Friday, 3 March 2017

Being A Minority in an Authoritarian State: Some Thoughts on the Death of Srinivas Kuchibothla

An Indian man was killed in America last week in a racial crime. It is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the victim’s family, left suddenly shattered, trying to make sense of something random and pointless. I could not get the incident out of my mind, and this post developed as I kept thinking about it.
The first point is one which is made very often, yet keeps recurring. In any instance of violence by a white person, whether they kill two people or twenty, the media narrative is always an individual one. Psychological reasons are advanced: this person was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that person was diagnosed with schizophrenia and so on. A brown person killing another may be suffering from PTSD too, especially if American drones killed their families, but the label in such a case is always of terrorism. This is true as much of the so-called ‘liberal’ media as of the conservative one. The presidency of Donald Trump has granted the hooligans of American society greater visibility, but one should keep in mind that the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding justice for racial crimes, started under a different president, who may have been more charming, better read and much more in control of his language, but who did not follow any radically different policy about racial inequality.
The reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the Western media representation of crimes committed by brown-skinned people has the potential to upset a lot of Indians. This is because quite a few Indians think of themselves as different from African-Americans and different from Muslims, even though some Indians in America have faced racial profiling ( Because there is an Indian population in America that is better off financially than Muslims and black people, they are more likely to be living in a safer neighbourhood, and so perhaps statistically less likely to face the racial scrutiny and/or everyday oppressions that these people face regularly. But when a racist person enters a public space with the intent to kill, they are not going to distinguish between Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims. To a racist white person, whether you are black, brown or yellow does not really matter.
Note that I said ‘to a racist white person’ and not ‘to a white person’. Not every white person is racist, but that does not mean that racism only exists in individuals, especially individuals who kill, scream abuse or write graffiti. There is also a racism that is endemic to the system, that is inbuilt into the administration and exists beyond individual manifestations. It is this systemic racism that allows white crime to be individual but black crime or brown crime to be a narrative about the nature of the African-American and Muslim communities. It is this endemic racism that allows individual white people to commit crimes, crimes that may then be linked to specific political causes, and still not have their crimes extrapolated to their community at large, as happened in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway. If you are an Indian in America today who feels unsafe because of the colour of their skin, look to the resources of the minorities and the oppressed people. Because whether you like it or not, you are a minority. And that means that you are vulnerable in certain specific ways, that the majority of the country does not have to think about or take into account in their day-to-day lives, and so can dismiss more easily as not existing or not taking any sort of psychological toll.
This might also be a good time to think about the fact that this is how minorities in India feel. In India Muslims worry because you can get killed for visible Muslim practices like wearing a cap ( or eating meat that may or may not have been beef. ( This is not to say that Muslims are afraid only in Modi’s India, just as racial injustice has been happening in America even before Trump. Minorities in large societies, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or Christians, learn that their definitions of survival, prosperity, freedom and choice are always going to be different from those of the majority. They understand that their world is never going to be as fair as that of the majority, and things will not fall in place as easily for them, be it in getting a house to rent, getting an equal education, getting a job, or simply being thought patriotic without having to constantly prove it. That is why they learn and teach their children the practices to survive and thrive. This would be my advice to Indians in America: form alliances. Find the people who fight for the rights of everyone, for equality not just in name but also in practice, for those who protest each time an act of minority oppression occurs. These people are your tribe, and they will help you make some sense of this madness and provide the opportunity to take some form of action, if you so wish.
