Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The greatest event of our age..."

I wanted to blog this quotation a while ago, but am just getting around to it. I found it on the cover of the folder I was given at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in September.
"The greatest event of our age is the meeting of cultures, meeting of civilizations, meeting of different points of view, making us understand that we should not adhere to any one kind of single faith, but respect diversity of belief... Our attempt should always be to cooperate, to bring together people, to establish friendship and have some kind of a right world in which we can live together in happiness, harmony and friendship. Let us therefore realize that this increasing maturity should express itself in this capacity understand what others points of view are." (Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan)

Talking toilets

I was at an IFMR seminar this morning, a presentation on public toilets in Chennai by the Transparent Chennai project team.

I learned many things, and I want to share my notes here in the interest of public debate on the issue.
Please note I am just typing the notes I jotted down, without checking or polishing them. At some point all this information should be available on their website, if it isn't already.

  • We don't really know how many toilets there are in Chennai. An IFMR team member quoted the 2001 census as showing 600,000 toilets for 800,000 houses. 
  • The question is how to reach the 'open defecation-free' goal: septic tanks? sewage connections? 
  • The public toilets that there are are used in a variety of ways, from their intended use, to bathing, to washing. 
  • Transparency Chennai visited zonal offices to ascertain how many public toilets in each zone. They came up with a count of 572. They filed an RTI to get an official number, and the response was 715. 
  • In North Chennai, they found 49 public toilets for over 400,000 people. 
  • The norm is supposed to be 60 users per toilet seat, but of course, there are far more users than that in many places.
  • And many toilets don't get used, especially by women and children. The researchers heard many explanations for that: blocked latrines; blocked sewers; varying (random?) user charges; poor maintenance; cracked ceiling; no door; no lights; leaky taps; no water.
  • Mothers found the open ground more sanitary for their children's use. 
  • Safe disposal of waste was also a problem. 
    • Here, I want to mention the Menstrual Hygiene Management Consortium, a Trichy NGO represented at the discussion. All of us forget that the disposal of sanitary waste is also an important consideration in creating sanitation systems. 
  • The EXNORA team member at the table made the point that sanitation and public conveniences are ultimately the responsibility of local government and the most useful thing civil society can do is to facilitate their learning and planning, rather than take over their work. 
  • The question of accountability came up again and again. When the state contracts out toilet construction to companies, which contract out maintenance to others, who contract caretakers... who is accountable for the state of a toilet.
  • The distinction made in the discussion between community toilets (in slums, for instance, for the use of residents); public toilets (in stations, markets, etc) and mandatory toilet facilities in workplaces (like the crowded congested stores in T.Nagar) was useful here in delineating responsibility. There was discussion about regulation, coordination, etc. 
Interesting session, which I hope will open a good conversation on this issue, and some action.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bearing Witness: A new report on women in conflict zones

The Centre for North East Studies & Policy Research, based in New Delhi and Guwahati, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation, have just released a report on the impact of conflict on women in Nagaland and Assam, two states on India’s northeastern frontier. The study is based on intensive field work and documentation in these areas.

The researchers set out to speak primarily to victims of trauma and PTSD. But in Nagaland, they identified seven kinds of trauma, and found it hard to restrict their conversations to respondents that primarily fit their research design. Their listing of seven kinds of trauma brought home just how profound the impact of conflict can be and how long this impact can last (pages 10-11). Apart from the trauma experienced by individual women when they themselves were assaulted, they also experienced the trauma that others in their family, clan or village suffered or that they witnessed. Moreover, hearing of assault and traumatic experiences, either across generations through family stories or as researchers, also had an impact. Those interviewed experienced the hopelessness of their cause, however righteous, as trauma. Displacement, the loss of place and history, was another source of trauma. Being forced to interact with and adapt to the ways of others—even the ‘other’—contributed to traumatisation.

In Nagaland, the research team found that given the nature of Naga society, trauma was experienced by the village collectively, and people were hesitant to identify themselves individually, as if to suggest their own experience was somehow worse. Naga women drew sustenance from the support system provided by their traditional structures and institutions like the church. Whether or not women knew about the different laws that governed their region, they spoke to the brutality of the Indian security forces.
“All women respondents had stated that conflicts had affected all aspects of daily normal life whether they were socio-economic, health, education, etc. People cutting across class, clans, villages, gender, age, etc., had suffered tremendously over the years due to different conflicts… There were also many discords and tensions in society. There were divorces and broken homes. Conflicts had generated an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion as well as fear.” (page 27)

What the researchers stress is the need for counseling and legal services and for education about the same, so people could seek help. This is borne out by what they learnt in Assam too, except that the research team adds the need to generate and make available livelihood and educational opportunities, the absence of which was identified here as leading to trauma. Timely relief and rehabilitation was also stressed. Where Naga society already has such platforms, it is recommended in Assam that, “Women committees must be formed in conflict affected villages which check any sort of physical or structural violence against women and human trafficking issues.” (page 44)  

The importance of this study is two-fold. First, it is based on really sound field research—thoughtful conversations sensitively reported. The report is full of stories that the research team heard and they are the heart of this report, bringing to life the experience of multiple generations living with a conflict that is sometimes with the state and sometimes (or at once) internecine. The research team has used photographs, film and research notes to capture and communicate the experience of women in Nagaland and Assam. This is an unusually comprehensive effort. Second, Nagaland and Assam are important Indian states, but even so, underreported and understudied in the Indian context. A project that begins to look at the marginalized in a marginalized region thus acquires tremendous importance for researchers and policy-makers, but also for other citizens of the same state. And so does the multimedia documentation and communication effort. The research team explicitly points to the limited scope of this project and states that more studies of this sort are needed; they are absolutely right. In the meanwhile, it is important to make this study widely known. Again, it may be accessed at the C-NES website:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The trouble with writing

... is not with writing.

It is with reading. It is with thinking. It is with the habit of conversation. It is with practice in discussion.

Sometimes I think that the trouble I have with writing comes from the fact that I have nothing to say. But somehow, even I can't believe that.

I think the problem is that my writing sounds like me. Or like a textbook. It doesn't ever sound like people I read, people who get quoted, people who get RT'd. It just sounds like me.

And I am not sure that's good enough.

So I twist my writing self into knots and contort my writing to look like something I don't quite get. And then I hurt--from the effort and from the idea that somehow just sounding like me is not good enough.

The trouble with writing then becomes the trouble with my whole life. Try fixing that! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review & Reflections: Vaasanthi's "Birthright"

I spent Sunday evening reading Vasantha Surya's translation of Vaasanthi's Tamil novel, Kadaisee Varai. Titled Birthright in English, the novel is about female foeticide. I wanted to read this book but didn't know what to expect--a tirade? a Tamil soap (unlikely but..)? a weepy rant?

I did not expect Dr. Mano, Vaasanthi's complex protagonist, an obstetrician-gyanaecologist practising in a village in Salem district. I did not expect a protagonist who performs scans and abortions for the desperate women who flock her clinic. Vaasanthi's protagonist is not even a conservative product of patriarchal society who believes that male children are inherently more desirable. It's her completely matter-of-fact approach to the scanning and abortions that is most shocking. Chilling, even.

So you willingly follow Vaasanthi on the journey through Mano's psyche.

