Sunday, September 30, 2007

Children's Books and DVD's

I just finished watching some wonderful interactive DVD's for kids.

The first one was Swimmy and more classic Leo Lionni Stories By Scholastic.
It consists of 5 stories, Swimmy, Frederick, Fish is Fish, It's mine and Cornelius. Watching the stories, you feel that you are reading a beautifully illustrated book. The images are not cartoonish, but gentle and calm and very soothing for a small baby. Most of the stories deal with animals like fish, mice, frogs and even a crocodile.

The other DVD was Baby Einstein, Meet the Orchestra. This DVD introduces children to musical instruments found in an orchestra and the different sounds they make. We saw string instruments, piano and guitar, wood wind and drums. It was entertaining since it included puppet shows, little babies playing the instruments, and familiar classical music by Beethoven, Joplin, Haydn, Mozart and Strauss. Mira loved to hear the different sounds each instrument made.
The Baby Einstein company definitely has a pulse on what children enjoy and how to make every moment a "teachable opportunity".

Two books that we enjoyed this week were Have you seen my duckling? by Nancy Tafuri. This book is mostly illustrations of a duck looking for her duckling. While looking she asks different birds, beavers, fish and a turtle. Wonderful illustrations and fewer words make it a visual delight for infants that don't understand words yet.

A beautiful book by Ed Young, tittled My Mei Mei is currently Mira's favourite book for it's gorgeous reproductions of textiles. The book is a large board book dealing with adoptions from China, sibling rivalry and eventually love and acceptance within an adopted family.

Cat got your tongue?

Time magazine describes the reasons that India is so silent on the saffron revolution that is threatening the power of the dictators. Here are the geo-political reasons why.

Delhi's strategy is threefold. Its initial overtures to Burma's military leaders came as India faced a growing insurgency in its northeast. Many of the rebel groups in that region are based and train across the border in Burma. As India has grown friendlier with Burma's generals the two countries have worked together — with some limited success — on eradicating the northeastern insurgents.

Like China, power-hungry India is also keen on exploiting Burma's huge oil and gas resources. This month it signed a production deal for three deep-water exploration blocks off the Rakhine coast. It is also searching for gas in two other blocks. Access to Burma's resources will help boost India's power supplies but it is important for geopolitical reasons as well. The new production deal comes only months after Beijing beat Delhi on securing a deal to build a pipeline through to Burma's gas fields. The race for resources has helped make Burma the frontline in a larger struggle for influence in Southeast Asia. The threat of unfettered Chinese influence in Burma is one of Delhi's main ripostes when western allies question India's ties with Rangoon.

Will such a stance hurt India's democratic credentials? India's former Defense Minister George Fernandez, a longtime supporter of Burmese democracy activists, thinks so, calling such quiet diplomacy "disgusting." "This government is not concerned with what is happening in its own neighborhood," he says. In one of the few Indian newspaper opinion pieces to question India's stance Karan Thapar asked in the Hindustan Times last week whether a "Cat got our tongue?" "Indian democracy has shrunk because of its unwillingness to speak out," he wrote.
Modern Love section in the NYT has a funny story about a family that a woman thought she was part off, but then wasn't.

NOW, I wished that my East Coast parents would adopt some aspects of my Western parents’ infuriating impartiality: search for balance, look at it from my point of view. I felt like a squalling sibling, tugging on their sleeves, crying: “Not just my fault! Not just my fault!”

When a friendship ends, you start to measure time by what your friend has missed. In the two years that have passed, I broke up with some boyfriends, I was mugged at knife point, my sister married. I wrote one unpublished book review, then another.

Through all of the changes that a couple of years bring, both monumental and ridiculous, I missed my friend. I missed her sarcasm, her insight. Her mother. Her father. Oh, how they would have worried about me. How they would have laughed at my stories. How they would have understood my frustrations, fed me potatoes and tortes to assuage my boy-grief, expressed indignation at the rejection slips that kept piling up next to my computer.

Without my East Coast family’s Mafioso loyalty, my achievements seemed less shiny, my disappointments more foreboding.

I thought about sending them a card: “Have you sat shiva for me yet?”

I worried that they would not think it was funny. I worried that they would not answer. I imagined dinner parties, trays of canapés being passed. I imagined someone bringing my name up at the table. I could see my friend’s mother stop chewing, narrow her eyes. A wagging finger: Not in this house.

It was too much; I never wrote. In the end, I realized that I adored my friend’s parents for the exact reason that I would not hear from them: because they loved their daughter so fiercely, so actively, so unswervingly. Theirs was a glaring and glorious spotlight of love with a sharp, defined edge.

And I had stepped out.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Beauty Junkies

Alternet has an excerpted article from Ms. Magazine about cosmetic surgery being touted as the new feminism.

Alex Kuczynski, a New York Times reporter and author of Beauty Junkies (Doubleday, 2006) calls these latest appeals "the new feminism, an activism of aesthetics." That ignores the work of feminists from Susan Faludi to Susan Bordo, who have argued for years against the global beauty industry and its misogynistic practices. Yet the cosmetic-surgery industry is doing exactly what the beauty industry has done for years: It's co-opting, repackaging and reselling the feminist call to empower women into what may be dubbed "consumer feminism." Under the dual slogans of possibility and choice, producers, promoters and providers are selling elective surgery as self-determination.

These days, with consumers able to "choose" from among a dizzying array of procedures and providers, even the most minute areas of the female body are potential sites of worry and "intervention." Surgical procedures have been developed to reduce "bra fat," to make over belly-buttons, to "rejuvenate" vaginas after childbirth or to achieve the "Sex and the City effect" -- foot surgeries to shorten or even remove a toe in order for women to squeeze their feet into pointy shoes.

Few seem immune to the sell, no matter what their income. In fact, according to an ASPS-commissioned study, more than two-thirds of those who underwent cosmetic surgery in 2005 made $60,000 or less. Easy access to credit and the declining cost of procedures has brought even the working class into the market.

The most graphic consequences of these trends are the stretched, alien, expressionless faces worn by certain celebrities and increasing numbers of "everyday" women. There are also the disfigurements and deaths that can result from surgeries gone wrong.

At the end of Beauty Junkies, Kuczynski asserts that "looks are the new feminism." Yet it's feminists who have led the fight against silicone breast implants when research suggested they were dangerous. It's feminists who have pointed out that a branch of medicine formed to fix or replace broken, burned and diseased body parts has since become an industry serving often-misogynistic interests. And it's feminists who have emphatically and persistently shown that cosmetic medicine exists because sexism is powerfully linked with capitalism -- keeping a woman worried about her looks in order to stay attractive, keep a job or retain self-worth. To say that a preoccupation with looks is "feminist" is a cynical misreading; feminists must instead insist that a furrowed, "wise" brow -- minus the fillers -- is the empowered feminist face, both old and new.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just finished reading a very powerful book on the struggle for Biafra. The title referred to the national flag of Biafra The novelist weaves the story of families and relationships, loyalties and fears while dealing with the larger issues of war, hunger, poverty, violence and death.

The dialogue between Aunty Ifeka and Olanna was the turning point in the novel for Olanna.

.."I know now that nothing he does will make my life change. My life will only change if I want it to change."

"What are you saying Aunty?"

"He is very careful now, since he realized that I am no longer afraid"...."You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?" Aunty Ifeka said.

"Your life belongs to you and you alone, soso gi.."

NYT's reviews it here.

ARE we ready for a novel about an imploding nation riven by religious strife and bloody wrangling over who controls the military, the civil service, the oil; a novel about looting, roadside bombs, killings and reprisal killings, set against a backdrop of meddling foreign powers? A novel in which several once-colonized peoples chafe against the nonsensical national boundaries that bind them together, in which citizens abandoned on the highways of fear must choose between a volatile federation and destabilizing partition?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel takes place not in the deserts of contemporary Iraq but in the forests of southeastern Nigeria — 40 years ago. If, at independence in 1960, Nigeria was “a collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp,” in 1967 that clasp snapped, unleashing the three-year Biafran War that saw Muslim-dominated forces from the north laying siege to the Christian Igbo of the south, who sought to secede from Nigeria after the widespread massacre of their people.

