Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heathrow's breakdown

Snowed in for Christmas
I was meant to fly to India for a short Christmas break today. Only I am not. Because it snowed over the weekend, and clearly that was too much for one of the world’s oldest and busiest international airports of one of the world’s richest countries to handle.

Heathrow isn’t the only transport link to be affected. Eurostar is working on reduced capacity and is urging people to cancel bookings. Trains all around the country have been affected with more than seven to eight hour delays and cancellation.

Mind you, no sudden volcanoes have erupted anywhere this time. No, no, no. It is just snow in a country far up in the northern hemisphere where snow is not unusual. It snowed last year as well, and we faced the similar chaos (with BA workers threatening to go on strike just to add to the fun).

Why doesn’t the government just say it upfront: please don’t travel during December, we can't handle it. It might be Christmas and it might be holiday time, but really, if you travel, it is your problem. We can’t be bothered. We’ll make all the right noises -- listen to BAA CEO's  useless apologies -- but not the right choices.

It is like living in India again! Only without the warmth of the climate or the people.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Tayyab's and the paucity of good Indian restaurants in London

Another one bites the dust
Sid's and my perennial search for a good Indian restaurant led us to the famed Tayyab’s this weekend. I had reasons to be optimistic. Whenever, we mentioned the general hideousness of Brick Lane's Indian fare, people whispered of Tayyab’s as an authentic alternative. And the Time Out London Food & Drink guide had nice things to say about it.

The snaking queue at the restaurant gave us more reasons for hope. Though the chaos was not conducive to a relaxing night, it was a positive indication of the kitchen’s efforts. Luckily for us, we were the only people in line for a table-of-two and found ourselves seated soon enough and being served by a polite, dishy-looking Pakistani √©migr√© waiter, his soft Punjabi accent yet to be sandpapered away.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be the dishiest thing in the restaurant that night. My guess is that the saag gosht, fried daal and paneer tikka that we ordered were very tasty when they were initially made, but each subsequent reheat through the day had taken something off the flavour. So by the time it reached our table at eight in the night, I could almost taste the oil and spices crying in protest against the day's torture. The naans were tasty but without the reinforcement of good curry they couldn’t save the night.

It is really funny that the closest we have come to truly yummy, value-for-money Indian food in England is at a Burmese restaurant (Mandalay on Edgeware Road) and a Nepali one (Yak Yeti Yak in all the way in Bath). 

Sid says that the popularity of any foreign cuisine is inversely related to its authenticity. The reason our Nepali and Burmese restaurant have been able to maintain their high standard is because they are the only ones in the market – a small niche clientele is enough for them to survive. But the more ubiquitous a cuisine gets, the more a restaurant finds itself pandering to popular tastes in order to attract patrons – even if it means playing fast and loose with authenticity. So it is to the very popularity of Indian food in London that we can blame for our inability to find a good Indian restaurant in London.

But that is our theory. If you have any others, feel free to share.

On the most interesting Indian place we have found in London, Dishoom in Leicester Square, read this.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On Blake Edwards, Breakfast at Tiffany's and happy endings

Dear Mr Blake Edwards,

May you rest in peace. For now, I never will.

You died before I could ask you the one question that has been killing me ever since I watched your Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Why? Why did you change Capote’s novella ending for your film? Why did your capricious Holly Golightly had to have a sudden change of heart, character and temperament in the last five minutes of the film and agree to… agree to what… a nice, suburban life with our writer hero?

It was to give us a happy ending, wasn’t it?

Was it worth it? Was it worth killing everything that Golightly stood for – free spiritedness, eccentricity, independence, risk, adventure and total and utter selfishness? Didn’t you know that she couldn’t have been as charming, funny and unique if she wasn’t all those things first? What kind of a story-teller were you to not know that?

No, no, no. I am not a pessimist. I like happy endings too. And I believe that they happen in real life. What I don’t believe is that life has sudden delightful surprises in store for us. No, no Mr Edwards, happy endings have to be worked for and people seldom escape the price of their actions or their patterns of behaviour. Capote understood that, why not you?

