Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Obama's Drone Wars and Romney's Taxes

Election season cometh and so I now turn to more serious issues away from other frivolities. "What is Mitt Romney hiding?" President Obama would like to see the voters worry about what Mitt Romney is hiding by not releasing more than 2 years of his tax returns. Answer: Nothing. Mitt Romney cannot hide anything from the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) and as a multi-millionaire his tax returns are probably audited every year by the IRS. So why is Romney not releasing more years. Unfortunately for Mitt Romney his father George Romney, when he ran for the Presidency, released 10 years of tax returns saying pointedly "one year, could be a fluke, perhaps done for show". Romney's critics gleefully point to his father and pretty much ask him "are you your father's son". Senate Majority leader Harry Reid snubbed Mitt Romney saying "on the issue of releasing tax returns the apple has indeed fallen far from the tree". 

Romney's wealth is estimated around $200 million. Romney is not the first millionaire to run for the presidency. FDR, JFK, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton were all millionaires in the same league as Romney. When unemployment is stuck at 8% and his own ability to relate to common folks is called into question it is political suicide to release tax returns that can be mined for political pot shots. The rumor mills are abuzz with other possible reasons like Romney paying almost no taxes in 2009. Romney's income mostly derives from investments and in the years when stock market nose dived he probably booked enough losses resulting in almost no taxes. In a 15 second attack ad such nuances will be gladly overlooked. Already Romney's tax rate, 15%, is fodder for criticism and fuels the 'tax the rich' debate. This is politics so there is no place for truth telling and I expect none from the Chicago pols. Romney's income is almost exclusively from investments. Dividends are now taxed at 15% as part of the sweeping Bush tax cuts passed in 2001. Note, dividends are what a company pays AFTER paying corporate taxes (where the US is the highest in the world) for money an investor put in stocks AFTER paying his share of individual taxes. There is a larger sensible debate on taxes. 

Obama's scare tactic on taxes and trying to tar the opponent as a rich out of touch  person who incidentally got rich by invidious schemes is not new. This is old hat. He did the same, with more justification then, to Hillary Clinton. Bill Clinton, after nearly 20 years in government and shelling millions defending himself from Paula Jones and Ken Starr, was almost penniless when he left office. Bill Clinton's loan application to buy a home in NY was turned down for insufficient credit. That was 2000. When Hillary ran in 2008 her net worth was rumored to be $100 million. Bill Clinton became a rain maker blazing the speaking circuit and frankly peddling influence on behalf of investor Ron Burkle. Obama pilloried Hillary asking "what is Hillary hiding' then. Clinton had kept donors for his Presidential library and his 'Clinton Global Initiative' as a secret. The rumor mills went into overdrive asking 'who is paying Clinton and for what'. Today Hillary is a Secretary of State for Obama. 

The question voters, in particular, the liberals, should be worried about is 'What is Obama hiding from US citizens on the drone wars?" New York Times (not Fox news) ran a detailed investigative reporting on how Obama conducts his 'war on terror'. 

Obama's much publicized ban on torture, euphemistically during Bush days as 'enhanced interrogation', NYT says had subtle loopholes. NYT exults that the President, unlike his supporters, was 'never carried away by his own rhetoric'. The hypocrisy, we are told, is comforting. A blunt paragraph reads "A few sharp-eyed observers inside and outside the government understood what the public did not. Without showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks".

How does USA count civilian deaths in drone attacks, an official explained to NYT, "Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs". Simple. Make any fellow traveler a terrorist then the civilian count will drop dramatically. Not even the much derided neo-cons, called vulcans, in Bush's administration would have the gall to formulate that. An official added "It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants".

Conservative commentators pointed to the ludicrousness and plain hypocrisy of Harold Koh who as dean of Yale law school was a sharp critic of Bush. Obama, the US President, now personally signs off on a kill list that is vetted by his aides. Koh is now a top lawyer in the administration. Referring to presence of John Brennan to help the President decide on whom to kill Koh purrs "It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.” Many analysts have pointed to the loss of valuable intelligence by killing of assailants using drones instead of capturing them. NYT says that 'while scores have been killed only one has been taken prisoner'. 

Obama, his supporters in the Press exclaim, is an 'intellectual'. When NYT muses that "pursuing an enemy unbound by rules has required moral, legal and practical trade-offs that his speeches did not envision" I wonder where was the charming intellect. Apparently it was on holiday. No. Obama knew full well that what he talked on campaign trail will not be practical to implement. Soon after securing the nomination then senator Obama duly cast his vote for Bush's much hated FISA bill.

Angered by how close a bomber came to blow up a plane during Christmas Obama wanted to show the resolve o f USA, his resolve. Result was a ruthless bombing in Yemen that killed a 'target' with other innocents and children. 

Obama has prosecuted more people for breach of secrecy laws than all the other President's 'combined'. The word 'Nixonian' has been used. The killing of radical American cleric Anwar-Al-Awlaki in Yemen raised questions of killing a US citizen without 'due process'. OK, thats a bit hypocritical considering that nobody bothered about due process for Osama Bin Laden. Washington Post editorial and few other concerned liberals have asked Obama to release the documents concerning the decision to kill Awlaki. I guess being a US born terrorist begets some protection unlike the foreign terrorist.

Now there is talk of using drones to monitor US citizens within USA. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was livid at this blatant usurpation of rights. The famous liberals are not even whimpering.

Obama has effectively neutered the GOP on all the above. His own liberal base is holding their noses and voting for him purely out of their spite for his opponent. And the voters are asked to worry about Mitt Romney's taxes.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

FeTNA: Myths, Realities And (Naive) Hopes.

This blog in no way detracts or contradicts what I wrote yesterday.

Today S.Ramakrishnan wrote a wonderful column about his visit to 'Detroit Institute of Arts' to see a collection of Spanish painter Diego Rivera's painting. It is a column that can be written only by somebody with deep passion and knowledge of painting. This column stands in stark contrast with how S.Ra addressed FeTNA and that is where myths about FeTNA and its realities collide.FeTNA invited S.Ra but FeTNA remains an unsuitable venue for a lecture of the kind of that column. Inviting people is not as important as enabling an intellectual space for such invitees to have a meaningful discourse.

I will be very naive in hoping that the following suggestions will be heeded or acted upon. But anyway here they are.

Some events,like Brian Greene's lecture, are ticketed separately in the World Science festival. FetNA should it take its cue from that in order to get committed audience and to provide quality sessions. Can FeTNA organize a 'Jefferson lecture' series kind of event,as a regular fixture and it must be ticketed at $25 at least? 'Jefferson lectures' organized by the NEH (National Endowment for Humanities) is a very prestigious lecture and those invited to give the lecture treat it as high privilege. The criteria is stringent and ONLY great scholars are invited. There are scholars in Tamil Nadu but FeTNA has to look carefully. Valampuri John and Arivumathi would be an insult to such a venture. When a Vice-Chancellor talks of "Lemuria" continent and fantasy theories to prove Tamil supremacy a chill runs throughh my spine at how difficult a task like this can become.

Take the last day 'interactive session' where S.Ra, Thamizhachi, Nallakannu, Sahayam and Ilakkuvanaar spoke. It was arranged in the ballroom with some 30 chairs around a podium. Behind that setting were large tables were people were busy with breakfast, yelling and chatting. No speaker can be more humiliated than to be asked to speak in that setting. At one point when an organizer reminded the hangers on that everyone has to vacate the hotel by 12:00 PM there was a stampede toward the door leaving the last speaker staring at empty chairs.

I spoke to an invitee as a side chat during FeTNA. He spoke of some study tours he took. I asked him how does he fund his tours. He expressed difficulty for such funding. Some time back I wrote to a FeTNA organizer and another supporter on how FeTNA could raise funds for a research corpus and to fund an author to write a book in the lines, say, how Drew Gilpin Faust writes on civil war. FeTNA could add a surcharge, as modest as $10, and accumulate a fund to do this. Again, if the surcharge fails then FeTNA organizers wil get the clear message as to why the crowd comes. Another special invitee, in a chat with me, said that Mu.Va's "Tamil Ilakkiya Varalaaru", published by Sahitya Akademi is a ghost written work. That we cannot trust a book published by Sahitya Akademi and supposedly written by a much respected professor speaks volumes about the status of books in our society.

I'd love to see FeTNA organize a decent book stall to sell, not just old classics, but contemporary writing. Spend at least $2500 and one could have a decent selection with not too many copies. Failure to do that only shows what the priorities are and if such an effort does fail and the meager copies do not sell then at least FeTNA can realise why the majority come and they can focus on giving more of what the majority wants.

