America sneezes and Asia hands it a tissue : Why Davos is losing value

As there seems to be no end to the Western financial crisis, any number of conferences like Davos will not bring up answers. I say Western deliberately. It is a crisis of the Western economies caused by Western financial imprudence. Gone are the days when ‘When America sneezed and the world caught flu’. Now Asian economies have enough robust internal demand and domestic growth to ride out an economic depression in the US. To me the greatest indicator is domestic tourism. As people have more surplus income, those that take holidays and travel within their countries spread that income around and at the same time people become culturally inclusive. The boom in domestic tourism in India makes me wonder whether we need to now run a campaign called ‘Incredible India’ any more. It has not worked all these years any way as even Thailand gets more tourists every year !!

My recent travels to mainland China and Hong Kong confirmed this. In The Forbidden City at Beijing, Chinese tourists with the latest digital camera’s, baby’s and picnic baskets in tow, far outnumbered western tourists. In Hong Kong cooing and giggling mothers and daughters could not stop taking pictures of my daughter. She was surrounded by Chinese people and I realized they were all from Mainland China and had never seen an Indian child before – they just marveled at her big eyes.

(Of course there is a environmental issue in tourism that must be very carefully handled)

Back to why Davos is losing value. Because the fundamental issue with the Western Financial crises is that they can no longer afford the standards of living that they have become used to. Not only in absolute terms but also in relative terms. Because standards of living often are determined by ‘how the others live’. When I was being educated, our standard of living was mirrored by how an American family lived. Our education mirrored by American and British standards of education. Our cultural desires and aspirations too mirrored by American music, movies etc. I am sure that the rising number of billionaires in India, the incredible rise of telecom in India, the stranglehold of China on Rare Earths, that the largest search engine in the world in not Google but a Chinese co, and the huge investments China is making in resources in Africa, outbidding the US at every step etc etc, is all causing consternation.? For the West can no longer console itself by calling this a ‘rising potential market’ for it’s products. It is nothing less than a transfer of economic and therefore political power.

We are along long way from achieving those Western standards for all our people . Far from it. Because the western economies did attain a certain minimum standard of living for all, and for us in India and most of Asia, dis balanced and non inclusive growth is becoming a bottle neck. However the power of the Asian economies is rising so fast that at any negotiating table Americans and Europeans find themselves uncomfortable and unused to people who speak a slightly different economic language. Not only India and China, but now also Vietnam and Indonesia.

What is that different economic language ? That Asians have so long been living with tightened belts and higher saving/lower consumption patterns that in an economic downturn there is far far greater political manoeuvre room for the government than in the West. The political repercussions of President Obama saying that the only way now is for Americans is to forget the heady days of over consumption, and settle down to a couple of generations of lower benefits, loss of pensions, more unemployment and less goods, is political suicide.

The Western leaders are unable to state (or perhaps even to accept ) the truth. Till the voters in the West are able to accept these facts, all conferences like Davos will be just politcal and economic rhetoric.

Its is not that the West must now embrace China as a power, as the head of the World Economic Forum stated. It is that China must embrace the West. The rhetoric is all a little too late. The European economic doldrums can be lifted by China investing in the Euro and In Europe, not by the United States as was the case for the last 50 years.

The US does have pockets of economic resistance, fighting back. Mainly technology. Though it must be said that most new technology and high value business like Social Media and Computer technology etc does not generate high employment potential. It creates high wealth for the few, and if that is not is not invested back into the economy there is little value in it. Much of it is not. Most technology corps have moved their headquarters to tax havens, their production facilities overseas, and even their research centres abroad. They are in essence no longer US corporations.

Shekhar

Bandit Queen filming and the caste system

The village where I shot much of Bandit Queen was physically divided into the Lower and the Higher castes. You could tell. The low caste dwellings were not only on the lower part of the gentle hill, but built of mud and bits of trees, shrubs and any other material you could lay your hands on. Quite run down. On the rise of the hill was the Upper Caste village. Built of bricks and mortar. The people better dressed and looking healthier. Better fed and less dark from being land owners rather than agricultural labour.

On a really hot day I was scouting for locations in the low caste part of the village. My throat was dry and I leaned over the prickly bush fencing to a woman in a house and asked for some water. There was hesitation. She looked embarrassed and called out to her husband. I repeated my request. The husband too looked hesitant , and then finally apologized and said that they could not give me water to drink. I asked why.

“You will be going to have lunch at the ‘high caste’ house after this” was his reply. I was surprised. Lunch for the crew was normally served in one of the houses of the ‘higher caste’ families in the other side of the village. Everyone knew that. But his response intrigued me.

“So may I have some water before I go ” I asked.

“Sir, we are low caste people” He replied.

“So ?” I responded.

“The high caste people will not want you walking into their house after you have drunk water given by us”

I was taken aback. Who does not know about the caste system in India, but to come face to face with it like that was a bit of a shock.

“Well, it does not matter to me, and if you want, I will not tell them” I said.

“They will know. It is our duty to tell you this”

I realized how difficult it is to break a centuries old tradition that is ingrained into your psyche. Fear of retribution. Fear of imagined sin.

