Friday, December 21, 2007

Stop Snitching II and Schengen II

Two dyed-in-the-wool causes are celebrating the inception of Round II. While one of these involves witness intimidation, a murder rate in Baltimore that just topped 300 thus far in 2007, and kids with big guns, the other celebrates expansion of the pan-Euro safety zone and the solidification of a unified European continent.

<(courtesy of BBC)

Stop Snitching in its 2nd avatar is now bigger and badder. The subject matter remains the same, but the stakes have climbed higher, since the original's makers mostly went to jail for crimes related to what they discussed openly in the ghettocumentary. This time around, the Baltimore Police Department ain't even playing no games.

Due to the cultural fallout from the first Stop Snitching, the 5-0 in Baltimore have no intention of ceding any ground to the thugs and/or film-makers, whom most mainstream Baltimorons groups together with the actual criminals, a mistake which may or may not be merely a strategic decision aimed at simplifying the equation.

The unbearable truth for many law-abiding citizens is that there is a culture of cool surrounding the culture of actual thuggery. While there is a diehard core of dealers, sellers, and support staff who actually engage in the urban pharmaceutical business, there is a much larger group of citizens who revere the cultural aura surrounding Stop Snitching but do not actually adhere to its titular mantra.

As such, the terrain has become rockier for the fans and the foes. While I have not yet purchased the new dvd, which is on sale for 14.95 on select websites, it appears that production values are a bit more high-octane this time around. Judging by the silvery Mac with which the director gracefully toys in the clip above, I would say that the sequel probably outdoes the original in cosmopolitanism, finesse, and perhaps even rawness. "Like Part 1 on steroids," this realer than reality tv material is a much more potent cultural statement than most people understand. Part 2 appears more intellectual and nuanced than the silly original. Or perhaps not everyone agrees that showing footage of kids toting guns and puffing Js is not sophisticated or novel. The director claims he is just holding a mirror up to society. And, for all we know, maybe he does indeed provide an accurate depiction of the double-edged sword that thugs and police loathe and love: snitching!

If the movie does a satisfactory job of defining snitching, then it might end up defending the cause of snitch prevention. In the first film, Skinny Suge made a concerted effort to talk about the extent of his snitch prevention movement and how he intended to start a foundation to oppose this insidious form of anti-criminal criminality. He swore to exact vengeance on those criminals who used the system as long as they could profit from it, and then turned against that same system once they opportunistically realized a new avenue of snitchery might better suit their tastes. I'm curious whether or not the new ghettocumentary lives up to expectations. I also am uncertain about whether the film will further marginalize the Stop Snitching movement or whether both sides in this cultural battle will become more entrenched to the extent that Stop Snitching becomes immortalized as not just one part of the holistic ghetto philosophy but as the cardinal rule.

Schengen II, on the other hand, celebrates progress, order, and continuity, rather than devolution, chaos, and uncertainty. The new concept of Europe that is embodied by the increasingly porous set of nation-states that comprise the continent continues to define itself in unprecedented ways. While much of the rest of the world is erecting concrete slabs and uber high-tech barriers to border-crossing, Europe has been chugging along on this path to cohesion, cooperation, and convergence. While Europe has its problems (high unemployment, ethnic tensions, and swollen welfare coffers), the European course of development leaves the U.S. (Jah bless) in the dust in certain key areas. Perhaps I am just bitter about my country's lack of agreement on environmental and healthcare issues. Maybe I have a naive view of contemporary security imperatives and the often jingoistic tone of American foreign policy, but we are seeing the results of ill-advised policies. The rapidly falling dollar perhaps best demonstrates the current President's various ingenious activities, and expats are more keenly aware of how foreign policy decisions impact the American relationship with the rest of the world in both the financial and cultural domains.

While I don't want to sound like Michael Moore by praising an undoubtedly positive feature of European life and speaking ill of American phenomena (oh how I love apple pie with American cheese melted on top!), I cannot cease comparing my homeland to our buddies across the Atlantic. The EU is incredible in its ability to solidify this notion of European-ness. Although the folks in Brussels need to work out lots of Constitutional issues, immigration laws, and final borders, this supra-national entity is unbelievable. I shall not express too fawning of an attitude towards the EU, but I sure do admire its level of geopolitical achievement. One may now walk/drive/bike across Europe from Estonia to Portugal without being stopped at any borders or being checked for a passport. The pace at which Europe has become integrated continues to amaze. One day, perhaps the Arabic Gulf Union, South American Union, and a few other supra-national unions might accomplish the same things, but for now, Schengen II is superfly!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fantasy Realms Bequeathed

As I write these bloglines from my Bombay abode, I relate to thee as a neo-Mumbaikar. I have only recently arrived in this urban agglomeration of around 18 million people. As such, I fit right into the landscape of the city, for I am a migrant in a city of migrants. One might call me a nomad, as I've lived in a significant variety of cities over the last few years. Nomads in fact generally fall under the Nomadic Tribes category here in India, but I most likely would not be characterized by the same (please note my liberal use of non-American anglicisms that are newly acquired from Indian-English). Anyway, one might properly label me an expatriate, as I belong to the spectacularly virtual online consortium otherwise known as BombayExpats. Furthermore, my demographic affiliation in this town would readily be identifiable as expat.

