Today is Michael Jackson’s Barsy*

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As a child, when my father “celebrated” my grandparents’ death anniversaries, I felt even weirder and more out of place than I usually did. None of my friends at school did it; it seemed odd to observe such a sad occasion. As I matured in to a somber teenager, I grew to embrace what I once thought morbid, especially when I realized that it brought comfort to survivors. (That’s the biggest reason why I am prone to insulting half of my family** by joking about how Marthomites have no respect for the dead; I’m only half-kidding.)

As an adult, I didn’t just celebrate a single death anniversary; I couldn’t help but relive a death “week“. It’s strange how measuring time by the absence of someone in your life can warp your perceptions. In the beginning, I couldn’t believe it had been one, two, three years since I lost my father. Now it feels like it was a lifetime ago.

I didn’t realize what was significant about today until I fired up my browser and my Facebook feed declared that 31 of my friends had changed their profile picture. Kindly forgive me; I hadn’t had my kaapi yet so I wasn’t really paying attention. “I wonder if there’s a new fb game,” I mused. Then I noticed that two-thirds of those profile pics were of the same brown person, sporting an afro, and it wasn’t Sai Baba. Why were so many of my friends honoring “old” Michael Jackson? The next tab which loaded contained news and immediately provided me with an explanation for updated Facebook pages.

It was the first anniversary of Michael Jackson‘s death. Continue reading

We Regret To Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time

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As Amardeep noted last week, we are at about the one-year anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka. For the occasion, Groundviews did a special edition, to which I contributed a short story. I’m cross-posting it here.


We Regret to Inform You That Your Condolences Cannot Be Accepted At This Time

a short story

We regret to inform you that your condolences cannot be accepted at this time. At present, both our pain and our hope defy that word, which has been offered and denied us, which we need and do not need, and which in any case we cannot accept, because they (your condolences) will not reach from what has happened to what will come.

We find the word condolences stunning in its insufficiency for past and future.

We evacuated our homes in the light; we vanished from our homes in the dark; we walked away from our families, toward the weapons, and wished that we could turn around. Our bodies entered the earth in places we cannot now identify, and so we are everywhere, blown to dust. By both dying in and surviving this place, we will live here long after your condolences become a ghost in your throat.

We joined others’ battles, willingly and unwillingly; we walked forward on paths not our own when the paths we would have chosen were closed to us. We were incidental; we were vital; we were enemies; we were friends; we were disputed; we were uncounted. In a small country, we felt far away from you. In a small world, we felt far away from you. We were your people and not your people.

We could not wait for you to remember us.

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Bhopal at 25: Thoughts?

Sandhya wrote a post last year related to Bhopal last year, so perhaps it isn’t necessary to go through the particulars of a case that most people know about. Still, it seems important to acknowledge that today is 25 years to the day since the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal broke down, resulting in the release of massive amounts of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas, which killed about 30,000 people and injured thousands more (more than 500,000 people claimed damages). For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a detailed chronology of events.

As many people are aware, the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was an American company. The plant was technically operated by its subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), which was 51% owned by UCC at the time of the disaster.

In one of the strangest, and most fateful, twists in the legal history of the Bhopal disaster, a U.S. District Court decided in May, 1986 that UCIL was an Indian company (“a separate entity, owned, managed and operated exclusively by Indian citizens in India”), and therefore any litigation regarding the Bhopal disaster should be done in India. The decision by the District Court was upheld on Appeal.

The transfer of legal authority — in effect, the U.S. justice system saying, “hey, this is not an American company, so it’s not our problem” — significantly weakened the damages that were likely to be rewarded. Indeed, the final damages, reached in an out of court settlement, was only $470 million. When all was said and done, that came out to $2,200 for each person killed, and about $500 for each person injured. Neither UCIL nor UCC ever had to acknowledge culpability, or take responsibility for cleaning up the still polluted site of the Union Carbide Plant. A Dow Chemicals executive later stated that the amount “is plenty good for an Indian.” Even with the conversion to Rupees, I can’t see how $500 is a significant help for a person who may be living with a debilitating injury, with children who are born, even years later, with serious congenital birth defects associated with (still) poisoned groundwater. It’s not “plenty good”; it’s laughable.

A commenter on Sandhya’s earlier thread mentioned the Sambhavna Clinic, which was built specifically to care for victims of the disaster. There is a “donate here” button; if you have a couple of bucks to spare, you might use it.

Finally, Suketu Mehta has a column up in the New York Times today. He does lament that Dow Chemicals hasn’t done anything to help clean up the site. But what he doesn’t mention is that the reason for that is that the U.S. justice system washed its hands of the mess in 1986, and the Indian Government, which is the only entity that today has any legal responsibility to do anything for anyone in Bhopal, meekly accepted it.

