Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Airtel Super Singer 2009 Junior

Is this the group of singers that they selected after going through every city in Tamil Nadu? Most of these young singers should not be on TV singing - they need lots of training.
Zee Tamil had a far better show last year.
Chithra as a judge is too much for this show. She is carrying on gamely.
I only like the girl Alka's singing - she is a star. There are a couple of others who are good too.
Anyway here is a classy performance:

Saturday, October 24, 2009

History, Race and Politics

A couple of years back, one of my friends wrote a post on logic, science and nature. I commented on that post and in the ensuing discussion, my friend mentioned that the Rig Veda could be 6000 years old! You can read the whole exchange here.
To support this he mentioned a few authors.
I also used to participate in debates in the forum at Most discussions veered into history automatically. I noticed that people had lots of historical theories of themselves. One guy posted an image of a Babylonian bronze statue and said it looked like Thiruvalluvar and therefore Dravidians were Babylonians or some such weird theory. Many of the forums devolved into wild theories about Aryans and Dravidians. (Many of these threads are still active in Karuthu - for three years!).
I have always wondered about a couple of things:
1. Why do people have a need to invent dates more and more ancient for their cultures? I read a Tamil language history book long back which basically said Tamils were some of the earliest descendants from apes, and they were the first civilization. It also linked with the debunked "Lemuria" continent and so on. And this is a history book. Of course, Hindu fundamentalists keep tracing their history to Harappa, even though that civilization shows no traces of ancient Hinduism. Tamil fanatics trace to Harappa too.
2. Why do people think a thousand years is a short time? The Rig Veda's earliest parts are dated to around 1200 BC. Isn't that ancient enough? Why dump another 5000 years on top of it?

History is a Science
I believe one of the reasons we see this kind of extensions to timelines is this: people think anyone can reason out history. That is, the perception is that History is not as exact a science as, say, Physics. I don't think a non-physicist would go in and say one day, "Oh, special relativity is really wrong.". They don't dare to because in their minds Physics needs rigour and mathematics.
On the other hand, the way we are taught History, historians seem like a bunch of imaginative people who can just sit around cooking up theories. We do not see any rigour in History, even though historians go through as much peer review as other scientists.
(If you want to explore rigour in history, just take a look at the books dealing with Microlithic era(Later Stone Age). The level of detail and scholarship is amazing).
If we are asked about specific heat capacity or photoelectric effect, we do not volunteer our own theories. We refer to text books.
The text books say that the Rig Veda is 3000 years old. Why don't we just accept that?

History and Identity Politics
There is of course, another reason, the primary motivator: amateur intellectuals in India are not really happy about our present condition. We tend to glorify our past so that the recent humiliation of colonialism goes away. We blame our present condition on obscure historical roots and try to trace history to a "Garden of Eden" long back.
I noticed that RSS and VHP supporters think we were enslaved a thousand years back - that is, even before the British, they say, the Muslims were "occupying" our country. Thus their freedom struggle started in 1000 AD, not after 1857.
Believing this is a stretch - because these people are corrupting the definition of colonialism. The British were colonialists, who (because of reasons related to economics), kept the relationship suited for exploitation. The Muslim invaders, on the other hand, were basically migrants. Their system of exploitation was no different from, say, the Mauryans or the Guptas. India had endured such waves of migration - the north-west border was porous.
To call Prithviraj Chauhan's fight against Ghazni as a freedom struggle and equate it with our fights with the British is just not accurate.
Yet this myth has a very profound impact for Hindu nationalists. It fueled crazy acts such as the Babri Masjid demolition.

The Tamil Political Tool
One of the worst uses of history as a political tool was the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) propaganda in Tamil Nadu.
when I was in college, I asked one of my friends what he wanted most to clean up the country. He said he wanted to clean up the Aryan people from Tamil Nadu.
I was surprised by this, because I had no idea what he meant by Aryan people. Then one of my father's colleagues visited home and ranted for a long time about how Aryans worshipped Vishnu, while Shiva is a Dravidian god. A brahmin friend of mine said he wanted to learn German because that is where Aryans were from!
Now, if you took any standard reference book (such as Romila Thapar's Early History of India), you would understand that Aryan is a language grouping. For example, Hebrew is an Aryan language. NOBODY would call Jews an Aryan people. In fact six million Jews were killed during WWII because they were considered NOT Aryan.
Both the term Dravidian and Aryan are used as language groupings. Yet nobody can deny that they have been used as racial terms - without any basis.
I have read several books on Tamil History. Anna, a former CM of Tamil Nadu wrote an entire book on the "Aryan Maya". Almost none of these people were historians! That is, these people were doing the same thing that Hindu fanatics were doing - using History as a political tool, and basically revising history to suit their needs.

