I kid, but it isn’t funny: women in India face significant challenges, and too often, it seems, issues like gender parity fall by the wayside as the country focuses on its spectacular economic growth, etc.

It’s probably just lip service, but it is heartening to hear the country’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, thrusting the issue into the public eye. In a speech Monday, Singh said, “We are an ancient civilisation and we call ourselves a modern nation. And yet, we live with the ignominy of an adverse gender balance due to social discrimination against women built into our societal structures. … Our record in female literacy is far from satisfactory as the last Census recorded only 54% female literacy in the country. The last Census again showed a declining child sex ratio. This is a national shame and we must face this challenge squarely here and now. It indicates that growing economic prosperity and education levels have not led to a corresponding mitigation of the problem.”

For a good primer on the social status of women in India, I’d suggest the Bridge “India Gender Profile” (PDF). The Wikipedia page on women in India, though of debatable quality, also surfaces a number of issues and provides a bit of historical context.

(Image from the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh.)

And have lots to recommend from it, including Sichan Siv’sLast Breakfast in Cambodia,” a meditation on the future of the country only now beginning to recover from the implosion of the ’70s. An excerpt:

Cambodia today is not unlike the Cambodia of my youth — there is deep poverty and enormous wealth, side-by-side. There is unrest beneath the surface, the unrest that helped to make the horrors of the last century possible. And so, as I walk from one memory-filled place to another, I pray for a new year in which Cambodia’s leaders will find a way to bring about peace and stability.

Really interesting report, “Eviction Slip,” at Guernica Mag site. The author, Mark Dowie, touches on the human cost of conservation, explaining how adivasis are being displaced to preserve forest or other land for wildlife. A brief excerpt:

In early 2005, a national debate erupted in India over the future of its national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger. Media reports of a “tiger crisis” led to the creation of several “Project Tiger” sanctuaries around the country. As one might expect, the sides taken on the status and protection of tigers were, on the one hand, wildlife conservationists intent upon saving a truly magnificent species from extinction, and on the other, anthropologists and tribal activists intent upon preserving the cultures of tribal people, 325,000 of whom still live inside the core and buffer zones of tiger reserves. …

Gujjars [a traditional grazing community] and tigers have coexisted in Sariska [a wildlife reserve] for thousands of years. The decline in tiger population is a consequence of development—large dams, iron mines and the shifting appetites of distant elites—not the lifeways of forest dwellers whose habitats have likewise been threatened by the same phenomena. “Why then punish one victim to save the other?” asks Indian historian Ramachandra Guha.

In almost every respect, the relocation of Gujjars was badly planned and executed, and evictees were compensated at unbearably low rates. Those relocated inside the forest still had access to firewood, water and livestock fodder. But for years they faced an uncertain future about the permanence of their new residence. Some evictees have returned to their original villages in search of better soil and water, forsaking schools, clinics and other amenities built in relocation communities. The outcome, in a word, has been chaos. However, relocation has continued despite the real threat of pushing another traditional community into utter destitution, while accomplishing next to nothing for endemic wildlife.

Little-known fact: surly old T was a varsity cheerleader for a number of years in high school. Her caboose was loose, and her team was boom dynamite, and even when a rival high school burned the words “white trash” in 20-foot letters on her alma mater’s football field, she kept high kicking.

But even she is skeptical of the Washington Redskins’ stunt to cobble together a cheer squad for a new cricket side in India, as reported by Tunku Varadarajan in today’s Times op-ed section. And though I find the idea objectionable, I do like Varadarajan’s take on things:

Inevitably, moral scolds — of which India, as a society, has a surplus — will write letters to the editor complaining about the vulgarity/anti-Indianness/neocolonialism of the cheerleaders. It is conceivable, too, that there will be demonstrations outside the cricket stadium by women’s groups and Hindu fundamentalists.

All this, however, pales when compared to the broader lessons. With the Redskins cheerleaders on Indian soil, one can safely declare that the British cultural influence in India has been entirely replaced by an American one, cricket notwithstanding. India’s relationship with the United States — economic, strategic, diasporic and cultural — is now its primary external alliance, with a complex nuclear deal at one end of the spectrum and 12 cheerleaders and two choreographers at the other.