Never feeling wanted or adequate just because she was a daughter--and not just that, an only child who was a daughter--Dr. Mano expresses her anger and disappoinment with the world in her own way. Knowing full well that her willingness to scan and abort female foetuses is against the law, she calmly acquiesces when desperate village women beg for her help. Just as calmly as they face the prospect of abortion. There's a very sad, shocking and heartbreaking exchange between her and her sociologist (and feminist) friend visiting from Delhi as they look at a female foetus on her scan screen.
"'Do you still have the heart to do it, after you've seen this?' she said softly, in an awed voice. Smiling a little, my eyes still on the screen, I told her, 'You wouldn't understand how merciful a creature I really am.'... Arguing about this thing with a person who doesn't have the slightest idea what it is to breathe the air in these parts is especially meaningless." (page 10-11)
Later in the novel, Dr. Mano reflects:
"Women asked me to destroy the females in their wombs, pleading, "There's no other way for me!" Our epics and legends say that a woman who wants to achieve anything at all must renounce not only sexual desire, but every sign of femaleness." And as Dr. Mano remembers Auvaiyaar, Karaikkaal Ammaiyaar, Kannagi and Andal, heroines from Tamil epic and mythic ages, she compares herself and Raasamma, their housekeeper, to them, thinking, "Our outlets for the sacrificial impulse were different, that was all. The TV screen for her, the scan screen for me." (page 49)
Vaasanthi's skill as a writer is that she is able to make us feel compassion for this person who is educated, privileged and still does this thing that is morally reprehensible, not to say criminal. Moreover, she lets you into the pain of every woman who comes to Dr. Mano for an abortion, sometimes after trying more rustic methods first.

And when Dr. Mano "speaks" these words, they speak to something inside many, many women--including me.
"This loneliness that's been haunting me since my birth--I'm the only one who knows what that is like. That's why it has never been enough for me to be just myself, I need a larger frame." (page 22)
The push to do more, do more, do more, because what you are is not enough becomes a theme in many lives. It's the contemporary, maybe feminist, equivalent of dowry--a way of compensating for who you accidentally and inadequately are--a woman.

I can only hope that generations of girls after Dr. Mano and me can never relate to these words. I can only hope that the idea that they're "only" girls or that they "can never be men" is so extinct that when they chance upon this blogpost, they want to discuss it in class as a historical curiosity.

Read this book. It's very sad but very worthwhile and if you can read it in Tamil, I am sure it will be even more powerful.

Vaasanthi, Birthright, translated by Vasantha Surya, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2004. 

Related post: And what if their baby could choose?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is there a teaching moment we're missing today?


Every moment is a teaching moment, I believe, because every moment is a learning moment.

In the noise and clamour of the social network, it is hard sometimes to have a coherent thought. Rather like being caught in a mob in the real world and struggling to get out of the way of a stampede. But some things must be said, even if out of sequence and context, and in the quiet of an unknown blog.

1. Everyone who is not a beneficiary of corruption is against corruption; I think we can take this for granted.
If someone finds they have questions with your particular solution, it does not mean they favour corruption or support the corrupt. It means they want to think things through to find another solution. You want these people around. They help us move towards perfection.
In today's context, it means that those who have issues with the Jan Lokpal Bill are not necessarily government supporters or themselves corrupt. It means they have identified specific problems and would like to have them satisfactorily resolved. It may mean they have a better idea.
It also means that those who speak for institutions, and who believe that constitutional processes must be respected, are not favouring the corrupt. They are simply speaking their mind (and I happen to agree with this view) given what they have seen and read of human history.
Those who support the government position also have a fundamental right to do so. Just as government critics have the right to protest peacefully within the limits of the law.

2. People can disagree but support each other's right to hold and express their views.
Today this means that a lot of people who are very sceptical about the Jan Lokpal Draft are also upset by arbitrary arrest and disproportionate responses. But bear in mind that these people may also consider serving an ultimatum to an elected Parliament a variation on this theme. And that even if they think that, they will concede that the state always bears a greater moral burden for good behaviour.

3. Institutions do matter.
In fact, they matter even more when you want to enforce accountability. What is an institution? Political scientists use the word to describe anything that endures, that has a certain set of functions, rules and procedures attached, that adapts and that is not arbitrary. Institutions are essential for 'rule of law,' which all of us want.
The Lokpal, in all its avatars, is an institution. It will be bound by the functions and rules we invest it with, just as Parliament is bound by its rules.
As the constabulary (a local law and order institution) cannot start doing the work of the Income Tax Service, and the Income Tax Service cannot take over the Air Force, and the Air Force cannot become the Indian Forest Service--though individuals can, institutions can't--so must each institution do its own work. The Lok Pal cannot become the judiciary, and the judiciary cannot become Parliament.
Moreover, when institutions function properly, they act as checks and balances for each other's excesses and over-reach. An overpowerful Prime Minister, an excessively endowed Army or an ombudsman (Lokpal) with sweeping powers, destroy the fine balance that is needed for democratic governance.

Here, I want to interject, that every description of the Jan Lokpal, ever cry for a powerful, avenging Lokpal, has reminded me of Robespierre. Remember him? After the French Revolution, he rose to the position of the chairman of the Committee of Public Safety. His extremely strong convictions and his confidence that he (alone) was right, was an important factor in ushering in what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. I think after learning about him, extremely self-righteous people fill me with a sense of anxiety. And should such a person assume such an office with sweeping powers? Maybe it's just me.
Maybe the younger generation which is so sensitive to every question about its lifestyle choices can find a way to live with Robespierre. So then, what I think really doesn't matter.

4. Civil society is not the same as democratic government.
Civil society is a rubric that takes in all manner of beasts (including my organization, Prajnya) and creatures (me). We're like the entire range of non-human actors in the Puranas--sometimes animal, sometimes magical, sometimes scary. Democratic government may contain some of us, or many humans that are worse, but it's great virtue is that someone took the trouble to choose those people. (Were you one of them? I was, and next time, I may vote differently. Or not.)
Civil society cannot be empowered to make laws; that would be a democratic travesty. But civil society must inform citizens and governments about policy choices and concerns; and civil society must hold government accountable on behalf of citizens.
Somewhere along the way, civil society has forgotten that it has this public education role, and begun to sound like it always knows best.

We've all failed in this role. Those of us with the training and temperament, haven't taken the trouble to engage with and create opportunities for engaging with this important debate, of which the Lokpal proposals are really only a small part. So, this is what my organization and I are doing to somewhat atone: It's a resource page we created following the National Campaign for People's Right to Information's call for a real debate. Do use it to inform your discussions. And do suggest resources we should add.

5. Either/or is a pointless way to engage with others; it's actually code for, I don't really want to talk to you.
See this, see that, mine is better, is also not a way to have a public debate. This is the kind of debate we've had so far on this question.
The Lokpal is one institutional measure to ensure accountability. Have we given any thought to others? Can we breathe normally, talk civilly? Today, I just don't feel optimistic.

I don't know. Today I am again feeling really sad. In despair. At the way the government has acted. At the tone and terms of the Jan Lokpal campaign. Thinking that these are all really intelligent people with lives of public service behind them. That it's become about sides, and not about India. It's become a screaming battle about loyalty and ad hominem attacks. That we are forgetting that governance and policy-making are really complex issues. I am in despair that this may not be a teaching moment after all. But a moment for putting your head in your hands and closing your eyes and hoping for the best. Hoping it will all go away.

I don't know what to learn from today. And I don't know what to teach.


This post has now been featured in the Britannica Blog: 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blocked..??.. so blogging

I am having so much trouble writing. That's what I want to say. But it's not entirely true.

I am tweeting continuously and reasonably grammatically. I am posting multiple tweets on a subject so my brain is able to construct a few thoughts at a time.

I am reacting to this and that. So I have some grasp, some thoughts.

