From the Archives • March 12, 2014

Vijay Iyer’s Life in Music: "Striving is the Back Story"

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk.

 

Vijay Iyer brings rare stuff to jazz piano, starting with a Brahmin Indian name and heritage, and a Yale degree in physics. Gujarati stick dances and Bhajan devotional songs from Northern India are in his blood, well mixed by now with the pop sounds of a boyhood in Rochester, New York: Prince and James Brown, then Miles and Monk. He brings also — to his Birdland debut this Spring, and to his new CD, Historicity — bassist Stephan Crump and the drum prodigy Marcus Gilmore, who just happens to be the grandson of the last living drum giant of the Forties, the eternally experimental Roy Haynes. But the sum of Vijay Iyer’s gifts is more exciting than any of the parts. He brings to improvisational music, most of all, the aura of an art starting fresh, just beginning — not looking back, much less winding down.

Could we talk, I inquire, about the space he seems to be building out between cultures and eras, between East and West, between the music that marked the American Century at its best and whatever it is that’s trying to happen next? So, on the morning after his opening gig at Birdland, Vijay Iyer is sitting at the piano in a rehearsal studio just off Times Square, making conversation in much the same confident probing spirit he makes music.

I identify with the culture of cities. I find cities to be inherently transnational… And that reflects my own perspective, and my own sense of hybridity and the dynamics that unfold in the music I make…

I was an improviser… I started on violin and then on piano learned to play by improvising. There was never any boundary between improvising and playing a song. It was really the same thing for me. That was how I learned to play. And really, that’s how we as humans learn to do almost everything… It’s the way we stumble around in the world.

Most of our social network as a family was in this burgeoning Indian community in Rochester, New York. That was where my Indianness existed, with family and with family friends. But in my neighborhood or in my school, Indianness was more a mark of difference, and something that had to be negotiated. There was this dual existence, which is reminiscent of Du Bois’ double-consciousness kind of thing. The Karma of Brown Folk…

I have this other heritage, and that heritage is a very important part of who I am, and it’s an important part of my music. But I’ve been here as long as anybody else my age. I was born and raised here and 100 percent immersed in American culture. To me, it was never a question of how American I was, but to others it is always a question…

The drummers are the real history of the music. The rhythm is where the music lives and grows…. I wish I was a drummer. I try to connect with the drummer and do what the drummer does. When you link with the drummer, everything sounds better. You get that resonance, that sympathetic action. That’s part of what music is: the sound of people moving together.

Here in New York…there are people playing together just for fun, or for mutual betterment…. People are in it because they love it, and that love is constantly expressed in wonder at new music and at new possibilities and new discoveries and new talent, new players on the scene who have something new to offer.
Architecture is a fair metaphor. The analogy holds up. Architecture is about creating spaces. You’re creating spaces for people to move around in. That’s what we’re doing. And you want people to be free, but you also want to offer them things, to offer them possibilities. You want to frame their activities in a way that helps infuse it with meaning.

My particular American experience is one of improvisation and navigation through a certain set of challenges and opportunities… For me, as a person of color in America, I’ve looked to histories of other communities of color in America as an orienting guideline. And that’s part of what led me to really stay with this music: the history of the African American pioneers who dreamed the impossible and made this music happen… That striving is the back-story for this music. When you talk about improvised music, it’s as William Parker says: “In order to survive, the music was invented.” Not to match my struggles with theirs—I had a very different path, and my parents had a very different circumstance—but they also came here with very little, and had to build something.

Vijay Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 17, 2010.

June 11, 2012

Real India: a land soon without tigers, and maybe orchids

Suprabha Seshan -- a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India -- is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the "New India," which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a "virtual" prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way.