Which brings me to my final point. An authoritarian government is one in which those who govern (government, administration, police and the legal system) think that they know the answers, and expect the governed to obey. An authoritarian government makes it easier for people with hatred to be more open about that hatred, whether in words or action. Such a system does not have room for dissent or protest. The ultimate act of rebellion in such a system is to ask a question or raise a contradictory point of view. In such a set-up, being a member of the minority is always going to be more difficult, because such administrations tend to define themselves in terms of those who belong and those who are outsiders. And all too often, when outsiders ask questions it is easier to label them ‘traitors’ because they already fit the mould of the outsider. But when enough people speak up, it becomes necessary to acknowledge and address the problem, and that is a worthy goal to strive for. Even as we mourn Srinivas Kuchibothla today, we owe it to his memory and his family to not let such an incident happen easily again.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

11 Child Approved Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers

As my daughter grew, the books we read changed. I read a lot of different books to my daughter not only for her sake but also for the sake of my sanity! I end up reading some books over and over again, but if I read from a wide range, then the number of favourites is high enough to give me, the poor reader, some variety. So this is the system I have developed: I follow online book lists and blogs of book lists, and I keep a running list of books that sound interesting (not in my memory but in an online document!). I then put in a hold for them at the library. Luckily our local library is part of an inter-library system and so almost 90% of what I check is available. Of these books, I buy those that either she loves or I love. Otherwise we just read and return it to the library.
Alongside this system, I kept buying books for her. This is because children need books of their own. I understand that buying books is a luxury, but would still recommend that parents buy as many books as possible. Remember that books lose nothing by being second hand! Children need books that they can play with, drop food on, have read to them hundreds of times, pore over the pictures of and whose characters and stories they can recycle in their own pretend play. This is a list of books that my daughter loved, that we read from age 2 to 4.
1. Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
This was among the first books that my daughter took to. The stories are very simple and very little happens: a button is lost and then found, frog tries to wake toad up while he wants to go on sleeping and so on. I think children love it precisely for the unhurried pace and the simplicity of the action. We went on to buy all the other books in the series and still enjoy them.
2. Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak
I'm always a little conflicted in recommending Little Bear to anyone. It is an old book, and a gendered one, in that Father Bear is away on a shipping trip while Mother Bear stays at home with Little Bear and looks after him and does all the household chores. At that time, our life situation mirrored the books in that I was the primary stay-at-home parent to my daughter. Yet I knew that there were many contemporary picture books with representations of more equitable households. But I still loved this series more than many contemporary books. The reason is simple: Little Bear plays outside with his friends all day. There are very few toys but lots of imagination and co-operative play. I think highlighting simplicity works for children, and I really find very few contemporary books that have the same sense of simplicity and profundity that this one has. When Little Bear tells Mother Bear that he is planning to go to the moon, she says "Be back for lunch" and I have striven to emulate that matter-of-fact attitude ever since! We went on to buy all the books in the series. Not only that, there was a television series, also called Little Bear that is now entirely available on YouTube. When Shabdita first started screen time, for a long time, this was the only series that we would put on for her to watch. The show, like the books, is slow and soothing with very little conflict, and there is much to appeal to toddlers and preschoolers. Another bonus was that because the show was a very old one, there was never any affiliated merchandising that we would have to negotiate over.
3. Ladybird Fairy Tales Box Set
This set has 24 books, and at different ages different books have appealed to Shabdita. When she was younger, she preferred the animal stories or the simpler ones, such as Chicken Licken, The Little Red Hen, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Magic Porridge Pot, The Three Little Pigs, The Enormous Turnip, The Gingerbread Man and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. These stories taught her the names of various animals as well as concepts like above, around, below, under, push, pull and so on. Somewhere between 3 and 4, she got interested in Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Ugly Ducking, The Princess and the Pea, Beauty and the Beast, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Princess and the Frog and so on. Luckily, I had bought this set second-hand off Gumtree, so these are older version, not toned down versions that would avoid mentioning things that are presumed to be unpleasant to children. These stories not just interested her but prompted her to think about concepts like death, step parents and poverty among others. Of course, they are still fairy tales based on princesses being rescued by princes and living happily ever after. I still read them to her because I think protecting children from certain narratives, which do not align with our beliefs, works only up to a point. They live in the world, and have many other sources of input, and I neither can nor wish to control every thing that my daughter comes in contact with. That does not mean that I deliberately read any and everything to her, but there was no way I could keep all princess references out of her childhood, especially because almost every marketing gimmick in this society is structured towards selling princesses to little girls. I am hoping, however, that knowing the original versions of these stories will help her why a book like The Paper Bag Princess is subversive. After all, one needs some context in order to critique things. Another important lesson I learnt from this box set was that individual books are always more appealing to younger children, because they can carry them around. I have a collected stories of Aesop for her, but being one thick book that gets picked less often than these individual stories. And their hold endures. Just this morning, we read Hansel and Gretel before breakfast.