But you did understand that, didn't you? But you decided to go with a happy ending anyway because you thought we girls are silly, right? And you thought we wouldn’t have loved your film as much if you had Holly leave her cat and lover in a filthy alleyway and embrace the life of a fugitive. But then, if she was that sort of girl wouldn’t she have still been Paula Mae Burns married to Doc Golightly tending to animals in hick ol’ Texas?

Perhaps, we girls are silly. Perhaps, we want our cake and eat it too. But why were you silly enough to reinforce our rainbow-washed dreams? 

I wish, instead, you had taken a chance on us. I wish you had given us a real ending. Perhaps, we would have come through for you and loved Golightly anyway. But now we will never know.

Rest in peace, Mr Edwards.

For now, I never will.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hacktivism: Civil disobedience or guerrilla warfare?

There was a cheeky pleasure to watching the hacktivists bring down Mastercard, Visa and the Swiss Bank in retaliation to Assange’s arrest and freezing of Wikileaks’ accounts and servers. For I think that the strategy the governments’ around the world have collectively come up with to tackle the Assange problem is sneaky and underhand.

Assange opened up a big question about transparency before world democracies. And how did the best minds of our times respond? Instead of arresting and trying him for the crime they claimed he had committed – theft and release of US diplomatic cables – they are trying to shut him by implicating him in a sex scandal and by attacking his finances and infrastructure. On no, I may not agree with what Assange did, but I am certainly don’t approve of what the governments are doing in retaliation.

But how exactly should we characterise the actions of these anonymous, amorphous group of people revolting against their own institutions? After all, the majority of hackers who are downloading the hacking programme are Americans and Europeans, whose governments are trying to censor Wikileaks.

Lokulin, in a comment to a previous post, suggested that what we are witnessing is a mass civil disobedience movement on the lines of the civil rights movement and Indian independence movement. Essentially, the hacktivists are regular citizens showing their displeasure against the establishment by bringing down the social and civil systems that the establishment depends on to run society efficiently – our credit cards, paypals, twitter accounts etc.

We can draw an analogy between hacktivists and say, Gandhi and his civil disobedience movement. Essentially, the rulers need the co-operation of ruled in order to function effectively. But if the ruled stopped co-operating – follow the rules and the laws set before them – then no government can function. That is how Gandhi fought the British colonial government: by encouraging people to openly but non-violently defy the British government. And his philosophy inspired other political leaders such as Mandela and Martin Luther King. That is what the hacktivists are doing too – they are defying and challenging the institutions that run our societies.

But then again, an important aspect of civil disobedience movement was its openness. Its moral supremacy arose from the fact that people defying the governments did is openly and publicly and were ready to face the consequences of their actions. In fact, Gandhi and Mandela both spent a goodish part of their lives in jail. But the calm and patience with which they accepted the punishment is what gave them moral authority, convinced others of their stand, and inspired others to follow them.

There is no such openness to the hacktivists. They attack anonymously. We don’t know who they are, and we only have a vague notion of what is driving them. Revenge comes across as their most important motivation as they are only specifically attacking the institutions that cut their connection with Wikileaks. They are not trying to inspire any larger debate or build a following or convince people of their stand. All they are doing is threatening institutions that break ties with Wikileaks with revenge. And how strong their convictions are, and how much they are ready to sacrifice for it – we don’t know yet.

In that sense, they are closer to guerrilla warriors than Gandhi or Mandela.

Does it matter? I don’t know. But somehow I prefer the moral certitude of the likes of Gandhi, Mandela and King than the ambiguity of PLO and Hamas. It took time for the former to win their wars but they left us in doubt about results they achieved.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On Philipsz who won the Turner Prize and Otolith Group who should've

Susan Philipsz and her sonorous sound artwork Lowlands Away has won the Turner Prize 2010, and it is so hard to quibble with the judgement. Her spare work is more than just about her sweet, untrained, incredibly haunting voice. It makes you think of music in terms of volumes, shapes, movements and spaces rather than merely sound and thus transcends to sculptures, as they are often called.