BANGALORE — Suprabha Seshan — a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India — is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the “New India,” which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a “virtual” prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way. It’s an underlying premise among Indian chatterers, as they keep telling us, that often the best point in an argument is one whose direct opposite may sound equally plausible, even true. So let the conversation continue, through many paradoxes. “Is it possible,” she asks herself in conversation, “to live a life without contradiction?” — i.e. without petroleum, chemical fertilizers, technology? “In today’s society,” she answers, “it’s not possible.” There’s a cutting Indian edge here on the global contradictions of growth in a collapsing biosphere. Tea and eucalyptus plantations under the British Raj upset the balance and beauty of the green range of India’s Western Ghats in the 19th Century, and destroyed vast natural forest lands — but not so much that the state of Kerala doesn’t still market its mountains as “God’s own country.” For 20 years now there’s been an eco-tourism boom in Suprabha’s jungle — with roads, hotels, breaking-up of farms and new construction to serve high-end and mass visitors. The “eco” industry gets its name from the jungle, Suprabha says, but the jungle is withering. Ayurvedic medicine, the rage in New Delhi as well as Los Angeles, draws heavily on plants from Kerala wilds, “but where will we get them in a few years?” Better eco-tourism, I wonder, than the coal and bauxite mining that is churning a tribal rebellion in Eastern India? “Mining is rape,” Suprabha responds. “Eco-tourism is prostitution.” The good news from her own two decades on 60-plus acres in the wild is that forests and all their complexity do grow back. “The forest will return if given the chance. We call it ‘gardening back the biosphere.’ It can be done.” The bad news is that no one in or out of power will say “no” to eco-tourism and the promise of jobs. How, I asked her, will all this be remembered in the emerging story of the new India?

SS: I cannot relate with the new India at all. We have nothing in common in terms of what we seek as a possible future. The new India is appalling to me, if the new India means the exclusion of the forests. The new India means the end of nature to me. The two cannot go together: this is an apocalypse in the making. Because what is new “Shining” India going to shine with if it doesn’t have its rivers and its plants and its forests? What will it go forth with? CL: What piece of the old India are you invoking? And what is it in the old India that might ring an alarm? SS: The old India, what little I’ve known, is the diversity of things, the beauty and the sacredness and the diversity of things. In people, in the land, in trees and plants. Everything was sacred, and this was commonly felt. But modern industrial civilization, colonialism, all the powers that be have made it their special mission to destroy that relationship. The sacred doesn’t mean worship necessarily. The sacred means seeing each thing for what it is, and that it has its own right to be. And unfortunately it seems that a lot of mainstream religion has ritualized the sacred and has made an idol out of the sacred. So the sacred is now a plastic idol ringed by lights in someone’s concrete home. And so you worship your elephant that way. And meanwhile, the actual elephant is dying of tuberculosis, and herpes virus.  So my question has always been with regard to the so-called famous Indian tradition which is spiritual and so on: it’s become so symbolized and so ritualized and so separated from the actual earth that it has lost its meaning. It is virtual. It’s a virtual religion. CL: You sound like high Hindu priests I’ve read about, who teach this reverence for the single wasp, for every form of life… Is that a foothold for India to catch, against environmental disaster? This reverence for the planet, for life. SS: Reverence of any kind, of course, would be a very very powerful foothold. But I just don’t see it. Except in textbooks and stories. I do feel the modern media are crowding them out. Because you can have this experience of nature, of the wild, of the sacred, of anything, and you can almost believe that it’s true. And that’s the danger of the new technology to me: you can track a tiger in the forest through your computer and feel all that adrenaline rush, but you don’t have a relationship with a tiger. Because when you are with a tiger in the forest and your adrenaline rushes you’re a life and death situation… One gym instructor told me in the city, when I told him I live in the forest. He said “Oh, the jungle is a deadly place to booze!” That’s a crude version of what a lot of people do. They go to the jungle and they’re shut away from the jungle. The new technologies and this kind of removal that we see: it’s a severing that’s happened. They’re blind when they go to the forest. They have no means to look at the forest, to see it in a simple way. Just the beauty of it, let alone sacredness. Sacredness is so much more, it’s part of a life and a relationship, a recognition that we all have our spaces and relations with each other.

The deeper messages of entering the forest, and the silence, and the sensitivity, opening up and so on. That is a very quiet thing. That can’t happen in the way outdoor education is being sold to people: you work in an IT company and then you go for a weekend to the forest and then you have this outward bound experience. I don’t think it can happen like that. A relationship with nature is built over generations for the human species — the human species has come out of this million-year evolution, eye-to-eye contact with snakes, and elephants, and plants. You can’t really do it instantly. But a lot can be done: awareness is a pretty instant thing. People can be suddenly opened up in a pretty instant way. But, for that to build into a living relationship of sensitivity and mutual care, I don’t think that is so simple.

Suprabha Seshan in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

Podcast • October 25, 2010

V. S. Naipaul’s "Gloomy Clarity" about Africa, and Himself

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the ...