But I did get my small pitcher of water to quench my thirst , by promising the family that I will tell my hosts that I have dunk water from a low caste home before I enter their house. As I came to have lunch with the rest of the crew, I thought about forgetting the whole incident. But I had made a promise, so I informed the high caste host that I had just had drunk water from the hands of a low caste family.

The family looked at each other not knowing how to handle this. I was after all a known film maker from the city and to them therefore and important guest. I had put them in an awkward position. The head of the family resolved the issue.

” It’s ok. Just wash your hands outside the house before your step in”.

So vividly do I remember their young daughter stepping out with a small steel ‘lota’ (vessel) in her hand, and just outside the house symbolically pouring water over my hands, before I stepped into the house.

A small symbolic gesture that upheld centuries of oppression.

My previous post was a short story called ‘Brides of the Well’. It was written for the National Geographic book published last year called ‘ Written on Water’. Some arguments have turned to whether I should have used the caste system to tell the story, and in doing so am I anti Hindu and pro- Muslim. I found these arguments ridiculous. Writings come from interpretations of ones own life experiences.

My parents were refugees from Lahore during Partition. Being a doctor my father went back to Lahore to treat the injured and dying. He felt compelled to do so by his medical oath. Only a few times during his life time was I able to provoke him to talk about the horrendous violence he saw. Yet not once in his life did he ever express an anti Muslim sentiment. In fact when I almost married a Muslim girl my parents fully supported me, proud of the fact that her father was a great Urdu poet. He himself wrote Urdu.

“We lived like brothers and gave as much respect to each other’s festivals as we did to ours. Till partition came there was only harmony between communities in Lahore” Was all he ever said.

Brides of the Well : a short story

On this morning Saraswati struggled to get out of bed.

Well, I say morning because the birds had begun their morning raga’s. Long before the beautiful hues of blue streaked the sky across the dry land. It was the one time that the land felt magical and mystical. A land claimed over the years by the desert. Few shrubs remained to tell the story of long gone days of the changing of the seasons through hues of green, to golden and then brown. Furrows cut and burnt into the white caked mud told the story of a river that once must have flowed.No one spoke much in the village of Baramur. What needed to be done was simple and ritualistic. Nor was there the usual merriment of festive occasions provoked by the mating rituals of young men and women. For if heard carefully this was a village of older people. The dominant sounds of the day would be the dry cracked sounds of older vocal chords, not contradicted by the clear sing song lyricism of the young men and women.

Quietly Saraswati put on the bells on her anklets, making sure that the sound would not wake up her husband. She loved this sound, and would walk with a step harder than normal, so that the other women at the well would her be envious of her anklet bells. It was the only thing her parents could give when she left her village in a time that seemed so far far away now. And as Saraswati walked by her husband she rebelliously put her foot down hard to play with destiny a little. But she knew that the emaciated body ravaged by the desert and by age, snoring through an open toothless mouth would not wake up till the flies flowed uncomfortably across his mouth looking for left overs.

But a thrill passed her every time she did that. Imagine if he woke up to discover that his wife was not at all the woman that he stored away in one corner of his mind ! Saraswati rushed out, bent over and coughed. Her back ached, but there was no escape. They said that this was how it was, but at fifteen Saraswati’s heart played a song with what lay on the horizon,

And so it was everyday. Just as the hues of blue showed the silhouette of the village, young girls emerged like ghostly shadows from a fairy tale. These were the child brides of the well’ as they had become known to villages far away. As the rivers and the wells retreated into their distant sanctuaries, leaving in their wake villages and communities desolate but for older people unable to move to the cities to fight another existence, another life, as always the Caste system provided the solution. This was after all a village of higher castes.

The priests let it be known that for young virgin to be married into a higher caste would absolve her whole family and their lineage of bondage into servitude. Young low caste girls were consecrated by the priests in temples (some for periods longer than normal) and amid much ceremony, a procession of 20 young girls were sent from outlying villages to Baramur. It was a strange sight – young girls nervous and giggly, walking into a village to welcomed by bent old men and women, anxiously looking for young high caste men that had agreed to marry them. Only when the marriage rites began, and as the drums played and the girls emerged from the huts with coy smiles on their faces did they realize that the bent old bodies in tattered turbans were about to become their husbands.

Saraswati remembered Paras, from another village who ran away screaming half naked. She was just 12. Three weeks later she returned. her family had closed the doors to her, busy as they were paying obeisance to the higher Gods of the high caste community. She was sent to the temple to be purified of her sins by the priest, the rituals of which had gone on for 3 weeks. Finally Paras had nowhere to go, but to where she was told that her new Gods and her Karma had deigned for her. The village of Baramur to her 73 year old husband.

Saraswati and most of the other girls were more fortunate. Their husbands had little interest in their young bodies, or the energy to indulge even if they did. But there were more immediate pressing needs. Some of the old people needed nursing even in the daily chores. The houses needed to be cleaned and meagre kitchens needed to be kept going. But beyond that there was a more fundamental need that the girls had been brought for.