At once historical and eerily current, “Half of a Yellow Sun” honors the memory of a war largely forgotten outside Nigeria, except as a synonym for famine. But although she uses history to gain leverage on the present, Adichie is a storyteller, not a crusader.

The novel centers on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, members of the Igbo elite. Physically and temperamentally dissimilar, they struggle with an on-again-off-again mutual loyalty crosshatched with mistrust and betrayal. The twins also gravitate toward very different men: Olanna becomes the mistress of Odenigbo, an expansive intellectual and Pan-Africanist who teaches at a provincial university, while Kainene falls for Richard, a bashful, awkward but principled Englishman who takes up the Biafran cause. Rumors of war, then all-out conflict throw this privileged foursome’s world into disarray — along with the very different world of Ugwu, Odenigbo’s houseboy, who comes from an impoverished rural village.

At times Adichie’s writing is too straightforward, the novel’s pace too slack. But whenever she touches on her favorite themes — loyalty and betrayal — her prose thrums with life. Like Nadine Gordimer, she likes to position her characters at crossroads where public and private allegiances threaten to collide. Both “Half of a Yellow Sun” and Adichie’s first novel, “Purple Hibiscus” (which won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), explore the gap between the public performances of male heroes and their private irresponsibilities. And both novels shrewdly observe the women — the wives, the daughters — left dangling over that chasm.

When does loyalty flow from love, and when from shared adversity or heritage? “Half of a Yellow Sun” explores these questions through the twins’ uneasy relationship. Like Nigeria’s postcolonial peoples, their lives are involuntarily joined; both they and their nation must choose between a fractious unity and a fraught secession.

The Biafran War has exercised a powerful hold over Nigeria’s literary imagination, animating almost every notable Nigerian writer from Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo to Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Adichie, who was born after the war, belongs to a new generation of talented young Nigerian writers: Helon Habila, Uzondinma Iweala, Helen Oyeyemi and Chris Abani (whose “Graceland,” about a shantytown Elvis impersonator, is one of the most astonishing metropolitan novels of our time).

Adichie may not have lived through the civil war, but her imagination seems to have been profoundly molded by it: some of her own Igbo family survived Biafra; others did not. Like the young American writer Tom Bissell, for whom the Vietnam War has become a shaping passion via his ravaged veteran father, Adichie approaches her country’s past violence with a blend of generational distance and familial obsession.

This tug of detachment and intimacy gives “Half of a Yellow Sun” an empathetic tone that never succumbs to the simplifying impulses, heroic or demonic, of advocacy literature. Even the most honorable of her characters have humanizing flaws. Adichie understands that novels, above all war novels, cannot easily survive a rush to judgment. And so she takes us into the minds of both a gang-raped bar girl and the once-tender teenage soldier who eventually becomes her assailant. Reaching deep, she finds a “hard clot of fear inside him” at “the casual cruelty of this new world,” a cruelty in which he becomes incrementally complicit.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” speaks through history to our war-racked age not through abstract analogy but through the energy of vibrant, sometimes horrifying detail. A refugee flees the north by train, carrying in a bowl her daughter’s head, still bearing its delicate braids. Famished children in refugee camps find themselves unable to outpace and catch lizards. A child soldier, nicknamed Target Destroyer, uses “words like enemy fire and Attack HQ with a casual coldness, as if to make up for his crying.” A girl’s belly starts to swell, and her mother wonders: is she pregnant or suffering from malnutrition?

The poet Czeslaw Milosz, on fleeing Poland for the United States, was bemused by Americans’ assumption that their future would more or less resemble their present and their past. If you’re from Poland or Nigeria — or Lebanon, Guatemala, Afghanistan, Colombia or Vietnam (or arguably from most societies on earth) — the assumption of continuity can seem improbable to the point of madness.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Despotism Formerly Known as Burma

NYT has a strong editorial on the Saffron Revolution sweeping Burma. Burma's neighbours, China, Russia and India, that sell the military weapons need to make definitive statements demanding that the cruel military junta step down.

By dispatching troops into the streets and imposing a curfew, Myanmar’s cruel military junta has set the stage for a serious clash with pro-democracy activists. A firm and united international response along the lines outlined by President Bush and the European Union at the United Nations yesterday offers the best hope of encouraging peaceful change in a nation that has endured a 19-year reign of fear. The question is whether the countries with the greatest influence on Myanmar’s generals — China, Russia and India, which all sell weapons to the army, as well as the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that are Myanmar’s immediate neighbors — have the good sense to condemn the repression and exert the pressures only they can wield with any hope of positive effect. It is essential that they step up to the plate, and fast, before blood is spilled.

Peaceful protests that began last month over dramatically increased fuel prices became seriously threatening to the junta when Myanmar’s highly revered Buddhist monks joined in. The growing crowds gave voice to pent-up grievances — and the junta responded in a predictable, entirely wrongheaded way. It sent troops into the streets, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was reported to have been moved to prison from house arrest.

The United States, which has long had sanctions on Myanmar, including an import ban, will now expand a visa ban against regime leaders and tighten financial penalties, Mr. Bush told the United Nations. Although not spelled out, the plan is believed to include going after regime bank accounts in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, a tactic used by Washington with some effect against North Korea. The European Union also warned the junta that it faced tougher sanctions if it used force to crush the pro-democracy movement.

These were good and necessary moves, but the greatest leverage to forestall disaster lies with China, Russia and India, who are making money off the junta and enabling it to stay in power. China, Myanmar’s chief trade partner and the host of the 2008 Olympic Games, has beefed up arms sales to Yangon, formerly Rangoon, prompting Russia and India to do likewise as a way of offsetting Beijing’s influence.

Moscow has discussed providing the junta with a nuclear research reactor, and India — the democracy on which the United States hopes to build a key security and economic relationship for the 21st century — had a senior minister in Myanmar for energy talks, even as the democracy protests were under way.

There are some signs that China has urged restraint, but more must be done, including supporting U.N. sanctions on Myanmar that Beijing and Moscow have so far blocked. The U.N. envoy dealing with Myanmar, Ibrahmim Gambari, must aggressively rally these major countries, as well as the Asean nations, to persuade the generals to stand down.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sankriti Indian Dances

This dance recital was part of the incredible India celebration, I saw the Monday evening show. I felt the first half was wonderful, with each dance form, starting with Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Mohiniattam and ending with Kathak was well done. After the break the composite section which included the above dances and also featured, Kathakali and Manipuri dances was well conceived and spectacular. But then a repeat of all dances was tedious and unnecessary and took away from the magic of the evening. The Composite presentation was choreographed by Madhavi Mudgal.

Here is a bit of history on Indian dance and on each of the styles.

Indian dance follows the tradition of Natyashastra- a treatise on dance written by Bharata.

Bharatanatyam- comes from Tamil Nadu. It has songs in Telugu, Tamil and Sanskrit. The Tanjore Quartet of the 19th century created the structure, format and musical compositions for present day performances. The dance deals with nritta, abstract dance and nritya which unfolds the narrative. The music belongs to the Carnatic school.

Odissi- originated in the Indian state of Orissa and was performed by female temple servants. Much of the dance was recreated by looking at medieval temple sculptures, painting and literature. The lore of Krishna and Radha supply the content for the dance.

Manipuri-is from Manipur and is staged in temples. The Bhakti element is the predominant theme. The dance is introverted and restrained in comparison with other Indian dances.

Kathak- is the principal dance of North India. It originated from storytellers retelling the Scriptures, the epics Ramayan and Maharbharat and Puranic literature. It soon transited to the secular realm in Medieval India and achieved it's flowering under the Mughals. It is characterized by its scintillating footwork and pirouettes. The music consists of thumris and other lyrical song forms.

Kathakali- or story-play began in Kerala in the 17th century under the patronage of the prince of Kottarakara. Stories from the Mahabharat and Ramayan provide the context for most Kathakali dramas. The characters are classified according to their nature, makeup and costume build up these characters. The faces are painted to represent- green for heroes, kings and divinities, red and black for evil and fierce personalities. The actor's performance is speechless, the libretto is sung by two singers on stage. The story is interpreted by the use of facial expressions and hand gestures or Mudras.

