Podcast • August 5, 2010

Real India: A historian’s cautions on "the Indian Century"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Ramachandra Guha. (58 minutes, 28 mb mp3) BANGALORE — Ramachandra Guha, the provocative, critical historian of India After Gandhi, has vitality and charisma to match his country’s. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Ramachandra Guha. (58 minutes, 28 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Ramachandra Guha, the provocative, critical historian of India After Gandhi, has vitality and charisma to match his country’s. Writing and talking with fire-hose force, he’s come to mirror India’s sense of it’s 63-year-old self. For all of the nation’s grave wounds and faults, Ram Guha says, it’s “the most interesting country in the world.” He’s in sync with the foreign diplomat who remarked, on retiring to another post, that “if I was an intellectual, I would want to be born again and again and again, in India.”

Ram Guha’s recurring point is that the working core of India today is a thoroughly modern invention, following a sharp 19th Century break with the oppressive hierarchies of Hindu antiquity. So much for Amartya Sen‘s rose-colored retrospectives on Ashoka the Great (304 – 232 BC) and Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor (1542 – 1605 AD). Ram Guha gives some credit to the Raj and “Pax Brittanica” for bringing territorial integrity to a chaos of mini-states — also for railroads, a tax system, and a unifying language at least for the elite. But Guha’s big theme is that the real Indian political experiment was the work of modern-minded liberal rationalists, starting with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774 – 1833), who took the reform fight against sati, the burning of widows, to England; and culminating in the 20th Century giants Gandhi, Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar, the Untouchable with a Ph.D. from Columbia, who wrote India’s Constitution. Their achievement was a new template of nationalism, breaking the European model of “one religion, one language and a common enemy,” where “to be French means you’re a Catholic, you speak French, and you hate the British.” Modern India put 13 different scripts on its Rupee, and officially renounced its traditions of caste and intolerance. And it’s managed to stick together. Something new was born in the world, and in India.

The West’s grand bets about India have been wrong since the Forties, Guha cautions. The first condescending line was that India was a Malthusian basketcase in the making — that it would fall under military rule, or fall apart. It didn’t happen, he argues, because “we had extraordinarily far-sighted leadership, in every way comparable to the generation of Washington, Jefferson and Adams.”

But the other big bet, that superpowers India and China might somehow take over the world in a Century of Asia, is a loser, too, not least because the quality of Indian political leadership has “declined precipitously,” Guha says, and because the country is still “beset with inequality.”

A now dynastic democracy has neglected public education and healthcare. The new rich in India have neglected the slums all around them. India’s diaspora, most notably in America, has been spectacularly successful — “the first wave of migrants since the Mayflower who went from the elites at home to the elites in the host country.” But those NRI’s (non-resident Indians) have typically kicked away the ladder and have weak links with their homeland — unlike the Chinese today and many generations of American immigrants. India’s nuclear weapons and its powerful software industry are not the stuff of domination in the new world, so give up the idea of a “Century of India,” Guha instructs me. And yet… and yet… he closes on a rapturous vision of everything else, besides domination, India has to offer:

If India has anything to offer the world, it is political and cultural, not economic and technological, and this political and cultural offering is based not on ancient spiritual wisdom but on modern achievements such as the construction of a plural, inclusive, democratic society. In this respect we can teach not just Africa and Latin America, but the United States and Northern Europe too. You Americans are paranoid about the invasion of Spanish-speakers: make Spanish an official language and be a bi-lingual nation! We are a multi-lingual nation for God’s sake! The Europeans are paranoid about Muslims coming in and how they will handle it. Look at how we have handled our Muslim minority; we have 150 million Muslims. Four or five years ago there was a big debate in France over the headscarf. And the French, who are obsessively secular, banned the headscarf in schools and colleges. When that debate was going on, I was giving a talk in the University of Calicut, which is a Muslim majority district in the southern state of Kerala. In my talk there were 200 students; there were 80 women in headscarves. And the headscarf was liberating! The headscarf allowed them to go to University. There is a distinction to be made, which the French never made, between the headscarf and the full veil, or the Burka, which is not fine, because that completely covers you. But the headscarf is like the turban a Sikh gentleman wears, or a crucifix, or even, Indian women, they wear a sari, they cover their head with a sari when it’s hot — it’s absolutely fine! We allow our different religious minorities to maintain their cultural and — as one Indian sociologist memorably put it, the Americans follow a melting pot approach. Our’s is a salad bowl approach. The different cultures retain their ingredients, their smells, their colors, whereas you guys all homogenize in one melting pot.

