Sea of Poppies: A Review

Sea-of-Poppies-BOOKS__.jpg Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is a remarkable novel, complex and challenging enough to test even the most experienced reader and historian, but relatable and powerful enough to touch someone who solely appreciates a great story. Dickensian in its scope and power, the story follows riveting characters from all origins as they navigate the complex contours of 1830’s opium-ridden India, a land where the weight of history lies heavily, yet identities are transformed overnight.

Warning: Some plot details are included! If you are going to read the book (which you should), read the rest of the review afterwards Continue reading

“Is this real? Perhaps”: The Best DVD Blurb Ever

The other day, my wife and her parents picked up a film called “Hum Phirr Mileinge” (sic) from our local Indian store, apparently without reading the blurb on the back.

Just to be clear, I have not altered the following in any way. I just ran it through the scanner, compressed it a little so as not to crash the site, and posted it for you:

hum phirr mileinge compressed small.jpg

If you’re having trouble reading it, never fear; the text is plagiarized verbatim from a web review. And here is a short excerpt in case you’re too lazy to click:

To put it bluntly, Hum Phirr Mileinge is archaic and outdated. You actually pinch yourself while watching this one. Is this real? Perhaps, director Manish Goel is completely clueless about the kind of cinema being made these days. The direction is unbelievably weak and so is the writing. Frankly, nothing works in this film, except for a couple of tuneful songs [Sandesh Shandilya], which, sadly, show up even if there’s no situation.

Remember, they are trying to sell DVDs with this blurb!

My question for you is this: how do you think this happened? A DVD printing/label company operator phoning it in, or intentional subversion? Continue reading

RIP Michael Jackson

Tonight, some of us in the bunker are feeling a bit shell shocked by the news of Michael Jackson’s death. Rajni in particular is taking it quite hard. She was a huge fan and had spent years learning to moonwalk which is actually pretty hard for a monkey.

There was a lot of love for Michael Jackson across South Asia, leading to things like this (Kollywood Tollywood) restaging of one of MJ’s greatest music videos:

And we’ve shared this Bhanga/Breakdancing mashup version of Thriller (set to Tigerstyle’s Nachna Onda Nei) before:

Continue reading

“Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian”: Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight, who had a pretty rough childhood in upstate New York, converted to Islam as a teenager. He came from an Irish Catholic background, but partly under the influence of Malcolm X and black nationalist Islam, and partly simply as a result of his own idiosyncratic spiritual leanings, he took the Shahadah at age 16, and changed his name to Mikail Muhammad. He traveled to Pakistan to study Islam at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, under the guidance of Muslim intellectuals he first knew in the U.S. With a convert’s enthusiasm and zeal, he was as a teenager on a course to militancy –- perhaps not so different from John Walker Lindh (he acknowledges some similarities to Lindh at one point in his memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil). But Knight soon became disillusioned with that life and the rigidity of the teachings he was being exposed to, specifically as it seemed to inculcate a negativity in himself he didn’t like.

When Knight returned to the U.S. after a year in Pakistan, he continued to identify as a Muslim, but with a dimension of non-conformist punk rock theatricality. Starting in the early 2000s, Knight became a fixture at Muslim American conferences like ISNA, where he posed himself as a dissenting, outsider kind of figure, next to the well-groomed second-generation Muslim-Americans from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds.

Also, starting around 2003, Knight started circulating a photocopied version of a novel he had written about an imagined community of Muslim punks in Buffalo, New York, called “The Taqwacores” (“Taqwa” can be translated as “God-Consciousness” or “piety” in Arabic). Eventually the book would be formally printed, most recently by an established independent publishing house called Soft Skull Press. Since 2004 Knight has become a bit of a publishing machine, putting out several other books. A documentary has been made about the Islamic punk movement his book helped inspire, and a feature-length film version of “The Taqwacores” is in post-production.

What’s interesting about Knight’s story for our purposes is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in “Blue-Eyed Devil” (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as “intellectually black and socially South Asian,” and the phrase has stuck with me. Continue reading

Private Schools in the Desh

On a more positive note…. City Journal has a review of a fantastic new book chronicling the untold education successes in the 3rd world – “The Beautiful Tree“.

University of Newcastle professor James Tooley journeyed to Hyderabad, India in early 2000 at the behest of the World Bank, to study private schools there. Or, more specifically, to study familiar private schools–that is, those that served the children of middle-class and wealthy families.