But I have just tossed out five laboriously written versions of this article I should have finished a couple of days ago. And no, of course, they weren't full versions but still in my head, each time I knew, or thought I knew, what to do.

So what's the problem?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hillary Clinton visits Chennai: Cross-posted from the Asia Security Initiative blog

Once more, with feeling: Hillary Clinton visits Chennai
Posted July 20, 2011

Chennai’s shiny new Anna Centenary Library auditorium was packed. We assembled early, from noon onwards, for Secretary of State Clinton’s speech. The speech was scheduled for 3 p.m. but we were told 2:30 p.m. And so we filed in with small purses, no water—the high and might, rich and famous, bold and beautiful, and students of Chennai and some of us besides—and lunch becoming a past-life memory, and waited.
I know why I was willing to wait. It was my way of showing appreciation to a politician who has put in her time on issues of real concern and who may well be remembered for placing gender justice on the State Department agenda with a minimum of opportunism attached.
And so when she came in at exactly 3, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. The very brief welcome by the Librarian was much nicer than the usual ceremonial welcome with soporific speeches. And Ms. Clinton led the applause when the Librarian said this was Asia’s largest public library. Since most of us haven’t been inside yet, we joined more sceptically.
Ms. Clinton’s speech was very much in the same mode as President Obama’s Parliament speech (see my post on this). As she checked off her hat-tips and tut-tuts, I could have sworn the speech had the same structure—which is not really an issue. Diplomatic speeches are not cutting-edge policy statements. So what were these?
She opened with a “vanakkam” which got her a round of appreciative applause. Then she talked about how happy she was to come to Tamil Nadu and Chennai, and said nice things about culture and history and contemporary American connections to this town (which in the past includes the Ice House and the fortune that founded the Secretary of State’s alma mater).
Why was India so important to the US? Because the Obama administration believes that much of the history of the 21st century would be written in Asia, she said. And then elucidating “how to inject content” into the Indo-US relationship, she tipped her hat to democracy, pluralism, opportunity and innovation as “bedrock beliefs” that the two countries share.
Reiterating the US’ support for India becoming a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council in a reformed UN system (whatever that means, whenever that happens!), the Secretary of State said that the US welcomed India assuming a global leadership role. But she asked: What does global leadership mean and what does it mean for Indo-US relations? In that moment, I thought we were back in November 2010, listening to President Obama.
And after a little while, came the little nudge about Burma. Yes, India has interests and investments in Burma, so the US was happy to see the Foreign Secretary meet Aung San Suu Kyi. The words left unspoken: But really you can do more if you decide to, and if you want to assert your position as a leader, you should. If this annoys Indians because it sounds like a lecture, it is also not untrue—power comes at a price. President Obama reminded Indians of this in several ways through his visit but never as explicitly as in his Parliamentary address. And both he and Secretary of State Clinton subtly pointed out that US support for India’s claim to such leadership would depend on India’s willingness to shoulder its costs and responsibilities.
Of course, this nasty medicine was served with plenty of sugar: India had so much to offer in support of the democratic transitions in West Asia; Ms. Clinton described India’s Election Commission as the ‘gold standard.’ Apart from democracy, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and sustainable development (especially agriculture in arid areas) were three areas where India had something to offer, in her view.
The Secretary of State identified the Asia-Pacific and South and Central Asia as two regions where the US and India could work together. Chennai, she suggested, was a very good location from which to speak about these, since it was a reminder of India’s old connections to this region and its maritime history. The main point to this cooperation was trade; open markets and freer trade would make everyone prosperous. But the language of Ms. Clinton’s speech was colourful and evocative; she recalled the Silk Road and called for the creation of a web of Silk Roads that an entrepreneur in Chennai might use to get her products to a customer in Central Asia.
In this part of her speech, Ms. Clinton said Tamil Nadu was an example of what was possible when everyone enjoyed equal rights in a society, and then used that as a way to introduce Sri Lanka into her speech. When she said, every citizen deserved the same hope, there was a buzz of approval. But this was also the one place where she made a very strong statement that peace is not possible when the peace process ignores women’s rights and minority rights. But in spite of the passion with which she spoke these words, the audience in Chennai did not really react. It must have been as disappointing to the speaker as it was to this blogger.
In fact, after her ‘vanakkam,’ the only real response Ms. Clinton got came when she quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s wish that he should be able to travel so freely across the subcontinent that he could eat breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. Interesting, when you consider how much criticism he currently receives. The applause was so great that she paused to say, applause is not enough.
Anyway, having spoken about Sri Lanka in Chennai—acknowledging the city’s interest in that country’s affairs—she made sure to talk about India’s assistance to the Maldives and the need for a regional solution to flooding problems in Bangladesh.
The end of Ms. Clinton’s speech was written to be rousing and inspiring but the audience remained cold.
Anti-Americanism comes very easily to Indian audiences, but I want to ask those gathered in that room why they were there. They were never going to hobnob with the Secretary of State; so that cannot be the motivation. They were not moved by the content and seemed largely disinterested in it. They were just not there; and as I have written this post and reflected on it, the watery applause they gave Ms. Clinton makes me wonder. What brought them to that room? Interactions (even non-interactive ones like this!) are a two-way street and both parties go under the scanner.
So my question to those who planned this event is: what was the point of having so many people—many very busy—gather in a room for so long just to listen to Ms. Clinton breeze in, speak and breeze out? You could have screened this and had a discussion. Or had her take some questions.
What was in this event for Ms. Clinton or the gathered Chennaiites? It’s not so clear at all. She got a tired, somewhat dehydrated and restless audience for a speech that didn’t need them to be there. They got an afternoon away from work (nice for some, including me) and a chance to meet friends they have no time for otherwise, but really this can’t have been the objective of the US Consulate. Might Ms. Clinton have done better to visit another social service organization, working in the area of child rights, perhaps? Would a town-hall in a college which is off the Consulate’s radar otherwise, have opened new connections?
Other notes:
• Ms. Clinton mentioned “Passport to India,” a programme to encourage American undergraduates to study in India in larger numbers and build connections with India.
• She also used the feminine gender everytime she had an example to narrate in the third person singular… very, very nice, and noted with great approval!
Last question for academics: Analyses of speeches like this one either start with a checklist of desirable mentions and omissions and then scan minutely and critically, or like this one, they are readings of style and structure. As a foreign policy scholar, I wonder, does the first miss the woods for the trees, and does the second fail to appreciate the work on each tree in its emphasis on the woods as a whole?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Progress of the World's Women: Links to my posts

UN Women just released Progress of the World's Women. Related blogposts by me are crossposted at the PSW Weblog: here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Alberuni's India, alive-alive-o'

A few years ago, there were newsreports I blogged about the refusal of research visas to foreigners. Pratap Mehta pulls the threads of various issues together--research funding, FCRA, civil society, freedom--to illustrate how Alberuni's India lives... always afraid of the outside world, and I will add, always desperately anxious for its approval.

Pratap B. Mehta, That seventies feeling, Indian Express, June 16, 2011.

Rabindranath Tagore clearly did not belong to this India... where the mind is fearful and the head hangs anxiously; where knowledge is shackled by numbers, fettered by convention and measured by mediocrity; where the world of ideas lives in a cellular prison; where words come out from the depth of truth to be choked by outrage; where tireless striving is quite tired, by now; where the next sentence of the poem is probably too poetic and hopeful to make sense in our time (and not well-dressed enough in designer clothes); where our minds move in shrinking circles through labyrinths of convention and by-laws....

I want to move to Tagore's 'heaven of freedom.' Today.

