Tuesday, December 23, 2003

moving for a living

Delhi attracts some 200,000 migrant labourers every year. It's a life of toil and hardship. But those with drive and hope--and more than a little luck--can create a better future for their children.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in December 2003).

"THE DAY THAT WE ARRIVED, it was pouring rain," recalls 32-year-old Guddi, a migrant labourer who came to New Delhi with her husband and two children last year. "The train only stopped at the station for a moment, and by the time we realized that we had to get down, we hardly had time to jump off and grab the children. We had brought everything with us--flour, dal, pots and pans--but we left it all in the train. We got down with nothing but the clothes on our backs."

Like many new migrants, Guddi and her husband went directly to a cluster of hovels, next to a construction site, where other labourers had set up camp. With no food, the family went hungry until they found work the next day.

"What did I think about Delhi?" says Guddi. "I guess I noticed some big buildings, but I didn't look around much. All I saw was that there were many, many buildings coming up." And all that construction meant that what they had heard was true: Jobs would be easy to find in the city.

That promise of a better life--even if it means endless days of back-breaking labour--brings more than 200,000 migrant workers to Delhi each year to work on the city's many construction sites. Between 1991 and 2001, the population of Delhi increased by more than 4 million people. About half of that rise was the result of migration. Delhi's not alone. According to the Census of India, the country's urban population stood at around 285 million, or just under 28% of the total, in 2001, compared with 218 million, or just under 26% of the total, 10 years earlier.

The mobile population creates a host of problems, according to Neera Chandhoke, a professor of political science at Delhi University who has studied rural-urban migration. "The growth of shanty towns puts tremendous pressure on services, whether it is medical care or transport, water or power," says Chandhoke. At the same time, the close quarters and poor conditions of the shanty towns, combined with fierce competition for jobs, often results in tensions between the various regional communities brought together in the city. In addition, says Chandhoke, "competition over jobs leads politics in all kinds of unpleasant directions" including strident, and even violent, opposition to those viewed as outsiders.

Delhi has escaped the worst side of anti-migrant violence, the professor says, though it's no stranger to riots. "Overall in our survey of Delhi shanty towns we didn't find much direct conflict," she says. "But we did find a lot of resentment."

Chandhoke's team also discovered that government bodies seemed to have no idea just how many migrants it was dealing with in the shanty towns, most of which are built illegally on public land. "We were told that a particular shanty town had 1,000 people in it. When the team went there we found that 10,000 people were living there."

While jobs attached to public infrastructure projects attracted migrants to Delhi in the 1980s and early 1990s, today a private building boom is absorbing most of the capital's migrant labour force. In Delhi and two suburban areas, Gurgaon and Noida, close to 3 million square feet of commercial and residential space is planned or due to be built over the next 18 months, says Sanjay Verma, an executive director at real-estate consultants Cushman & Wakefield.

As Indian builders use very little mechanical equipment or prefabricated materials, building is done almost entirely by hand. Every 100,000-square-foot project employs around a hundred labourers who must dig out foundations with picks and shovels, mix tonnes of concrete, and tote and lay in place thousands of bricks with nothing but muscle power. "It's very labour-intensive," says Verma.

And relentless: Men strain over picks and shovels for hour after hour of the day, or graze their shoulders lifting and placing bricks. The women seem to have it even harder: Every morning they wind cloth around their heads to make a flat carrying surface, and all day long they carry load after load of bricks--12 at a time--up to their partners working in the building above. "There's not a minute to rest," says Guddi. "It's back-breaking labour. But at least I can work. I miss the village a lot, and every now and then I want to go back, but there's no point. All my family is there, and I miss them, but there is no work. What choice do I have?"

Guddi's 12-year-old son, Anil, misses the village, too. "People are always fighting here, and there I could play in the river. There's no river for me to swim in here in the city." That's an understatement. The 500 or so rural labourers who are building the luxury Sun City apartment complex in Gurgaon live in a sprawl of squat, brick huts, without running water or even windows. The ground is littered with trash and discarded construction materials. A few houses have televisions. No one has a toilet. The air (like much of Delhi) smells of burning dung. Despite all, though, nobody wants to leave.

"Most migrants come to earn money or because they have problems in their villages," explains Bhagya Lakshmi, a programme coordinator at Delhi Mobile Creches, a non-governmental organization that provides food and schooling to labourers' children. "Sometimes drought, floods, or debt forces them out, or their land is too small to support the family." Because most villages still work on the barter system, moving to the city offers their only chance to earn much-needed cash. Still, even after they arrive and find work, migrant workers face many challenges.

"The biggest problem they face is that they don't have regular work," Lakshmi says. "They may get only 15 or 20 days of work in a month, and they get paid only after 15 days of work. Sometimes they have difficulty getting their money if the contractor shuts down the project for some reason."

Migants' children also face difficulties. Unlike in the village, where relatives can look after the children, on the building sites the adults all work from dawn to dusk. Mobile Creches works to shore up the gaps and give the children enough education to get them into government-run schools, but the NGO can't cover every site. And even if a child does get into school, chances are that its parents will move to another site after only a few months. With each move, the child has to qualify and gain admittance all over again. All those interruptions mean it's easy to fall behind.

Though the obstacles are great, the experiences of migrants who came to Delhi earlier suggests that some--those with the right combination of hope and drive--can manage to give their children the opportunities they never had themselves.

When 36-year-old Naramdas came to Delhi in 1986, he had nothing. No land. No work. "The day I left home, everyone was in tears. Five or six of us went to the train together. I kept looking back over my shoulder at my family until I passed out of sight. At first I couldn't decide whether I should stay or go back home." Today, Naramdas is a skilled mason, and all his children are in school--a rare accomplishment for any of Delhi's poor. "I know I cannot move back to the village now," he says, "because that would spoil things for my children. I have to stay here and work so that my children can study. I am working so my children can become something. One day, I would like my son to be a doctor, or maybe a teacher."

Sunday, November 23, 2003

poetry or pretension?

My Life As a Fake by Peter Carey. Knopf. $24

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2003).

THERE ARE NO MORE interesting characters than the genius and the fraud. Of the two, the fraud--who abhors messy perspiration, preferring instead a single, bold, elegant stroke of inspiration--is of course the more compelling. Just such a trickster is the central figure of My Life as a Fake, the latest novel from Man Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, a tale based on a literary hoax that occurred in Australia in 1944.

In the real story, two clever writers opposed to the abstruse direction taken by modernist poetry set out to prove the ignorance of its proponents. To this end, they cobbled together a fake poem from the flotsam and jetsam of some famous poets, titling it The Darkening Ecliptic. They submitted their work to an avant-garde Australian literary magazine called Angry Penguins under the pseudonym Ern Malley. The magazine's editor, who accepted and published the poem, was not only humiliated when the trick was revealed, but in a bizarre twist of events, he was taken to court for violating Australia's obscenity laws.

In Carey's fictional version, a lone poet named Christopher Chubb had perpetrated his hoax long before the novel begins. Chubb conjured up a rustic autodidact called Bob McCorkle and submitted his poem to an imaginary Australian magazine named Personae, hoping to show once and for all that the editor couldn't tell poetry from pretension. But Chubb's spiteful hoax proved more disastrous than he intended. Disgraced in print and in court, the editor of Personae killed himself. After the suicide of his pilloried victim, Chubb drops off the map for decades.

Enter London poetry magazine editor Sarah Wode-Douglass, the book's narrator, who discovers Chubb while she is on holiday in Kuala Lumpur. He now works as a bicycle mechanic--the career he facetiously devised for McCorkle. Chubb is covered in scabs and possesses a single, threadbare suit. But he still has something to hook Wode-Douglass with. He tempts her with a page of poetry that promises it might just be the real thing: literary genius.

