Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lesson Plans

NYT has an interesting series on teachers and their experiences in schools throughout the country.

The Cross-Cultural Classroom
By Christina Shunnarah
In my previous post, “Student in a Strange Land,” I mentioned briefly that our school, the International Community School (I.C.S.), works with a very diverse population of students and families. I.C.S. represents over 40 different countries and 50 languages. One of the communities we serve is Clarkston, Ga., which is home to about 26,000 refugees. It is often said that Clarkston is one of the most diverse square miles in the United States. A community as diverse as this presents a complex challenge: In a place with so many different values and belief systems, what role should an educator play?

It is important for me as an educator to have a cultural awareness of the students’ lives and backgrounds. Without this awareness, my sensitivity and compassion for each child would not be able to develop. My studies in anthropology have helped me view life through a cultural lens. But what is culture?

I often think of culture in terms of the “iceberg concept” commonly used in educational studies, with its small visible tip and huge mass below the surface. Most people tend to view only the surface aspects of culture — observable behavior — sometimes known as the five F’s: food, fashion, festivals, folklore, and flags. But of course culture goes deeper than that. It is the other 95 percent below the surface of which we need to be aware.

Deep culture (below the surface) includes elements such as child-raising beliefs, concepts of self, beauty and personal space, religious rituals and perspectives, eating habits, facial expressions, eye contact, work ethic, approaches to problem solving and interpersonal relationships, moral values, cosmology, world views and personal discipline — to name (more than) a few.

The children that come into my classroom each year have such a variety of life paths. Looking at their cultural backgrounds with the “iceberg concept” in mind has helped to keep me aware of the aspects of their lives that are not in plain view. And the more I work with the students at I.C.S., the more my awareness of these subtle realms increase.

Developing cultural competence is a process of inner growth. In order for me to be as effective as possible with the students I work with, I must continuously engage in a process of self-reflection. To be able to know others, especially diverse others, one must know the self. So the growth of a culturally competent educator starts there. We must look within for a deeper understanding of who we are before we can adequately address the needs of our students.

This investigation should include our core beliefs, hidden biases and our religious perspectives. Developing cultural competence is also a process that comes with experience and engagement, and with sometimes painful lessons that highlight our limitations and prejudices. To learn about the backgrounds of the students in my class takes time and effort; it involves reading about their countries of origin, visiting their homes and meeting family members, connecting with parents, developing relationships with community members and organizations, and going to cultural and religious festivals. By learning about my students’ lives outside the classroom, I am more prepared to work with them in the classroom.

Schools don’t exist in vacuums; they are situated within communities. Community involvement helps me understand the socio-cultural backgrounds of my students’ lives and build bridges between the home and school. This exposure helps challenge my own perspectives and biases.

An example that comes up quite frequently is the issue of religion. Children at I.C.S. come from a myriad of religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, and the Baha’i faith. Children are usually very open to discussing their beliefs, prayers, places of worship, dances and values with their friends. They excitedly exclaim that “God lives in the sky” or “God lives in us” or “Allah lives on a cloud near the moon.” Their discussions about their religious beliefs are usually cheerful, lighthearted and innocent.

But sometimes these kindergarteners get into heated debates. I usually remain in the background and allow them to express their opinions in a safe place. One day, during one of these debates, I was caught off guard. I was moving around the classroom checking students’ writing when a question popped up out of nowhere. One of my American students, David, called out, “Ms. Shunnarah, can an elephant be a god?”

I froze. This was one of those moments when the cultural iceberg was tapped, challenging my Judeo-Christian upbringing. I remembered from my studies of Hinduism in college that there is a religious entity known as Ganesh, who takes the form of an elephant. Ganesh is one of the most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon. His image is found throughout India. He is widely known as the “remover of obstacles” and “lord of beginnings” and is associated with creativity, the arts and sciences, intellect and wisdom.

This information about Ganesh came to me quickly and I am glad that it did, because I could have carelessly dismissed David’s comment as silly. Instead, I told him yes, and described Ganesh and his place in the Hindu religion. After I said this, I noticed that one of my students from India, Abhra, pulled out his own drawings of Ganesh from his backpack. He had been discussing his beliefs with David, when David had called out the question. This small bit of knowledge I had retained turned out to be important. After my response, Abhra smiled; his religious beliefs and identity were acknowledged. This is just a small example of the kind of cross-cultural interaction that goes on every day in our class.

Later Abhra’s mother came to me and said that I had made her son happy because I knew about Ganesh. What would have been the unintended consequence if I were not aware of Ganesh? What if I had responded from my own personal biases and religious perspective? What would have been the outcome for my student Abhra? Would he have been ashamed? Would he have kept his pictures hidden, damaging his sense of self?

This journey of establishing a multicultural learning community in my classroom with a foundation of respect for all cultures is ever changing and evolving. Children bring to the classroom rich cultural life experiences, so why not tap into it? This involves a continuous process of research about the lives of the children in my classroom, as well as of my own interpretations and perspectives. The varied nuances of culture are complex and continually changing, but it makes our classroom a natural place to learn.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Nights in Rodanthe

A really sappy, weepy, sentimental movie with the beautiful Diane Lane and Hunky Richard Gere.

The Good Divorce

Babble has an article on mediation brokered divorces. Sounds just too good to be true!!

"This is how it happens," said Christy Mann. "You get in a fight, or admit an affair, or just decide that living a life of quiet desperation isn't for you, and you vacate the marital residence. You're now officially separated." Mann's an expert on the subject. She was a family attorney for two decades, before being appointed a District Court judge in 2005. "You can stay like this forever," she continued, "and this state won't get in your business." But marriage is a state-sanctioned union. So if you officially want out — to remarry, go gay, or simply change tax brackets — you need the State to dissolve it for you. You're getting divorced! What now?

(2) If you're like me, you probably imagine that divorces are decided in a courtroom by a Judge, and feature conflicting testimonies, private investigators, hidden assets, and machinating attorneys. Sounds technical and terrifying (or like a great Joan Crawford movie). But as it turns out, this is exactly the venue some sparring spouses desire. "These people think that their divorce is going to be like Oprah," said "Leah," a long-term New York City Family Court employee. "They think they'll get to come into the courtroom, spill all their intimate details, be heard, and be vindicated: that an impartial judge will tell them, Yes, actually. You're right, and your ex is an asshole." She paused, dramatically. "Sadly, that's not how it usually happens."

The 3 Worst Divorce Stories

We've all heard horror stories about weddings going incredibly wrong, with dog-eaten rings, tacky gowns, and bridesmaids caught in the back bedroom with grooms. But what about the travails on the other end of the marital spectrum? I interviewed a number of people in the divorce industry — lawyers, judges, mediators, court officers — for "The Good Divorce." Here are their top three tales of separation spectacles and post-annulment antagonism.

1. A man leaves his wife, vacating the marital apartment. In order to be free and clear of his spouse, he's willing to give up all of his possessions, including their home and its contents. But he has amassed a collection of rare and expensive tropical fish. "All I want," he told the judge, "is my aquarium." His soon-to-be-ex turned to him dispassionately. "The fish," she said, "are dead."