What are your thoughts today? Have you read anything insightful or enlightening with regards to the Bhopal disaster in recent days? Continue reading

“Victory Becomes the Defeat of the Good”: Ram Narayan Kumar

I recently learned of the death of Ram Narayan Kumar, an Indian human rights activist, in Nepal. Kumar, who died of natural causes, is well known in the Sikh community as the staunchest non-Sikh advocate of human rights in Punjab. What drove Mr. Kumar, as far as I can tell, was a pure, principled belief in human rights and democracy, not self-interest or any sense of loyalty to the Sikh community. After 20 years of investigating primary sources and personally documenting thousands of human rights violations in Punjab, in the past few years Kumar shifted his focus to India’s northeast — places like Nagaland and Assam — where human rights intervention may be most urgently needed now.

I got to see Ram Narayan Kumar speak in New York several years ago, and was impressed by how methodical and dispassionate he was as he spoke about his attempt to document extrajudicial killings and cremations of prisoners during the peak of the Punjab militancy period in the 1980s. Many Sikhs have taken up this cause over the years (indeed, activists still show up at local Gurdwaras every June to lecture about it), but too often emotion takes over from empirical evidence and the need to provide rock-solid documentation. Ram Narayan Kumar focused on the latter, not because he advocated any political cause, but because he had faith in the idea of Indian democracy, and demanded that the system he believed in be truthful, accountable, and transparent.

Though he wrote several books, Mr. Kumar’s greatest legacy may be his rigorous documentation efforts of extrajudicial killings by the Punjab Police, which are partially collected in the massive book, Reduced to Ashes: The Insurgency and Human Rights in Punjab. For those who are interested, that book has been posted in its entirety here (PDF, 4.9 MB). I would particularly recommend the documentation section, starting around page 205.

The issue that stood out to me in Ram Narayan Kumar’s quest for justice related specifically to the illegal cremation of 2000+ prisoners who were killed in police custody in Punjab in the 1980s. We may never know exactly what happened to these prisoners, or how they died; a Supreme Court ordered CBI investigation has remained sealed, and its contents unknown. But cremation records were at least kept, and provide an unmistakable record. As a result of the efforts of Kumar and others, in 2006, the Indian government’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued monetary awards to the families of 1245 prisoners who were cremated in the mid-1980s. Below is a brief excerpt from one of Kumar’s more recent books outlining what happened over the decade of legal proceedings that led to a final resolution (albeit a somewhat unsatisfying one) in October, 2006. Continue reading

Farewell to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (1922-2009)

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Yesterday Indian classical music lost one of its greatest, master sarod player Ali Akbar Khan. Those of you from the Bay Area will recognize his name in association with the school he founded in 1967, the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, CA, which has taught North Indian classical music to more than 10,000 students. Along with sitar player Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan was the face of North Indian classical music in the United States and influenced countless musicians around the world.

Guitarist Carlos Santana once said that a single note of Khan’s sarod "goes right to my heart," while classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin – who prompted Mr. Khan to first visit the United States in 1955 – once called the sarodist "the greatest musician in the world."

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who took drum lessons at Mr. Khan’s college the first year it opened, said …, "All the people who studied there – it changed all our lives. Khan embodies the pure spirit of music; it’s not just the notes, it’s the spirit. Every time I listen to him, he takes me there."(link)

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The Unsinkable Boat

It is Mother’s Day. I was and am extraordinarily mothered; my family is full of remarkable women who love their children fiercely.

I love them back, especially my own mother, who among a great many other lessons, taught me to read. Last week, I read this in The New York Times (italics mine):

An 8-month-old baby, Kuberan, survived only because his mother somehow managed to breast-feed him until just hours before she died….

Early on April 21, [Sivadasa Jagadeeswaran] stepped into the boat with his wife and their two sons. Their eldest, age 4, was among the first to die. They threw the child into the sea. Then, his wife’s father died. Her two brothers jumped overboard, lured by the twinkling lights of what may have been a fishing trawler. His wife held on until the last day. She complained of thirst, but vomited when he gave her seawater. Soon, she was gone.

This afternoon, a single father to an only child, he cooed softly to the baby on the hospital bed. He gave him a bottle of milk. He checked to make sure his diapers weren’t wet. The baby giggled, oblivious to the misery around him.

I am not writing now to dissect the gruesome cadaver of this war. That has been done, and is being done, and will be done. The situation in Sri Lanka is complicated—so complicated. I am writing here because this family’s suffering, and its mother’s love, is not.

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And Then They Came For Lasantha Wickramatunge

Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in broad daylight outside of Colombo last week. SAJA has a helpful round-up of coverage of the event, including some background on Wickramatunge’s journalistic record. What stands out is the fact that he has been a consistent dissenting voice in Sri Lankan politics, sharply criticizing the previous government for years. In recent years he had also become a critic of the new government of Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he had earlier supported. Indeed, Wickramatunge and Rajapaska were until recently rather close friends.

Wickramatunge’s assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by forces allied with the government, if not directly sponsored by the government itself. His memorial service, which took place yesterday in Colombo, was attended by thousands of people (see a Flickr photostream of the event here).

This past Sunday, the Sunday Leader, the Sri Lankan newspaper founded by Wickramatunge and his brother, carried a posthumous editorial authored by Wickramatunge himself. It’s called, “And Then They Came For Me,” and it’s written with the understanding that it would only be printed in the event of the author’s assassination.