Without an attempt of any of the above FeTNA will be seen, with justification, as Nirmal Pitchai called, a 'recreation event'.

Coming to the US born kids being encouraged to learn Tamil thanks to FeTNA. I had said yesterday that I'll take that argument only partially and here is why. Some are compelled by parents to learn Tamil.  I spoke to a bunch of boys who speak colloquial Tamil, I complimented them on learning Tamil. They had studied Tamil for 10 years. I asked them if they read anything in Tamil now, say S.Ra's books or Tamil magazines. Everyone just said bluntly "we learnt Tamil only to be able to converse with relatives back home when we visit, mostly for grand parents, other than that we have NO interest". This is akin to Tamil cabbies learning Hindi in Mumbai.

Now I am sure some FeTNA lovers will pounce on me and say "oh that kid recited Kural, this kid performed in a quiz competition matching Tholkappiyam with Tholkappiyan as author". The kids competition was a wash out with inane stuff and historically inaccurate stuff like naming 'tholkappiyan' as author. Tholkappiyan just means 'author of ancient text' its a placeholder for an uknown name NOT a name.

I asked the boys how come they knew Siva Karthikeyan. They said they watch Vijay TV regularly. I guess that's what their parents play at home. Should I be teaching my daughter Tamil so she can swoon at Siva Karthikeyan and laugh for Madurai Muthu's silly jokes. That guy Madurai Muthu belted out predictable jokes and what is worse he recycled it for a second performance during the same event. Guys go try to learn from George Carlin. OK I am now insulting George Carlin.

Compared to those boys one boy who wrote about Nikola Tesla in Tamil, for the souvenir, impressed me a lot. My only advice to that boy, based on personal experience in writing for a similar souvenir, is 'save your breath'. (OK I can hear others say that to me on this topic). Almost all other essays or whatever they are were of the mind numbing variety with the usual refrain of jingoism.

FeTNA sorely needs professional help in organizing and conducting the final event that gets mobbed and for managing food.If raising ticket prices and engaging professionals reduces the crowd then so be it. If a function can be done with perfection with just 5 people that is better than having a motley crowd of 2000.For an organization that boasts its 25th year what should have been a banner celebration was anything but. I think Toronto, thanks to far better funding and resources, might outdo Baltimore by a mile. I heard many visitors comment that 2010 Connecticut was better than this.

The numerous Bharathanatyam and other dance events at FeTNA by US born kids, while appreciable, illustrates that for many parents and US born youth FeTNA is an opportunity to go on stage. Other than the Bharatanaytam dances most others,especially by the tiny tots, have almost no quality in it. Most kids do not even know why they are on stage, having gone on stage they try to move about hither and thither. I am sorry to be harsh on kids but this is more a failure of parents than of kids. Stage hungry parents coax their wards into an event like this.

Coming to the Bharathanatyam dances and other music performances my only question to them "why do you insult yourself and your art by performing in this venue with an audience that does not even know how to respect a performance by being silent". I know that most of them also perform at temples where an equally cacophonous atmosphere prevails. If I can afford it I'd get a ticket for every FeTNA visitor to go see a symphony performance at Kennedy Center just to learn how to conduct themselves during a performance.

Yes, a 2000 strong crowd assembled by the time the event rolled into the biggest draw of the festival, the light music performance. To say that the crowd was drawn by love for language and an enthusiasm for our culture is plain exaggeration. Immigrants, not just Tamils, tend to congregate and enjoy a shared tableau of experiences that is reminiscent of our homeland.

Even when I was in Tamil Nadu I loathed attending these so called 'orchestra events' or 'light music' as they are referred to. In USA I've stayed away from them simply because such troupes do not even know the meaning of 'performance'. This includes troupes run by ARR, Gangai Amaran etc. Indian movie songs are meant to be an audio-visual experience and performing them with two guys standing on stage is pathetic. Other than the top billed troupes the rest are no better than the troupes that function during temple festivals in hamlets of Tamil Nadu. The Baltimore event was no exception.

The following passage from two-time Pulitzer winner Richard Hofstadter's 'Anti-intellectualism in America' should be read aloud and meditated by those who truly love FeTNA and think FeTNA is a force for good:

"For all their bragging and hypersensitivity, Americans are, if not the most self-critical, at least the most anxiously self-conscious people in the world, forever concerned about the inadequacy of something or other-their national morality, their national culture, their national purpose. This very uncertainty has given their intellectuals a critical function of special interest. The appropriation of some of this self-criticism by foreign ideologues for purposes  that go beyond its original scope or intention is an inevitable hazard. But the possibility that a sound enterprise in self-correction maybe overheard and misused is the poorest of reasons for suspending it. On this count I admire the spirit of Emerson, who wrote:"Let us honestly state the facts. Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it".

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

FeTNA: What I Enjoyed.

I'll write a two-part blog on FeTNA. I've been repeatedly criticized, with some justification, that I focus too readily on what went wrong. I don't want  to mix up in one blog all that I liked and disliked making people look at what I criticize missing out on what I said was nice. I had earlier posted highly critical blogs focusing on just the speeches of one person. I had not commented anything about the function itself.

Many of my friends were surprised that I decided to go to FeTNA. Two of my relatives who love FeTNa dearly were concerned and thought 'why does he bother'. I've not spent money on any associations, American or Indian, except for donating to some cancer funds and once to a Red Cross fund. Attending an association meeting spending $1000 was too much for me for a long time. Combined with financial ability there were other factors like the proximity of the venue, Baltimore Inner Harbor, that made it possible to attend FeTNA this time. Of course having heard for long "how can you criticize without having attended" I decided to give it a shot.

I reached out to the organizers of a talk-show format program to join the show. There were three teams separated according to 'generations', 'yesterday, today and tomorrow'. I was classified as 'today'. The topic was "my generation is the best when it comes to love for Tamil, relationships, rationalism in life". I was a bit concerned about cooking up something and sounding hypocritical or worse, hollow. As is my habit I mulled over it deeply and discovered a nugget. Only in my generation, defined as age 20-50 (i.e starting at 1960), Tamil literature charted a new path. Fictional prose writing took literature closer to people by appearing in vernacular magazines and by talking about people's issues. The seed for that was sown in the earlier generation but it reached new heights in the 70's thanks to Jeyakanthan etc. Now Jeyamohan, S.Ra, Nanjil are skillfully using the Internet era to create dedicated readers. I felt this is something my generation can be genuinely proud of.

I participated in trial conference calls. It is amazing how much effort the organizers put in and leverage technical facilities. We had a toll free number to use for conference calls. It was a nice idea to organize these calls to acclimatize everyone to their topic and ensure, as one organizer said, 'some thought went into what participants talk'. That said I could consistently see I was fish out of water. The other participants were keen on talking pedestrian stuff. So finally I withdrew.

As always I was punctual in reaching the venue at 8:00. When the crowd finally gathered it was like a festive marriage season with, especially the women, all decked out. One felt transported to Chennai. When I checked in with my registration a nice packet with my food coupons, a souvenir etc all in one manila folder with my name on it. Given the number of attendees and the volunteer efforts it was quite deal.

The highlights of the 2 days were the many Bharathanatyam dances. Most dances were choreographed with modern themes. The girls were all dressed up in absolute finery in sweltering heat for the dances. The show stealer was a dance drama about Velu Nachiyar. The drama was staged with elaborate costumes and a more than decent performance by the lead dancer. My cousin played a cameo as Hyder Ali. The only irritant was a voice over by a person who simply was a spoiler. The drama itself was choreographed nicely and needed no explanatory voice overs.

Many Tamil parents in USA attempt to teach Tamil to their kids, primarily to be able to communicate with extended family back home. For such kids learning a language in a vacuum and using it only during a 3 week holiday can be quite a discouragement. For many of those parents FeTNA provides a good encouragement for such kids to see other US born kids converse in Tamil. Seeing 2000 people speaking a language gives a perspective and of course they get to hear some history as well.

Many kids performed speaking good Tamil without an accent. Some had even trained themselves for a quiz on Tamil literature. One girl wowed the audience by performing 'silambaatam'. Another girl, a daughter of an organizer, delivered a decent enough speech in Tamil. That said I'll explain in my next blog on why I can take that argument only to a limited extent.