Santa's Ghetto
I-Look Israeli Street Fashion
the street's walker

All of the above being said, I pasted the above links and pics (both courtesy of Jah's army) in order to transport thee to a prior station in my life, that of the Semitic variety. As we reach the last days of the Gregorian year 2007, I ponder the events of the first six months of this wild year. I was living in a cosmopolitan bubble at the heart of a conflict zone. Tel Aviv was my city of residence for a meaningful chunk of my life, albeit a short period of time. My experiences at the core of Semitic civilization (P.B.U.H., H=Shem) englightened me in countless ways about the workings of this troubled universe that we inhabit.

Despite the violent character that pervades much of Semitic civilization today, why not hark back to the times I spent in an edgy place with all sorts of avant-garde problems, idiosyncrasies, and fashions. My longing for just a night in Florentine getting busy to B-More club spun by Botanika is indescribable. It is imperative that I can experience this sphere at least vicariously, lest I lose touch with where I laid down roots, albeit temporarily and/or hastily. I love Kna'an in all its manifestations. The land of milk and honey comes in many flavors, and I have savored many of these tastes.

Kna'an is a land of rebellion. Stubborn invaders meet tribal partisans who are hellbent on the hegemony of their deities and culture. The dialectic continues, as peoples always try to claim that they were the original inhabitants (known as adivasis on the sub-continent). However, the truth is that most of today's supposedly native peoples, first nations, and aboriginals were not the original inhabitants of the lands over which they seek further dominion. The map-crafting game is all about convincing a critical mass of laypeople, bureaucrats, academics that your group has legitimate historical control over a significant enough swath of territory. This in turn credits your people with some form of ideological land deed, which itself transforms into a birthright that can be inherited by future generations.

In the case of the warring parties in Kna'an, it is my belief that neither side had arrived in the Holy Land much prior to the 14th Century BC. It is clear that both sides have ancestors who hailed from somewhere very close to the Holy Land, but at some point, through a melange of benevolent migration and brutal invasion, the various peoples made their way into the Promised Land.

Therefore, since one people "originally" came from the seas to the west and the other people "originally" came from the deserts to the northeast and southwest, neither can claim exclusive privileges over the land, water, or airspace. There is one remaining year of Mr. Bush's reign, and Jah willing there will be some earth-shattering deals struck at the eastern shores of the potentially pacifying Mediterranean Sea.

^^^^(Shout-out to my home-dog Ditto!!!)^^^^

The maps below from Strange Maps deserve some blogspace due to their geographical splendor. The first one is infinitely scintillating for anyone who is fascinated by maps of metros, undergrounds, trams, monorails, or other public transit. The concept of symbolically linking together all of the disparate international metro systems (built, under construction, and/or planned) is a radical step. Check out the creators at Metro Maps of the World.

Next, the blondes of Europe map (courtesy of the le mec and originally from EUpedia) will stimulate anyone who is turned on by cartography, blondes, and/or genetics.

I hope these diversions are enjoyed as situationist spectacle. Jai Jai Jai!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Abrahamic-Brahmanic Linkages

I have read up on numerous theorists who posit bizarre and often dubious links between the Abrahamic and Brahmanic traditions. Some of the overlapping themes that remain scholarly questionable include: various Semitic-sounding place-names in India that are attributed to Hebraic rather than Arabic roots, particular Hindu castes/communities (Yadavs, Kashmiris) for whom some sort of distant Jewish origin is claimed, and a number of liturgical references in prayers, songs, and scriptures that ostensibly point to common origins. Another common theme for such Indo-Judaic researchers is A-braham's purported a-Brahmanism, which would explain the derivation of his name. Such folks argue that Abraham originated somewhere in the Indo-Aryan homeland and migrated westward towards Canaan because he rejected the precepts of Brahmanism.

These speculations arise in a time when increasing knowledge is being revealed about the history of the 5 groups from India who practice actual Judaism in various ways (Cochini, Bene Israel, Baghdadi, Bnei Menashe, and Bene Ephraim-Telugu) and whose descent from "real" Jews ranges from literal to far-fetched (see link below).