Spotting of the day: Sarah Chalke from Scrubs in an advertisement for a pharmacy, shot at the market near the bus station in La Antigua, Guatemala. Trust her! She’s neurotic and quirky!

So I was watching network TV today, which I rarely do (I usually save my TV watching for the weekend and catch up on NBC.com, &c.), and a commercial for Vitamin Water that featured Kelly Clarkson came on.

“Oooh! K-dawg! You’re muh girl! I wanna break away!”

She looks awesome and cute, but the commercial is utter tripe — and not only because the product she’s shilling is, at best, utterly unnecessary. I think it’s supposed to be a spoof of German talk shows (?!), and the host is like, “Rock und roll! I hear you’re into trying new things! Like India!” And then Kelly’s all “Yes! I wanted to learn to be a snake charmer!” and the host honks “Rock and roll!” and then we cut to a guy dressed up kind of like one of those monkeys that wear fezes, and he’s playing a tiny piano, and he’s in … brownface?

Oh, India. More than a billion people, and the American media would have you believe that all of them fall into neat categories like (1) gurus/godmen, (2) starving peasants, and (3) tech geniuses.

A piece by Salman Rushdie, “The Shelter of the World,” ran in last week’s New Yorker, and while I didn’t find the story (a tale of Emperor Akbar and maybe-real, maybe-imaginary wife Jodha) as gripping as I have some of his work, one passage jumped out at me:

“The court was also full of foreigners, pomaded exotics, weather-beaten merchants, narrow-faced priests from the West, boasting in ugly, undesirable tongues about the majesty of their lands, their gods, their kings. When the Emperor showed her the pictures of their mountains and valleys they’d brought with them, she thought of the Himalayas and of Kashmir and laughed at the foreigners’ paltry approximations of natural beauty, their vaals and aalps, half-words to describe half-things. Their kings were savages, and they had nailed their god to a tree. What did she want with people as ridiculous as that?

They came in search of—what, exactly? Nothing of use. If they had possessed any wisdom, the inutility of their journeying would have been obvious to them. Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and spirited you away into fairlylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Not sure whether it’s happenstance or by calculation, but Rushdie’s not the only person who’s got something to say about the erstwhile emperor. Jodhaa Akbar, a Bollywood flick billed as “a sixteenth-century love story about a marriage of alliance that gave birth to true love between a great Mughal emperor, Akbar, and a Rajput princess, Jodhaa,” debuted on February 15 and has been in the news ever since, not least because its historical accuracy has been called into question. The Times gave it a fairly good review, but people in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Sonepat, and Ambala will have to wait for pirated VCDs of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Cecil B. DeMille-esque grasp of cinematic grandeur.

The Times of India offers a fairly good precis of recent controversies related to Bollywood releases; the Hindustan Times also chimes in with analysis of the phenomenon.

Mass hysteria, the making of a mountain out of a molehill? Or a microcosm of a deep sense of unrest about (historical and contemporary) identity in India? I can’t say that I have any answers, or even insight. But Bollywood — and artistic expression, disciplined studies or street-level outpourings — does, however, seem like an important vehicle for understanding the subcontinent; I certainly find it, and the way people in the middle class interact with it, more enlightening than figures from the World Bank about the economy’s growth.

Additional links:
Bollywood literacy for the 1990s and today, a Berkeley course coordinated by Leena Kamat and Katherine Good
Hindi cinema: making meaning of a popular culture
Desi critics
Queering Bollywood
Bollywood as India’s cultural ambassador
Bollywood for the skeptical
Upperstall: a better view of Indian cinema
Bollywood fashion police
BollySpace 2.0
Beth loves Bollywood

One of my latest guilty pleasures has been doing Google Book searches on my favorite topics. A search for “tea” yielded a full scan of Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, a meditation upon the social meaning of the beverage (particularly in Japan, but larger meaning can certainly be extrapolated). Okakura writes:

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the ordinary facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. … [W]hen we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.

