Of Hosts and Hostages

There is an apocryphal story of the beautiful American dancer Isadora Duncan propositioning George Bernard Shaw that they should have a child together, because "with your brains and my body what a wonder it would be!" Shaw's repartee was simple but classic: "But what if it had my body and your brains?"

In the context of the American states, a similar case may be made for the welcome combination of southern hospitality and northern tolerance, but with one caveat-- God forbid that one should be exposed to northern hospitality and southern tolerance instead! Unfortunately, New York's reputation for liberal thinking and unfriendliness stooped to a new low when the president of Columbia University invited the democratically elected President of Iran to a debate and then proceeded to publicly humiliate the sitting dignitary during the introduction.

At the very outset, I would like to make it clear that this rant is completely apolitical, and should not be construed as either condoning or criticising the charges that, rightly or wrongly, have been levelled against the President of Iran. Instead, it is meant to condemn the shameful and disgraceful behaviour displayed by an academician, who in denying the commonest courtesy due to an invited guest, not only failed in his duty as the host and moderator of the discussion, but also turned the clock back on countering the global perception about the stereotypical arrogant American.

It is not difficult to understand what prompted the University President to rudely address the Iranian President as "a petty and cruel dictator" and "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated": having invited the wrath of conservative Americans (including benefactors of the University) for providing a platform to the controversial President, he may have wanted to preempt further criticism from the right-wing by isolating himself completely from the speaker's lofty hyperbole. Unfortunately, in doing so he betrayed the responsibilities of a gracious host.

The tale of two presidents boils down to who handled himself with more dignity and decency. One of them said, "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us", while the other responded with the following observation: "Tradition requires that when we invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgement, instead of providing a vaccination of sorts before the speech is delivered." The unbiased reader can decide which of the two presidents behaved more like a statesman.

Once one assumes an attitude of intolerance, there is no knowing where it will take one. Intolerance, someone has said, is violence to the intellect and hatred is violence to the heart.
Mohandas Gandhi

Love and Haight

The bohemian spirit of the sixties still survives on Haight Street. Forty years after the Summer of Love brought the epicentre of American counter-culture to San Francisco, the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury manages to evoke the colours, sounds and sense of freedom that characterised "flower power". In spite of mainstream commerce's attempts to infiltrate the area, a leisurely walk south of the Panhandle reveals many delightful surprises-- ethnic boutiques, used book and record stores, colourful murals, flowing dresses, and elaborately designed Victorian town-houses that survived the earthquake and fire of 1906.

Even though artists like Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane can all trace their roots to Haight-Ashbury, it was the hippie movement that is the district's main claim to fame (or notoriety, depending on your perspective). San Francisco had been a fertile ground for youthful angst and avant-garde creativity since atleast the mid-fifties when the beat generation of poets, led by Allen Ginsberg, began settling in the Haight. The hippie counter-culture was born with their blessings (and the support of The Oracle, the city's underground newspaper) when a Human Be-In event in January 1967 brought together the Bay Area's top bands and a 20,000-strong audience at the Golden Gate Park. The revellers were quick to form a strong sense of fraternity through their common anti-establishment stance (provoked in part by the Vietnam War) and experimentation with mind-expanding drugs (hallucinogens were still legal and freely available). As word got around, like-minded non-conformists started descending onto the Park (galvanised by the war draft introduced in March), which quickly became a haven for communal living, free love and psychedelic journeys that challenged the existing boundaries of music.

Despite their belief in simple living and high thinking, intellectual curiousity and individual rights (often through draft-burning and bra-burning), the contribution of the hippies is usually underestimated (as my friend says, since much of their visions were drug-induced, they are dismissed just as easily as the bravado of a drunkard)-- besides their enduring influence on art and fashion, their political and social awareness have shaped much of the culture that we inherit today. Our acceptance of a woman's right to choose, of questioning the "my-country-right-or-wrong" dogma, of seeking life's answers through eastern mysticism and philosophy, of open-mindedness about sexual preferences, of accepting sartorial choices as personal, of ruling inter-racial marriages as legal, and of popularising environmental activism as a global movement-- all find their roots in the hippie counter-culture movement of the 1960s. This increased tolerance has had the unfortunate side-effect of strongly polarised political beliefs however, a trait that is all too evident among the American electorate today.

For those of us who missed the naïve optimism and promising possibilities prevalent during the era (born too late in a world too old, in the words of Schopenhauer), a walk down Haight Street is the nearest to experiencing a blast from the generation past.

For those who come to San Francisco
Summertime will be a love-in there,
In the streets of San Francisco
Gentle people with flowers in their hair.
Scott McKenzie, San Francisco

Bip R.I.P.