What India can offer the world is ways to handle religious, linguistic and other forms of diversity, including diversities of dress, of culinary traditions, of musical styles. You know, one of the things that unites India is Indian film. Bollywood is a great unifier. And Bollywood is a testament to cultural pluralism. You can have a dance sequence in Indian film which starts with the Bhangra, a dance from the Punjab in North India which is an early folk dance associated with peasants. And it will seamlessly move into the Bharatanatyam, which is a high classical art associated with temples in South India. And it’s fabulous, and we’re all completely okay with it. Just like our Rupee note, which is 17 languages and 17 scripts. India is a glorious, remarkable, admittedly flawed, experiment in multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic living. That’s what the world can learn from us. It’s not about colonialism, it’s about living together separately, as someone said, and doing so democratically. The Muslims are a great example. We have 160 million Muslims, and, according to one observer, not a single member of Al Qaeda. That maybe an exaggeration; there may be five or ten. But by and large, Indian Muslims articulate their reservations — and they have many reservations, they’re poor, they’re excluded — through the democratic process. When there was the terrible terror attack in Mumbai in November, 2008, and the terrorists were killed, the Mumbai Muslims refused to bury them because, they said, these are not Muslims. What they practice, this cult of terror, is not Islamic.

It’s a flawed experiment, it has had hurdles, there has been intolerance, there has been discrimination. Because, after all, we are 60-years-young. We are a nation 60-years-young battling against 5000 years of social prejudice, economic inequality, cultural intolerance and so on. And it’s this modern experiment of trying to create a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic democratic political community that is what we can export to the world. We still have to improve it, we still have to refine it, we still have to live up to our best ideals. But, contrary to what I’ve been arguing, most Indians think that this century will be the Asian century; they think that this means we will dominate the West by our technology, our software, our military prowess — so they’re massively enthused about the fact that we have nuclear bombs. That’s not what appeals to me. What appeals to me is our experiment in plural and democratic living.

Ramachandra Guha in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

Podcast • July 22, 2010

Real India: Social Entrepreneurship as a Family Affair

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Chhiber-Mathew family. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3) BANGALORE — Neelam Chhiber met her husband Jacob Mathew in graduate school, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Today, ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Chhiber-Mathew family. (46 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Neelam Chhiber met her husband Jacob Mathew in graduate school, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Today, with their 19-year-old son Nishant, they are giving me one family’s story of the improvisational networking and social entrepreneurship that are all the rage in digital India.

It’s not all monster business yet, and probably never will be. In the Chhiber-Mathew case, the family fix is on “impact investing” (with a social return against pollution, say, or exclusion) as much as on money profit. And it’s less about design in the sense of logos, letterheads and retail displays than about the evolving contours of markets, the flows of traffic in ideas as well as commerce, in India and the far beyond.

Neelam Chhiber’s company Industree made its name in “social business,” creating urban markets for rural producers in a chain of Mother Earth stores. Jacob Mathew’s design firm Idiom seeds and cultivates companies to serve what’s known as the “BOP” market — for “bottom of the pyramid.” The mission of their careers was clear from the start:

NC: The problem in India is the inequity. If today, the buzzword for the Indian government is “inclusive growth” — how does the growing 30% urban population take along its 70% rural poor population, and how will it do it without the Chinese revolution, without the Russian revolution, in a peaceful way?

CL: What does it say about India or about you that you are in this game as a family?

