Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bangalore: The Insider/Outsider Debate

In the wake of the recent riots in Bangalore following thespian Dr. Rajkumar's death, there has been some soul-searching in the Karnataka legislature, in the newspapers and on the internet as to who or what was responsible for the total breakdown of calm and order over two whole days in the city. Finger-pointing is in full swing. As is to be expected, political parties blame each other, residents blame the government and the police.

What I did not expect was the blame laid at the feet of "non-Bangloreans".

In his Last Word column in The Week magazine, Mahesh Dattani, author and playwright, writes in an essay titled "Winds of change" this week (April 30, 2006),

This wasn't an outpouring of grief that we witnessed. Perhaps this is the shape of things to come. Violence as an outpouring of anger and frustration.

What else can it be? Forcing the city to close down was actually a very perverse act, but a cry for justice nevertheless. Dr Rajkumar, unknowingly, became a mascot for the oppressed indigenous people who feel their language and identity are slowly being eroded by the winds of globalisation. The IT industry is not the villain. The villain is Time. And no one can fight Time.

You wake up one day and find that your neighbour speaks a strange language; your job is taken over by someone who moved into town last month and has an utter dislike for all things south Indian. Your job in a government office as a peon was a matter of pride and achievement, until the office boy working for an MNC boasts of a pay five times more than you earn because his English is better. It just seems so unfair. Maybe it is. But it is to the credit of the indigenous people that they tolerated this unfairness for a very long time.

A few months ago, it was the new weekly, Bangalore Bias, expressing similar sentiments in its manifesto. I had then provided longer excerpts from the manifesto and had written an essay countering the arguments. Here are some brief tid-bits from that manifesto:

The time has come to ask, "Whose city is it, anyway?"

[...]

Where there was time and space for libraries, literary debates, science fairs, Sunday beers, bicycles, Karaga, Christmas carols, kadalekaayi parise, jazz evenings, dolls' exhibitions and the grace of it all. In a city of seven million, there should still be that "Island of One Million" that knows what Bangalore was, but more crucially to the point, what it ought to be. We believe this community of one million cares for a lifestyle of grace and charm beyond the transactional logic that threatens to become the sole basis of our civic society.

[...]

The Bangalore community could well feel that it is now under siege. The City's sensibilities have been invaded by unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcome strains of attitude and affectations. There are new people that now claim to represent Bangalore, but the Bangalore community is justified in feeling unrepresented.

I fail to understand the logic of these arguments.

First of all, who is a citizen, who is an "outsider"? Everyone that lives in this city, no matter how far the generations that have lived here go back, came from somewhere. The earlier generations shaped the character of this city as they saw fit, now the current generation is shaping the city as it sees fit. A city is a living, changing, amorphous creature that cannot be frozen in time and that image taken to be its true representation. "Whose city is it, anyway?" Well, it is the city of every single person living here, whether they landed here yesterday at the airport, bus station or train station and are setting up homes as we speak, or whose families have been living here for generations.

If the "oppressed indigenous people" (meaning what, exactly? How long does one have to live here to become indigenous?) don't have jobs or have lesser jobs, who is to blame for that? Or more pertinently, given the drift of the Dattani essay and the Bangalore Bias manifesto, how are "outsiders" to blame for that?

Are employers asking to employ "non-indigenous" people? Are they going out of their way to look for "outsiders" to fill their positions? From the "office boy" to the CEO? That contention holds no water. Businesses look to cut their operating costs and the cheapest hire for them would a qualified person already in the city. It makes no business sense to have to advertise in the media in outside cities, set up out of town interviews, have potential recruits travel or have the company's HR person travel to conduct interviews, pay for an eventual hire to move to Bangalore from Haryana or wherever and then pay some more for them to settle down in this city.

So perhaps these employers are getting out-of-state hires because they cannot find a qualified employee pool here. How can "outsiders" take jobs away from locals if the locals are qualified and willing to do the jobs that are required of them?

There are at least one or two articles a month in the daily newspapers here and abroad about the shortage of labor supply, not only in the IT industry, but in the construction industry as well (both at the day laborer level and at the engineer level). Why are the locals not rushing up to sign up for these jobs?

The argument that follows from this is that all this employment boom and success is limited to the IT industry. So what about the rest of the "indigenous" people who have no skills in this area?

Well, while the IT industry is spearheading the boom, in its trail follows a long list of service areas and other industries that are reaping the benefits of the activity generated in the IT sector. As mentioned above, the construction industry in Bangalore cannot keep pace with demand for housing. Then there are the peripheral service industries - restaurants, grocery stores, malls, clothes shops, book stores, relocation agencies, transportation (there's a whole new industry in transporting the call center employees to and from work every day) even down to drivers, house maids, etc. who all see an increase in business stemming from the IT sector activity.

You can just imagine just how much employment is generated not just in the areas mentioned above, but in each of the offshoots of those areas. "Outsiders" are not coming in to take every single job in every one of these sectors and their offshoots, are they?

