Monday, June 28, 2010

Jazz in Chennai

Madhav Chari, who is in my opinion easily India's best-ever jazz musician and pretty much the only one of international standards that I have heard, has put together a new trio. The other two members are Naveen Kumar (electric bass) and Jeoraj George (drums).

Though his colleagues in the trio are little-known, Madhav says this trio is of "international standard". And knowing him, if he says that, I believe him. He does not give compliments readily, but he has praised these members to me in the past.

They play a concert on July 22 at the Museum Theatre, and Madhav conducts three workshops in the preceding weeks. The details are below.


JUL 3 SATURDAY 5.00 - 6.30 PM

The main emphasis will be on the European roots of jazz music, western classical harmony and its development, jazz harmony-melody-rhythm configurations.

JUL 10 SATURDAY 5.00 - 6.30 PM

Emphasis on the African cultural roots of jazz music, blues music and gospel music as twin music forms: one sacred the other "profane", blues as the basis for jazz and rock music. Swingin' the blues.

JUL 17 SATURDAY 5.00 - 6.30 PM

The art of improvisation: what is necessary: similarities in process between carnatic/hindustani and jazz music. Actual differences between the music forms. Differences in cultural configurations between the west and India (jazz is essentially a western musical idiom even if part of its roots lie in Africa). Fusion and Con-Fusion: Pitfalls in thinking that is endemic to jazz and carnatic collaborations.



Please be seated at the venue no later than 6.45 PM.

In what sense are we a "socialist" republic?

In 1976, Indira Gandhi amended the Preamble of the Indian Constitution to insert the words "socialist" and "secular" in the description of the Indian republic. It is not clear to me what she meant by "socialist", but 34 years later, we still don't have a social security system or any kind of safety net for the vast majority of our people. We have a "public distribution system" for essential commodities, that is decrepit and corrupt but is pretty much the only resource for the poor. Our healthcare and education are terrible. We know that Mrs Gandhi, like her father, admired the Soviets, but in what respect, other than autocracy and midnight arrests, did she attempt to emulate them? (Mrs Gandhi made this amendment at the height of the Emergency. She did not choose to remove the word "democratic" from the Preamble, presumably because the Soviet bloc had its own definition of that word, as in "German Democratic Republic" -- the former East Germany. Why change words when you can merely change their meanings?)

The motivation for the above reflections was the recent decontrol of petrol prices. Now, subsidising petrol is the sort of broad-based subsidy that makes no sense to me: it benefits the rich as much as, or more than, the poor. I am all for removing such subsidies. I think we should also be charged more realistic amounts for water, electricity, and other things that we take for granted. I seldom pay more than Rs 5 for parking my car, and usually I pay nothing: our cities could earn huge revenue by just charging parking fees that bear a closer relation to the price of real estate. There is no possible argument for subsidising car owners to this extent.

But the question is, what will we get in return for removing the subsidies? Can the poor be assured of affordable food, good healthcare and education? The government has passed the "Right to Education" act but there is no clarity on how it is to be implemented, and I am worried that the only effect of the act will be to hamstring the existing private schools without providing any alternative. There seems to be zero movement, and indeed zero interest, on any of the other things that an allegedly "socialist" government should be providing to its needy people.

Balancing the budget is all very well, but there is surely no short-term rush for that: if we manage to lift 300 million people out of poverty in the next generation, the government's tax revenues will shoot up too. As George W Bush said, we need to make the pie taller. Besides, there are enough wasteful government schemes that we can trim without hurting millions of people in the process. But I do not for a moment believe that the poor will become magically prosperous via GDP growth alone. Thanks to India's spectacular recent growth, the urban middle class earns ten to fifty times as much as it used to a generation ago; but we remain every bit as stingy in paying servants and workers, haggling for the last rupee. That's not going to change.

Meanwhile, without an education, the poor simply face no better prospects than unskilled labour -- whether in farming, industry, construction or homes -- and no means of fighting exploitation.

So while I am, in theory, happy to pay more for my petrol, I want to know what the government plans to do with my money, other than cut the deficit. Indira Gandhi made "Roti, kapda, makaan" a slogan: a generation or two later, a huge number of Indians lack even those essentials of life. Healthcare and education? Perhaps a century or two from now.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Statement from David Davidar's lawyer

Nilanjana (among others) posts a statement from David Davidar's lawyer. Below is a comment I just left tried to leave on her site.