Mohiniyattam has originated in Kerala. It is closely related to Bharathanatyam of Tamil Nadu, which was originally called 'Dasiyattam'. It started as the temple dance performed by Devadasis, it portrays feminine love in its myriad forms - carnal, devotional and maternal. In this dance facial expressions are more important than the rhythmic steps.

Spinning Wheel Film Festival

I saw the 4th cluster of SW film festival at the Asia Society. The first thing that I noticed was that Sikh women have started wearing a turban. Here is a link to Sikh women from the Sikhwiki. I have being around Sikh women all my life and have never seen women wear turbans so am curious if this is a current development? Are these women practising a different type of Sikhism? Is it in reponse to men that are taking off their turbans after 9.11 so as not to be confused with Muslims. If anyone has more knowledge about this do send me comments.

I saw two movies, the first was Ninteen Eighty Four and the via Dolorosa Project by the Singh Twins. The 23 minute movie explores the twin's painting, 1984 that depicts the storming of the Golden Temple at Amritsar by Indian troops. The connection with the Catholic Christian tradition of the Via Dolorosa was interesting.

The second movie was 73 minutes long, titled Widow Colony and directed by Harpreet Kaur. This movie took an indepth look into the lives of the widows of the Sikh men killed in the Anti-Sikh massacre of November 1984. The film explored the suffering of these women, their battle for justice and their struggle for survival in Delhi. The women were extremely angry, twenty years after the massacre, the politicians that instigated the frenzied killings are still in power and have been not held accountable. The women remind us that even with all the progress India has made, Sikhs are not safe and should not expect protection from the police. Patwant Singh reflected on the fact that no Sikh business has come forward to provide jobs for these widows and orphan boys, either in India or the diaspora. The movie focussed on the women who described what happened those 3 days in November 1984. 20 years later the memories were raw, and one of the women said don't come here if you cannot help us, all you all do is hear our story and then go away and that just brings up all these memories of loss, suffering and pain back. Go away (to your comfortable lives) and let us be.

More on the movie here

We thought we were going to set up, interview and leave.” But when they taped their first interview with Gurdeep Kaur, it was unimaginable what they heard. “When Gurdeep Kaur started talking, we started balling. Her strength and pain, we really felt it. We were then prepared to listen the most horrifying stories.”

The film takes the viewer to the areas of Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Sultanpuri and Mongolpuri, the same localities that suffered the major brunt of the Sikh killings. In November of 1984, government-organized mobs went on a barbaric rampage to take their murderous revenge on Sikhs for the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31. Conservative estimates say that over four thousand Sikhs, mostly men and some women and children, were butchered and burned alive during four days of lawlessness in Delhi alone. Left behind were thousands of widows and children. The trauma of 1984 still haunts them today.

Burma Protests and Honor Killing in Punjab

So much happening and so little time to blog. My baby is also suffering from major separation anxiety from her mother. So when I come home she cry's when she sees me, and is upset in the evenings. By the time I put her to sleep I am exhausted.

In Burma the protests seems to be growing daily with nuns, monks being joined by Burmese citizens, demanding an end to military rule. Bush's sanctions on top military leaders is a positive development.

Surjit was killed by her mother-in-law and the MIL's brother Darshan. Her husband tried to cover up the crime. Sickening and disgusting. When will Sikhs stop worrying about their family's izzat and start caring and protecting their sisters, daughters and mothers??

A 70-year-old Sikh grandmother was jailed for life yesterday for arranging the "honour killing" of a daughter-in-law she blamed for bringing shame on the family name by seeking a divorce.
In what the judge described as a "heinous crime characterised by great wickedness", Bachan Athwal decided that Surjit Athwal, 26, was to be "got rid of".

The mother of two was lured to India and murdered. Her body was thrown in the river Ravi, close to the Pakistani border, and was never recovered.

Surjit's husband, Sukhdave, 43, who attempted to cover up the crime by forging letters to the Indian authorities, was also sentenced to life imprisonment and must serve at least 27 years.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Early Morning Book reading with Pishe

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Geeta Bhua

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Men and Women

NYT has a wonderful article on rich women dating men who earn less than them.

Ms. Rowland, like some other women interviewed, said that she has come to the conclusion that it would be easier to date someone in the same economic bracket.

“I love traveling, going to the opera and good restaurants,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be Per Se, but good food is important in my life. It’s sometimes hard to maintain the lifestyle I’m used to when I’m in a relationship with a guy who makes less than me, since I don’t want to be paying for the guy I’m with all the time.”

The discomfort over who pays for what seems to be not really about money, plain and simple. Instead, it is suggestive of the complex psychology of what many of these women expect from their dates (for him to be a traditional breadwinner) and what they think they should expect (Oh, I just want him to be a nice guy).

On a first date at a lounge in Hell’s Kitchen, Thrupthi Reddy, 28, a brand strategist in Manhattan, watched her date down several cocktails to her one, then not even flinch when she handed the waitress her credit card. Initially miffed, she recognized her own contradictions.

“You wonder if you’re being a hypocrite,” she recalled, “because all date long I’m telling him how independent I was, and how annoying it was that men wouldn’t date strong independent women.” (The relationship ended after six months.)

Michael R. Cunningham, a psychologist who teaches in the communication department at the University of Louisville, conducted a survey of college women to see if, upon graduation, they would prefer to settle down with a high school teacher who has short workdays, summers off and spare energy to help raise children, or with a surgeon who earns eight times as much but works brutal hours. Three-quarters of the women said they would choose the teacher.

The point, Professor Cunningham said, was that young professionally oriented women have no problem dating down if the man is secure, motivated in his own field and emotionally supportive.

At least, that’s what their responses are in surveys. Talk about the subject with women a bit older — those who have been out of college long enough to be more hardened — and what you hear is ambivalence, if not downright hostility, about the income disparity.

Jade Wannell, 25, a producer at a Chicago ad agency who lives in a high-rise apartment building, started dating a 29-year-old administrator at a trucking company last year. “He was really sweet,” she said. But “he didn’t work many hours and ended up hanging out at home a lot. I was bored and didn’t feel challenged. He would finish work at 3 and want to go to the bar. The college way of life is still in them at that age. All they want to do is drink with the boys on Saturday. I was like ‘Let’s go to an art gallery’ and all he wanted to do was go to the bars.”

TO her, his lack of income masked a greater problem: a lack of drive.

“I have to say that I didn’t like his career, I didn’t think he had the goals of someone I would eventually like to be with or have respect for,” she said, adding, “It wasn’t the job, it was the passion.”

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Email Communication

CS monitor describes miscomunications that happen when people rely on email too much.

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Sci/Tech>Computers & Technology
from the May 15, 2006 edition

It's all about me: Why e-mails are so easily misunderstood
By Daniel Enemark | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein wouldn't have recognized each other if they'd met on the street, but that didn't stop them from getting into a shouting match. The professors had been working together on a research study when a technical glitch inconvenienced Mr. Lowenstein. He complained in an e-mail, raising Mr. Morris's ire. Tempers flared.
"It became very embarrassing later," says Morris, when it turned out there had been a miscommunication, "but we realized that we couldn't blame each other for yelling about it because that's what we were studying."

Morris and Lowenstein are among the scholars studying the benefits and dangers of e-mail and other computer-based interactions. In a world where businesses and friends often depend upon e-mail to communicate, scholars want to know if electronic communications convey ideas clearly.

The answer, the professors conclude, is sometimes "no." Though e-mail is a powerful and convenient medium, researchers have identified three major problems. First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning well. Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness. Finally, the inability to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

In effect, e-mail cannot adequately convey emotion. A recent study by Profs. Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. Their conclusion: Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but e-mail recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

One reason for this, the business-school professors say, is that people are egocentric. They assume others experience stimuli the same way they do. Also, e-mail lacks body language, tone of voice, and other cues - making it difficult to interpret emotion.

