About FOOTPRINTS IN THE BAJRA (Cedar Books, New Delhi); By Nabina Das

"Fittingly for a poet, Nabina’s novel also has a strong lyrical core. 'Footprints in the Bajra' takes the homely image of the millet field as its central metaphor. ... But the novel is less a thriller about guerrilla action than a subtly colored character study of a fascinating group of individuals who intersect at various points in their lives ..." -- DEBRA CASTILLO, author, editor and distinguished professor (Cornell University, April 17, 2010).

Footprints in the Bajra is a serious book that moves at a smart uncontrived pace. It voices deep concerns about how and why the deprived and the marginalized in certain parts of our country join the Maoist ranks; how they adopt desperate and often terrible measures to wrench justice and to make their voices heard... a confident debut novel, a good read, which will leave you with plenty to mull over. -- PRITI AISOLA, author (See Paris for Me, Penguin-India, 2009) in DANSE MACABRE XXXIV.

In her debut novel, Nabina Das writes about an India where social divides stand taller than multistoried shopping malls. Footprints in the Bajra, inspired by what she saw while touring the interiors of Bihar as part of a travelling theatre group, inquires into why the Maoists have an influence over a large section of Indian society. Das talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about her book, and its protagonist Muskaan -- DAILY NEWS AND ANALYSIS, Mumbai, March 28, 2010.


"The interspersion of references from both the West and India do not clash. Shakespeare and Lazarus as reference points are brought in with ease, as also Valmiki and Goddess Chhinnamasta, and nothing jars ... The language is poetic and creates visual images of beauty and ugliness side by side." -- ABHA IYENGAR, poet (Yearnings: Serene Woods, 2010) and fiction writer in MUSE INDIA, May-Jun 2010

Shwetank Dubey says Nabina Das ably recreates the milieu of Maoist-infested regions of India -- Nabina Das has chosen the first person account of narrating a story from the main characters of the novel, Nora the sheherwali (urban dweller), Muskaan the rebel, Suryakant Sahay the crafty clandestine planner and Avadhut the frontrunner of all the operations... the book deals with something that no urban resident is bound to know on his own — the life and times of people living in Maoist infested areas and why do they give in to the temptation provided by the Red Brigade. -- PIONEER newspaper, April 25, 2010.
'"If you misrepresent them, they'll abduct and kill you," says Muskaan, our hostess'... goes the first line with which Nabina Das settles everything about her novel -- style, subject and pace... Excellent plotline. Wonderful detail. A beautifully crafted book. -- Karunamay Sinha; THE STATESMAN, Sunday supplement "8th Day", May 16, 2010.

"This is bitter-sweet, if a rather longish tale of a modern-day Maoist revolution and the seeds of destruction and betrayal that lie embedded in it." -- Business World, May 17, 2010

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Red Hot Taiwanese Dinner

NOTE: don't bother to read this if you are a die-hard vegetarian or even an omnivore who's not experimental at all...

“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” -- Winston Churchill
“Pigs are not that dirty. And they're smart, strange little creatures. They just need love.” -- Shelley Duvall


My morning starts with a glass of orange juice. Usually I have a breakfast of a small bowl of cereals or a toast with cheese spread. Occasionally, on weekends, I may opt for an English breakfast of bacon and eggs and coffee or go for croissants.
On weekdays, later in the day, I usually drink two cups of tea with milk or coffee with creamer.

It’s surprising to most people that I tend not to eat a quick lunch, like others who eat fast food or just one sandwich or survive eating a salad. My lunch is normally a near-full meal, whether I am at work or in the university. Usually I carry lunch from home and avoid eating out. I eat breads or pita rolls or rice, vegetables or lentils or beans, chicken or fish or tofu and a seasonal fruit. There may be some salad included too in my meal. If I have to use up leftovers, I make a pita pocket to eat it.

With the midday meal, I normally drink only water. At times, I take a fruit juice or eat unsweetened yogurt.

I make it a point to drink a cup of tea or coffee in the evening, sometimes with scones or light snacks, what the French would call a goûter.

My dinner is usually light – a soup, breads or noodles and maybe some vegetables. For soup, I prefer having cream of broccoli, French onion, cream of mushroom or spinach soup. Again I only drink water with my meal. At times of course I break the monotony drinking Perrier or on rare occasions, some red wine.

I almost never eat dessert unless it's a special occasion. Like an anniversary or a birthday. Then, I have cheesecake or rice pudding.

My weekend meals are little more elaborate. Lunch has at least an additional course, as has dinner. Often I like to eat out on weekends. My favorites are Thai, Chinese and Middle Eastern cuisines. I adore Pad Thai, dumplings and couscous.

Well, having listed all of the above, I one day ventured to eat and drink something that I have never tried before and I believe not many people who appreciate diverse cuisine, would even have ever eaten it.