2. After the recent downturn in the mortgage market, a banker who has gone from making $1.9 million a year to making just $600, 000 comes into court to request a reduction in his child support payments. When his ex requests a closer examination of his finances, it is discovered that he has just purchased a $71,000 diamond engagement ring for his new trophy wife. Case dismissed.

3. As a means of supporting his claim that his ex-wife is exposing his son to people in the "drug underworld" a father brings into court a plastic bong and a zip-loc baggie full of weed that he has uncovered in the boy's room. This does not go over very well with the court officers during the random bag inspection. "Sir," they tell him, "possessing this is illegal, and bringing it into a court of law is simply unwise." The man points at a label he's pasted to the bag, it reads: EVIDENCE. "But I labeled it," he says. So how does it happen? Well, according to my divorce industry experts, when one chooses the traditional route — using oppositional lawyers, indirect communication, and the court system — things tend to get . . . combative. The attorneys are paid to represent only their client's interests, the spouses are told to go for the jugular, and the judges are left to use the blunt cudgel of property law to resolve an incredibly intimate conflict. "The court system isn't really geared to solving these kinds of interpersonal disputes," said Judge Mann. "If you think of a divorce as delicate surgery, as a Judge, my finest tool is a chainsaw!"

While the great majority of court-based divorces don't end in tabloid-y trials, they do have to wend their way through the system, racking up fees for the attorneys on both sides. The average cost of a fully-litigated, courtroom divorce is nearly $80,000, and even a standard one with dual legal counsel comes in around $27,000. "In the long run, the lawyers make out," said Jack Maiorino, a recent divorcee and New York City Court Officer, who's overheard his share of bitter battles in the halls of justice. "You've essentially given your attorney permission to tear the head off your spouse. Let's just say, it can get ugly."

Things can become even "uglier" in court when the battle-worthy marital assets include children. Arrangements regarding the kids — where they'll sleep, who'll make decisions, who'll pay for what — are approached with the same greedy antagonism as the division of the 401k. "People find ways to take the kids on the ride with them," said New York Family Court employee, Leah, "bringing them into their animosity and despair. They'll fight to the death over holiday schedules, who should pay for shoes, or who can come to which little league games."

For many divorced parents, it's this intractable sense of being trapped in a relationship with someone you despise that's the stickiest marital residue. We kids of divorce witness this fallout all the time: in the subtle digs one parent makes against the other; in the TMI stories of an ex's transgressions. One interviewee discussed moving back home after grad school. Her parents had divorced when she was a teen, but whenever she and her mom argued that year, the fight would inevitably end with her mother screaming, "You're just like your father!" "Once, when an argument started, I said to her, Why don't we just skip all this and go right to you screaming that I'm like Dad. She threw a lamp at me. This is a sane professional woman, years later. The pain remained that profound."

So if you've bought a one-way ticket to Splitsville, but don't want to arrive at your destination all nasty and bitter, what are your options? "I think a lot of divorcing couples would do better in a mud-pit," Leah said. "Get that aggression out early on." But if such a venue isn't available — or it's occupied by female wrestlers — another functional alternative exists: Mediation. Instead of squaring off in court using attorneys as stand-ins, in a mediated divorce, the participants agree to sit face to face with an impartial third party, and hash through their problems and property.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Scientific American has an article on Scientists that might have discovered a way to switch off the Autism gene.

Scientists say they have pinpointed a gene in the brain that can calm nerve cells that become too jumpy, potentially paving the way for new therapies to treat autism and other neurological disorders.

"It's exciting because it opens the field up," says Michael Greenberg, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. "Nobody has [found] a gene that controls the process in quite that way before."

The brain is continually trying to strike a balance between too much and too little nerve cell activity. Neurologists believe that when the balance tips, disorders such as autism and schizophrenia may occur. They are not sure why neurons (nerve cells) go berserk. But Greenberg says he and his colleagues located a gene in mice and rats that helps keep neural activity in check—and may one day be manipulated to prevent or reverse neurological problems.

Researchers report in Nature that they discovered a gene called Npas4 churns out a protein that keeps neurons from becoming overexcited when they fire (communicate with one another through connections known as synapses). When scientists blocked the protein, the nerve cells fired or sent out more signals than normal; when they beefed up production, the neurons quieted down.

Gina Turrigiano, a neuroscientist at Brandeis University who studies how brain cells communicate, says Greenberg's study reveals a "pretty intriguing potential pathway" for controlling neuronal activity. But she points out that Npas4 may not be the only gene that does that. Mice without Npas4 can survive, although they are prone to seizures and have a shorter life span than normal mice.

As scientists learn more about how brain cells stay balanced, Greenberg says they will be able to identify people who are genetically at risk for neurological disorders and develop new drugs to prevent and treat them. He notes that some of the other genes that Npas4 affects also have been linked to autism. But he cautions that new therapies from his research are "a long way off." "There's a lot that we don't know," he says. "We're just at the beginning."

thanks to 3qd.

Current Crisis for Dummies

Ali Mir explains the financial crisis on Amitava's blog.

Ali Mir, Professor of Business at Wayne Paterson and acclaimed lyricist for films like “Dor,” has produced a quick guide to the financial mess we are in:

If you don’t understand the financial crisis on Wall Street, don’t fret. No one does, least of all the experts. What we do know is that it is an unholy mess, which is about to get worse. Here’s my quick FAQ for those who don’t wish to wade through dense treatises on collateralized debt obligations, asset backed commercial papers, and blah-blah-blah. It’s hardly comprehensive, but it can serve as a starting point for engaging with the issues surrounding the greatest financial debacle since the Great Depression. Let me know if any of this doesn’t make sense. AM.

Do the roots of this crisis lie in the housing bubble?
The roots are all over the place (in the absence of regulation and oversight, for instance), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say yes. After 2001, the Fed kept its interest rates low in order to increase liquidity and encourage spending. Financial institutions offered easy credit to those who wanted to borrow money to buy a house. Many who did not qualify for loans at regular market rates – the subprime borrowers – were persuaded to take out mortgages despite the fact that their income level, ability to make a down payment, and credit history made them high-risk debtors.

Why did so many borrowers take out mortgages?
As the number of buyers increased, the values of homes started going up. And as the values of homes started going up, the number of buyers increased. Everyone wanted to jump on the gravy train. In 2005 and 2006, 40% of homes sold in the U.S. were purchased as either investment or vacation homes. Financial institutions offered subprime borrowers “teaser rates” which were scheduled to go up after a period of time (these were the so-called ARMs – adjustable rate mortgages). Existing homeowners assumed that the value of their principal asset – their home – had increased (when they noticed, for example, what their neighbors’ home was selling for) and refinanced their mortgages, spending the borrowed money.

Why did the financial institutions lend so much money to these “subprime” borrowers? Weren’t they worried about defaults?
Not really. For one, most mortgage brokers do not lend money of their own; they merely collect commissions. Besides, the system is geared towards increasing revenues and profits in the short run. Bonuses are linked to current performance. But more importantly, many of these institutions were not planning to take much of a risk. Because of a lax regulatory system, these loans were allowed to be “securitized”. In other words, the rights to these mortgage payments along with the accompanying credit risks were sold to third-parties.

