Sunday, February 26, 2012


Now here’s a conundrum:
  1. Suppose you and I agree that we will have some kind of mutually profitable transaction. I supply something you need, and you pay me for that product, at an agreed upon price.
  2. We continue this agreement, with your money and my product exchanging hands.
  3. Then, suppose, I use a part of the money that you pay to me for my product, to bomb the living daylights out of you.
  4. This coming to pass, should our original agreement still hold? 
(Note that the initial agreement between us was purely economic in nature, and made no mention of bombs between us, or anybody else.)

The Telegraph, Calcutta, reports today that US Congress representatives from the largest rice-growing states in the USA are “on the warpath, asking Iraq to resume buying long-grain rice from their country, instead of from India.” Texas Congressman Ted Poe has said that “‘We would think they would consider the US in trade since we spent billions of dollars not only to liberate their country, but to rebuild their infrastructure.’ ”

There has been a 77% drop in sales of rice from the US to Iraq over 2010-2011, though “‘not long ago, Iraq represented the largest market for US rice.’ ” Baghdad has apparently not bought rice from the US since late 2010. “Iraq’s trade ministry has said that much of the shift is a function of the Iraqi public preferring India’s basmati rice, which the US doesn't produce.”

Basmati rice is originally from India, where there are references to it in ancient textual sources and folklore traditions. In 1997, the US Patents and Trademark Office gave RiceTec (a TNC) patent rights on basmati rice. RiceTec’s cross-bred strain, called basmati 687, was awarded a patent for “Basmati Rice Lines and Grains”, marking the possibility that company could stop others from growing basmati in the future. The US has grown, sold and exported a massive amount of RiceTec basmati since the late 1990s. This sort of behavior is called biopiracy.

Living in India, I’m not so thrilled at Indian basmati being exported to Iraq, or anywhere else, simply because this has implications on availability and price within the country. But in this case, they’re welcome to my rice, even if it inconveniences me. Because if I was Iraqi, I’d probably rather give my money to the lost city of Atlantis than to the United States, in the cases where that would be possible.

The article also says that the Indian rice works out cheaper than its US cousin, because “Iraq has stringent requirements on the grain (…) increasing risk to shippers, causing them to hedge uncertainty with price premiums.”

Therefore, upto a quite short while ago, Iraq was buying more expensive, biopirated grains from the US, and getting bombed by them. And now, US business interests are “upset” because they have stopped.

I’m getting visions of this overgrown baby in diapers throwing a world-scale tantrum.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tess, Again, but 'First in India' this time

Michael Winterbottom has made Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Trishna), with Frieda Pinto and Riz Ahmed, set in India.

I have no argument with Winterbottom's skill as a filmmaker/ although doubtless there are people who do. I will not put forth any comparisons with Polanski's (1979) version, nor the 2008 BBC miniseries. I don't really have an issue with either Pinto's or Ahmed's acting abilities. What I have an issue with is this notion of 'First in India'. As far as I can see it, this means that an artefact of culture is assumed to assume a whole different dimension of enrichment, if it is 'First in India'.

So what, exactly, is 'First in India'? Well, this does not denote 'original' in India. If 'First in India' denoted an original product, initiated, incubated, nurtured and grown in India, this would be an exceedingly good thing. We could do with lots of those firsts, if they were competent -- in health technology, for example, but also in systems management, software and hardware, and multiple other areas. But 'First in India' does not seem to connote either originality, or even competence in the current cultural environment. Instead, it seems to be largely a process of re-hashing, re-presenting, re-locating, and presenting the final product as, um, re-original.

No, actually, the final product is not presented as re-original. I would not have so much of a problem if it was. It is, instead, presented as pretty much original, because it is 'First in India.'

This trend has to be understood against another fact with which India, and the rest of the world is inextricably  tied, which is the global flow of capital. We've been hearing about the rise of the Indian Tiger (capital I, capital T) for about a decade now. It seems to be happening, not so much because we are doing anything special, but because the West has really managed to mess itself up. India, China, the East, in general are the big markets of the future-- and I do mean big, as in vast, in the billions. However, these are also largely non-English speaking markets, who are attached to their own cultural heritage, to greater or less degree.

This has two implications: First, that these new markets are not familiar with the original cultural references, and are unlikely to see the re-original for what it is. For them, these re-hashes constitute an original cultural experience. And these artefacts, in turn, change the territory on which they act, so the expectations of an audience become located ever further from their original frames of reference.

Second, the artefact itself has to be tuned to the environment in which it is expected to make money. Much like McDonalds serving McAlooTikki to respect our many vegetarian sentiments, these products have to be carefully adapted, so they can draw the maximum possible number of people to the theatre, for their own cultural enlightenment, and for the clinking of the tills.