Contemporary Tamil writer S.Ramakrishnan was a chief draw for many. After his return to Chennai he blogged thanking many, amongst them, my cousin and FeTNA organizer Sivaakumar Paramasivam. S.Ra had said that this journey helped expand his horizons and gave him some new prespectives. Sure, S.Ra's visit was primarily to accept an award in Canada and thanks to FeTNA he could come to USA. For some strange reason he had thanked the organisers individually but refrained from thanking the organization itself. S.Ra speech did not go down well. Very rarely writers are good speakers especially for a crowd of 1500 of widely varying intellectual interests. S.Ra is more suited for an intimate setting or for a select audience where he can comfortably scale the heights of what he wishes to share. I'll return to this with a suggestion later.

The man who took the audience by storm was Sahayam IAS. Sahayam became famous for standing up against very powerful politicians during the last election. He shot to fame for putting online his assets statement. His probity and the sufferings he endures due to it are well known. He spoke like a professional stage speaker. He had the audience on its feet. The speech,though, lacked substance. He spoke about how he compelled  two very hapless individuals to sign in Tamil. I felt that that was harassment. He could have spoken more genuinely about how he governed villages and became a darling of the villagers. Sahayam was literally mobbed by people wanting to take pictures. Probably he felt "wow I am indeed loved, honesty is indeed admired by my fellow people even though they are thousands of miles away". Maybe that sense of acknowledgment serves as some kind of ointment when he is pushed from pillar to post by authorities. And for that FeTNA can feel justifiably proud.

FeTNA, like college culturals,  provides a stage for people to show case their talents. A poetry session chaired by Thamizhachi was interesting. Some did read good poems. As I wrote earlier it was nice that Thamizhachi made an effort to jot down one or two lines from each poem and speak about it for a minute before the next poet started. That was nice encouragement.

A person who multi-tasked 70 tasks including writing a venba, a sculpting, a ten digit addition, sequencing colors etc was an interesting show case of talent. The souvenir also featured an article on that. Whoever that arranged it did good. Thanks to my friend Rajesh Garga's primer on venba I understood why the multi-tasker chose the venba format amongst many. Venba has a very mathematical and algorithmic rigor making it a comfortable for multi-tasking.

Vijay TV host Siva Karthikeyan was a hit with the audience. He was the one who moderated the talk-show that I withdrew from. He is a guy who has come up from humble origins.I was surprised to note that many US born kids, the ones who spoke Tamil, knew him. The girls were crazy about him. Karthikeyan added an impromptu event that is his trademark. It was silly but humorous and a lady participant really aced that. This impromptu addition caused some frictions. We were all told that we had only a minute to talk. Which was why I pulled out because that was too short a time. But the time limits were not adhered to and Karthikeyan added his own event for 20 minutes. A participant felt cheated of time.

Many had poured their hearts out for this event for 6 months. Volunteers, including my cousin, stood drenched in sweat serving food under tents in 100F. Unfortunately during the first day lunch a stampede like situation prevailed since the food was delayed by an hour by the vendor. Second day night the key event, the music performance, was literally mobbed with parents struggling to hold onto kids.. I was musing why not the organizers get some professional help to manage crowds etc. An elderly man standing next to me explained some difficulties. Ticket sales was tepid at first and that only towards the last 30 days the organizers felt confident of break even. Naturally given such inability to project revenues one cannot book professional event managers.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A 'Coconut' And Insular Indian-Americans.

Whenever I criticize anything about Indian-Americans or what they do I often face the question "irrespective of what you do white Americans will never accept you as white". I approached a contemporary Tamil writer about refuting one particular speaker's speeches at FeTNA (Federation of Tamil Sangams) and then the bouquets and brickbats came my way. One of the gems I got was "அரவிந்தன் கண்ணையன் போன்ற வெள்ளை மோக சுயவெறுப்புக் கருப்பர்" (roughly translated as 'self-loathing black guy' or what they mean was 'self-loathing brown guy). 

On my first day at work in 1995 at a firm in Chennai I was at my desk early. The Managing Director walked past me and I, in typical Indian manner, got up from my seat to wish him. He stopped me and said "you do not have to get up". On my birthday he called me to his room, stood up and solemnly shook my hand and wished me. He had earlier worked for Best And Crompton which used to have separate canteens for officers and workers but now this was a British owned MNC. I don't know where he got that habit from. I've seen BHEL DGM's walk by imperiously when their employees stand in an awkward position, half rising from seat, and wish them. 

In England an Indian perceived to be acting as white is jeered at as 'coconut', 'brown outside white inside'. In USA Afro-Americans perceived to be acting as white are called 'oreo', 'black outside white inside'. The case of 'oreo' is more illustrative. John Dabiri, Mac Arthur genius awardee 2010, said the following in an interview ( see my earlier blog "America's Geniuses:John Dabiri and a culture of nourishing excellence")

MARTIN: Did you ever confront the challenge that some kids of color tell us that they confront, of being viewed as, you know, not cool or a nerd because of your interest in science?
Mr. DABIRI: Yes, the phrase was typically acting white. You know, if you were someone who did your homework and spoke with correct grammar.

For complex social reasons the finer aspects of American culture is identified as being 'white'. It is wrong. And this social construct is what makes it easy, especially for immigrants, to ridicule 'assimilation'.

Indian-American's are an interesting lot in America. A H1B company owner would lament how his employees, the poor H1B guys, are disloyal and would change employers for more money. He would therefore demand a 'security deposit' of $2000 which he will hold for 2 years. That same employer would be working at a US conglomerate and if his employer in turn had laid down such conditions this guy would be knocking the doors of a lawyer in no time.

An Indian-American grocery owner blithely told his customer in North Carolina, 'irrespective of how dirty the shop is Indians will keep coming so why should I spend to clean it'. When this owner buys his grocery at an American store he would expect it to be free of fungus, perishable foods marked with an expiry date, refund if the strawberries are rotten etc.Go to any Indian store in Oaktree road, NJ (an Indian enclave) you will hear 'no returns or refunds'. That same owner will be miffed if America's largest retailers say 'no returns'. Indians are notorious in buying a camcorder before going to Disney World and returning it after the trip. Indian-Americans are notorious for abusing the 30 day return policy in NJ/NY/VA etc. Indians hate working under Indian managers. Indians make it a virtue of yelling across a hallway in Hindi or Tamil or Telugu over the heads of Americans. 

FeTNA celebrated its 25th anniversary this time. In 25 years thousands have come and gone as its lovers would like to boast. But, it took a coconut to point out that FeTNA, which claims to advance interest in Tamil literature, could take efforts to put up a decent book stall to sell books by Tamil writers that discerning readers in USA could not get easily. I'll return to this more next time.

Most of what I love in America I'd not even call it 'American culture'. I'd just say basic human values. Is expecting a function to start on time American culture? Is expecting a performance, even if performed by kids, to be of least synchronization 'American'? Is expecting a clean well prepared speech instead of meandering extempore 'American'? Is being irked by chaotic arrangements 'American'?  

And yes there are parts that I'd call distinctly 'American culture'. Though I come from a country where a boy questioned a god (Katho Upanishad), that too god of death, a poet challenged a god etc today that spirit of equality in challenging authority is nowhere best exemplified as in America. Jonathan Cole  cites Eric Kandel (Nobel winner in Medicine) about Thomas Morgan (Nobel Prize,1933, for research on fruit fly), "foreign scientists are amazed that students working in a laboratory call professors by their first name". Cole says that "Morgan and his students had worked collaboratively". 

Chinese government commissioned an inquiry on why America still dominates research. One of the findings was that Americans were never afraid to challenge a colleagues theory during a scientific session head on and bluntly without regard to the fact that they might have shared a drink the previous night and may still head out to the bar after the session. 

I understand that many Indian's emigrated for the sake of money. Not many consider America to be different from Muscat or Saudi. Many Indians are instinctively defensive when it comes to dispassionate criticism of India. Most Indians choose to stay back in USA kind of unconsciously being sucked into 'life style'. The clerk in DMV office here is poor too but something prevents him/her from asking for a bribe to renew a license. The cop who stops us has his needs too but he does not shakes us down to our last penny. All of those are, I'd say, still superficial reasons.

Jeyamohan, the author I wrote to, was harsh in his reaction to a FeTNA lover. Jeyamohan said "you are all fortunate to live in USA, please use that to show better things to your children than just Tamil Sangams". Of course it offended people but what he meant to say was that immigrants must soak in the finer parts of American culture and in turn enrich ourselves. If we conduct a function in NJ/MD like we would conduct in Chennai what would we have learnt from our years here? 