Related posts from the past:
Back in Alberuni's India (but did we ever leave?)
Celebrating xenophobia (the second round)

Oh, and let's not miss this: Utkarsh Anand, Govt sets bizarre rules for foreign trips by judges, HC calls it mindless, Indian Express, June 16, 2011.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Annadata (innum) sukhi bhava

Annadata (innum) sukhi bhava
(May the person who is feeding me be even happier)

Why wouldn't India be Diabetes Capital of the world? We equate food with happiness, hospitality, prosperity and celebration. We also emotional-eat like other humans. And then many of us are vegetarians meaning that rice and other foodgrains, dairy products and other food that Ayurveda would term 'sweet' or kapha-boosting are a large part of our diet.

At the same time, we live with hunger. Not just people who fast (for social and personal causes), but people who don't have enough to eat.

Feeding others is part of both our social and spiritual/charitable lives.

But with growing affluence, has come competitive hospitality, and it appears that every meal must resemble a banquet. Hotels will not serve working lunches; to book a conference room, you must use the menu used for weddings--much rice, fried food and many desserts, even if no one can stay awake after that! And a wedding breakfast serves the entire Udupi restaurant menu, followed within three hours by a lunch that is like an exhibition of South Indian/other cuisine.

Guests carry their diabetes and hypertension meds along, pouring themselves into silk and satin, melting like an illustration of global warming... and waste most of the food. Or eat it and come home to complain of indigestion. Or eat it, as I do, guiltily--knowing it's excessive for me and for society.

What a waste! Of money, time, food, everything.

I think it's time we fixed this. My suggestions today:
1. An old favourite for Chennai weddings: Let people take home packed curd-rice with their thambulams. They can change into cotton and eat the lunch under a fan, calmly. Nutritious, cooling and cheap. The saved money can either go to the couple starting life together, or towards the child's education (for other ceremonies), or to charity (you can see for information on how to donate).
2. Serve fewer dishes to the very close relatives who travel for the wedding, and spend time with them while they eat. They will remember that with more love. The 30-dish feast served efficiently by strangers while the family is busy is less memorable.
3. Feed the poor, as Indians do on special occasions, but better still enable an institution to feed or take care of people on an ongoing basis.

Do you have suggestions? Leave a comment to share them. Let's do something about this wasteful excess.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother's Day!

Raji and Lakshmi, my two grandmothers

On Mother's Day in recent years, I find myself thinking about maternal mortality, maternal health and women's health in general.

This is a photo of two women whose genes I bear.

Raji died in childbirth after giving birth to her seventh child. She was smart, gifted, meticulous and loving. She did not see any of her children grow up, the oldest must have been about ten when she died. She herself was in her early thirties.

Lakshmi went through many pregnancies, carrying some to term, losing children at different stages. Through her life, she fasted and when she wasn't fasting, ate after her family like many Indian women, eating what was left when they had their fill. She lived longer than her friend, but the physical strain of her life left her nervous system very fragile in her last years.

So many decades have passed. That we still discuss universal access to good health care as a desirable social end, suggests that not enough has changed. How very sad!

See: Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2008, Estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and The World Bank, 2010.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Building toilets in Trichy

Isher Judge Ahluwalia writes in today's Indian Express about a grassroots project that has provided many in Trichy with proper toilets. Worth noting, worth applauding, worth emulating.

Isher Judge Ahluwalia,  SHE creates a WAVE of change in Trichy, Indian Express, April 27, 2011.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fee-fi-fo-fum: Donkeys, camphor and Chennai colleges

This is a ranting post. Bewarned!


Three weeks ago, Prajnya organized an intercollegiate quiz for which ten teams signed up and three teams showed up. One college professor apologized but there was no explanation or apology from any of the students at all.


Today, I went to Women's Christian College, which is having a 'National Seminar' (something colleges have in Chennai that I don't fully comprehend as a category) on domestic violence. I had been invited to judge their poster contest. In spite of their students ditching our quiz just a few weeks ago, I kept my commitment, rushed through my morning work to show up at 8:15 am. as requested.

The professor who invited me nodded vaguely as she ushered the keynote speaker on to the stage. As the proceedings unfolded, some instinct made me think I should ask about these posters I was supposed to judge. Perhaps the instinct was prompted by the fact that when she thanked the invitees who were attending, she mentioned neither my name or Prajnya's.

I sent a message through a colleague who was off-stage (my contact professor was on-stage with the 'dignitaries'). She did not know anything about posters or my having come to judge them--ominous, already. I asked whether the posters were ready for me to see right after the keynote. The reply sent to me: There were no entries so there was no point my waiting.

I am actually not easily insulted. I have too much tolerance and tend to have empathy for people in many kinds of situations. I don't stand on ceremony and I think I am fairly unassuming by today's standards. But today, I am. Very, very insulted.

If there were no entries, this cannot have come as a surprise after my asking. What would it have taken to send me an sms? Or, to look at me this morning when I said hello, and say, "Oh my god, I totally forgot to call you!" If I had seen genuine regret at such a moment, I would have actually found it amusing and understood the stress of organizing something. But no, it was a casual, no point in my waiting.

No point in my coming. No point in my trying to work with such people. No point in expecting students to behave better when teachers are like this.

No point at all.


This is not the first time WCC has been cavalier with us. Yes, they sent teams to our first two quizzes but the students always looked long-suffering and as if our quiz was actually beneath their station. They had a team in our police-student interaction last year, but again this year, they ditched the quiz.

Worse, we have invited professors--with a formal letter--to our programmes. They have said leave was sanctioned, got directions and just not showed up. No explanation or apology.

And now this. I am so furious. If you think this is a post filled with negativity, let me tell you I am being painfully polite and parliamentary. If I was a person of greater virtue, my thoughts would have far more destructive consequences.


And WCC is not alone. Stella Maris is the same. Communication within the college seems to be non-existent. They don't believe in responding to things. Their students make rash commitments they are unwilling and unable to deliver on. Loyola is a lost cause. MOP Vaishnav has an enthusiastic principal which makes a lot of difference, but she cannot be her students or her professors. And she cannot be everywhere. Let's not even talk about the University.

Up and down an alphabetized list of Chennai colleges, it's the same story. Disinterest. Apathy. Rudeness. Inability and unwillingness to communicate. Incompetence. Professors are like this; how will students learn?

Except for Queen Mary's College. I am even afraid to write this--meri hi nazar na lag jaye--I don't want to jinx this.


But the self-confidence is great. We are so great. Chennai people/students are so smart. Tamilians work so hard. Chennai this. Chennai that.

But don't ask us to keep a commitment. Don't ask us to communicate honestly and promptly. Don't ask us to write a paragraph that you can understand in any language. Don't ask us for anything--we take all offers and requests to be petitions to which we respond like feudal lords with empty titles.


For Prajnya's sake, I stop myself over and over from really writing what I think about where I am. I have done so today as well, erasing text that I just typed. But the one thing that is clear to me is that Chennai's colleges are pointless programming options for Prajnya and frankly, last resorts for recruitment as well.

Perhaps this post is impolitic as well, but frankly, to read my blogpost and to take umbrage takes more efficiency and energy than I have seen displayed on campuses here.

My father used to tease, when we refused to try new vegetables or dishes: "Kazhudai-kku teriyuma kalpoora vaasanai?" (What does the donkey know of the fragrance of camphor?) Chennai colleges, I say this to you today.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Funding failure is charity!

"Charity stands on its own. Big time charity should tackle things that will fail. When you succeed in everything that you do in charity, you are attempting things a little too easy." 
(Warren Buffett in this press interview.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Samrat Ashoka (536) Hindi


A lone king, standing on a hill, surveying the bloodied fields below him, reflects on the price people have paid for his grand ambitions. Too much. Dramatically, he speaks into a bubble, renouncing war with the words, "All men are my children, and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men."