Yet, quibble I must. For I wanted the Otolith Group to win, which considering my utterly bewildered first reaction to their works at the Turner Prize exhibition is surprising. Their works are not easy. As Adrian Searle, the guardian art critic commented in a video-article: “they are throwing a big fat, heavy book at you and saying - read this, look at this.” But the point is if you do read this big, fat book, as I did – if you engage with the works, read and think about them, go back and review them – you’ll find yourself filled with all kinds of novel ideas about reality versus fiction, story-telling, images, memories and how they are affected by time and distance. Layer upon layer of meanings and ideas will unfold as you start digging into their works.

Let’s look at Otolith 3 – a film they made in 2009 which is currently being exhibited at the Turner Prize exhibition.

The artists began with a whimsical idea – what if four characters from an abandoned film project called The Alien by Satyajit Ray stepped out of the script and demanded to know why they were never made. Then they created a voiceover script for these four characters plotting of ways to accost Ray, take him to task for abandoning them, and find a way of making the film for themselves independently. Their narrative plays to a dreamlike video that stitches together film footage from Ray’s films from the ’70s, footage of London shot by Sagar’s father in the ’60s, and more by Eshun and Sagar shot in the ’90s.

At a very basic level, the artists are interested in the haunting, unsettling presence of ideas and projects which were once talked about with vigour but never realised. What is their status in our lives – are they real because they live in our minds, or they are unreal because they never came into being? They are interested in the anxiety and frustration that the unfinished leaves inside us.

But it is the clever way in which the artists use film and images and painstakingly combine them with audio to create that sense of haunting and powerlessness inside us that takes their work to the next level. The carefully selected images and footage, the way they are edited and put them together in a loop – each time returning to the same image and story, but with a slight difference – makes us, the audience, experience the anxiety they are talking about and not merely think about it. Indeed, they have a mastery over the medium they are commenting on.

Their works are no less haunting that Susan Philipsz, but they manage to combine several more media, ideas and thoughts about story telling, narratives and film-making into them.

Some art writers like Jonathan Jones have dismissed their works as pretentious and indigestible. But as Eshun said in an interview that I did with him: “pretentious for us just means a work that aspires to make statements about the condition of reality that we all live in”. But Eshun and Sagar don’t just aspire to make these statements, they actually manage to make them through their works.

As I said, I didn’t get their work at first go. But, upon suitable reflection, I digested them and found them rich and intriguing. Perhaps, Jones just didn’t bother to ponder over them long enough.

The Otolith Group's works are serious, challenging and decidedly unspectacular. But what's wrong with serious anyway? To me, it only reflects the serious, challenging and spare time that we are all facing.

For those more interested in The Otolith Group, here is a podcast of the raw interview I conducted with the Group over the telephone.

Interviewing The Otolith Group by chetna prakash

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Julian Assange Vs Lisbeth Salander

Julian Assange: Or should we say Man with a dragon tattoo?
I recently read a profile of Julian Assange in the New Yorker. As a friend said in a comment to a previous blog on Wikileaks: "it had the effect of watching a thriller with elements of drama."

It reveals a troubled childhood, a genius mind, an amazing ability with computer hacking, problems handling relationships, trouble with authority, a leaning towards paranoia, a slight air of vulnerability, a fierce desire to fight for justice and all sorts of curious links with Sweden (his most important servers are based out of the country). And then it struck me. Julian Assange is actually Lisbeth Salander: the famous girl with a dragon tattoo.

Fact and fiction seem to diverge on one important point though: Lisbeth Salander was a victim of sexual abuse, and Assange is accused of commiting it in Sweden.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Wikileaks and government's right to privacy

The Wikileaks' now-famous US diplomatic cable dump has stirred a whole new round of debate on what’s private and what’s public in a democracy.

