Truth by Injection

An Associated Press wire report getting widespread publication today says that the Mumbai police have determined that the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, planned the July train bombings and had them executed by members of Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). The police were forthright about their methods:

Mumbai police Commissioner A.N. Roy said an intensive investigation that included using truth serum on suspects revealed that Pakistan’s top spy agency had “masterminded” the bombings.

Roy said Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence, or ISI, began planning the attacks in March and later provided training to those who carried out the bombings in Bahawalpur, Pakistan.

“The terror plot was ISI sponsored and executed by Lashkar-e-Tayyaba operatives with help from the Students Islamic Movement of India,” Roy said at a news conference to announce the completion of the investigation. (…)

Police cracked the case after tracking down a suspicious call from Mumbai to the Nepal border region, Roy said. There they picked up one of the suspects, who led them to others.

However, Roy said that many of the suspects had been trained to resist interrogation and only the use of truth serum helped tie loose ends together.

I sure hope that none of the suspects were picked up by mistake, because it must have gotten very ugly indeed in that interrogation room. As for this “truth serum,” it may ring a bell — it was one of the “methods” discussed in the first wave of pro-torture proposals immediately after September 11. Here’s what Slate’s “Explainer” feature clarified at the time: Continue reading

Pavlov Auntie

Clearly, some of you were good little boys and girls in your youth. That means that you are conditioned to associate the words “uncle”/ “auntie” and the vernacular with respect. You can’t help it. If this was just Plain Jane, the 50 year old down the street, you might be polite and pleasant, but if somebody who calls herself Bunty Auntie starts speaking to you in your mother tongue, you snap to like a pointer.

This account comes from Sleepy’s blog “Watching the Sun” but I’ll bet you have your own auntie experiences:

One morning, while back, it was 4am and I had been asleep for fifteen minutes. I was woken up by a phone call and I was a little, I don’t know, pissed off?

Me: (barely making sense through all that incredibly righteous indignation) Hello?!
Her: Hello Beta, this is Shabnam aunty!

I usually tend to wake up very quickly when someone calls herself aunty and speaks in Hindi/Punjabi/any language my twisted little psyche associates with authority. Seriously, wouldn’t you? For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out whether I knew Shabnam aunty, but I wasn’t too surprised, my mom often makes friends who call me at random times to you know, chat. [Link]

Now me, I would have just hung up. Uncle, Auntie, I don’t care. Don’t call me at 4AM unless you’re blood of some sort, a close personal friend, or an early morning booty call [the last was added after Jeet reminded me of such things ]. But an auntie I’ve never heard of? Clearly, Sleepy is made up of sugar and spice and everything nice and I am not because she continued the conversation:

Me: Um Hi?
Her: How are you Beta?
Me: Good aunty, how are you?
Her: I’m fine beta, give the phone to mummy now.
Me: ????????? Um, aunty, mom’s at home, not here.
Her: hahahahhahahah, so cute.
Me: (o.k., seriously, wtf?! and I start talking in Hindi as well, cuz you know, maybe she’ll believe me) She’s at home, do you want her number?
Her: Enough now beta, give the phone to mummy. (All stern like, velvet glove/iron fist stuff, which ya know, doesn’t sit well with me, ever)
Me: Mummy isn’t here.
Her: Are you making fun of Shabnam Aunty Beta? That’s not very nice. (o.k., this is what she said, Beta, aap Shabnam aunty ka mazaak uda rahein hain? Bilkul theek baat nahin hai. It was like she was flirting with me )

So yeah, we went for a few more rounds and then I hung up. ON. AN. AUNTY. [Link]

The next morning, of course, Sleepy felt remorseful:

I don’t know, probably shouldn’t have hung up on her because what likely happened is that she called the right number and chewed out right number’s children for being cheeky, obnoxious heathens. And then had the kid’s mom chew them out, and the dad, and the grandma etc. etc. And then they probably got chewed out for bringing shame on the family cuz Shabnam aunty’s very fond of gossip… [Link]

Personally, I don’t get it. Maybe it was my particular family upbringing, maybe it’s because I’m a boy, maybe it’s because I’m just too much of a coconut. I understand what Sleepy is saying, and while I think of myself as being reasonably nice, the title “uncle” or “auntie” just doesn’t cut any ice with me. Will I be going to a hell that I don’t believe in, populated solely by aunties bent on making me miserable? How many of you salivate automatically when this particular bell rings?