So the risk passed on to the third parties then?
In some cases, yes. But for the most part, these third parties cut up these securities, mixed them up, repackaged them, and sold them down the line in the form of Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) or Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO). There was little, if any, regulatory oversight. At each step, the parties in this chain collected profits, and believed they were handing off the risk.

What was the role of AIG?
AIG offered insurance to those who bought MBSs and CDOs in exchange for a fee. Credit rating agencies such as Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s gave a high grade to these securities, thus reducing the amount of collateral that AIG was required to post in order to demonstrate that it had the ability to make payments in case there were defaults.

I am not sure I understand.
Assume that you bought $1 million worth of securities. You are worried that the assets behind these securities are not a sure bet. So you hedge by buying $1 million insurance from AIG. If there is a default on the payment, AIG pays you your $1 million. These are the so-called “credit-default swaps”. Pay attention to that term. We will hear a lot about it in the near future. There is currently a $62 trillion (yes, that’s a trillion) market for these swaps which is absolutely unregulated.

How much is a trillion anyway? Apart from being a really large sum of money?
As figures keep getting tossed around, one begins to suffer from number fatigue. How does one make sense of these large values? Here’s one way to imagine a trillion dollars. Let’s say you have a magic machine that spits out a $100 bill every second, all day and all night long. In the first minute, you’d have $6,000. In the first hour, $360,000. In the first 24-hour day, you will possess more than $8.6 million. A year later, you’ll have a little more than $3.15 billion. In other words, it will take you and your machine more than 317 years to produce a trillion dollars.

So, back to our story. Wasn’t everyone making money?
Until a certain point in time. But as usually happens with a bubble, the quid came calling for the quo. Subprime borrowers defaulted on their loans when the higher ARM rates kicked in. Foreclosures increased, putting a pressure on the now heavily inflated home prices. Excess inventory created by builders and speculators during the boom started to mount. As prices began to deflate, owners found it increasingly difficult to refinance their homes. The MBSs were not so attractive any more.

So institutions that owned MBSs were in trouble?
Exactly. Bear Sterns was the first to crash. The Feds had to step in and facilitate its “sale” to JP Morgan at the cost of $29 billion to the taxpayers.

And why did AIG stumble?
Credit rating agencies woke up to the fact that they had assigned AAA ratings to relatively worthless securities, so they downgraded the credit of AIG, requiring it to post additional collateral. Since AIG didn’t have the billions it would have taken to do this, it had to be rescued if it was to be prevented from declaring bankruptcy.

Why would that have been such a terrible thing?
If AIG went under, all those who had hedged their bets would have suddenly found themselves in a heap of trouble. They would have most likely gone belly-up too.

So AIG was too important to allow it to fail?
That is the narrative being bandied about. But the bailout wasn’t about AIG. It was done in order to save its “counterparties”, the ones who had bought insurance.

Who were these counterparties?
We are not sure. But most of them (around three-quarters) were probably European banks.

Why wasn’t Lehman bailed out?
We don’t know. Perhaps it was the luck of the draw. It came second in line (after Bear Sterns) and maybe the government wanted to play it tough. Or perhaps its counterparties were not important enough to rescue.

What was the story with Freddie and Fannie?
Mae ‘n Mac owned or guaranteed many of the MBSs and several mortgages that were subsequently bought by foreign banks (China was a big player), who assumed that these government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) would not be allowed to fail. Since foreign funding (those trade surpluses China has with the U.S.) are essential to making up budget (and trade) deficits, the government had to step in and rescue the GSEs, lest foreign capital wander off elsewhere.

Now what?
The U.S. government is planning to bail out the financial institutions whose reckless greed produced the mess in the first place.

What if it doesn’t?
Financial institutions devastated by this crisis have very little capital to lend. Without the credit that they provide, the economy will suffer. How much is unclear, but the impact is likely to be quite severe.

What does the administration want?
The Treasury secretary is asking for unfettered access to $700 billion in order to buy any asset from any institution at any price he thinks is right. Further, the Secretary says that his decisions will be “non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” The government plans to buy up the MBSs at a price it determines (critics worry that lobbyists of the financial institutions will play a role in this), thus freeing the institutions to infuse credit into the markets.

Who will foot the bill?
Ordinary citizens – the taxpayers – who will see a skyrocketing deficit, and most likely, shrinking investments in public goods, dwindling retirement accounts, and greater inflation.

Is there any alternative?
If it doesn’t want to think outside the box (and it is clear that it doesn’t), the least the government should do, in my opinion, is to demand an ownership stake in the companies it bails out. That way, if they recover, the bailout money can be returned to the treasury. The current plan only rewards those who drove the economy into the ground, and who made a lot of money during the good times.

So one final question. Was the crisis primarily caused by irresponsible borrowers who took on loans that they did not have the ability to repay?
No. It’s true that defaults on mortgage payments, especially in the subprime segment triggered this crisis-in-waiting. It is also true that borrowers, both prime and subprime, failed to read the fine print, took out larger loans than they could afford to repay, and got carried away by the thought of buying property that was supposed to keep increasing in value. But the subprime loans were pushed by an unscrupulous industry, which preyed on a population that did not have the wherewithal to figure out the swindle before it was too late. A lot of educated, middle-class Americans lost out too, but the subprime crisis represents the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in recent times, and the greatest loss of wealth for communities of color in the post Civil War period.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Understanding the banking crisis

Spitzer,the ex-governor of New York, explains how the Federal Government was
complicit in creating the housing crisis and supporting banks, instead
of the consumers who were mislead by sub prime loans.

thanks Buddha Diaries for the link.

Several years ago, state attorneys general and others involved in consumer protection began to notice a marked increase in a range of predatory lending practices by mortgage lenders. Some were misrepresenting the terms of loans, making loans without regard to consumers' ability to repay, making loans with deceptive "teaser" rates that later ballooned astronomically, packing loans with undisclosed charges and fees, or even paying illegal kickbacks. These and other practices, we noticed, were having a devastating effect on home buyers. In addition, the widespread nature of these practices, if left unchecked, threatened our financial markets.

Even though predatory lending was becoming a national problem, the Bush administration looked the other way and did nothing to protect American homeowners. In fact, the government chose instead to align itself with the banks that were victimizing consumers.

Predatory lending was widely understood to present a looming national crisis. This threat was so clear that as New York attorney general, I joined with colleagues in the
other 49 states in attempting to fill the void left by the federal government. Individually, and together, state attorneys general of both parties brought litigation or entered into settlements with many subprime lenders that were engaged in predatory lending practices. Several state legislatures, including New York's, enacted laws aimed at curbing such practices.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The big picture has some great pictures on Ramzan, from all over the world. Those Jalebis look delicious.

Thanks Chapati Mystery for the link.