Regardless, in recent years, there has been a tremendous warming of relations between Jews/Israel and Indians/India, with America more or less providing a conduit. The increased linkages have taken on business, tourism, military, and geopolitical dimensions. The extent of these connections is beyond the scope of this commentary, but suffice it to say that relations are more intimate than ever between these two people-groupings, for a plethora of reasons. The end of the Cold War meant a significant shift in alliances, especially with regards to the rise of Islamism. Moreover, the Indian economy liberalized and the Indian government has generally been moving even closer to the US on the global spectrum of geopolitical actors. Aside from the government, I have noticed that all types of Indians have reacted with exceptional glee when I identified my country of origin. So, the connections are intensifying with regards to neo-liberal economic ties, ballooning tourism exchange, and increased cross-cultural understanding.

From a rather basic perspective, many ordinary Indians simply view America as being an incredibly alluring and free land of opportunity, while Americans often see India as curiously exotic.
I will allow Wiki to do all the explaining about the nature of the 5 Indian Jewish communities, since it can do so rather comprehensively: Wikipedia entry on Indian Jews There is also a very profound Israeli obsession with India that I have not fully witnessed due to my lack of time on the tourist circuit thus far. But, there is a multitude of connections on this front that might be much better explained by those who are well-versed on the subject.

One additional area of common interest lies in the priestly caste, which exists in both Hinduism and Judaism. While there is significant difference between Kohens and Brahmins, there is a bizarre linkage between the two traditions. While there are many more vestiges of Brahminical privilege extant in contemporary Hinduism, some features of Kohen status still serve to differentiate and elevate the priests of the ancient Hebrew temple from the commoners. Judaic society was never stratified in the same way as Hindu society has been, but there is nonetheless an ongoing reverence for Kohen lineage within the Jewish tradition, and descent from the mythological-historical figure of Aaron is a major source of pride for modern-day bearers of this (genetic) marker of priestliness. Regardless, the priests of yesteryear retain special distinction in both cultural spheres.

Next, due to the controversy involved in various political issues, I will not delve deeply into the issues addressed in the two news articles below. However, I present them as examples of two opposite perspectives on the contemporary relationship between American Jews and upper-caste Indians. There are undoubtedly various similarities between anti-Brahminism and anti-Semitism, which both have varied avatars.

NYTimes perspective
Dalit Voice perspective

The flagship publication of the American media has an uncritical perspective on what the fiery Dalit Voice terms a rather unholy alliance between American Jews and Brahmins. Brahmins are viewed as being a similar tribe in their way of attaining economic resources and courting political influence, both in India and abroad. The tone of the latter article is rather conspiratorial and incendiary. The divergent stylistic approaches are duly noted, and the irate subaltern journalism is contrasted with the professional, hegemonic U.S. media outlet's confident, bourgeois voice. The connections between Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths nonetheless blur many of the distinctions that were traditionally thought to exist between East and West.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dalit Dreams

My seven weeks thus far on the subcontinent have brought me into close proximity with more human beings than I have ever seen, smelled, or touched. This India is teeming with bodies. More than anything else, what differentiates one's experiences with the Indian masses from experiences with masses of people in other countries is the extent to which the Indian masses are so severely downtrodden. The Britishers used to call these folks the depressed classes of Indian society.

At times, they have been labeled backwards, indigent, or primitive. While those who formerly were considered untouchables constitute about 16% of India's population, around 2/3 of the country's inhabitants are considered backwards. This term is not considered offensive or even politically incorrect here. It is not suggestive of one's political inclination or ideological bent. Dalit is the term used for "broken" people, and although it is generally limited to those who are termed Scheduled Castes (former untouchables), it is a word that encompasses a much broader movement and a much larger amalgamation of downtrodden groups. So, I believe that it can be effectively applied to the better portion of this country's people. This would include all of the originally low-caste people who currently self-identify with either Hinduism or any of the other various faiths that have absorbed large numbers of former untouchables.

Either way, I must first make clear that I have no intention of presenting my political views herein. Due to the nature of my research activities in Mumbai, I refrain from political participation to the best of my ability. While this is difficult to do when researching Dalit issues, it is necessary to do so in order to present impartial findings on the subject after fair evaluation of sources, scope, and eventual utilization of resource outputs after the project's completion.

So, regardless of political orientation, all those who understand India's workings realize that the vast majority of her people are struggling, impoverished, and lacking in material resources. I offer no assessment of whether such material dearth is better or worse for satisfaction levels over the course of a lifetime.