A cousin of mine has scaled the echelons of corporate success and he came to USA in 1980. He consciously Americanized himself by a healthy assimilation soaking in the good stuff and still retaining a core that he never forgot his origins in Tanjore. Now-a-days he goes to mostly Indian restaurants and watches a lot of Tamil comedies when at home. I asked him "would you have assimilated so well had these things been around in the 80's". He said "yes that's a good question, I may not have". Today it is possible for Indian-Americans to live as they would live in Chennai or Mumbai or Hyderabad. Watching CNN occasionally, making money off of stocks, buying a home, sending kids to school etc all provide less than a glimpse into the American culture.

A Broadway play, a symphony performance, a jazz festival in the park, Jefferson's home, a moderately expensive non-Indian restaurant are all places where I've found very few or mostly no Indians. Yes we make our kids learn piano or ensure that they complete their reading lists. But how much of it we ourselves soak in? The most irritating thing I hear is "this is an Indian function don't criticize too much, take it easy". THAT I consider as the most self-loathsome. When a person implies this is all we Indians are capable of that is what should be considered objectionable not criticisms, however harsh they may be. 

More than Indians who are insular it is the dichotomous Indians that disgust me more. I can understand taking things in a stride when we visit India but I cannot fathom how PhD's and other seemingly well educated people swallow nonsense when dished as 'patriotism' and 'love for language' and 'our function'.

I am comfortable in my skin and I do not desire it to be of any other color. Enriching one's own cultural repertoire is a valuable life experience that we should not shun.  

So here is three cheers to coconuts.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Subramanian Swamy And His Parallel Universe

A friend invited me to attend an event featuring Subramanian Swamy at a local temple in NJ. I was hesitant in attending this meeting because it was titled 'Hindu Unity Day'. My friend assuaged me that it was a public event.

The function started a little later and in characteristically chaotic manner. A girl rendered US national anthem, famously difficult to sing, very well followed by Vande Mataram. The setting was overtly Hindutva with the table draped with a cloth emblazoned with 'Om'.

A group of kids performed a classical dance with kids of ages ranging from 6-10 and the dance reflected the age. They were elaborately attired but the choreography was pathetic with the poor kids being so totally out of sync. Why is it that Indian parents coax their kids to go on a stage and then feel proud for just being on a stage  without any thought of how ridiculously they perform?

Without much ado Dr Subramanian Swamy took the stage 30 mins after the scheduled time. His topic was "Relevance of Chanakya today". For nearly an hour Swamy was all over the map. If I am a blind Hindutva person I'd call it a 'tour-de-force'. Indian orators notoriously love to go extempore without adequate preparation. Result is they meander a lot and commit blunders too. Referring to Michael Jackson, Swamy said 'Negro dancer'. For a guy who studied in Harvard and taught in Harvard it is a shocking word. Not many in the audience even gasped. I've seen Indians , of all political affiliations, refer to Afro-Americans in words that I'd rather not repeat. Swamy's choice of word, I'd say, was not accidental.

Swamy apparently lives in a parallel universe where Alexander was defeated by Porus (not the other way), Aryan invasion (or immigration) did not happen, Steve Jobs was transformed in India (yes, he realized that going back to materialism was better, not the kind of transformation Swamy implied), Bobby Jindal converted to Christianity to become Governor, Baba Ramdev is humility personified compared to ostentatiously dressed Pope, Sai Baba lived a life of unimpeachable piety and poverty.

V.S. Naipaul in "India: A wounded civilization" intrestingly narrates "in April 1976, in London, at 'International Conference on the restoration of democracy in India" the audience was told, like Swamy did in 2012, that Porus defeated Alexander. Almost 30 years and the fantasy lives on.

Swamy excoriated the materialist culture of USA and praised the spiritual fiber of India. He said Chanakya, unlike Adam Smith and Karl Marx, saw that man was more than just an economic unit. That is why, Swamy continued, Julia Roberts found peace in India. If I earn $20 million a film I'll find peace in the Amazon forests or in Sahara too. Seeing a quote of Vivekananda printed on a pamphlet in Dutch West Indies, of course extolling India's spirituality, Naipaul trenchantly observed that merchant was "secure in someone else's economy and political system, the creation of another civilization".

Machiavelli, Swamy said, was, well, Machieavellian unlike Chanakya who led an upright life. Arthasastra, Swamy said, encourages being in up kids with a spirit of inquiry, lays stress of multiple intelligences, outlines emotional intelligence etc all of which are in vogue in modern western educational philosophy. I am sure since nobody in the audience has indeed read any 'definitive text' of Arthasastra one cannot say for sure.

In his stem winder of read meat speech Swamy waded into controversies gleefully. He called for resurgent Hindu assertiveness, he exhorted the sympathetic crowd to be a 'viraat hindu' not 'sathvik hindu'. Sitting in USA he glibly said no Christian country in truly secular. He repeatedly referred to Saudi Arabia and questioned why India should be secular. In a wave the red rag moment he called on Christians and Muslims to accept that they are Hindus first. He welcomed Christianity and Islam as tributaries that join the mainstream (Hinduism). Alluding to the topic of the meet, 'hindu unity', he said if  just 2/3rd Hindus voted in unison India could have a Hindu government.

India's model of secularism does have glaring defects like funding for Haj. Not even Saudi Arabia funds for Haj. Swami, in true Hindutva fashion, made full use of that to debunk secularism itself as a governing concept. His repeated references to Saudi Arabia made me wonder if in his mind that's what he wants India to be albeit a Hindu version.

Talking on Varnashrama Dharma Swamy said that no Hindu text says that one becomes a Brahmin by birth. Brahmanhood is to be attained. Of course he cited Viswamithra. Varnashrama reflects only a 'class structure' and people can slide in and out of classes. This is true and it is on this slippery slope that Gandhi, S.Radhakrishnan and even Jeyakanthan tie themselves in knots. Saying Varnahsrama nevertheless became fossilized Swamy called for abandoning it as if it is being practiced today or is being advocated as a dominant philosophy. Not incidentally he completely ignored the despicable social ills that flowed out of that philosophy. That Valmiki, Vyasa, Kalidasa were non-Brahmins and are accorded great respect does not mean diddle escaped this Phd from Harvard.

Swamy does not flinch from playing any role to stitch together fabricated history in service of his ideology. He played historian, anthropologist, sociologist, politician etc all rolled into one and all played with equal or more insincerity. In Swamy's world facts are an inconvenient irritant mostly.

The one area where Swamy had some credibility was on corruption. As one of the main litigators of the 2G scam he had choice jokes on Raja, Kanimozhi etc. His reference to Sonia Gandhi as 'visha kanya' (poisonous virgin) drew laughs from the sympathetic audience. It was despicable.

One person asked Swamy "since schools are where minds are formed how can we ensure that Hinduism is taught to students and ingrained in their minds". Swamy, with whatever modicum of decency left in him, replied "schools are not for that. Do that in your home". I was stunned that an American citizen would ask that question. How would this devout Hindu react if Christian America decided to make a Christian out of his child at school?

What can we make out of this spectacle. Here is a Harvard PhD with an audience of well educated, people and yet there is no attempt to have a decent discourse. How Swamy conducted himself with this audience is no different from Vetrikondan of DMK. Swamy did not elevate the conversation, he did not even try to elucidate any nuances in the topic. If anybody without knowing who Swamy is had strolled into the hall he/she would think this is Sarah Palin in Indian garb. Swamy's book on the fictional bridge between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is plain rubbish. Swamy and Chidambaram are intent on destroying the brand value of a Harvard degree.

The audience, barring me and my friends who really went out of curiosity, also deserves to be scolded. I can understand having concerns about the home country we left behind but what kind of an American citizen would applaud to rabid comments like "Christians and Muslims have to accept their Hindu ancestry and prove they love Hindustan". It was ridiculous to see a woman shout 'Bharat Mata Ki Jai' at  the end. While 'Jana Gana Mana' was sung no one on the dais, including Swamy, stood in attention. So much for all that Hindutva chatter.

I've now firmly come to the conclusion that Indians in America, with few exceptions, live a dichotomous life. Outside of their associations and sangams they are, in a very limited way, Americans. Within the confines of their associations they become, once more, with gusto, Indians. Academic achievements, professional status, regional affiliations, economic differences all not withstanding Indians show a despicable penchant for divisiveness, utter disregard for any sense of intellectual integrity, parochialism, fundamentalism, in short, no Indian vice is muted irrespective of how long they lived in a different culture. The worst part is when I expect simple things like a function starting on time, sticking to the agenda hand out, intellectual integrity etc I earn brickbats like 'acting white'. Pathetic. I'll address this more in my forthcoming blog on why immigrants should not be ashamed of imbibing what is best in the culture of their adopted homeland in order to enrich their own culture. Whenever I hear "oh this is an Indian function, learn to enjoy this chaos, kick back, relax and don't mind the shortcomings" I feel my adrenaline pumping. I did not come this far to be an Indian at least not the Indian as it is defined in general.