Muslim faithful throughout the world are currently observing the holy month of Ramadan. Observant Muslims participate in fasting (sawm), one of the five pillars of their faith, this entire Lunar month (this year it extends from September 1st to the 30th). Eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity is prohibited from dawn until sunset, when the fast is broken with the evening meal called Iftar. Local customs define varying traditions, including differing types of food used to break the daily fast. The fasting is meant to teach a person patience, humility and sacrifice

Monday, September 22, 2008

David Foster Wallace

NYT reviews the work of David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide at the age of 46.

Reviewing a biography of Jorge Luis Borges in The New York Times Book Review a few years back, David Foster Wallace attacked the standard biographical procedure of mining the lives of writers for clues to their work, and vice versa. Borges’s stories, he insisted, “so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.”

Beyond this, Mr. Wallace was the kind of literary figure whose career was emblematic of his age. He may not have been the most famous novelist of his time, but more than anyone else, he exemplified and articulated the defining anxieties and attitudes of his generation.

Mr. Wallace’s vibrant body of work — reportage and criticism as well as two novels and three volumes of shorter fiction — pursued themes that in retrospect look uncomfortably like portents. His last book of stories was called “Oblivion,” and an earlier collection included the stories “Death Is Not the End,” “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and “The Depressed Person.” Even his most exuberant explorations of absurdity are edged with melancholy. “Infinite Jest,” the enormous, zeitgeist-gobbling novel that set his generation’s benchmark for literary ambition, is, for all its humor, an encyclopedia of phobia, anxiety, compulsion and mania.

The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.

Or mine, at any rate. When, as an undergraduate with a head full of literary theory and a heartsick longing for authenticity, I first encountered David Foster Wallace, I experienced what is commonly called the shock of recognition. Actually, shock is too clean, too safe a word for my uncomfortable sense that not only did I know this guy, but he knew me. He could have been a T.A. in one of my college courses, or the slightly older guy in Advanced Approaches to Interpretation who sat slightly aloof from the others and had not only mastered the abstruse and trendy texts everyone else was reading, but also skipped backward, sideways and ahead. It was impressive enough that he could do philosophy — the mathematical kind, not just the French kind. But he also played tennis — Mr. Wallace, in fact, had competed seriously in the sport — and could quote lyrics from bands you only pretended you’d heard of. Without even trying, he was cooler than everyone else.

All this shone through Mr. Wallace’s fiction. He had the intellectual moves and literary tricks diagrammed in advance: the raised-eyebrow, mock-earnest references to old TV shows and comic books; the acknowledgment that truth was a language game. He was smarter than anyone else, but also poignantly aware that being smart didn’t necessarily get you very far, and that the most visible manifestations of smartness — wide erudition, mastery of trivia, rhetorical facility, love of argument for its own sake — could leave you feeling empty, baffled and dumb.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Mother

There is a moment when life such as it is, the human consciousness such as it is, seems something absolutely impossible to bear, it creates a kind of disgust, repugnance; one says, "No, it is not that, it is not that; it can't be that, it can't continue." Well, when one comes to this, there is only to throw in one's all - all one's effort, all one's strength, all one's life, all one's being - into this chance, if you like, or this exceptional opportunity that is given to cross over to the other side. What a relief to set foot on the new path, that which will lead you elsewhere! This is worth the trouble of casting behind much luggage, of getting rid of many things in order to be able to take that leap.

- The Mother [CWMCE, 7:327]


Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker writes about Jean de Brunhof’s classic, Babar. I reread him recently to Mira, who loves him, she calls him TaTa for Hathi. But I agree with Gopnik's analysis of this seminal text of children's literature as a "civilizing" tool of French Colonialism. Babar's mother is shot by a hunter and the author spends no time describing the pain Babar must have felt at watching his mother shot. Instead he goes to the town and goes to a town house, where people dress him up in a suit and tie and he sits for high tea with them. Some of the illustrations from Babar are exhibited at the Morgan Library in New York.

But the Babar books are more than the sum of their lines. By now, of course, a controversial literature is possible about anything, and yet to discover that there is a controversial literature about Babar is a little shocking—faut-il brûler Babar? (“Must we burn Babar?”), as one inquisitor puts it, in a famous French locution. And the controversial literature isn’t trivial: it touches on questions that are real and enduring. In the past few decades, a series of critics on the left, most notably the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, have indicted Babar in the course of a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda. Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule. The animals that resist—the rhinoceroses—are defeated. The Europeanized elephants are, as in the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, then made trustees of the system, consuls for the colonial power. To be made French is to be made human and to be made superior. The straight lines and boulevards of Celesteville, the argument goes, are the sign of enslavement. Through such subtle imprinting, the premises of imperialism come to be treated as natural. The case cannot be dismissed out of hand: it’s easy to see that, say, “Little Black Sambo,” for all his pancake-eating charms, needs to be thought through before being introduced to young readers, while, to take an extreme example, a book from nineteen-thirties Germany about the extermination of long-nosed rats by obviously Aryan cats would go on anyone’s excluded list, however beautifully drawn.

Yet those who would burn “Babar” miss the true subject of the books. The de Brunhoffs’ saga is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination. The gist of the classic early books of the nineteen-thirties—“The Story of Babar” and “Babar the King,” particularly—is explicit and intelligent: the lure of the city, of civilization, of style and order and bourgeois living is real, for elephants as for humans. The costs of those things are real, too, in the perpetual care, the sobriety of effort, they demand. The happy effect that Babar has on us, and our imaginations, comes from this knowledge—from the child’s strong sense that, while it is a very good thing to be an elephant, still, the life of an elephant is dangerous, wild, and painful. It is therefore a safer thing to be an elephant in a house near a park.

Every children’s story that works at all begins with a simple opposition of good and evil, of straightforward innocence and envious corruption. While the good hero or heroine has to be particularized, with flaws and idiosyncrasies, the evil force is, oddly, the more powerful the less distinct it is; because villainy is itself so interesting, there’s no great need to particularize the villain. In few works of children’s literature is the creation of dull and faceless evil as effective as it is in the Babar saga. “Page 2 of ‘Babar’ ” is a code word among certain parents for the entire issue of what it is right to expose our children to. (It’s actually the sixth numbered page in the book, and the fourth page in the story, but it seems to register as page 2, being the second element after the introduction of the elephant nursery idyll.) It is there that Babar’s mother, with her little elephant on her back, is murdered, with casual brutality, by a squat white hunter. The pro-page-twoers think that without the incident the story is robbed of motive and pathos; the anti-page-twoers think that it’s just too hard, too early, and too brutal, so they turn the story into one of a little elephant who merely wanders into Paris—not such a bad premise. (Maurice Sendak, in a lovely appraisal of Babar, recalls thinking that the act of violence that sets Babar off is not sufficiently analyzed—that the trauma is left unhealed and even untreated—while Nicholas Fox Weber, in his good book about the art of the elephant saga, suggests that Babar’s “apparent indifference to his mother’s shooting is a by-product of the essential drive to see beauty and continue living no matter how tragic the past.”)