Step out of the Amar Chitra Katha, and drive a short distance from Bhubaneswar and you stand before these words. Dhauli is where Asoka's 1st Separate Rock Edict is carved.

The edict is now protected by a glass case but it's still thrilling to peer through the glass and imagine someone read these words out to a stunned, benumbed public.

The Archaeological Survey of India has manicured a little patch of garden around the otherwise harsh rock and as you climb the ledge above the edict, the view is pastoral, even bucolic. Lush fields. Coconut trees. Some signs of human habitation. A far cry from the comic-book illustration of bloodied bodies strewn here and there. The earthquake and tsunami that have struck Japan even as I was traveling to Dhauli have probably left those scenes in their wake.

I try really hard to imagine that moment, that epiphany. But even the faint memory of these words does not actually move me as much as I want to be moved. Perhaps it's the effect of the kitschy looking Peace Park that looms over the rock edict at the top of that hill. Perhaps it comes from the complete lack of interest and enthusiasm of the driver who really doesn't care that war was renounced here. Perhaps it's the boys-on-a-binge tourism that I see, pausing at the edict lackadaisically before proceeding to the Kitsch Park (which I must confess, I couldn't bring myself to visit--it may be quite nice after all!)

[ <-This is the elephant carved on top of the rock where the edict is carved.]

The second separate Rock Edict at Tosali is where Asoka had carved: "All men are my children and just as I desire for my children that they should obtain welfare and happiness both in this world and the next, the same do I desire for all men. If the unconquered peoples on my borders ask what is my will, they should be made to understand that this is my will with regard to them --the king desires that they should have no trouble on his account, should trust in him, and should have in their dealings with him only happiness and no sorrow. They should understand that the king will forgive them as far as they can be forgiven, and that through him they should follow Dhamma and gain this world and the next.

For this purpose I instruct you, that having done so I may discharge my debt to them, by making known to you my will, my resolve and my firm promise. By these actions, my work will advance, and they will be reassured and will realize that the king is like a father, and that he feels for them as for himself, for they are like his own children to him."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Horses, water and Queen Mary's College

Posted first at the PSW Weblog.

"You can drag a horse to the water; you cannot make him drink.”

I cannot write a report about the 2011 quiz without remarking on the participation issue. We invited almost 40 colleges. 10 colleges registered after an official invitation and poster went to the principal, calls were made to the union secretaries and to our friends in the faculty. The students were supposed to register at 2:30 p.m. At 3:30, half an hour after the first round was scheduled to start, only three teams had registered.

Our volunteer made a round of calls, only Ethiraj picked up. They weren’t going to come, but did not think it important to let us know. The Stella Maris and WCC cheering squads–barely three-four people anyway–showed up. The teams did not. We still have no calls or email messages from them.

For Prajnya, this is not an isolated experience. We have the same problems for every programme we conceptualise for students. This is the first time that we have faced it on this scale for the quiz.
Apathy in itself is lamentable. After all, these are the people to whom we plan to repose a great deal of responsibility in the very near future–work, family, social. But the lack of consideration and the absence of accountability are far more frightening to me.

These are the people who will work jobs? Have children? Run the world? What if they don’t feel like showing up one day? Will they just leave work and family in limbo? Every single student carries a mobile phone and has an email account. They could not call or email or sms us to say they would not be coming?

We are a small non-profit and invest very scarce resources into creating opportunities for students, from whom our only expectation is that they should bring themselves to the programme. For yesterday’s event, we had prepared three substantial quiz rounds, plus back-up questions, which took about five long days of serious preparation, even with contributions. More than one person worked on this quiz. Our volunteer made innumerable calls and a few visits in between his classwork at the University. We ordered snacks for fifty. Used up our small stock of printed certificates (which we cannot reuse now) to prepare for 20 participants. And how do I describe the loss of morale for all the people who were so enthusiastic about this programme? They are also young, and I want them to continue to feel like whatever they contribute matters.

Why the Prajnya Team loves Queen Mary’s College

As a contrast to this picture, I want to tell you why we love working with Queen Mary’s College. Queen Mary’s in its time was a very prestigious institution, but that really is history. Today, South India’s first women’s college is a very poorly resourced, poorly maintained institution, but with the gift of teachers who are unbelievably dedicated and students who are hungry for opportunities. Whenever we suggest an opportunity to them, they are enthusiastic and fuel the programme with warm and eager participation.

For yesterday’s programme, we had hired their hall. When I walked in to set up, there was a small group of students sitting quietly, with the professor we usually work with. They were very subdued, in low spirits. One of their colleagues, a young hostelite, was killed by a speeding vehicle when crossing the road in front of their college… injured a few days ago, succumbed to her injuries the day before the quiz. They said, hesitantly, we are in no mood to participate, we will help you set up. I cajoled them into putting up a team.

And they did. They stayed. They participated. They smiled and did not let on to the others that they were grieving. They were good hosts to those who had come to watch. Principal, professor, students, staff… made us feel like we were welcome and that they valued this event.

The principal had spent long days at the General Hospital while her student battled death. The professor we work with had coped in the hostel with grieving girls and police questions. The principal stopped by as we set up to apologize for not coming—she was patently exhausted but gracious. The professor stayed through the quiz, to offer us moral support.

This is college spirit. This is the real stuff.

And when the quiz participants told the quiz master, they wanted careers in social work, I wanted to say to the college and parents: you did really well raising these girls. They fill me with hope when others in their generation make me very afraid.

We are proud to have in the Prajnya Archives photographs of flag hoisting on Independence Day 1947 at Queen Mary’s. We are proud our quiz in the centenary year of the observance of March 8 as International Women’s Day was in this college, full of spirit.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Founder's Blues: Sometimes you wonder why...

Sometimes you wonder why you bother. This week, I have been wondering why I started Prajnya.

Entrepreneurship, business or social, is a very lonely experience. So is a scholarly career. Stuck between both, trying to make them work, I wonder why I bother with the work that benefits me the least. The scholarly career holds a lot of space, maybe is predicated on a healthy sense of self-doubt. Building an organization requires you to fake confidence most of the time. Confidence in your vision. Confidence in the society where it is rooted. Confidence in those around you.

Actually, you have to fake confidence that there are people around you. Most of the time you are alone. Trustees, partners, volunteers, potential donors, resource persons, even beneficiaries and end-users... they appear and disappear. Cheshire cats. Scarlet Pimpernels. Desert mirages. You think you imagined them. You imagined them in order to indulge your delusion/ego/both. I am pretty sure I did.

Today, I cannot remember why I started on this road.


We could have created Prajnya as a Section 25 non-profit company, a society or a trust. We chose the last route because it offered the most freedom. The auditor warned me repeatedly that it would be very hard to shut down.

So here I am. Without an easy road ahead. Without an easy escape.


And no answers. Don't ask me about "no answers," I probably can't answer that.

It's a vicious cycle--no money, no people, no office, no space, no hub, no community, no support, no money, no people, no office... you pull off miracles in the first year or so, and then it becomes really hard. Your presence, reputation and workload increase much faster than your resources. And certainly, they have taken a toll of my physical, fiscal and inner resources.


Some weeks, I really can't remember why this seemed like the thing to do. What was my expectation of myself? What was my expectation of others?

To be very honest, my worry all along was embarking on this course in a city where I have no friends. But here I was. And I wanted to start before I was too old to take a risk. I still don't really feel like I have friends here--almost eight years after I moved and five years after Prajnya's deed was executed.