This gets bizarre. First, I can understand his lawyer vetting his statement, but why on earth is his lawyer speaking for him? Is it so that he can have a chance of denying it later?

Second, what is one supposed to make of this statement: "Mr. Davidar accepted the situation [that she did not want a secret romance], and their flirtatious relationship continued"? Surely that was a clear signal to him to back off.

And this one: "Mr. Davidar engaged in flirtatious banter with [Samantha Francis] for a short period of time. He did not engage in any conduct toward Ms. Francis that he knew or should have known was unwelcome." So he should not have known that flirtatious banter with a subordinate may be unwelcome?

As for the Frankfurt incident: he says she did not resist, she says she did. She goes into graphic details of how she resisted (climbing onto a window sill, pleading with him, curling into a foetal position, etc). Why does he not come out and say that all those specific statements were lies? What he says is "However, contrary to Ms Rundle’s claim, Mr. Davidar did not bully his way into her room, nor did he force himself upon her. Ms Rundle did not object when they kissed." It is possible he entered the room before she asked him to leave. He does not deny that she asked him to leave, or climbed on the window sill. If she "did not object" when they kissed, perhaps she had given up. In fact, the "foetal position" can be interpreted as not resisting.

It was an unequal relationship and he should have respected that. If she was not always negative -- if she sometimes even seemed to encourage him -- perhaps this widely-circulated anonymous blogpost may explain why.(*)

How he squares it with his wife is between him and his wife -- it is nobody else's business. I don't see why that should enter into his lawyer's statement, either. If he chooses to make a public statement on his wife, surely he can make the statement himself.

(*)Key quote from that post:
I flirted back, when he'd flirt, and I'm ashamed. But I blame him. I blame the way he manipulated us into thinking it was all part of the job, the "culture" of the office...

PS (21/06/10, 22:17): The other striking thing about that statement is the ratio of its length to its content. Huge stretches of it consist merely of "she invited him to tennis", "they had dinner together", "she asked him for a ride", "she sent him good wishes", and variations thereof. In Davidar's and his lawyer's minds, presumably, all this paints a damning portrait. If I had assumed that every woman who invited me to dinner or to a concert had been trying to flirt with me, maybe my life would have been as colourful as Davidar's. Such an attitude must make platonic friendship between the sexes completely impossible (and yes, some do argue that it is impossible).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spot the difference

What's the difference between this image from 2001 (here's a relevant article)

and this one from today's Hindu?

Answer: the position of the Indian soldiers.

Question: The 2001 photo caused tremendous outrage in India. Will the 2010 photo create a similar storm of protest?

I'm not hopeful.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Davidar case

As everyone knows by now, David Davidar, publishing icon, faces claims of sexual harassment from two women from his time as president of Penguin Canada. Davidar previously worked in Penguin India and several women in the Indian publishing industry have declared their disbelief. For example, four women are quoted here, as follows: "David Davidar is a deeply loved and respected figure in publishing. Naturally, his many friends continue to believe in him, and always will"; "He is one of the most decent persons I know. I refuse to believe these allegations"; "This is the last thing anyone would expect to be levelled against David"; "I find it very difficult to believe these allegations could be true".

Why is that relevant? According to one of his defenders (who, however, acknowledges the gravity of his accuser's charges, the trauma she must be going through, and the necessity of justice if the charges are true): "I know character is no defence, but sometimes a man's character does count." But men (and women) display different characters to different people. If Davidar is guilty of harassing two women (and we should not be judging him based on media reports), the fact that he did not harass several other women is of no importance.

Besides, is that really his character? According to the late Dom Moraes, writing back in 2002, Davidar "drank a lot and liked to fall in love." Moraes relates an illustrative story, which does not sound like harassment, but does not induce much respect either.

I saw the Moraes link on Ashok Banker's blog. Banker refers to Davidar's "dark side", which he saw "quite frequently -- and believe me when I say, I’m not revealing all that I saw because some of it is darker than even I want to talk about publicly." Banker, in an earlier, now deleted post (still cached in google as I write, but I won't link) relates a much more salacious story, which is still not a clear case of harassment but does make one wonder. [Update 17/06/10: Banker has restored that post, with reader comments. He says he took it down because his server couldn't handle the load. The reader comments are interesting: see below.]