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to observe many aspects of the Indian social structure. While studying the various forms of cultural organization that keep Indian society severely stratified, I have embarked on a mission to document and describe, understand and enlighten. I do my best to maintain neutrality, and I avoid political engagement. Perhaps some folks see that this is not even possible given the nature of social science and human geography research. But, my goal is certainly to maintain as unbiased a stance as possible.

That being said, I have observed whom some may refer to as the dregs of the earth. Dalits are the throngs of human beings that arouse feelings of insecurity in those who fear overpopulation with masses of uneducated, un-Westernized, and unchanged persons. These folks have not much evolved due to how they have been disconnected from many possible channels to advancement. Yet, opportunities exist that may be availed by these populations.

Despite their hunger and pain, their madness and degradation, these are pure human beings. Gandhi called them children of God: Harijans. They are beautiful despite their ignorance and seemingly permanent state of severe defeat. They are emerging. They swear never to remain broken, devalued, downtrodden.

One caste/one tribe. One earth/one love.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Auroville's Aura

I am very often captivated by certain types of autonomous communities that attempt to create a way of life that is separated in some significant fashion from mainstream Western society. Whether avant-garde/progressive or reactionary/neo-traditional in nature, groups who establish sovereignty over their own cultural space and economic livelihoods in some separate locale are scintillating. Prior to spending two days at Auroville, the most major of such communities that I explored was Christiania, in the middle of Copenhagen, DK. I've also had the luck of happening upon several other counter-cultural hamlets that attempt in one form or another to foster a mode of communal or collectivist action. These communities include squatter camps in Berlin and Berkeley (Albany landfill - extinct community), various Israeli kibbutzim, and Amish townships in Pennsylvania.

While perhaps it is a stretch to group these disparate types of communities together, there is some similarly accentuated type of community bond that unifies these micro-societies, whether involving futuristic aesthetics, Luddite ideology, or pragmatic small-scale socialism.

There is some basic recuperation of the village motif in all of these communities, which involve the re-creation and reclamation of village moeurs for a group of folks who have intentionally either always remained out ovside of or have fled from chaotic, anonymous urbanized civilization. The return to nature in the context of small-town living is a romanticized ideal for many ideologues, nature-lovers, and closet city-haters. I myself have somewhat given up on my desire to reside at least temporarily in some form of rural settlement, although previously I harbored various wishes to submerge myself in such a community at some point in my life. I once believed that I should devote myself to the crunchy/earthen/earthbound life on a kibbutz in the Galilee, Midwestern hippie commune, or South American organic farm. However, this desire has now somewhat subsided, and perhaps I have substituted merely an interest in documenting such hamlets of alternative savoir-vivre and idealistic serenity. Perhaps I decided not to pursue this type of experience, if even for several months, because citylife courses through my veins. Perhaps I realized that these places are fantasy realms, devoid of honest assessments of how the real world works.

Or perhaps I have merely postponed my urge to live in such a counter-cultural place until I am ready for more permanent connection with nature, more visceral laboring, and more intimate community relations. It is definitely possible that I am in city mode at this ripe age and will eventually tire of the constant gridlock of the urban grind. It is also possible that I will remain most interested in permanent city settlement along with relatively frequent escapes to other locales where quotidian life takes on a more communal, natural, and rural flavor.

That being said, I learned a rather substantial amount during just over 48 hours in Auroville (located 8 kilometers north of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu state, India). On numerous fronts, I found that the lifestyle in Auroville challenged my usual assumptions about community and livelihood. It is comforting to avail oneself of the luxuries of communal living, the joys of true sharing, and the dedication to political/spiritual/humanitarian oneness. Yet, it is impossible to ignore certain highly critical gut reactions that I entertained upon visiting this bastion of Western counter-culture in a backwards, backwoods region of Tamil Nadu (which, although one of India's most industrialized states, has backward areas that remain supremely medieval).

I will summarize my experiences in Auroville by elaborating on two positive aspects of the community with which I appreciated a unique alter-mondialist community. In so many ways, it is incredible how Auroville really exists as a cosmopolitan society composed of people from many different countries. The community seems to have transcended so many traditional divisions between human beings. Yet, I shall also cite two reasons why I am not so sure all you see is all you get with Auroville.

Firstly, the conscientious environmental policies and inclinations, combined with a set of economic relations defined primarily by interdependence, ensure that Aurovillians can continue living off of the land with a sense of purity and sincerity that scarcely exists elsewhere in 1st World locales. I observed countless examples of highly progressive practices in this area. There were water systems that recycle monsoon water to the extent that some buildings are almost self-sufficient in this regard. The Solar Kitchen community enjoys the world's largest solar cooker, many other camps are powered by the sun, and energy use is monitored in a very responsible way. Furthermore, the generally high level of respect for natural and human resources leads me to believe that Auroville is on the right track.