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Fatwas 4 sale, cheap!

In many third world countries, everything is for sale. Instead of paying for the services of a good lawyer if you get caught doing something wrong, you pay for the services of the judge, or better yet, of a legislator in the first place. Sure you can buy congressmen in the USA, or hire a high-powered lobbyist, but it’s a lot more expensive, and the process of getting what you want is far more contingent.

I just learned about a new twist to this phenomenon, however. Now you can buy not just secular verdicts, but religious ones as well. And dirt cheap! The term “fatwa” is commonly misunderstood because of the famous fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It actually refers to a legal judgement on a point of Islamic law:

A fatwa … is a legal pronouncement in Islam made by a mufti, a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Sharia (Islamic law). Usually a fatwa is issued at the request of an individual or a judge to settle a question where “fiqh” (Islamic jurisprudence) is unclear. [Link]

It turns out that you can buy a fatwa in India cheaply, for as little as $60 US!

India’s “cash-for-fatwas” scandal broke out last weekend when a TV channel broadcast a sting operation that showed several Indian Muslim clerics allegedly taking, or demanding, bribes in return for issuing fatwas, or religious edicts. The bribes, some of which were as low as $60, were offered by undercover reporters wearing hidden cameras over a period of six weeks. [Link]

The fatwas purchased covered a wide range of fairly mundane issues. They even managed to get two fatwas directly opposed to each other, concerning whether one could watch TV:

Among the decrees issued by the fatwas: that Muslims are not allowed to use credit cards, double beds, or camera-equipped cell phones, and should not act in films, donate their organs, or teach their children English. One cleric issued a fatwa against watching TV; another issued a fatwa in support of watching TV. [Link]

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Please Sir, Can I Have Some More Paani?

Articles like this are always saddening to read. Delhi is facing an extreme water crisis. Even middle class people are foraging from tankers, and the millions of gallons of untreated sewage emptied into the River Yamuna every year are killing it.

One of the main figures cited in the article is Sunita Narain, of the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), the same people who brought us the summer pesticide/soda controversy. I know some readers will find her a controversial figure, but I don’t think the scale of Delhi’s water problem is really in dispute. Here are some of the stats Somini Sengupta brings to our attention:

  • 25 to 40 percent of the water sent into Delhi’s water pipes leaks out before it reaches its destination.
  • 45 percent of Delhi’s population isn’t connected to the public sewage system, and all of their waste runs back into the Yamuna untreated.
  • 2.1 million (Indian?) children die every year because of inadequate sanitation. [The article is unclear as to which children exactly are dying from sanitation related problems]
  • The river water is so polluted with fecal coliform that it’s not even remotely safe for bathing, which is required for devout Hindus.
  • Sewage plants have been constructed to treat waste, but have thus far have “produced little value.”

Better management might well make a difference:

Yet the most telling paradox of the cityÂ’s water crisis is that New Delhi is not entirely lacking in water. The problem is distribution, hampered by a feeble infrastructure and a lack of resources, concedes Arun Mathur, chief executive of the Jal Board.

The Jal Board estimates that consumers pay no more than 40 percent of the actual cost of water. Raising the rates is unrealistic for now, as Mr. Mathur well knows. “It would be easier to ask people to pay up more if we can make water abundantly available,” he said. A proposal to privatize water supply in some neighborhoods met with stiff opposition last year and was dropped. (link)

Privatization is, I think most people would agree, the wrong direction to go in for an essential resource like water. But the government seems to have been so thoroughly incompetent, it’s hard to see how simply pumping more money into the system will make a big difference. Government money is, like water, prone to “leak.” Continue reading