The big question, as the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson and George Packer have raised, is do governments have a right/priviledge to privacy? If democratically elected governments are essentially an extension of their citizens, then don’t the citizens have a right to know all their private thoughts, discussions and correspondence?

I tend to disagree. Yes, governments are made for us and by us but they are entities in themselves too with a certain identity of their own. Otherwise, we would never be able to hold them to account as all their actions would essentially be the actions of each and every citizen of the country. If we were to say that they had no separate identity of their own, then in essence, they could never be brought to books.

As an individual, I have a right to private conversations and correspondence before I act publicly. And a lot of these private discussions, opinions and conversations may be contradictary, difficult, unsavoury and questionable according to the prevailing moral standards of the time - but it is only through these contradictions that I am able to arrive at a position that I am ready to assume publicly on issues. Governments, too, have that right.

However, on certain occasions, my privacy will be breached because doing so will be in the benefit of the community that I live in. But, as I live in a democracy, I hope that there will be a strong enough reason to do so, and as far as possible, it will be done through the right channels. Any democratically-elected government, too, deserves some degree of the same respect.

In this particular instance, Wikileaks - and the five newspapers involved - have played fast & loose with both these parameters. However, as Wikileaks has made its name out of this kind of conduct, let us focus our energies on it. There are three things that strike me about the what, why and how of Wikileaks' actions.

To begin with, Wikileaks has never attempted to use the right channels – the laws provided within the democratic set-up – to gain information about any government. Yes, it is difficult, painful and long-drawn to use these channels but they exist. However, Wikileaks has never been interested in using them. Instead, it has consistently used underhand, Robinhood-style ways to gain private information. To put it in plain ol' English, they have indulged in theft of the cables.

This in itself could be exonerated, if indeed we learnt something that could be used to take some conclusive steps forward. I am with George Packer when he says that this is not the case with Wikileaks' latest cable dump.

Richard Adams of the Guardian has listed seven of the most important revelations made by the cable dump till now.  Let’s tackle them one by one.

Silvio Berlusconi 'profited from secret deals' with Vladimir Putin
What the cables tell us is that the US government suspected he might have profited so and was investigating him. His guilt itself remained inconclusive. And by revealing the investigations to the world before any conclusive evidence could be gathered, Wikileaks has done Berlusconi a favour. It is going to be tougher to pin him down since the investigations may never be finished now, and he is extremely good at riding out rumours about his corruption anyway.

The US pressured Spain over CIA renditions and Guantanamo Bay
What I understood from the cables is that the US diplomats had several conversations with the main public prosecutor of an important human rights case being fought in Spain. Yes, but the US government was not doing anything illegal – there were no kickbacks, frauds or bribery involved. So other than knowing that the US government tries to influence officials around the world - something that was not news in itself - we have not learnt anything particularly usable.

The scale of Afghan corruption is overwhelming

This might be news to Wikileaks and Adams, but the rest of us didn’t need a whole government machinery to be violated in order to learn that. There were enough media reports in the public domain suggesting the same.

Hillary Clinton queried Cristina Kirchner's mental health

So? Embarrassing, yes. Illegal, no. And honestly, after all the megalomaniacs we have seen become world leaders, I’d say it is better to keep tabs on the mental health status of all politicians.

The Bank of England governor played backroom politics

So he is not politically neutral and must go. But why punish the US government for it by compromising it? And is it a matter of earth-shattering importance justifying stealing and leaking of private documents?

The British government remains in thrall to the US
To be in thrall is one thing, but did the British government do anything illegal for the US government? Nothing in the cables suggest that.

US diplomats spied on the UN's leadership
This is the only potentially damaging revelation because it could amount to a breach of international human rights. But again, “could” is the operative word out here. We don’t know for sure yet. Besides, if the same investigation had revealed that some of them had "profited from secret deals" with Vladimir Putin - how would we then view the investigation?