Invited to a dinner by my Taiwanese friends at their home some time ago, I had this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Knowing the Taiwanese have a very diverse cuisine, I had agreed to eat a surprise ingredient the Taiwanese commonly use in their “hotpot”. Well, it has a specific name for them that I do not clearly recall. I think it is “Zhu Xie Gao” but don’t recall for sure as my Taiwanese friends are not around now to tell me. Also, before eating it, I had no idea what it would look like or taste like. Our friends asserted it was arguably one of the best items one could sample in Chinese or Taiwanese cuisine.

On the day of our dinner, we gathered round a table on which sat a small stove burner. A large pot warmed on it, three-fourths filled with water. Kevin and Elisa, our friends, neatly placed around all food items that were to be offered in the hotpot once the water started to boil.

There were fresh shrimps, shiitake mushrooms, chopped sausages, tofu cubes, broccoli florets, shredded chicken and beef, baby carrots and corns, fish balls and the special item I was going to sample that evening. Soy sauce and vinegar were to be added at one’s discretion. One normally stirred the broth from time to time to check if the food in there was done and used a ladle to serve. One ate from dainty Chinese soup bowls (or probably they were rice bowls), added steaming jasmine rice to the broth and used a pair of chopsticks. I am bad at using chopsticks, so spoon and fork were just fine for me!

As various items were tossed in to the hotpot and we eagerly waited for the broth to be ready, I knew it was my big day to eat the “unknown” item. Kevin joked that it required thorough cooking and so waiting would be fine.

And then I was served the most delicious hotpot broth I have ever tasted in my entire life. I searched in my bowl amid shrimps and mushrooms and baby corns, and picked up 'the' piece – a dark red cube, like a red tofu. There it was, the much-awaited and curiosity-arousing item. Congealed pig blood. Cut neatly in cubes, a delicacy for several communities in the world. I put it in my mouth, in awe and trepidation.

I must make clear that before my hosts suggested I eat this surprise ingredient, they knew I was not only an omnivore, but also not squeamish about eating beef, pork, lamb etc., and pretty experimental about my diet. I wasn't cheated or anything.

So, I ate congealed pig’s blood, considered a delicacy in China, Taiwan, the Philippines and a few other East Asian countries. It is not a usual item that a non-East Asian would hope to eat, however avid an admirer of such cuisine he or she may be or however diverse meat eating experience one may have.

The reason I voluntarily tasted it was because I wanted to be familiar with the culture that my Taiwanese friends represented. Another flimsy reason was to break out of the mundane shrimp-and-tofu routine that most eaters of Chinese/Taiwanese food are used to. (Umm, I've decided to stick to that routine though!) Although pig or pork was a sort of taboo to my family, it wasn’t a taboo for me. So, I went ahead.

Most people I spoke to about my experience with eating congealed pig blood, reacted with astonishment and to some extent, utter abhorrence. Some asked me if culturally (and religiously) it was okay for me to eat pig’s blood. To that I said, for me any cultural experience was just fine, as long as it did not cause food poisoning etc.

Most Indians (my country of birth) reacted with visible shock and disgust. Most Americans reacted with disbelief (and some shock). Most East Asians took the news calmly.

Although I sound okay with that experience, for me challenges were many in the beginning. Overcoming unfamiliarity was a big one.

Also, it was difficult coming to terms with eating something I was never familiar with. So when Kevin explained what the secret item was, I had to steel myself.

Culturally, although eating pork is not encouraged in Indian society, I've been eating sausages and salamis right from my childhood. But pig blood? Huh, that was a different ballgame all together.

Let me confess, I WAS worried about the hygiene aspect of this item to begin with. Eating blood? Gracious!

The image of blood in my mind also did not make me particularly enthusiastic when I actually got down to eating it.

On the flip side, the fact that I did not actually see any blood in the hotpot kept my nerves calm. At my friends’ recommendation when I picked up the congealed blood cube, it looked quite innocuous, like a dark red tofu cube. It tasted salty, but it did not have any additional flavor which might be good idea to make it easily palatable to those that have never tasted it. So next time I eat it, I'd take the help of chili sauce or garlic to better the taste. Only if I eat it.

Having eaten congealed pig’s blood, it acted as a window to other East Asian cultures. “Pork blood jellos” or “chocolate pork” (as Filipinos call them) is a ‘normal’ food item in these cultures. For them, eating congealed pig’s blood (duck’s blood for those who do not approve of pig), was just like eating blood sausage or similar food eaten in Europe (hey, yes, Europeans have their own).

The one assumption that I begun with, when I brought the spoon to my mouth as Kevin and Elisa ran their commentary describing the red cube, was that pork blood cubes would taste simply horrible and spoil the taste of other items cooked along with it.

On the contrary, I found out that the blood cubes were not of any heightened flavor. They were certainly not worse than smelly bean curds or salty anchovies. They were in fact very much like salted tofu, a little harder in texture may be, but not unsavory. Cooked in that Taiwanese hotpot, they did not at all affect or alter the taste of the broth. I think though a little spice might do it some good.

