Reflections / 06.11.2009

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.
Education / 28.10.2009

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.
Democracy/Governance / 08.09.2009

Well, there has been an election in Afghanistan and (surprise, surprise) tensions have risen about large-scale fraud. We have just been through an exercise in Iran whose repercussions are still being visited on the dissidents locked up in jails. And last year there was an election in Kenya in which thousands of people were made homeless in inter-tribal warfare. Kenya? Really? Yes, and already forgotten. Time to move on to the next election. What’s going on folks? Is there really no need to figure out what happened in Kenya? What happened in Iran? No need to pay heed to the mud flying in Pakistan where tattletales are spilling the beans that virtually every election has been fixed (as if people did not know already)? Not only that; political parties have been manufactured and thieves bought and paid off to populate them. Should any of this cause someone to think that something might not be quite right in the Cuckooland of governance?
Music / 27.08.2009

By Anjum Altaf  I have something uncanny to report. I began this series of posts on music (see here) by describing how puzzled I was by a metaphor used by Goethe (I call architecture frozen music) because I was unable to reconcile that image with the music I was familiar with. It was after many years that I concluded tentatively that Hindustani classical music was better characterized as a painting. Responses from readers drew us into a discussion of Western classical music of which I have very little knowledge. In order to familiarize myself with the basics I bought, more or less at random, a book titled The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music by Tim Smith (NPR, 2002). Imagine my surprise when I read the following (page 2): The word ‘classical’ conveys structural order, a clear sense of form, design, and content; this is certainly part of...

Identity / 14.07.2009

A Pakistani journalist has recorded his observations from a visit to Sri Lanka. He has asked a lot of questions but not provided too many answers; and some of the answers can be debated. I am extracting parts of the article that are of interest to us and hoping that readers would enrich the arguments and fill in the gaps. On the regional bond: Everything told me this was still South Asia, that Colombo was not very different from Lahore, that somehow our regional bond held. Yet, something was very different, and I was struggling to pinpoint it. Note: Why do we feel this regional bond in Colombo but not in Bangkok or Teheran?
Democracy/Governance, India, Pakistan, South Asia / 26.06.2009

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music. The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence. Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with...

Democracy/Governance / 22.06.2009

The only significance of the events in Iran is the proof that when it comes to politics even Ayatollah’s cheat. Otherwise, everything remains the same. But the proof is of immense significance because it demolishes some strongly held beliefs about religion and democracy. Think about it. If those whose vocation it is to tell the truth, who insist they represent God’s will on earth, who claim they will have to answer to God for their doings in this world, if even they have been forced to cheat, something very compelling must be going on. But whatever it is, it is not new. Let us begin from the beginning.
Democracy/Governance / 11.06.2009

We have been discussing the census, electoral rules, and the nature of democracy in South and East Asian countries trying to draw lessons from events that happened between fifty and a hundred and fifty years ago. It was therefore eerie to read a virtual replay that took place in Iraq only a few years back. We truly ignore history at our own peril. The account is from the 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone), an account of the American occupation of Iraq and the attempts to reconstruct the country. Here we shall reproduce just the bare essence that indicates the overlap with our earlier posts. Readers interested in the details should be able to obtain the book fairly easily. From April 2003 to June 2004, Iraq was governed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration, headed...

Democracy/Governance / 24.05.2009

Every five years there is an election in India and we interpret the results to conclude what we think the majority of Indians want. But what happens between two elections? How do we know where the majority of Indians stand on the various issues that crop up between elections? Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident? If we are not Indian and are outside India, all we have to go by is the English language media. How representative is this of the voice of the majority of Indians who are rural?
Pakistan / 14.03.2009

The previous two posts in this series have described what we think are poor analyses of the situation in Pakistan by William Dalrymple and Moni Mohsin, respectively. Now the venerable New York Times has entered the fray with another bad analysis (Closer to the Cliff, March 12, 2009). Let us dissect it: We are especially alarmed to see President Asif Ali Zardari repeating the excesses of his predecessor, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Why alarmed, one may ask? What was the basis for the expectation that Asif Ali Zardari would act any differently? Is this a case, once again, of wishful thinking leading the analysis? Mr. Zardari is dishonoring his late wife’s memory by following that same path. So, the expectation is that Mr. Zardari’s prime loyalty should be to his late wife’s memory and not to his self-interest, as he perceives it. Is this a realistic expectation? Or is it a...