Water.

The nearest working well was 12 kilometers away.There was no path even and the only way to get there was by foot.That’s how the name came – “Child Brides of the Well”.Each day the girls walked 4 hours to the well, and back 5 hours laden with pitchers of water.As they would for the rest of their young lives.

But there was something about Saraswati this morning. Paras was intrigued. For 3 years they had walked together to the well. Mostly in silence. After all there was not much that could provide young girls fodder for gossip in Baramur. And little drama. When Paras’s mother in law had started to beat her in a drunken state. In a fit of rage Paras had slapped her back and the whole village decided that she needed to be taught a lesson. For two whole days Paras was not allowed a single drop of water.

Then there was the time when Saraswati had started her menstrual cycle. She panicked and could not tell anyone. Terrified that blood stains would be found on her clothes, Saraswati would tie a rag full of fine desert sand around her parts to absorb the blood, and so naturally she had an internal infection. Each day Paras and Saraswati would use a couple of handfuls of water to clean her parts. That was the secret that bonded them together.

That they had used a little of the water they carried all the way back to the village for their own use.

 

As the evening shadows came, and Paras and Saraswati would approach the village after hauling their now full pots of water. Exhausted, they would pause by the lone tree at the outskirts of the Village and pray fervently. When spotted they would swear they were dutiful wives praying for the long lives of their creaking husbands. But the prayers were secretly directed towards a different God. Rather than the God of Eternal Youth, they would be praying to the God of Water. Praying for the Well to dry up.

The Gods seem to be answering their prayers too. The well was going dry. The next well was too far to comprehend. When the water ran out, the girls would be freed. Their village would finally die out and the young girls, no longer needed, would be free to go. Having fulfilled their Karma, the High Caste God’s would deliver them a different destiny.The Well was used by all 14 villages in three districts that it served. Only one of the villages used to get water supplied in a tanker pulled by two tired cows, as a dirt track still led to the village. That was because the distant cousin of the mistress of a district politician owned land there, and would visit with friends in noisy modern four wheelers. That was always an occasion, because the villagers would pick empty beer bottles left in their wake. Anything to store water in. Paras and Saraswati often wondered at the exciting lives of the young girls that went to that village to get married.

But Paras still wondered at the spring in Saraswati’s step today. The bells on her anklets seemed to beckon even the birds to gossip. Paras wanted to know what secrets the birds shared with Saraswati. Her footsteps on the parched earth were no more the rhythm of the plodding of a cow. The parched earth seemed to come alive with uncertain dance of each step.

But Saraswati would not tell. She just giggled and put a distance between her and Paras. The shadows cast by the early sun were still long enough to connect the two, and Paras tried to capture the secret by constantly tugging at Saraswati’s shadow. But then Saraswati took her Pitcher off her head, and lay down on her back. Stretching her arms wide to feel the coolness of the yet young earth on her body. The shadow was gone, and Paras suddenly felt completely naked. Never before had she taken this journey without the comfort of another shadow always walking side by side. The rhythm that kept them going these years, was suddenly broken.

Now if you were a Vulture swooping down to investigate, you would be forgiven for being confused. For lying still, hands stretched in the vast flat yellow landscape were two young bodies. It is not often you saw food potential so still yet breathing life as if they had just discovered it.

Paras felt as if she could hear Saraswati’s wild heart beat through the fluid earth. She felt hers responding, afraid that miles away, back in the village they would hear their rebellion.

“you were touched ?” Paras almost afraid of the next word “……..Where ?”

Their fingers touched. Lost in some imaginative world, Saraswati gently led Paras’s hand to her breast and laid it there.

“and .. ?”

As Saraswati took Paras’s hand down and held it between her thighs , Paras panicked and tried to escape. But Saraswati suddenly leaned over and looked straight into Para’s eyes. Holding them with a fierceness and intensity that told the story of the unimaginable.

Something changed that moment. Did the winds pick up ? Carrying Saraswati’s words across the land to her lover ? The birds went wild, confused at century old rules being broken. The desert throbbed in resonance with Saraswati’s breathless words as she poured out every acute memory of her encounter with absolute intimacy. Not even the Gods, nor centuries old tradition had the power to stop the discovery of a young girl of her feminine self.

“Who …”Caught in the first flush of Saraswati’s forbidden words, Paras was now panicking.

“The boy”Saraswati was suddenly coy. Had she revealed too much ? Would Paras possibly carry the secret in her belly forever ? But Saraswati was feeling brave today. She felt a surge of power.

“The boy that comes every six months with his father to sell medicinal oils”

It was all too real for Paras now. The panic swept up engulfing her entire self. She leaped up and screamed at Saraswati.

“Sin ! Sin ! “The Vulture squawked as the birds died down. Paras kicked dirt into Sarawati’s face. Again and again.

The sun was stronger. Higher. The shadows were much much shorter.

Saraswati ran after Paras. The Pitcher precariously balanced on her head. Desperately trying to keep up with Paras’s shadow. For where could she go without it ?