Okakura also offers insight on the foibles of globalization (applicable, still, 100 years after he penned this tome):

Unfortunately the Western attitude is unfavorable to the understanding of the East. The Christian missionary goes to impart, but not to receive. Your information is based on the meagre translations of our immense literature, if not the unreliable anecdotes of passing travellers.

(And, an addendum in the form of a cool link: the National Institute of Health has an interesting collection of info on America’s tea craze, which blossomed right around the time Okakura’s book came out.)

About 10,000 tea stalls in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, are closed in protest of spiraling fuel costs — an interesting story in the context of global energy costs, etc.

The story I’ve linked to is quite short; I’ve only found mentions of the strike in The Hindu and IndiaInteracts.com, and the reporting is woefully insufficient. Are the stall owners being reactionary? Have long-time subsidies given way to what the government and/or regulators perceive as more “fair” pricing? How does this (or can this) contrast with the reaction of, say, Americans to higher gas prices?

Discuss.


Image licensed under Creative Commons by Flickr’s net_efekt.

Two interesting stories in the Wall Street Journal today on different sides of mental illness: The first explores the ways in which certain drug companies may have exaggerated the effectiveness of prescription medications used to treat mental illness in the U.S., and the second looks at how families in China grapple with the mentally ill.

The second story perturbed me a bit; the narrative centers on a family that constructed a cage in which they imprisoned their son, who had stabbed a neighbor to death. I think what bothers me is that it implicitly borders on the belief that something of this nature wouldn’t happen in the U.S., that the way we construct mental illness is so evolved as to avoid any such irrational, desperate measures. I’m sure if one looked closely enough at court records or crime blotters in the U.S., it would be easy to find similar stories — exhausted parents with no money, no insurance, and no other options make choices that in hindsight seem unnecessarily cruel; I doubt the reporter meant to conflate Chinese culture and an individual’ behavior, but lacking context or broader epidemiological details, the story makes me a bit uneasy about what readers might infer.

Today it was widely reported that mortgage lender IndyMac will cut its workforce by 24% — or about 2,400 employees; just another headline in a paper full of the depressing consequences of the housing-market shakeout from this summer, at first glance, but some reports chose to highlight a rather interesting factoid.

About 400 of the employees cut are based in India.

There’s such a to-do about people in India “taking our jobs” that (in an admittedly sickening way) it’s almost refreshing to hear that they’ll also be affected by the downturn. See, fellow Americans? It’s not as if people in the subcontinent are immune to shocks to the economic system. Certain people benefit, and certain people get screwed, and eventually we all either find a way to adjust, or we sell our Harley-Davidsons and move back in with our parents.

In this spirit, I recommend Steven Landsburg’s op-ed today in the Times, “What to Expect When You’re Free Trading.” We all want that damned Wal-Mart smiley-face to whistle down the aisles as prices fall, but you can’t have everything: higher wages and no job loss and prices dwindling ever lower. Something’s gotta give — which is not to say that we can’t endlessly debate the fairness or unfairness of whatever snaps at the stress — but something’s gotta give.

I’d prefer if the Western press featured better coverage of international stories, or if there were less anachronistic synopses of current events in India, and I just happen to be more fascinated by social phenomena than by economic shifts. But I’ll take this glimpse into the country — even if it’s only a passing glance as the door behind which millions of lives teem closes — as a start.

An interesting piece about the human toll of sourcing products from low-cost countries: “In Chinese Factories, Lost Fingers and Low Pay” (David Barboza, NY Times). I think this passage should send shivers down the spine of anyone buying cheap toys from Wal-Mart:

“I work on the plastic molding machine from 6 in the morning to 6 at night,” said Xu Wenquan, a tiny, baby-faced 16-year-old whose hands were covered with blisters. Asked what had happened to his hands, he replied, the machines are “quite hot, so I’ve burned my hands.”

Equally if not more resonant was J. Adam Huggins’ documentation of Indian steelforgers contracted to make manhole covers for Con Edison. Barefoot and sweating so we can save some dollars … it just doesn’t seem quite fair.