NC: One of the key distinctions that Indian society has vis-a-vis the US and China may be the strength of the family. Maybe because we are still not one-child families, I think the Chinese have lost a lot with that one-child policy. They may have done a great thing for the planet by having fewer people around, but it’s not good for society. Because I believe a lot of thinking can never be for the short term. I think a lot of the problems with your financial system in the US is that it’s about short term thinking — that you’re thinking just for the next two or three years, or to your next bonus. Now that kind of thinking is cultivated because as a society, maybe thoughts of longevity and the long term are lost. But when you have a family system, you think ahead constantly. You’re planning for your children and your grandchildren. And you are planning for your parents. I think as a family we grew a lot because we looked after elderly parents. And our parents looked after their parents. I think that’s going to be one of the key strengths of India in the future. Because I think that is what’s incubating better thinking, and more holistic thinking…

These are the important things about me being a Hindu and Jacob being a Christian – it’s not always easy, it’s difficult. His parents were opposed to the idea — why do you want to marry a Hindu? Because we arranged our marriage, ours was not a love marriage. We were classmates, and we never had an affair while we were in college, but after we graduated, we were looking for husbands and wives — our parents were — and so we said, we know each other, so why don’t we get married? So his mother said “look you’re arranging your marriage, why don’t you just arrange it with a Christian? Why have you chosen a Hindu?” He said: “Well, she’s my friend, she happens to be Hindu, so let’s not worry about it.” And then they adjusted. Now how did both families adjust? Because they had a history of families which adjusted. So a lot of future negotiations and things that happen on the planet, and when you work in global teams, is going to be all about how you adjust with everybody else. First of all you start adjusting in a family of four. Like my two sons find it very difficult to adjust with each other, but they’re learning. So that’s how you learn when you grow up. The whole family thing is key.

Neelam Chhiber, Jacob Mathew and Nishant Mathew in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India on Sunday, July 11, 2010

We are on the Open Source road in India through the mid-summer.

Next: Rain-forest gardener and guardian Suprabha Seshan.

Podcast • June 15, 2010

Vishwas Satgar: the Political Economy of FIFA

Vishwas Satgar has a half-time message from South Africa for World Cup watchers. It’s a quick introduction to “the political economy of soccer” that won’t dent any grown-up’s pleasure in the athletic or human spectacle ...

Vishwas Satgar has a half-time message from South Africa for World Cup watchers. It’s a quick introduction to “the political economy of soccer” that won’t dent any grown-up’s pleasure in the athletic or human spectacle — no more than, say, the endless buzzing of those vuvuzelas. Short form: most of the money that comes with the games will leave with the games. South Africa will be stuck with four new white-elephant stadia and public deficits and debts much worse than California’s. The engine of Africa’s development will still be a site of rising unemployment, falling life expectancy (at just under 50 years, below Sudan and Ethiopia), and a health-care system in shambles. There’s money in those Budweiser and VISA ads around the World Cup matches that might have been invested in universities, not in FIFA, the football federation.

Vishwas Satgar is a labor lawyer and leftwing activist, an insurgent ex-Secretary of the South African Communist Party who’s way out of alliance with the ANC on the uplift politics of the World Cup. Satgar’s message resonates with the remarkably fair-and-balanced film Fahrenheit 2010 by South Africa-born Craig Tanner. Archbishop Desmond Tutu feels “a world of good — well worth the price” in a South Africa’s month in the sun; “if we’re going to have white elephants,” he says in the film, “so be it.” But the argument that lingers is that “public funds have been looted for a moment in our history. People are still going to be living in shacks.”

Like the Beijing Olympics in Summer ’08, this World Cup is a coming-out party, and a historic marker for Africa at the center of the maximum stage… without anything like the long-term strategic planning China put into its primetime debut, Satgar argues:

This World Cup has been done, technically and in terms of construction, in sort of record time. There was a grand display of engineering capability and technology and so on. And people in South Africa’s squatter settlements, and in what we could call our slums, I am sure are wondering, ‘If they could do all this grandiose stuff, why haven’t they built us houses over fifteen, sixteen years of democracy?’ So I think these contradictions are going to come back to haunt the political forces that have stood by this.

Vishwas Satgar in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, June 15, 2010.

Consciousness-raising is over. You may now watch Spain v. Switzerland, then South Africa v. Uruguay in peace.