“I will die if you tell”Saraswati screamed. “I will deny it ! The whole village will know you are a liar “.

The wind was not listening anymore. The birds had lost interest. The Vulture looked for other prey. The sun directly overhead now, was casting no shadow. Paras and Saraswati were free of each other, but Saraswati kept shouting, till she was hoarser than the morning crows.

Paras whirled around. and slapped Saraswati hard. So hard that Saraswati’s pitcher fell down. But even then the instinctive laws of Water kicked in. Paras caught the Pitcher on time and roughly handed it back to Saraswati.

“He swore I was the only one”

Paras’s confession was not as passionate as Saraswati’s, but just as fierce.

The shadows were long again as the sun wilted and got tired of the hot day. But Saraswati and Paras no longer cared to be in each other’s shadow as the Well came into sight.

Nor did they pay much attention to the 50 odd women fighting for the narrow space on the perimeter of the Well. The Pitchers defined the Caste of the women. The upper caste ones had brass pitchers, but even though adopted into the higher caste, Saraswati and Paras could only afford clay Pitchers. It was a struggle to get your pitcher into the well and yet avoid it smashing against the brass ones or the side of the well. But this was a daily chore and both the girls went through the paces. Other matters on their minds.

Paras carefully watched her footsteps. She carried a much heavier load on her head than when she started. Balancing her pitcher on her head, she wondered if Saraswati still had a spring in her step. She had left Saraswati far enough behind for her not to notice. Paras tried a spring in her step. Like a little dance. The pitcher almost fell and Paras just caught it in time. But a little laugh escaped her.

“Paras !!”

Paras froze. Had Saraswati noticed her ? She looked around, and Pitcher carefully balanced on her head, Saraswati was running towards her. Secretly Paras was glad. Five hours was a lonely walk back without another shadow to keep you company.

Saraswati came up to Paras. She looked down and danced a little step. Daring Paras to do the same. Paras did, and the two young girls, having discovered a common spring in their steps, giggled.

“He’s not coming back for six months”

“And we will be on this journey everyday”Replied Saraswati.

“For the rest of our lives”said Paras sadly.

“No, replied the now optimistic Saraswati “Only till the Well runs dry”.

“Only till the Well runs dry”Agreed Paras, as both the girls lowered their pitchers and knelt in fervent prayers.

The village of Barmur was creaking to a halt. Getting ready to give up on the rigours of the day, hoping the dreams of the night would provide an escape to those that could sleep. They searched anxiously for the last two girls to return from the Well. Needing the Water and their young hands to do the nightly chores. In the distance the saw one long shadow. Just one.

Had one of the girls run away ? Moans of tired curses escaped the lips of those that imagined the chores that would get left. Already there was talk of how to make one girl do the work of two.

But to those that looked carefully, they would have seen two girls, their hands on each other’s shoulders. A spring in their step.

Two girls and one shadow.

 

@ Shekhar Kapur

Change in India comes from bottom of pyramid ( ‘Caste Busters’ from NY times Mag)

Hope NY times forgives me for reproducing this article without prior permission, but it is such a great article and important for those interested in India,

By ANAND GIRIDHARADAS

Published: December 30, 2010

New York Times Magazine

I came to Umred to write about a riot. A few months earlier, power blackouts that rural Indians always suffered silently triggered a violent reaction. Why? Umred was just another small town in the middle of nowhere, dusty and underwhelming. But Umred had begun to dream, townspeople told me, because of television, because of cousins with tales of call-center jobs and freedom in the city. Once Umred contracted ambition, blackouts became intolerable. A psychological revolution, a revolution in expectations, had taken place.

“Electricity is essential to ambition,” an energetic young man named Ravindra Misal explained to me, “because I need it to do my homework, I need it to listen to music if I am a dancer, I need it to listen to tapes of great speakers, I need it to surf the Internet. But I cannot, so people get angry.” Over plates of mutton and chicken, Misal and his friend Abhay offered examples of the little things that were changing in Umred: young men hunting online for wives, farmers’ sons deserting the farms to work at a bank in a nearby town, a deluge of students signing up for English classes. And beauty pageants. “I see Fashion TV on television, Miss India contests in the big cities,” Misal said. “So I thought, Why can’t we have that also?” And so he organized the first Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, which seemed to be half about physical appearance and half about the communication skills that are all the rage in small-town India.

Misal embodies the type of person who will truly transform India: not an engineer or a financier, but an average person who refuses to be satisfied with the status he was born to. Umred rioted because its people had somehow acquired the courage of their own dissatisfaction. But what kind of India will they build?

The beauty contest was enough of a success for Misal to organize the second Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest just months later, which he invited me to attend. On plastic chairs in a gymnasium, eight women sat dressed as if for their weddings, with sequined saris in pink, green and orange, pinned with white laminated contestant number tags. The men took their inspiration from Bollywood gangster movies, leafy collars drooping over the lapels of their ill-fitting suits. Their belts, the belts of the Indian underclass, were too long for their waists, traveling all the way around their backs, such that two belts would have furnished enough leather for three men.