Later, while reading on the subject, I found out blood may be a taboo item in many societies and faiths, especially in the West, but blood is perfectly accepted as food in parts of Asia or Africa. I must say, eating congealed pig’s blood and the ensuing entry to the uncharted culinary world of East Asian countries led me to research further on the subject of “unusual” food. To my pleasant surprise, I found out that not only blood, but also several other very unusual food are eaten in Europe and America. One can check them at:

Often we are too quick to criticize the food habit of the “others”. But think “squirrel brain” in American Deep South or “Calf’s brain” in France or blood sausages of Germany and blood pudding of UK. How do these things get acceptance? Conclusion: Culture must be seen in perspective and sensitivity can only grow out of familiarity and acceptance, at least tolerance. But let me end by saying I'm not recommending eating blood cubes here. It was my experiment, it remains so.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obama Nation-India's Lesson

Now that the appointment of a Black President is becoming an imminent reality for the United States of America, I'm really excited. Initially, to be very honest, my money lay with Hillary Clinton. Not just because she was a woman, but also because she, to use her opponents' words, bore the burden of experience, experience nonetheless. But gradually, I warmed up to Barack Obama, or lovingly as I call him Yo-Mama, who swayed all the votes. I don't think Obama will cause a miracle to happen. Or that race relations in the US will straighten out overnight and henceforth black and white Americans will dance and sing hand in hand. I don't think he has a unique foreign policy to implement; he has already pledged to stand beside Israel in all of the latter's projects (some of which could be, in my opinion, pretty damaging not only to the political settings in the Middle East but also to the rest of the clueless world). But on the sunnier side, Obama can begin a chain of thinking -- that all Americans can be presidents, commanders-in-chiefs, top bosses and practically anyone and everyone that seems to generate shock and awe in their minds.

So if it's gonna be an Obama nation, so be it.

This brings me to an interesting fact that somehow, the notion of a Black President has never been alien to Hollywood, so what if the 'people' were not ready for one. CNN reports (http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/TV/06/05/black.presidents/index.html) that on television and in film, black actors as acclaimed as James Earl Jones and as obscure as Tommy Lister have played commanders-in-chief. Apparently, if you fast forward a few decades, "the notion of a black man in the Oval Office provides ample joke fodder for comics such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock." I don;t know all that. I never have been an avid cable-watcher. But I kind of like this silly joke: On one episode of "The Richard Pryor Show," the comedian's short-lived '70s variety hour, he played a president hosting a press conference. During the sketch, he tells a corps of reporters that he'd seriously consider Black Panther Huey Newton for the job of FBI director -- and nearly decks one journalist who inadvertently insults his momma. And when he's asked about his fetish for white women, he jokes, "They don't call it the White House for nothing."

Some of it continued in this way being a total caricature. I haven't watched the 2003 film "Head of State," where Chris Rock's president, Mays Gilliam, is said to blabber a populist lingo "glazed with hip-hop slang." Gilliam's running mate, played by Bernie Mac (hey, I know him although I'm cable-free), thinks NATO is a person and not an acronym.

Let me share a secret. I've watched on DVD, the hit series "24". That's where a black president is palpably respectable. Dennis Haysbert's David Palmer is as 'normal' as any white dude. No one reminds him of his race, nor does he evoke it because there are apparently greater issues like terrorism and bomb scares staring him in the face. CNN asks: "Will these depictions make any difference to Barack Obama's candidacy? Who knows? But what was once the stuff of joke and fantasy could be months away from being the real thing."

I'm sure the real thing will be a good thing.

All this musing brings me to another aspect regarding India. This is because like the US, India is a pluralistic, multicultural society. We have caste relations, maybe a more stinging problem that dogs our lives in India even in the 21st century. A journalist in India has raised the question: Who will be our Obama? He slams Dalit and non mainstream politicians for not being able to achieve much. Quite rightly.

Here's what I think: We had an Obama long back. Long long back in fact. We don't see this person anymore in that generous light any more. Perhaps we do. Some of us. This was Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution. To my mind, given that period of time when India was a new-born nation, Ambedkar's contribution is above par. Maybe it is even not wise to compare him to Obama.

As for Indian leaders today from SP, BSP and other political parties, no one has that stature. And it seems we are still in a caricature mode. Lalu Yadav evokes laughter far and wide with his ultra-folksy-ness while Mayawati evokes banter and 'women' jokes. The south Indian leaders are too remote for the so-called 'national' media but even they dwell in the realms of the absurd.

So what has India got? So far a lesson, at least, to learn from the US primaries.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

POLITICS AND COMEDY -- three old articles retrieved


NRI-funded schools imparting 'traditional value education' are sprouting up all
over tribal India

New Delhi, January 29, 2001

Ram mandir and Hindu Rashtra may be the immediate catchwords for the Sangh Parivar for the forthcoming Assembly elections, but this is not the lone agenda for which the saffron brigade seems to be working. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is not just wooing the mainstream, but is also making inroads into the tribal belts of India. The killing of missionary Graham Staines in Orissa in a most horrific manner as a statement of tribal resistance to western influence may have been a singular incident. The approach taken by the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of India (EVFI), an organisation with obvious Sangh sympathies, of changing the tribal
mindset is a more sustained process.