V. S. Naipaul, in the winter of his long writing life, doesn’t disguise his melancholy or his frailty. Still, his inquisitorial eye and his magic with a prose sentence have not abandoned him, nor the organ tones of his mesmerizing voice. In conversation he relishes my suggestion of magic — his new book on Africa is full of it. But when I cite some favorite examples of his inspired sentence-making, he recalls only hard labor in the cause of “gloomy clarity,” his signature effect. “I wrote that very carefully,” he intones. Of his non-fiction process — combining reading, field observation and interviewing — he says: “I see what is to be done, and I do it.” At a public reading the night before we spoke, the question came: what was the happiest moment of your writing career? “I suppose it would have occurred when one was very young. Because, you know, there are no happy moments now. When you are young the future is a great big ball, and anything is possible. So if you do a good review for The New Statesman and you feel good, it can make you quite happy, although it is a petty business… I know the future is small and eternally shrinking around me.”

Naipaul’s new book is called The Masque of Africa: it’s an inquiry not into politics or progress but into religion broadly: the magical systems of belief in Old Africa. “The new religions, Islam and Christianity, are just on the top,” says a classic Naipaul informant, a lawyer and former university dean in Gabon; his punchline is a perfect short Naipaulian thematic sentence: “Inside us is the forest.” Africa might well be better off today, Naipaul supposes, had its “forest beliefs” been spared foreign intrusions. Africa is a “wounded civilization,” he reflects, applying the phrase he used in one of several books on his ancestral India. But there is no going back, and perhaps no recovery from the loss of self and sovereignty. Naipaul was not at all impressed with my own “fantasy” that in both India and Africa it may be time, for some anyway, to rediscover the village possibilities, the chance that “Things Come Together.” Naipaul himself, of course, fled the colony (Trinidad) for the capital (London) long ago. His verdict is final: “the village is an awful place.”

On his best behavior, V. S. Naipaul knows how to be entertainingly grumpy. He does not forgive the English literary establishment for cold-shouldering him these many years, for snubbing even his Nobel Prize in 2001. He remembers one official personage sniffing: “It isn’t as though it’s the Booker Prize.” He is proud to have marked Tony Blair as a “pirate,” long before the Iraq War. “A calamity,” he judged. Wouldn’t he care, I asked, to offend somebody before we were done? “No, no, no, no,” insisted. “That is not part of my job.”

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Ashis Nandy’s ‘intimate enemies’

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. ...

NEW DELHI — Ashis Nandy has a big idea about “loss and recovery” in the history of colonialism. The bumpersticker version is that the conquerors and colonists lose in the end; the vanquished victims win. He is talking, of course, about England and India. By chance on the day of our conversation, England’s new prime minister David Cameron was visiting New Delhi — hat in hand, shopping for deals in the land that now owns Jaguar autos and most of British steelmaking, the only place (we read in the papers) where British Petroleum might find a bailout buyer, if it had to. But Ashis Nandy is keeping score not of capital accounts but, in effect, of moral and spiritual well-being. Taking many subtle measures of “post-colonial consciousness,” he finds India mending and Britain still warped and wounded by its old habit of domination. But colonialism, as Nandy observes it, does not end when the colonists are finally forced out. The “hidden message of colonialism” and the beguiling message of Ashis Nandy’s most famous book, The Intimate Enemy, is that “what others can do to you, you also can do to your own kind.” In the deep emotional compact that is colonialism, native elites learn to play by the rules of the hegemon’s game — the game known today, in a word, as “development.” With the result that in our post-colonial world, “the colonial mantle is now worn by native regimes” on most of the planet, “who are willing to do what the colonial powers did.”

Ashis Nandy is a widely beloved independent scholar, a social-psychological theorist, a prolific writer and talker “beyond category.” Our conversation, too, roams beyond borders and disciplines:

AN:Malcolm Muggeridge once said that Indians are the only surviving English in the world. I would go further. I think that only in India will you find Victorian England surviving in pockets so confidently that you can consider it, in museumized form, the last remaining vestige of Victorian England. Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, forgotten in England, survive here as the standards of detective and comic novels. There are people here who can give you street directions in London without ever having been there…

CL: Barack Obama will be coming to India in November. What would you want him to know about this country in a young century?