Whether the motive is amnesiac or therapeutic, the moment when the lost and motherless elephant enters the French city—Paris, surely, though also standing in for French colonial capitals from Saigon to Casablanca—is a magical moment. The arrival is subdued and simple, creating a tension between the savanna and the city that is continually renewed, and around which the whole series will be structured. The exoticism of the Babar story is obviously a Fifth Arrondissement exoticism, like that of the turn-of-the-century Douanier Henri Rousseau, whose harmless but rapacious paintings of wild animals, inspired by visits to the zoo, have much of the same sober charm as Jean de Brunhoff’s. And the dream of the desert as an enchanted place, which takes such powerful form in Rousseau’s matchless “Sleeping Gypsy,” as in de Brunhoff’s unforgettable nocturne of Babar and his bride, connects the two.

But there is a deeper connection between this kind of French made-at-home exoticism and the domestic charm of Babar—between, if you like, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henri Rousseau, between the idea of the native genius of children and a romantic vision of Africa. France during the nineteen-thirties was in transition from an old, unashamedly predatory model of imperialism to one that insisted on the mission civilisatrice—the vauntedly benevolent gathering of different races into one French commonwealth—and, simultaneously, from a model of work and labor as their own reward to one in which the reward of irksome labor was French family leisure.

This double “primitivism” of the hearth and the heathen, the foyer and the faraway, is apparent in the books’ visual style, even more than in the obvious and much argued-over story line. High Fauve style, from the beginning, and in the hands of Matisse in particular, was connected to children’s art and the idea of childhood. Picasso saw this keenly, speaking often (if with a hint of condescension) of how crucially the drawings of Matisse’s children had affected their father’s art, and for the better, supplying a kind of domestic primitivism, an African art of the nursery. That is visible even in a masterpiece as sophisticated as Matisse’s “Piano Lesson,” of 1916, where the play between the oppressive weight of French teaching and the gasping attempt at pleasure weighs on the boy. And the traffic between the exotic elephant and the French nursery is already implied, in a more complex form, in Matisse’s “The Moroccans,” of the same year, in which the remote decorative style of French-colonized Africa is rephrased in terms of the metropolitan faux-naïf. (Although “tribal” art is in no way childlike, French artists, wrongly but fruitfully, saw it that way.) The tightrope between the exotic and the domestic that the Babar books walk is central to the French imagination of the first half of the twentieth century: the great desert opens onto the great city; the beautiful patterning of the carpet gives life to the gray light of the Île de France; we dream of the elephants, and the elephant dreams of a green suit and a motorcar. (The children’s dining room of the French ocean liner Normandie was, tellingly, decorated with de Brunhoff’s elephants, animal totems of French voyaging.)

All of which complicates one’s sense of the politics of “Babar,” too. One can forget, reading the critics, that the books are, first and last, meant to be funny, and that Babar is an elephant who talks and walks: the story is happening to creatures that children know do not ride elevators, wear suits, or build buildings. Part of the joke is in the way the obvious animalness of the protagonist makes evident the absurdity of the human behavior depicted. An animal that attempts to become an astronaut or conduct an orchestra is inherently ridiculous and makes the ambition ridiculous as he pursues it. That’s why Daffy Duck in “Duck Dodgers” is daffy.

As an elephant who takes on the role of the bourgeois patriarch (and monarch), Babar reveals that role’s touching absurdity. In “Babar the King” (1933)—the central book in the Babar saga—the rhinos and the elephants have been at war, but the point isn’t that the rhinos are evil. It is that war between nations is as absurd in reality as war between animals looks on the page. Becoming French, the elephants reveal the absurd and contrived elements of the French national character. Celesteville is a parody of the French corporatist dream, beautifully expressed, in “Babar the King,” in the drawing of the elephants at their various occupations, as Cartesian and logical as a poster from the pedagogical-instruments house Deyrolle:

If Barbacol wants a statue for his mantelpiece, he asks Podular to carve one for him, and when Podular’s coat is worn out Barbacol makes a new one to order for him. . . . Hatchibombotar cleans the streets, Olur repairs the automobiles, and, when they are all tired, Doulamor plays his cello to entertain them. . . . As for Coco, he keeps them all laughing and gay.

There are no bankers or stockbrokers in Celesteville. Capitalism is elided, as are unnecessary “middlemen,” in this perfect Comtian economy, in which each does his job and receives his goods. There is to be no ambition, either, no upwardly mobile individual elephant. (That is an American elephant’s notion.) The reward for this serene corporatism is apparent on the next page: after working in the morning, the elephants take the afternoon off. And this society provides continuity with the classical traditions—the elephants, bewigged and formal, attend a production of the Comédie-Française.

Surely the happy effect this has on the reader, and the elephants, is not the result of our (or their) having been propagandized to accept colonial hegemony. This isn’t a portrait at a distance of an imaginary colonial city. It is, instead, an affectionate, closeup caricature of an idealized French society. The fragility of this society—and its inability to resist the rhinoceroses—only intensifies the pathos and affection it inspires.

So “a certain idea of France,” in de Gaulle’s phrase, is at the heart of the appeal of the Babar books. What is that idea, and how does it differ from our idea of England or America? All children’s books take as their subject disorder and order and their proper relation, beginning in order and ending there, but with disorder given its due. In our century, different ideas of order have been represented in children’s literature by a city or a country. The Mary Poppins stories, “Peter Pan,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and, in a slightly different way, “The Hobbit” all use an idea of England and, often, of London. Here order is internal, found at home, part of the natural world of the nursery and the riverbank; disorder lies beyond, at times threatening but more often beckoning as a source of joy and Dionysian possibility—as in the beautiful chapter entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” in “The Wind in the Willows,” or the celestial circus in “Mary Poppins.” Order, in the English vision, is comforting but plain; disorder is perilous but romantically alluring. We escape the nursery for the disorder of the park.

The idea of Paris that one finds in the Babar books—or in the Madeline books—has another shape. Disorder is imagined as internal, psychological; the natural world is accepted as inherently coquin, “mean,” or potentially violent. Order needs to be created by constant infusions of education and city planning; it is a source of Apollonian pleasure. Paris is the place where you go up and down in the elevator. Madeline’s wish is to walk along the parapet, while Miss Clavell wakes every night to sense that something is not right, and the girls walk in two straight lines to hold disorder at bay. When disorder arrives—Madeline and Pepito’s time with the Gypsies, Babar and Celeste’s imprisonment in the circus—it takes the form of a new routine. Disorder is the normal mess of life, what rhinos like. Order is what elephants (that is, Frenchmen) achieve at a cost and with effort. To stray from built order is to confront the man with a gun.

Things are sorted differently in the children’s classics of New York. In “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” “The House on East 88th Street,” “Stuart Little,” “The Pushcart War,” and “Harriet the Spy,” neither order nor disorder is taken to be natural. The world of the books oscillates unpredictably between them, producing battles and freaks. The best we can find are small secret islands of order. Everything turns on the individual child and her ability to create a safe miniworld of her own within the big chaotic city.