At a glance, some prominent trustees on the board of the EVFI are B K Modi, founder chairperson ModiCorp; Justice P N Bhagawat, former chief justice, Supreme Court; Dr L M Singhvi, MP and former ambassador to UK; Dr Abid Hussain, former ambassador to US and member of the Constitution Review Committee; Sadhvi Bhagwati, international director (youth education), Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh; several NRIs, and a whole host of top brass of the ModiCorp and Modi Foundation.

The EVFI is supposedly a non-government, non-profit organization, and is registered as a trust. The main objective of the foundation is to help in the "overall development of remote tribal villages".

Interestingly, the EVFI also has a branch in the US. The Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA, along with home-bred organisations, are committed to create a "people's movement involving thousands of selfless dedicated Indians, NRIs and other people of Indian origin, in order to wean children of remote tribal areas of India away from illiteracy, and consequently superstition, exploitation, ill-health, poverty and crime," said sources.

The EVFI offers five years of free schooling for children, especially in the tribal belts of India. A typical class has around 30-40 children in the age group of four-15 years, and is often conducted in rural environs. All study materials are provided free of cost.
Although the EVFI website has a large portrait of poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore, obviously referring to his "nature is our teacher" philosophy, there is not any pertinent information on the syllabus taught. The EVFI apparently imparts "basic
alphabetic and numeric knowledge, health and hygiene, character-building and moral
values" and "sanskaars", whatever that may mean.

As teachers, the EVFI appoints locally educated youths (generally those who have only studied till high school) who are "specially trained" to become key figures and catalysts of change and "character building" for the entire village or area. Besides, the schools are also supposed to conduct health camps, cleanliness drives and
environment awareness programmes among rural tribals.

Classes are more like informal teaching sessions comprising katha (story-telling sessions), natak (dramas), lok-geet (folk songs), and pravachan (religious discourses).

State-wise distribution of EVFI schools

State August 2001 March 2002 (Est) August 2002 (Est)
North East 660 690 960
West Bengal 325 325 540
Orissa 510 510 600
Bihar 270 450 450
Jharkhand 720 970 1060
Uttar Pradesh 420 715 1150
North Zone 120 450 600
Rajasthan 240 480 780
Gujarat 300 390 570
Maharashtra 450 630 930
Madhya Pradesh 1140 2370 2880
Chhatisgarh 660 1260 1530
Andhra Pradesh 540 1000 1080
Karnataka 60 240 360
Tamil Nadu 180 240 270
Kerala 90 180 240
Total 6685 11100 14000

The US wing of the group estimates that it only costs $365 to run an Ekal Vidyalaya for a whole year.

Non government organisations (NGO) that have been identified to help set up more EVFIs are the Birsa Seva Prakalpa in Bihar, Bharatiya Jan Seva Sansthan in Rajasthan and Swami Vivekananda Cultural Society in Tamil Nadu.

Some 3,000 schools are being run by NGOs like the Friends of Tribal Society, Bhartiya Kalyan Pratishthan, Bhartiya Lok Shiksha Parishad, Bhartiya Jan Sewa Sansthan and Janhitay in the states of Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Assam and West Bengal.

At present, the EVFI enjoys the status of a charitable trust. Donations to EVFI are 50 per cent tax exempt. It has even received Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) permission to receive donations in foreign exchange on actual receipt basis.
Funds from the US are obviously a big asset for the group. In fact, the mission of
the ECFI and the Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation of USA is to set up 100,000 Ekal Vidya Mandirs in the remote tribal villages by the year 2010. Imparting sanskar and moral values should then be easier for the saffron brigade, once its movement gains ground.

MARRIAGES ARE MADE IN HEAVEN? (http://www.jaalmag.com/archives/01051999/slangmatch.htm)

Sumit thought an arranged marriage would buy him the heavens. Steaming cup of tea in the morning, hot chapatis off the tawa, hot meals in a lunchbox, clothes washed and laundered, house cleaned and … all that. Besides, of course, the proverbial amount of gold and cash that an arranged marriage is supposed to supply to a man's coffers. But lo and behold, what he got could described by some as a rough deal in the hands of- no, not nature or God - but his wifey dear.
Barring tea and an occasional toast thrown alongside the cup containing an insipid brown beverage, Manisha had no skill or patience for any culinary capers. She declared within a first few days of their familiarisation programme that she would rather spend her time eating out, watching TV, wear expensive clothes and shop in abundance. Housework is to be done only those who are "backward-minded", "unsmart" or "uneducated". After all, Sumit had settled for a convent-educated wife who spoke English and wore Western clothes, had he not? She had also brought in enough cash and kind to keep the family financially solvent for several years to come. For Sumit, arranged marriage had been robbed of all its relevance. Grapes that had gone sour.