I take great comfort, even pleasure in reading about the teething troubles others faced--from Rukmini Arundale to Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. I seek courage in their continuing growth and success. But I am neither unique like Rukmini Devi nor enlighted like Sadhguru. Does that diminish my survival prospects and those of Prajnya?


Like Abhimanyu in the chakravyuha, I figured out how to get in. I cannot go further. I cannot get out. I will not be rescued. And I will not be martyred. Middle-aged female Abhimanyu.


But if tomorrow you told me to pull down the shutters, could I? Would I? (And believe me, if I chose to do this, the same family that now supports me, would celebrate my release from anxiety and stress as well!) But would I?

I don't know. I can't remember why I chose to do this, I can't think of why I cannot leave.

I can only write this post in the hope that someday it offers comfort to another person in my situation.

Monday, February 7, 2011

One more gone... K. Subrahmanyam

In just one fortnight, India has lost two very important contributors to foreign policy and security thinking, both from the same generation in a manner of speaking: Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta and Mr. K. Subrahmanyam. One, I knew well and the other, I had read and met but did not know. Dr. Sen Gupta's passing away is a personal loss but Mr. Subrahmanyam's death also feels significant.

I had seen both their by-lines when I was in college. KS used to write for the TOI edit page which was then one of the best in the country (yes, this is true!). BSG used to write for India Today. They represented very different views of the world, and as I began to study international relations, came to symbolize opposite positions. I identified Dr. Sen Gupta with the position that came more naturally to me: conciliatory, pacifist, anti-nuclear. Mr. Subrahmanyam's positions on most things brooked no compromise, no adjustment. As a very young student, it was easy to cast them in good-bad, hawk-dove moulds.

As the years have passed, I see shades of grey everywhere and shy away from these absolute positions. What I recognize is that both of them were very true to their temperament and worldview; they spoke the truth as they saw it, without compromise and without pandering. It is their integrity that I recognize, the specifics of each one's various positions are truly details that will now only interest intellectual historians writing about the security discourse in India.

At one time, both Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam were towering public intellectuals writing on foreign policy and defence. Both had the ear of government, with Dr. Sen Gupta (like others at CPR) being closest to the  VP Singh-Inder Gujral governments. Mr. Subrahmanyam's influence remained unabated till his last breath. Architect of many of India's foreign policy positions and author of the security doctrine drafted a few years ago, his was usually the most dispassionate articulation of India's interests in any situation. 

Both of them mentored so many younger people, both of them lent their intellectual services and integrity to build important public policy research institutions. Dr. Sen Gupta retired from the seminar/policy circuit to the point of being reclusive in his last years. Few have written about him, to celebrate his life and work, to express their gratitude. By contrast, many articles and tributes have been and are being written about Mr. Subrahmanyam, even as I write this. This is the way of the world: to sometimes fete, to soon forget. My guess is both of these brilliant men knew this. But it makes me sad.

I am very sad that we remember selectively, that we forget easily, that we seem to lack gratitude... and saddest that the qualities that made scholars like Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam deserving of the epithet "towering" seem rare and also anachronistic in this age of two-minute noodle opinions: the patient, disciplined devotion of a lifetime to learning and honing.

All of us who work in the area of security studies and foreign policy, regardless of what we now write about or what our political opinions, have learnt a great deal from the writing of Dr. Sen Gupta and Mr. Subrahmanyam. All of us are now bereaved, having lost two teachers in quick succession.

What is the dakshina that we now have to offer their memory? 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Shraddhanjali: Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta

This is a written tribute for my teacher, Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta, because we both love words.

Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta passed away yesterday. I read the news on Twitter. Since then, I have mentally drafted this blog post a dozen times. But now as I sit here, all those drafts elude me.

I look at this photograph that I took the last day I worked with him. It quickly brings back the two most decisive years of my professional life.

But I should begin this story from the beginning, shouldn't I? I know I have narrated it several times, but today I will place it in the public domain, on the record.


I was in Bird Library, Syracuse, working on what was to be my MA thesis. There was a slim book on the shelves, "India's Nuclear Options?" which recorded the proceedings of a seminar at a place called Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. It was edited by a Bhabani Sen Gupta. I loved the book, loved that it brought a wide range of opinions together and I cited it extensively in my thesis.


I moved back to India, decided to sit for the Civil Services Exams, made it to the Viva in my second attempt. I stayed on a few days in Delhi after the Viva, and I remember sitting in my aunt's Som Vihar living room, drapes drawn against the Delhi afternoon sun, looking for a 'Bhabani Sen Gupta' in the phone directory. I called and asked for an appointment. Dr. Sen Gupta was going to be at the India International Centre at 11, I could meet him before his meeting. Off I went.

It was only my second visit to the IIC and I sat on the porch facing the driveway and waited for this famous person whose face I would not recognize. I watched people, wondering who they were. I looked at the beautiful plants around me. And then, Dr. Sen Gupta came. I sat with him in the lobby area in front of the library/ auditorium, and he asked me about my studies and my thesis. He listened attentively, smiled benignly and asked me to send him the thesis and any other papers I had written. I was over the moon. No one had ever asked me such things before. I did, promptly, by registered post. And that was that.


I had got on the Civil Services merit list and been offered the Defence Estates Service. I wanted to quit right there. Relatives called and said, "Veettukku vandha Lakshmiyai vittudadhai." (Lakshmi has come home, don't turn her away.) I really had no interest in cantonment fittings, so I went back to Delhi in March 1989 to negotiate an "extension on joining time." Many trips to Army Bhavan, waiting for this one or that, and I had time to kill in between.

With the Bombayite's confidence, I simply found my way to Dharma Marg, and asked to meet Dr. Bhabani Sen Gupta. I went up to his office. He looked up from his work and spoke the words I will never forget, the words that changed the direction of my life: "Why have you come today? The Director is not there and can't interview you."

I clarified, "Sir, you are mistaken, I did not come for an interview. I just came to say hello to you. I met you last year.."

"Yes, yes, but I wanted the Director to interview you. I need a research assistant."

I was then convinced he was mistaken. I remember informing him that I had no real education, I did not know how to do research and then, "I don't even know how to type!" He dismissed my efforts to make him see the light, and said, "Look, I have lost your writing samples. Go back and send them to me again. And can you come back to Delhi? Come back for an interview."

Alright! As young as I was, I knew better than to protest. I came back to Bombay, sent a second set of copies to Dr. Sen Gupta and then forgot about it. But within a few days this time, I got a telegram asking me to come to Delhi for an interview. I ran across to get my train ticket, went right back to Delhi.

In the many dark, hopeless moments that have occurred since 1989, the memory of my interview reminded me that someone out there thought I had something to offer the world. I cannot visit the CPR Director's office ever without remembering that interview.

Dr. Pai used to have a proper sofa set in the room. A long sofa against the outer wall, and then two single armchairs. I sat on the long sofa, and Dr. Pai and Dr. Sen Gupta on the single armchairs.

Dr. Sen Gupta told Dr. Pai he thought I would be a good research assistant. Dr. Pai was sceptical and asked me a few questions. He said to Dr. Sen Gupta, "She doesn't even want to be in academics. What will she do with this opportunity?" I agreed with him wholeheartedly. I said so. In spite of my good-girl upbringing which prohibits butting into a conversation between older people, I tried to add my reasons for thinking myself unsuitable. I really did. It was not modesty, believe me.