The pageant began with a talent contest. Some of the contenders, most of them engineers from local colleges, sang; some danced; others told jokes. All of them seemed to plagiarize television, which was their main portal to the world. The pouts were lifted from Fashion TV, the breast shimmying from Channel V, the joke timing from the Great Indian Laughter Challenge on STAR One.

After a Q. and A. session and a catwalk round, which involved men and women who were probably not allowed to have lunch with a member of the opposite sex strutting down a ramp, it was time to choose the winners. The judges whisperingly reached their verdict and came onstage. One by one, the contestants thanked them, their hands touching the judges’ feet. The two winners were announced and handed their prizes: 600 rupees each and a gold-colored tiara (including one for Mr. Umred). Two banners on the stage declaring the name of the contest were removed and, reimagined as sashes, tied around the winners’ torsos.

I realized that night as I watched Misal, dressed in a crisp white-and-purple shirt and a dark tie emblazoned with the crest of a family not his own, that he had made himself Umred’s ambassador of escape: part motivational speaker, part revivalist preacher of the gospel of ambition. When he established the Mr. and Miss Umred Personality Contest, he was not bringing a new idea to Umred so much as giving expression to an existing idea. What he understood was that the young craved an exit, and he had built a personal empire to serve that craving. Everyone knew Misal. Everyone, regardless of age, called him “sir.” To reach Nagpur or Pune or Mumbai, you had to seek his advice, learn English from his English academy, learn roller skating from his roller-skating academy, reach into his network of contacts, compete in his pageant, learn to dress and think and enunciate like him.

On the day after the pageant, Misal took me to a restaurant called Uttam, which, in the small-town Indian way, served every kind of Indian cuisine except the local cuisine. As he began to tell me his story, I learned that Misal swept into Umred not from above but from below – far below. He was born in a village called Bhiwapur, a half-hour drive from Umred. It is one of hundreds of thousands of such villages in India. His family lived in a three-room house with concrete walls, an outdoor latrine and a thatched roof. They had no land to cultivate, just a small yard with some anemic trees. His father worked as a laborer, loading foodstuffs on and off trucks. His mother was a farmhand. Neither parent advanced past fourth grade; they spoke Marathi but not Hindi. “We are daily-wages people,” Misal said, betraying elements of the old thinking that he hadn’t wholly shaken: daily wages as social identity, not economic circumstance. He grew up eating plates heaped with rice, covered with watery lentil dal, with a small dollop of chutney on the side to lend piquancy, and sometimes a thin piece of roti. From time to time, the family splurged on eggplants. They bought their clothes secondhand from the village bazaar, making them poor even by the standards of the poor. They rarely possessed more than a few hundred rupees in savings – less than $20 – almost enough for a one-way train ride to a neighboring state. Misal’s family lived in a particular area of the village, a mohalla, a ghetto. As Misal grew up, he learned that his mohalla was reserved for low-caste laboring families like his. Their caste, traditionally tasked with crushing oil seeds, stood some rungs above the untouchables, belonging instead to the bureaucratic category of “Other Backward Classes.”

He discovered his inferiority at school, noticing that the Jaiswals and Agarwals and Guptas, the children of merchants and shopkeepers, bought 2-rupee ice creams at recess, while his mohalla friends bought the 50-paise kind. He realized that when guest speakers came to the school, the children of daily-wages people were rarely chosen to introduce them. He noticed that at the wedding of a big man in Bhiwapur, he had to wait until the “guests” had eaten. “You come afterward,” he remembered being scolded. He used to watch his classmates roar into the schoolyard on the backs of their parents’ motorcycles. He did not even have the two modes of transportation below motorcycles on the Indian staircase of affluence: the bicycle and shoes. He wore no footwear until ninth grade. “Whenever I saw other people wearing expensive shoes and socks and slippers, I used to get very angry, and I felt very bad,” he said. “Why am I not getting all these things? Why only I don’t have all these things? And at that time I decided that I will earn great money, and I will remove my poverty. I considered poverty as a disease.”

This was not the old Indian orthodoxy: for Misal, the world was not illusion, maya; it was not enough simply to do one’s duty and do it well and be satisfied with what God gave. “I just believed that we all are equal human beings, so why do we have differences, as far as social status is concerned, economical status is concerned, social recognition and honor and respect?” he said. “What I used to believe every time is that if one person is getting something big, better and best, that should be my right.”

“Most Indians don’t think like that,” I interrupted.

“They don’t think like that,” he said. “They just want to compromise: it’s O.K., we’re having sufficient things; let’s be settled. But – I don’t know – right from the beginning, I had great anger of my poverty. The generations after me will not live this kind of life – that’s what I decided. I will change my destiny. I will be good. I will be rich.”

When Misal was in eighth grade, the village school held a public-speaking contest. He had never stood on a stage before. But now there he was, with hundreds of people sitting below him, watching. He spoke for five minutes; the crowd applauded three times. He discovered that night a power in himself that he had not known: to connect, to inspire, to cut into people’s hearts with his words. And, having contracted his thirst for money through its absence, he now felt the first rush of respect. “I felt that I am something different, I am something special,” he said.