As I read Marcel Marceau's obituaries, my mind goes back to the unforgettable night I attended his performance at New Brunswick's State Theatre. His appearance that evening coincided with the launch of the US occupation of Iraq, and given the political climate of the time (France had opposed the invasion), there was nothing worse than being a Frenchman in America. However, the largely student audience cheered him all the way through his act, and I am hopeful that these memories overshadowed the bitterness of his last tour of the United States.

Young Marcel had experienced the horrors and futility of war first-hand-- his family went into hiding when France entered the Second World War, but his father was captured and killed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Inspired by the silent movies of the time, he prepared for the stage as a mime artist, and in 1947 created the character of Bip, the sad white-faced clown with a beflowered opera hat-- a tribute to Charlie Chaplin's tramp. Bip's bravery and misadventures have captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, reducing entire auditoriums to hysterical laughter and cathartic tears. As he matured, Marceau developed more complex routines, including the "Creation of the World", that blended themes from religion, politics and popular culture. His "Walking Against the Wind" act was said to be the inspiration for Michael Jackson's famous Moonwalk dance. Most importantly, by establishing mime schools in Paris and the Marceau Foundation in the United States, Marcel Marceau has been instrumental in encouraging enthusiasts to pursue the almost lost art of pantomime.

The two minutes of silence held globally in his honour was a fitting tribute to an artist who taught the world that sometimes silence speaks more eloquently than words.

Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls

New York Times They Are A-Changin'

There was a surprising email from The New York Times this morning: the newspaper was discontinuing TimesSelect, the paid-access section of their website which features op-ed commentary by powerful voices like Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. Lured by the success of the subscription-based online model of The Wall Street Journal, the Times had decided to create a gated community within their portal exactly two years ago, but with mixed returns (disclaimer: as a student, I have enjoyed free access to TimesSelect).

The Grey Lady's decision to erect this subscription-firewall proved controversial among the web-community: critics saw this move as limiting access to the newspaper's most influential analysts and opinionators, but charitable subscribers accepted it as a fair contribution to the columnists' pay-packet. While the Times may not have been overly concerned about the former camp's insistence on the right to "free-dom" (many young bloggers of the Internet age may not have seen a newspaper outside their front-door), the damage done to the hitherto unhindered reach of the TimesSelect commentators was considerable: they quickly dropped off from the daily list of top emailed articles, and Friedman even went on record criticising the model, "It pains me enormously because it's cut me off from a lot of people, especially because I have a lot of people reading me overseas, like in India." Moreover, the newspaper may not have anticipated the growth and popularity of news aggregators like Google News, which often linked to TimesSelect articles that were not accessible to the casual reader.

At the same time, the aura surrounding the famous "All the News That's Fit to Print" masthead had somewhat diminished, as a result of two high-profile public scandals involving their staff. Jayson Blair, a reporter at the newspaper's national desk, was forced to resign after it was discovered that he had been fabricating and plagiarising elements of his news stories on a regular basis. More critically, the controversy surrounding senior reporter Judith Miller's drumbeat for war, at the concealed behest of the government, tarnished the reputation of the Times as an independent and trustworthy voice in world affairs.

Ultimately, as with anything else in business, the TimesSelect euthanasia was a financial decision. The meagre revenue earned from subscription could not offset the revenue lost from potential advertising, and Management admitted that the growth projection of their paid subscriber base (numbering 227,000 versus over a million for The Wall Street Journal) paled in comparison to the growth of online advertising. TimesSelect's failed experiment also raises questions about the market-value of elite commentators in the brave new blogosphere, where opinions are a dime a dozen. With Rupert Murdoch, the new proprietor of the Dow Jones Company, reportedly in favour of making online access to the Journal free-of-cost, readers may end up being forced to forego one evil for another: the subscription model for bombardment by advertisements.

No American newspaper will print anything contrary to its own interests.

George Bernard Shaw

The Rape of Singur

The village of Singur, and subsequently Nandigram, in West Bengal recently witnessed a level of solidarity and civil activism rarely seen since India's struggle for independence. In fact, what set this movement apart was that thousands of protesters, ranging from local farmers to grassroots activists, assembled to oppose an elected government's decision to acquire 997 acres of prime agricultural land for industrial use by invoking an antiquated British Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

It is customary for the chattering classes to dismiss these conflicts as rites of passage on the road to development, and for politicians to point to the wealthy west's successful transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society. Indeed, while the government's brutal might ultimately prevailed in Singur, the skirmish raises uncomfortable talking points about a nation's right to dispossess peasants of their livelihood in the name of industrial progress. What is also overlooked is that the great powers of the nineteenth century could afford to subsidise their industrial development through colonial spoils from overseas, a luxury that developing countries today do not possess (with the possible exception of oil-rich nations).