Second, the Aurovillian pathways to spirituality are manifold and reflect the most humanistic, universalistic, and pacifistic strains of religion in existence, to the extent that Aurovillian faith is explicitly beyond sectarian loyalties and inter-faith strife. By following a unique creed that is perhaps some sort of fusion of Bahai, Buddhist, and Unitarian philosophies, Aurovillian spirituality takes the Mother and Sri Aurobindo into an ethereal state of meditative calm.

On the other hand, my criticisms are essentially the flip side of my two main sources of praise. This community of approximately 1,800 Westerners lives amongst 40,000 Tamil villagers, of whom approximately 5,000 work for Aurovillian businesses. This rather successful coexistence thus far is nonetheless a double-edged sword. As Auroville has attempted to consolidate its territory and create a contiguous township, it has been careful not to overtake the Tamil villages in its midst. While it does not want to exercise undue sovereignty over its neighbors. It also would not wish to confront the demographic demon (i.e. the constant struggle to maintain sufficient and consistent population figures). Therefore, absorbing large quantities Tamil villagers is out of the question. However, economic growth continues for Auroville, and its infrastructure continues to improve. From media and medicine, to technology and the Tamil language, community-wide initiatives appear to be making considerable progress.

Even so, here are the most glaring negatives. First, the true tone of interaction between local Tamil villagers and Aurovillians, while complex, rings true on a rather superficial level. At best, the relations are pleasant yet stale. At worst, Auroville is comprised of a colonialist core with settlement outposts and an extraordinary supply of subdued colonial peasant subjects to employ. Although Auroville has helped out the surrounding Indian citizens in many different contexts (farming, tsunami aide, English lessons), it appeared that relations were frequently strained. I should hope that relations ultimately are marked by well-intentioned outreach and genuinely caring folks on both sides of the civilizational divide. One should not harbor illusions about the irreconcilable gulf that divides hyper-modern Auroville with backwards surrounding towns such as Kottakarai, Kuilapalayam, and Alankuppam. Yet, I reserve a hearty and hopeful belief that such cynical perspectives on the nature of post-colonial interaction do not interfere with the lofty goals of the Aurovillian program. Zindabaad Aurorashtra!

Lastly, as for the tendencies of the Aurovillian non-religion, exclusive membership policies, combined with rather aloof spiritual access guidelines make for a somewhat tough sell. One must be rather educated, Westernized, and conversant in the proper discourses to qualify. While Bohemian-inspired meditation with an authentic Brahminical streak make for a well-endowed spiritual dimension, there is an undeniably inane and idolatrous deification of the Mother and of Sri Aurobindo himself. The naivete that feeds Aurovillian spiritual practice is perhaps refreshing precisely because it seeks to deny both the deleterious and typical barriers that divide mind from matter. However, the unremitting process of spiritual cultivation that defines the Aurovillian aura risks losing itself in a haze of chants emanating from the Matrimandir and slokas carelessly slingshotted forth from the hybrid Hindu-Western foundation of the community's religious practice. Nevertheless, I recommend experiencing Auroville firsthand and learning more about this alternative community's approach to contemporary knowledge, lifestyle, and production. Om Auro ka Shanti aur Auro Om!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Crank Dat Soulja Boy (B-Club Remix)

For all y'all soulja slims, whodisans, bamas, b-more club heads, and 215 jawns, here is your b-more club fix. Though I presently be rather far from the epicenter of the b-more club universe, we can all build mega-mecca-monuments to the gods of thine sacred bawlemer anthems...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Black Gold Magic=Blue Magic

What used to be greenback magic is no longer. Jay-Z now has incorporated a plain and simple truth into his post-retirement MO. Flossing a phat wad of 500 Euro notes, he too realizes what most truly astute financial gurus acknowledged long ago. The dollar's supremacy as the world's top foreign reserve currency is fast fading. In his Blue Magic video, Jay-Z reiterates a truth that I revealed one year ago after having read a fabulous book called Petrodollar Warfare, which had typically been labeled as a collection of conspiracy theories.

The slippage in the value of the dollar has been long awaited in many economic circles. Due to irresponsible tax cuts pushed through by the Bush administration and due to a fiscally reckless war machine, America is pissing away its financial health. We used to be a sound fiscal entity with a decent credit rating. W has done a far worse job than even the average American (with horrendously bad judgment in the credit department) would do. While the debt may eventually be easier to pay off, and while the sinking dollar may help out the gargantuan trade deficit, it will serve ultimately to decrease the overall standard of living in the US because it diminishes our capacity to purchase goods produced in other countries. Since demand for dollars is a huge part of why the US indeed has such a high standard of living in the first place, this whole mess is irreversible. The vicious cycle is unleashed.

