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By Anjum Altaf There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion. Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion.
You must have had the experience of catching just a part of an interesting conversation and wondering how it might have evolved. It happened to me today as I moved past an African and a South Asian who, the words suggested, was a Pakistani. I heard the African asking, “What do professionals like you really want to see happening in Pakistan?” And    before I could hear the answer the words were swallowed by the silence. It was a good question at a time when Pakistanis seem to be living from day to day just hoping for the situation to stabilize. What kind of Pakistan might middle class professionals really want beyond this immediate crisis if they got around to thinking about it? I would have loved to hear but the opportunity was lost. I wondered then what I might have said had I been given that part in some role-play exercise or in a mock UN format.
By Anjum Altaf  Bruised and battered as Indian women might be (psychologically, not physically as the poll on this blog suggests), there is another side to Indian femininity reflected in the myths of powerful goddesses. I came across an interesting perspective on this in David Shulman’s review (A Passion for Hindu Myths, NYRB, Nov. 19, 2009) of the new book by Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History: Sometimes the history of India looks like a story about endless waves of virile invaders from the north-northwest – Scythians, White Huns, Afghans, Turks, and, most recently, the British – who slowly grow soft and decadent under the insidious influence of the dreamy, langorous, mystically inclined Hindus…. [But according to Doniger] India’s astonishing talent for absorbing and transforming the peoples pouring in from outside, seen through a Hindu lens, has nothing to do with any softening or melting down of a hard, preexisting monolithic culture; it is, rather an active process of selection and pragmatic recycling, with the female principle – mare, queen, dancing girl, or goddess – driving the rather helpless (often foreign) male.
Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school) comes across as a persuasive argument that the humanities have lost out to math and science in American schools and that this does not bode well for the future of democracy. The fact that the essay is persuasive should be no surprise – Slouka is a professor of English and he employs the art of rhetoric at its finest. The language is so elegant that one can read the essay just for that pleasure alone. But one should not allow the intoxication of elegant prose to overwhelm reason – as public policy, Slouka’s essay suffers from at least two major flaws. Slouka’s main point has validity – the framework in which we reckon the value of things, the thrust of our education, our very language, has become excessively economistic.
Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation? Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success. In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: "We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want." The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in the presence of men.
By Anjum Altaf I checked the name index of Amartya Sen’s book (The Idea of Justice) for Foucault and found him missing. Let me explain why I found that surprising. As mentioned earlier, Sen contrasts two approaches to social justice – the search for a perfectly just society versus the alternative of making existing society less unjust. These perspectives are given different labels – ‘arrangement-focused’ versus ‘realization focused’ or niti versus nyaya. The implication of the contrast is pithily summarized by an endorsement on the book’s back cover: “The Idea of Justice gives us a political philosophy that is dedicated to the reduction of injustice on Earth rather than to the creation of ideally just castles in the air.” In terms of lineage, the arrangement-focused perspective is said to derive from the social contract formulation of Thomas Hobbes via Locke, Rousseau and Kant to John Rawls (A Theory of Justice) in our own times. The realization-focused perspective is traced from Adam Smith via Bentham, Marx and John Stuart Mill to Amartya Sen himself.

By Anjum Altaf I started reading Amartya Sen’s latest book The Idea of Justice in which he suggests we reduce injustice in the world we live in rather than attempt to create an ideally just world – he characterizes the contrasting perspectives as ‘realization-focused’ versus ‘arrangement-focused’...

I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement. This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies. Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human dignity. From these few voices arose the discourse that transformed the issue first into a public debate and then into a political struggle that finally put an end to the practice.
Ibn-e Eusuf’s reference to the fable of Boris and Ivan to characterize one dimension of the relations between Pakistan and India (Pakistan’s Favorite Indians) has elicited comments trying to identify the sentiment implied by the characterization. Let me repeat the fable before attempting to address the comments. The Russian fable is about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them is that Boris has a goat and Ivan doesn’t. One day, Ivan comes upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubs it, a genie appears. She tells him she could grant him just one wish, and it could be anything in the world. Ivan says, “I want Boris’ goat to die.”