Misal’s speech, which won the prize, was about the impact of television on society, and by that time a television bought by the family was having a great impact on Misal himself. He would spend hours each day watching “He-Man,” “Spider-Man” and “Batman,” piously balanced with the Hindutainment of the “Mahabharat” and “Ramayan” series. In Misal’s world, television was seen, even by parents, as a force of liberation. “TV is the very hi-fi form of everything,” Misal said. “It’s the extreme level of ideas, where they show you everything at top level, so that certainly gives you motivation. On TV you see the things of world-class standard. When you see some person on Discovery catching anaconda, you are looking at the best person in the world for catching anaconda. On TV we never see the strugglers or something like that; we see the people who have achieved what they wanted to be.”

For all his dreams, Misal was just another village kid who didn’t have connections and didn’t speak English, the language of success in the India that was beginning to flourish in the 1990s. At the end of 10th grade, he enrolled himself in an English-language school in Umred, the nearest town, even though he didn’t speak English. He and the other village kids sat in the back of the classroom gathering fragments of vocabulary and grammar day by day.

He graduated and moved on to a college in Umred, choosing business as his major. But he was working numerous odd jobs after school; the strains became too much, and he failed his second-year exams. He was kicked out.

In an earlier India, that might have been his story’s end: there were no second chances then, and there were no other routes upward. Knowledge was the rampart that protected the well-born from the rest. In an earlier age, that meant confining Sanskrit learning to the priestly castes; in more recent times, it translated into massive public investment in elite colleges and universities and the neglect of basic schooling for most Indians. Even today, the quality of instruction at all but the best institutions is miserable. And so if you were like Misal, you were probably not getting a very good education to begin with, even before an unforgiving examination system cut you loose.

But the ambitions stirring below created a market for a new breed of middle-class finishing schools. They catered to young people born into the lower orders, filled with dreams but shut out by the old system. The schools were often single-room institutions, taking cash only, with dubious teaching methods. The most common subject was English. It was not the archaic English curriculum of many Indian schools and colleges, with Shakespearean sonnets memorized and not understood. It was spoken English that could be used in the workplace, language the quick and dirty way. It gave students the idioms, vocabulary and placeless accent that would render your lowly origins untraceable in a land where so much could be deduced when you opened your mouth.

Misal coated himself with one finishing-school skill after another, learning everything from desktop publishing to how to be an electrician. One of the schools sensed his talent with people and hired him as a teacher, paying him 360 rupees a month. Another school soon poached him for more than double that amount. With the finishing-school cult spreading, the company even opened a branch in Bhiwapur. Misal was sent to manage a school there. He had left the village as the boy who ate last at weddings; he returned as that loftiest of Indian creatures, a teacher and, better still, a purveyor of new-economy skills. He was earning 1,800 rupees a month. He had become a big man.

On his 21st birthday, in September 2002, he bought a motorcycle. It was the first motorized vehicle owned in the history of his family. He drove it from the showroom to his home and took his mother for a spin around the village. “She didn’t say anything,” he recalled. “She just cried. And she said, ‘Take care of the bike.’ ”

Misal told me his favorite book was Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” with its tale of the writer’s poor childhood in Missouri, his contemplation of suicide and then his discovery of a talent for public speaking. “I have read that 28 times so far,” he said. “Whenever I feel nervous or depressed, I open that book.”

In 2004, Misal decided to return to Umred and become its Dale Carnegie – to start a finishing school of his own. He set up roller-skating classes and an event-management firm, but the heart of his work was a spoken-English academy. It offered 90 hours of classes over 45 days for just 1,000 rupees, the cost of a fancy meal in Mumbai. The students trickled in at first; then the trickle gathered into a gush and before long Misal was just about the most important and well-known young man in Umred.

A year after my visit to Umred, my phone buzzed with a text from Misal:

Sir, last couple of months are full of achievements 4 me. My 2 skating kids represented India in international skating comp in Belgium. It ws my greatest dream, turned into reality. I ws busy in passports, visas n other formalities. Nw im going 2 Hongkong 4 international Skating Championship as India team manager on sep 26. My life is transforming rapidly this time. My faith on my abilities raised. Its rising time 4me. My image is getting new shape. Im proving n improving at personal, social, family n financial areas nicely. At present im contributory english lecturer at 6 dif school n colleges. Im constructing my new home also.

Read the rest of this entry »

A spiritual connection to the food we eat ?

Does food respond to our emotions ?

Science will one day tell us why ‘mothers cooking’ is better for you. Till then we all just believe it anyway. Not only because of it’s nutritional quality measurable in vitamins, minerals and enzymes, but because it is cooked with the most vital ingredient of all.

Love. As an undefined energy. That extra but most important ingredient that I call ‘life force’ and in Yoga they call ‘Prana’.

Our bodies react to the ‘life force’ that can be created or destroyed, increased or diminished in food depending on how it is grown, prepared,cooked and served. And the final arbiter is us, as we add or diminish ‘life force’ to our food by the attitude with which we consume it. Like the very idea of Prasadum. Food offered in love and humility and accepted in love and humility. Does a prayer then, actually change the essential nature of the food we eat, and how it is assimilated in our body ?