AN: I’d say he would be wise for him not to take the middle class as the be-all-and-end-all in India. The first principle is that he must take into account how the majority of Indians think about public life and global politics… Indians are looking for a more human and compassionate regime. Indians are not accustomed to impersonal government which works like a well-oiled machine, which gives them high growth rates but cannot take care of the more obscene forms of poverty and destitution. Actually, if you look at it, poverty is not a problem in India. Many sectors of Indians have lived in poverty for a long time, and their needs are very little. That is why most surveys show that most Indians are happy with their economic state though large sectors live in poverty. I think our problem is not so much poverty as destitution, what you might call absolute poverty where, if you don’t have the money you starve to death. You don’t starve to death in a tribal society for want of money. Only if the whole community doesn’t have money do you starve to death. I suspect that instead of trying to pull people above the poverty line, if we could directly attack this kind of destitution, we shall go much further.

CL: How would you attack it?

AN: By providing direct support to impoverished families — instead of a process of trickle-down effort where, by the time it trickles down, the bottom 10 percent will die perhaps, so you will eliminate poverty by eliminating the poor. Actually this has happened in many countries. I don’t want it to happen in India. I don’t think Obama can do anything about that, but he can at least be aware that the Indians he will be talking to are not the whole of India. They are a small minority.

A compassionate society is not impossible in India. It is tacitly accepted that it would be better that way, and an open society gives you scope to fight for it. But these battles are delegitimized by new power structures that Indians are not accustomed to handling. For example India never had multi-national corporations. They never had this plethora of billionaires who bestride Indian public life now in such a flamboyant manner, pontificating about everything. Indians are not used to this kind of heavy media exposure. They have not developed the kind of skepticism that Americans have after watching television for 60 years; Indians have seen it only for 15 years or so. Their judgments are too influenced by media. The newspapers are trying to imitate television now, becoming entertainment dailies instead of newspapers.

So it looks as if this is all of India: information technology; this proliferation of engineers and technical education of all kinds; the large number of Singapore-style malls you see in all Indian cities; the fashion parrots; Bollywood. These seem to be the New India, but it is not the New India.

New India is those who embarrass you by scratching their backs with forks, sitting in Parliament. That’s the New India, and you don’t like to recognize them because they’re new to power, new to the urbanity to which you are accustomed. Even that embarrassment that the middle class feels about these crude, slightly rustic hillbillies coming to power — that represents something of the New India, because they’ve expanded political participation and released new energies from the bottom of the society. New kinds of political leaders will come from these people, or at least from their children. This is the price you pay for democracy and an open society. The challenge is not to close up society and hand over initiative only to the technocrats. The challenge is how to allow to allow greater political participation and listen to the voice of the people.

Ashis Nandy in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • September 3, 2010

Real India: Namita Gokhale: the revolution will be written!

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Namita Gokhale (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Namita Gokhale — novelist, publisher, sparkplug of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival — says the essential (maybe the only) revolution in India today is literary. She’s envisioning something like a galactic explosion outward from a Sanskritic big bang of three or maybe five thousand years ago. Abetted by digital technology, in deep sync with the info-tech surge in the Indian economy, her Indian literary supernova today is a force for liberating language communities, women and what used to be “untouchable” or “unhearable” voices. “Many languages, one literature” is the stand-by mantra of Indian writers. “Simultaneous” and “subversive” are the contemporary tags on a booming Indian literary space that she says is “beginning to see itself in its own mirror.”

It is the multiplicity of voices. It’s the spaces both democratic and technological — you’ve had a very stratified society for thousands of years. People are breaking out into an individual and individuated understanding of themselves. It’s a big deal for women to be able to be given new spaces, for people from different castes, different repressive backgrounds to be given new spaces and equal opportunities.

There’s huge collateral damage … but it is a new India in the hope that many people bring, with education, with the right to assert themselves. Of course all this hope is surrounded by hopelessness and damage. But there is a new India, fighting for its voice through many, many languages, through many literary traditions coming together to speak not as one voice, because in India we would never speak as one voice. Not in an orchestra either, because an orchestra is not an Indian concept. But in what is called a jugalbandi. Jugalbandi is when two people sing and perform together in a way that has complex classical structures, but is completely improvised in that moment. That is a Jugalbandi…

Namita Gokhale in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 31, 2010

Real India: On the Couch with Sudhir Kakar

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes and talks about is different not only from our world but also from its own branding. “Indians,” he writes, for example, “are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the world’s largest and most plural democracy.”