In London, in children’s books, life is too orderly and one longs for the vitality of the wild; in Paris, order is an achievement, hard won against the natural chaos and cruelty of adult life; in New York, we begin most stories in an indifferent city and the child has to create a kind of order within it. Each of these schemes reflects a history: the English vision being a natural consequence of a peaceful nation with a reformist history and in search of adventure; the French of a troubled nation with a violent history in search of peace; and the American of an individualistic and sporadically violent country with a strong ethos of family isolation and improvised rules. We go to the imaginary Paris for sudden glimpses of evil (the death of Babar’s mother) set off by satisfying visions of aesthetic bliss (the Celesteville Bureau of Industry, situated near the Amusement Hall), just as we go to the imaginary London to satisfy our longing for adventure and the undefined elsewhere, which returns us safely in the end to Cherry Tree Lane. And we go to the imaginary New York for the pleasure of the self-made: to see two children actually hide and live in a museum; to see an alligator, or a mouse, absorbed uncontroversially into a normal life.

Fables for children work not by pointing to a moral but by complicating the moral of a point. The child does not dutifully take in the lesson that salvation lies in civilization, but, in good Freudian fashion, takes in the lesson that the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints: you ride the elevator, dress up in the green suit, and go to live in Celesteville, but an animal you remain—the dangerous humans and rhinoceroses are there to remind you of that—and you delight in being so. There is allure in escaping from the constraints that button you up and hold you; there is also allure in the constraints and the buttons. We would all love to be free, untrammelled elephants, but we long, too, for a green suit.

Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the “Babar” books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life. “Truly it is not easy to bring up a family,” Babar sighs at one point, and it is true. The city lives on the edge of a desert, and animals wander in and out at will, and then wander out again to make cities of their own. The civilizing principle is energetic but essentially comical, solid-looking on the outside but fragile in its foundations, reducible to rubble by rhinoceroses. Even the elephants, for all their learning and sailor suits, can be turned into slaves through a bad twist of fate. The unruliness of natural life is countered by the beautiful symmetries of classical style and the absurd orderliness of domestic life—but we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are ever really safe. Death is a rifle shot and a poisoned mushroom away. The only security, the de Brunhoff books propose, lies in our commitment to those graceful winged elephants that, in Babar’s dream, at the end of “Babar the King,” chase away misfortune. Love and Happiness, who are at the heart of the American vision, are, in Babar’s dream, mere tiny camp followers. The larger winged elephants, which are at the forefront of this French vision of civilized life, are instead Intelligence, Patience, Learning, and Courage. “Let’s work hard and cheerfully and we’ll continue to be happy,” the Old Lady tells the elephants, and, though we know that the hunter is still in the woods, it is hard to know what more to add. ♦

thanks Laila Lalami for the link

Arvind Adiga

Arvind Adiga, the author shortlisted on the Booker for his book, The White Tiger, talks to Hirsh Sawhney. He challenges the notion of India as a superpower and feels that China is far better in providing support for it's poor than India.

India: A View from Below Aravind Adiga with Hirsh Sawhney
by Hirsh Sawhney

The homes of middle class and wealthy Indians are staffed by teams of servants who cater to their employers’ every need. Born in poor states like Bihar or countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, these live-in drivers, cooks and cleaners often work twelve-hour days and seven-day weeks. Despite the economic upswing that has enabled their bosses to decorate their homes with plasma televisions and purchase European cars, the lifestyles of domestic workers have only improved marginally in recent years. Their working conditions remain unregulated, and as India’s population continues to grow at exponential rates, their wages remain low, from fifty to one-hundred and fifty dollars a month.

One such domestic worker, a driver named Balram Halwai, is the narrator and protagonist of Aravind Adiga’s hard-hitting debut novel, The White Tiger, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Balram’s beginnings epitomize a common Indian story. Born a poor villager, witty, pensive Balram ends up a driver for a corrupt businessman in Gurgaon, a Delhi satellite city studded with malls and IT offices. His employer offers him false gestures of kindness and hope but doesn’t hesitate to frame this innocent for a crime that his wife actually commits. With no prospects of enjoying a slice of the new Indian dream, the driver attempts to alter his fate by unusual, heinous means. He murders his boss and makes away with money that was meant for a government bribe. After starting a successful business that provides transportation to call center workers in Bangalore, Balram writes a letter of confession to none other than the Premier of another Asian economic success story, China.

This incisive, engrossing book attacks poverty and disparity without being sentimental or condescending, and for this reason it is a groundbreaking Indian novel. I met with Adiga, a former Brooklyn resident, while the author was visiting New York last July.

Rail: Tell us about the India your book is set in.

Adiga: The book deals with an India smack in the middle of “the boom,” and it challenges a lot of comfortable assumptions about Indian democracy and economics. I want to challenge this idea that India is the world’s greatest democracy. It may be so in an objective sense, but on the ground, the poor have such little power.

Rail: What are some of the starker things you learned about India during this era of hype and optimism, when you were working as a reporter for Time?

Adiga: The fact that a lot of Indians have very little political freedom, especially in the north of India. That elections are rigged in large parts of the north Indian state of Bihar, and they’re also accompanied by violence. There’s like thirty-five killings during every election. If you were a poor man you’d have to pick China over India any day because your kids have a better chance of being nourished if you’re poor. Your wife is more likely to survive childbirth. You’re likely to live longer. There are so many ways in which India’s system fails horribly.

Rail: How are these disturbing aspects of the country woven into your novel?

Adiga: Balram’s father, for example, dies of tuberculosis. tb kills a thousand Indians a day—poor people. It’s a disease that the middle class doesn’t even know about. There’s a whole set of diseases in India that only afflict the poor.

Rail: To describe the Indian hinterlands in which poor people try to make ends meet, your narrator uses this eerie generic term, “the darkness.” How did you come up with that?

Adiga: I wanted something that would provoke and annoy people. I was trying to capture this gulf in the country. When I was in Calcutta, I spent the night with people who pulled hand-rickshaws. (People in Bombay, by the way, don’t believe me when I tell them that there are hand-rickshaws in Calcutta, because it seems incredibly primitive to them.) A lot of these hand-rickshaw drivers were Muslims from Bihar, and I asked them, “Why do you do this? Why don’t you work in the fields? Even that has to be better than this.” One man pointed to the shed in which they were staying and said, “This may seem to you like a dirty dark place, but for us, this is a city of light. Back home is the darkness.”

Rail: Allow me to read a passage: “The jails of Delhi are full of drivers who are there behind bars because they are taking the blame for their good, solid middle-class masters. We have left the villages but the masters still own us, bodies, souls, and arse. Yes, that’s right: we all live in one of the world’s greatest democracies. What a fucking joke.” Is Balram implying that servants are like bonded labor or slaves?

Adiga: At points it does get like that. But this is the servant’s perspective. It is his subjective views, which are pretty depressing. There are also two crimes that he commits: he robs, and he kills, and by no means do I expect a reader to sympathize with both the crimes. He’s not meant to be a figure whose views you should accept entirely. There’s evidence within the novel that the system is more flexible than Balram suggests, and it is breaking down faster than he claims. And within the story I hope that there’s evidence of servants cheating the masters systematically...to suggest a person’s capacity for evil or vice is to grant them respect—is to acknowledge their capacity for volition and freedom of choice.

