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Ghalib / 10.01.2009

One would expect Ghalib to have a unique way of welcoming the New Year: dekhiiye paate haiN ushshaaq buton se kya faiz ik barahman ne kahaa hai kih yih saal achchhaa hai let’s see what favors lovers find from idols a Brahman has said that this year is good  This is indeed a very clever and witty she’r, as the interpretation at Mehr-e-Niimroz will make clear. The play is on the word but which in Urdu, in the context of the lover, signifies an extremely beautiful woman. But but also means ‘idol’, and that pairing with Brahmin is perfect in the second line. Who would be a better authority on the behavior of ‘idols’ than a Brahmin (who is an ‘idol-worshipper’ in the eye of a Muslim)? [A digression. Here is Marco Polo on his stop in India on the way back from China in 1292 AD describing the people:...

Development / 08.01.2009

What a question? Is there any doubt? Singapore is seen as the poster child of successful urban and economic development. But it is good to revisit such certainties, if only to reassure oneself that the case continues to hold. The reason for this particular revisit springs from an article in the New York Times published on January 3, 2009 (Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up its Last Village). Readers should look at the short article which describes how Singapore’s last village (Kampong Buangkok - 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields) is being acquired for high-rise development. Three statements reflecting three perspectives stand out in the article: The Government: “We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space.” The owner: “If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not...

Pakistan / 03.01.2009

The situation in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is in a mess. It is being said that while Pakistanis refuse to see or accept the reality, a civil war is underway in the region to all intents and purposes. And the Pakistani state is losing this civil war. The Pakistani military has no credibility with anyone in the country and many see the Taliban favorably as either anti-imperialist or pan-Islamist. All this leaves the following question on the table: What will this mean for Pakistan when the new US administration raises the ante in Afghanistan as expected? Let us examine the various elements in this picture. It is impossible to deny that a civil war is underway and that the Pakistani state is on the losing end. Just the loss of control over territory makes this obvious. Less than five years ago residents of Islamabad...

South Asia / 27.12.2008

Continued from Hinduism -5: Impacts of Interactions With Muslims The aim of this series of posts is to comprehend how Hinduism was impacted by its interactions with outsiders – first Muslims and then the British – in order to better understand where we are today and how we got here. In the last post, we concluded that interaction with Muslims had very little impact on how Hindus viewed their own religion – its philosophy, practices or traditions. However, the social stratification of Hindu society contributed a significant number of converts to Islam or to syncretic practices that could loosely be termed as Hindu-Muslim. We will argue later that the impact of the interaction with the British was very different. But before we address that topic in detail, it is both useful and interesting to presage the argument with a specific illustrative example. The illustration pertains to the attitude...

South Asia / 26.12.2008

In this post we present some basic facts about our region so that readers are aware of the challenges that are to be addressed. South Asia is home to 25 percent of the world’s population. Yet, it contains: 50 percent of the world’s poor people 66 percent of the world’s malnourished children 33 percent of the world’s child deaths every year 50 percent of the world’s adult illiterates (over the age of 15) 40 percent of the world’s out-of-school children (ages 6 to 14) Of South Asia’s population of 1.3 billion, approximately 1 billion (85 percent) are classified as poor surviving on less than $2 per day. Half of the region’s adults are illiterates, half of its children between the ages of 6 and 14 attend no school at all, 40 percent of its primary school children drop out before reaching the 5th grade. It is no wonder that...

Ghalib / 25.12.2008

We need someone to shake us up at this time and Ghalib does it with panache: ka'be meN jaa bajaaeNge naaquus ab to baaNdhaa hai dayr meN iHraam we will go beat the gong in the Ka'bah we have tied the holy cloak in the temple The conventional associations between Ka’bah/iHraam and dayr/naaquus are obvious and Ghalib’s intention to provoke us into rethinking the conventions is also obvious in his iconoclastic mixing of the associations. The detailed interpretation of the sh’er can be found at Mehr-e-Niimroz. Here we raise some questions triggered by the images that came to mind on reading this verse. The image is of a Montessori where the teacher has given a class of six-year olds a set of four picture blocks to mix and match – Ka’bah, iHraam, dayr, naaquus. One would expect most children, home-schooled in their religious traditions, to make the obvious pairings. Now, the teacher mixes...

Development / 24.12.2008

We never get away from blaming corruption for everything that is wrong in South Asia. Corruption is our biggest problem, it is repeated, and until we can deal with it we will be unable to develop. No one is a fan of corruption but where is the evidence for such a strong assertion? In two posts (here and here), we have argued for a nuanced perspective. In this post, we put forward some counterintuitive conclusions. The trigger for the post is the recent high profile incidents of political and financial corruption in the United States. In the state of Illinois, where the previous governor is already in prison, the incumbent is charged with trying to auction off political office in what is being termed as a standard practice – ‘pay for play’. And the financial corruption on Wall Street to the tune of $50 billion is said...

South Asia / 19.12.2008

Continued from Hinduism – 4: Early Interactions with Muslims In an earlier post in this series we identified two defining characteristics of Hinduism – its localized religious practice and political organization and its universal and rigid social stratification. In this post we discuss how these two characteristics shaped the interaction with Muslims and how the practices of Hinduism were affected as a result. First, on the social front, it seems reasonable to argue that the diversity of practice and localization of political organization of Hinduism in India made it relatively easy for outsiders to establish a base both physically and socially. An external force had only to overcome a local ruler to establish its presence. There was no all-India perception of an assault on Hinduism that could lead all the local forces to unite against an external enemy – such a response, had it been possible, would...

Ghalib / 14.12.2008

We wondered what Ghalib might have said post-Mumbai?                 ham muvahhid haiN hamaaraa kesh hai tark-e rusuum millateN jab miT gaiiN ajzaa-e iimaaN ho gaiiN we are monists, our religion is the renunciation of customs when communities are erased they become parts of the faith   Remember that Ghalib lived in an age of decay, chaos and conflict – he must have been very alive to the issue of divisions. The Mutiny against the British was a united initiative of many communities; the punishments were meted our very selectively to sow the seeds of division. These divisions are still with us and we continue to pay a very heavy price for them. All the more reason to pay heed to Ghalib. The bottom line in this verse is that our fundamental humanity is common; our practices may differ. Only when we rise above the differences in our practices do we discover that...