Sudhir Kakar looks and listens like an anthropologist. He also writes novels. But you sense that the firm basis of his reputation as a public intellectual — an authority especially on Indian identity and character, what he calls “Indian-ness” — is his many years as a professional psychoanalyst, in Goa and New Delhi, hearing out individual sagas of a changing society and culture.

His “Indianness” is a psychological category with a few critical elements.

“If there is one ‘ism’ that governs Indian society and institutions,” he begins, “it is familyism.” It is an “ideology of relationships,” the unwritten rule of business and politics, built around the “joint family” in which brothers after marriage bring their wives into a parental household.

Second, there is the rule of hierarchy and the eternal consciousness of rank, a legacy of thousands of years of caste distinctions.

Third comes a view of the human body out of the Ayurvedic tradition: if Western psychology and medicine see the body as a fortress under siege, the Indian body is seen as open in many dimensions — to planetary influences, for example.

Fourth, a shared cultural imagination learned mainly from the ancient epics encompasses Hindus and Muslims, literate classes and the unwashed, in a “romantic vision of human life.”

And what happens, I inquire, when Indian-ness gets ever more deeply enmeshed in a global culture?

There are two or three ideologies of the global world which come in. Very simply, the ideologies of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity…

Of course, equality clashes against the very hierarchical part of [Indian-ness]: one has to deal with one’s innate way of looking at the world in a hierarchical way and the brain saying that one should look at people as equals…

Fraternity is not that big a difficulty, because the Indian Hindu view has been influenced by Islam, where fraternity has always been one of the biggest virtues of human beings.

I think the biggest change that has taken place, where [liberty] has impacted Indian-ness, has been the change in women in the last fifty years: the acceptance of the notion that, first, girls are equal to boys as far as education is concerned, and, second, that they are free to go out to work. And that has impacted many many things…

Sudhir Kakar in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 26, 2010

Real India: Tarun Tejpal’s heart-ache for "the idea of India"

In the slick commercial media of New Delhi, Tehelka is the strong-minded reformist alternative. It could remind you of The New Yorker and The Nation back home. Tehelka is fearless and critical if not exactly radical in its politics; it is passionate and informed but not forbiddingly high-brow on literature, movies and the arts. Tehelka's greatest coup was a sting back in 2001 that made bribery look routine and easy in military arms procurement. It cost the Defense Minister his job but brought a vengeful bureaucracy down on the magazine, which has barely survived financially.

 

NEW DELHI — Tarun Tejpal — muckraker, editor and novelist — is speaking with professional zeal and a certain generational remorse about his remarkable ten-year-old magazine Tehelka.

In the slick commercial media of New Delhi, Tehelka is the strong-minded reformist alternative. It could remind you of The New Yorker and The Nation back home. Tehelka is fearless and critical if not exactly radical in its politics; it is passionate and informed but not forbiddingly high-brow on literature, movies and the arts. Tehelka’s greatest coup was a sting back in 2001 that made bribery look routine and easy in military arms procurement. It cost the Defense Minister his job but brought a vengeful bureaucracy down on the magazine, which has barely survived financially.

Tarun Tejpal’s father was a military officer who wore English suits and used a knife and fork. He was what Indians call with some embarrassment now, a “Brown Sahib,” wishing his way into the ruling class. Tarun Tejpal’s daughters, on the contrary, have chosen colleges and careers in the United States — in a modern Indian spirit that admires America despite everything, as in “Yankee go home, and take me with you.” Tarun Tejpal himself, as a young scholar and athlete, dropped out of the Rhodes Scholarship race that would have sent him to Oxford because he couldn’t miss a day of the historic action unfolding in India as he came of age in the Eighties. He finds himself now, age 47, appalled at the opportunities missed, the visions that lost traction, the generation and social class that abandoned “the idea of India” for an orgy of acquisition and consumption.