Petrodollars in decline
There are voices on the geopolitical circuit demanding that oil no longer simply be denominated in dollars. Iran and Venezuela are leading this anti-petrodollar charge. Ultimately, pricing oil with a basket of currencies would tremendously decrease the demand for dollars, pushing the currency even further into the ground. Reserve banks throughout the world now believe that holding a basket of currencies will best insulate them from the risk associated with putting all their pennies/centimes in one basket. While I know whom to blame for horrendous fiscal mismanagement in my country, I, along with every other American who relies on the strength of the dollar to sustain purchasing power, will suffer the harsh consequences. The oil companies, on the other hand, are laughing at Blue Magic all the way to the bank.

MTV Arabia
For his part, Jay-Z deserves some air time on MTV's new Arabic language channel, which just went on the air this past weekend! Audiences in the Middle East will better understand the extent to which cultural norms reflect geopolitical truths. Jay-Z may be no Ben Bernanke, but his dough stacks speak far louder than any Fed Chairman's voicebox.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Multihued Multitudes of Mumbaikars

My experience thus far in Mumbai has encouraged me to ponder and act in ways that I have not previously been compelled to comport myself. The brazen attitude that one must adopt in order to board a second-class coach during rush hour is something that you cannot develop prior to actually being here. The adjustment to sheer volume of human beings takes some time. In fact, perhaps living in such a congested, clogged, and crowded metropolis might not be at all desirable in the long term. However, the human truths that can be accumulated by living the metropolitan grind are so far worth the struggle. the first reality with which one must become accustomed in this town. With a metro population of around 18 million bodies, that's something like 36 million each of ears, eyes, and kidneys. 180 million toes and fingers. 18 million souls. The average density in Greater Mumbai, which is the name given to the city itself and which does not include the population of the whole urban agglomeration, is something like 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometer. This absolutely staggering density of human habitation, while not close to the 170,000 inhabitants per square kilometer in the Lower East Side of NY in 1905, is considerably higher than 50,000 people per sqkm in many parts of the city. While sheer volume of people is no way to judge quality of life or ease of transport throughout a city, the congestion that plagues Mumbai is a function of a vast inability to cope with staggering population growth.

Map of Population Density by Country
Selected Urban Population Densities

Of three other world cities whose population densities in certain incredibly packed areas rival Mumbai's (Hong Kong, Cairo, and Shanghai), perhaps only Cairo would strike the average visitor as more overwhelming, due to a number of factors, including poverty stats, crime, and general overcrowding. Yet, Mumbai does not have a crime problem. Crime is a subject that will be dealt with in later entries, but for all intents and purposes, crime is not on the short list of perennial urban difficulties in India. Poverty and general overcrowding top the list of most daunting urban challenges in this Island City. Mumbai is strikingly civil, despite its chaotic traffic interchanges, overflowing trains, and reckless rickshaws. The humans who inhabit this dazzling metropolis do not carry on with the sort of anger and embitterment that would characterize a city inhabited by New Yorker-Americans in a town almost 1/4 the size of New York, at the gateway to a country with well over 3X the population of the United States, with an area less than 1/3 the size of the continental US. Americans would kill each other if they were confined to conditions that Indians tolerate. Period. A tiny fraction of the space. A tiny fraction of the wealth. Yet, Indians get by, eking out lives with their big hearts and impossibly charming demeanors. caste and religion, age and gender, language and education are astounding. Indians, contrary to what foreigners usually expect when coming to India, are of a range of divergent types. The demographic divisions that separate Indians from each other are on a level that Westerners often cannot appreciate. The endless list of tribes (7% of the overall population), formerly untouchable "Dalit" castes (16%) are positively endless. The manner with which a woman folds her saree and how a man conducts his head wiggle and where one goes to acknowledge humility before a higher power are things that vary with inconceivable range. a gift and a curse. While Indians have experienced a horrific calamity several times - first and most notably during the Partition with Pakistan in 1947, the dream of a unified cultural whole lives on. Whether unified behind the notion of Hindutva or behind the national cricketeer squad, somehow the nation clunks along as a mostly coherent amalgamation of socio-linguistic communities. The several thousands of caste groups (jatis) retain the sense of tribal distinctiveness that was more or less always a part of life on the subcontinent, yet this ancestral heritage is in certain key ways losing its grip on the modernizing, globalizing, and Indianizing system. India works. India works hard. She works hard to make progress as a cohesive expression of national will. I have no concept of how this is possible. What sort of cultural constitution makes this possible at such a grand scale? Although China has several hundred million more people, I dare say India's task of keeping its far more variegated communities unified is a far more improbable task. a concept that Thomas Friedman recently attempted to address in a recent column on the release of a cheap new Tata motor vehicle that will aim to inundate first-time car purchasers with an unbeatable bargain. At a mere 1 lakh (100,000 Rupees = $2,500), this vehicle will permit masses of middle-class Indians to drive to work, drive to class, drive to the collective neoliberal paradise, which in other words, is a congested ecological catastrophe. While I have not always agreed with Friedman's often neocon and/or neoliberal tendencies, I found that his green streaks shone through on this piece. No, No, Tata