Hitting the Goldspot

For about the past year I have been enjoying the sounds of the L.A. based band Goldspot. In 2005 NPR classified their release as one of “The Best CDs You Didn’t Hear This Year.” Here in Los Angeles they actually get radio play fairly often on KCRW (unrepentant and pretentious music-snob that I am, KCRW and KEXP are the only radio stations in America that I will allow my ears to listen to). As long time SM readers know, I don’t do reviews. I will however, post about music that I dig. Here is what the L.A. Weekly had to say about them:

“The stars aligned for Goldspot recently — after years of tilling the fringes of L.A.’s play-to-your-friends club scene — with the release of their elegantly singable debut album, Tally of the Yes Men…Gorgeously oblivious to fads and fashion, Goldspot have woven their Cure/R.E.M./Smiths patchwork with threads of exotic melody lingering from main-man Siddhartha’s [Khosla] Indian upbringing. Onstage they rightly bask in the strength of their material, and Siddhartha’s a willing focal point, complete with love-it-or-hate-it affected-eccentric demeanor. And note to bands everywhere: Goldspot reign in the instrumental volume, allowing Siddhartha to examine every nuance of his Buckley/Orbison timbre.”

-LA Weekly (Paul Rogers)

From their Myspace page:

Imagine Paul Simon heading to Mumbai to record his next record and listening to the Cure on the flight and you’re getting close.

Siddhartha (founder, lead singer / songwriter of Goldspot) is quick to pay tribute to his early influences: “I grew up listening to whatever my parents had in their cassette decks – Mohd. Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh – these were great Indian playback singers from the 1940’s and 50’s. The melodies were brilliant. And then one day when I was 14, I figured out that if you flipped the switch on the stereo from ‘tape’ to ‘radio’ you could hear music with English words. That’s when I heard R.E.M.’s Green, and it was my first introduction to Western music…” [Link]

Here is the video for the catchy Time Bomb:

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My Super Power: Invisibility

About 10 minutes ago, one of my co-workers strolled in with an impressive Styrofoam container, filled with something pungent.

“Hey…is that Moby Dick?“, another asked. Seven of us are on this team; we share a decently sized office which is cube-free and thus collaboration-ready.

“Nah, it’s curry.” Â…annnnd my ears are pricked.

“Oh, really? From where?”

“Lunch buffet…place across the street.”

At this point, my eyes slightly bulge. He’s referring to a place I went to once, an establishment which left such an awful taste in my mouth that not only did I hate my lunch, I couldn’t even enjoy complaining about it afterwards, because my then-BF scoffed, “What were you thinking? Food from restaurants named after mausoleums NEVER tastes good. Don’t you know that only gora eat there?”

“Man, I love curry. Wish I had gone there instead of Cosi.”

“Yeah, it’s great.”

At this point, I’m engulfed by weirdness. I’ve mentioned to them in the past that the restaurant in question is blech-inducing. Hmm. Did they not believe me? Wait–is there some issue with my brown credibility? I trust my Lebanese friends when they advise me about which hummus sucks like a Dyson, what gives? I shake my head to clear it, but the discordance is rotting my brain.

The room spins a bit; did I hallucinate that entire conversation with them last week? The one in which we discussed the very difference between these two eateries? No. We totally had that talk. They know I vouched for Heritage India, which is a whopping two doors away from the hole from whence this styrofoam came. I start to feel a bizarre dissonance and I calmly attempt to explore it. Perhaps IÂ’m viewing this improperly. Despite my slight discomfort, maybe we’ve come a long way, baby, if I’m not automatically looked at every time someone utters the word “curry”. Yet oddly, I’m not thrilled. I know. Impossible to please.

This reminds me of Nike’s “Vamp like an Egyptian“-shtick. Is half-assed brown better than no brown at all? I vote “no”. Still, why do I care so much? Who appointed me Ambassador to Brownland? I watch co-worker number two dig in and I almost cringe, I canÂ’t get over my sororal proclivities, my innate bossiness. If he likes to eat sub-par desi food, why should I give a shit? I have work to do, which I attempt to lose myself in, but then… Continue reading

A suitable boy or girl

Although Vikram Seth has been out of the closet as bisexual for some time now, I had not been aware of his sexual orientation until he gave a lengthy interview to Outlook India on the subject. His more visible profile on the topic of his sexuality is related to his public support for the anti-Section 377 movement, the movement for the decriminalization of homosexuality in India.