(Password/logins may be required; I used BugMeNot to bypass it.)

Excellent op-ed in the Times today, “Putting a Plague in Perspective,” by Daniel Halperin (a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and the 2005-06 HIV prevention adviser in southern Africa for USAID) — Halperin marshals an argument that by focusing on funding AIDS projects in Africa, rather than wider public health concerns to address problems such as inadequate access to safe water. He writes:

“Many millions of African children and adults die of malnutrition, pneumonia, motor vehicle accidents and other largely preventable, if not headline-grabbing, conditions. One-fifth of all global deaths from diarrhea occur in just three African countries — Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria — that have relatively low H.I.V. prevalence. Yet this condition, which is not particularly difficult to cure or prevent, gets scant attention from the donors that invest nearly $1 billion annually on AIDS programs in those countries.

I was struck by this discrepancy between Western donors’ priorities and the real needs of Africans last month, during my most recent trip to Africa. In Senegal, H.I.V. rates remain under 1 percent in adults, partly due to that country’s early adoption of enlightened policies toward prostitution and other risky practices, in addition to universal male circumcision, which limits the heterosexual spread of H.I.V. Rates of tuberculosis, now another favored disease of international donors, are also relatively low in Senegal, and I learned that even malaria, the donors’ third major concern, is not quite as rampant as was assumed, with new testing finding that many fevers aren’t actually caused by the disease.”

“Wombs for rent: Surrogacy business booming in India” (Associated Press)

The Indian/global press has been covering this story for some time now, but it’s a pretty compelling stuff, so I’ll let the article’s nut graf speak for itself:

“More than 50 women in this city [Anand, India] are now pregnant with the children of couples from the United States, Taiwan, Britain and beyond. The women earn more than many would make in 15 years. But the program raises a host of uncomfortable questions that touch on morals and modern science, exploitation and globalization, and that most natural of desires: to have a family.”

 teaoclock.jpg

 Interesting (quick) read on Bloomberg about a pretty sizeable drop in tea exports from India. Exports are down 24%, attributable partly to the rupee’s appreciation and partly to an increase in supplies from Kenya.

What are Kenyan teas like? Anyone tried? Can you get all tea snob and check out their estate wares like you can with Makaibari, &c.?

(Picture is from trip to Dharamsala in February — it’s always tea o’clock in my house!)

Gridskipper, the bastion of hip urban travel, has for some reasons decided to highlight the benefit of Christmassing in India…without actually saying anything. John Rambow notes:

Christmas in India! What could be wackier? It’s true that Christians make up only a sliver of India’s total population. But in some areas, such as parts of Kerala and Goa, on the southwest coast, their numbers may be as high as 20%. Additionally, cities that were once centers of power under the British Raj, including Kolkata (Calcutta), Bangalore, and Chennai, also have fair numbers of Jesus-loving types, and that means garlands, nativity scenes, and Christmas stars are easy to spot in December.

Yes, what COULD be wackier? Those heathens, always coopting our perfectly benign, semi-secular traditions; what will they do next — buy their sweethearts chocolates on Valentine’s Day? Insane-o!

What disturbs me most about this, though, is not that Rambow is so patronizingly astounded that people in another culture might be Christian and/or celebrate “Western” holidays, but that Gridskipper — which I find generally informative and helpful — moves so far away from its generally palatable tips about occasion- and location-specific to-dos. Why not stick with your formula and highlight the five best places for a Christmas brunch in Delhi or Mumbai, rather than mawkishly marveling about another symptom of globalization?

To fill their void, my picks for making merry in India’s capitol:

1) Wenger’s in CP

2) Pam’s Breakfast & Food Centre (for more egg-based propaganda than you can shake a stick at)

3) Chocolate Wheel in Jor Bagh

4) The German Christmas carnival in Chanakyapuri

5) INA Market, across from Dilli Haat, for any fresh fixing you need to create your own Christmas dinner (even the notoriously hard-to-find jellied cranberry sauce)

(Alternatively, some ideas from journalists at the Hindustan Times, Times of India, and The Indian Express.)