. But in America, these issues are largely openly discussed, confronted and attacked. Films are made, books are written and information is freely exchanged for all to make up their minds. If India wants the world to see it as a modern democratic developing nation, then it really needs to look at how it deals with issues of free speech and expression.

So where do we begin to teach men to behave and treat women with respect and dignity? In India there is a dream to change the long established "mind set" of men through education and protest. This is a daunting generational task but it has to begin in earnest somewhere. But if we begin by banning films like India’s Daughter, we only move backward not forward. 

Laws cannot change values, but they can scare people into behaving when enforced. The only way I can teach my daughter to navigate the difficult world, is by giving her the tools to make the right choices and hope that she makes them. Even if she makes the right choices, I am aware that as a woman she will be at a disadvantage. But for her to begin to make the right choices she needs to have full access to all information. Censorship does damage to all our daughters and our sons. It is what it is.
 
Pingates