Indian-Americans are an insular lot. It is a concern for those, like me, who love America for its own culture. Long back I met Gnani, a columnist, from Tamil Nadu. He asked the group of invitees a hypothetical question, "what would you like to take back to India from USA, if you return for good". When my turn came I answered "I am not worried about taking anything from USA to India what gives me sleepless nights is that Indians continue to import India into USA". I'll return to this topic in my next blog.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Evening With Quantum Physics At NYC.

Nearly a month before FeTNA I visited the 'World Science Festival' held in NYC. It was the most pleasant weekend I had in a long time. The festival underscored what I would call as the essence of America, America's intrinsic strength. Imagine an auditorium with 800 people listening to a lecture on quantum physics for 90 minutes in total silence, followed by a Q&A, followed by a demonstration of quantum levitation.

The festival is the brain child of celebrated bestselling author, physicist and teacher at Columbia University,NYC Brian Greene. Greene, wikipedia says, got the idea from a festival he saw in Genoa. In an interview with 'Scientific American', another great American institution, Greene spoke about his motivation for such a festival citing an op-ed by NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, "The hubris of the humanities", "in educated circles if you say, "I've never heard of that guy Shakespeare" or "Beethoven who?" people would be, like, that's odd. But in those very same circles, if you say, "What's a quark?" and "Quasars, what are those?" and "Square root, what's that about?"—in those circles, that's okay. In fact, for some people, that's a badge to be proud of, that you stayed away from the science. I think if you have a celebratory environment around science—one that gains a critical mass of great scientists, the general public, and media attention—you can begin to influence that cultural perspective".

I came to know of this festival pretty late so I could not go to many lectures I'd have loved to. Biologist E.O.Wilson's lecture was sold out as was Brian Greene's lecture on quantum physics. I went to a couple of book talks and signing. 

Investigative journalist Peter Pringle presented his book "Experiment Eleven: Dark secrets behind the discovery of a wonder drug". Streptomycin was the miracle antibiotic that cured tuberculosis and its 'supposed' discoverer Selman Waksman, Rutgers University, NJ, won the Nobel for that. Tuberculosis is a scourge that had killed millions and was considered a fatal disease, notable victims include Kamala Nehru. Pringle's book is about how Waksman was not the actual discoverer but it was Waksman's student Albert Schatz who discovered the drug. It is now legally recognized that Schatz was the discoverer. Pringle took us through an entertaining tale of deceit and hubris. A PhD student in the audience lamented about how professors steal students' work. As a true American she has filed a law suit too!!!

The show stealer was Professor Lawrence Krauss who talked about his latest book "A universe from nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing". Krauss gave an entertaining lecture complete with self deprecatory humor, a risqué joke, a poke at republicans and Fox TV etc. During Q&A a student asked Krauss why he refuses to recognize the much discussed 'string theory'. Krauss is also the author of 'Quantum Man' a biography of Nobel laureate and bestselling author Richard Feynman. The festival organizers had organized book stalls selling the relevant books. Krauss had a signing session. I had bought both of his books. I am a big fan of Feynman. When my turn for signing came up I asked Krauss how does his biography compare with James Gleick's bestseller biography 'Genius:The life and science of Richard Feynman'. I had read Gleick's book in 90's. Krauss said "Gleick's book is a wonderful one but I've attempted a scientific biography hope you will find it likable". I gave him my driver's license so he could write my name properly. Krauss wrote "Aravindan, thanks for coming to hear me". 

It is amazing to see these guys, so famous, come and go without any pomposity. Questioners ask them any question and do so on equal footing without elaborate meaningless prefaces likes "with all due respect" etc. There are no hangers on to these professors. They just stroll in and take the podium. A black car waits to take them back to hotel or to another venue. Nobody runs around carrying their bag and waiting on them like they are demigods. I've a reason to specify all this. 

Brian Greene's lecture 'Spooky Action: The drama of quantum mechanics' was a tour-de-force. The hall was jam packed. If I had not read John Gribbin's 'Schrodinger's cat' I'd be lost in that lecture. Greene was entertaining, humorous and maintained a level for the lecture. A Princeton university professor came on stage to demonstrate quantum levitation. Usually I lament about my school teachers for their utter lack of knowledge and creativity, apparently the teachers in USA are only a little better according Krauss's book on Feynman. Greene, though, is loved by his students for his lectures.

The concluding day has a science fair. I took Rowena for that. What a fair it was. Rutgers University physics professor and his students demonstrated basic physics concepts including how a corpulent professor can lie on a bed of nails. 

I cannot admire Greene enough for this but his interview in Scientific American highlights the greatest part of all this. Educating kids. Krauss sends a person like Leon Lederman, Nobel laureate, to schools where kids can 'interview' him. Krauss explains what a charm it is to have kids do an interview, "Kids don't necessarily move on if they don't get it. And since a lot of the audience may not be getting it, too, it's wonderful for the audience to see this happen, to make them recognize they're not the only ones. It is an opportunity for the scientist to try to describe things in five or six different ways".Many schools take part in the fair and we saw teams presenting robotics. 

The whole event was taking place in the NYU (New York University) halls and neighboring Washington Square park in downtown NYC. Yet the number of Afro-Americans in the audiences was not significant. The audience was mostly Caucasian and Asian.

The event depends heavily on volunteers, many of whom worked under 100F heat in NYC. Yet the program was professionally managed, always on time etc. The budget is $5 million. Before anyone can say "oh well they got money" I'd like to add that the production costs are considerable for the science shows and when you invite people like Krauss, E.O.Wilson, Stephen Hawking, you have to spend a lot on their accommodation etc. When the screen parts and the show starts it does not matter if the show was run with volunteers what matters is if the presentation met a standard. 

Money will not generate vision. The vision and intellectual integrity of the show depends on Brian Greene and others. It is that integrity which draws even a person like Hawking. Greene makes use of actor Alan Alda who is an avid science guy too. Visiting a show like this leaves one intellectually satisfied and you feel like at the end of 2 days you are a better human being than you were on Friday evening.

Thamizhachi's FeTNA speeches, U.Ve.Sa, Ziegenbalg etc: Ideological bias run amuck

FeTNA hosted a special event for 'generous donors' with addresses by all invitees that included an address by Thamizhachi (video below. Very nice earrings, or whatever they are)

This and her address on July 8th can be show cased for illustrating what happens when an opinion maker puts on ideological blinkers. I'll refer to Thamizhachi by her name Sumathy as I find that more palatable.

Sumathy playing to the gallery in her address talks of Ziegenbalg . I come from a Christian family with deep roots into the Lutheran church and I've relatives with ties in Tranquebar where Ziegenbalg was a missionary. Sumathy says "Ziegenbalg came to India, to Tranquebar, studied Tamil, created the first Tamil dictionary, a foreign resident Tamil scholar". If ever facts were colored by ideology to suit an audience this takes the prize.

Ziegenbalg was a Germany missionary who came to the Danish colonial outpost of Tranquebar to preach and proselytize the 'heathens', as they referred to Hindus. He learnt Tamil in order to be able to talk to the natives. The Christian missionaries and their role in India is not an unvarnished one. There is also much politics in praising a person like Ziegenbalg. It is easy for Sumathy's fellow ideologues to talk about stray incidents of Ziegenbalg confronting the Brahmins in Tranquebar. Let us remember that Ziegenbalg was a religious functionary and his prime objective in Tranquebar was to convert people. The rest is collateral. Let us not forget that missionaries who looked smugly at India's casteism were not themselves very egalitarian people. The Church was in no sense of the word egalitarian. The Crusades are a bloody stain on the Church.

To portray Ziegenbalg as a Tamil enthusiast and student of Tamil for the sake of Tamil literature is completely fallacious. One of Ziegenbalg's book is titled "Propagation of the Gospel in the east: Being an account of the success of the Danish missionariesl lately sent to the East-Indies for the conversion of the heathen in Malabar". As regards King Charles honoring Ziegenbalg it was actually King George 1 in 1716 according to Prof Daniel Jeyaraj a veritable scholar on Ziegenbalg who has published definitive studies on Ziegenbalg. I am not sure about the archbishop incident. Even if that is true Sumathy's ideological coloring is unpardonable.

Also only one who is ignorant of the Lutheran reformation movement will pay too much credit for Ziegenbalg's works in Tamil and Tamil translation of the Bible. That Bible, the God's word, should be in vernacular and not in Latin was one of the key reformations of the Protestant movement. I'll return to this when I discuss Shankaracharya.