Race as a Social Construct
Modern historians consider Race as a social construct. Romila Thapar calls Race as an European concept.
Let us think about that for some time.
When people talk about race, they usually mean biological distinctions - when we call white people or black people as a "race" we mean they are identifiable by looks. Or atleast we imply a genetic distinction.
When Karunanidhi talks about the Tamil "race" he is not talking about Tamil speaking people. When the DK leader Veeramani or Periyaar talk about the Dravidian "race" what they mean is a biologically distinct set of people. If they just meant Dravidian language speaking people, there is no reason to exclude Brahmins from it.
Yet, NO such biological distinction exists in nature.
The whole idea of a biological race - whites or blacks or mongoloid or semitic or Aryan is a concept created by European society in the 17th and 18th centuries to deal with differences. It has no independent "scientific" meaning.
The only meaning race has is as a social idea. Because we all believe in race, it has an effect on society. It has no independent biological role.
Mind you, I am not saying that the caste system is good (people tend to make such jumps in reasoning) or that the Brahmin caste is an innocent bystander. By all means, let us condemn the caste system; let us undo this brahmanical order. But let us look for sociological reasons for such differences (if at all we are concerned about the origins). Caste has an independent social meaning - it is not necessarily identical as race. If you picked up a standard sociology text book, you will see that caste system is given a separate section. That is because it is a unique oppressive system.
The idea that "race" exists is very deep in our psychology. The first time I read about race being just a social construct, I had difficulty assimilating what that means. I had been trained to see the world as composed of different races, some of which "achieved" while others were also-rans. It took me some time to get my brain around the fact that this whole view is a myth.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Tenth Standard Exams

I will write more about our examination system later. I am trying to inteview one of my nephews.
Meanwhile, someone wrote in my comments (among lots of abuses), that the Indian education system is ideal because it separates good students from bad students.
That is, of course, not the goal of an education system. The goal should be to educate, not eliminate people from the job pool.
But then I remembered a few details about the 10th standard exam when I took it, back in 1987. I don't think much has changed till now.

You start preparing for the 10th standard exam when you are in the 9th holidays. From then on, if you go out to play, neighboring aunts frown at you and complain to your mother. So you stay at home the entire year.
Here was the list of things we had to endure going into the exams:
1. Geography - you had to remember the imports and exports of a dozen countries. Most of them had the same imports and exports except for one particular item. For example Cambodia would export rubber, rice, teakwood and coffee while Laos would export rubber, rice, teakwood and tea. So you had to remember that little change. Somehow the question paper writers loved to ask about the imports and exports.
So you ended up preparing acronyms and match them like this:
Laos - rrtt
Cambodia - rrtc
and so on. The day of the exam you tried to mug all these down.
Doesn't this sound pathetic? I have more below.

2. Apparently the guys who were correcting the answer papers were paid by how many papers they corrected every day. So, their incentive was to zip through your paper. So, you wanted to convince them by using - wait for it - color pencils. You had a bunch of color pencils and you had to underline key items in your answer. Supposedly the paper evaluator would then just look at the key words and award you marks.
Let us say the question was:
Write about the weather conditions in North America

You could write a learned tract about how the weather is shaped by the Rocky Mountains and the North Atlantic warm current. You could explain that weather moves from West to East in the plains and all that. Or, you could do this:
Weather of the Rocky of the Mountains of the Atlantic Ocean of the North of the America..of the.

And then underline the key words with red pencil and you will get full marks.
I am not sure if this was a myth or not, but we ALL had color pencils. All of them were sharpened and kept in boxes where the tip would not break off. Our own teachers said this was true and they should know.

3. If you skipped a question, you wanted to REALLY bring that to the attention of the evaluator. So, if you answered question numbers 1, 2, and then skipped 3 and went to 4, then unless you did something drastic, the evaluator would assume your answer to question 4 was really an answer to 3 and so on. So you would FAIL!!!
So when you skipped a question, you wrote the question number down and then struck through the paper twice. And then you pray.