Ironically, while the idea that the "city's sensibilities are being invaded" is making its rounds in certain quarters, the most striking sensibility of this city has been its arms-open-wide welcome it affords to anyone coming here, whether from Tamil Nadu or Andhra or Maharashtra or America or Africa, whether a menial laborer or a billion-dollar multinational company. Just as a community cannot thrive by suppressing a portion of its members, so cannot a city thrive by negating the contributions of a portion of its citizenry, newcomers or not.

And these are not small contributions, mind you. The newcomers to this city are, each in his/her own way, contributing to the financial health of this city. The companies are bringing jobs, jobs are bringing people, people are bringing money that they are spending in the shops and theaters and restaurants, and as mentioned earlier, the money is bringing construction, and more jobs. I dare say that the companies are also driving a lot of the improvements that we are seeing in the city today (Bannerghatta Road being a fine example, perhaps the only one of public-private partnership in Bangalore).

It is this financial health that will encourage people to look beyond their immediate basic necessities and move on to the dolls' exhibitions and jazz festivals and Sunday beers and the lifestyle of "grace" and "charm". And why blame the newcomers for these habits fading away? Why did this "community" of one million let go of that lifestyle in the first place? May be it's because all the old timers, who had property in the heart of Bangalore city, in Charmarajpet and Basavangudi and Gandhi Bazar have sold out to the highest bidder (in bidding wars brought on by the IT boom) and are now living out in what used to be the boonies and find it too far to make it to the dolls' exhibitions.

I do agree that as new people come in, and as a city grows to accommodate them, there is a definite strain on the infrastructure and resources. Moreover, from a newcomer's point of view, as I know from personal experience from having lived outside, it is very difficult to profess knowledge of a community's various concerns within the first few days of moving in. It takes months, even years, to understand the nuances that are at play in any community. There is bound to be that initial period of tension. But once you feel even half comfortable in any surroundings, you look around, make friends and jump right in. That's human nature.

There is no reason to believe that the newcomers do not have an equal interest in having a rounded, complete, fulfilling life in the city they have chosen to make their home. Newcomers also definitely look for signs of welcome. If given half a chance, many of them would do just that, jump right in. They too would like to live a life of grace and charm, I assure you. They too would like to see the infrastructure improved. They too want the crime rate down. They too want fewer accidents, better schools, better transportation, fewer power cuts and water shortages, parks for their children, safe roads, and justice and liberty for all.

It just makes no sense to believe that all the problems that this city may or may not have are to be blamed on "outsiders". They may be convenient and handy scapegoats, after all no "indigenous" person uses any of the roads, any of the infrastructure, does not pollute the waters, does not throw trash on the streets, etc., etc. Right?

Instead of looking outward for the sources of our problems, we would do well to look inward, at our own feeling toward this city we've called home for generations. What are our strengths and capabilities? What are our weaknesses? Let's assess those and act accordingly. Let's not blame our weaknesses on "outsiders". Let's not act in haste and look for scapegoats. Let us be a city worthy of our heritage, if we so care about it.

Crossposted on Desicritics.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

United 93, the Movie: Would You Watch It?

Last week's Time magazine carried Richard Corliss' report on the soon-to-be released movie United 93, about the fourth plane hijacked on September 11, 2001 - one that was intended as a missile as the other three hijacked planes were used that day, but the one in which the passangers heroically foiled the hijackers' plans. The plane eventually crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The only fatalities resulting from that plane crash were all on that plane.

The movie, written and directed by Paul Greengrass, sports the following plot line: "A real time account of the events on United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 9/11 that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania when passengers foiled the terrorist plot."

It has a cast of virtual unknowns, most of them with real-life experience of the parts they play in the movie.

For example, according to the Time magazine report, "J.J. Johnson, who plays the captain of Flight 93, is a real United pilot. Trish Gates, who plays head flight attendant Sandy Bradshaw, was a real United flight attendant, Ben Sliney, national operations manager for the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]...appears as himself. Lewis Alsamari, who plays one of the hijackers, spent a year in the Iraqi army."

All this seems to point to one thing: the production team has gone through considerable effort to make the movie as faithful to the real thing as possible.

Which leaves me with the question, do I want to watch this movie?

I haven't even been able to bring myself to watch the movie's trailer yet. One of the major reasons for this, I think, is that I know exactly what is going to happen in this movie. From the minute the movie starts, from the time the doors of the plane are closed shut, I know that it is building up to the horrific ending, no matter what transpires in between, no matter how heroic the passengers were, no matter that the terrorists did not succeed in their plan, no matter that the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands of people on the ground were spared because of what this movie will show me happened on that plane that day.

Part of it also has to do with what we went through that day, although it is next to nothing compared to what the passengers on United Flight 93 put themselves through or what the passengers on the other planes and the victims on the ground and their families must have gone through.