Sumathy went on to exaggerate another incident. She claimed that at the Temple in Mount of Olives in Israel "Tamil was chosen one of the 10 most cherished languages for inscriptions of 'all of' Christ's teachings. Wrong. The Church of Pater Noster in Mount of Olives has inscription of only the Lord's Prayer, not all of Christ's teachings, in 107 languages including Icelandic (another site claims it is 62 languages ). If Tamils want to feel happy about Tamil being used in an obscure corner we can certainly do so and remember there is ample company for us and we have no special rights.

Shrill jingoism sells and is an easy, should I say 'lazy', way to throw applause lines. She starts of with a smug statement "we taught 'civilization' to the world". I'd love to know what were the Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese etc were doing in those ages. Tamil has a hoary heritage, India's civilization is much respected and has much to be proud of. It is cheap tactics to indulge in such breast beating. Tagore, whom Thamizhachi used to malign Gandhi would be appalled at such cheap jingoism.

Sumathy cannot sleep blissfully if she did not tarnish people like Gandhi and Shankaracharya. On July 8th address she added U.Ve.Sa to that list. Her topic was "keys that unlocked locks". All the locks she referred to her where her ideological opponents. She did not have the intellectual integrity to turn that critical gaze to her own idols. Many who loved Thamizhachi asked me "are you defending Gandhi because he is your idol and holy cow", "can we not criticize", "should we not make idols look human". All are valid questions. BUT  when criticism is used as a 'tactic' ONLY to besmirch one's ideological enemies the game is up.

U.V.Swaminatha Iyer, widely referred to as U.Ve.Sa or 'Thamizh Thatha" did a yeoman service in gathering ancient Tamil classics and publishing them as books. What he endured is not even comprehended today and needs a separate blog by it self. One person asked me "is U.Ve.Sa credited more than he deserves". K.V.Jagannathan, Ki.Va.Ja, answers that person "What he published was not a mere transcription of the manuscripts in palm leaves. If publication is so simple as that, many others could have done it with success long ago. What Swaminatha Iyer did was to edit and publish these works with detailed footnotes, commentaries and indices, besides biographical notes on the authors. This was very useful and many readers desired to preserve these books for posterity. All this is evidence of not only the scholarship of the editor but also the hard work he had put in." Wikipedia narrates how U.Ve.Sa went door to door to Jain households to understand better to collate Jain philosophy that is important to understand 'ceevaka chinthamani'. U.Ve.Sa was supported by the paltry funds of one person. He did not have any facility to undertake such a monumental task. It is pathetic that we Tamils do not even know 'how' to appreciate such a task. Check out this article too http://ilakkiyam.nakkheeran.in/Grammar.aspx?GRM=22 .

Sumathy said 'with all due respect to U.Ve.Sa I'd like to narrate an incident'. When somebody uses the meaningless phrase "with all due respect' what they mean is they, in reality, have no respect. A friend of U.Ve.Sa called on him one day and used a Tamil word to denote something for which a Sanskrit word was more in vogue. U.Ve.Sa ribbed the visitor "what happened to you, you are also talking like those self-respect movement guys". The audience, ideologically sympathetic, tittered. I've NO objection  to any detailed research to unearth any detail to flesh out a complete narrative of a person to gain a 'fuller' understanding of the person. To take a man who really dedicated his life to the resurrection of the treasures of a language, without which there would be little for these jingoists to be proud of, is portrayed as a man inimical to Tamil. Today a FeTNA organizer took to DK magazine, Viduthalai, to write that Sumathy helped identify how even those who are knowledgeable in Tamil need not be loving Tamil. It is better to have a person like U.Ve.Sa who, according to Sumathy, may not love Tamil rather than having people like Sumathy who do more disservice to Tamil with empty phrases. 

DK/DMK people make endless noise about how Carnatic music dominates and that Tamil which had a musical heritage was shadowed. U.Ve.Sa, student of Gopalakrishna Bharathi, was an early exponent of Tamil music. I am often told I focus on mistakes and that I should cite mistakes after having given due space for what is good. Sumathy did not even attempt any such thing. 

Having trashed Gandhi and U.Ve.Sa Sumathy then turned to Kanchi Chandrasekarendra Saraswati Shankaracharya, the favorite punching bag for her party and many in the audience. She repeated for the umpteenth time that Shankaracharya called Tamil as 'lowly language not fit for God's during prayer time'. To be sure that Shankaracharya was a fundamentalist reactionary to the level that he would not meet non-Brahmins. He would not see me. Students of world history know that priestly classes always thought that vernacular must not be used for Gods. Publishing the Bible in any language other than Latin was considered a punishable crime. Take music, composing Operas, even if it was Mozart who wrote it, in language other than Italian was frowned upon. Churchill is his biography states that when he joined Harrow he was deemed dull and told to study only English while his more brilliant classmates studied Latin and Greek. Isaac Newton wrote his magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, is chaste Latin.  The poor Shankaracharya is not the first person to consider vernacular as degrading. Sumathy unnecessarily flogs that dead horse to satisfy the rabid cravings of a few elements in the audience. 

The final question is FeTNA responsible for this ideological agenda. I've friends, very dear ones, on both sides of the aisle especially on the side of FeTNA. They would point to inviting apolitical people like Ilakkuvanaar, S.Ramakrishnan, even Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. News of FeTNA appeared in apolitical web mags too. Agreed. However having apolitical speakers does NOT cancel out another person's strong ideology based shrill bashing. To have perfect balance when FeTNA organizers know the ideological bent of its chosen speakers they should 'actively' seek to find speakers who can be at the other end of the ideological spectrum. I do not suggest that FeTNA should be setting up some kind of ideological mud wrestling. No. Attention should be paid to how the scale is balanced. When its organizers choose to publish in a party rag sheet that is notorious for hate speech the stigma of politicization is something the organization invites. The article consciously omits mentioning that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also spoke. Given such a backdrop it is inevitable to question the ideological balance.

Before I close circling back to Gandhi. Sumathy cited an incident, Amartya Sen narrates it in his Nobel lecture,  when Gandhi wrote an autograph saying "Never make a promise in haste. Having once made it fulfill it at the cost of your life." When he saw this entry, Tagore became agitated. He wrote in the same book a short poem in Bengali to the effect that no one can be made "a prisoner forever with a chain of clay." He went on to conclude in English, possibly so that Gandhi could read it too, "Fling away your promise if it is found to be wrong."Tagore, I'd say, over reacted. Gandhi echoes what Kural asks us to do, "எண்ணித் துணிக கருமம் துணிந்தபின் ,எண்ணுவம் என்பது இழுக்கு." Tagore is no friends of Sunathy's ideas he was just used to malign Gandhi. Only a Dravidian ideologue could cook up a such a scheme where one illustrious son of India is used to malign another.

During a poetry session Sumathy moderated it nicely. She listened, noted down lines she thought were nice from each person. After the person concluded she would recite it and add a few of her thoughts. Her bi-lingual felicity stands her in good stead. She was gentle. She can be a good teacher in a class. Her ideological fealty is her undoing. I hear she was more photographed than actress Amala Paul. Sumathy did charm many a man and woman with her dressing sense and jewelry :-) :-)

A parting suggestion to Thamizhachi, "குணம்நாடிக் குற்றமும் நாடி அவற்றுள் மிகைநாடி மிக்க கொளல்". It is a beautiful verse. Valluvar asks us to 'first' seek the good in a person, and 'also' seek the bad and take what weighs most. 

For the audience my suggestion would be, "எப்பொருள் யார்யார்வாய்க் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்
மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்ப தறிவு." -- This is even more profound. Do not look at the messenger, it could be anyone, யார்யார்வாய், seek the truth in what is said.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Obama Panders To Hispanics And Ignores Indians.

Immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is a thorny issue now in America. Nearly 14 million illegal immigrants live in America today. In an election season both parties are posturing on that issue with neither meaning what they say. Romney cannot deport all 14 million nor can Obama give amnesty (euphemistically called 'path to citizenship') to all. One particular sub sect of illegal immigrants is looked at with compassion from both sides of the political divide. Children, as young as 3 or less even, brought illegally into the US by their parents are a class of illegal immigrants who deserve to be looked at differently. Many have gone to school and many more are even graduating from colleges. It makes no sense, economically or otherwise, to deport them.