His fundamental point was that clean mass mobility must trump over the near-term rush to develop, market, and compete. Without more concern for the long-term consequences of increasingly clogged roadways, railways, and sidewalks, Mumbai will begin to burst. Cheaper cars will mean more demand for petroleum, more pollution, and more traffic. Although the egalitarian impulse embedded in all of us would have us believe that all Indians have the right to drive their own cars 25 miles a day wherever they please in the same careless way that Americans parade their motor vehicles around asphalt mazes. But, the plain truth is that if all Indians were granted this so-called right to own a car, India would cease to be. I agree with Friedman's assertion that Indians must somehow jump over the car step in the evolution of transport. Build more rail lines, enact legislation to decrease the number of vehicles permitted into the city, and reverse densification-redevelopment policies that threaten to destroy any remaining semblance of urban sanity.

Dolor, depravity, destruction, delapidation...find their way into Dharavi's complex existence because this heart-shaped area of the city is Asia's biggest slum, by most estimates. Slum life is a mode of survival, reproduction, and employment unto itself - entirely the topic of another entry. But, the dreadful extremes that exist in Mumbai are embodied by the continued prosperity of its notoriously gargantuan slum. After two visits to this vibrant disaster, I have simply become more confused about human suffering and about man's capacity to cope with the most disgusting and degraded circumstances. Dharavi is Mumbai at its best and its worst. Mumbai gone horribly wrong yet Mumbai that tries, triumphs, and turns over. Another day, another dollar and a dream.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Greetings from Hindustan & Updates!!!

After a significant respite from these bloglines, this scribe is now back at the silver-tinged keyboard. I arrived three and a half weeks ago in Mumbai and have been settling down here since then to do research on caste mobility issues in this metropolis as part of a Fulbright grant. I am doing my project in conjunction with folks at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Before I jump into issues of vital concern to the subcontinent, I will devote a few paragraphs to thoughts I contemplated over the course of the past few months...

Burning Man Redux
Although I enjoyed a highly transformative experience at last year's Burning Man, I did not have the opportunity to attend the 2007 event at Black Rock City in the northwestern corner of Nevada. Ultimately, this year I am better off not having invested the spiritual, fiscal, and physical resources necessary to participate in the festival of countercultural self-reliance and psychedelic madness. I decided that, after having listening to accounts by several friends who did indeed make it to the playa, that my virgin burner experience was more or less like a virgin sex fling or a virgin cocaine ride. The first time always seems to be the most supreme. Two virgin burners reported times of their lives, much the same as I experienced last year. However, a trustworthy 2nd time burner reminded me that ecologically and musically, Burning Man has a long way to go.

The ecological category is the most errant for a festival which pretends to highlight not just the philosophical subtleties of nature parties and the aesthetic richness of contemporary psychedelic art. The shameful reality of the festival is that attendees believe that politically and socially, they are engaging in a revolutionary critique about man and his environment. In truth, man is at least as wasteful at Burning Man as elsewhere, despite the fact that this year's was not-so-aptly titled Green Man. Although corporate green interests had the chance to display their products (admittedly in a very modest Burning Man fashion), the rampant waste of fuel continues. The most conspicuous example of this profligacy was the true finale of the festival, in which the Uchronians wasted a massive oil derrick in a barrage of crackers and glee. Ostensibly, the fuel burnt was not capable of being used for practical purposes AND the organizers "offset" their otherwise unthinkable wastefulness with the purchase of carbon credits. Yet, I don't buy into this ridiculous thinking. The fire and apocalypse produced by the explosion was a pyromaniac's paradise, but I do not see how this activity fits into the Green Man theme. Burning Man should try for a less hypocritical theme next year by opting for one that is more in keeping with the true purpose of the festival.