4. Paddington by Michael Bond
I bought the picture book version of this and at that time I didn't even know that it was based on a series of books for older children. The illustrations were lavish. When I first started reading it to Shabdita, she was very young (less than 2 years) and I could see that she was losing interest because she could not follow the text. So I started 'reading' the picture to her. I started describing it "look here is the railway platform. Those people are Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown is wearing a skirt and a top. Look at her necklace and her earrings. Mr. Brown has glasses, like Mama. And look at that man behind them. He seems to be in a rush. Perhaps he is late for his train'. After describing the picture in the utmost detail, I told her a simplified version of what happens on the page, and continued the story like that. She loved it and then regularly brought it to me, pointing to the illustrations and asking me to 'read' them. I have on and off used this method of reading quite often, especially with books that she finds interesting but are too dense in terms of language. And now, after almost two years, she does it on her own. She loves picking up picture books and making up her own story to go along with the pictures. Not only that, she came to like the story for its own sake and was soon so familiar with it that I could read the actual text to her.
5. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Honestly, I didn't get this book for a long time simply because it did not seem interesting to me. The story itself is simple: a rabbit sneaks into a farm even when he's told not to by his mother, eats lettuces and French beans, is chased by the farmer and nearly caught twice before escaping. When I read it though, Shabdita loved it. She was all agog, waiting to see if Peter Rabbit would be caught or not. She was overjoyed when he escaped. And in all subsequent tellings, whenever I read the line "But Peter, who was very naughty", she enjoys that bit of mischief and disobedience so very much. It all holds a vicarious thrill for her, and she likes the book so much that I've started collecting the others in the series. One word of warning though: I'm talking about the original Beatrix Potter series and not book versions of the TV show Peter Rabbit.
6. Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina
We all know this story, and this version is by a Russian author and illustrator. I bought it mostly because I have realised over time the value of having individual books rather than collections of stories for toddlers and preschoolers, though the latter often have more stories and are more value for money. My daughter loves hearing me shout 'caps for sale', which I do in the style of the tea-sellers in Indian trains, but most of all she loves the monkeys and their antics.
7. Bunny Money by Rosemary Wells
This book, more than any other book, showed me how arbitrary the recommended ages for children's books are. This book is recommended for children aged 6 years or over, and usually I would never have picked it up. But my daughter started watching the TV show Max and Ruby, and loved it. This was the only Max and Ruby book immediately available at the library, so I put a hold on the others and got this one for her. And she loved it! There is very little text in the book, so the first two times or so I had to fill in to explain the story to her, but she understood the entire story, including the fact that they had very little money left for Grandma's present by the end of the book. And now this is the only Max and Ruby book that we own, and I can recite it in my sleep!
8. What Do People Do All Day? by Richard Scarry
I got this book from the library because most illustrators talked about the influence of Richard Scarry on their work, and more than one of them mentioned spending hours poring over the incredibly detailed pictures. This book appealed not just to my daughter but to a lot of kids in her preschool, where I had lent it for a couple of days and got back only after they got their own copy! One of the stories is called "A Visit to the Hospital" and this is the story that first cemented my daughter's interest in this book. Other stories include how a house is built, a train trip, a plane trip, a trip by ship, how food is grown, wood and how we use it, and so on. All action takes place in Busy Town, and the detailed layout of Busy Town has greatly expanded my daughter's vocabulary in terms of different shops and professions. It is a great book for a curious child, and again the book will grow with the child, with different stories becoming more appealing at different ages. Just two things of concern though: first, the book is an old one and some things, such as visiting the pilot in the cockpit during a flight (and getting to fly the plane!), are no longer possible. Secondly, the gender roles are pretty old-fashioned here: mother is a worker too, but a worker who works chiefly in the house. What I do usually is point out in conversation, whether reading this or Little Bear above, the way in which things have changed over time.
9. Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin
Shabdita is not a twin, and I was not sure how much a book about twin sisters and their everyday lives would appeal to her. The answer was that it would appeal a lot. This is another book that I can recite in my sleep. Like Little Bear and Frog and Toad, the Ling and Ting books have everyday, commonplace plots: the twins make dumplings together, they get a hair cut, they issue books from libraries and so on. My daughter listens enchanted each time, and I realise anew that it is the simplest books that have the most staying power.
10. Situation-specific books
I have found situation-specific books very helpful in talking about our lives together and what is happening in them. So for example I read at least 5 different books where girls learned how to use the toilet when I was toilet training my daughter, and we read books about going to the dentist before, yes, visiting the dentist. Whether it is preparing to move houses or going to preschool, I've found such books very helpful. It is not necessary to buy such books, however, as they usually end up becoming obsolete after the experience. Also, it is better to stick to versions that have a matter-of-fact tone rather than a celebratory one. Ideally, you want your child to see these things as a normal part of life and not turn them into exceptional situations that require lots of separate preparation. It might be best to read them alongside the usual books that you read together rather than making them the sole focus for a few days.
11. Science and non-fiction books
It seems really unfair to lump a lot of books in this category. I'm wary, however, of recommending science and non-fiction books. This is because they often become a means to an end. The assumption is that reading these books is the same as your children understanding these concepts. Learning doesn't usually work like that. If your child has a good memory, she may remember the names of the planet, just as some other child knows all the lyrics of a song that they hear often. Developing conceptual models, however, be it the solar system, the extinction of dinosaurs or the basic outlines of a world where cities are parts of states that are in turn parts of countries, takes time. My daughter is inordinately curious, and always asking questions, so I read a variety of non-fiction books to her, including not just science but also geography or history. I read them the way I read fiction to her: when she brings me a book I read it out to her. I don't worry about whether she understands it or not. Nor do I try and teach her things from them. I read them out to her mostly because this world is just as magical as anything else we could read about in fiction and right now all I'm doing is showing her the wonder of it. If the book is more difficult, she will wander off midway and bring something else back to read, and that's fine too. Naturally, through this sort of reading I have found specific series that I like and have purchased for us to get back to when she is older. The two I would recommend to most parents are The Magic School Bus Books (I've only read the original ones and not the ones based on the tv show) and the Let's Read and Find Out books. The former series has around 12 books while the latter has over 80 books, so it is best to figure out what interests you or your child specifically and buy accordingly.
So these are the books that are the most popular in my home. Now that my daughter is exposed to more and different narratives across mediums like books, tv and film, her ability to absorb content is expanding. She now enjoys more challenging books. Not only that, her preferences change more often, and I'm sure that any post about the books she enjoys would look very different even two months from now. Let's just hope that I can keep up!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

What Historians Do

One bestselling Indian author ignited a minor controversy recently when he asked on Twitter what historians do. The Twitter universe gave him sardonic replies, and to be truthful, I enjoyed some of them immensely. But here's the thing. I rarely follow business news. I may be aware of things like recessions or the occasional big buying or breakdown of a company, but on a day-to-day basis I'm just not aware of the government's decisions and their ripple effects. I suspect that the case is similar for my friends in non-academic circles. They may have some awareness of the things that we, i.e. academics and historians do, but often they do not understand why issues become so sensitive in these contexts, why we often end up taking a stand on issues that seem irrelevant to others. There are two opposed but equally reductive ways to explain this phenomenon: "All academics are liberals/Marxists" and "Academics are more intelligent and so able to detect things that others cannot". If either of these explanations appeals to you, do not read on.
NB: I'm writing this post with a very specific audience in mind: this post is for those people who are not academics or historians but do want to understand the dissatisfactions of the present times. For those already in these fields, this post may seem reductive.