But while on a sightseeing excursion to the city’s teeming slums, Tooley observed something peculiar: private schools were just as prevalent in these struggling areas as in the nicer neighborhoods. Everywhere he spotted hand-painted signs advertising locally run educational enterprises. “Why,” he wondered, “had no one I’d worked with in India told me about them?”

The reason no one had “told him about them” was because these private schools were non-chartered, private enterprises operating under the government’s radar — aka “unrecognized institutions.” Instead of the sometimes hundreds of dollars charged by yuppy private schools, these unrecognized institutions often charged as little as $1-$2 per child per month.

I suppose before we get into any other details about these schools, question #1 is – “so how good are they?” And it turns out they are astonishly good

Continue reading

Mango Pickle Down River

mangopickle.jpgAharay! What a waste of perfectly good achar

The X-ray equipment used by TSA airport security in Columbus could not detect what was inside a sealed canister in a bag being inspected around 7 p.m. Tuesday. [wlwt]

A brown woman? A suspicious package? Airport security to the rescue!

The container was labeled “baby food,” but authorities say security personnel became suspicious when the woman who owned the suitcase claimed the canister held pickles. [kansascity]

There’s only one thing to do.

The fire department bomb squad removed the item from the airport and detonated it, discovering the mangoes.

No one was hurt. Flights and other airport operations were not interrupted.[wlwt]

There are two things I love to this story. First, I wonder where this woman was going that she absolutely had to pack mango achar in her luggage. Where ever it was, she just absolutely could not leave home without the essential mango pickle to take with her. Secondly, I find it hilarious that they detonated the canister of achar. I imagine flying tangy orange sauce exploding all over the members of the bomb squad and pieces of mango getting stuck in their hair. Couldn’t they have just uncapped the jar and tasted it instead? Desi, please. Continue reading

All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word…


As soon as word of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s adulterous affair with an Argentinian mystery woman hit the streets, Indian American gubernatorial candidate Nikki Randhawa-Haley pulled any association with him off of her website. Sanford who? Never heard of him. Did you check under the bus?

Hmmm, just a week ago some were intimating how close a professional relationship the two had:

Since there’s no question who S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford is backing for governor 2010, the only real suspense left is this: at what point does First Lady Jenny Sanford start getting jealous?

Seriously, Sanford’s abiding affection for third-term Lexington Representative Nikki Haley continues to manifest itself, as the governor blasted out an e-mail to several thousand of his closest friends this morning telling them Haley was “worth getting to know.” [Link]

Continue reading

“Talk Hindi To Me”

Doubtless many readers saw the recent article in the New York Times, profiling Katherine Russell Rich, author most recently of a book called Dreaming in Hindi — a memoir of a year spent in Rajasthan, learning Hindi.

Something about the article in the Times bugged me, starting with the following passage:

One store owner insists in English that she is not actually speaking Hindi; when Ms. Rich explains, in Hindi, that she studied the language for some time in Rajasthan, he retorts, in English, “They don’t speak Hindi in Rajasthan.” (This happens not to be true.)

When Ms. Rich returned to New York from abroad, she spontaneously spoke Hindi to a friend of a friend. “He told me that when I spoke Hindi to him, it was like a body blow,” Ms. Rich said. “I think to Indians, sometimes it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a private conversation, like I’m breaking the fourth wall.” (link)

Wait, couldn’t it also be that the people Rich has been accosting, taxi drivers and convenience store clerks, might simply find this persistent American annoying, and have refused to speak Hindi with her mainly to make her go away? Lady, I’m sorry if your being in New York means your newly-acquired Hindi is going to start getting rusty. But I got a job to do, and that involves speaking English to patrons as I sell them stuff, not teaching you how to pronounce “lajawab” correctly. Next in line, please?

The question has to be asked: why does Katherine Russell Rich want to learn to speak Hindi? Is it to communicate with Hindi speakers while living in India? That would be a perfectly fine reason, indeed, an admirable one. But I suspect that sadly her real desire was to a) get paid for writing a book where she can talk all about her Hindi lessons and her impressions of Rajasthan, only to b) promptly move back to Manhattan, where she’ll irk Hindi speaking New Yorkers with her persistent demands that they speak Hindi with her?