Well, all stories are not told in the same manner. Pranjal and Sweta had a love marriage, but Sweta ends up doing all household chores simply because, they stay with Pranjal's parents. "I really don't think there is any difference I have made to my life by opting for a marriage of my choice," she said with bitterness, "I am cooking, washing, cleaning even if I have to put in as much energy and time at my workplace. How am I leading a different life anyway?" Pranjal seems to be caught between the Devil and the deep sea, wishing to mitigate his wife's sorrows and at the same time, not eager to leave his parents' house.
Daily chores apart, does this notion of arranged and love marriage make any difference to the quality of relationship shared by the husband and the wife? A good number of traditionally married couples stress that nothing is amiss in the relationship. They court each other after marriage, in fact without any fear of shame or embarrassment, which is very often looming large on courting couples before their marriage. The newly married pair is often sent off by the family for a royal honeymoon. They don't get caught sneaking inside a park or don't have to walk the roads in search of a place to sit and utter sweet nothings.
Sangeeta and Ashim were packed off by Sangeeta's parents to (hold your breath) Mauritius where they wear they had a swell time. A tension-free co-existence where no one's even heard of being chased by the local policewallah from park to park, being glared at by one's neighbour in the cinema hall for having held hands, or even those pangs of break ups that are constant miseries of couples supposedly in love. "We wrote each other real passionate love letters, bummed around like teenagers, holidayed like never before and did all kind of things for which I had no time. And my wife and I are happy that my family is around with us to look after our needs when we need help. It could have been bad otherwise," proclaimed Shishir, a busy Infotech executive.
Reena, married after two years of courtship, feels that somehow the fun and naughty element of the relationship has subsided. They do not go out as often, rarely eat out, sleep off as soon as they hit the bed, even do not have time to chat much after an arduous day at work. "May be in an arranged marriage I would have had the chance to explore the conjugal relationship and make it livelier than it is now," she rues.
"Arranged marriage vs love marriage is no longer the issue," said a couple. It is lifestyle and the way you choose to lead it, that matters, they maintain. It is like choosing a package, a gift you give yourself. "One either chooses the glitter or the drudgery, and consciously, for there is always the option of rejecting a structure given the fact that both men and women today are aware of their demands," philosophises Andy. Well, he is a bachelor who at the moment is courting nature with his camera. We shall soon see.

Talks useless until Indian troops are withdrawn: Lashkar mentor

On the eve of the forthcoming Indo-Pakistan summit in Agra, Lashkar-e-Toiba big daddy Prof Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has, in a scathing albeit sarcasm-laden editorial in the outfit's Website, criticised the Indian leadership and exhorted the Pakistani President to represent Muslims of the subcontinent, says Nabina Das (www.tehelka.com, July 11, 2001)
On the eve of Agra Summit between India and Pakistan, the Lashkar-e Toiba ('literally the Army of the Pure), one of the dreaded separatist outfits involved in jehad (freedom struggle) for an independent Kashmir, has exhorted Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to look at the reality of Kashmir and the struggle of the Kashmiris for the past 12 years. The group has also lashed out at India for not attempting to withdraw its troops from Kashmir which it says would mar the atmosphere of the talks. The Lashkar big daddy Prof Hafiz Muhammad Saeed has in fact, come out with a scathing albeit sarcasm-laden editorial in the outfit's Website Markaz Ad Da'wah Wal Irshad (www.markazdawa.org) criticising and advising the forthcoming Indo-Pakistan summit.
The Lashkar-e-Toiba believes that jehad is the be-all and end-all of a true Muslim's life and quotes a Hadith in Sahih Muslim, where Prophet Mohammad, while illustrating the attribute of true believers, said, "This religion will outlive forever and for the sake of it, a class out of Muslims will continue Jihad until the dawn of the Doomsday." This, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of this dreaded separatist group which is well known for their fidayeen (suicide) missions against the Indian state in Kashmir.
The group, in it website, clearly spelling out its strategy and denouncing the Indian state in the strongest of terms, vows that the Lashkar Mujahideen (freedom fighters) will do everything to fail the activities of the Indian army on the eve of the forthcoming talks between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
In the Editorial titled "The Trap of US-sponsored talks has once again been set to cover up atrocities of Indian army in Kashmir", Prof Saeed, mentor of the extremist group that mostly draws its cadre from non-Kashmiris - Afghans, Pakhtoons and Central Asians - says, "We want General Pervez Musharraf to realise that the country is today at a very crucial juncture. One of the ways leads to freedom, not only of Kashmir but also of the entire Pakistan. If he understands the anatomy of Kashmir Jihad then he must also be aware of the fact that this is the only highway leading to freedom. Jihad will liberate us from all fetters of slavery. At the moment Pakistan is not a free country. There is so much pressure on it from all sides."
Under the section Voice of Islam, the smooth-talking Prof Saeed spins a tale of Kashmiri suffering vis-à-vis Indian oppression with an aim to strike at the jehadi mentality. He tells a story about parents and relatives, including a large number of women, of martyred jehadis who had recently gathered in Lahore. All of them were all concerned over the recent developments with respect to Kashmir problem and were keen to know the outcome of the upcoming talks. Several wondered whether they should write to President Musharraf to inform him of their feelings and misgivings, writes Prof Saeed.
Very dramatically, Prof Hafiz Saeed writes, "The young men (jehadis) have gone to Kashmir after hearing the tales of Indian atrocities. They heard that Muslim sisters are being dishonoured. And they sacrificed their lives to live up to their relationship with their sisters and brothers in Islam. And even their bodies did not return to Pakistan, their mothers could not get their last glimpse. They just got the news of their martyrdom and said 'alhamdulillah' and shed no tears. I have seen the mothers of martyrs bear their sons' martyrdom with fortitude. The number of martyrs both in Pakistan and Kashmir is in thousands. They are all tied together in the bond of Islam." (Talks useless until Indian troops are withdrawn: Lashkar mentor www.tehelka.com, July 11, 2001)