"A typical e-mail has this feature of seeming like face-to-face communication," Professor Epley says. "It's informal and it's rapid, so you assume you're getting the same paralinguistic cues you get from spoken communication."

To avoid miscommunication, e-mailers need to look at what they write from the recipient's perspective, Epley says. One strategy: Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense either way, revise. Or, don't rely so heavily on e-mail. Because e-mails can be ambiguous, "criticism, subtle intentions, emotions are better carried over the phone," he says.

E-mail's ambiguity has special implications for minorities and women, because it tends to feed the preconceptions of a recipient. "You sign your e-mail with a name that people can use to make inferences about your ethnicity," says Epley. A misspelling in a black colleague's e-mail may be seen as ignorance, whereas a similar error by a white colleague might be excused as a typo.

If you're vulnerable to this kind of unintentional prejudice, pick up the phone: People are much less likely to prejudge after communicating by phone than they are after receiving an e-mail. Kruger and Epley demonstrated this when they asked 40 women at Cornell to administer a brief interview, 20 by phone and 20 by e-mail. They then asked a third group of 20, the "targets," to answer the phone interviewers' questions. They sent a transcription of the targets' answers to the e-mail interviewers.

The professors then handed each interviewer what they said was a photo of her subject. In reality, each got a picture of either an Asian or an African-American woman (in reality, all were white).

E-mail interviewers who thought the sender was Asian considered her social skills to be poor, while those who believed the sender was black considered her social skills to be excellent. In stark contrast, the difference in perceived sociability almost completely disappeared when interviewer and target had talked on the phone.

E-mail tends to be short and to the point. This may arise from the time pressures we feel when writing them: We know e-mail arrives as soon as we send it, so we feel we should write it quickly, too. On the other hand, letters depend on postal timetables. A letter writer feels he has a bigger window of time to think and write.

Psychologists Massimo Bertacco and Antonella Deponte call this characteristic "speed facilitation," and they believe it influences our episodic memory - our ability to recall events. They found that e-mailers wrote shorter messages and were less likely to "ground their communications" in memories of shared experience than letters writers were.

The brevity of e-mail and the absence of audiovisual cues can endanger business and personal relationships unless e-mail is supplemented with the rapport that comes from more personal communication.

"Rapport creates a buffer of positive regard," says Professor Morris, "and when it's not there negotiation becomes brittle, vulnerable to falling apart."

Morris, who studies negotiation at Columbia, led a study that found that negotiators exchange more than three times the information in face-to-face interactions as they do via e-mail. Though Morris and his colleagues concluded that e-mail lets negotiators make "more complex, multiple-issue offers," they ultimately built less rapport, thereby increasing tensions and lowering the average economic value of the agreements.

Rapport "is an interpersonal resonance of emotional expression," Morris says, "involving synchronous gesture, laughing, and smiling together. Once this rapport exists, it's a buffer against a moment in the negotiation when there's some friction." This buffer is hard to develop without speaking over the phone or in person. Those who negotiated by e-mail in Morris's study trusted each other less and weren't as interested in working together again.

But the pitfalls of e-mail interaction were easily overcome by a single phone call. Morris ran a second round of negotiations, all conducted via e-mail, but made half of the corresponding pairs chat on the phone before negotiating - "just for five or 10 minutes," Morris explains, "and the key thing is we told them, 'Don't get into the issues. It's just an icebreaker.' " The result was dramatically improved agreements.

So if you want to buy something on Craig's List, Morris says, "make a brief phone call, even if it's not practical to do the whole negotiation by phone. You can establish a favorable bias with someone and then proceed in a less rich medium, but it's very hard to just get right into the negotiation on a medium that isn't rich."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Jena again

Moorish Girl's blog alerted me to this article by Gary Younge in the Nation, which so clearly articulates, that the events in Jena were not an isolated redneck action, but racism that is endemic in American society, including the "liberal" states of New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

beneath the radar | posted September 20, 2007 (October 8, 2007 issue)
'Jena Is America'
Gary Younge

In the alleyway between de jure and de facto, Jim Crow conceived a son. Even though the deed took place in broad daylight, everybody tried not to notice, and in time some would even try to pretend it hadn't happened. For most of his long life, Jim Crow Sr. had been a powerful and respected man. His word was law, his laws were obeyed and those who transgressed were punished without mercy. But in his dotage these crude and brutal ways became a liability. Finally, and after some protest, he was banished. Some claimed he had died. But nobody found the body.

Junior, meanwhile, was adopted by a local family and raised with all the refinement and courtesy that his father never had. While the father had railed against the changes that ousted him, the son adapted to them. But he cultivated the same allies and pursued the same goals, and in time he too would become powerful and respected. With little use for curse words or ostentatious displays of authority, he was most effective when not drawing attention to himself.

Over the past year the small town of Jena, Louisiana, has vividly established the genealogical link between the two generations of Jim Crow. Paradoxically it has taken the symbolism of the old--complete with nooses and all-white juries--for the nation to engage with the substance of the new: the racial inequalities in America's penal and judicial systems. For what is truly shocking about Jena is not that it has happened here but that the most egregious aspects of it are happening all across America every day. Go into any courthouse in any city and you will see it playing out. Like Rodney King, Hurricane Katrina or Sean Bell, it has revealed to the rest of the country what black America already knows. "If the media wasn't watching what was going on then every last one of those kids would be in jail right now," says Tina Jones, the mother of Bryant Purvis, who was there when the recent round of trouble started.

Fittingly for a post-civil rights story, it began with the discrepancy between what you are allowed to do and what you can do. In August last year, Kenneth Purvis asked the principal at Jena High School if he could sit under the "white tree"--a place in the school courtyard where white students hung out during break. The principal said Purvis could sit where he liked. So the next day he went with his cousin Bryant and stood under the tree. The morning after that three nooses dangled from the tree.

The overwhelmingly white school board judged the nooses a youthful prank and punished the culprits with brief suspensions. Black parents and students were angry, and months of racial tension followed. Police were called to the school several times because of fights between black and white students.

The principal called an assembly at which the local district attorney, Reed Walters, warned, "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen." The black students say he was looking at them when he said it; Walters denies it.

In an unsolved arson case, a wing of the school was burned down. A few days later, Justin Sloan, a white man, attacked black students who tried to go to a white party in town. Sloan was charged with battery and put on probation. A few days after that a white boy pulled a gun on three black students in a convenience store. One of the black students wrestled the gun from him and took it home, only to find himself charged with theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who produced the gun was not charged.

On December 4, in school, a group of black students attacked a white student, Justin Barker, after they heard him bragging about a racial assault his friend had made. Barker, 17, had a concussion and his eye was swollen shut. He spent a few hours in the hospital and on his release went to a party, where friends described him as "his usual smiling self."

The six black students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder--a charge that requires the use of a deadly weapon. Walters argued that the sneakers used to kick Barker were indeed deadly weapons. Mychal Bell, 17, became the first of what are now known as the Jena Six to be convicted on reduced charges by an all-white jury, and he faced up to twenty-two years in jail. His black court-appointed attorney called no witnesses and offered no defense. Bell's conviction was overturned by an appeals court, which ruled that he shouldn't have been tried as an adult. At the time of this writing he sits in jail waiting to hear his fate, and a huge civil rights march is set to descend on Jena.

These incidents have turned Jena into a national symbol of racial injustice. As such it is both a potent emblem and a convenient whipping boy. Potent because it shines a spotlight on how race and class conspire to deny black people equality before the law. According to the Justice Department, blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are more than five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced to 20 percent longer jail time. This would not be a problem for the likes of Kobe Bryant, but in Jena's "quarters" high-powered legal teams are hard to come by.

Convenient because it allows the rest of the nation to dismiss the incidents as the work of Southern redneck backwoodsmen without addressing the systemic national failures it showcases. According to the Sentencing Project, the ten states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration rates include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and none from the South. What took place in Jena is not aberrant; it's consistent. The details are a local disgrace. The broader themes are a national scandal. Jim Crow Jr. travels well--unencumbered by historical baggage.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


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book reading time

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crawlin my style

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my first 2 teeth

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The Jena Six

Amy Goodman reports the Jena six that are facing discrimination at school, from the law and in the town. CNN had an investigate piece and today people marched in Jena, protesting the treatment of the Jena six.