None of the revelations show the US government actually doing anything technically illegal on which it could be brought to books. We have always known that government’s play games, use undue influence, meddle and indulge in espionage, and now we have evidence of it. But if the US government's actions are morally ambiguous but not illegal, where does that leave us in macro-terms?

Which brings me to the last point: the manner in which these cables have been dumped on to the world. Wikileaks didn't feel the need to sift through the documents itself and question what was indeed worth revealing instead of unleashing them all over the internet. If that destabalising international relations and/or the effectiveness of an entire government department - who cares? Certainly not Assange & Co.

Some would argue that it was an impossible task to sift through tens of thousands of cables. But if the government is an entity with some rights, and only the circumstances decided whether or not those rights can be violated - how did Wikipedia even know what the circumstances of the case were, if it hadn't actually gone through all the cables itself?

If any decent person was to find a gossip-ridden letter of mine doing the rounds, unless it contained a confession to murder by me, I would expect the person to return it back to me – not plaster it all over the Internet. Why should the US government expect any less?

Here's a profile of Julian Assange from his pre-cable dump days: No Secrets by Raffi Khatchadourian published on June 7, 2010.

In particular, I liked this quote: "Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On Rosa Parks, racism and India

Rosa Parks: Just another Negro in India?
A momentous thing happened on this day – December 1 – fifty years ago. Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat for a white man. She had paid for it, and she was damn well going to sit on it.

Being Indian, I never paid much attention to her courageous action for at least the first 27 years of my life. For contrary to popular opinion, we Indians have no concept of racism. We understand discrimination in terms of language, community, religion, and caste but seldom colour. Because, you see, unlike in Africa, when the British left India, they left it lock, stock and barrel leaving behind a uniformly brown race to take care of itself.

That was 1947: eight years before Rosa Parks’ action avalanched into the civil rights movement in America. By that time, we were too busy with our own internal problems to pay anything more than lip service to the events shaping the world.

Our cluelessness about racism, and the politically correct way to handle it, can lead to many faux pas. For instance, until I quietly corrected him, my father would quite happily describe his granddaughter (my niece) as “chinky-looking” to all his friends. That “chinky” is a nasty, derogatory American slang for Chinese had never been explained to him. He overheard it somewhere, and as far as he and his friends were concerned, it was a rather nice, affectionate way to describe people of “slanted-eyed [his words not mine]” ethnicities.

On another occasion last year, my ears nearly burnt to cinders, when a middle-aged Indian I met in Vienna nonchalantly referred to a British Airways stewardess who had served him as “Negro”. Again, he meant no slight or offence and was merely trying to explain that she was black. It’s just that he was completely unaware of the horrifying political incorrectness of the term’s usage.

After I got over my initial shock, I started thinking how could he have possibly known. He was a 60 year old man who had spent the better part of his life in a small Indian mining town reading the Indian newspaper The Times of India to shape his world view. And with so many close-to-home problems to discuss, the newspaper is not going to waste its ink on politically correct ways to refer to people of different races that its readers may or may not meet.

But the point is that more and more, they are going to meet. Like my Indian acquaintance who was now visiting his son, who had recently migrated to the US. I imagined him quite innocently dropping the dreaded “N” word into conversations there and wondered who would be the first to correct him.

Sometimes, our ignorace of what racism is can get uglier. A former colleauge at Time Out, Che Kurrien, had once done an insightful story about the discrimination and rudeness that two Nigerian immigrants to India constantly encountered in Mumbai. For example, they were quite openly referred to as Habshis (a kind of Indian slang for Africans) by their neighbours. I know that it is possible because several of my parent's acquaintance use that word openly and find it funny.

Which is why, when Indians cry racism against themselves – as they seem to more and more these days (think the Australian fiasco and then the CWG comedy) – I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. For even though we are so quick to judge others on how they treat us, we have absolutely no self-awareness about how racist we can come across to others.

After all, far as many, many Indians are concerned, Rosa Parks may be an international heroine but she is still a Negro.