The interview is fascinating, both in terms of what it reveals about Vikram Seth and in terms of what it reveals about India. My favorite part involves the interviewer grappling with the very idea of bisexuality.

I’m not sure I quite understand what bisexual means?

What do you mean you don’t understand? Supposing I have a physical attraction at some time or in a certain place to a particular woman, and another time to a particular man …I suppose if you don’t like the word, you could say I am gay and straight.

But if you can be straight, and life is so difficult as a gay, isn’t it simpler to just be straight?

Of course not. You have your feelings. You can’t just suppress or contort your feelings, either your emotional or sexual feelings. And why on earth should you, just to appease someone else’s unthought-through prejudices. [Link]

Ah yes, such a desi question. But beta, if you are attracted to vomen, then vhy do you need to be the gay? She follows that little gem up by asking “This is something that people often snigger about: has boarding school anything to do with you being gay?” which was the icing on the cliche cake.

While I cringed to read her asking these questions, I was still glad she did. Even if she knows better, I imagine these are questions that your average person on the street is thinking of, so it’s far better to give Seth a chance to respond than to leave them unsaid. Continue reading

To The Ballot Box

I’ve made a slight disappearance from the blogosphere to do some very cool things in the reality-sphere. Here in Los Angeles, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center just launched Asian Americans at the Ballot Box, a report on the voting behavior of the Asian American community.

APALC conducted the study using data from exit polls in the 2004 general election, as well as from the registrars’ offices in Los Angeles and Orange counties, to draw its conclusions. The study found that, in Los Angeles County, 71 percent of registered Asian voters actually went to the polls, compared with 78 percent of registered voters in general. In Orange County, 68 percent of registered Asian voters cast ballots, while 73 percent of all registered voters did. [link]

“Asian American communities are growing dramatically and we’re seeing that growth at the polls,” said Stewart Kwoh, President and Executive Director of APALC. “Increasingly, candidates will have to speak to our issues if they expect to get elected.” [link]

The report is fantastic, if I do say so myself. It doesn’t just look at the general Asian American statistics, it breaks down the results to compare ethnic disparities within the Asian American community. Even more spectacular (and SM relevant) is page 27 of the report, which covers the Asian Indian vote from Los Angeles and Orange county.

Demographics of Indian American Voters 2004 General Election in [LA County]

  • 66% Foreign- Born
  • 13% 18 to 24
  • 47% Female, 53% Male
  • 51% Democrat, 20% Republican, 26% Decline to State
  • 77% Supported Kerry, 23% Supported Bush
  • 12% are Limited English Proficiency, 88% not. [report]

Additionally, we see that Asian Indian youth have a turnout rate of 62%; in other words 62% of Asian Indians who registered to vote went to the polls in 2004. This rate is just slightly higher than the county Asian American youth turnout rate of 57%. A more extensive analysis on the Asian American youth vote will be released in a few weeks on this website in a supplemental report.

A quick thumb through of the Ballot Box report also reveals the following for Asian Indians of Los Angeles County…

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Is it time to break fast yet?

Saturday marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting for Muslims around the world. From sunrise to sunset Muslims abstain from eating or drinking, including chewing gum or cigarettes. It’s a month of self-control and self-reflection as well as a month of ‘being extra nice’ and staying away from all things haraam. But the nicest thing I remember from the month of Ramadan, is of course, the food.

It’s customary to break the fast together at sundown with a meal called iftaar. Tables are laden with dates, fruits, nuts; the hosts prepare their most elaborate dishes, such as biryani, homemade couscous or a leg of lamb…

My mother would vie to be one of the first to host the Saturday iftaar. She would say that there is great blessing in feeding a person who is fasting. She would toil singlehandedly in our kitchen for days to prepare a meal that would feed at least 100 people. For women like my mother, an immigrant from India, a potluck was unthinkable, counter to everything she had been taught about hospitality.