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Food, Health, Climate: Can We Set Our Karma Right?

Last year, when India stood tall in the global hall of fame for R K Pachauri being named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize along with former US Vice President Al Gore, speaking to news agencies on the eve of receiving this prestigious award, Pachauri emphasized that reliance on technology alone wasn’t sufficient to keep the world cleaner. He was, of course, referring to the ways countries could cut CO2 emissions, following the example set by Norway. Simply put, industrial technology will have to yield more space to a sustainable approach that would propel real development for countries. Pachauri must have used the word ‘alone’ knowing very well for India, a country that looks at technology as a quick-fix solution to almost every ailment, a broader and more balanced strategy needs to be adopted. In the spirit of his mission he said, “We all have to adjust our way of life to minimise the looming threat.” Translates as, we need to re-evaluate methods and arrest the silent turmoil that is ongoing regarding our environment, health and lifestyle.
But think of it, does it need a Pachauri to tell us things are a bit off-track? The US doesn’t need a Gore to tell them what’s been going on with their environment, their food, and consequently, their health (Code red on that last one – obesity is the new enemy)? Or maybe it does. While unluckily for me, six year’s of stay in the United States has been fraught with the constant struggle to avoid cheap, abundant and bad food, industrially mass produced, luckily, 2006-07 has been a transition to local and organic food, to understanding my role in contributing to a cleaner environment, basically to understanding how the ‘karmic’ cycle of bad environment, bad eating and bad health works.
Let me backtrack to illustrate the last point.

Fat chance for health!
Within a week of the Pachauri-Gore sound bytes still dominating our media, I spotted a BBC story about dead fish surfacing in the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, apparently because over-zealous fishermen had been using pesticides in the water to kill more fish for larger profit. Thousands of dead fish reportedly had been washed ashore. The number of sick fish matched those killed. There’s an alleged controversy that perhaps the fishermen really did not kill the fish, but that the fish died owing to the rise of pollution level in the river. The Guwahati refinery, as everyone who has lived in Guwahati (as has this writer) or follows health and environment news knows, has been a defaulting polluter according to Assam Pollution Control Board (APCB) officials. But whether the refinery is the culprit or it’s the greedy fishermen, the bottom line is, there was a serious breach.
Fish happens to get contaminated very easily and once eaten, passes the contamination to our body. There is a global debate raging about PCB and mercury levels in the fish we eat. For those who do not eat fish, things are not rosy either. Pollution levels in rivers and seas only pollute further our environment, even so seriously, affecting vegetables and crops. In fact, the worsening climate change owing to pollution – industrial and otherwise – have been linked to obesity and other more serious diseases (as if obesity isn’t enough disease causing and organ destabilising). With climate change, diseases of weird nomenclature have been popping up now and then in India and abroad. Remember the recent occurrence of chikungunya in Italy, a disease supposedly of warmer tropical climates? Apparently immigrants didn’t bring it!
So, did I say obesity was somewhere linked to all this? Quite likely.
I’m reminded of a time when as a nonprofit group’s media officer I was on a field tour to Hyderabad promoting grassroots journalism in the mainstream media. A prominent newspaper editor told us a story about his visit to China. He, also a prominent Left supporter, said that all around him in Beijing and other big cities, he noticed that half the number of children seemed not just fat or plump, but patently obese. He also noticed the Chinese kids ate fast food and their parents took them to shopping malls. This was eight or more years ago. I don’t believe things have changed much the other way round.
Fast-forwarding from China to the India of today, it seems things are surely caught in a vicious cycle between a polluted environment, bad food and obesity. Visiting Kolkata in 2006, I was amazed to see how not fat, but obese kids and teenagers dotted the malls, Big Bazaars and other shopping center landscapes. This was India’s middle class – the news spenders who are also new vigorous polluters. A vendor roasting corns on charcoal outside my apartment complex bitterly complained: “The babus now order pizzas … and of course their favourite restaurant is Mekdoonal (McDonalds)!”
Traditional Indian food – the gourmet variety – has always been high in calories, but there is still the option to eat healthy. Typically, now most urban middle class Indians are consuming foods like French fries, soft drinks, cookies, burgers, deep-fried meats and other highly processed fatty, sugary and salty items.
Fat chance for health then!