… Were you to ask me what I feel about India today, I would say: great distress. Were you to ask me: are you optimistic about India? I would say: no. Were you to ask me whether you think we will come through, I would say: maybe. But what we certainly are not is what the world imagines us to be: this great rising, shining superpower, this juggernaut spreading its head. It’s much more complex than that. There are some millions of us who are there, and among whom I count myself, who have wealth, education, privilege, mobility, power. We have all that. Is it remotely true of the majority of this country? It’s not. Seven hundred, 800 million people in this country do not have a story to their lives…

There was a big difference when we became independent. We were 300 million then. The incredible triumph of the leaders of the time was to wed 330 million people in one master narrative. Everybody was part of the same master narrative. Today, the master narrative has shrapnelled completely. The only narrative is the Shining India narrative, which fundamentally concerns maybe 200 million people…

But you’re still talking about another 900 million to a billion people who are not part of this narrative… who have no story. For now and for the next 50 years, any prime minister for this country has only one constituency to look out for. It’s mandated by the founding of this country, it’s mandated by our history that there’s only one class of people the prime minister has to watch out for, and that’s the wretched of this land. The rest of this country can look out for itself. This is a country where 50 percent of its people live in conditions worse than Sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t understand. There are more poor people in India than the entire population of Africa. How we manage the sleight of hand of totally creating this other story is bizarre.

Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 25, 2010

Real India: The BBC’s Mark Tully on Poverty and "Tinderwood"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of the BBC in New Delhi since 1964 — knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1991 even after he quit the Beeb in a row with management; and endlessly decorated by Indians for coverage that always sounds incisive, fair and curious. “Try and talk with Mark Tully if you can,” everybody told me, about an institution like none other in India.

Mark Tully didn’t “go native.” He is native, born in Calcutta in 1934 into an English commercial family. Anecdotally at least, he’s a link to the last days of the British Raj — when, as he says, an Englishman in India knew it was time to wake up and get busy when he chanced to feel his chin and realized he’d been shaved. Tully went to school and university in England, then returned to India for the chance to talk on the radio.

At home in the shadow of Humayun’s Tomb, he is speaking about changes he’s lived through: the enlistment of lower castes as voters; the rise and decline of Hindu nationalism; the rising power of a rich business class and the declining competence of a “flailing state”; the American-style “malling” of India, against the grain of a broad Indian distrust of American culture as “consumerist” and “vulgar.” Of the official relations with the US that warmed toward partnership in the George W. Bush years, Tully says “America expects more than India is going to be able to give unless it’s a relationship of equals.” Of the “new India,” Mark Tully’s sense is still of a vast nation moving steadily and slowly in many of the right directions, “a dangerous country to try and move forward too fast.”

One of the big changes I see is that there is a great deal more self-confidence in India now than there used to be. When I first came here, India was said to be living “from ship to mouth,” because it was so dependent on American food aid. They were very touchy about any suggestion of foreign interference or anything like that. They were very uncertain of themselves. There was a whole lot of questioning about the stability of India after Nehru. Now, India is almost over-confident. It is so self-confident that in my view it is actually failing to look at the problems that it faces.

India really does believe that it is going to be one of the great economic superpowers of this century… What is wrong with this talk is that it is based on one figure only, which is GDP growth. Now, GDP growth does not tell you who is growing. It just tells you that the nation as a whole is growing, and even then we all know it’s not a very accurate figure of that. The problem in this country is a very obvious one, which is still not being properly tackled. And that is that the economic growth is not getting down to the poorer people.

Now, India is facing the problem or the advantage of having a very young population coming up. And we know that the young population can be a huge advantage in terms of their inventiveness, their willingness to take risks, their entrepreneurial skills, and all the rest of it that young people have. But at the same time, young people who are dissatisfied, young people who are not getting what they feel they should get — not getting jobs, not getting good education, not having opportunities, being under financial strain, being poor — those sort of people are tinderwood. They are the sort of people an explosion can be fired by. And that is the real danger in this country…

In some ways, the whole caste system and the belief in karma, the belief that the way you are now is partly fated by what you did in your last life… these things actually do matter, they do count. But these pressures are now weakening. Caste doesn’t have the same impact as it used to have before. More and more people are no longer prepared to accept this poverty. In the old days, the poor were scattered in villages all around the country. Now, more and more of them are coming in to the big cities, and more and more of them are living in slums, where explosions of violence and rioting can easily take place. And they do take place.

Mark Tully in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 24, 2010

Real India: Shashi Tharoor, the ‘NRI’ who came home

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first run for office, and has been paying the price ever since.

Bounced in April from P. M. Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet but still a honeyed voice in the Indian Parliament, Shahshi Tharoor is the politician people talk about in India, the one that 800,000 follow on Twitter.

Married for the third time this past weekend, at age 54, his life appears to unfold as in a 19th Century novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. Bollywood-handsome and a moon-light novelist himself, Shashi Tharoor could be living a version of the triumphs and trials of Phineas Finn, The Irish Member in Trollope’s Parliamentary series of Palliser novels.