Dr. Sen Gupta was adamant. "I have a good instinct. This will work out very well." Against his better judgment, Dr. Pai gave in and agreed that I should come to work at CPR. I did not understand Dr. Sen Gupta's instinct, but knew this would be an amazing opportunity.

It was. It changed my life. Or rather, it opened up new possibilities in my life. And I type this, in tears, because all the sadness I felt yesterday is finally melting into tears... a few in grief, but mostly tears of profound gratitude. And most of all, it's gratitude for the faith Dr. Sen Gupta placed in me that day, and continued to place in me after that.

July 1989-December 1990

As agreed, I joined CPR on July 1, 1989. Dr. Sen Gupta asked me to sit in the library and read every book on democracy and government that I could find. There began my still-continuing relationship with the CPR library. I did that diligently, and found last year, on a return visit, that my name is still on the cards inserted in all those books!

At the end of a month or so, elections were about to happen, so he asked me to track election and campaign news. I did this with great enthusiasm. A series of small projects--actually research tasks at my end--followed. Law of the Sea (to brief the Foreign Minister!). Bhutan, for which I remember reading weeks and weeks of Kuensel back editions at the beautiful Bhutan embassy. Some IPKF-related work. I suppose it was the donkey-work of a research project but I loved it. I still love the join-the-dots, treasure-hunt, jigsaw puzzle parts of the research process greatly, and I owe that to the way in which Dr. Sen Gupta let me learn.

He would define a task broadly, give me some idea of its end-use or end-user. And then leave me to find my way.

This is how I did the first field research of my life. It was a Monday. Dr. Sen Gupta called me to his room and said, "Prepare a set of questions on inner-party democracy. I want you to interview Congress Party leaders from tomorrow."

Again I said, "I don't know how to do that. I don't know what to ask. How will I be able to talk to them?"

He pretty much shoved me into the deep end of the pool, dismissively saying, "You can do it, now do it."

For anyone who knows me as an academic or a teacher, I want to tell you I had no clue what to do. Why would anyone give me the time of day? What would I ask? It was not even the age of 24/7 TV when I could try and imitate an Arnab Goswami or Sagarika Ghose. I was scared out of my mind.

But I went to interview Balram Jakhar the next morning, because I had been told that I should do this and so I must. You know, it really wasn't scary. I came back and copied out my hand-written notes and wrote a little companion essay on what I saw and what I thought.

If you haven't met or worked with Bhabani Sen Gupta, then I want to tell you that one of the things that made him an amazing teacher is that he valued every kind of creativity. This is one of the things that I now treasure in my own life and try to encourage others to find place for in theirs. I think as the interviews went on, he enjoyed the profiles as much as the main interview notes were useful. He encouraged me to write.

To be precise, he encouraged me to type. As I took copious notes, painstakingly by hand, finicky about which pen, what kind of paper, he would urge me to type. It was faster, he said. I protested that my handwriting was good. Our compromise: I would take notes from books by hand--something I still like to do--but I would type up my interview notes and other random background materials I prepared.

I type this and think, "I should show the same faith in young people that I work with, that he had in me." After all, it turned out I wasn't as incompetent as I suspected! But I know why I am as I am.

I spent months at Akbar Road and then a long time at the BJP office. I came to Bombay for a fortnight and spent part of it working on the Shiv Sena. I interviewed people in the TDP and AGP. In the short span of six-seven months, if you wrung me out, I would have dripped party constitutions and ideologies.

I learnt many things about myself in this work. I loved this work. I loved the exploration and the learning. I loved struggling till the Eureka moment arrived. I loved meeting completely different people. The biggest surprise: People seemed happy to talk to me. As I gained confidence, my interviews were longer, took different directions. People seemed to take pleasure in telling me stories and teaching me things I didn't know (or they thought I didn't know). And... I really wanted to do this work all my life. I got an extension on my contract till December 1990.

The third UPSC attempt was not successful, and perhaps it was largely because my heart had already left the quest. The morning that the results came out, I was in my office early as usual, and when Dr. Sen Gupta came in around 11, he came straight to my room, opened the door and said, "What happened?" I told him. He said, "You know, I have never in my life regretted what did not happen."

I did not understand the wisdom of those words then. I must have nodded or made some other vague response. In all the years that followed, in all the many things that did not happen, I have remembered them. I understand them. And now I repeat them to people as well.

A good teacher teaches you to learn. And a great teacher teaches you about life.

The other life-lesson, one that could have only come from Dr. Sen Gupta, was delivered in the context of my tentatively asking for a day's leave to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Dr. Sen Gupta was delighted. Was I going with my boyfriend? No, with my cousins. Not a satisfactory answer. But then he said, "Why are you telling me this? You should just go. A little truancy is good for the soul."

I know that life-lessons are supposed to be serious and ponderous and about life and death, but if you know me at all, you know I need to be told that truancy is good for my soul. I have hugged this gem like a lifeline through the hard years of graduate school, when we were only supposed to think about positivism and IR theory, but I sneaked time out to read and paint and catch performances at the Krannert Center as well. I have quoted this to myself to justify watching Cary Grant instead of worrying to death about my H1-B visa and applying for my next temp job. I now use it when Prajnya work gets unbearably overwhelming and I want to just run away for a while. A little truancy is indeed, good for the soul. But it has to be a "little" truancy.

Mr. Kumar, from the CPR library, always described Dr. Sen Gupta as "bahut mehnati insaan." And that too, I saw and learnt. Age, experience, learning and influence still don't exempt you from reading extensively and learning new things. A long and impressive list of publications does not mean not revising your work. If he still worked that hard, then I must work that much harder. So I got to CPR at 9, stayed till 6, worked on Sundays--either at home or at CPR. Always at the back of my mind, was the thought that I must not let Dr. Sen Gupta down.

In 1989-90, CPR was like the shadow cabinet for VP Singh's government. There was a very close interaction between the two, and CPR's Monday morning seminars were often attended by VIPs. I would watch people come and go, and I was really curious. I also really saw it as a wasted learning opportunity for us younger people because we were explicitly not allowed to attend. I can understand that somewhat now, now that I am older. I expressed this view to Dr. Sen Gupta who did not disagree but suggested I put forward my case to Dr. Pai. I tell you, you grow up in Bombay, and you know neither hierarchy nor fear of authority. I made an appointment and said to him that I thought it was a wasted opportunity not to sit and listen to the best minds in the country. Dr. Pai listened and said, "Okay, you can come on occasion, but you must not speak and you must not write notes." I could listen and learn and that's all I cared about at that point. In my last few months, I would occasionally be invited to sit in the back and listen. And I learned so much from what I saw and what I heard, that I continue to be grateful to both of them for giving me this chance.

I could go on and on, and I suppose I have.

My time at CPR ended on December 31, 1990, but I continue to feel connected to this institution, its people and its ethos. It is a part of how I now imagine and find solutions for Prajnya. It is how I measure the quality of my own work. And if it hadn't been for Dr. Sen Gupta's faith in me, this would not have happened.

I left CPR an academic. I had come in as an IAS-IFS aspirant, thinking that was the way to contribute to India and make a difference. I left as a student who wanted to be a scholar, because at CPR, I had seen good scholarship make a difference.

I said earlier that a good teacher teaches you to learn and a great teacher teaches you about life but the rarest of teachers allows you to set your own curriculum, define your own interests. I have had two of those guide me. In addition to the work he assigned, Dr. Sen Gupta encouraged me to follow my own puzzles, suggested reading, urged me to go talk to others... and I have stacks of notes for dream projects that some day I will return to. (Stay tuned to learn about them!)