I wish there were diet books on how our changing life styles and loss of humility generally are leading to attitudes of food consumption that are proving to be cruel to our bodies. There has been so much written about the benefits of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ with analysis of the benefit of Olive Oil etc, but no one seems to point to the family system and attitudes to eating and cooking that could be positively effecting the health of people that still follow traditional relationship between family and food in those parts of the world.

I am often aghast at the amount of manufactured food we waste. And I use the word ‘manufacture’ deliberately because I notice a much higher degree of propensity to waste in packaged foods.

Ask a Modern urban child how they emotionally connect to their food and you will find a very probable first connection to something out of a packet, and then to he fridge (if they are lucky), or the farthest back in the chain would be the supermarket/grocery shop. Very few have had an emotional connection to the process of growing something from the soil, or really connect to soil as anything but mud dust or dirt over which concrete roads or apartments need to be built. Nor is there any sense of nurture associated with the growing of crops or plants. People who live off the land or forests develop harmonious relationships that lead to respect and commitment to environment and nature. Bread grown off wheat ground and baked at home not only tastes different, but is more respected, not wasted. Vegetables bought at the local ‘farmer’s market’ and washed and cut at home tend not to be wasted. How often have I been to homes where people speak with pride of the fact that the food being served is organic, or bought personally at the local farmers market. Its creates an attitude of respect and reverence to the food as it is served. While urban dustbins are full of half eaten Pizza’s and other packaged foods bought at supermarkets.

So while in a world headed to massive food shortages there is a great argument towards large scale corporate farming, packaging and distribution systems over long distances of ‘manufactured’ foods, and while there is a completely different argument at moments of famine or serious shortages caused by large scale movements of displaced people, I wonder if these systems are long term solutions at all. Whether the further we distance ourselves from the source, the less we respect and therefore continue to waste and destroy our environment.

“If doing something makes you worried, then it must be a wrong thing. If it makes you happy, then you must have done the right thing.”

An inspiring and motivational true story of a Taiwanese woman who sells vegetables……and donates generously to help the poor……
Wed, Dec 01, 2010 Reader’s Digest

The generous vegetable seller
by Esther Liang

After the morning hustle and bustle, the atmosphere at Taitung county’s Central Market quietens as every stall shuts for the day and their owners return to the comfort of their homes. A lone lamp shines on a vegetable stall. With head bowed, Ms Chen Shu-chu silently sorts out the vegetable leaves as she waits for the occasional afternoon customer. Decades of hard work have caused the fingers on her right hand to curl and joints to swell; her feet have deformed slightly.

Ms Chen leads her life with a daily routine. Waking up at three in the morning, she makes her way to the vegetable wholesaler and sets up her stall, which she tends till seven or eight in the evening. Being the first to arrive and last to leave, the other stall owners have fondly given her the title of “market manager”. In the dark and damp market, Ms Chen, nearing her 60s, holds the stall her father left her dearly. Yuan-Jin Vegetables is her everything. With her vegetables selling at “a bundle for NT$30 (S$1.30), three bundles for NT$50”, she earns only marginal profit.

Yet, her frugality has allowed her to donate about NT$10 million towards various charitable causes, including helping schools, orphanages and poor children. The selfless generosity of a woman with such humble income has placed her under the international spotlight. In March, Forbes magazine named her one of 48 outstanding philanthropists from the Asia-Pacific region. A month later, Time magazine selected the year’s top 100 influential people and she emerged under the Heroes of Philanthropy category. Fellow Taiwanese and Oscar- winning director Lee Ang wrote her entry personally. “Money is worthy only if given to those in need,” he quoted Ms Chen. He also wrote: “Amazing, but of all she has given away, her greatest gift is leading by example.”

Despite the honour of receiving the Time award in New York, gaining global recognition, and a personal meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou, all Ms Chen really cares about is her vegetable stall. If not for President Ma and the Foreign Minister personally convincing her to go, she would not have agreed to visit New York, as she felt that “this is not a competition and I did not win anything”. Amid the frenzy of applying for a passport and preparing for the visit, her main concern was that her regular customers would not get their vegetables.

Ms Chen has become a celebrity in Taitung county. The local authorities decorated her stall with congratulatory posters and banners hailing her as the Pride of Taitung and the Model of Philanthropy. There are fans who turn up at the stall with a vegetable basket and a camera, hoping for a picture with Ms Chen. Despite all the attention, she remains humble. “I have done nothing extraordinary and anyone who wants to can do it.

There are many other charitable people; we just don’t know about them,” she said. Ms Chen, who is unmarried, added: “I do not place great importance on money. When I donate to help others, I feel at peace and happy, and I can sleep well at night.” She also feels for the poor, having experienced hardship in her younger days.