The tree at Jena High School has been cut down, but the furor around it has only grown.

"What did the tree do wrong?" asked Katrina Wallace, a stepsister of one of the Jena Six, when I interviewed her at the Burger Barn in Jena, La. "I planted it 14 years ago as a tree of knowledge."

It all began at the start of the school year in 2006, at a school assembly, when Justin Purvis asked if he could sit under the schoolyard tree, a privilege unofficially reserved for white students. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from its broad, leafy branches.

African-American students protested, gathering under the tree. Soon after, the district attorney, Reed Walters, came to the school with the police, threatening, "I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen." Racial tensions mounted in this 85 percent white town of 4,000. In December, a schoolyard fight erupted, and the district attorney charged six African-American high school students, the soon to be dubbed Jena Six, with second-degree attempted murder.

I recently visited Billy "Bulldog" Fowler in his office. He's a white member of the LaSalle Parish School Board. He says Jena is being unfairly painted as racist. He feels the hanging nooses were blown out of proportion, that in the high school setting it was more of a prank: "This is the Deep South, and [older] black people know the meaning of a noose. Let me tell you something -- young people don't."

That night, I went to see the Baileys in their mobile home in Ward 10, one of the black neighborhoods in Jena. Two of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey and Theo Shaw, were ironing their clothes. I asked them what they thought when they saw the nooses. Robert immediately said: "The first thing came to mind was the KKK. I don't know why, but that was the first thing that came to my head. I used to always think the KKK chase black people on horses, and they catch you with rope."

Theo said he thought the students who hung the nooses "should have got expelled, cuz it wasn't no prank. It was a threat." School principal Scott Whitcomb thought the same. He recommended expulsion of those who hung the nooses, but the superintendent overruled him, imposing three days of suspension. Whitcomb resigned.

The African-American teens were dealt with differently. They were expelled, but appealed to the school board. The school district had conducted an investigation, but the school board was not allowed to review it. The school board's lawyer was none other than the prosecuting district attorney, Reed Walters.

Board member Fowler recalls the January meeting: "Our legal authority that night was Mr. Walters."

I asked, "And he told you, you couldn't have access to the school proceedings, or the investigation?"

Fowler replied: "That's right. [Walters said] it was a violation of something." The board voted, without information. Fowler recalls: "It was unanimous. No, no it wasn't. There was one board member who voted no, and that was Mr. Worthington." Melvin Worthington, the only African-American on the school board, voted against upholding the expulsion of the black students.

Asked if he felt that Walters had a conflict of interest that night, Fowler replied, "Well, I'm assuming that Mr. Walters knows the law."

Louisiana's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals doesn't agree. The court just overturned Walters' first conviction in the Jena Six case (by an all-white jury), that of Mychal Bell, ruling that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Walters pledges to challenge that ruling in the Louisiana Supreme Court, while continuing to pursue the other five prosecutions.

Bell remains in jail, where he has been since last December. Although yet to be tried, the others were jailed as well. Theo Shaw just got out earlier this summer. Imprisoned with adults who were maced repeatedly, Theo's asthma was triggered, and he was hospitalized.

National organizations like the NAACP have called for a major march in Jena on Sept. 20, the day Bell was to be sentenced. Although his conviction has been overturned, the march will happen, with thousands expected.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Burma Crackdown

Christian Science Monitor reports the protests of monks in Burma. I saw a terrible image on BBC today of protesters being beaten up by plain clothes policemen. Also a woman activist who was demonstrating has gone into hiding, but her infant daughter has been put in police custody, the military knows the baby needs her mother for breast milk. My heart tears at the choice the mother has to make.
The Burmese military junta needs to wake up, step down and let Aung San Suu Kyi stand for elections.

Rangoon, Burma - Saffron-robed Buddhist monks have begun participating in a series of antijunta protests, pumping new life into the month-long agitation that, until now, had not seemed strong enough to threaten Burma's military dictatorship.

Hundreds of protesting Buddhist monks on Wednesday occupied one of Burma's most revered temples, challenging the country's military rulers in the most defiant wave of demonstrations in nearly two decades.

Fear of reprisals have cowed the Burmese public from continuing to participate in the protests, which began Aug. 19 over the junta's increase in the price of fuel. But analysts say the protesting monks – who are largely considered above reproach in Burmese society – may threaten the military leaders' firm grip on power.

"[The monks'] actions can embolden Burmese people, who've so far feared taking part in protests, to come out on the streets in large numbers," says a Burmese analyst in Rangoon who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

Clergy hold tremendous sway over the public in this religiously devout nation where nearly 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. The normally apolitical monks have been known to intervene during key moments, such as during protests against the British colonialists and the failed 1988 pro-democracy rebellion.

This week, the monks employed one of the more rarely used weapons in their dissident arsenal: They have refused to accept alms from the military regime – a boycott that is likely to embarrass the junta.

"In a staunchly Buddhist country, such a boycott is the most severe form of punishment for a Buddhist," one anonymous Buddhist abbot told the Associated Press, referring to the moratorium on accepting donations from the regime. "The boycott brings extreme shame to the ruling junta and should be taken seriously."

Given their historical ability to foment dissent, the military has been cautious, preferring to use gentle persuasion – and material enticements – to mollify the monks. Last week, high-ranking junta officials made donations of cooking oil and other food items to Buddhist monasteries, according to the New Light of Myanmar, the state-run newspaper. Despite several stern warnings, the military has yet to arrest any of the protesting monks.

On Wednesday, about 500 monks found the gates locked at the Shwedagon pagoda, the country's most revered temple, which sits on a hill dominating the country's largest city and former capital, Rangoon. The monks then proceeded to temporarily take over Sule pagoda before dispersing peacefully.

The holy men's participation in the protests began during the first week of September, when authorities in the northern town of Pakokku beat up hundreds of monks as they protested peacefully against the fuel price hikes. Burmese monks gave the junta until Monday to apologize for the violence. The military remained silent, prompting the monks to boycott the military's alms and take to the streets Tuesday, when four of them were arrested. Many of the clerics who were marching Wednesday were demanding the four monks' release.

Shashi Tharoor

I went to hear a conversation between Shashi Tharoor and Pramit Pal Chaudri, this Monday at the Asia Society. He was also releasing his newest book, The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone: India, the emerging 21st Century Power.

The book consists of 68 essays on themes of Indian identity, explorations of work and play and the transformation within the social, political, economic and attitudinal realms.
He described ex Prime Minister Devi Gowda, giving a speech in Hindi, but since he does not speak Hindi, it was written out in his native script of Kanada. It is ironic, but acceptable for the Prime Minster to not know the national language. He compared the US where the presidents have all been white, male and Christian; while in India, an Italian Christian, Sikh and Muslim are all part of the political fray.

The second section was about Cricket. Which he felt was an Indian game that had been incidentally discovered by the British!

He felt the current politicians lacked a sense of humor, and he gave examples of Mahatma Gandhi, declaring after meeting the King of England that the King had enough clothes for both of them.
Also another often quoted line, about Western civilization, which could be a good idea.

The third cluster dealt with economic globalization.
He described the earlier slow moving Indian economy like an elephant that’s now moving with the speed of a tiger. India now has the most $ billionaires, a British steel company has been bought over by an Indian firm. 7m new cell phones are bought every year, which is a world record. Today people, who could never dream of owning a landline, are proud owners of cell phones. Drivers, plumbers, carpenters, tailors and massage therapists are some examples. India has the cheapest cell phone minutes in the world.

The dangers facing the country are the rise of sectarian voices, criminality in politics and poverty. There are also 10 m people entering the job force but only 1 m jobs. The Maoist insurrection was worrying and the endemic corruption. But he said he regarded the future with uncertainty, thus positively.

Mr. Chaudri asked Shashi what bothered and excited him about India.