Half my life

I am 46 now. I was 24 when I first went to meet Dr. Sen Gupta. For half my life, whether I met him daily or not, whether I managed to visit or not, even after I stopped writing letters regularly to him, he has been a teacher whose counsel is part of my daily checklist of how to do this or how to look at that.

Soon after I left CPR, both Dr. Sen Gupta and I were in Chennai. He had come for the 40 years of Fulbright conference. His flight was delayed and I had the privilege of reading his paper. When he came here, I went with him to all his meetings. He came home for lunch and met my father. Today, I treasure that. In those days, my father was trying to run a newspaper and make it work commercially. Because I asked, Dr. Sen Gupta wrote a column for the paper for a long time. He understood what my father was tackling much better than any of us did, I think. I treasure the memory of their warm conversation around our dining-table. Today, neither of them is around.

I decided to return to graduate school after the CPR experience, and when I got a fellowship at the University of Illinois, I called Dr. Sen Gupta to ask him for advice. He told me, "Steve Cohen is a very good person. Go!" I did, and got yet another wonderful, very similar teacher in the bargain. And another teacher in the same mould, I would like to say!

Dr. Sen Gupta was a terrific teacher and mentor; but I would like to say that I was also a very obedient student. He thought I should be in journalism. I didn't. I still don't. He asked me to write 800 words a week for my father's paper. I obediently did. When I went to Bombay, he said I should go meet the TOI editor and ask to freelance. I hated the idea, but I obediently did. It was disastrous. But his instance that I should write never left me, no matter how hard journalistic writing is for me. I take to heart his constant instance that scholarship should be communicated and shared in simple language (also something Dr. Cohen believes, by the way!).

When I returned to India, others would ask, why don't you write, and at that point, my answer was, because I don't have the time and energy to beg an editor to publish my work. That shifted, people asked me, I wrote a few times for the Deccan Herald, the New Indian Express, for InfoChange... I never got around to telling him that or sharing the articles with him. (Dr. Sen Gupta would ask me to type, not write. I now type all day and my handwriting has deteriorated lamentably.)

I sent Dr. Sen Gupta a copy of my book. When I visited him right after my return to India, he was so happy to see me. He took me to his office, made me sit in his chair, told me he'd read my book, it was a good book but too academic. But for me it was enough that he read it. It was a blessing for all the things I wanted to do. There were still so many things he wanted me to do: to work at the grassroots, to write so that people could understand...

I was in Delhi on his birthday a couple of years later and stopped by to greet him on my way to the airport, and I gave him a copy of "Women, Security, South Asia." I never met him after that. Dr. Sen Gupta, that book is not so pedantic, I hope you liked it.

I have been to Delhi a few times, but somehow, I haven't gone back to see Dr. Sen Gupta. I feel a little sad about this today, but I also know that this is life. This is the way it unfolds. There is not a day when I don't think of him with gratitude and affection, and there won't be. This life, and the things I do, I do because he had faith in me that day. And I know Dr. Sen Gupta would rejoice in the things I do, would chuckle over some of my complaints and share my delight when things go right. I know he knows that his teaching will not leave me.

So many smaller memories: Being reminded to drink water before stepping into the Delhi sun for an interview. Him calling to ask about me after I had viral fever. Little homilies on love and life and work. Being taught to say I work 'with' someone and not 'under', which was the usage I had heard growing up.

The newspaper obituaries are describing Dr. Sen Gupta as political scientist, commentator and international expert, but he has been so much more: creative person, person of letters, friend, mentor to many, track-two pioneer, generous teacher, wonderful parent... In how many ways will we remember you, Dr. Sen Gupta, and in how many contexts, will we miss you?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bhogi Bogey

Today is Bhogi, the first day of the four-day Pongal festival in Tamil Nadu. Growing up in South Bombay, a completely urban creature, I can only tell you that I hear people make a bonfire of old, broken things--and agricultural waste, I presume--on this day. I have no idea.

The smoke in the air this morning got me thinking of 'Bonfire of Vanities,' a movie I haven't seen. I wondered, what if we made a bonfire of our negativities today? Would such a bonfire, made with mine, consume the universe in mythical mode?

Almost as if summoned, I could feel them all rise within me, from the corners to which they had been expelled in the last three relatively restful weeks. Acquisitiveness. Anger. Pride. Delusion. Envy. Fear. Ego. A poornaahuti on this day.

That's probably what it's meant to be. But can I do it? I don't know. Or am I too attached to my negativities to part with them so easily? Tough question.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Who would you cite? Southasian women writing international relations & security

This morning, I found this interesting, short (and yes, old) exchange between Daniel Drezner and Laura Sjoberg on how to write about women and international relations:,,

Then a little later I found Stephen Walt's and Foreign Affairs' reading lists on the same subject.
Stephen Walt's top 10 picks: Books by women on IR.  Also, see the comments for books he left out, notably those by Cynthia Enloe.
This is Foreign Affairs' list of what to read on women and IR.

It got me thinking about a similar Southasian list. Whose work/ which work would I place on that list? (And I should say that I am thinking of a feminist IR list and not a women scholars list.)

Rita Manchanda, ed., Women, War and Peace in South Asia, Sage, 2001.
Farah Faizal and Swarna Rajagopalan, eds., Women, Security, South Asia: A Clearing in the Thicket, Sage 2006.
Paula Banerjee, ed., Women in Peace Politics, Sage, 2008.

They're all Sage books, and they're all anthologies. Interesting, isn't it?

There are lots of other books that I would consider interesting, useful and must-reads but in this area, feminist scholarship/ scholarship by feminist writers is rare. WISCOMP has had an active research programme and has commissioned some very good work but their publications are not easily accessed in the public domain.

Related read:
Ammu Joseph and Kalpana Sharma, eds., Counter-Terrorism: Women Speak Out, Zed, 2003.

Well, who would you cite? I really would like to know.

PS: Paula Bannerjee reminded me of Anuradha Mitra Chenoy's work on gender and militarism. I should have remembered! But 4-5 works? That's it?


Last week, my niece arrived in Chennai seeking a visa-on-arrival for her two week visit. All her papers were in order and she got the visa, but it took her hours to get out of the airport. Why?

Immigration officials insisted she pay the visa fee in rupees. She had earlier been informed that she could pay in USD and she came prepared, but when she arrived, she was told the visa had to be paid for in INR.

First of all, most visitors are unlikely to have rupees in their possession when they arrive, because few foreign exchange dealers abroad deal in rupees.Second, if this is the rule, then there should have been a currency exchange counter at Immigration. Of course, there isn't. So the poor child had to wait to be escorted by Immigration officials to an ATM... OUTSIDE the arrival area.

Does this make any sense?

Contrast it to my recent Sri Lanka experience, when I landed, walked up to and out of Immigration in less than five minutes with a visa-on-arrival. And fee? What fee? I paid no fee. I am sure the costs of processing and monitoring my entry were built into something, but you know what, I don't really mind because entry itself was painless and pleasant. I felt welcome.

It's just as well my niece has a lot of equanimity or the day would have been ruined for her. It would have for me. I would have fretted, fumed and got really tired.

But what does it say about us? On the one hand, a visa-on-arrival is intended to promote tourism. On the other, this sort of regulation makes it a very unpleasant arrival and entry into India. Are we saying to people, "Please come to my house," or "Ya, whatever, don't care as long as I can 'vasool' your money?" Conflicting messages, humid weather on arrival and discomfiting arrival procedures can make a tired tourist turn tail and go right back!

There's outrage and beyond that outrage, we really have to ask what purpose is served by this policy and its silly attendant regulations. This is something that MEA, the tourism department and the Finance Ministry need to think about seriously.