A turbulent Rubicon
It may seem gibberish to say that global temperature is expected to increase by 5 degree Celsius in the 21st century (according to The Human Development Report 2007-08) thereby endangering all life. Still wish Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss took a cue from the HDR while planning to launch a pilot project for ‘Prevention and Control of Cardiovascular diseases, Diabetes and Stroke', reportedly budgeted at Rs. 5 crore for a year (The Hindustan Times, Jan. 3) in six districts, before it is extended to the whole nation. The six districts are Kamrup in Assam, Jalandhar in Punjab, Bhilwara in Rajasthan, Shimoga in Karnataka, Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. While Ramadoss’ vision that these districts will offer a national footprint maybe correct, such a project must factor into it the overall environmental pollution, the food chain, popular lifestyle, sustainable and eco-friendly farming and trading practices, etc. Only then can the national footprint be deemed holistic. Although seemingly a drop in the ocean, these types of efforts would no doubt contribute to improving the lot of the worst sufferers, about 40 per cent of the world’s poor people, which is 2.6 billion. Go ahead and calculate the number of India’s poor.
As for the moneyed Indian middle class with their increasing girth (I read somewhere that 55 percent of Delhi women are overweight and 76 percent have abdominal obesity), alarm bells are already ringing. This sordid statistics brought to my notice a recent effort launched on a war footing by the British government (BBC, Jan. 23) – a £372 million strategy aimed at cutting levels of obesity in England. Reportedly, several "healthy towns" would be created at a cost of £30 million with comprehensive cycle routes and pedestrian areas. The thrust of the effort is mainly on children with obesity. So, everywhere it seems, there’s now a growing concern for healthy living. Has to go hand in hand with promoting a clean environment.
On this cue, because I live in North America, I had to dig out the fact that ‘the average American meal travels 1,500 miles from field to fork, consuming untold gallons of chemical fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels along the way (New York Times, Dec. 14, 2007)’. Now do we see the connection between healthy living and eating and a clean and sustainable environment?
The Pachauri-Gore tips probably only point to the tip of a dangerous iceberg that’s melting fast. There are hundreds of activists and scientists working in various areas of the composite environment-health-food/lifestyle problem. Maybe our ministers and policymakers would like to know a few of the strategies they suggest in order to cross the turbulent Rubicon.

The food karma
Some advocates of healthy eating, a clean environment and fair trade practices propose the “100-mile diet” plan. This of course won’t ensure 100 per cent overnight improvement in our lifestyle, but will certainly instill a sense in us that we have more control over what we feed our body. For example, whenever I buy from my local farmers market, I ask about their farming methods, if they use pesticides, if the poultry is free-range, etc. I’m not fanatic about staying cocooned within the 100 miles. So coffee, tea, wine, rice, wheat, spices and a few others are definitely ‘outsourced’. But it feels good to eat local, organic and seasonal vegetables and fruits, as also locally raised free-range poultry or meat. Because even organic carrots shipped from California would mean a huge amount of fuel being burned, I’d soon shift to locally grown organic beets.
Certainly, it’s tough being a ‘locavore’, like learning to swim or drive as an adult! But it’s worth it. The other benefit is that you get to know more local people when you buy and eat local. Fosters good camaraderie. Something my aged parents still hold precious without knowing the jargon around it. When Jeevan the local grocer gets them items produced locally, Suleiman the local fisherman sells them fresh fish brought from his village, Bimala the local vendor lady gets them seasonal fruits, vegetables or herbs from her kitchen garden, they rely on each other economically and form a humanistic web. This is notwithstanding the proliferation of supermarkets and malls in the city that are systematically taking away jobs from small farmers and local growers and compromising with our overall health.
So high time we earned a bit of good karma! Buy local, buy seasonal, and buy organic at least for the famed “dirty dozens” – apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, raspberries, strawberries, bell peppers (Shimla mirch), celery, potatoes and spinach. Milk, red meat and poultry are the other preferred organic buys.
Often however, the complaint is, although locally grown produces are not usually expensive, certified organic fruits and vegetables sometimes cost fifty percent more than their regular counterparts. So does it mean by becoming willing to contribute to a green environment, we turn into paupers? Not really. Eating local and seasonal can be a great way avoiding paying too much. Exotic or non-seasonal produces can cost us a packet, as these would invariably travel long miles before reaching us. Going to a mandi or a weekly haat can open up the doors to fresh, local and sometimes organically grown food. Paradoxically, while trying to save up money by not buying organic, a large number of population in the US or the UK have recently been incurring high medical costs on account of obesity and other ailments.
One might ask, where’s the organic certification in India? That’s something advocates are working on. For thousands of organic farmers in India and elsewhere, organic certification currently is a political hot potato, hopefully to be resolved soon. So far, most certification guidelines have been coming from the affluent West, and what wonder! It is American and European companies that have jumped into the fray smelling good money in the organics business. The latter insist that farmers everywhere follow a prescribed database of seeds and buy only from them, which is being opposed by farmers of the global South.
We have good news. In India, various state governments now have incentives for farmers to go organic. At the ‘India Organic 2007’, a trade fair and seminar, there were business enquiries worth Rs. 150 crore, “a growth of 80 per cent over 2006”, according to Manoj K. Menon, executive director, International Competence Centre for Organic Agriculture (ICCOA). This, after reports that most of India's farms – 65 percent of the country's cropped area – are "organic by default”, according to a study by Rabo India, a subsidiary of Rabobank International. This means that small farmers, located mostly in the eastern and northeastern India, have no choice except to farm without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. On the other hand, it is also true that many of them choose to farm organically, as has been the tradition for thousands of years.
To go back to Pachauri’s warning about heavy reliance on industrial technology, several of our farmers have seen firsthand the effects of chemical farming – erosion of soil and soil nutrients, low-nutrition food, and human diseases resulting from chemical seepage in the water table as well as from emissions in the air. We as consumers can alone help prevent this. So the food-health-climate karma watch is ticking away, right as we read this. The best reason for investing in it will be a healthy planet, awarded to us in this life itself.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