Podcast • June 8, 2010

This "Year of India" (9): Patrick Heller’s Measure of Change

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Patrick Heller. (46 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Patrick Heller was 16 years old, a school boy, when his Swiss parents moved to New Delhi in the late 1970s. India became his school — his inescapable “ethnographic experience” of second-class trains; overwhelming heat and color; radical poverty and welcoming, curious people. India made Patrick Heller a social scientist and has presented itself ever since as a measure of the strange, swift ways that social orders change.

Kerala, for example, the far-southern state in India that has become a Heller specialty, had the most brutally exploitive caste rules in India well into the 20th Century. An “untouchable” could be punished for walking closer than 27 feet from a Brahmin. Untouchable women were not allowed to cover their breasts. Yet Kerala today, after a sustained “perfect storm” of reform movements, has the highest literacy (95 percent) and life-expectancy (73) and the most effective healthcare in India. The chief justice of India’s Supreme Court was, until a month ago, a Dalit (formerly untouchable) from Kerala.

In conversation, Patrick Heller is sampling for us the varieties of Indian evidence in 2010. The Indian Premier Cricket League, playing a condensed, TV-friendly version of the British colonial game, is one nutshell of the New India’s skill at marketing both innovation and tradition. Another capsule is the confirmed finding that 47 percent of all India’s children today are malnourished. So here is the under-an-hour sum of the all-questioning “Year of India” on the Brown campus — also of Patrick Heller’s third-of-a-century eye on India.

Back in the 1970s when I first went to India, India couldn’t produce much of anything that was competitive in global markets… Today, you go to Bangalore where Infosys and these extraordinary industrial parks are at the cutting edge of the global economy, people are walking around in jeans and drinking Coca-Cola, and listening to rap. They’re more connected to Los Angeles than they are to the rural areas of Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located. This is where you see the split. Bangalore is the poster child of the new IT economy, but if you look at the patterns of hiring in Bangalore, most of the hiring is still in the upper caste groups. The groups that are benefiting from these new job opportunities and new consumption patterns are urban, English-speaking upper-caste groups for the most part… The population [of Karnataka] is over 60 million: roughly the size of France. Bangalore is growing and glowing, but the rest of Karnataka is not doing well. Rural Karnataka is still extraordinarily poor, and some people argue that the two are actually connected in that Bangalore is attracting all the resources. A lot of public monies are going into building the new infrastructure for the Infosyses of the world, for this new IT economy — monies that are not building wells or primary schools in rural Karnataka. So there are trade-offs.

Are we entering the Century of India? I am reminded of Rana Dasgupta‘s observation on Open Source last Fall that “at a time when the new major economic growth prospects are in countries that look more like India than they do like America, Indians will be an incredibly mobile and flexible work population.”

Patrick Heller quotes the Indian joke that cricket is an Indian game that just happens to have been invented in England. There are Indians who’ll argue also that democracy is an Indian institution that just happens to have been invented in the West. Patrick Heller suggests that global networks of commerce, too, could turn out to be an Indian enterprise that Americans just thought was their game. “There are three things going on here,” Patrick Heller says:

One is language. Indian elites speak great English, they’re well-versed in literature, and so in terms of ‘cultural capital,’ they’re extremely well-equipped, and much better equipped than say, their Chinese or Brazilian counterparts. That’s a huge advantage, part of the explanation why India’s done so well in this niche of outsourcing services and the knowledge industry…

Second, democracy is in their blood, they’ve practiced it for 60 years as a nation, and they’ve been innovative. So they understand the rule of law, they understand basic liberal ideas of pluralism, of deliberation, of engagement, of respecting certain fundamental rights.

And third, they know capitalism…. To this day, 91 percent of India’s economy is in the so-called informal or unorganized sector… Of course, this is a history that goes back millennia, but in the modern era, India has always been a vibrant market capitalist economy. Yes, a lot of regulation at the top, and it’s true that some sectors were state-dominated. But anyone who has actually traveled to India and seen a real market, be it a labor market or a vegetable market, knows that this is not Communist China or even Europe. It’s totally unregulated. So the practice and culture of free enterprise and capitalism are in the blood of Indian elites. This idea that we could export entrepreneurial knowledge to India to me is just a new kind of Orientalism.