Rail: For someone like Balram, is the only hope for success or social mobility crime?

Adiga: If you don’t have English, an education, or healthcare, then how are you going to do something to transform your life? A poor man in India making 4,000 rupees a month is never going to transform things. The only transformation possible is crime for someone like Balram, otherwise he’s going to be surrounded by fantasies, dreams, and not make it out…Often life is so tough you just have to be brutal.

Rail: Has India’s rich-poor divide actually led to an outbreak of crime between servants and masters?

Adiga: The servant-master system implies two things: One is that the servants are far poorer than the rich—a servant has no possibility of ever catching up to the master. And secondly, he has access to the master—the master’s money, the master’s physical person. Yet crime rates in India are very low. Even though the middle class—who often have three or four servants—are paranoid about crime, the reality is a master getting killed by his servant is rare. But it’s on its way… What is stopping a poor man from taking to the crime that occurs in Venezuela or South Africa?

Rail: Why don’t India’s class divides lead to the crime rates that occur in other Third World countries?

Adiga: You need two things [for crime to occur]—a divide and a conscious ideology of resentment. We don’t have resentment in India. The poor just assume that the rich are a fact of life. For them, getting angry at the rich is like getting angry at the heat…But I think we’re seeing what I believe is a class-based resentment for the first time.

Rail: But on the surface the class divide seems to be shrinking. The media tells us things like call centers and outsourcing are not only threatening the American economy but also revolutionizing Indian society.

Adiga: I wanted to problematize the depiction of outsourcing within India and outside. In the long run it’s not a particularly good thing for the country. It doesn’t create real jobs. It doesn’t actually give employees any skills. It’s kind of like a shot of sugar—it’s great at first, but it actually has no nutrition. Anyone who thinks outsourcing is going to fix India’s economic problems is deluding himself. Outsourcing counts for less than 1% of the economy. 99% of Indians have problems that are entirely separate: water, agriculture, irrigation, electricity. I wanted to show that this is a very small, weird part of the Indian economy and the bulk of life is way outside this.

Rail: Speaking of water, Balram says, “There is no water in our taps, and what do you people in Delhi give us? You give us cell phones.” In fact, India has more than 240 million cell phone users.

Adiga: The cell phone is fascinating because it has always held up in India as a sign of progress. Even the poor have cell phones now. But access to drinking water has deteriorated in the past ten years. And most development economists will tell you that a lack of access to drinking water—to clean water—is the single biggest cause of poverty. Say a construction worker gets typhoid and can’t go to work for two weeks. He loses his job and there’s no insurance. He’s living in poverty and is going to stay in poverty. Throughout India you see the water table seems to be falling, crop yields are declining, people are having greater trouble finding access to water. It’s one of the clearest class divides in India: if you have access to regular water in India, you’re rich; if you have no access to water, you’re poor. Technology is one aspect of progress; it is not progress in itself. Progress is holistic—it’s water and cell phones.

Thanks Laila for the link.

thought for today

There is only one way of getting out of the confusion (which is the result of mixed and conflicting desires); and that way is quietness, peace, confidence in the Divine's Grace and silence in the mind, to let it receive the right inspiration which is waiting above for the silence and the quietness to enable it to manifest.

- The Mother [p-162, White Roses, Sixth Edition, 1999]

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

thought for today

To remain within, above and untouched, full of the inner consciousness and the inner experience, - listening when need be to one or another with the surface consciousness, but with even that undisturbed, not either pulled outwards or invaded - that is the perfect condition for the sadhana.

- Sri Aurobindo [SABCL, 23:652]

Sunday, September 14, 2008


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Head Gear

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shoes and clothes bhutan

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hello monk

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plane and unisphere

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Cham! Ritual Dances of Bhutan

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

thought for today as Delhi burns

I am so upset about the Delhi bomb blasts, Connaught Place, Regal Cinema, GK, Children's Park, Barakhamba Road, all places I know and love. The hate and anger has to stop. The machinations of politicians and secret services to disrupt neighbours must not carry on. NDTV.com is doing a great job of showing footage of this terrible carnage.

I knew people of great intelligence, admirable artists who, as soon as they began to "relax", became utterly foolish! They did the most vulgar things, behaved like ill-bred children - they were relaxing. Everything comes from this "need" of relaxation; and what does that mean for most men? It means, always, coming down to a lower level. They do not know that for a true relaxation one must rise one degree higher, one must rise above oneself. If one goes down, it adds to one's fatigue and brings a stupefaction. Besides, each time one comes down, one increases the load of the subconscient - this huge subconscient load which one must clean and clean if one wants to mount, and which is like fetters on the feet. But it is difficult to teach that, for one must know it oneself before one can teach it to others.
This is never told to children, they are allowed to commit all the stupidities in the world under the pretext that they need relaxation.
It is not by sinking below oneself that one removes fatigue. One must climb the ladder and there one has true rest, because one has the inner peace, the light, the universal energy. And little by little one puts oneself in touch with the truth which is the very reason of one's existence.
If you contact that definitively, it removes completely all fatigue.

- The Mother [CWMCE, 4:156]

Friday, September 12, 2008

Loins of Punjab

Loins of Punjab Presents is a wonderful movie directed by Manish Acharya. It is set in a hotel, that is hosting "Desi Idol", based on American Idol. The dialogs are witty and edgy without falling into sterotypes.

Shabana Azmi is great as a bitchy socialite intent on winning the contest at any cost. Turbanotorious BDG, played by Ajay Naidu is funny with his rap lyrics and stuck on turban. The relationships between Michael Raimondi (Josh Cohen) and Ayesha Dharker are richly textured as is the love between Manish Acharya and the beautiful Seema Rahmani (Sania Rahman). The quiet Ishitta Sharma (Preeti Patel) acts well along with her Patel clan.

Yeh Hum Naheen

A Pakistani protest song, Yeh Hum Naheen, that can be downloaded here is fast gaining popularity and providing alternative definitions of Pakistan and Islam.

In a country where religion is capable of suspending war – Pakistan's security forces declared a ceasefire with the Taliban for the holy month of Ramadan – it might also have the power to stop it. That's what the stars behind the song "Ye Hum Naheen" were thinking in their quest to redefine Islam as anti-terrorist.

The song triggered a world-record-breaking petition in which 62.8 million Pakistanis united behind its title-message – Urdu for "This is Not Us". Over the course of five weeks this July and August they have by email, SMS, signature or thumbprint sent an impassioned missive declaring that true Muslims do not support terrorism.

The song's success is largely down to the following of its eight celebrity singers – among them the band Strings, composer Shuja Hyder, pop-diva Hadiqa Kiani and Pakistan's prince of pop, singer Ali Zafar. Their backing propelled it to top spot on MTV Asia and the Pakistani charts within a month of its release in April last year. Then, aided by an all-star video on YouTube, it smashed into the British Asian charts, where demand was so great that Pakistanis and British Asians donated 120 rupees (roughly £1) and £2 respectively and prompted the song's re-release this June. This time, it popularised a petition urging Pakistanis everywhere to sign up to the message.