"It was a poem, or part of a poem, composed in those thick rhythmic downstrokes which would later become, if only briefly, so familiar," Wode-Douglass explains. "I read with a full consciousness of the old man's history. I approached those twenty lines with both suspicion and hostility, and for a moment I thought I had him. It was a sort of Oriental Tristan Tzara, but that was too glib a response to something with very complicated internal rhymes . . . It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien. I wondered if the patois--Malay, Urdu--was disguising something other than cod Eliot. But that did not fit either, for you really cannot counterfeit a voice. All I knew now, in my moment of greatest confusion and suspicion, was that my heart was beating very fast indeed."

As coy as any poet's mistress (and certainly more so than any poet), Chubb refuses to show Wode-Douglass the entire poem until she listens to the story of its origin. He insists that it was not he who wrote it, but the real Bob McCorkle--a Frankenstein's monster who literally stepped into the world fully grown from the hoaxer's imagination. Wode-Douglass is wary of becoming the victim of a second, more astonishing, scam, but no matter who the author is, the brilliance of the page of poetry she has seen is undeniable. Perhaps Chubb is a madman, but she must know if he is a genius. She must read the entire work. And for that reason, she must listen to the trickster's tale, the heart of My Life as a Fake.

Like the monsters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bob McCorkle seems at once his creator's true self and his worst nightmare.

Though Chubb ostensibly fashioned the pseudonym to expose the stupidity of Australia's search for its "authentic" poet, in doing so he discovered and set free from the rigid confines of his Anglophile's body the very Australian voice he'd denied existed. In Wode-Douglass's words, Chubb's own poems are "priggish, self-serving, snobbish," while McCorkle's have "wildness," "nasal passion" and "the sense that nothing on earth can matter but a poem."

Imagine Chubb's horror. A literary snob, an exposer of fake artists, and he brings to life an alter ego more talented than himself, a genuine prodigy! Writers--notorious for their envy--shudder at the idea. They know the difficulty of the struggle for a real, honest, new voice, as well as the mixture of torture and joy in discovering that another has triumphed in it. But Chubb's trial is not limited to burning jealousy. His nemesis, hating his creator as monsters will, kidnaps Chubb's daughter and leads him into exile in the jungle, eventually forcing him to take on the working class penury he mocked with his hoax.

Carey, who won Booker prizes for Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang, is one of those rare writers whose works are greeted with nervous anticipation, for fear he might one day falter. But My Life as a Fake does not disappoint and Carey once again proves his formidable talent. Though the novel's pace bogs down a bit in the last third, this intelligent and playful work combines a witty reflection on the nature of art and a compulsively readable colonial adventure story with look-Mom-no-hands virtuosity.

One can hardly escape the impression that the author has staked his claim to being his country's Bob McCorkle and its Christopher Chubb: An unpretentious, genuine Australian voice and a clever, deceitful magician. This is very fine work--truth at its most feigning--and Carey performs without a net.

faltering footsteps

The Long Strider by Dom Moraes and Sarayu Srivatsa. Penguin-Viking, 2003. ISBN: 0670049751. Price: US$9, 359 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in November 2003).

In the early stages of researching The Long Strider with co-author Sarayu Srivatsa, Dom Moraes discovered from doctors that he suffered from cancer. The prognosis was not good. The old poet was dying. Perhaps inspired by the eccentric subject of the book, Thomas Coryate, a dwarf and writer and sometime buffoon who walked from England to India in the year 1613, Moraes decided not to undergo radiation treatment to prolong his life, but to spend his final days completing a last project.

As he told Srivatsa: "I don't have a lot to do. I want to go to London for one last time. I want to be able to finish writing the Coryate book. And if there is some time left after that, I want to work on my collected poems." When the two collaborators were left alone by his doctor, the grand old man added, "What I need immediately is to get as pissed as is humanly possible." Moraes brings that irrepressible pluck and humor to this, likely his last book, and his wry, sometimes baudy wit finds the perfect foil in the earnest, sometimes priggish Srivatsa.

The Long Strider tells the story of the remarkable, foolhardy walk of Thomas Coryate, a would-be Marco Polo whose writings were mostly lost in transit from East to West. Coryate, whose thirst for fame bordered on madness, enjoys a no-more curious reputation today than in his own time (though his 15 minutes were up centuries ago). Though he is credited with popularizing the use of the fork in England and inventing the word "umbrella", Coryate is best known as the first Englishman to make the "Grand Tour of Europe", which eventually became an essential part of the gentleman's education.

But he made that journey less as a gentleman than as the butt of a gentleman's jokes, say scholars. After the death of his father, a country parson, Coryate managed to secure a place in the retinue of the young Prince of Wales, where he was both wit and buffoon, a wise fool not unlike the jesters of Shakespeare. He made a name for himself with comical orations, full of pseudo-scholarly words and ludicrous circumlocution, that parodied the posturing, courtly repartee popular at the time.

No doubt unsatisfied with making and rebutting insults, however, Coryate set out to make a name for himself by walking across Europe in 1608 and writing a first-person account of his adventures, called The Crudities. In what Charles Nicholl calls a triumph of self-promotion in a compelling piece in the London Review of Books, Coryate's book became something of a sensation in 1611, a year in which Ben Johnson's Alchemist and William Shakespeare's Tempest were on the stage and John Donne was writing the Holy Sonnets.

But the book's success was due not only to its merits. Having received a copy of the travelogue to review (and edit), the Prince of Wales called for the addition of a compendium of fulsome, mock praise from Coryate's ostensible friends - Johnson and Donne among them. While other writers, such as Tim Moore, the author of The Grand Tour: The European Adventure of a Continental Drifter, view this facetious preface as detracting from - and even obscuring - the literary and anthropological merits of the Crudities, in The Long Strider, Moraes credits Coryate himself for this development, suggesting that the tenacious self-promoter used the scorn of his literary betters to create buzz for his offbeat tract.

But whether or not Coryate was satisfied with the reception that his Crudities received, one thing is certain: He was not content to let his notoriety end there. In what Moore interprets as a desperate reaction to the reception of Coryate's first book and what Moraes and Srivatsa spin as a bold quest for ever greater fame, Coryate set off on his long, eventually fatal, walk to India. That he made it to the Moghul court alive is remarkable enough. Without maps or the writings of other travelers to work with, he set out with little money and nothing more than a copy of the Christian Bible as his guide.

Coryate left England in 1612, first sailing to the Holy Land and then leaving from Jerusalem for India in 1614 on foot. He made the first part of his walk with a caravan, crossing the Euphrates and Tigris and finally the Indus rivers with a motley horde of traders and their numberless, groaning camels. He made Agra, then the capital of the Mughal Empire under Emperor Jahangir, and then Ajmer, now a pilgrimage site for Indian Muslims, in 1615.

In India, usually clad in filthy rags and without a penny in his purse, Coryate met Britain's earliest trade representatives, including the East India Company's agent at the Mughal court, William Edwards, and the ambassador of England's first official embassy to India, Thomas Roe. With characteristic audacity, he also insisted on delivering one of his pompous orations to the Emperor Jahangir, whom he fantasized would finance a further tromp to China and beyond.

How his faulty Persian was received is a mystery, but like his mad street tirades against Islam, it was amusing enough or insane enough or incomprehensible enough that it did not get him killed. On the other hand, it lost Coryate the sympathy of ambassador Roe, who found the man's appearance disgraceful. Unlike his European tour, Coryate's walk to India did not become a publishing success. A handful of letters he sent home via other travelers eventually went to press as Thomas Coriate, Traveller for the English Witts: Greeting in 1616, and some were reprinted in Sir William Foster's Early Travels in India in 1921. But he failed to deliver the enduring masterpiece he had set out to write.

Moraes and Srivatsa tell Coryate's story in alternating chapters. Moraes writes the more imaginative, novelized sections that recreate Coryate's thoughts and adventures on his journey, while Srivatsa supplies diary entries cataloguing the pair's efforts to retrace the dwarf's steps (by jet plane, mostly).

The idea of the dual narrative is to show the contrast - interesting in its continuities - between ancient and modern India. The authors rely on their readers to see the parallels, however, and the juxtaposition of chapters is not often illuminating enough. Part of the problem is that while Moraes' novelization of Coryate's journey is entertaining, particularly for the humorous appearances made by Ben Johnson and other literary and historical figures, Srivatsa's diary entries are too concrete, too pedestrian, to measure up.