For all the utter confusion we all went through that day, it is a day whose events I can remember and recount with clarity, more than four years after it happened. It was a day that brought home the meaning of "foreboding". I watched the second plane ram into one of the twin towers on live TV, heard the third crash into the Pentagon eight miles away from my home on northern Virginia, and had my husband be stuck for more than three hours in the one of the most poorly managed evacuations from Washington, D.C.

To add to the confusion was the fact that there was no information forthcoming from any part of the administration. TV anchors were merely echoing my thoughts - what more could they do? They had as much information as I did; we were all watching live footage of our sense of safety, security and comfort in our chosen way of life unraveling. Two of my neighbors perished in the Pentagon and many came home shaken, unable to eat for days. For months after 9/11 we had to drive past a wounded, blackened and bruised Pentagon on our way to Washington, D.C.

I am not sure when, or if, I will bring myself to watch it.

Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish echoes this sentiment.
And yet, I will not see this movie, whatever its merits. The trauma is still too close. That day is still etched in me, as in all of us. It was a specific, unique trauma for those heroes on the plane; but it was also an emotional devastation for anyone who loves this country.
He goes on to say something more that raises the question, is it too early for a Hollywood representation (no matter how closely it tracks the real-life events) of 9/11?
In some ways, I regard the acts of those men and women to be an almost sacred moment in the history of America and of freedom. And sometimes, the sacred is best respected through silence. Sometimes, the greatest deeds, like the most monstrous acts, are best left unrepresented. They stand alone. They demand to be left alone. One day, commemmorate. But do not so swiftly represent. Shakespeare often left the greatest moments in his plays off-stage. They have more power there.
United 93 is slated for release in the US on April 28, 2006.

Crossposted on Desicritics.

Kaavya Viswanathan Acknowledges Using Portions of Another Author's Book

Kaavya Viswanathan, the 19 year-old Harvard student who made headlines as one of the youngest authors to be signed on by Little, Brown & Co., ($500,000 for a two-book deal) after they published her debut novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, faced plagiarism charges over the weekend.

The similarities between How Opal and Megan McCafferty's novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings (both published by Random House) were first reported in The Harvard Crimson this past Sunday.

The Boston Globe reports today that Ms Viswanathan "acknowledged yesterday that she used portions of another writer's book, but insisted the act was unconscious and unintentional."

The Globe article reporoduces portions of Ms Viswanathan's statement released by her publisher, Little, Brown,
''When I was in high school," Viswanathan said in her statement, ''I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, 'Sloppy Firsts' and 'Second Helpings,' which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel, 'How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life,' and passages in these books."

The Harvard Crimson also reports today that Random House lawyer, Min Jung Lee, in a letter to Little, Brown, stated that Random House "is confident that "literal copying" occurred in Viswanathan's book".
"We are continuing to investigate this matter, but, given the alarming similarities in the language, structure and characters already found in these works, we are certain that some literal copying actually occurred here," read the letter, which is dated April 22 and was signed by Random House lawyer Min Jung Lee. "As such, we would appreciate your prompt and serious attention to this matter."

Little, Brown, in a separate statement through Micheal Pietsch, VP and Publisher, described Ms Viswanathan as a "a decent, serious, and incredibly hard-working writer and student, and I am confident that we will learn that any similarities in phrasings were unintentional."

The movie rights to How Opal has been purchased by Dream Works.

This past weekend, The Hindu carried an interview with the author.

Update:

Kush Tandon points to this Language Log defense of Kaavya Viswanathan. Kush notes, though, that he's just pointing to it and not endorsing it.

Update 2:

The NY Times reports
today (April 28, 2006),
"Little, Brown today sent a notice to retail and wholesale accounts asking them to stop selling copies of the book and to return unsold inventory to the publisher for full credit," said Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown.
Crossposted on Desicritics.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Honor Killings

Other than in a section of society that actually carries them out, it is generally agreed that honor killings are barbaric and have no place in modern society. So how does once countenance the fact that they are still carried out in parts of Africa and South Asia? What should our response be to an incidence of honor killing? Should the punishment reflect the barbaric nature of the crime? Should the perpetrators be flogged, as arZan suggests in his piece Honor Killings - Public Flogging Needed? Or is something more drastic necessary? Is there a way to prevent honor killings from occurring at all? If so, how?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Update: Commonwealth Games: Indian Masseur Charged with Sexual Harassment

Here is an update to my earlier post on the charges of sexual harassment filed against a member of the Indian contingent that traveled to the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne:
Diwan Asghar Nabi, the masseur with India's Commonwealth Games team, was given a suspended one-month jail sentence on Thursday for indecently assaulting a teenage cleaner at the Games village, court officials said.

[...]

The spokeswoman also said that Nabi's name was placed on a list of registered sex offenders and that he must stay in regular contact Victoria state police for the next eight years.
Read the entire story here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Bangalore - the Latest Addition to Metroblogging

Bangalore is city #45 and the latest addition to Metroblogging. All Bangalore-related posts can be found here.

Check it out!

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