"The reality is, a few people are distorting Islam to their own agendas, but now, finally, the masses are standing up," declares the campaign's founder, Waseem Mahmood, with a cut-glass English accent, as befits an ex-BBC journalist and a man with an OBE (he was awarded it for his post-war work in 2005 for setting up Radio Kabul and the programme Good Morning Afghanistan).

We're speaking from the opulence of a five-star hotel in Karachi. It's a far cry from the cacophony of beggars and street-children tapping on car windows six storeys below. It's an even further cry from the slums on the edge of Karachi, where a third of the city's population live in abject poverty. But the campaign's overwhelming success could never have been achieved without the support of the poor and the terrorised; almost half of the Pakistan's population have now subscribed to its message. "If we have 60 million plus people, twice as many as voted in the last elections, then how can Pakistan be seen as a nation of extremists?" Mahmood asks.

The campaign was inspired by his children, who, growing up as teenagers in Birmingham, were accused of being un-Islamic for wearing Western clothes and eating Western food. "They wanted me to do something because they were concerned about how the West was stereotyping Muslims, and, more importantly, about how young Muslims were interpreting it." The message had to begin at home in Pakistan, he resolved.

"We felt it was important to put our own house in order first before we could tell the world," he says. "Foreign intervention is a valid reason for why all this is happening," he concedes, "but, at the end of the day, it is a Pakistani who will strap on a vest and will go and blow himself up. We can't alleviate poverty or change foreign policy – that's the job of the politicians – our job is to stop the man in the street from getting involved."

The anti-terror anthem comes at a time when continual power-shifts and the threat of terrorist attack has given way to confusion. "It's now the case that a lot of Pakistanis are frightened of one another," says Mahmood. The song's message plays a crucial role in capturing the fears of a post-September 11 Islamic generation. "As with the coming of night one loses one's way/ We are scared of the dark so much that we are burning our own home/ What is this rising all around us/ The stories that are being spread in our names are lies/ This is not us, this is not us," go the lyrics.

On its relaunch this June, the song was underpinned by the petition carried through every terrestrial, cable and satellite channel in Pakistan. This time it was accompanied by commentary from the country's glitterati, and matched with a new video which used real news footage from 8 December last year, when gunmen stormed into Benazir Bhutto's PPP headquarters on their first, failed, assassination attempt.

So when teams comprising 6,000 razakars (volunteers) took to the streets across 14 regions in Pakistan last month – including Loralai in the North, and rural areas of Bahawalpur and Malakand – the message had already preceded them. Signatures were gathered with lightning speed – the most overwhelming response coming from Peshawar on the North West Frontier, a renowned trouble spot for terrorist activity.

One of the volunteers responsible was 40-year-old mother Jamela Barveen, who for weeks quietly gathered signatures on a corner in one of the city's mid-range shopping districts.

"I tell them I come from a society which is fighting terrorism and if you agree this shouldn't be happening please sign," she says, clutching the petition, with a pen for those are literate enough to sign and an inkpot for those whose thumbprint will suffice.

Go to www.yehhumnaheen.org for free download and petition

thanks Daud for the link

Sarah Palin Again!

Truthdig discusses Sarah Palin and how her supermom image is actually counter productive to working mothers that are fighting for flexiable work hours, good day care and quality heath care coverage for their children.

Who would have dreamed that a hockey mom could produce such a bounce? I didn’t even think the puck was supposed to get off the ice.

But now that so many women have skated over to her side, allow me another metaphor. Sarah Palin is the Zamboni of this campaign.

This hockey mom rolled onto the ice, did a couple of turns around the rink and managed to clear off all the nasty old Republican detritus. She gave the Grand Old (Boy) Party a new image, or at least a new surface.

Let us remember that Republicans had long targeted working mothers as the centerpiece of the culture wars. They ran an entire convention on Marilyn Quayle’s line, “Most women do not wish to be liberated from their essential natures as women.”

Now their heroine is the in-your-face governor who once said: “To any critics who say a woman can’t think and work and carry a baby at the same time, I’d just like to escort that Neanderthal back to the cave.”

Hey, wasn’t that our line? Weren’t the Neanderthals who wanted women to stay in their traditional roles these same conservatives? Suddenly, we are watching the parade of the flip-floppers, patriarchs with pedicures.

Who can forget James Dobson, who blamed the decline and fall of morality on “working mothers and permissiveness,” and told us that real women “are merely waiting for their husbands to assume leadership.” He now says, “I believe Sarah Palin is God’s answer.”

Who can forget Phyllis Schlafly saying “flight from home is a flight from yourself, from responsibility, from the nature of woman.” She now says, “I think a hardworking, well-organized CEO type can handle it very well.”

Who can forget Pat Buchanan, scriptwriter of the culture wars? He now says, “For heaven’s sakes, I mean, can’t you have a traditional woman who is also a—you know, a beauty queen and is a governor? What’s the matter?”

Who can forget all this? I’ll tell you who can forget: Everyone! Sarah the Zamboni has cleared the ice of this pesky historical memory.

Mind you, sexism is still alive and well, although it is enchanting to watch the same folks who criticized Hillary supporters for whining take off after the media for vetting. Back when a Hillary hater asked John McCain “How do we stop the bitch?” John responded, “Excellent question!” Now his campaign says it’s “offensive and disgraceful” of Barack Obama to use the word lipstick. How do you spell chutzpah?

Nevertheless, the good news for this cockeyed optimist is that Sarah Palin has made it politically incorrect to criticize working mothers. The mommy wars wage on in playgrounds and the blogosphere, but among candidates and in politics, working moms are the demilitarized zone of the cultural battleground.

There is, however, another divide between left and right that has reappeared with the governor’s star turn. It’s the difference between those who think a woman can have it all as long as she can do it all ... by herself. And those who think that it is neither wimpish nor whiny to push for some help.

The Emergence of Sarah Palin is actually the Return of Supermom. Mother of five, moose killer and marathoner, she was back at work three days after her son’s birth, juggling a BlackBerry and a breast pump while making Helen Reddy look like a slacker. Call her a role model or a parody, but the fresh face of 2008 looks like the exhausted face of the 1980s.

The conservative virtue of Palin’s life is that she doesn’t need anything from anyone outside the family. She isn’t lobbying for, say, maternity leave, equal pay or universal pre-K. Let alone universal health insurance. Or college tuition breaks, especially for that soon-to-be-teen-mom and her soon-to-be husband. Compare this to the actual Wal-Mart mom juggling day care fees and gas bills, fantasizing about a job with benefits and the flexibility to be home when the kids are sick.

Somehow the original women’s movement slogan, “The personal is political,” has been turned on its head. It’s more fun to talk about the candidate’s family and eyeglasses than Iraq and the recession. If George Bush was the guy you wanted to have a beer with, Palin is the gal you want to go to aerobics with. The political is waaay too personal.

So let us applaud the way Sarah Palin has pushed the working mother out of the firing line of the culture wars. But what about those family issues flattened by Sarah Zamboni?
thanks Nayan for the link.

the corruption of priviledge

David Cameron