He was excited by the idea of Indian’s being united by something larger than their caste, regional or religious affiliations. He felt jingoism was less, but this was replaced by a material complacency. Which disregarded those left behind. The lack of social security made people dependent on family structures and gave rise to a Maoist insurgency.

They then discussed the democratic structure that was adjusting to represent the population. Affluent voters do not matter any more, since the Poor’s votes overwhelm theirs. An example is chief minister Mayavati of UP who is a lower caste who has been voted into power. But voters are impatient, and 50% of parliamentarians lose their seats every 5 years.
Level of aspirations
They then went on to discuss the NGO’s like Parikrama in Karnataka, which was providing food, schooling and health care to poor children as well as their families.
There are 4 million NGO’s in India. Print media has 55% add revenues that advertise private education. Today’s poor people’s children feel they have more opportunities and can do better than their parents.

Indian Diaspora
Lots of diasporic Indians are returning to India temporarily, often working with NGO’s and some that are returning for good. He did mention those that live in Gated communities with names like Windsor Castle, were not really living in India.

Future heroes
The past heroes were saints and kings. Today’s heroes are infosys chairman Narayana Murthy, ex-President Abdul Kalam and film star Shahrukh Khan. 45% of young women want to be journalists.

The talk was informative and led by an articulate, educated and secular Shashi Tharoor. The audience asked relevant questions that were thoughtfully answered.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Reluctant Swami

A nice meandering story about Sivananda Ashram's worldwide. I have done Yoga at many places but keep coming back to the Sivananda Format. The story is from here

Sandlines: The Reluctant Swami
by Edward B. Rackley

Historically, most “first contacts” were initiated by westerners. First they came as commercial explorers and intrepid traders. Later they arrived as occupiers and settlers: Victorians, colonials, missionaries. Progenitors of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It’s easy to be ashamed and indignant about this historical aspect of global encounter. Those who aren’t point out that cruelty, plunder and occupation are immutable norms, as human as domesticity or story telling. I often wonder what of today’s norms will repulse future generations. Television, our use of chairs for sitting, other norms less benign. It could be anything.

One such norm, transplanted religion, intrigues me because of its dual aspect. Missionaries transplant religion across cultural divides and feed it to non-believers, sometimes with messianic zeal. Spiritual seekers transplant themselves into different belief systems, unknown cosmologies, strange practices before an alien divine.

Of these two sides of transplanted religion, I find spiritual seekers the more intriguing. In my experience, missionaries exude righteousness of purpose, sometimes tempered by a humble certitude. They are earnest, committed, leaving little to chance. Spiritual seekers tend to be grounded in curiosity, a healthy dose of insecurity and imprecision. Uncanny things happen in their company.

Zealots and messiahs

That said, I’ve met missionaries working in difficult contexts whom I could respect—not all are zealots. We met in places from which aid workers, diplomats, entrepreneurs and every other would-be savior had long fled. But I’ve also seen missionaries wait out the worst periods of internecine violence, only to become sectarian supporters of one ethnicity over others. The role of the Catholic Church in the Rwandan genocide is a famous example.

During Congo’s war, I once stayed in a rural village with an American Baptist family living there for generations. Over time, they had abandoned proselytizing and the conversion imperative for more thoughtful, constructive works. According to the wife, her great-grandfather had first settled there in the early 1900s. Upon arriving, his first public act was to toss the local shaman’s fetishes into the river and burn down his hut. Back then, a heathen was a heathen. Now, she explained without pride, shamans are consulted before the missionaries begin a project; their children attend the mission school.

Both aspects of transplanted religion, missionaries and seekers, are viewed skeptically, for different reasons. Missionaries have God on their side; inside they know their calling is just. Not so for spiritual seekers, clearly the meeker, the less certain of the two. Because they have no version of righteousness to defend, their preconceptions of otherness are generally positive, albeit sometimes naïve and romanticized.

I remember an Osho devotee I met in Lucknow, a seemingly wealthy divorcée from L.A. I was on my way to Rishikesh, a pilgrimage site in the Himalayan foothills. The year was 1992 and Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, or Osho as he later preferred to be called, had recently passed away. A group of his sannyasin had set out from their Pune headquarters to identify other living sages, substitutes for Osho.

We had just finished darshan with a guru called “Poonjaji,” a sweet and ironic elderly man with a tattoo of a wristwatch where he would normally have worn one. A close group of six disciples sat on stage with Poonjaji during meditation and the talk that followed. They were mostly westerners; many wore the deep crimson robes of Osho sannyasin. A festive sense of connection pervaded the room. It was a similar vibe, I imagined, to what Osho offered his community. As devotees came forward to kneel for his blessing, a touch on the forehead, the guru joked, “Anything you touch will bite you, wait and see.”

As the room emptied I found myself facing a woman with large pendant earrings, from which white ceramic cubes dangled and bobbed to distraction. As she enthused about how radiant Poonjaji seemed that day, I noticed that each side of the white cubes bore tiny images of Osho’s bearded face. The many faces of a shrunken guru, bouncing beneath a devotee’s ears—it was all too jarring. In that moment, she embodied the caricature of a spiritual seeker: grasping and ecstatic because hollow.

As I walked outside, a phrase I had copied down that morning came to mind: the taming power of the small. The Osho earrings weren’t just mindless baubles. How much she needed the constant presence of her ideal, this guru, to remind her of … something dear to her, something unchanging. Her vulnerability suddenly made her real, and my judgment a lazy habit of thought.

If curiosity is a reliable indicator of an active mind, then spiritual seekers can at least be credited with having a brain. Unlike missionaries, seekers are empty vessels and their mental life moves in a particular way. They are “strangers and pilgrims,” curious people “moved by disappointment with the familiar,” Alan Watts wrote. A beatnik scholar and Californian convert to the “mysticism of the East,” Watts was the first figure of transplanted religion I read as a teenager. The Way of Zen struck me, but The Wisdom of Insecurity slammed my teenage mind. Leafing through it now, it’s still a potent reflection on the flux of individual identity, of our unfulfilling drive to “fortify the I.”

Filling the vessel

Leaving Zimbabwe in 1991 for my first visit to India, I traveled directly to the Sivananda Vedanta Ashram in the wooded hills above Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala. Through a friend I knew the Ashram would be holding a five-week intensive training for aspiring yoga teachers, which I was not. I knew nothing of yoga besides its sequence of warm-up of postures, the so-called “sun salutation.” The training would force me to dive deeply into yoga, well over my head—exactly how I like learning experiences to be.

Yoga basically means “union,” it is the Sanskrit ancestor of the English word “yoke.” In practice it is an integrated ensemble of eight paths or “limbs,” described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (200 BCE). Each limb compliments the others; practicing them together prepares the aspirant to “transcend the ephemeral universe.” What is known in the West as ‘yoga’—a cycle of postures or asanas—is just one of Patanjali’s eight paths. For a $30 yoga class in Manhattan, you get one-eighth of the real thing.

Life in the Ashram was closely structured around a long list of “austerities,” practices intended to silence and prepare the body and mind. There was no “free time”; the very concept now brings a smile to my face. The day was carved into neat slots of specific, mandatory activities from 5 am to 10 pm, with six hours of asanas a day. Silence, except during chanting, was strictly observed. Within a week, the rhythm of daily activities had become a natural flow.

Days passed and the start date of the training neared. Scores of participants arrived from around India and the world. A handful of teachers began to arrive as well. These were a mix of Swamis or monks, and Brahmacharis, aspiring monks and nuns who had taken vows of celibacy. Besides being experienced yoga teachers, all were lucid expositors of Advaita Vedanta, the school of Hindu philosophy followed by the Sivananda Order.

The lead trainer, Swami Sankarananda, had the physique and bearing of a career military man. After years of apprenticeship and study in India, he was now running another Sivananda Ashram in the Catskill Mountains. Later we became friendly, bonding over shared experiences in different African conflicts. An anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, he later served in Angola as an army officer during Savimbi’s pro-western insurgency, backed by South Africa and the US.

The training came and went. I stayed on at the Ashram teaching yoga classes and studying Vedanta and Sanskrit under the permanent staff of Swamis and Brahmin priests. In the quiet of the Ashram, six months passed quickly and the time came to discover the rest of India. I headed slowly for Rishikesh, savoring rural areas and avoiding cities, stopping at other Ashrams and yoga centers on the way.

The Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, another branch of the Sivananda Order, was my final destination. Permission from Swami Krishnananda, the head monk, was required for entry. No interview or references were needed. I had only to sit through darshan and ask to stay during the discussion period that followed. Easy enough.

Sitting on a raised dais, Krishnananda was decorated with flower garlands around his neck and surrounded by disciples, many of them internationals. The feeling in the room was unlike anything I knew from other Sivananda Ashrams, had glimpsed with Poonjaji in Lucknow or other gurus met along the way. The room was crowded; the vibe was anxious and somehow intimidating.

After meditation, Krishnananda gave a short lecture. A number of things struck me. On asceticism and renunciating worldly life, “We do not deny the universe; we deny a universe without God.” In a long riff about the impossibility of politics to ever end suffering, an allusion to Sartre: “The sole function of the ego is to repugnate [sic] the other.” Eyes sparkling, adorned with flower garlands, I began to suspect this was an exceptionally bitter man.

The time came to declare my wish to stay. The Swami would decide the appropriate length of my visit. I raised my hand and spoke. “You are a seeker, wandering from place to place,” he informed me and the crowd. “You are looking but you do not see.” Some in the crowd turned to look at me. Clearly this was no usual rebuke. Inside I burned, but he was right.

The left hemisphere

A month later I left India to return to work in Somalia and Sudan. Two years passed. Somalia scarred me, almost killed me. The cynical manipulation of relief efforts by Sudanese military enraged me; the failure of aid agencies to condemn this disgusted me. By early 1994, my idealism was desiccated. I wanted psychic recovery. A few months back at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala would sort me out before I began doctoral studies in New York later that year.

When the Rwandan genocide broke in late April, my plans changed. By mid-May I was on a plane to Kigali to help start relief operations, working through the end of August when studies began. Off the plane from Rwanda, Manhattan was overwhelming. I sought refuge at the Sivananda Ashram in Chelsea, on 24th and 7th ave. Rent was offset by various chores. I taught regular yoga classes, prepared recycling materials for pick-up, helped out in the kitchen. The daily structure, observances and austerities were identical to the Kerala Ashram. In my spare time I pored over Marx, Aristotle and Plotinus, attending evening lectures on the same.

Some weekends I took a bus to the Ashram in the Catskills, where my relationship with Swami Sankarananda deepened. At dusk one frozen winter day, a milk cow escaped from the barn. We leapt up from chanting and bolted out the door in bare feet. An hour of shouting and calling through thick underbrush turned to laughter as we ran the cow to exhaustion, then led her back by the nose. Months later I was told, without elaboration, that Sankarananda had disappeared from the Ashram to elope with a Brahmachari. That he was human I could appreciate. But his absence from the Order was a painful blow. I decided to leave Ashram life for the concrete tundra of secular Manhattan. I taught yoga there for a couple more years, but gradually lost touch with the Order.

In 2005 I was in London working as an adviser on Darfur to the British government, a heady but brutally exhausting job. Inebriated with fatigue, I needed simplicity and silence. I remembered a Sivananda Ashram in Putney where I’d taken a class or two years ago. I looked it up and took the train out for a visit. I was nervous, like seeing an old lover.

The reunion was sweet, subdued, and therapeutic. The head Swami was warm and welcoming, interested in my previous life in the Order but never prying. He remembered Sankarananda fondly. Everyone in the Order does; he was an incandescent light. I continued my visits to Putney, and my health and energy improved. Yogic practices and observances returned to my daily life without effort, almost unconsciously. I repeated what I’d said for years: I must get back to Kerala.

I had my chance this summer. The Ashram had grown since my last visit in 1994. New buildings and dormitories had sprung up among the coconut and rubber tree plantations. I walked in the gardens by the lake, checked on the ceiling paintings and murals of the Gita etched in my mind from years before. On the wall of the main worship hall, I noticed a photo of Swami Vishnudevananda, founder of the Ashram and Sankarananda’s guru, who passed in 1994. The caption stated he was performing a “fire walk” in Amritsar.

In the image, Swami Vishnudevananda did not regard the smoldering embers as he made his way over the short distance. His face was open and readable, smiling as he always did. He was still relatively thin; I guessed the photo dated from the early 1980s (as here right). Two disciples stood behind Swami Vishnu, preparing for their turn on the coals. One I recognized immediately: Swami Mahadevananda with his Roman nose, straight black hair and rotund belly. In between Mahadev and Swami Vishnu was another disciple staring down at the smoking coals, revealing little of his face to the camera.

I stared at the photo. Which western disciple would have been closest to Swami Vishnu in the early 1980s, on the Pakistan border? In a gestalt flash, I recognized the profile as a young Sankarananda, years before he was inducted into the Order. Seeing him again brought back a flood of feelings. My history with this Order, its thoughtways and lifeways, was not over. For anyone who bothered to look, it was a mere photo on a random wall. For me, it was a precious fragment of meaning on an otherwise opaque personal journey.

I spent my final days in Kerala not at the Ashram, but in a sleepy beach town called Varkala. Precariously perched on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean, it was beautiful. I wandered around, I ate, I read. On a quiet afternoon with no wind, a sign advertising yoga classes led me to a thatched hut in the village. A teacher waited inside while his young daughter sat coloring pictures. We chatted; I was the only student. Upon hearing I’d studied at the Sivananda Ashram, he gazed at me for a long moment and smiled. Did I know Swami Sankarananda? We traded recollections; he had been a teacher to both of us. He was an exceptional human being, we agreed, and sat down for opening prayers.

Happy Birthday Angad

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Baby Love

Madmomma has a beautiful post for her daughter Bean's 6 month birthday. It's emotional, sensitive and loving. Here's a taste.

And with the pride of being the humble vessel that carried you, comes a sadness that you are moving further away each day. Tomorrow you officially begin your solids and mama is no longer your sole nourisher. From blood to milk, the attachment and dependence you have grows less. But for me, it gets stronger everyday. Each day I love you just a little more. Just when I think my heart will explode with love, I find you've sneakily wriggled deeper in, squeezed just a little bit more love out of my already much stretched heart. And I wonder when you will turn around and hurt me. When you will have grown far enough to break my heart over some decision. When you will be old enough to callously dismiss the mother who just digs her grave deeper every single day by investing just that little bit more in you.

And last night as I lay there admiring your lashes resting gently on your chubby cheeks, I fell in love with you all over again. And again I wondered at how your pockmarked father and pug nosed mother made such a perfect, perfect baby. I selfishly kissed your sturdy little legs, the little birthmark on your wrist and played with your soft hair, not caring if you woke up. Knowing that time is flying and someday when I creep up behind your chair and kiss your head you will cringe and say 'What is it ma? I'm busy.'

It won't matter sweetheart, go ahead, be busy. Because I have admired you and held you and played with you and cuddled you to my heart's content. Well, maybe not to my heart's content. I don't know a mother who doesn't bemoan her little babies growing up. But I know that I have wrung out every moment of pleasure that I possibly could. From bathing you to feeding you to holding you against my skin and refusing to let anyone even give you a bottle of expressed milk. No regrets. Ever.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Review of Bound Together

Ramachandra Guha reviews, Nayan Chanda's book. I think this is the best review of the book yet.

- A new book, American unilateralism and a look beyond
Politics and play - Ramachandra Guha

Reasoned disinterest
Nayan Chanda is that altogether rare specimen — a modest Bengali intellectual. But he has much to be immodest about. An outstanding student at Presidency College and Jadavpur University, he later went to the Sorbonne to do a Ph D in modern history. He had written large chunks of his thesis on Cambodian foreign policy, when he decided to leave Paris to take up a reporter’s job in Southeast Asia. He reached in time to cover the fall of Saigon. Chanda spent the next two decades in the region, working for and eventually becoming editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

In the late Nineties, Chanda moved to the United States of America to help set up the Yale Center for Globalization. He is still there, editing and directing YaleGlobal, a wide-ranging and influential e-magazine which is read by opinion-makers around the world. Chanda was arguably the first Indian to make a mark in the competitive world of international journalism, and to do so both in the ‘old’ medium of print and the ‘new’ medium of the web.