It’s a moving statement, which ought to be read by anyone who doubts whether freedom of the press or freedom of speech is, after all, an essential right. Wickramatunge begins by asserting his primary goal as a journalist over the fifteen years he had worked with this newspaper:

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper. (a link)

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Atul Vyas, Everlasting be Your Memory

Via our NewsTab, word that one of the 25 victims of Friday’s tragic head-on train collision in Southern California was Desi (thanks, Kusala): atul vyas.PNG

Atul Vyas scored in the top 1 percent on his medical school entry exams, but he was having trouble answering one question on applications to Harvard and Duke: Describe a hardship you’ve overcome.
“He said, ‘I’ve not had any, I’ve had a blessed life,’” Vijay Vyas said of his son Sunday.
Atul Vyas never finished the application, never came closer his goal of working in biomechanics. On Friday, he was among 25 killed when a Metrolink commuter train collided with a freight train in nearby Chatsworth. He was 20.
The accident was the nation’s deadliest rail disaster in 15 years.
The train, which was carrying 222 people when it crashed during afternoon rush hour, was headed north toward Ventura County from downtown Los Angeles. [AP]

This is just heart-breaking:

…Atul’s elder brother, who lives in London, was flying into Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. His parents did not tell him why they were summoning him to America, only that there was a family emergency.
“He has no idea,” Vijay Vyas said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to discuss it, just show up.’” [AP]

Though Atul probably could have attended school elsewhere, a cousin mentioned that he chose CMC because it was close to his family; he took the train back to see them every two to three weeks. Continue reading

Black July At 25

This weekend marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of war in Sri Lanka, which is commonly dated to the anti-Tamil riots there in 1983—a time now known as Black July. The immediate catalyst for the violence: the death of 13 Sinhalese soldiers at the hands of Tamil militants. The longer story: ethnic tension that had simmered for decades, under British colonial rule and beyond.Sri_Lanka-CIA_WFB_Map.png

On the 24th of July, rioting began as news spread about the deaths of the soldiers. The government was obviously complicit in the pogroms. (This link is to a Sri Lankan government website.) People with voter lists directed the mobs to the homes and properties of Tamils, which they destroyed. Thugs stopped vehicles on the streets, and, ascertaining the Tamil identities of the people within, set them aflame. When the violence finally ended, days later, as many as three thousand Tamils had been killed. Thousands and thousands more were left homeless. Shortly after, Sri Lanka saw a flood of Tamil emigration.

The 25th anniversary of such a hellish hour in the country’s history should not pass unnoticed on the Mutiny. Sri Lanka is Mutinous; it’s Mutinous in all the wrong ways: fostering ethnic hatred, distrust, violence, censorship, betrayal, and rootlessness in its own people. And it’s Mutinous in all the right ones: Sri Lanka and its diasporas are full of people who resist easy definition and boundaries, who refuse to cede to what they believe to be wrong, and who still fight, after twenty-five years, for a just home in the most beautiful place on earth. This is not a country that can be seen in black and white. This is a country in which authorities helped Sinhalese civilians to attack their Tamil neighbors. And this also is a country in which the people who saw that what was happening was wrong took their Tamil countrymen in and tried to protect them from the chaos. The best of human nature beginning a long battle against the worst of human nature.

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Another LAPD Killing

First it was Micheal Cho, the Korean American recent college grad that was shot and killed in La Habra for holding a tire iron. Now, it’s 21 year old Pakistani-American Mohammad Usman Chaudhry. usman_chaudry_21_2.jpg

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blockquote>On Tuesday, March 25th, 2008 at 4a.m. in Hollywood, CA, Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, a highly functioning autistic person, was shot multiple times and killed by the LAPD (Hollywood Division) on the 1400 block of Curson Ave. Usman was still in handcuffs when examined by the coroner. Family members of Usman were not told about his death until 21 days after the killing. [SouthAsianNetwork]

According to police, Officer Joseph Cruz and his partner were patrolling the street when they saw a dark figure by an apartment complex. The officers approached to investigate and encountered Chaudhry lying behind some bushes. As Cruz was questioning Chaudhry, he pulled out a folding knife and stabbed Cruz on the left hand. Cruz pulled out his gun and fired several rounds at Chaudhry.[LATimes]

Los Angeles non-profit South Asian Network gathered together community members last week to hold a candlelit vigil to support Usman’s family and demand an end to police violence. About 200 community members came out in support.usman_vigil_3.jpg

“The vigil for Usman Chaudhry was really powerful to attend on many different levels,” says Preeti Sharma, a local South Asian organizer. “Seeing the family speak out and share their anger at the police brutality, hearing the stories of other young men of color shot recently by LAPD, and lastly having people in the community feel empowered enough to give their testimony was altogether an emotional and empowering experience.”

There’s something just simply so wrong with how this story has played out. Not only was the kid only 21 years old, but he was autistic. I’m sure the autism contributed to awkwardness when he was approached by LAPD at 4am. And even if he stabbed the police with a folding knife, why shoot several rounds at a HANDCUFFED man? CopWatch also notes that the LAPD ran Usman’s ID before he was killed, as well. So basically, evidence shows that LAPD had him in custody when he was murdered. Continue reading