As in their previous collaboration, Out of God's Oven: Travels in a Fractured Land, (See Asia Times review of March 22, A cynical, idealistic melange) the urbane and poetic writing of Moraes, a veteran poet and journalist, makes the workmanlike contributions of Srivatsa seem all the more clunky.

"People here, Hindu or Muslim, are still religious and they believe what their ancestors did. People here were terrifyingly poor then and they still are. What's interesting is that their attitudes toward religion and poverty are slightly different now," Moraes tells Srivatsa as they follow Coryate through India. He must be right, but simply telling readers to be on the lookout for these similarities is no substitute for a thoughtful reflection on them, and that neither author provides.

There is another parallel here, however: that of two men coming to the end of a journey. Perhaps because of his own outsider's status in both India and England, perhaps because of his own failing health, Moraes displays a remarkable sympathy for his fascinating subject that carries the book, flaws and all. Maybe there's another reason. Though in life he was mostly a teetotaler, in his dying moments, the author of the Crudities made a final request for his liquor of choice, white wine, with last words that Moraes must envy: "Sack! Sack! I have not tasted sack these many months. Give me some sack."

Thursday, October 23, 2003

water, water....

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell. Pantheon Books. $25.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2003).

A COLOURFUL WORLD ATLAS, produced in association with Britain's Royal Geographical Society in 2000, still shows the Aral Sea as a pale blue teardrop, perhaps a hundred miles across, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in what was once the far-flung hinterland of the Soviet Union. As writer Tom Bissell shows, it is a misleading colour. Once a vast inland sea, today the Aral Sea represents one of the modern world's worst ecological disasters. Poisoned and destroyed in less than a generation, it has shrunk by 75% of its volume and half of its surface area since 1960. Soon it will have dried up and disappeared.

Bissell first went to Uzbekistan in the mid-1990s with the American Peace Corps, but a mix of culture shock and home-sickness led to his "early termination of service." In April 2001, he returned, hoping to catalogue the disaster and come to grips with his failure to stick it out the first time. In Moynaq, once the seaside home of fishermen who contributed a tenth of the Soviet Union's total catch, he discovered the title for his book. "For years after the sea abandoned Moynaq's shoreline," he writes, "some of the town's more desperate fishermen dug canals out to meet it . . . 'Chasing the sea,' they called it."

The dust storms, and the poisoning of the land can be traced directly to the Soviets' forced march toward modernization, though Bissell suggests the groundwork for the destruction was put in place by Tsarist Russia. The weapon was cotton. Soviet planners in the 1950s decided to drain the Aral Sea to increase the country's cotton yield, ushering in five decades of abuse that pumped pesticides into the water table at the same time that its diluting volume was reduced, and replaced soil-saving vegetation with ever-growing cotton fields. The results were nothing short of disastrous.

Bissell's descriptions of the region surrounding the sea are harrowing. In Nukus, a town that is home to a few hundred thousand, he experiences what is called a "small" dust storm, now too commonplace to be monitored. "Dust gathered in the gutters of my leaky eyes. I could barely see the sun, though through the dusty brown-out I could discern a weak, urine-coloured glow." This is nothing. At least five times a year Nukus is struck by a "cloud of howling sand" that carries off the area's "poisonous dust" to as far away west as Georgia and the Black Sea.

Residents of the Aral Sea region suffer from one of the world's highest rates of tuberculosis. Anaemia rates are among the highest in the world. The infant mortality rate is startling, and respiratory infections are the main cause of death among children. Kidney disease linked to the high salinity of the water is widespread.

Though Bissell's avowed purpose is to investigate the Aral Sea disaster and his visit to the region makes for a powerful and informed portrait of this ecological nightmare, he aspires to a greater canvas. Chasing the Sea is a travel narrative that, like its inevitable model, Robert Byron's 1937 classic Road to Oxiana, seeks to capture the historical grandeur of Samarkand and Tashkent, as well as what life is like in Uzbekistan today. In this effort Bissell is less successful, sometimes losing the thread as he tries to bring together ancient history, modern politics, his exorcism of his personal demon of "failure" and a kind of rogue's journey across the country. He pins long historical digressions onto visits to famous monuments with clumsy and sometimes hackneyed devices. A visit to the site of the execution of two British spies by the tyrant Nasrullah Khan in the 19th century, for example, prompts him to express a corny "kinship": "They were travellers. They had toiled in these vicinities of suffering, bled upon this soil . . . This was hallowed ground."

A first-time author must be excused a fit of enthusiasm now and again. But banal summations also mar some of Bissell's more analytical passages. When his "breath was nearly taken away" by the sight of a woman and her daughter dressed in purdah, he indulges in some, one supposes, admirable cultural relativism, concluding: "I also knew that body-conscious American girls were gagging themselves and barfing over toilets from sea to shining sea. Muslim culture was not alone in having its dark edges." This simple-minded observation is a mere substitute for the more complex conclusion needed to complete a train of thought.

These flaws, like off-key notes in a well-played piece of music, are frustrating because the book holds such promise. Overall, Bissell offers a sensitive and erudite picture of this fascinating country, ambitiously engaging a broad sweep of history that encompasses Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Timur in the 14th century, and the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. If his authorial voice sometimes seems callow, his earnestness nevertheless achieves an engaging honesty. And this absence of posturing and performance is, in the end, enough to excuse him.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (translated by Ingrid Christopherson), Little, Brown, Agust 2003. ISBN: 0316726052. Price US$19.95, pages 256.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in October 2003).

When Norwegian war correspondent Asne Seierstad (pronounced Ossna Sairshta) landed in Afghanistan, the country was full of journalists there to writ e about the return of music, the rehabilitation of the Kabul soccer stadium - used by the Taliban as an execution ground - and of course the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The veteran reporter soon concluded that those stories were dead horses. And then, in a chance encounter in a bookshop, she found her subject: Sultan Khan, a bookseller who defied the edicts of the Russians and the Taliban for 20 years, risking his life and spending time in jail, to save Afghanistan's literature.

Seierstad convinced Khan to let her move in with his large family, where the 33-year-old Norwegian lived for the spring after the fall of the Taliban. This close association gave Seierstad an incredible opportunity to learn about the inner life of Afghanistan. As a foreign woman, she enjoyed a liminal status that allowed her to befriend not only the aging patriarch Sultan and his son Mansur, but also Sultan's daughter Leila, his wives Sharifa and Sonya and his ancient mother Bibi Gul. The result of her labors is a remarkably intelligent and sensitive portrait that goes beyond the simple narratives of repression and liberation and the alarmist tales of bearded, hair-trigger fanatics that filled bookshelves last year. Before picking up the Bookseller of Kabul, I would have been quite happy never to read another sentence about Afghanistan. After reading it, I feel there's much more to learn.

One of the reasons for the book's success is Seierstad's decision to write in what she calls in her foreword the "literary form". By that, she means simply that she turned her voluminous research into a novel, opting not to include herself as a character in a glorified travelogue and restricting her pronouncements on Afghan history and culture to a minimum. That choice allows her to focus on the interior lives of her subjects - their thoughts and feelings - in a way that would elude a journalist focused only on "observations".

Though it is (fortunately) no geopolitical treatise, the Bookseller of Kabul is hardly a book of small incidents. Rather, Seierstad captures the family dilemmas that any novelist would seize on - conflicts fraught with repressed emotion. The book begins with Sultan Khan's decision to take a second wife, a heartbreaking humiliation for the woman who supported him for so many years. Seierstad evokes the fear and excitement of Sultan's young bride, the resignation of Sultan's old wife and Sultan's own pride and determination with an equally deft grace.

She describes not only the pain of the second wedding, but also the first wife's gradual acceptance of the new bride. And when Sharifa and Sultan tell baudy jokes and gossip about the sex lives of their relatives, we see that a second marriage does not mark the end of love and the burka (veil)and daily prayer do not mean the end of sex.

In the context of the postwar press coverage, replete with images of faceless, voiceless women, the Norwegian author's description of life behind the veil is particularly valuable. Drawing on personal experience (she reveals in her introduction), Seierstad shows how the concealing garment can be restricting and disorienting - like the blinders worn by a horse - but yet how it remains possible to look beautiful and even to flirt while hidden beneath it. Then again, she also reveals how in a town where the sun shines nearly every day of the year, a young woman, her skin pale and gray, may be weak and dizzy, suffering from lack of vitamin D.

Seierstad's method - so unlike the self-important riffing of Mailer and Wolfe's "new journalism" - might be called anti-journalism. And though in her introduction she confesses that she chased the Northern Alliance around herself for six weeks, Seierstad has little patience for the oversimplifications of her chosen profession. It's not surprisingly, therefore, that the funniest character in the Bookseller of Kabul is a reporter named Bob who works for "an American magazine" (Time). Given to eloquent Americanisms like "wow!" and "yeah", Bob drags his interpreter Tajmir on what he doubtless described as a thrilling chase after bin Laden.

"Tajmir and Bob disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a successful trip," Seierstad writes. "Tajmir wants to return home as quickly as possible ... Bob wants violent action in print; like a few weeks ago when he and Tajmir were nearly killed by a grenade." With the same deadpan delivery the author hilariously skewers the journo's characteristic nonchalance about the culture he's observing.

As Tajmir tries to find somebody who has seen bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, or someone who "thinks they have seen someone who resembles them", he reads and hopes against hope that he and his journalist buddies find nothing at all and return home safely. Bob interrupts with typical simplicity: "What are you reading, Tajmir?" "The holy Koran," answers the interpreter. "Yes, so I see, but anything special? I mean, like a travel section or something like that?" pursues Bob, perhaps looking for "color" for his story.

That's parachute journalism in a nutshell. And in the Bookseller of Kabul, Seierstad has found the antidote.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

an oppressed voice heard

Outcaste: A Memoir by Narendra Jadhav, Penguin India, August 2003, ISBN: 0670049727, price Rs395 (US$8.60), 296 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in September 2003).

In the 1960s, when author Narendra Jadhav's father Damu retired from his job with Indian Railway, the old man had trouble adjusting to life without schedules to meet and work to do. The "virtually illiterate" pensioner turned his hand to repairing all the gadgets in the Jadhav house - even those that were, until he got hold of them, in perfect working order.

It was only to keep his father from becoming a nuisance that Narendra, his youngest son, pushed him to write his memoirs. That the old man persevered, wrestling with language, testifies to the unforgettable character he was: stubborn, perhaps irrationally confident, and, above all, unwilling to accept his supposed limitations.

More than 20 years later, his recollections became the framework for Outcaste - a tribute to an inspiring father by a son who rose to become an adviser to the executive director (India) at the International Monetary Fund and head of economic research at the Reserve Bank of India. That such a remarkable story of success began, literally, as what the Indians would call "timepass", somehow makes the book more enjoyable, like a $20 bill found unexpectedly in the pocket of a crumpled pair of pants.

Indian family sagas are as commonplace as they are charming, but nearly all of them are tales of one kind of elite or another. Outcaste - a family memoir not of high-caste, scholarly Brahmins, so well represented on the bookshelves, but of three generations of untouchables - is different.

Twice as likely to live in poverty than other Indians and still bound to face powerful discrimination at every turn, India's untouchables - now known as Dalits - remain (except in politics) virtually silent and invisible. No major Indian newspaper or magazine employs a Dalit editor, and reporters are few and far between. Bollywood, where many Muslims have found fame, has no Dalit directors and no Dalit stars. And Dalit authors - already few in number - rarely find publishers eager to translate their books into English.

If Outcaste may be used as a measure of those stories waiting to be told, that is a terrible shame. Written in a simple, artless style, Outcaste traces the journey of Damu, the author's father, from a small village in Maharashtra to Mumbai. In the city he uplifts himself and his family, overcoming great odds, with a clever wit, good humor and an amazing force of will.

Inspired by the movement of Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar - the Dalit leader who struggled against caste discrimination and untouchability during India's battle for independence and eventually became the chief architect of the new country's constitution - Damu refused to allow his children to grow up uneducated.

His eldest son became a district collector with the Indian Administrative Service - one of the country's most powerful and coveted positions. His youngest son, Narendra, with a PhD in economics from Indiana University, became an adviser to the executive director (India) at the International Monetary Fund and, later, head of economic research at the Reserve Bank of India - and, of course, an author.

Damu's life alone would provide material for half a dozen movies. In just one chapter, Damu wins a job selling newspapers by hanging around the train station. Before long, a gora saheb (white gentleman) picks him out and pays him extra to save a copy of the Chronicle for him. One day, the gora saheb takes him home to play with his little blond daughter. Damu, who thinks he is there to perform some errand, sits on the floor at first, but the gora saheb pulls him up and makes him sit on the couch next to him. "I was very uncomfortable and felt totally out of place," Damu recalls. "My lowly place was so deeply etched in my mind that when I was treated well, I could not believe it. I thought there was something wrong. After much thought, I reasoned that perhaps saheb did not know that I was an untouchable."

For months, Damu and blond Missybaba play together, until one day the saheb tells him he will have to accompany the little girl to school. There is, of course, something patronizing about the relationship between Damu and the saheb, for whom the little boy places bets on the horses and continues to run errands. But the way Damu tells the story is as disarming as a famous actor recalling his big break - and as free of rancor. A gambler and a drunk, the saheb does not last long with the railways before he is dismissed, given one month's notice to return to England. Jadhav dispenses with the farewell party in a handful of paragraphs. The saheb buys Damu a new suit and hires a photographer to take a picture of Damu and Missybaba. Memsaheb gives him his first glass of wine. And then, in a deadpan sentence fraught with emotion, the episode concludes: "About a month later, Saheb and Missybaba returned to England, but he was not able to take Memsaheb with him because she was half Indian."

Like Angela's Ashes, Outcaste manages powerful sentiment without the maudlin embarrassment of sentimentality. Outcaste lacks the literary flair of Frank McCourt's memoir, however, possessing neither its forceful, lyrical rhythm nor its artful cohesiveness. Jadhav's unaffected prose serves him well, but certain editorial decisions - concluding with an essay by the author's 16-year-old daughter, for example - give the book an amateur's earnestness. Yet despite that artlessness - indeed, perhaps because of it - Outcaste captures the life of India's villages and Bombay's slums with an anthropologist's precision and a novelist's humanity.

criminal conversions

For 2000 years, the Hindu caste system treated India's 'untouchables' as less than human. Millions chose new religions to escape or at least protest. But today, ultra-nationalist Hindus are seeking to block off even that avenue.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2003).

Independence Day in Gujarat, a group of 50 or so Dalits--the outcastes once known as "untouchables"--listened as community leaders railed against the caste system. "For 55 years India has been independent," the speakers declared, "but still we have not gained our independence." "Jai Bhim!" the small crowd shouted in response.

For many Dalits, that phrase--"Jai Bhim!"--has become a greeting, an expression of solidarity and a kind of war cry. It means "Long live Bhim!" and honours Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a political leader from the independence era who introduced an affirmative-action programme for Dalits in the Indian constitution, where they are referred to as "scheduled castes."

Ambedkar argued that there was no hope for the untouchables within Hinduism. The only way they could escape from their caste was to renounce their religion. "I was bo

Orn a Hindu," he once said, "but I will not die a Hindu." In 1956, he led more than a million Dalits to convert to Buddhism.

"Dr. B.R. Ambedkar fought like a warrior for human rights," Manoj Gohel, a Dalit who converted to Buddhism in 2001, told me the evening before the Gujarat event. "He is our messiah. We consider him our god. His dreams are very well known: To make India free of this casteism; to make India free from this untouchability; to bring equality for all people and prosperity to all people. And to free Dalits from the grip of Hinduism."

Today, however, many fear that Hindu extremists will turn that form of liberation into a crime. Last year, two Indian states--Tamil Nadu and Gujarat--passed legislation granting the state governments sweeping powers to prevent proselytizing and stop religious conversions. The president of the national ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, or BJP, commended the move and called for a national anti-conversion law. "A lot of money is coming into the country from Islamic organizations to aid conversions," claimed BJP President Venkaiah Naidu.

Such statements go to the heart of the Hindu-nationalist vision of India and its objection to Dalit conversion. The BJP is the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, a loose grouping of offshoots of a high-caste paramilitary organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Espousing the ideology of "Hindutva," the group conceives of India as a Hindu country waging a battle against foreign invaders. With incendiary propaganda, it has managed to unite Hindus of high and low caste, despite their many reasons for division, against the spectre of a demonized Islamic world. But any mobilization of the downtrodden threatens to smash the Hindu alliance to pieces. For that reason, Hindu ultra-nationalists have long viewed religious conversions as a dangerous threat to their ultimate goal: transforming India from a secular to a Hindu state.

"The moment you change your religious identity," explains Martin Macwan, the head of Navsarjan, a Gujarat-based organization that works for Dalit rights, "your political affiliations change."

For 2,000 years, Hindu belief has divided humanity into four Varnas, or groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Once, the caste you were born into determined your social status and the job you could do. Brahmins and Kshatriyas, at the top, were the scholars, priests, rulers and warriors of the society. Vaishyas were traders and the Shudras were menial servants. Beneath them all were those forced to perform tasks deemed by the Hindu religion to be polluting--making shoes, treating leather and scraping human excrement from primitive toilets, among myriad other jobs. Held to be "untouchable," these people could not enter the temples, drink from the wells or bathe in the waters used by other Hindus. Viewed as subhuman by their own religion, millions converted to Islam and Christianity over the centuries.

"Although India has laws prohibiting discrimination and there has been some positive change in access to public services, still the practice of untouchability and caste-based discrimination persists, mainly in rural areas," says Sukhadeo Thorat, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Between 1981 and 1997, there were 200,000 atrocity cases filed with the police, while the most recent economic data shows untouchables are twice as likely to work as poorly paid wage-labourers than other castes, twice as likely to be unemployed and nearly twice as likely to be living below the poverty line. The scheduled castes are at least 25 years behind the rest of the population in terms of poverty." One has to look no further than the Sunday newspaper to see the evidence that discrimination continues, with matrimonial advertisements that specify the desired caste, and even rental properties offered "for vegetarians," code for "Brahmins only."

In two well-publicized cases last year, Dalits in Tamil Nadu were beaten for bathing in an upper-caste well in Rajasthan and forced to eat human excrement as punishment. In Haryana, not far from New Delhi, a mob of caste Hindus lynched five Dalits employed to dispose of cow carcasses after accusing them of skinning a live cow, an animal sacred to Hindus. The last incident reawakened the Indian media to the persistence of caste discrimination and provided a platform for leaders seeking to emulate Ambedkar's mass conversion of the 1950s. Udit Raj, founder of the Lord Buddha Club and president of a national employee organization called the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations, seized the opportunity to hold mass conversion rallies in several states and later founded the Justice Party, a political body that seeks to unite Dalits and India's religious minorities.

"What we are looking for is to liberate all people from mental slavery," Raj told me. "Caste and Hinduism are the same thing, so if my people want respect and dignity, they must come out of the caste system . . . We are trying to spark a fire."

Opponents of conversion have been working just as hard to extinguish that fire. While Gujarat, the state torn apart by Hindu-Muslim riots last year, is considered to be in the vanguard of the march towards Hindutva, Tamil Nadu passed its anti-conversion law first, raising the alarm that the Hindu-nationalist ideology was gaining ground in the traditionally more tolerant south.

Although three other states (Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh) have had similar laws since as long ago as 1968, the Gujarat and Tamil Nadu legislation affords the state more sweeping powers. Almost identical in their wording, the laws in both states vaguely prohibit "conversion from one religion to another by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means." And they impose harsh punishments. Those found guilty may be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to 50,000 rupees ($1,090); but if the convert is a Dalit or aboriginal--a member of what the law calls the scheduled castes and tribes--the prison term may be extended to four years and the fine doubled to 100,000 rupees. Both laws also require participants in conversion ceremonies to notify the district magistrate. Violators may be jailed for up to a year and fined up to 1,000 rupees. Dalit leaders point to the latter clause and the double punishments specified for the conversion of members of the scheduled castes and tribes as evidence that the laws are directed against them.

In both states, supporters argue that anti-conversion laws are necessary to control the activities of unscrupulous missionaries. "We require this freedom-of-religion bill because in some cases there was forced conversion," the BJP law minister in Gujarat, Ashok Bhatt, told me. "We want only three things: That there should not be any conversions made forcefully or by bribe or through misguiding people. That should be prohibited by law."

Opponents of the laws believe they have a more nefarious purpose: To set up Christians, and even religious converts, as enemies of the people. Not only would this discourage conversion, but it would also help unite Hindus against a perceived common enemy--just as the demonization of Muslims has done--and prevent a split between high- and low-caste parties.

"The intention of these lawmakers is perhaps to create a rift between religious communities and to give a false impression that there is a phenomenal growth in a particular community and they must be controlled," says Moses P. Manohar of Tamil Nadu's Interchurch Service Association (a Christian group).

In the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, where attacks on the Muslim community in 2002 left nearly 1,000 dead, some Christian leaders fear officials are taking even more direct action to stoke intercommunal tensions. "When the carnage took place here, people had computer printouts with the location of Muslim homes and shops," says Victor Moses, a Roman Catholic priest and director of St. Xavier's Social Service Society in the city. Earlier this year, he adds, police came "in the middle of the night to ask Christian workers about their work, to survey how many Christians they had working in the organization. Later they denied the survey's existence. They are updating and upgrading that list [of minorities] to strike as and when it is possible." Though another Christian leader showed me a list of questions he claimed to have obtained from a police officer conducting this survey, the Gujarat law minister angrily denied its existence.

"What they want to do is to harass us," concludes the Justice Party's Udit Raj. "Their philosophy is weak, their religion is weak; they want to herd the Dalits and the poor into their religion with blind force. Hinduism is under attack because its foundation is based on discrimination."


In two villages near Kanchipuram, a Hindu religious centre in southern India, the conflicting motives that inspire Dalits to convert are evident.

The Dalits of Koothirampakkam live in a ghetto separate from the caste Hindus, and claim they aren't allowed into the main village. Nor are they allowed to buy items from the same store. The village council forces them to help pay for an annual religious festival, but the procession of the icon doesn't come to their ghetto. The Dalits must worship it from the other side of the street.

Last year they threatened to convert to Islam. "Even if we are Hindu we can't pray to God. So why should we be Hindu?" said Chandra Khantan, a 47-year-old resident of the Dalit village. "At least the Muslims will allow us into the mosque." Other residents told stories of violent clashes with the caste village. Pangurangal, a youth in his 20s, claimed that in one fight he was assaulted with an iron pipe.

In the neighbouring caste-Hindu village, many people were reluctant to speak to a journalist. Those who did made no apologies for the segregation of the village, though they denied there was any violence. "They have a separate temple," said 67-year-old Narseeman. "They have a separate water tank. They have a separate ration shop. Why are they complaining?"

There's a similar story in the nearby village of Thirupedu. Following a violent clash with the caste Hindus of their village, 300 Dalits last year gathered up their belongings and moved to an unoccupied area along the roadside. Last December, at the urging of Ranganathan and a group called the All-India Christian Council, they converted to Christianity.

Critics of conversion, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the most vocal wing of the Sangh Parivar, argue that casteism remains prevalent in India's Christian communities, which continue to use terms like "Brahmin Christians" and "Dalit Christians." Leaders of a loose grouping of movements rallying around the slogan "Quit Hindutva" admit that casteism can occur among Christians. But when it does, they argue, it represents a perversion of the Christian doctrine; in contrast, Hinduism explicitly endorses discrimination. And for most Dalits, what they are rejecting is more important than the belief they're embracing.

"Every Dalit must quit Hindutva," says G. Ranganathan, Tamil Nadu state president of the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations. "Only then can we get our human rights." For that reason, he organized a mass conversion of Dalits away from Hinduism--to any other religion--last year.

Ranganathan doesn't deny that some Dalits convert for material reasons, as well as psychological or spiritual ones. And nor do the converts in Thirupedu. "They said they would arrange a factory so we would have jobs," said village leader Poonooswami referring to the Christians. "At least they offered to give us cows so that we could start a milk cooperative. They also promised to install electricity connections and water pumps and to build housing for all of us."

The Christian group did help them to build concrete houses, but has not fulfilled any of its other promises. In what might come as a blow to Ranganathan's Quit Hindutva movement, the villagers are now considering filing a complaint against the group under Tamil Nadu's anti-conversion law. "I am a failure in this," Ranganathan admitted with genuine remorse.

Despite their disappointment, the Dalits are determined to remain converts. "Whatever happens, we will not go back to Hinduism," said Poonooswami, standing in a small crowd. "When we converted, we were prepared to die." The others nodded in grim agreement.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

the burden of prints

Imprint of the Raj: The Colonial Origins of Fingerprinting and its Voyage to Britain, by Chandak Sengoopta, Macmillan February 2003. ISBN: 0333989163. Price US$26, 224 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in July 2003).

In an obscure village in Bengal in 1858, Sir William James Herschel, then a member of the Indian civil service, experienced a momentary flash of inspiration that would revolutionize the field of criminal investigation.

In an effort to discourage a local businessman from reneging on a supply agreement by repudiating his signature, Herschel prevailed on the Bengali contractor to stamp the document with a print of his left hand. The success of the ploy - conceived as a bluff only - fired the imagination of the colonial administrator, making of him the first amateur student of fingerprinting, and, as Chandak Sengoopta argues in Imprint of the Raj, the technology's true pioneer.

In his first work of popular history, Sengoopta, who received his doctorate in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University, recounts the tortuous path fingerprinting took from colonial India to today's forensic laboratories with a fascination and thoroughness reminiscent of Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman and Dava Sobel's Longitude. Born and raised in Kolkata, where he qualified in medicine and psychiatry, Sengoopta brings a welcome breadth of knowledge and experience to his subject.

It was no accident that fingerprinting technology was first applied successfully in one of the far-flung outposts of the British Empire, and not in Britain itself, according to Sengoopta. While the science of the day remained convinced that crime was a hereditary aberration, Britain, with its belief in personal liberty, was reluctant to measure and catalogue its citizens. Not so its colonial subjects. Here, Sengoopta points to the colonial obsession with studying, documenting and measuring the darker denizens of the Empire. To begin with, this effort was simply good business. "The East India Company was not simply a trading corporation and a virtual government - it was also a full-fledged knowledge gathering enterprise staffed by active, if variably talented, learners, explorers and investigators."

But as this knowledge gathering became more academic and more closely affiliated with the budding techniques of science - then still an amateur pursuit - it also became an integral tool for the justification of the Empire. As Edward Said has argued, the Orientalists' investigation became part of the mechanism of control as they sought to "divide, deploy, schematize, tabulate, index and record everything in sight (and out of sight) ... make out of every observable detail a generalization and out of every generalization an immutable law".

After languages and geography, the natural subject for study was the people. With race the obsession of the era, it is not surprising that the first projects involved cataloguing the customs of India's many castes and seeking to separate them into races through careful use of the calipers - the physical anthropologists trusty companion. But it soon became apparent that for the businessman, the individual was of far more importance than the group. "Sciences such as ethnology or geology facilitated control only in broad economic or sociological terms," explains Sengoopta. "These forms of knowledge failed to reach that level where the day-to-day business of the empire was conducted." For that, it was necessary to be able to identify the individual.

Herschel proposed that fingerprints provided a "signature of exceeding simplicity" that even Bengalis, whom the British considered duplicitous beyond compare, could neither forge nor deny. By requiring the colonial subjects in his charge to sign documents with this method, he virtually eliminated pension fraud - a practice that he believed had been general, since the British couldn't tell one Bengali from another. He greatly reduced the conflicts over deeds, reporting that the new technique "lifted off the ugly cloud of suspiciousness which always hangs over [registration offices] in India. It put a summary and absolute stop to the very idea of either [im]personation or repudiation from the moment half a dozen men had made their marks and compared them together."

For all his pioneering work, however, Herschel was not able to convince other administrators of the value of fingerprinting or to bring the technique back to Britain. Nor did he foresee its usefulness in criminal investigation, although he urged the inspector of jails to use fingerprinting to verify the identity of prisoners. What was missing was a useful method of organizing the fingerprints on file.

For some time, therefore, fingerprints could be used once a suspect had been found, but were no help in finding an unknown culprit. It was another colonial administrator who, along with his Indian assistants, developed the method of classification that made fingerprints the cornerstone of criminal investigation they are today. As inspector general of the Bengal police, Edward Henry introduced his classification system in 1897. He brought it with him to London four years later, where he applied the innovation as assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police. There the technology was immediately instrumental in solving several high-profile murder cases, and soon entered the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fingerprinting had arrived.

But the investigative technique retained the taint of its origin in an atmosphere of xenophobia and anxiety about the racial "other". After establishing fingerprinting technology in London, Henry was seconded to South Africa, where he implemented a new labor pass for "colored" laborers that included their fingerprints. Later, Indians, Arabs and Chinese were required to register their fingerprints and "were subject to arrest without warrant if they could not produce their registration certificate with fingerprints on demand". Mahatma Gandhi, who was then still working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, protested that documenting the identity of "non-whites" using a technique otherwise reserved for lawbreakers "reduced all 'Asiatics' into criminals".

Sadly, even if we flash forward more than a century, the same ignorant double standard prevails. Last year, the United States announced that visitors from up to 35 countries would be required to register with the government and have their fingerprints taken, implying once again that a criminal is not characterized chiefly by what he does but by who he is. What's next, measuring noses?

delhi's war on the poor

As if living in a slum isn't bad enough, Delhi's poorest residents face demolition of their homes, eviction to remote sites and resettlement on barren land. And corruption riddles the agencies charged with helping them.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review and the Wall Street Journal in July 2003).

EARLY ON THE MORNING of May 31, a phalanx of bulldozers, flanked by 600 policemen, rumbled into a shantytown in the West Delhi industrial district of Kirti Nagar. They had been ordered to destroy nearly 3,000 homes spread over more than four hectares. Families in the slum grimly cooked breakfast, some hoping for a last-minute reprieve, others insisting they would fight. But then the bulldozers started rolling. All thought of resistance evaporated, and everyone scrambled to save his family and meagre belongings.

"There was a lot of confusion," recalls Shalu Gupta, 22, whose home was demolished. "Then a fire started somewhere, and all I could tell my family was 'forget about collecting your things, just save yourself'." The Guptas managed to save a few electrical items--a tube light, a television, an electric fan--but almost all their household goods were lost. Worse, the forced relocation caused Shalu Gupta's father, a security guard, to miss three days of work and he was fired. The new plot they were allotted, nearly two hours away from where they once lived and worked, is much smaller than their old home. "How can a family live in one room?" Shalu Gupta asks angrily.

The Guptas' experience is typical of the cycle of demolition and resettlement that makes it nearly impossible for Delhi's slum dwellers to improve their lot. But with the Delhi assembly elections approaching in October, the slum-relocation issue--which bedevils most of India's cities--is facing renewed public scrutiny in the capital. Much of that scrutiny now focuses on the municipal departments in charge of slums and housing. Human-rights advocates, social workers and slum residents say the departments have not only failed to build affordable housing, but they are also involved in the theft of land and money intended for the poor. The past year has seen a series of corruption scandals involving the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which is responsible for housing, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which handles slum removals. The very agencies tasked with alleviating the plight of the urban poor appear to be making it worse.

Meanwhile, the poor keep coming. Delhi's population increases by at least 500,000 a year, half of them migrants looking for work. But over the past 20 years, the DDA has built only a third of the homes that it estimated would be needed to house the growing population, according to an analysis of DDA statistics by Sajha Manch, a federation of organizations working for the urban poor. Of the "low-income housing" that the DDA did build, 80% was bought by middle and higher-income groups because it was too costly for the poor. Over the same 20 years, Delhi's migrant labour force has erected more than 1,000 slum colonies on public land, and the population of Delhi's slums has grown from half a million to 3.2 million.

The legal owners of the land occupied by the slums are government agencies such as the Railway Authority, the Airports Authority, or the DDA itself. Like landlords anywhere, they're unwilling to surrender their property free of charge, though in some cases the poor live on such land for decades before it becomes valuable enough to prompt the owners to throw them out. Under pressure from the legal owners, the answer that the DDA hit upon was resettlement.

The scheme seems humane enough. The land owner pays 29,000 rupees ($624) per dwelling to subsidize the relocation of the residents. The Delhi government contributes another 10,000 rupees, and the family itself pays a licence fee of 5,000-7,000 rupees that allows them use of a 12.5 to 18-square-metre resettlement plot for five to 10 years. That comes to 46,000 rupees or about $1,000 per household. The money is supposed to fund the acquisition and development of the land for resettlement. But the conditions in many resettlement camps suggest that little of this money is used effectively: They have no water, electricity, drainage or public transport, and some are as far as 50 kilometres away from the city centre.

Slum dwellers and rights workers suspect the money has gone into other projects, or even into the pockets of DDA and MCD officials. A spate of arrests suggest they have reason to be suspicious.

Last year, 56 corruption cases were lodged against various municipal agencies in Delhi. The MCD topped the list, with 10 cases registered and 15 employees arrested. In April, police raided the homes of the DDA's vice-chairman and four senior officers, who were arrested and later released on bail. The Central Bureau of Investigation says the officials are being investigated for corruption but has yet to frame final charges against them. The scandal resulted in the intervention of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who hand-picked a new leader for the DDA with a mandate to clean up the organization. Further arousing suspicions of corruption, in May the top official of the MCD slums department was arrested and charged with taking bribes from property dealers in exchange for plots intended for slum dwellers. He has yet to enter a plea. (The MCD did not respond to faxed questions or requests for an interview and the DDA would only say that the officials have been suspended pending the outcome of the case.)

Any clean-up of the DDA or MCD is unlikely to ease the plight of the city's slum population, because the resettlement policy itself "destroys lives," say activists. Explains Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, which champions slum-dwellers' rights: "If you relocate the poor 20 miles away from where they earn their living, people lose their livelihoods. Once that is lost, everything is on the line. And in the new place, all the civic services that were available in the old place are gone."

This is painfully evident in Rohini, a remote district in Delhi's northern hinterland where the Kirti Nagar slum dwellers have been forced to resettle. Under the noonday sun, families gather under a canopy, clamouring for emergency micro-loans provided by the charity Indcare. Stretched out over the seven-hectare resettlement area are more than 1,000 shanties built from materials salvaged from the demolition site. One family has heaped together a home from two doors, four corrugated-metal sheets and a now-useless refrigerator--in Kirti Nagar they had power, but Rohini Sector 27 is not connected to the electricity grid. Another family has built a shelter entirely from corrugated metal roofing. In a heat wave that pushes the temperature to 48 degrees Celsius, their home is an oven.

"I lost a house and belongings worth more than 80,000 rupees!" says Bimla Devi, a soft-spoken widow in her 60s who lived in Kirti Nagar for 12 years. A domestic servant and mother of two boys, Devi put almost every rupee she earned into her house. Her small family had slowly pulled itself up: One son ran a successful tea stall and the other had a good job in a factory. Everything they gave back to their mother was razed in under an hour. In return, she received a patch of barren earth in Rohini and a bill for 7,000 rupees.

Evicted slum dwellers receive no compensation for the loss of their homes and possessions--an investment of as much as 50,000 rupees over years for families who earn just 2,000 rupees a month--or aid to build a new home. They simply have to start again from scratch. On one plot, a displaced shop owner has already put together an open-air barber's shop--two chairs in front of a mirror and a battered wooden cabinet.

Purchasing the resettlement land costs the DDA about 7,000 rupees per plot, says Dunu Roy, citing research from the Sajha Manch. "That means that the remaining 39,000 rupees should be going into making roads, putting in electricity, water pipes, toilets, a community centre and so on. At the moment there's no real assessment of where the money is being spent." But a DDA spokeswoman says his figures are incorrect and that the DDA never resettles slum-dwellers on undeveloped land, though "maybe there is a delay in providing civic amenities in certain areas."

Activists tell a different story. They say the resettled residents have no choice but to develop the site themselves, investing their scarce savings in land they don't even own. Often they have to pay for the land to be raised above flood level with truckload after truckload of dirt. Their licence to use their new plot says nothing about what will happen when it expires in five or 10 years.

It's no surprise that resettlement has not reduced the slum areas in Delhi, according to a 2001-02 study by the Habitat International Coalition, which fights for the right to housing. Its research showed that the slums were not crammed with new migrants, but with people who had been resettled outside the city and returned. "If they can't sustain a livelihood, they will come back to [create new] slums in the city centre," says Shivani Bhardwaj, a Habitat coordinator.

According to Habitat International, forced eviction and inadequate resettlement violate several international conventions ratified by India and Article 21 of the Indian Constitution on "the right to shelter." But the courts, which view slum dwellers as illegal squatters, have defended the legal rights of property owners. The Supreme Court's order in one case in 2000 states that slums usurp large areas of public land for private use. Regarding resettlement, the order added: "Rewarding an encroacher on public land with this free alternate site is like giving a reward to a pickpocket."

"This is the mindset!" says Roy of the Hazards Centre. "Whereas all these pickpockets are sitting in the MCD and the DDA and the government! Confirmed pickpockets, who have been picking the pockets of the poor for the last 20 years!"

The democratic process has not significantly aided the slum dwellers either, even when they unite to vote in a bloc. Ranjit Choudhari, 23, a resettled slum resident studying for a master's degree in social work at Delhi University, says only when elections approach do politicians offer to install water pumps, build roads or supply buses. How do the slum dwellers know the candidates will make good on their promises? "We were cheated that way a few times," Choudhari says. "Now we don't vote for them until after they do the work."

But slum dwellers can also get caught in the political crossfire. A month before the Kirti Nagar demolition, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and a team of activists had broken through a police cordon and led residents in an aggressive protest, winning a temporary reprieve for the slum. Critics say that Dikshit, who belongs to the Congress Party, espoused the slum dwellers' cause because Kirti Nagar is the home district of a senior official of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party. Meanwhile Congress Party workers alleged that the demolition was a brutal form of gerrymandering--eliminating opposition voters by bulldozing their homes--while the BJP accused Congress of protecting the slum only to protect its votes in the district.

The only way to get rid of slums, activists and slum dwellers say, is the creation of affordable housing near the existing slum clusters, known as "in situ upgrading." It's expensive, but it worked in Mumbai. The World Bank made the humane relocation of 20,000 families living in slums along railway tracks a condition of a 25-billion-rupee loan for Mumbai to revamp its transport system. Resettlement sites were chosen near slum dwellers' jobs, and nearly 12,000 families have been happily resettled over the past year and a half. Delhi has not carried through any in situ upgrading, even after the minister of urban development recommended in 2001 that relocations should stop and resources should go to upgrading slum areas.

Even if upgrading one day becomes a model for other Indian cities, it will be too late for Sunil Singh and his family. They lost a brick-and-mortar house in the Kirti Nagar demolition that was the product of 10 years' work. Starting over, he doesn't even have the 5,000 rupees he owes the DDA for his resettlement plot. Asked what he plans to do, he folds his hands and says with more despair than conviction: "I'll work. What else is there?"

the god in the artist

The Miniaturist by Kunal Basu. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £12.99 ($21.84)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2003).

THE MINIATURIST, Kunal Basu's second novel, is a peculiar book--something all too rare these days.

Set in 16th-century India, it traces the career of the era's greatest artist from the imperial court of Akbar, the third Mughal ruler, into exile for an unthinkable crime.

Against the unfamiliar backdrop of the Mughal Empire, Basu writes of the struggle of the artist to burst the confines of conventional morality and contemporary aesthetics "to show what the eye cannot see." Like his artist hero, the writer does just that, unveiling a story behind the plot; the "unseen" struggle of the creative mind, its passions and almost religious ecstasy.

Toward the end of the century, India's greatest emperor, Akbar, commissioned two enormous projects. He ordered the imperial capital moved from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri, and commissioned work to begin for the illustration of his autobiography, the Akbarnama. It is the great ambition of the young artist Bihzad, the hero of The Miniaturist, to paint the emperor's life and become the master of the imperial library. But long before Bihzad can win the commission, he begins to draw portraits of the emperor. He dares to draw himself and the emperor as lovers.

Banished to the desert for that crime, Bihzad discovers the true nature of his art, creating a painting called "The Lady" that is revered as a goddess in the remote area. A string of tragedies forces Bihzad to confront the impotence of his art. He ties a blindfold over his eyes and vows never to paint again. Not until years later, when he returns to Agra as a penniless "blind" beggar does he discover that Akbar has forgiven him and recognized his genius. "You are not an artist," Akbar tells him. "You are a saint, Bihzad. Only a saint is truly blind, seeing none but the God inside him."

Bihzad's final painting of Akbar on his deathbed brings the revolutionary techniques he pioneered in the desert to light in the land's greatest court.

The Miniaturist is an excellent counterpoint to Basu's well-received first novel, The Opium Clerk. Like most fiction about India, that first effort was set during the period of history which most fascinates English readers: the time of the British Raj.

The Miniaturist is that much more intriguing because it deals neither with that pet subject, nor with contemporary India or Indians living abroad. By writing about the distant past, Basu has managed, paradoxically, to say something new. In this he has few antecedents, among them Robert Graves' wonderful I, Claudius.

Like the miniature paintings of the Mughal court, this novel deserves a careful perusal. Basu's every word is carefully chosen, and his every image resonates with meaning.

Monday, June 23, 2003

sowing the seeds of doubt

Tibet, Tibet: Dreams and Memories of a Lost Land, by Patrick French. HarperCollins. £20 ($32.65)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in June 2003).

WRITER PATRICK FRENCH, a Tibet activist since the 1980s, set out in the summer of 1999 to see the ancient land, "unmediated by the versions or hopes of others." He travelled for nearly six months through Tibet, China and India. Afterwards, he gave up his position as a director of the Free Tibet Campaign.

"After all I had seen in the Tibet Autonomous Region and its borderlands, I could no longer view things with the necessary simplicity to be part of a political campaign," he writes. "I doubted whether a free Tibet had any meaning without a free China . . . Above all, I wanted to try to communicate something of the complex reality of Tibet's past and present, convinced that the existing approach of the Tibetophile lobby was leading nowhere."

In Tibet, Tibet, French captures that complex reality, debunking the myth of a mystical, beatific, pacifist Tibet with a comprehensive account of the region's history and a thorough examination of Tibet's long, troubled relationship with China.

The author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, which many consider the definitive biography of the man who led Britain's invasion of Tibet, and Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division, French writes with a historian's concern for truth and a novelist's eye for detail. Subtitled "A Personal History" in some editions, the book is above all the story of French's wrestling with his own relationship with Tibet.

Despite his disillusionment with the freedom movement, French has scant sympathy for the Chinese forces of occupation. Drawing heavily from The Private Life of Chairman Mao, the account of Mao Zedong's personal physician, he vividly depicts the insanity of Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Though the focus of his account wrongly implies that Tibetans were the special victims of the atrocities of that time, French doesn't flinch from blasting the exile community's oft-cited estimate of the number of lives lost due directly to the Chinese occupation. The claim that 1.2 million Tibetans died as a direct result of Chinese rule "is often cited as a piece of uncontested fact," he writes. But his investigation of the source data in Dharamsala shows that number to be unreliable.

Among other distressing clues, he found that the promised list of names did not exist and that only 23,364 of the documented victims were female. He deems that "clearly impossible" as it would mean that over a million Tibetan men died out of a total male population of only 1.25 million in 1950.

With characteristic honesty, French describes his dismay upon learning that naive efforts to satisfy Western activists' desires for statistical evidence has, perhaps, jeopardised the exile community's ability to pit Tibetan truth against Chinese propaganda. His first impulse, he admits bravely, was to suppress his findings.

But, he writes, "I knew, after everything I had seen in Tibet, that truth was more important than continuing to back the cause in its present form. More realism was needed, not less, when it came to Tibet. It was a land that had suffered for too long from the well-intentioned projections of visiting foreigners."

French, nevertheless, sees no reason to doubt the general veracity of the exile community's claims. Citing historian Walter Smith, he suggests that over 200,000 Tibetans are "missing" from population figures for the Tibet Autonomous Region and posits that it is "probable that as many as half a million Tibetans" may have died as a result of the policies of the People's Republic of China.

Taking on an even thornier problem, French refuses to shy from examining a side of the history of the occupation of Tibet "that has been left to one side as unsuitable." He meets retired Chinese cadre Wang Zhanpeng in Beijing to get the account of the first, dedicated Communist Party workers who went to Tibet in the 1950s with an idealistic belief that they were there to do good. Shaken by this interview, French goes a long way toward accepting the parallels between the civilizing impulse of the British and Chinese empires, admitting that his conversation with Wang "reminded me of interviews I had done with retired officials of the British Empire."

He detects in Wang the same "dedication of purpose and commitment to the ideal . . . overlaid by an unspoken sense that he had been overtaken by history, that somehow he had let down the ideal, or maybe that the ideal had let him down." Moreover, French discovers that the benevolent, if misguided, Wang was himself the victim of Tibetan Red Guards, who charged him with "taking the capitalist road" during the Cultural Revolution. The reversal of the often-told tale strikes home.

With similar balance, French addresses the Chinese claim that communism "liberated" Tibetans from an oppressive feudal system. His cursory account of the economy of old Tibet--"most taxes were paid by . . . human labour rather than in cash. It was this system that the communists term serfdom or slavery. In practice, it was a form of bonded labour"--does not justify his wholesale dismissal of the communist argument. But he does unveil the rarely discussed Tibetan caste system through a sensitive discussion with one of the Ragyabas--Tibetans of no caste. A victim of his own culture as well as of the communists, the man "flinched, he cowered and he kept his distance, as if he expected to be struck at any moment . . . He was, I thought later, like one of the older generation of Dalits, the Hindu caste once called Untouchables."

Unfortunately, French does not always bring the same careful objectivity to his travel writing. He describes most of the Chinese people he encounters in unpleasant terms, and (with a few notable exceptions) allows the passing English remarks of louts he meets in train cars to stand against sensitive interviews with Tibetan informants conducted in their own language.

Like many foreign travellers, he sees great evil also in the encroachment of the dubious aesthetic of modern China. Of a family of nomads surviving in the Tibetan grasslands, he writes, "I had come to a place where people lived as they expected to live, defiant of external authority . . . Life was regulated, and yet, providing you avoided involvement with the authorities, and could cope with the harshness of the work and the routine and the climate . . . daily life for these Amdo nomads was good."

Apparently, the noble savages are not troubled by these hardships. In contrast, the people he encounters upon returning to China are miserable demons.

French's blurring of the distinction between Chinese people and Chinese politics and his attraction to the "idyll" of life on the grasslands prevent him from coming to grips with the unacknowledged villain of his journey: modernization.

The tension between the historian's impulse to correct and analyze and the traveller's impulse to romanticize and preserve the "real Tibet" cannot, finally, be resolved. But the struggle makes fascinating reading.