Patrick Heller in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, June 4, 2010.

Podcast • May 12, 2010

Amartya Sen: This Open-Ended "Year of India" (8)

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3) Amartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Amartya Sen (47 min, 21 mb mp3)

Amartya Sen & John RawlsAmartya Sen at home in Cambridge, before his hero John Rawls

Amartya Sen, when I ask about this “Year of India,” quips that the biggest change in the “new” India is in our non-Indian heads. Meaning: that common wisdom has finally shaken off the British imperial canard that “old” India was a backward pre-industrial scene before the East India Company, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, rescued it for civilization and modernity.

India’s grandest eminence outside the subcontinent is satisfied that we’ve all absorbed the news that behind the modern Bangalore boom lie 3000 years of an “accounting culture” and India’s own imperial trading history. The name of Singapore, he notes, comes from the Sanskrit for “City of Lions.” So “all those people who say: the West is materialist and business-oriented, Indians are spiritualist and thought-oriented, are talking absolute nonsense.” Neither are those “new” Indian stakes in software and biotech all that new, or all that Indian. Many of the great Indian success stories were incubated in Silicon Valley, starting in the 1950s, and at MIT, where Nehru got the model of the endlessly fertile Indian Institutes of Technology. So Kipling is dead and buried; the twining of East and West, the meeting of the twain, is no surprise anymore. The unfolding story, in Amartya Sen’s telling, is Open India.

Part of the reflection of Open India is the willingness to accept that you don’t have to belong to the mainstream [80-plus percent Hindu] in order to be counted as a genuine Indian. As Rabindranath Tagore said in two quite famous statements: one, that anything that we admire, no matter its origin, instantly becomes ours. And the other, similarly, that any person who comes from abroad and is ready to live the kind of life that people lead in India is instantly accepted as being Indian. Because a lot of Indians are going everywhere in the world, and they’re traveling as a kind of modern Jew of the 20th century and 21st century, India doesn’t get enough credit for the fact is that there has been more immigration into India than almost any country in the world — for one thing, tens of millions of Bangladeshis. Even though people grumble about it… you don’t see the kind of hysteria about it that’s going on Europe, for example, or the United States. That anger may yet come, but it hasn’t been a part of traditional India at all. The fact is the boundaries are porous between India and abroad and it’s served India very well. I think India booming would not have happened but for the openness of the educational sector, of the high tech sector, and the big booms, the informational as well as biochemical and medical, have come very much from a dialectic interaction with the West.

Amartya Sen warned famously (five years ago) that India is at risk of becoming “half California, half Sub-Saharan Africa.” To me he says he was offering tabloid India a caution, not a prediction. In conversation these days, Amartya Sen sounds half Victorian gent, half liberal social critic, but not a worried man — not about India’s engagement with the United States in Afghanistan, for example; and not urgently concerned about the decline of the once sacrosanct “village India.” He doesn’t “miss” village India, he said, “because it’s not gone.” From his father’s house 100 miles from Calcutta, “I walk half a mile, and I’m in rural Bengal.”

The villages are not gone, but the tragedy isn’t so much that [village India] is changing and going, but it’s not changing and not going, in the sense that we want every village with schools, we want them with hospitals and primary health care institutions…. These things are not happening. So my grumble isn’t that the Indian villages are changing; my grumble is that it’s not changing fast enough. I have nothing against village life. I very much enjoy…getting on my bike and taking 15, 20 miles of bicycling through the rural areas. Absolutely wonderful! But I would like to see dispensaries, primary health care, schools there. And that’s not happening fast enough. That’s my grumble. And sometimes when I complain that India is becoming bifurcated between half California and half Sub-Saharan Africa, my complaint is that the line is unfortunately often rural and urban. It’s not just that, because there are a lot poor people in the urban areas as well, it’s a more complicated line, but the rural-urban division, that’s a very big division that we have to keep in mind.

Amartya Sen in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, May 7, 2010.

I thank him for an hour’s discursive gab with “an old fashioned Indian wiseman.”

