Month: September 2010

Happy World Tourism Day

What was supposed to be India’s proud moment in the international spotlight has quickly turned into the country’s hour of shame. Instead of news concerning the unifying qualities of sport, Rwanda’s induction into the commonwealth, or any beneficial aspects of the games being hosted by India, the press has released headline upon headline regarding the corruption and mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Those following the news have surely come across photos of the athletes’ village labeled “disgusting” and “filthy” and heard reports of, amongst other things, the collapse of a ceiling and a pedestrian bridge, the shooting of two Taiwanese tourists in a potential terrorist attack, the presence of stray dogs and human excrement in guest rooms, the lack of water in the toilets, two hundred doctors and medical staff not being given proper accreditation to work, the withdrawals of prominent athletes and threats of national teams pulling out, athletes having to wait eight hours to get into their rooms, and, most recently, a snake being found in the residential quarters. That the Chief Vigilance Commission has reported corruption on every level in the organization processes of the games should not really be of any surprise.

As my company and I shake our heads while watching all of this unfold on the television news, there is also an unspoken acknowledgment of the necessity of the shame of the games. And this has been concisely expressed in this Global Post article:

There has been a disquieting whiff of postcolonial satisfaction in the foreign reaction to rising India’s comeuppance. Yet a wholesale cancellation might just be the best thing for a nation that — while it can lay claim to tremendous promise — is still struggling to be great.

Many observers will be tempted to see this failure as a fable of false pride ending in just humiliation. But apathy, not hubris, is India’s fatal flaw, and a bracing dose of shame may be exactly what is needed to shake its incredibly capable, but politically inert, middle class into action.

The risk is that this shame will inject new life into the old argument that India suffers from too much democracy — a favorite hobby horse of this bunch. No, India is not China. But the Games fiasco was not the result of parliamentary gridlock or popular protest. The farce was scripted by cronyism, corruption and a complete lack of accountability — all aided by the Indian politician’s complete disregard for the voter’s disgust. Unfortunately, the most shameful are the most shameless.

Apathy, not hubris. The hope, then, is that Delhi’s, and India’s, incredible failures will jolt the nation out of its apathetic state and into action for some real, progressive change.

The lesson is not that a poor country should spend all its money on welfare programs, or that developing countries should be content to remain as guests, not hosts, at international events, or that dissent must be silenced to protect national pride. Just as India’s costly space satellites have benefited farmers, the Commonwealth Games slush fund, if managed properly, might have created university dormitories, a functioning sewage system or housing for the poor.

The lesson is that it is futile to create islands of cleanliness and modernity for the rich, if they are to be surrounded by a sea of poverty, sickness and filth. Life will only get better for the wealthy when it gets better for the desperate poor. Until then, as long as there is no respect for labor, no one will take pride in his work, and the wage slaves will just be waiting for the chance to sneak in and take a dump on a rich man’s mattress. [It’s true.]

Double points if he’s an elected official.

In the meantime, all of this really is shameful and a real shame precisely because we can see that “tremendous promise” all over the sub-continent. Particularly today, as I see large posters advertising World Tourism Day, there is a sense that even the best of advertising can’t pull the national image out of the pits. Still, for those of us currently living here in the Northeast, there is no denying the deep sources of beauty and greatness amongst the hills and valleys, past the heaps of garbage and waste, to the right of the corrupt minister’s office, beyond the rows of immigrants’ slum housing.

music: the chieftains and diana krall – danny boy

image: nohkalikai falls, cherrapunjee, megahalaya, india

Lost in the Meat Market

Life – and death – hits you without warning. I spent the day walking through the interconnecting streets and alleys of the city, eventually making my way up to Bara Bazaar. Also known as the Iewduh (first day of the Khasi week) market, this bazaar is one of the northeast’s oldest and largest traditional markets and trading centers. People navigate their way through the narrowest of paths, squeezing past one another to carry out their errands. I decide it would be interesting, in a fruitful way, to get lost and find my way back out and home. I am unabashedly an expert at this, and soon find myself in the meat district of the market (a recurring trend), talking to a butcher as he shows me how to decapitate a pig. I enjoy my time here inquiring vendors about their goods, which makes up for the blood and stench I carry with me as I get lost once or twice more on my way home.

The notion of “getting lost,” of losing my geographical bearings in the city, in the day time, is of little concern. The future is foreseeable. The eventual way out is always clear, and ultimately available. The disorientation is temporary. I wonder why I can’t view losing, or failing, in the same light. Is my vision of losing in any aspect of my life that short-sighted? Or is my forecast of the future that cynical and skewed?

Music: nitin sawhney – scratch

However far we’ve wandered

There are many different ways by which we may interact with the world. A baby’s close proximity to the ground and view of the world while nestled in a sling against his mother’s hunched back generates its own unique sensory experiences and perspectives, different from, say, a white-collar worker in her office, a beggar prostrated on the roadside, school children traveling by bicycles, a fruit vendor surrounded by hanging bananas and browning pears, with their attendant flies, or a truck driver who rarely leaves the kingdom of the road. Part of the experience of travel life demands recognition of precisely this range of human experience and, as Ms. Hill so concisely put it, I had to walk to get there. Actually, it is a significant privilege, and, perhaps, responsibility, to do so. But let’s steer away from self-delusion and acknowledge that these experiences don’t come without the sacrifice of many familiar comforts, namely, the comfort of familiarity. Or is it simply familiarity as we know it? As I know it?

Isn’t it true however far we’ve wandered

Into our provinces of persecution

Where our regrets accuse, we keep returning

Back to the common faith from which we’ve all dissented,

Back to the hands, the feet, the faces?

[W.H.Auden, from Letters from Iceland]

Music: nitin sawhney – the boatman

Good Morning, Shillong

So why anthropology? And why did you choose India? I hesitate to dwell on these questions myself, and attempting to address them might require a drawn-out conversation over a warm hojicha tea… with a delicious Japanese cheesecake… with fresh summer berries.

Suffice it to say, I am in India to conduct my doctoral dissertation fieldwork for around a year, and will be working in and around the state of Meghalaya, in Northeast India. I’m also interested in traveling to surrounding areas and doing a few photo projects while I’m here. While I can’t comment directly on fieldwork information, I’ll make sure to check in here for other personal updates and general postings of my (mis)adventures.

[The image is of Police Bazaar, a central market area in Shillong, Meghalaya. Popularly known as PB, it serves as the commercial hub of the capital city, with various hotels, shops, banks, and restaurants. In the middle of the image is Hotel Centre Point; to its right is a pedestrian-only (a loose restrictive term) road that, like every other road in the area is often congested. In addition to the small stores lining the road are street vendors who have laid out their vegetables and fruits, or pirated dvds of Korean dramas or popular Bollywood hits. This picture was taken from the parking lot of the legislative assembly building, elevated above the round-a-bout. In close proximity is the main bus stand, as well as the Presbyterian Church.]