Another annoyance in the article is the presumption that people refuse to acknowledge a white woman who speaks Hindi because we desis like to gossip about Americans in our secret language:

To some people from India, Ms. Rich learned, it is insulting to be addressed in anything other than English, a language of the privileged. And for some immigrants, domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim. (link)

I really don’t know where the author of the article got this idea. (Why not ask an actual Indian, Hindi-speaker before making the speculative statement that “domain over a language unfamiliar to most Americans must feel like one of the few riches they can claim”?)

Finally, there is the obligatory dis on second-generation, “heritage” students who take Hindi classes at their universities:

“A lot of Indians who were born here or moved here when they were very small want to rediscover the language,” he said. (Ms. Rich said that she had overlapped with such students at New York University, and that many were already proficient in the language, less interested in their heritage and more interested in an easy A.) (link)

I’ll have you know, Ms. Rich, that most second gen, Indian-American college students do not take Hindi for this reason. I myself took Hindi at Cornell, and my professor gave me a “B” in intermediate Hindi (I deserved it, but it still smarts: certainly not an “easy A”).

In fact, most Indian-American college students actually take Hindi to meet, and flirt with, other Indian-American college students. So there. Continue reading

“Why are you sitting there? Get up. Get up!”

As many of you, I have been completely and totally engrossed by the uprising in Iran. Even while hiking in the Rockies this weekend I was refreshing Huffington and the Daily Dish on my smartphone for any small tidbit of new information (I usually roll my eyes at people who take their cell phones hiking, so this was a big deal for me).

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Whenever revolution occurs a number of commonalities are observed. First among them, both the participants and observers look for a historical analogy. They say that “this is just like the [insert famous rebellion here].” This step is crucial because history is a river and it is much easier to play your part when you believe that you are a parcel of its inexorable flow and not a fish swimming against the current. This knowledge also makes it easier to accept the loss of loved ones. Although perhaps only slightly easier. This has all happened before. Gandhi–>MLK–>some how end up leading to Mousavi in the eyes of many. How true it is won’t matter until much later. Second, when revolution occurs it is the actions of individuals that shape the arc of the final story. The opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi was no liberal. An Iran under him might have been only slightly different than the one under Ahmadinejad. More than likely though we will never know what the “old Mousavi” would have done in office. That person is gone, having been transformed by the wave upon which he now rides to an unknown shore. He, and the student organizers that are silently shepherding the movement through word-of-mouth have cast their die, much as the founding fathers in our own revolution. I love this one quote by Benjamin Harrison of Virginia to Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts right before our Declaration of Independence:

“I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” [Link]

There is an old adage that says “Men make history,” not events. In this uprising I believe it will the women who make history. Iran has many women like these, and many more individual stories will arise:

I also know that Iran’s women stand in the vanguard. For days now, I’ve seen them urging less courageous men on. I’ve seen them get beaten and return to the fray. “Why are you sitting there?”one shouted at a couple of men perched on the sidewalk on Saturday. “Get up! Get up!”… [Link]

Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized

A turbaned executive? Priceless

First there was Indra, then Vikram, then Sanjay and now there’s Ajay: the new President and COO of Mastercard. Ajay Banga will be the number two man at the number two piece of plastic;”the heir apparent to Chief Executive Robert Selander.”

Banga comes to Mastercard from Citibank, where he had been in charge of their Asia-Pacific business and had been considered by the board for CEO before they turned to Pandit (one of the 20 worst CEOs EVAH!). Given that Citibank shares are down 85%, Banga must feel like he dodged a bullet by ending up at a smaller ($5 billion vs. $50 billion in revenues) but profitable company. While business is much harder for credit card companies than it used to be, Mastercard is just a middleman collecting fees by processing transactions and so it less likely to be affected than the banks and investors who hold now questionable credit card debt.

I’m also quite chuffed to see that a man in a turban and beard can phase through the corporate glass ceiling, especially in banking. In that respect, I think it helped that Banga’s career has been mainly international. In the US, minority executives and white executives follow different tracks (HBS study), but 14 years ago Banga was Marketing Director for Pepsi in India where he would not have been an outsider.

I saw my very first episode of Mad Men last night (while working on this post) and I found myself unable to empathise with the characters because I couldn’t relate to any of them. That was a world that I and most of my white friends (who are non-WASPs) would have been excluded from instantly, no matter what our credentials. Nor was this permeating predjudice limited to the 1950s: I heard Dershowitz recall that he couldn’t get a job at a top law firm in the mid-60s after clerking for the Supreme Court because he was Jewish!

So here’s to Ajay Banga and the others who will come after him, because a crack in the glass ceiling … is priceless.

Continue reading