“Shame on you,” he says, laughing. “Thank you.”

Did I get it wrong, I ask.

His last word: “You got it exactly right.”

Podcast • April 5, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3) Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Podcast • March 18, 2010

Whose Words These Are (24): Eli Marienthal’s Spoken-Word Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eli Marienthal (15 min, 7 mb mp3) Eli Marienthal’s Haiti story is about a little-boy obsession with his Haitian twin, met on the first of many trips to ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Eli Marienthal (15 min, 7 mb mp3)

Eli Marienthal’s Haiti story is about a little-boy obsession with his Haitian twin, met on the first of many trips to Haiti to visit his father. The earthquake this winter seems to have jolted loose his fixation, toward insight and action.

Eli is the very picture of millennial possibility. He was a teen idol movie star growing up in California. He’s got a Brown degree now, in international development and comparative literature, and the zeal to apply it:

There is a practical aspect to the work I would like to be doing in Haiti that has everything to do with growing food. The Haitian landscape has been devastated by any number of natural and unnatural phenomena. I think that everywhere in the world, one of the most successful strategies for healing the planet is permaculture, which mimics natural systems in such a way that humans at an appropriate scale are able to reap what they need to sustain themselves — and the ecosystem of which they are a part. As Wendell Berry says, all creative work is a strategy of healing. My Haiti story — click and listen above — is itself a strategy of healing. Growing food is another strategy of healing. They aren’t separate to me.

This is the fourth in a group of conversations with poets, word-artists, about a catastrophe beyond words: the earthquake in Haiti this January. Tomorrow: Haitian-American High School Senior and poet Fabienne Casseus.

Podcast • March 15, 2010

Whose Words These Are (21): Afaa Michael Weaver on Haiti

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3) Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Afaa Michael Weaver (20 min, 9 mb mp3)

Afaa Michael Weaver leads off a week of poets’ reflections on the catastrophe in Haiti. His poem “Port-au-Prince” is not “news analysis;” it’s a stab at fitting disaster news, now two months old, into a context between heart and history.

Port au Prince

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where

there is hatred, let me sow love.”

–St. Francis of Assisi

If the sky were to crack, the floor of heaven

would be pearl white, a bed of ice after snow

in Montreal, asylum from Port au Prince,

the children under sheets, stiff and undone

near cement walls filled with sand on the bottom

stoops of Mary, Blessed Mother Erzulie,

complex chance of a soul torn from Ile Ife,

in the rubric of the crucifix planted on shores

of empires–

The seam of the spirit tears in earthquakes,

ripping the cloth of the breath, suspending

every wish you had in that single moment,

the wet mess of your heart suddenly slapping

the tiny plan of earth growing from the Earth,

some alien presence driving the real thing,

the evil of The Enlightenment, husbandry

of farmers ranking goats with black children,

ledgers for the wealth of banks, investments,

hedge funds, Blackberrys, joys we hold onto

like the monstrous Coscos on the hill

twisting the roots of our hearts, nowhere

to run, to scream in the coming apart,

human bodies slapped inside human bodies

pierced with jagged things, rocks and glass,

zombies the mute saints, pious and solemn,

the French language humming to itself.

“les negres ne sont pas Francaise”

Writing a letter, plotting to buy Louisiana,

the pen of Jefferson moves to contain what

cannot be contained, collapsed buildings,

family photographs lying on broken bodies

sticking their tongues out in the rubble,

reporters walking by with microphones,

selling news as if it were cheese and bread.

@Afaa Michael Weaver

Perspective is everything. Michael Weaver worked in the steel factories of Baltimore (the world of “The Wire”) for 15 years before he finished his college education and declared himself a poet — and before “Afaa,” the Ibo honorific meaning “oracle,” was added to his name. Afaa Michael Weaver is widely published and traveled by now, a professor at Simmons College in Boston, though he identifies himself still as “a working-class African American poet from Baltimore.”