Nayan Chanda left the world of scholarship long ago, but there remains a scholar within him. In his years in the East, he published a classic account of the conflicts in Indo-China, entitled Brother Enemy. Now he has written Bound Together, a masterful, long-range history whose subtitle explains the book’s emphases: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization.

Bound Together is a mature man’s book. It could not have been written in the author’s twenties or thirties (or even forties). It distils all of Chanda’s learning and experience, acquired over several decades and in several continents. The very long time-span (it starts with the migration of early man out of Africa) and the keen spatial sense come from his training in the great, and interdisciplinary, French tradition of historical research. His understanding of political expansion is owed in part to his being raised in a former colony and his working in other former colonies. And the focus on commerce, particularly commerce on the high seas, is surely not unrelated to his life in the trading regions of Southeast Asia and, more recently, North America.

Nayan Chanda’s new book says a great deal, and says it well. But this is not a book review, so let me turn now to what Bound Together leaves unsaid, or perhaps half-said. A long chapter called “The Imperial Weave” starts with the Roman Empire and ends with the Pax Brittanica. It stops short of calling the US an imperial power. When, in a conversation with Chanda in Bangalore, I asked whether America was indeed an empire, he answered that two standard attributes of an empire were that it taxed its subjects and conscripted them for their armies. By those criteria the US was not, strictly speaking, an empire.

In the very last pages of his book Chanda writes of “the world’s sole superpower, the United States, which many view as the new Rome, has enormous, near-imperial power without an obvious empire”. Then he adds: “Even if they may not be sympathetic to Islam, a vast majority of the world’s population shares the Muslim world’s antipathy towards a unilateralist American foreign policy.” While many people in Asia and Europe felt deep sympathy with the US after 9/11, this has “dissipated among the daily images of devastation, carnage, torture following the American-led invasion of Iraq”.

The status of the world’s sole superpower is not one the US may enjoy for ever. Militarily it looks unassailable, but its economic preeminence is being increasingly challenged by China. And the ‘soft’ power it once enjoyed has been rapidly eroded by its recent actions. The future of the globe, and of globalization itself, depends hugely on how the Americans adjust to their declining status in the world. Will they respond in the same benign way as that earlier imperial power, Great Britain?

The omens are not propitious. For the belief that America was, is, and always will be the greatest nation on earth is widely held across the political spectrum, shared by Republicans and Democrats, neo-conservatives as well as liberals. With this belief in their greatness comes the belief in their rightness. In any dispute with the US it is always the other country that is wrong. That Americans could ever be mistaken or be in error is inconceivable. Consider the shocking response of Democrats like Hillary Clinton to the mess in Iraq. Having destroyed that country (Clinton actually voted in favour of the invasion) they now claim that the Iraqis are incompetent to run it. This is a classic case of blaming the victims.

As a regular visitor to Britain, I am struck by the powerful absence of nostalgia there. Most British people do not mourn the loss of empire. Whether Americans will take so easily to not being number one is another question. In fact, some analysts argue that the real reason for the invasion of Iraq was to preempt Chinese access to the oil resources of the Middle East. However, to the case of Iraq, we must counterpose the case of Darfur, where the displacement of several million people and the killing of more than half-a-million has not been adequately addressed by the world community largely because of Chinese interests in Sudanese minerals.

My sense is that in the years to come, the rivalry between China and the US will promote discord and violence across the globe. The competing ambitions of nation-states are thus one threat to harmonious and successful globalization. The spread of mass consumerism is another. In a lyrical passage, Nayan Chanda describes the individual components of an iPod he bought for his son. While the machine was designed by that quintessential American company, Apple, “the microdrive that was the heart of the machine was made by Hitachi in Japan, the controller chip was made in South Korea, the Sony battery was assembled in China, the stereo digital-to-analog converter was made by a company in Edinburgh, Scotland, the flash memory chip came from Japan, and the software on a chip that allows one to search for and play ten thousand songs was designed by programmers at PortalPlayer in India”.

The iPod is a small device which uses little energy. Its use may indeed be successfully globalized. What however of that other object deeply desired by young men and women around the world, the automobile? To approach the norm set by the US — where two citizens in three own a car — 700 million Chinese and 600 million Indians will have to drive around in their own, enclosed, private vehicles. And where will the steel and aluminium to make them come from? And the oil to power them? And the roads to drive them on? The mind boggles at the number of square miles of earth that shall have to be devoted exclusively to mining. Or at the number of oil wells that would be required to move the minerals to the smelting plants to the car factories and eventually to the showrooms. Or at the number of peasants who will be displaced to build the highways these cars make necessary. Or, finally, at the number of tonnes of greenhouse gases that this mining and manufacturing and driving will cumulatively release into the atmosphere.

The evidence presented by Nayan Chanda and other writers demonstrates that globalization has, so far, and on the whole, increased prosperity and lessened misery within nations. Critics argue that some groups, such as tribal people living on land under which lie rich veins of iron ore, have suffered disproportionately as a consequence of global capitalism. But it is time we more seriously considered that other caveat, ‘so far’. In the long run, it is not American unilateralism but the greed of all humans that will put in peril the prospects for peace and happiness on earth.

JoAnn Verberg

Moma has a wonderful photography exhibit by American photographer, JoAnn Verberg. What was interesting about the exhibit was the focus on the process of creating the image, and extending it by using multiple layers of shots. Her images of people reading the NYT were great, also the photographs of water and people floating were amazing.

This exhibition of approximately sixty photographs will survey the twenty-five-year career of American photographer JoAnn Verburg (b. 1950), who often works in simultaneous series of different subjects–composed and "found" still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Verburg slowly explores these subjects' pictorial possibilities. Her methodical process includes the use of diptychs and triptychs that demonstrate how the content of a picture can be enriched by using more than one photograph at a time, while maintaining coherence through the close formal and referential relationship of individual exposures. Verburg's use of a 5 x 7-inch-format camera and a radiant color palette make her photographs pleasurable balancing acts that describe the sensuality and physicality of her subjects, and capture those spaces and moments suspended in the reverie that precedes action.

Zhang Huan

Asia Society has a very in your face exhibit by performance artist Zhang Huan. His use of his own body in often torturous ways was painful, but his art is strong and powerful. Also the inclusion of Tibet (the Buddha's hands) is seminal for any thinking Chinese Artist.

Here is a review from the NYT.

Mr. Zhang’s art first became “Chinese” in a way that Westerners might understand the term when he visited the United States in 1998 for a solo performance at P.S. 1. as part of “Inside Out.” The piece he did, “Pilgrimage: Wind and Water in New York,” was conceived around a central prop: a traditional Chinese bed with blocks of ice in place of a mattress. Accompanied by recorded Tibetan music, he made his way across P.S. 1’s courtyard in a series of Buddhist-style prostrations until he reached the bed. Then he undressed, lay face-down on the ice, and stayed prone for 10 minutes. When he could endure the cold no longer, he sat up, faced his audience, and the piece — part ritual, part ordeal — was over.

Critics, especially in China, have accused émigré artists of pandering to Western concepts of Chineseness. And it is easy to see how a performance like this one, with its Orientalist appurtenances , might illustrate their point. But like all of Mr. Zhang’s best work, “Pilgrimage” skirted pretension by being direct and plain, and by posing questions rather than making statements.

How does a person translate himself from one strong culture to another, it seemed to ask. Can he melt into the new culture or will he be frozen out? Can he relinquish the culture he came from or will he find himself identifying with it more strongly than he had before?

These questions had personal importance for Mr. Zhang after he relocated to New York the same year. They are recurrent subjects of the art he made here and are most succinctly addressed in pieces like “ ½” (1998) and “Family Tree” (2000). These pieces are essentially performances for the camera. But while Mr. Zhang’s body is the main image, the action — and this will become increasingly true — is done by assistants.

the corruption of priviledge

David Cameron