The state government has since claimed that consent had been received to acquire 960 acres of the agricultural land from their respective owners (predominantly absentee landlords and share-croppers), and it was its prerogative to use the land as it saw fit (in this case, hand it over to Tata Motors at a massive public subsidy). However, this begs a couple of questions: can a government be absolved of responsibility as long as the majority is appeased, and should society disregard the plight of a powerless minority who lose not only their ancestral land, but their very way of living? Rather disappointingly, Nobel-laureate Amartya Sen took the establishment's stand that trickle-down economics would benefit all parties.

The controversy also saw a fall from grace of the legendary Tata Group, who rejected five other non-arable plots of land offered by the government (including one in Kharagpur, home to the oldest Indian Institute of Technology, and located between Calcutta and Tata's headquarters in Jamshedpur), before selecting the fertile agricultural tract of Singur because of its existing infrastructure (water, roads, etc.). Through this act, the company finally cast off all pretences to owning a socialist conscience, and their long-standing tradition of participating in, and even catalysing, the nation's progress. Other private corporations also silently lauded the government's hollow victory over democracy as a precedent for more illegal land acquisitions for "special economic zones".

While policy-makers prepare to auction off the country for narrow political profits, every responsible citizen should ask themselves if a nation really benefits if she gains the whole world of commerce, but loses her soul.

When the organisation of politics and commerce, whose other name is the Nation, becomes all powerful at the cost of the harmony of the higher social life, then it is an evil day for humanity.

Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism in the West

Kramer vs Karma

The Complete Seinfeld, a 33-disc box set of every episode of the iconic nineties' show-about-nothing is now available for pre-order. As the owner of the complete Monty Python's Flying Circus, Yes Minister, Yes Prime Minister and Fawlty Towers, I would have been the first to place an order for a comedy whose reruns have provided me hours of entertainment, and whose laughtracks supplemented my dinner for years.

However, what is holding me back is the racist outburst by Michael Richards, ingrained in popular culture as Cosmo Kramer, at a comedy club last year. I don't mean this to be a platform for ranting against racism, as race is a very complex issue, especially in the United States where it is conveniently swept under the rug of political correctness. However, Richards' tirade of taunting epithets revealed a soul that was darker than the colour of his heckler's skin.

Kramer is best remembered as Jerry Seinfeld's wacky neighbor with an absurdish inventive streak (oil tanker bladder system to contain maritime oil spills, a coffee-table book about coffee-tables that becomes a coffee-table) as well as for donning different colourful persona (Dr Martin Van Nostrand the proctologist, and H E Pennypacker, "a wealthy industrialist, philanthropist and bicyclist"). Despite his clownish antics and outlandish schemes, Kramer was often portrayed as the group's moral compass in a sitcom that did not hesitate to confront cultural tensions and stereotypes.

Unfortunately, unlike Kramer-the-character's apology to a monkey in the Central Park Zoo ("I lost my temper and I probably shouldn't have. I took it out on you and, look, if I've caused you any problems as a result of my behavior, well then, I'm sorry."), real life is not so forgiving. His public apologies on various talk-show programmes, probably done in an attempt to salvage DVD sales, do not endear his character, nor do they remove the bitter after-taste of his remarks. In my mind, it is very difficult to reconcile the image of Kramer the loveable "hipster doofus", with the expletive-laden talk of an ageing performer who, despite his years of experience in the comedy circuit, fell prey to the oldest challenge faced by any public speaker-- learning to accept criticism, especially when it hits home.

Look to the black and white cookie! Two races of flavour living side by side in harmony. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet, still, somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie, all our problems would be solved.

Jerry Seinfeld, The Dinner Party

Blessed Teresa?

Calcuttans share an ambiguous relationship with Mother Teresa. On the one hand, nobody denies her selfless work for the destitute and dying through her Missionaries of Charity. On the other, nobody denies that her selfless work helped nurture an unhealthy image of Calcutta as a city of poverty in the Western mind.

Although Mother Teresa established Nirmal Hriday, a hospital for the poor, after receiving her calling during a visit to Darjeeling in 1946, she shot to international fame courtesy of BBC correspondent Malcolm Muggeridge's documentary "Something Beautiful for God" in 1969, and was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Over the years she has had her shares of awards and brickbats, with detractors often accusing her of proselyting the poor and putting faith before aid.

On the eve of her tenth death anniversary, a new crisis looms over Mother Teresa's legacy, with the publication of a compilation of her private letters and confessions. Although I haven't read the book, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light", extracts reprinted in Time magazine reveal a soul in turmoil, and give voice to the anguish of a woman involved in charity that she does not believe in. While the less spiritual among us may harbour feelings of being deserted in moments of crisis, it is singularly depressing to read the beatified Teresa question her faith and wonder, "Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?".

The media have been having a field day over these revelations, with critics speculating whether she is worthy of being canonized. While these correspondences, which incidentally were preserved against her wishes, might change the way future generations judge Mother Teresa's bequest, in my mind the controversy should not cast a shadow on her actual contributions, performed in the true Christian spirit. If anything, it demonstrates that even Saints are fallible.

The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar