Monday, October 20, 2008

the alleged booker prize

By Jason Overdorf
(Outlook India, October 27, 2008)

Normally, when an Indian wins the Booker Prize, the country rallies round to cheer, and even the most dubious "voracious readers" from the pages of Stardust suddenly develop an interest in literature. But Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger was never a book Indians wanted to read, and even with the much-coveted stamp of approval from abroad, it's hard telling whether it will get the 1,00,000-copy boost in sales experienced by Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss.

Consider the front-page Times of India story that announced the news. The first paragraph cites as the reason for the win Adiga's "alleged ability to offer insights into the struggle of a developing nation on the rise"—effectively condemning the Booker winner as a fake. The conventional and obviously objective alternative would have been to say, "In awarding the prize, the judges praised Adiga's skill in providing insight into the struggle of...." 'Alleged', which to the newspaper man implies somebody is being accused of a crime and the lawyers are worried about a case of libel, is a word used to skewer. Any editor will tell you that its use here was no accident.

From the beginning, The White Tiger received an uncomfortable reception. The author (a friend of mine) is, if not actually a foreigner, then foreign-returned, which my wife tells me ranks even lower on the totem pole. Worse still, regardless of his ethnicity, he was a writer for Time magazine, and therefore guilty of writing bad stuff about India: that the people here are poor; they suffer from diseases like polio and tuberculosis that have been eliminated across much of the world and similar nonsense. And he did it in the book, too! The White Tiger is about a guy from Bihar, for goodness sake! Naturally, the reviews, and even some of the news articles, are peppered with backhanded compliments.

But there are worse things than being called poor. Compared with Inheritance of Loss, The White Tiger is more compelling, better written, and—and this is the really important thing—less Orientalist.

Inheritance of Loss infuriatingly propagates the "little brown men doing cute little things" rubbish, that by all rights should have disappeared with India's colonists. But Indian readers overlooked this allegedly cute stuff about Anglo-Indians and Nepali immigrants and their silly ways, because of the book's nostalgic, patriotic content. Though The White Tiger has its own broad brush moments, that kind of pandering—cheap, tired jokes about "peculiar" Indian English and the like, with which that schlocky, much-praised tome Shantaram was chock-full—is largely absent. The trouble is that The White Tiger is gleefully vicious in lampooning the middle class who are, regardless of the tired accusations about "writing for the foreign market," Aravind's true audience.

It's a familiar reaction. The critics of the foreign correspondent corps insist we are always banging on about poverty and filth, when we should be pointing out the five-star hotels. But stories about India's slowness in eradicating poverty, malnutrition, disease and the like are rarer than you think. Aravind has called The White Tiger "a result of my secret, uncensored articles", because it is almost impossible to get anything into Time or The Economist or Newsweek about the problems that India has had for decades and—because they are too big, or the system is too flawed, or whatever—hasn't been able to solve. Poverty is bad. It is everywhere. But it is not news. When articles on these topics appear, nobody should be surprised. The same thing appears in the Times of India every day and Outlook every week.Nor should they be angry, unless the writer tries to imply that some white guy could step in and sort the mess out in a year or two.

It's the other kind of foreign correspondent rubbish, the Orientalist crap, that ought to get people incensed. Why does every article have to begin with a woman in a colourful sari, squatting in the dust? Why are western readers so concerned with the fate of tame elephants, snake-charmers and eunuchs? And why do we always find somebody to quote who speaks in Indian English as unbelievable as that invented by Gregory David Roberts? Because it's exotic, because it's allegedly cute. But it makes you all out to be little brown folks, funny but inscrutable.

I, for one, would rather be called poor. And I'd rather have somebody, like Aravind, to make me angry about it.

space you can use

India may now be the world leader in deploying satellites that assist practical work on the ground.

Jason Overdorf
From the magazine issue dated Oct 27, 2008

Nobody would mistake India for a leader in outer space. Many Indians are hopeful that the launch this week of the Chandrayaan I spacecraft, which will orbit the moon in search of water, will mark a turning point for the nation's space program. The Indian mission will carry instruments for the U.S. and European space agencies in addition to its own Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Judging from local media coverage, Indians are following the mission almost as closely as the gyrations of the stock markets.

The Indian space program is already far ahead in one respect: its use of space technologies to solve the everyday problems of ordinary people on the ground. For more than 20 years, India has been quietly investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its earth-sciences program with an eye toward helping farmers with their crops, fishermen with their catches and rescue workers with management of floods and other disasters. "India is leading the way in the approach towards the rationale for earth observation," says Stephen Briggs, the head of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Earth Observation Science and Applications Department.

Measured by the number and sophistication of their satellites, America and Europe may be ahead of India. But with an annual budget of about $1 billion—less than a tenth of NASA's—ISRO covers a lot of ground. It has built and launched 46 satellites, which provide data for at least nine Indian government ministries. Its 11 national communications satellites are the largest network in Asia, and its seven remote sensing satellites map objects on Earth at a resolution of less than a meter. These form the backbone of a series of practical initiatives that, according to a Madras School of Economics study, have generated a $2 return for every $1 spent. "We have clearly shown that we can give back to the country much more than is invested in the space program," says ISRO chairman Madhavan Nair.

The satellite network is the fruit of an effort begun in 1982 to connect India's remote—and often roadless—regions to radio, TV and telephone networks. By 2002, ISRO had expanded satellite TV and radio coverage to nearly 90 percent of the country, up from 25 percent.

India's investment in Earth observation satellites over the years comes to only about $500 million per satellite, about a tenth of the cost of its Western counterparts. After introducing a satellite service to locate potential fish zones and broadcasting the sites over All India Radio, ISRO helped coastal fishermen double the size of their catch. For the government's Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission, begun in 1986, satellites have improved the success rate of government well-drilling projects by 50 to 80 percent, saving $100 million to $175 million. Meteorological satellites have improved the government's ability to predict the all-important Indian monsoon, which can influence India's gross domestic product by 2 to 5 percent.

Next, ISRO plans to roll out satellite-enabled services to hundreds of millions of farmers in India's remote villages. In partnership with NGOs and government bodies, it has helped to set up about 400 Village Resource Centers so far. Each provides connections to dozens of villages for Internet-based services such as access to commodities pricing information, agricultural advice from crop experts and land records. ISRO's remote-sensing data will also help village councils develop watersheds and irrigation projects, establish accurate land records and plan new roads connecting their villages with civilization as cheaply and efficiently as possible. One ISRO partner—the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation—has used satellites to conduct 78,000 training programs for more than 300,000 farmers in 550 villages, teaching them about farming practices like drip-and-sprinkle irrigation, health-care awareness programs for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and information about how to access government services. Using satellites to guide reclamation of 2 million hectares of saline and alkaline wastelands is expected to generate income of more than $500 million a year.

The United States and Europe may have beaten ISRO to the moon, but India's vision might just show the way for mankind's next giant leap.