Neither Moraes' nor Banker's assessments of Davidar's character are of any more relevance, however, than that of Davidar's numerous defenders. What matters is what he did in Canada. The truth could be that he was an inveterate womaniser who, however, never stepped over the line, and these particular charges are false. It could also be that he was the perfect gentleman in all dealings with women, except in these two cases, where the charges are true. Or it could be anything in between, or anything beyond. We simply don't know, and while it is fun to speculate, it is not very productive to do so.

The sociology of jumping to a man's defence on the grounds of, essentially, "but he never assaulted me" does puzzle me, however. We saw a lot of that in the Anand Jon case, too. Meanwhile, Banker's own posts sound like "kicking a man while he's down", and -- other than the Moraes link, which was interesting because it was unbiased by current events -- rather unsubstantial. And the same can be said of my post here. And of course I'm not alone. In today's world, we all enjoy speculating on celebrity news, and speculating on others' speculations, and so on ad infinitum. But I do agree with Banker that the entirely unbalanced initial reactions from the Indian publishing industry deserved some counterpoint. So, which is better: restraint from all sides, or unrestrained speculation from all sides? The result is the same: nobody is any wiser. Let the case take its course through the Canadian legal system.

UPDATE 17/06/10: As already noted above, it is the comments by Davidar's friends that intrigue me, and the ones on Banker's blog are no different. Yes, Davidar has close friends, who never saw anything in him that would suggest he would be capable of such a thing. Yes, they hope that he can clear his name. But why write hundreds of words that have no bearing on this case, referring to their personal experiences with him as "another side to the story" even though it has nothing whatever to do with the story? I understand feeling the need to speak up when your close friend is accused of unsavoury things, but why not simply say something like: "I know David well and respect him, and would not think him capable of such conduct; I hope he can clear his name, but I recognise the seriousness of these charges and, if proved, want justice to be done" -- and then leave it at that?

Also worth reading: "What it feels like for a girl" -- an anonymous blogger's experiences in the Canadian publishing industry.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friends that the gay community doesn't need

What the gay/lesbian community needs, as Andrew Sullivan (among others) points out, is friends in the mainstream. In 1992, only 42% of Americans personally knew someone who was gay or lesbian. Today, 77% do, and they also see that their gay/lesbian friends are completely normal, honest, straightforward people. That in itself accounts for the change in attitudes towards gays in the US (and, earlier, in Europe).

What the community does not need is a self-appointed activist who writes in a national newspaper that "homosexuality may sometimes have a lot to do with paedophilia, and, further, that if it is based on mutual consent, it is no big deal."

I certainly would not want a man who believed this teaching undergraduates. From Abi's blog, I see that this man, Ashley Tellis, has been sacked from his teaching position at IIT Hyderabad. Below is the comment I posted on Abi's blog:

I don't know what went on at IIT, but I agree with chitta. Please read that article by Tellis before making up your mind. This is not about gay rights. It is about paedophilia. When gay rights activists, all over the world, are struggling to remove conservative conceptions that gays are sexual perverts, Mr Tellis says "homosexuality may sometimes have a lot to do with paedophilia, and, further, that if it is based on mutual consent, it is no big deal."

Elsewhere he glories in his own paedophile activities with a Nepali boy: the article used to be here but seems to be gone now.

A man who thinks paedophilia is "no big deal" should not be teaching undergraduates: I wouldn't want my son in his class. A man who has admitted to paedophilia should be in jail. [Update 12/06/10: The article in question is here and he did not quite admit to paedophilia: he leaves it a little ambiguous. See comment 7 below.] And portraying this as a case of victimisation of gays does no service to the gay rights cause, and indeed, could do a great deal of damage by reinforcing negative (and, in the vast majority of cases, false) public stereotypes of gays.

To add to that: in the case of minors, "consent" makes no difference, for a variety of reasons, only a few of which he touches on (dismissively). But this is not, in my opinion, a topic worth arguing about. Paedophila is off-limits. Conflating paedophilia with gay rights is the very last thing that gay activists need at the moment. (Besides, as Tellis himself points out, most paedophiles are heterosexuals: so why make that conflation at all?)

Monday, June 07, 2010


Not the Gaza blockade, of which much has been said. I'm talking about the Manipur blockade.

