Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Are debate and decision-making mutually inimical?

A few years ago, I saw some students off on GN Chetty Road one night and went back in the morning to discover all the trees were gone. Perhaps there had been press coverage for months about the flyover that was scheduled to be built and I just did not notice. Infrastructural projects are not riveting news until their ecological and human costs become evident. And even then, not everyone stops to take notice.

Whether it is GN Chetty Road's trees, or Sethusamudram, or the Sardar Sarovar project, I think one of the really big problems is that discussion and debate begin after work on the project begins. You cannot return to the status quo ante and you cannot really proceed. So insult is added to injury as something is lost and yet, that which ostensibly could have been gained is delayed indefinitely.

Why don't we debate these things before we start? It would identify pitfalls or at least make them known. My point here is not to start a rant but to genuinely pose this question.

I tried to look at this from the other point of view and imagine the reasons officials would offer for not having town-hall debates and the like:
  1. The issues are complex and cannot be debated by lay persons.
  2. Nobody would care enough to attend. If they did care, they would have been vigilant enough to know already.
  3. It is the role of civil society and the press to highlight these things.
  4. We cannot keep debating things; decisions have to be made and every decision comes at a cost.
All of these are valid to some extent but still don't add up to a reason not to debate. My question is how do we set up these conversations?

Prajnya campaigns against gender violence every year primarily in order to bring the issue into everyday conversation. We want people to recognize that there is a problem, to use the words for which they invent euphemisms and to come around to having their own discussions about the root causes and solutions. Lasting change will come through this, we believe. We try to come up with creative, fun, different ways in which to nudge these conversations to start, but it is not easy even with an issue like gender violence which is closer to most of us than we will admit.

How much more difficult then, to get people to stop what they are doing to discuss infrastructure or energy projects whose impact most of them will feel only considerably further down the line! Take this article by Milind Deora today arguing for a new airport in Bombay/Mumbai. How do we take this out of the op-ed page, the talk show studio and the cocktail circuit into every space where conversations happen?

And if we did that would we find ourselves in perpetual debate mode, never calling a decision and carrying it out? I am also afraid of that. In fact, temperamentally, that bothers me more than lack of debate, I must confess.

Therefore, this is a serious question and I would love to hear some answers: How do we generate debate on important public matters and how do we do it so that debate does not derail decision-making?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Personal is political is personal is political is...: Review

I have been following V.V.Ganeshananthan on Twitter for a long time (@Vasugi) but did not know anything about her. Then somewhere, probably on Twitter, I heard she'd published a novel. I was curious but because South Asian diaspora novels have become so common, was not terribly interested. Then, the other day, I saw her book in Landmark and thought, "Oh, why not?" My scepticism was underscored by the very small print of the edition I bought.

It's a good book, folks! You should read it. And this is why.

The protagonist is a young Sri Lankan-American and as the book unfolds, she learns about the country her parents (Tamil) have left behind. Yes, like most of us, she knows what happened, when it happened, in a textbook sort of way, and being a Sri Lankan Tamil, she has seen graphic pamphlets and heard bits of stories. But what she learns as the book unfolds is what most of us never have a chance to do: to put face to headline, to put feeling into choice, to see the inevitability that personal relationships will have political dimensions. To see it all together.

Ganeshananthan braids two strands--the interior, familial, personal one of marriage and the exterior, communal, political one of conflict--into one young woman's journey of seeing. The story of each marriage is a gem in itself, complete, stand-alone. I want to share with you a passage that I found very moving and particularly memorable (page 114):

"...Then he hit her across the cheekbone, and Harini's mouth flooded with blood.

      This is the taste of a Marriage Dying, her Heart said. Harini had swallowed everything, all her life. Her spinster sister Mayuri's jealousy of a Marriage that had happened too neatly. Her mother's quiet disapproval. Her own self-imposed status as a perpetual shadow. Harini swallowed again, swallowed air and blood. Her beating Heart had grown pulpy and old with abuse. 

     But Harini bent double, bent down. She picked up her Go-On Forever Smile from where it had fallen on the ground, and went on."

As the protagonist's family nurses her uncle, a Tiger who's been allowed to get away because he is dying, old stories are finally told, and new ones too. In that community in Toronto, she discovers just how personal politics is: the Tigers have chosen her cousin's future husband. And she discovers that personal ties cross political lines as well.

This is a book lots of people should read. First, those who are looking for a good story, well-written should definitely read this. Second, those who are interested in Sri Lankan politics, will begin to glimpse the things that textbooks don't record about why people make the choices they do. Finally, those interested in conflict should read this because it illustrates how much more complicated conflict resolution is than textbooks would suggest; there are no templates because the human Heart (to continue the author's usage!) doesn't read them.

I will finish by noting that the author teaches English at the University of Michigan, and was teaching a course on political fiction last year. This would be a great book to assign as recommended reading for courses dealing with issues like conflict or migration or in South Asian Studies.

V.V.Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage, Orion Books, 2008.