Most of the people from our center were from Hyderabad, India, and the weekly meals were remarkably similar. First, we would break our fast with appetizers: samosas, channa daal, dahi bades, fruit chaat, rosewater milk, and of course the requisite date (with pits). After the sunset prayer and with a sated stomach, we would dive into the biryani, curries and kebabs. We’d top off our meal with kheer, a rice pudding-like dish, and chai.[link]

Growing up in my parents house we had a similar spread with an additional spattering of pakoras, muri, juices, and fried eggplant. When we lived in Saudi Arabia, a country of scheduled nap times and stores open from 6pm to 4am during Ramadan, the food spread was even more spectacular at iftaar time — the small shacks would fill the streets with aromas of fresh bread, sharmas and other savories. But now, since living on my own, making an iftar feast for myself always seemed rather pointless. Not to mention that I can’t really cook. Iftar this week has been dates, water, and whatever cereal is in the cupboard.

Last night while grumpily eating my cereal, I vowed to break fast with at least one ‘traditional’ item for the rest of Ramadan — I have even toyed with the idea of having an iftaar potluck for my friends. Luckily there are plenty of websites out there to help me out with recipes: Iranian Iftar, Arab Iftar, and of course, Desi Iftar. Drooling yet? I am and I’m heading to the kitchen with these recipes in hand for tonight’s iftar. To all that are fasting, Ramadan Mubarak!

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Not Enough Time In So Large A World

The 13th month after Hurricane Katrina and the flood has flown by as swiftly as it came, and it is now time for your New Orleanian friend to bid adieu to the North Dakotan bunker. My final post was to be an interview with Anjali Niyogi, a young Tulane University physician who stayed behind for the storm and flood to help area first responders. Her idea has now garnered the newly-established Community Health Center a $5 million grant from the nation of Qatar.

The Community Health Center was founded last September when Tulane physician Anjali Niyogi set up a card table in the street to serve Hurricane KatrinaÂ’s first responders. Since then the center has established itself at the Covenant House [at] 611 N. Rampart Street, and served more than 7,800 patients with free adult primary care, mental health counseling, geriatric care and health education.

However, I will end my posts here with an homage to my paternal grandmother, who unexpectedly passed away last night in her Chennai home. Despite never having spent a substantial amount of time with her, I know Bhavani Patti (Grandma Bhavani) because I am her – she is the storyteller, writer, historian, people watcher and mocha-colored, Rubenesque pear-shaped woman in me. She was the inspiration for VatulNet and her death has kicked my rear into working harder on the genealogy portion of the site.

Patti’s children and grandchildren are almost everywhere in the world – India, Europe, Australia and the United States. Now, more than ever, is when we wish we could all miraculously converge in space and time to commiserate and grieve. But, time zones and logistics do not always militate in our favor. Venues like Sepia Mutiny serve to make our diaspora smaller through online discussion, debate, consensus and a forum to make like-minded (or not) friends. It was on SM that I met so many who are “my kind” but their individual selves in oh! so many beautiful and interesting ways. My kingdom for more days in the year to meet and interact with all of them in a befitting manner, at least something more than emails, cards, IMs and the occasional meetups. Multiply that feeling by a hundred and you may understand my chagrin at not having had or made the time to spend with the woman who created and raised my father, uncles and aunts. Yet, during this blink of a geological eye, I was privy to her company and advice whenever possible and grew a hearty appreciation for home and family. For that, I am grateful, and similarly thankful to have met you at all.

Gratitude to the mutineers for making like Bruce Springsteen and pulling this Courtney Cox out of the crowd and onstage, except in a lot less dorky fashion. A flying kiss to Siddhartha for helping highlight my lovely Crescent City and its current woes, which are far from over. I insist that each one of you visit here to witness the still-uncleared devastation firsthand and to act as ambassadors for the rebirth of a great American city, the cradle of its musical culture and culinary taste.

Au revoir, mes amies! Laissez les bon temps rouler encore!

Happy Navarathri, too! Continue reading

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