French should consider an eclectic model

Nabina Das
(November 11, 2005, The Ithaca Journal, finally I found this article!!)
It is rather naive to think or propound that in today’s world, a society can remain monolithic – in religion, color, language and culture. The country that just a few months ago, smirked at the debacle caused in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, has now its own underbelly exposed. The knives of discord would surely cause serious scars on it, if not tear the social fabric apart with the crisis is allowed to continue.
As France arrives at its ‘moment of truth’ the question is how the crisis originated. Was it an invasion by alien cultures overnight that ripped French suburbs for days now and rendered the Republic frustrated? Some deep reflection already hints it is a result of grave inequality practiced for decades, masked under the notion of “secularism” and “social integration”.
It seems, increasingly however, this form of Western secularism is running into problems in addressing emerging religions and communities whose followers become a critical mass in society. The stubbornness with which France responded to the recent hijab (headscarf for Muslim women) issue is a case in point.The option might seem to lie between choosing either a stricter (read dogmatic) treatment of ‘troublemakers’ or, devising short-term populist measures. But there are other long-term options available to us.
I genuinely think, France, at this critical juncture of a defining historical moment, must look either to the west or to the east and make an eclectic choice.In the west, the United States with Affirmative action as its cornerstone could serve as a proactive model for resolving the present crisis. Unless the cruel history of slavery in America was acknowledged, understood, written and read about and condemned, America would not be what it is today. Given that race relations are still stressed, to justify democracy above all other things, Affirmative Action acts as a beacon of light.
Looking to the east might present France with a rather novel framework, or help others that live in constant fear that their elite white Christian societies are about to be run down by blacks, browns, Muslims, Africans, Arabs, Asians, Polish plumbers, Turkish nurses et al – the list of so-called aliens can be endless.In the east, I am talking about India – the largest democracy in the world and one of the most complex societies of our times. The Indian constitution, adopted in 1950, had the foresight to create a public space for most minorities, religions, ethnicities, tribes, languages and even castes.
It is true violent religious conflicts, language and caste riots have plagued India time and again, as has decades of terrorism. But in the larger scheme of things, it is a country that has successfully prevented balkanization of its territory, maintained a strong national identity and has fiercely remained a secular democracy since its inception.For a billion-strong country with about 300 spoken languages, eight or nine major religions (not counting the several animistic faiths), numerous caste-based economic structures, and people of all color and looks, this secular post-colonial nation has done rather well for its 50-odd years, considering how several post-colonial countries still flounder or depend on larger powers.
Most of the Indian civil society certainly understands and accepts differences. It does not balk at people displaying Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Hindu tilaks, Jewish yarmulkes or Christian crucifix signs; or at a Muslim president, a Sikh prime minister, an Italian-born (woman) Christian ruling party leader, and at prudent policies that help so-called “low-caste” leaders to challenge the hegemony of the upper classes.
Most of our French friends however, shudder at the thought of ‘quotas’ or ‘reservation’ for the underprivileged, which they think is an anathema to French socialist ideas. But acceptance alone can produce multiculturalism or diversity. India, historically a giant diversity workshop, can be a model of peaceful coexistence within the boundaries of a nation state.Why bother about such a model? Because, it successfully blends all values; two, inevitable worldwide migration of human beings cannot be stopped by exclusionist policies. As the West once sought out new lands to further its nascent capitalist interests, it now needs to accept the tide in its own direction. That is why, French-born Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Mauritanians etc., will always be French. They can eat their Camembert cheese or drink Beaujolais as well as everyone else in France. The name or the color of skin will not sour that cheese or curdle that vin rouge.