My second criticism pertains to the range of musical selection. I should really first state that I did genuinely adore Burning Man last year. My feelings are not borne out of some entrenched bitter attitude towards the event. However, I realize that there are these two major gripes I have with how Burning Man is practiced. Musically, the variety is sickeningly finite. Psych trance and other modifications of banal house are the norm. Live music and real dance music are rare at the Burn. I won't spend any more words on negative aspects of Burning Man, since I do really see this culture as worthy and ultimately profound in many ways. But, these two major criticisms stand.

This private security company is a disgrace. I learnt of the outfit's brutish disdain for civil behavior during a stint in New Orleans with the American Red Cross post-Katrina. A Blackwater security agent humiliated one mentally disabled fellow who had unknowingly ignored some of the site policies. As if to informally present his case for why he should be doing real security work in Mesopotamia rather than in the Garden District of Nawlins, the irate Blackwater chump, who had no jurisdiction over clients at our site, proceeded to threaten immense injury upon this sorry fellow. Due to a series of auspicious moves, the testy interaction eventually cooled, and the Blackwater thug ultimately proved his worth as a mercenary and his failure as a human being.

Recent events in Iraq show Blackwater to be calloused beyond sanity. Their foot soldiers will kill without skipping a beat and without proper legal recourse. While I have no problem, in theory, of private security firms that are accountable ultimately to the public, the current situation in Iraq renders these firms virtually entirely unaccountable, reckless, and shortsighted. This despicable expression of American military ambition and unilateralism is the way of the future. Privatization of war so that it can be better controlled by the oligarchs of the world is an increasingly unstoppable phenom. These firms will continue to operate beyond the pale of international law and even of responsible warmongering, whatever that oxymoron would truly encompass.

Sicko Transformed
Michael Moore twists reality. He is no documentary film maker, but he well deserves the moniker of propagandist. In an effort to impartially judge the merit of his cinematic creation, I will carefully lay out the reasoning behind my conclusion. His film Sicko is a thorough indictment of the American health care system. As such, it scathingly critiques the most heinous aspects of the American system, while lauding the best possible aspects of 4 other health care systems: Canadian, English, French, and Cuban. By pointing out the worst failures of our health care establishment, he undoubtedly lays blame on many of the rightly usual suspects. I fundamentally agree with his overall message. However, I object to the notion that he produces documentaries that are at all even-handed. Moore is utter propagandist in the best sense of the term.

We all know that the American system has resulted in the denial of coverage to up to a sixth of US citizens. This is disgraceful. I cannot agree more with Moore on this basic premise, that universal coverage is the best way to ensure a healthy citizenry. Yet, Moore would more successfully win over his audience if he were more earnest in his assessments. Let's be frank - Moore ignores all of the truly novel innovations of health care in America. I am no apologist for the system as it currently exists, but in any objective rendering of the health care delivery network would include the many unique and cutting-edge technologies, surgeries, and drugs that have been churned out in the US. That being said, the system needs reform. This reform needs to be drastic. I just disagree with Moore's framing of the debate. Obviously, he's not really pretending to tell the whole story, but it just becomes cinema of the absurd when he launches a postmodernist crusade into the hospitals and fire departments of Havana - in a bizarro comparison between policies that have neglected to cover the casualties of Americans who are still reeling from the September 11th attacks and the stellar Cuban health care system. Moore's hyperbolic assault technique would be comical were it not for the terrible nature of what actually transpired with his subjects.

Either way, Moore paints the rosiest possible picture of the foreign societies and the most ominous possible picture of the American. This lopsided coverage deserves a bit more balance. The ridiculously extreme nature of the exaggeration makes the entire effort a bit less appealing.

This brings me to my current predicament. India is perfect. It is also a disaster. To label in such a reductionist manner at either extreme is hyperbole. Michael Moore might as well have included the benefits of the Indian health care system in his film for the sake of even more extreme comparison. And he most certainly would have fully ignored any of its failings, since his film serves only to underscore the pathetic attributes of the American system.

Middle East to South Asia

I've now switched from Semitic culture to Indo-Aryan-Dravidian civilization. All my obsessions with UN OCHA maps & separation fence geography will be the basis for later research on many significant topics (including Arabic language, geopolitical conflict, and hegemonic religion). But, this will have to wait. Moreover, my more leisurely interest in Jewish neo-paganism and the multihued collage of Northwest Semitic godheads did not yet bear ripe fruit. At some point in the future I intend to dig this subject up once again.

For now, I am stationed willingly, wildly and wholeheartedly in the Island City of Bombay. My activities here will surely generate an infinitude of bloglines topics. Chala!
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