4. The worst thing was the Science exam in 1987. It had 40 "one word" answers as the first section of the question paper. Since we were all focussing on saving time, our teachers suggested a classic method.
You see, as soon as you get the blank answer sheets, you have to draw margins. You should do this BEFORE they give you the question papers, because then the bell will ring and your countdown starts. You don't want to be drawing margins when the clock is ticking.
So you draw the margins. During the exam, you should write the question numbers down and then draw lines after every answer.
Well, our teachers taught us ANOTHER way to save time. You see, you know that there are going to be 40 "quick" questions in the Science exam. So, why not write the question numbers down and then draw the lines BEFORE they give the question papers?
So we were all trained to do that. Most of us got the answer papers and drew lines next to each other with the question numbers.
Unfortunately, that year the science paper setters wanted to create a "tough" question paper. Their idea of doing this was to ask questions that required long answers in the first 40.
So, we got completely messed up when we were given the question papers. Some of us bravely tried to "fit" the long answers within the existing lines. Some others started erasing the lines. But these left black marks on the white answer sheet and your answer sheet did not look "neat".

5. Again the science paper was supposed to be tough - so the idiot paper setters asked questions from remote corners in the text book. For example, there is a small "Do it yourself" section at the end of each lesson. They asked questions from that section, because no one notices it.

This is what passes for examinations in our education system. It is simply a way to play mind games with the students and torture them to paranoia. I do not remember a SINGLE thing I was taught in 10th - other than the sheer terror of the exams.
Remember we all have "exam nightmares"? The ones in which you dream about ending up in an exam without preparing? These are only next in horror to the "naked sprint" dreams in which you are walking outside nude.
(The worst dreams are ones in which you go to an exam unprepared AND nude).
I wonder if only Indians get these dreams...after our exam freak shows.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The left-behind majority

I hear often that racism or casteism cuts both ways. That is, it affects the perpetrators as much as the victims. I have often wondered about that - how does majoritarianism affect the majority and how does casteism affect the forward castes?
Some clarity came when I was reading this excellent series of blogs by Joe Bageant, the American author of the book "Deer Hunting with Jesus". Going through the letters in his site makes it clear how assumptions of white superiority affects whites themselves.

You see, the majority of American poor are white people. The majority of social security recipients in America are white people. Yet, whenever people in the United States talk of a "welfare queen" what they typically mean is a reckless black single mother. At least that is the image they conjure up.
This has come to mean that debate about health care reform or "entitlement" programs have sought to revolve around subtle racial messages. When Republican voters in America protest "socialism", what they are protesting is really their money benefitting black people.
Yet, blacks are not the major recipients of welfare.
Thus liberals and conservatives in the United States are locked really in a fight about benefits to black people and Hispanics - with liberals accusing of racism and conservatives of socialism.
Meanwhile the white poor in America receive no attention.
You see my point here? It is as if the myths of racial superiority of the white people actually end up making poor white people INVISIBLE to the media and activists. While debating back and forth over racism, people have forgotten that not every white person is an investment banker with an Ivy League degree. For example, the trade policies of the past 20 years in America have devastated manufacturing jobs held by whites as well.

Back to my first statement above, THIS is how racism, casteism and cultural hegemony affect the perpetrators' cultures themselves. Racism ends up hiding the poverty of white people. Untouchability practiced in India hides the plight of middle and forward caste members with little or no land. It makes such members subservient to their own rich caste members.

That is, racism and casteism rarely benefit anyone other than the creepy people who directly make money out of such antagonisms.

In my own (although limited) experience, Casteism also forces forward caste members to confirm to social rules and career paths and peer pressures that they can neither ignore nor meet adequately. I have seen this in school and college - forward caste students were expected to perform extremely well by their families; expectations that these students could not meet most of the time.
Holding up caste based or race based differences does not help anyone.

In another view of this, take the majoritarian views of the Hindu nationalists or Hindi nationalists. Both these views end up covering substantial cultural differences in North India. Telugu actor Chiranjeevi once said that entire sub-cultures in North India (such as Bhojpuri) were being disappeared by the domination of Hindi. What Hindu nationalists are attempting is not a secret - their goal is to create a lockstep mono-culture throughout India. In such efforts, they end up causing the numerous sub-cultures that make up Hinduism to disappear - thus making Hinduism itself a colorless religion.