The best of Shashi Tharoor’s story is that though several long plot lines are clear, the outcomes are not.

Born in London, he is a child of privilege who marked himself, with a certain theatrical flair, for public service — first at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was the youngest ever (22) to take a doctoral degree.

After a meaty 20-year career at the United Nations in peacekeeping and refugee crises, he became Kofi Annan’s Under-Secretary-General and spokesman. When Kofi Annan stepped down, Tharoor made a creditable run in 2006 for the Secretary General’s job. When that failed (on the nod of the Bush White House) he made an unconventional choice in middle age: to develop his own political base in India.

But can a Non-Resident Indian go home again? Can a smooth-as-silk diplomat from the East Side of Manhattan put down roots in Trivandrum, the capital of famously leftist Kerala? With strong support from President Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party, the popular vote last year was overwhelmingly: Yes.

But could Shashi Tharoor, a voluminous commentator on Indian history and politics, and a biographer of Jawarhalal Nehru, learn the hard way how the inside game gets played?

Could a master of public-speak and digital media cope with newspaper headline writers who seemed suddenly out nail him — for referring on Twitter, for example, to economy air-line seats (in the land of the sacred cow) as “cattle class”?

And then, crucially, in the gold-rush of professional made-for-TV cricket, did Shashi Tharoor blur public and private interests when he advocated for a Kerala franchise in which his fiancee had a sweat-equity interest of nearly 5 percent? This was the question — about judgment and appearances, not wrong-doing or financial gain — that cost Shashi Tharoor his plum seat in the Cabinet as Minister of State for External Affairs.

Will he be invited back, after a decent interval, into the government? And will he yet emerge as a talking embodiment of a New India still more seen and admired than it is heard?

ST: I think India stands for an astonishingly important experiment in the world, of trying to pursue development and overcome huge problems of poverty and internal social divisions, violence and so on, through democracy. And that is its most important contribution to the world of today. Secondly, it’s been an astonishing advertisement for the management of pluralism of a diversity that rarely can be found anywhere in the world and that yet is being managed without tyranny, and indeed with a startling insight that people are free to be themselves, including fully covered Muslim women and Turbaned Sikh men and people in a wide variety of clothes and so on, because the whole logic is that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, and even conviction, but still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the sort of Indian idea that it doesn’t really matter whether you agree all the time or not, as long as you agree on how to disagree. We’ve managed to sustain that effectively, and it’s a very different example from that of China, which is rightly being admired around the world for what it’s been able to accomplish, but which functions as a society and as a player on the world stage very differently from India. And I think that the world should have room for both styles and both ways of doing things. Both are ancient civilizations with their own cultural underpinnings that give us the contemporary reality of today.

CL: There is something in this moment, I sense, that is calling for India. It has something to do with India’s post-imperial recovery and its growth, its emotional groove, and a connection with so many other parts of the world that are struggling with these same transitions. Africa first, but Latin America too; the South, the poor, the post-colonial. Would you draw a little bit on your own dealings in Africa, with Rwanda for example, and elsewhere where you sense some sort of potency in the Indian idea?

ST: It’s been very, very striking. First of all, Africa represents a continent of enormous need and enormous potential. But there is a global perception of this kind of scramble for Africa in which China is beating all comers. I would just say with all respect that we are not China. I mean, we’re not there to scavenge for resources. We are certainly not doing anything as India to either directly influence African governments or to tell them what to do. Our approach is very much, “Tell us what your needs are, and let’s see if we can help you” sort of thing. And it’s been working very well. We don’t have the kinds of resources that others do to give large grants, but we do do a lot of very soft loans, practically with no interest, which are being snapped up. We do have one intriguing advantage that I’ve discovered from talking to a very large number of African leaders, which is that when Africans look at the Western model or the Chinese, they are very impressed. They look with awe and admiration. But they don’t actually see any affinity there, whereas when they look at India, they see a country which seems to be facing many of the kinds of problems they face, and seems nonetheless, through all the chaos and difficulties, to have overcome some of them. And they feel, “Hey, if India can do that, maybe we can learn from them, maybe we can overcome some of our problems too, because they’re so much like us.” That affinity is a huge advantage to us, and it helps that India has been on the side of African freedom from the colonial era onwards, and there are lots of longstanding relationships between India and Africa.