So we're back to the question: what is it that historians do? Well, whether it is history, literature, philosophy or political science, a good undergraduate course will start with a variety of courses charting the entire field of study. History students will study different periods and times, literature students will read books situated not just in different time periods but across different cultures, philosophy students will read the theories of different philosophers, often again divided into time periods for easier access (for example, classical philosophy, modern philosophy and so on) and so on. Alongside this, most courses will have one, two or three courses in methods. Methods are like the toolbox: what do you use to make sense of what you are reading? Methods overlap: so for example, feminism is not just a philosophy but also a methodology, and you can use feminism to understand and make arguments about what you are reading, whether you are a student of literature, economics, history, philosophy or political science. As the example of feminism suggests, most method is thinking that helps you think about thinking, and as such is often referred to as theory rather than methodology. Apart from feminism, post-colonialism, liberalism, Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, decoloniality and so on are different theories that students use to understand, react to and argue with what they do.
The jargon that scares most outsiders or makes them caustic is usually an integral part of theory. A lot of times however the use of the jargon is not performative. When you're passionate about your subject, there will usually be one theory, one way of understanding the world, that will stand out for you above all the rest. In those heady days, you will drown in it, read up everything possible about it and talk of nothing else until all the people around you are sick of it. I remember one day my usually patient but exasperated-by-then supervisor asking me if my pizza was ontological or not!
With a postgraduate degree, the immersion into theory deepens. Now it is a much bigger part of the syllabus, as the courses are now for people who may go on to work in the field. Students choose specialisations, and they also choose how they are going to be working on those specialisation. So, for example, two students could both be working on Premchand, but one is looking at gender dynamics in Premchand by focussing the male and female characters while another is looking at Premchand's construction of the village as a non-idyllic space by using ideas from sociological theories on the urban and the rural.
It is important to emphasise two things. Firstly, there is no approach that is 'no theory'. There is no way to work on something without making an argument, even if it is simplest one (this is good/this is bad) and any argument will have some underlying assumptions. There is never an impartial historian, because even the most seemingly bland histories can be shown to be full of choices that work with certain assumptions of hierarchies. For example, histories often used to be narratives of the political fortunes of countries until theorists (them again!) pointed out that such histories rarely bothered with the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens, and rarely talked about the lives of the poor, slaves, women, children, the aged and so on. Objectivity is an illusion where human affairs are concerned, and it is a dangerous illusion to harbour.
Which brings me to the second point I want to emphasise. All theories are just that: tools, ways to think. People find that many different ones make sense to them, and often end up using a variety of arguments in their work. At the same time, there are certain standards that academic research has to maintain: no falsifying, for example, and taking contradictory sources into account. I cannot cherry pick only those lines that support my argument, and refuse to entertain any work that counters my argument. At least I would definitely not be a good historian if I did that. The reason I say this is that I've noticed that a lot of online history gets written by people who are not really historians, and who disdain theory without making any attempt to understand its purposes or even try and make their work stand up to these common standards. I have also noticed that a lot of Indian historians get labelled "Marxist" or "Leftist" when their work is not really Marxist or Leftist, simply to suit the purposes of their detractors.
This brings me to my final point, about why historians are worked up. Some of them specialise in Ancient India, and the texts that they read tell them that Brahmins would eat beef. These are not random texts but shloks from the Vedas themselves. The fact is repeated often enough across sufficient texts for it to be accepted as normal by those historians who work on Ancient Indian history. Interestingly, some of the initial historians who wrote about this were not even trying to be controversial, they were simply doing their work and recording what was written in the ancient texts. Fringe elements attacked them, and it came about that their books would not be published unless they removed the beef-eating references, and their visas for international conferences were rejected, even when they were going to read seemingly innocuous papers on 'the social and cultural habits of Ancient Indians' at international conferences, because of the fear that they would mention the beef-eating. In this manner, for subsequent generations of historians, especially for those working on ancient India, the question of the stand they took on the beef-eating practices of ancient Hindus became a political one.
In recent times, other such issues have become politicised. A book about a history of Hinduism that includes the stories of the Dalits and women is banned. And people who defend the right of other people to say what they like in their books is murdered. I am writing a thesis where I am making an argument. It may be a strong or a weak one. It may become controversial or not. It is highly unlikely (relax mom!) but let us consider the possibility. And in that case I too will have to decide whether to fight or edit portions of what I am saying. I do not know what I would do in such a situation. What I do know for sure is that after 2, 5, 10 or 20 years of working on something, excising my opinions to suit those of a bunch of people who have some power will be like excising bits of my soul.