I’m coming from what is popular knowledge among black people about the significance and the position of Haiti, which is that we generally understand that Haiti’s position is a matter of being punished for speaking back, for daring to be rebellious. There are all kinds of complexities around the history of Haiti. But it goes back to the original problem presented to the American government of how to deal with the first successful slave rebellion in the Western hemisphere and how to keep that information and that inspiration away from black Americans. It haunted Jefferson. It framed his national policy, and remnants of that national policy are still present. Jefferson came to a final conclusion that he hoped that the expansion of America’s economy and national policy beyond its own borders would somehow compensate for the contradictions in the democratic ideal. So Haiti’s situation begins there. This earthquake seemed to another in a long list of problems. So I had this kind of sad image of being punished for talking back.

Afaa Michael Weaver with Chris Lydon at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, Cambridge, March 9, 2010.

Afaa Michael Weaver’s reading resumes our series with poets, “Whose Words These Are.” What our first score of poets confirmed is that they are still our “unacknowledged legislators,” as Shelley famously elected them. They’re the ones you can trust, after all, to tell you that your coat is on fire, or your country. Tomorrow: Fred Marchant.

Podcast • March 5, 2010

This "Year of India" (4): The NY Times’ Man in Bombay

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3) We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Anand Giridharadas (45 min, 27 mb mp3)

We’re getting a personal take on the New India that we haven’t heard before from New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas. When he went “home” after college, from Cleveland to the land of his ancestors, the feeling he confronted was, in effect, hey, your party in America is over, and you may be too late for the party underway in Bombay.

Born in Ohio and educated in Michigan, Anand is a child of that wave of immigration that brought India’s best and brightest out of a bad time back home in the 1970s to the land of milk, honey, high tech and opportunity in America. When Anand returned to do his bit for the mother country, as a McKinsey consultant in the mid-90s, he found not his parent’s stifled old India but rather a swarming entrepreneurial frontier more modern, more gung-ho in many ways than the American Mid-West he grew up in, but also a nation growing less “westernized” and more indigenous on a surging wave of growth.

He carried with him the story of India that his parents had given him, an image of a great civilization trapped in a box; a place where, in his words “No one questioned. No one dreamed. Nothing moved.” He begins this account of that quarter-century transformation through the eyes of his father:

AG: One of the reasons my father left — none of us leaves countries for massive geopolitical reasons, we ultimate leave for personal reasons. His personal situation was working in the 1970s for a company called Tata Motors, selling their trucks and buses in Africa. All he could do to make a judgment about whether he wanted to be in India long term was look around him at work. I will never forget the simple way in which describes why he decided to leave. He said he looked at his bosses twenty years ahead of him in line and concluded he didn’t want to spend his life becoming them.

Now fast forward a quarter century, Tata Motors is today, that same stagnant dead company that in some ways pushed my father out of the country as a whole, is today one of the most admired car companies in the world. Why? Because it no longer only sells rickety trucks and buses in Africa. It has now also made the world’s cheapest car, for about $2,000, in an engineering feat that has wowed every major auto maker.

CL: How did they do it?

AG: There are two ways to think about it. One is to say that they had consultants and advisors who had certainly come back form the West. But here’s another interpretation of what was different. the constraints were in some ways the same. They still had essentially 1 billion poor people around them; they still had engineering constraints; they still had a government that’s not particularly helpful to what business does. But in my father’s day most Indians would have interpreted that context as essentially hindering progress and being an excuse for producing sub optimal stuff. The new language is “we have unique hardships which gives us a unique opportunity to create globally competitive products that are better than anyone else’s products. Because our roads are bumpier, our suspension systems have to be even better than the Americans’ suspension systems. Because people are poor in this country, we have to work twice as hard to bring the price point of a car down to $2000.” It’s the same context, just a different way of looking at it.

Anand Giridharadas in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 4, 2010.

Podcast • February 10, 2010

Ghana Speaking (III): Kofi Sam’s Model of African Self-Sufficiency

We are making the full village rounds here in Aburanza, near Cape Coast, with a strong-minded, strong-willed modern chief. From furniture works to dress-making class to palm-nut oil pots, Dr. Kofi Sam is barking out ...