Texas governor Rick Perry had signed a scheme for such children to attend state universities. It is the right thing to do. There are economic costs and benefits to it. The long term benefits to US certainly outweighs the costs. That and another issue (mandating HPV vaccines for girls) was Rick Perry's undoing. Not to mention the 'oops that was heard around the world'. Mitt Romney, of Mexican descent,  seeking to appear tough came up with the ludicrous notion of 'self deportation' and talked of 'turning off the magnets' like allowing such children to attend college.

The Hispanic lobby, naturally, is pressing for some form of amnesty and harps on 'comprehensive immigration reform' (see my earlier blog from 2010 http://contrarianworld.blogspot.com/2010/10/fall-festival-and-immigration-debate.html ). They will never speak of 'immigration reform' without the qualifier 'comprehensive'. Immigration reform often implies fixing the messy H1B and Green Card processes. 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform' encompasses the deeply thorny issue of what to do with 14 million human beings that the Hispanic lobby now refers to as 'undocumented immigrants'. One Hispanic columnist went so far as to say using the word 'illegal' is a 'slur' and a presumption of guilt which runs counter to our concept of justice. Another columnist, Hispanic, objected to twisting language and called for a straight forward resolution to a vexing issue.

Obama when he ran in 2008 promised the Hispanic lobby that he will attend to 'comprehensive immigration reform' in his very first year. The gullible and naive Hispanic lobby voted in droves for 'hope and change'. George Bush had carried the Hispanic vote in 2004. As is habitual for Obama it was a promise he conveniently forgot until, you guessed it, election time. Not only did he forget the promise to give a path to citizenship, Obama, seeking to be seen tougher than GOP on immigration, deported illegal aliens by the thousands creating a record and a resentment within the Hispanic community. Seeing the GOP shooting itself in the foot on immigration Obama's amnesia on reform wore off and voila we have an executive order that the Obama's administration, charged with upholding the law, will stop enforcing the law for those immigrants who were brought here as children and are attending colleges.

Charles Krauthammer in his column "Obama's Amnesty By Fiat" noted that Obama said, on March 28th 2011, he cannot suspend the deportations by executive order because 'there are laws passed by Congress'. Krauthammer acidly noted 'those laws remain on the books. They have not changed'. I am all for keeping those children and kids but it has to be done by Congress not by executive order that reeks of a political opportunism. Even if I were to swallow that, I, as an Indian immigrant, demand that the President give justice to the hundreds of Indian H1B's suffocating under 5 or even 10 year wait for Green cards.

I am not talking about offshoring. I am not talking about H1B quotas or giving green card to Indian students who study in universities though both are highly desired goals by the industry, opinion makers like Thomas Friedman and even influential politicians in both parties. There is lot of economic sense to all that. However I'd like to draw the President's attention to those H1B's who have already filed for a green card and are waiting, excruciatingly, for more than 5 years. H1B's are wrongly seen as depressing the wages of American workers. Even if one gives credence to that fallacy, it makes all the more sense to give them green cards thus liberating them to pursue jobs from employers who pay better wages. Keeping workers yoked under the H1B is what deprives the economy of workers who seek higher wages in the market.

I am angry about all Indian associations for their inability to come together on an issue of vital importance to the community. In 2008 TANA, the Telugu association, raised $4 Million for Hillary Clinton. That is BIG money for a presidential candidate. Just take the Tamil association meeting I attended. They spent $400,000 in Baltimore not counting what 2000 visitors spent on the local economy by way of staying in hotels etc.

H1B's rarely buy a home because they need to be mobile and go wherever they find a job. Most H1B's wait to buy a home until they get a green card. A green card gives the ability to find jobs from any employer thus helping them to put down roots in a place. Indian-Americans have an envious credit history and have good cash reserves to buy a home even in this market when credit requirements are high. Giving green card to every H1B guy is one quick way to solve the housing crises.

When Obama became the nominee Indian-Americans campaigned, raised funds and voted enthusiastically. Indian-Americans along with other Asians and Afro-Americans gave Obama a critical demographic advantage and delivered Virginia, a state that was not won by any Democrat in 40 years, let alone an Afro-American contender.

Hispanic community speaks as one voice. The famous disunity amongst Indians is shamefully evident on this issue. Even more shameful is the fact that Indian-Americans who are citizens look at H1B's as competitors.

By every benchmark, college grads, stable families, income, professionals etc Indian-Americans are the best performing ethnic group. Pew research says that Asian-Americans are a critical voting bloc in swing states and most are registered democrats which should be a 'caution to the GOP'. The Indian-American voting group has thrown away its vote by voting predictably for democrats without pressing for anything in return.

Steve Jobs, according his biographer Walter Isaacson, pressed Obama for a more liberal H1B regime and for liberalizing green cards. Obama told him that he can do it only as part of 'comprehensive immigration reform'. A sour Job recalled that and said "well he (Obama) is just another politician".

In contrast the GOP is very friendly toward Indian immigration. During a Republican Governor's retreat MIT President stressed that immigrants who come  to study should be given green cards. Haley Barbour, Republican governor of Mississippi, echoing Thomas Friedman said "yes we should staple a green card to their graduation certificates".

My dear fellow Indian-Americans learn to unite (ah that vexing issue) and fight for your fellow Indian-Americans. Demand justice. Do not throw your vote. Compel Obama and Romney to commit to reforming green cards. In fact on this issue Obama actually has more leeway to use executive privilege but he, like any other politician, will not budge unless compelled. Let us make it a demand that Green Cards should be issued to any H1B waiting for 5 years or more and holding a job.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan's Slander on Gandhi

I attended FeTNA's (Federation of Tamil Sangam's of North America) annual festivities July 6th-July 8th 2012 at Baltimore. New Jersey Tamil Sangam had presented a dance drama that was grand and centered around the theme of 'bravery'. The Bharatanatyam dance was choreographed nicely to match a modern theme instead of the usual "calling Krishna" type. Narrating the valor of famous Tamil kings and queens the dance earned my appreciation for concluding with a narrative that implied Gandhi and his Satyagraha merits a place for 'bravery' in that list of militant valor. It was a brilliant conclusion. Gandhi used to say that Satyagraha is NOT for the faint of heart. 

New York Times reporter Webb Miller witnessing the famous Dharasana Salt March, memorably filmed in the movie Gandhi, records in gory detail what it means to be a Satyagrahi, it merits a full quote (see Reference below):

Mrs T. Sumathy a.k.a Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan gave a speech at FeTNA where she repeated almost verbatim a speech she had earlier delivered at a book release function. Ms Thamizhachi (a nom-de-guerre she assumed which means 'tamil girl/woman', generally any girl born in Tamil Nadu could be called as such) went into full slander mode on Gandhi before a crowd that had quite a few sympathizers to Dravidian ideologies. 

An earthquake devastated Bihar on January 15th, 1934. Gandhi was campaigning in Tamil Nadu against untouchability as part of his 'Harijan tour' in the aftermath of the Poona Pact with Ambedkar. Joseph Lelyveld in "The Making of the Mahatma" writes "Ambedkar seldom took note of it; Dalits don't celebrate it; ...there's really nothing in Indian annals to which it can be compared....he traveled 12,500 miles...collecting 800,000 rupees (equivalent to $1.7 Million today) for his new Harijan fund". Hearing of the tragedy Gandhi, in one of his most deplorable and asinine statement, said that the earthquake was divine retribution for India's sin of untouchability. Many, including Nehru and Tagore were enraged.

Thamizhachi alleged that an angry Tagore who had christened Gandhi as 'Mahatma' took back the honorific title. The ideologically sympathetic crowd saw a smatter of applauses.

Tagore, outraged as he was, first wrote to Gandhi on 28th January 1934, addressed 'Dear Mahatmaji', asking if the press reports were indeed correct and if so to publish Tagore's rebuttal that he attached. The letter ends with 'with deep love, yours as ever'. Gandhi confirms that it was indeed his statement and publishes Tagore's letter in his new newspaper Harijan on 16th Feb. The statement from Tagore concludes 'we, who are immensely grateful to Mahatmaji for inducing by his wonder working inspiration, freedom from fear and feebleness in the minds of his countrymen, feel profoundly hurt when any words from his mouth may emphasize the elements of unreason..". There is not a bit of rancor aside from principled opposition to Gandhi from Tagore. Gandhi replied back in Harijan in a muddled response. The controversy had snow balled and there was an outcry against Gandhi. Now Tagore rises to Gandhi's defense in a statement released from Santiniketan on 6th Feb 1934 "Mahatmaji, is the one person who has done most to raise people up from the slough of dependency". Tagore welcomes Gandhi to Bengal and concludes with an "appeal to the people of my province to join with me in appreciating the great value of his life to our motherland."