This is why the historians and academics are fighting. They are fighting for their right to make the arguments they want to make, to do the work they do. They are fighting for their souls.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Many Maps of Google

Google is the deity of our secularized world. It opens up a whole world of information to one’s fingertips, and as someone who is given to ‘googling’ random questions quite often, I am quite aware of its seductions and the pleasures of giving in to them. Criticism of Google is not entirely unfamiliar either: for one, information is not the same as insight. The ability to process information, discern between different sources and be alert to its nuances requires not just critical rigour but also self-reflexivity and plain old time. Not everything is immediately comprehensible, and meaning is created as much through memory and mediation as in the moment itself. To use a cliché, information, knowledge and wisdom are different things. Another problem with Google is that it augments confirmation bias by tailoring our search results to our previous preferences and our personality profiles. (Facebook does the same thing). We end up living in bubbles of our own making.
To use a routine example, if I do a search for any problem that I am facing about my toddler, Google’s search results will be entirely reasonable, based on popularity. I will click some sites, and soon find a solution on some site that makes sense to me. Next time, Google’s search results will tend to return to the websites I have already visited, and push those wherein I spent the maximum time and so on. Over time, Google will know which are my trusted websites, and will discard those that I do not engage with (you can read more about this process here). Over time, my results will come from a repertoire of familiar and a few unfamiliar sources, which are then the sources of my information. Convenient? Definitely. But note, with every search my possibility of coming across something that would normally not interest me decreases. Quite soon there will come a time when I will never come across anything that would contradict the ways in which I already think, something that could change my perspective in any way.
What is true of questions concerning my toddler is also true of other, 'grander' questions. And that is why Google (and Facebook and so on) are more insidious than newspapers and magazines. Given their need to cater to a wide variety of audiences, one could still conceivably find in the latter points of view that are not tailored to one, and sometimes one may change one’s mind or enlarge one’s perception.Google caters to the widest audience imaginable, but it is able to personalize individual experience within it. And once you can do it, there is no reason to not do it, and a million profit and productivity oriented reasons to maximize this personalized experience of exposure to information.
For those of us from the pre-Internet world, if we think about our life and how we came to have the opinions we did, it is probable that the people in our world, family and friends, school, books, newspapers, magazines and television all played middling to significant parts. When that variety is tailored specifically for you it becomes restricted, and difference stands out because it is possible to forget how common it is. Contradictory opinions generate hostility when one stops being used to contradiction. If everyone on my Facebook profile is talking about progress and one dissenting individual that I went to school with insists on posting articles that talk about the hollow nature of that progress, it is easy to stay friends with but unfollow that person, usually after a few bitter arguments wherein each may claim, at least once, that ‘everyone else’ feels like them. And the sad part is that both are right: all the other people they see feel a lot like them.
Which brings me to the title of this post. Depending on your geographical location, you see a different map for different places/countries on Google. So, for example, if you look at India’s map from within India, Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India. When you look at Google maps in China, the territory is part of China. When I look at it from Australia (and presumably from other neutral territories) I see dotted lines, indicating that these areas are under dispute, that these are fluid spaces, unlike the clean lines and clear demarcations of these neutral territories. In what seems particularly poignant to me, the reason for doing this is not even ideological; it is logistical (You can read about it here). It is a way of complying with the messiness that arises when different countries have different laws and have not caught up with the transnationally efficient standards of multinational companies. The many maps of Google invoke the possibility of plentitude - if we had as many maps as we had imaginations! - but subvert it by limiting them to national narratives rather than notional ones.
Which brings me to my final point. The main argument that I wish to make is not that it is because of technological advancements that we live in a world where reality is constructed rather than objective. Instead, this is an example from our day and age, that is all. We have always lived in created and negotiated worlds, and no reality has ever existed on its own 'out there'. This does not mean giving up on realities though. It is precisely because realities are constructed that it becomes important to fight for those realities that we believe in.