We are making the full village rounds here in Aburanza, near Cape Coast, with a strong-minded, strong-willed modern chief. From furniture works to dress-making class to palm-nut oil pots, Dr. Kofi Sam is barking out variations on his evangelical theme: West Africa can provide the essentials for itself (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) if only it first licks a second AIDS crisis — the Acquired Import Dependency Syndrome.

Kofi Sam, who graduated from high school in the 1950s with Kofi Annan of the UN, is a cheerful misfit in the Ghanaian elite. He is an engineer with English training and now a compelling Ghanaian vision, however eccentric. He ran steel works in Ghana back in the day, and held the Housing ministry in Jerry Rawlings’ military government in the 1980s. But he was all the while getting more focused on “appropriate technology” for tropical Africa — on finding modern designs and materials, that is, for the climate and culture of a hot, poor place. Tight denim blue jeans make an interesting Western fashion statement, as he might say, but what is their place in Africa? And what is all that Scandinavian concrete doing in new Ghanaian housing?

How is it, Kofi Sam asks, that “for 50 years we haven’t been able to design a building that doesn’t use air conditioners?” Kofi Sam laughs a lot through what can sound like a stand-up routine getting heavy and deep:

Why is Africa waiting for Germany and Japan to go solar? Because we are copy cats.

Whatever the master in England does, we copy it. Our buildings should have big open windows. That’s how the imperialists, the white men, built their bungalows. We knocked them down and replaced them with glass houses, sealed glass.

Africans wear suits with neckties! With socks! With underwear! We cover ourselves so we feel the heat, then we go to the office and call our secretaries to bring us hot coffee, not cool cocoa, using an air conditioner that could light forty homes…

We only wear what we make on Fridays — Friday wear! That’s the problem…

There is a tunnel called ‘Western education.’ We enter it and learn how to forget. We go to Accra and forget about the village…

The African intellectual is like a bee who has forgotten how to make honey.

The governmental system in Africa only caters to Western-educated people, even though they’re less than 15 percent of the population. From the president right down to the teacher, they get paid at the end of every month.

No villager gets paid for anything. They get up in the morning, they go to their farms, they produce their cassava or yam or plaintain. Nobody guarantees them a market. Nobody gives them loans. All the taxes raised in the country are for Western-educated people, like Kofi Sam.

The villagers don’t get anything.

Dr. Kofi Sam with Chris Lydon, in Aburanza on the Atlantic coast of Ghana, January 28, 2010.

We spend the day surveying some good old alternatives. At one smoky, blistering-hot open-air work site, a dozen women are time-sharing a machine that cracks palm nuts, and in their individual vats they’re slowly cooking the cherished red oil that Africa uses for soap and cooking. No corn oil here, thank you. In his home village of Aburanza, Kofi Sam has sponsored a cane furniture works, hand-weaving of kente cloth, and machine-assisted grinding of cassava flour. His sister’s henhouse looks spotless and contented. “You asked what should aid agencies do,” Kofi Sam remarks. “How about a little capital so that my sister and her kind can each construct 100 henhouses and start with ten layers apiece. Whole villages improve that way.”

At a hilltop prayer meeting at mid-day in Aburanza, families answer my greeting (“He’s real! He’s alive! He’s on time!”) with “Hallelujah!” A pastor is offering pint-sized bottles of an herbal remedy. As for those basic necessities that Africa can provide itself, I challenge my host on one big point: “Native medicine isn’t going to cure malaria, Dr. Sam,” I say. “You’re wrong,” he fires back. “I made the same mistake you’re making.” What he learned eventually is that malaria wiped out mainly white newcomers; West Africans had developed an immunity and boosted it with natural medicines. Malaria was a weapon, he said, that forced the British to adopt “indirect rule” in West Africa, rather than settle as they did in Kenya and Southern Africa.

You’ll hear Kofi Sam inviting me back to Aburanza — and me promising to return before Christmas. “I want people like you here,” he says, “to let the world know that the aid they give doesn’t get to us. It’s in Accra — in the swimming pools of Accra, in the golf courses of Accra, in the lawn tennis courts of Accra, in the restaurants of Accra…”

And then, for $20, he sells me that striking handmade blue shirt off his beautiful brown back. Thank you, Kofi Sam. We will meet again.