Born in 1950, Ms Chen lost her mother after completing her primary-school education. Her mother was admitted to hospital because of difficulties in labour and the family had to pay an insurance of NT$5,000 before medical attention could be granted. Ms Chen saw her father asking their neighbours for money, but it was too late to save her mother. The eldest daughter in the family, Ms Chen had to grow up overnight. She gave up her studies and dedicated her life to helping at the vegetable stall. When she was 18, her younger brother fell sick and the illness dragged on for over a year, gradually depleting the family’s savings. Doctors suggested that the family send her brother to Taiwan National University Hospital, but they could not afford the fees. Mr Huang Shun-zhong, a teacher at Ren-ai Primary School, started a donation drive. Unfortunately, her brother could not be saved.

After experiencing the kindness bestowed upon her family, Ms Chen made up her mind to help the poor once she was able. When her father died 17 years ago, Ms Chen, a devoted Buddhist, generously donated NT$1 million to Fo Guang Shan Monastery. In 2000, she donated NT$1 million to her alma mater, Ren-ai Primary School, to set up an Emergency Relief Fund to help poor children obtain financial help. Assisting in the setting up and maintenance of the fund is Mr Li Guo-rong, who teaches Ms Chen’s nephew.

In 2001, Mr Li had a plan to build a library for the school and estimated the cost to be between NT$4 million and NT$5 million. When he approached Ms Chen, in the hope that she might contribute NT$50,000, Li was shocked when she said she would fund the entire project. The school was sceptical, but Ms Chen was determined. In May 2005, the two-storey library was completed and named Chen Shu-chu Library in honour of the “Vegetable Market heroine” alumnus. She had donated NT$4.5 million. Read the rest of this entry »

Sleep

teasing me with your presence
brushing past me
like the breath of an angel
and then flying away with that smile
the receding promise of coming back
like the gentle lapping wave
touching my toes and then flowing away
you stare into my eyes with teasing smile
the promise of the embrace that you keep away

I ask you why I must let my thoughts wander
I ask you why I must explore the depths of where
it is meaningless to go
what do you want of me
what must I do to comfort you
so your gentle hands stroke my face
as i move into your embrace
without you shying away
like a newly wed bride

Independent Film Making

I get so many people writing in about their desire to make films independently that I am going to publish their letters so as to start a discussion group. Its wonderful how many people from different walks of life are now wanting to express themselves through the medium of film. I guess part of that is because technology has made it so much easier to shoot, edit do the sound and upload the film for people to watch. Gone are the days when, like I did, needed to wait 12 years to convince someone to give me an expensive camera, expensive stock and make Masoom. Yup, 12 long years of trying to convince people I could direct.

Now when people come to me to ask for advice on how to make a film, the answer is simple. Go make one. You have all the tools. Unless you want a theatrical release which is a completely different story. Then your film turns into a project and a business proposal. Do you really want that burden ?

But if someone, anyone wants to share their experience in making/attempting to make an independent film, please do write in ….

An accident on London Streets

This picture has a peculiar story. I was rushing by Piccadilly in London not sure what was happening and just clicked on it. A very large man standing next to me looked at me accusingly

” what the fuck did you shoot that for”

I looked carefully and realized it was an accident. Mumbled an apology and left. I had obviously upset his sensibilities and it was understandable. As I was a bit away he shouted

” You shit head”

I thought about a confrontation. Decided I would do so, and went back to him.

” Do you watch TV ??” I said.

“what business is it of yours, but yes”

“and you watch video’s of Afghan kids dying on the streets, and Iraqi civilians with their limbs blown off, and every where else that your troops have caused death and destruction and your media has gleefully put them on your TV and you watch them. But it’s not OK for me to shoot something in the street of London that may have been an accident ? Why ?”

I wish I could send him this picture to compare mine to the ones media shows.

I was being unreasonable I knew, but was angry. I was actually angry at all the the hype being given to the new Wiki leaks about what the US and British troops did. Like the world did not know all this was going on ? What kind of naivety is that ?

Quantum Chips, an intuitive, creative computer ?

Bristol University announced they have developed a chip that works not electromagnetically but through light (did I get that right ?), so it’s not only much much faster but also one that works on the principles of Quantum Physics. Where particles can be at several places at the same time.

Now am I getting this right ? Are we talking about a computer that can live with principles of Uncertainty and Chaos, and deduce results that are defined from there ? Is this the beginning of HAL out of 2001 Space Odyssey ? The applications possible with this chip are mind boggling.

A camera that can intuitively sense your ‘eye’ over time and frame pictures exactly as you would like them, but once you feed in all the masters (say Renoir) it could see your pics with the ‘eye’ of Renoir. Make everyone into a master photographer.

A Robot of course. But more essentially :

a. Medical diagnosis by a computer not really needing a doctor, so taking medical services to where they are needed most.
b. teaching without teachers
c. Intuitive Robots reaching outer edges of Space, saying ” Houston , we have a problem’
d. Chips designed to learn their own structures and continuously exploring their own ‘quantum, structure and exploring the micro meaning of the universe,

and to me the best : A computer that can write a creative script for a film that does not need to sleep, or take weekends off. And whom I could have hours of discussions and arguments with,

I could go and so could you, but have I got it completely wrong ?