CL: But then what? What does India do with it?

ST: What India does with it is we offer them our expertise, we encourage our private sector to go in again. And another way that India is different from China is that most of India’s current engagement in Africa is through facilitating the work of our private sector. It’s Indian companies going in and building the presidential palace in Ghana or building a railway line in Ethiopia or constructing factories like many, many countries in the world. An Indian entrepreneur has bought large chunks of land in Ethiopia to grow flowers to export to Europe. Now that’s the sort of thing that would never occur to an Indian government organization, but it’s part of the sort of newly liberalized economic thrust of today’s India that we’re seeing. And I must say that it’s a way in which India can contribute to Africa without being part of … allegations of either government corruption or statism, or any of the problems that have bedeviled previous international economic engagement on that continent.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 20, 2010

Real India: M. A. Baby and "Kerala Communism"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with M. A. Baby (29 minutes, 14 mb mp3) TRIVANDRUM, Kerala — M. A. Baby is giving us an introductory dose of Indian leftism in power. A Communist and ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with M. A. Baby (29 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

TRIVANDRUM, Kerala — M. A. Baby is giving us an introductory dose of Indian leftism in power.

A Communist and a Catholic, too, he is the Minister of Education and Culture in a coalition government that runs the state of Kerala — often described as the most (perhaps the only) successful Communist regime (and one of the best-educated states) in human experience.

M. A. Baby embodies Communism in the Indian style, sitting before a portrait of Gandhi, quoting Marx and Engels as Gospel. Non-aligned between Soviet Russia and China in the old days, Indian Reds are an articulate fringe in national politics, with real voting bases in only three states: West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.

Here in Kerala, Communists have been a key stone in solid progressive alliance over most of century, and they share the credit for India’s best scores in literacy, public health, anti-caste reforms and relative equality of fortunes. Yet in many conversations (including ours with Paul Zacharia) the Communists have a share in the general disrepute of government for cronyism, if not corruption.

The deeper discouragement, as Minister Baby himself acknowledges, is that the many left-wing governments of Kerala in 63 years since Independence have all been stymied by economic stagnation and unemployment. Kerala is in the habit of giving young people first-rate educations for jobs that don’t exist. The best and brightest from Kerala work in the Europe, the Gulf and the States. By Minister Baby’s estimate, which staggers me, a quarter of Kerala’s gross annual income comes in remittances from out-of-state.

CL: A lot of students in Kerala, when we asked about their politics, called it “left.” But none could say what the agenda was. How would you describe the content of your “left”?

MAB: The left, according to me, is those who are fighting to reduce the inequities in society — if possible to eradicate the man-made differences in society. There are natural differences. But the natural resources in this beautiful planet should not be monopolized by some. According to me, we don’t say: ‘this part of the air and atmosphere and oxygen belongs to me; this much of the sunshine belongs to me.’ The entire humanity should have an almost equal say and share. I’m not against private property, but private property should be to a minimum. And human beings are not the center of all activity, as they used to be in all progressive thinking. Now all the other creatures — they, too, have an equal right to this beautiful planet.

CL: What’s the connection with Mahatma Gandhi, whose portrait is over your desk, as it is over so many desks?

MAB: Albert Einstein said that future generations would find it difficult to believe that a person of flesh and blood like Mahatma Gandhi walked this earth. It’s a very true description. I have the greatest respect for the contribution of Mahatma Gandhi, and I have all the works of Mahatma Gandhi with me. Whenever I get tired I read him almost at random. It’s very interesting in the formulations of Mahatma Gandhi that he claimed: ‘I am a Hindu. I am a Muslim. I am a Buddhist. And I am a poor Communist.’ And to a great extent he is serious. I could see the influence of Communism in him.

CL: I keep seeing 95 percent as the measure of literacy in the state of Kerala. Everybody says that for 50 years in India, Kerala has led the way toward literacy, and now computer literacy, but also social equality, health care and health itself. Why so different from the rest of India?

MAB: Historically even the monarchy, the royalty we had, used to take an interest in education and cultural matters. Even during royal times, and British times, in the field of education, progressive things were happening — with a lot of limitations. So after Independence, the gap we had to cover in literacy and education was less than what existed in other provinces. It’s like Sir Isaac Newton saying: ‘If I am able to see further… it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

M. A. Baby in conversation with Chris Lydon in Trivandrum, India. July, 2010