Bride and Prejudice tried this in the crudest possible way, with the worst actors, and failed quite miserably. Slumdog Millionaire got the formula right, and boy, did the tills clink. Now we are going to see Tess, Thomas Hardy's tragic heroine. But this will not be Tess at all, but a facsimile, in Indianese.

Thomas Hardy used bleak, open, vast spaces, to reflect the insignificance of human action. In fact, Hardy's landscapes have been posited as being part of the overall narrative structure of his powerful, pessimistic stories. Tess's tragedy hinges upon her lack of mobility in a physically bleak middle-England environment, and the lack of community per se. I'm waiting to see how they translate these ideas, fundamental to the stature of Tess as heroine, into Indianese.

But these are literary ideas, and reflect the concerns of another medium.

Let us, then, examine the figure of Frieda Pinto, who gives the 'First in India'-ness of the project away in no uncertain terms. She had huge success with Slumdog Millionaire, and then managed to be the only Indian actor to be considered acceptable in Hollywood. This takes several talents, doubtless, but only one essential: the ability to interpret oneself, acceptably and completely, in the terms of the culture into which one wants acceptance. So she is, herself, Indianese, interpretable easily for the West. In today's world, this is a winning formula.

She is exotic, but not too exotic (The Smita Patil type in Mirch Masala would be too exotic, I think. We also have several other actresses, across theatre and film who would be thus defined). Indian, but not too Indian, Brown, but not too Brown.

Her male lead, Riz Ahmed/ also known as Riz MC, is born and raised in Britain, and therefore provides less Brown exotica. But Brown exotica is not nearly as necessary in men. Besides, a less-Indianese male lead provides for two important things, from the perspective of a 'world' film.

First, it grants comfort to the gaze of western audiences, who will see the film through the gaze of the camera/ and therefore, arguably, a male gaze. Second, and just as important from the same perspective, this less-Brownness means that the male lead is also partially 'foreign' (read superior). Socio-culturally, this guarantees a tickle for our quite developed arraviste senses.
Like Frieda, but in a different way, and to a different degree, Ahmed is Brown, but not too Brown.

Presenting Tess of the D'Urbervilles, First in India.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Review: Life and Death in the Metropolis

Steve Inskeep, Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, 2011, Penguin Viking.

An instant city is one that is by orders of magnitude larger today, than it was half a century ago. There are several instant cities in the developing world, all subject to massive in-migration and characterized by fractured identities, often in latent or overt conflict. Steve Inskeep’s ‘Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi’ traces the multiple narrative threads of a particular event in Karachi, which touched off tensions already existing in the space of the city. It resulted in damage to both life and property, and also broke a significant informal agreement of  peace that had prevailed in the city up to that time. The event was the bombing of the Ashura procession on December 28, 2009, which led to street violence, and the large-scale destruction of nearby commercial property. This was followed, on the same day, by a bomb blast in front of the MA Jinnah Postgraduate Medical centre, where the victims of the first blast had been taken.

Taking this moment in the history of Karachi as a nodal point, Inskeep has researched and and written a oral history of the Ashura bombing. He does this by treating the city of Karachi as a map in which terror-linked markers are represented, and the linkages behind these markers revealed. Knitting together a story of  people, perspectives and phenomena that are seemingly diverse, Inskeep goes on a search to illuminate the social, economic and political contours of the city.

Accompanying him on this journey, the reader encounters some people it is truly a pleasure to meet: The members of the Edhi family, who run the charitable Edhi ambulance service; Dr Seemin Jamali, head of Emergency at the Jinnah Medical Center and Perween Rahman of the Orangi Pilot Project. Karachi emerges as a vibrant, unique urban space, thriving in spite of the many fractures that divide it. I did not know, for example, that you can buy a captured bird on the streets of Karachi, and that once you have paid for it, the bird is set free.

Inskeep’s sensitivity to, and understanding of the city makes for an involved, but not rapid, read. However, this book could have been written as a story of contemporary Karachi, without the focus on terrorism, and lost little in the telling. The perspectives of the people to which he talks, telling the story of the changing city, could well have been a compelling narrative by itself. Unfortunately it is no longer fashionable to study a space simply because it is there and because people live in it. In order to be singled out for study, a space now requires something unpleasant to happen: terrorism, flood, war, anything but the everyday of normal people living normal lives.

But it is as a portrayal of a subcontinental city caught in the flux of growth that this book primarily distinguishes itself. The author may have had his own reasons for making a structural epicentre of an episode of violence, but this focus lends to the book an unfortunate tendency towards what may be called terror voyeurism. This is regrettable, because if you’ve written a well researched, articulate book, you ought really not leave yourself open to being called orientalist.

Published in The New Indian Express, 27 Jan, 2012