If you haven't heard of it, I'm sure you're not alone. I first heard of it in a magazine article a couple of weeks ago, and today I read this article on rediff.

The situation is that the main (essentially, only) highway into Manipur has been blocked by Naga rebels for over 50 days now. As a result, the Manipuris are short of petrol, medicines, and other essential supplies.

I can't imagine even a five-day blockade occurred in a "mainland" India state: the government would intervene, by force if need be. But a 50 day blockade of Manipur does not even register on the national consciousness.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Universities and cities

Via Abi, here's a recent (well, nearly a month old) article by Sanjeev Sanyal arguing for better integration of universities with urban communities in India. Sanyal's argument is that walling off the campus (as the IITs and IIMs do) causes them to have no impact on their surroundings: to benefit the city, the university system must be integrated into it.

I couldn't agree more. But from a purely selfish point of view, Sanyal's other point -- that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect entire families to live in a remote walled-off location, and unproductive to supply schools, medical facilities, etc at that location simply because the city is too far away -- is equally important.

I just spent two days in Cologne. The university is in a pleasant campus-like space with academic buildings separated by green parks; but the "city" is a couple of minutes walk away, the hotel where I stayed was a five or ten minute walk away, and the main railway station was a 20 minute walk from the hotel (I timed it this morning). There is an extensive tram and underground system but I simply didn't need to use it (but my hosts and I used it once, under time pressure).

Previously, I spent my postdoc time in Paris and New York, and it was a hugely positive experience to be living in the middle of the city and not in a walled-off community. The academic part of my university was indeed walled-off, but New Yorkers will know the special atmosphere that the unwalled New York University contributes to its neighbourhood, the Greenwich Village.

And I grew up in Delhi University, which has lots of small walls but no all-encompassing wall; I think the student and faculty community had a positive influence on the area. Certainly it is one of my favourite parts of Delhi (perhaps the only part of the city that I like).

But the mania for walls is not confined to academic campuses in India. The papers are full of new housing developments that are located an insane distance from the city, but come equipped with school, hospital, clubhouse, and whatnot. Of course, those who can afford these will also have air-conditioned chauffeur-driven cars to transport them. But what is the ecological impact of all this?

Why are our Indian cities often somewhat unpleasant to walk around in? My theory is that the common Indian mindset of separating "shopping" from "residential" areas contributes to it. The newspapers in Chennai are full of complaints from residents in "residential" localities (like Besant Nagar) that shops are infringing their space and causing crowds and noise. But what they don't see is that the commercial activity also contributes to safety. In Cologne (at least in the city centre) you feel safe walking on the road at midnight because there are people around. In Indian residential areas you often don't feel safe after dark. Meanwhile, the "commercial" areas are overcrowded, noisy and dirty, and navigating them becomes an unusually unpleasant obstacle course. A better mixture of commercial and residential activity would, I feel, be beneficial all around: shoppers can avoid the madness of T.Nagar, residents can feel a little more secure (at the expense of putting up with a little more noise). Of course, in addition the usual urban requirements like clean sidewalks, cleanliness, sanitation, are necessary.

Gated communities, academic and otherwise, are an escape from the urban chaos, but I think they are based on a false premise -- that such isolation is desirable. It is not, either for the residents or for the rest of the community.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Terrorist weapons

(Hat tip: Sunil)

It seems the Israel Defence Force found deadly weapons on the Mavi Marmara, which was attacked by IDF commandos resulting in the deaths of many activists.

The IDF's photographs prove beyond doubt that the ship, which according to Wikipedia has a capacity of 1080 passengers, harboured a handful of knives. (I count perhaps 20 or 30, most of which look like kitchen knives, pocket knives or Swiss army knives). It also carried various kinds of plumbing equipment: a prominent wrench, a few spanners, hammers, screwdriver. And there is a stack of CD-ROMs.

The pictures are captioned: "Pictures of the weapons found on the Mavi Marmara ship where today, when IDF soldiers attempted to board the ship and redirect it to the Ashdod Port, the activists on board lynched the soldiers in a planned attack..."

And there you have it. Beware of carrying kitchen or plumbing equipment if you sail your own boat in international waters near Israel. Remember, if Israeli soldiers board your boat and you resist, it means you planned the attack on them, and they have the right to shoot you.

You can't make this stuff up.