The above quotes are from "The Mahatma and the poet:Letters and debates between Gandhi and Tagore 1915-1941" ed Sabayasachi Bhattacharya. D.G. Tendulkar's, Volume 3 pages 248-51 of the  magisterial 8 volume biography of Gandhi corroborates the letters. Further Tagore's biography "Rabindranath Tagore: the Myriad-Minded Man" by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson also confirm the same sequence in pages 312-314. We do not yet know Thamizachi's source for this calumny. However it is her ideological fealty that made her accept with eagerness as fact a narrative without rigorous cross checking because, in her mind, like her ideological fellow travelers, Gandhi did not deserve to be called 'Mahatma'. Even today DK and DMK speakers will make a pointed effort to avoid calling Gandhi as Gandhiji or Mahatma or even the honorific Tamil epithet 'Gandhi Adigal' coined by their own Thiru.Vi.Ka. DK's Veeramani and his party men refer to Gandhi as ONLY 'Gandhiyaar'. However not even in a state of Alzhiemers would they call Periyaar as E.V.Ramasamy or Ramasamiyaar. Thamizhachi owes the Mahatma and Gurudev (Tagore) an apology.

Tagore and Gandhi were fundamentally different personalities. Between the two Thamizhachi and her ilk should be picking Gandhi as he is the man of 'action' not the ivory tower guy. But then given their visceral hatred of Gandhi they choose Tagore over Gandhi and nothing is as delicious as having India's only Nobel Laureate in literature to rubbish the greatest Indian, nay, possibly one of the greatest humanbeings. Thamizhachi went on to state that Tagore ridiculed the charka weaving practice asking if anybody can weave enough cloth to cover a naked man. A few chuckles in the audience gave her approval. Her allegation of Tagore taking back the titles is blatantly false, the charka ridicule never happened.

Tagore disagreed with Gandhi's diktat of spinning Khadi. They did exchange letters but all of the letters were written with deep mutual respect with not an iota of ridicule as suggested by Thamizhachi. Tagore's polemical 'The cult of the Chakra" (published in Modern Review Sep 1925, 'The Mahatma and the poet')Tagore would be more disapproving of the strident jingoism of the Dravidian parties than he was about spinning his own dhoti.

If one could play mischief with that what would she not do with something as contentious as the famous Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi and Bhagat Singh's execution. She rolled on.

The Poona Pact politics is beyond my scope for now. However whether it is William Shirer, 'Gandhi a memoir' (and the classic 'The rise and fall of the third Reich) who was shocked that Gandhi is trying to block representation for Dalits (or Harijans as Gandhi called them then, a term Dalits today violently disagree with) or D.G.Tendulkar or Louis Fischer or Joseph Lelveld, all conclude that at the end Ambedkar got from Gandhi more than what he got from the British. Gandhi's fears of this system being entrenched for eternity were proved right and so were his fears that that will in no way address the real needs. Dalits and Dravidian ideologues have played havoc with this very contentious treaty. Thamizhachi, channeling Ambedkar, said Gandhi played "politics using his self" (udal arasiyal).

Ambedkar always referred to then Gandhi's fast unto death as 'emotional blackmail'. In a way that is true but that blackmail was not just aimed at Ambedkar and thats the important fact that often goes unmentioned. Temples that prohibited Dalits from entering for several centuries threw open their doors to save the life of the Mahatma. Only silly nitpickers would argue if that was a lasting effect or that it was not real change of heart. The Mahatma with his fast brought about a pivotal moment in India's sordid history.

Ambedkar performed a necessary role pushing the Mahatma into such measures that in turn initiated a national debate and set in motion events that would crystallize political freedom for the oppressed classes when India became free. To be sure there is still much work to be done. In the rumble tumble history of humanity's progress the creative forces unleashed by the push-pull conflict of personalities like Ambedkar-Gandhi duo is good and both are required to create that dynamism. I would urge the readers to read the chapter 'Harijan Tour' in Volume 2 of D.G.Tendulkar's biography "Mahatma".

This politics using his own self would be the last weapon of resort for Nehru and Mountbatten to prevent a bloody  orgy in Bengal. Only Gandhi and his politics of 'emotional blackmail' stood between murderous Hindu hordes and tens of thousands of Muslims in West Bengal. With his life ebbing away the Mahatma remained resolute not to break his fast until there was true peace and all gangs had signed off on it. The Mahatma saved Pakistan from bankruptcy at birth when he repeated his fast unto death at Delhi again.

Such acts of using one's own body as a tool for loftier goals and not abusing such power for electoral gains or factional supremacy is beyond the comprehension of Thamizhachi. Ambedkar as a foe of such blackmail would state bluntly that in free India none should resort to such agitations against the state and instead approach the courts.

Bhagat Singh's eexecution in the backdrop of the Gandhi-Irwin pact remains a source of a campaign to malign Gandhi. Thamizhachi claimed that Nehru rushed to speak to Gandhi about clemency for Bhagat Singh and that Gandhi "conveniently was having his day of silence". Goebbels should take lessons from Thamizhachi on innuendo. Nehru does not say any such thing in his auto biography which covered those years and Nehru does speak of Bhagat Singh. There indeed was anger at Gandhi by those who considered that he did not parley hard enough with Irwin. Shirer, Tendulkar, Lelyveld all concede that the Gandhi-Irwin pact, drawn up after the Salt marches lost their sheen, was tilted towards Irwin. Biographers have mused as to how Irwin outfoxed a Bania. Frontline carried an article that quotes Lord Irwin, ""As I listened to Mr. Gandhi putting the case for commutation before me, I reflected first on what significance it surely was that the apostle of non-violence should so earnestly be pleading the cause of the devotees of a creed so fundamentally opposed to his own, but I should regard it as wholly wrong to allow my judgment to be influenced by purely political considerations. I could not imagine a case in which under the law, penalty had been more directly deserved." 

Gandhi_Irwin pact was signed on March 5th 1931. William Shirer writes (from direct reporting in India) "In the next few days Gandhi would beg the Viceroy to spare the lives of the three young men, but to no avail". To insinuate that Gandhi "conveniently" had his day of silence is sheer slander. 

Thamizhachi who decks herself in ostentatious jewelry will never understand the spirit of Gandhi. Criticizing Gandhi is a welcome sport. There is much in Gandhi to be criticized and Gandhi himself would be his own critic first. Gandhi, through his voluminous records and open writing has provided all that we need to assess and criticize him. The man towers above his warts and all and what he achieved remains unparalleled in human history before and after. As Einstein said, "Generations to come will scarce believe that a being such as this walked in flesh and blood upon the face of the earth". Bapu, we love you.


  1. The Mahatma and The Poet:Letters and Debates between Gandhhi and Tagore 1915-1941 --- Compiled and Edited by Sabayasachi Mukherjee.
  2. Vol 3 of  "Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi" -- D.G. Tendulkar 8 Volumes.
  3. Freedom at Midnight -- Larry Collin and Dominique Lapierre.
  4. Rabindranath Tagore: the Myriad-Minded Man -- Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. 
  5. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India -- Joseph Lelyveld.
  6. Frontline Article on Bhagat Singh and Gandhi's efforts http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl1808/18080910.htm
  7. Wikipedia link for Webb Miller http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webb_Miller_(journalist)
  8. Wikipedia link for Bhagat Singh http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagat_Singh
  9. I found No Peace -- Webb Miller (New York Times Foreign Affairs Correspondent) 
  10. Dharasana Salt Satyagraha and Webb Miller's report http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharasana_Satyagraha (YouTube link http://youtu.be/m1j9u3YZ3VU
    1. Webb Miller's Report: Gandhi's men advanced in complete silence before stopping about one-hundred meters before the cordon. A selected team broke away from the main group, waded through the ditch and neared the barbed-wire fence. (...) Receiving the signal, a large group of local police officers suddenly moved towards the advancing protestors and subjected them to a hail of blows to the head delivered from steel-covered Lathis (truncheons). None of the protesters raised so much as an arm to protect themselves against the barrage of blows. They fell to the ground like pins in a bowling alley. From where I was standing I could hear the nauseating sound of truncheons impacting against unprotected skulls. The waiting main group moaned and drew breath sharply at each blow. Those being subjected to the onslaught fell to the ground quickly writhing unconsciously or with broken shoulders (...). The main group, which had been spared until now, began to march in a quiet and determined way forwards and were met with the same fate. They advanced in a uniform manner with heads raised - without encouragement through music or battle cries and without being given the opportunity to avoid serious injury or even death. The police attacked repeatedly and the second group were also beaten to the ground. There was no fight, no violence; the marchers simply advanced until they themselves were knocked down.