Saturday, March 19, 2011

Where Children Sleep

I saw a short review of this in the latest issue of Marie Claire. Then, I googled James Mollison. :)
It is a story built with photographs. He went around the world photographing kids and their bedrooms (if they had any). His pictures from Hebron, where ten year old Douha lives in a Palestinian refugee camp and nine year old Tzvika, who lives in Israel say a lot about the region without saying much. On the Life photogallery, I found the picture of seven year old Indira and her bedroom very moving. She works in a granite mine for five hours every day before going to school. There is also ten year old Sherap, from Nepal again, dressed in his red monk robes next to the inset picture of four year old child beauty queen Jasmine (Jazzy) from Kentucky, U.S.,  set against the larger picture of her bedroom. While Sherap sleeps in a bunk bed with a tiny bag hanging off the window, Jazzy's bedroom seems like it is made exclusively of ice cream and fairy floss, embellished with all the tiaras she has won in her four years of being alive!

The pictures also leave behind a train of innocent dreams. A rockstar, a kempo martial arts teacher, a pediatrician (or a model) and my favorite - an ice cream seller. :)
This was a very refreshing, yet deeply moving interlude.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The hypochondriac

I must confess that I google even the most minor ailments that I suffer from. A few years ago, I started seeing a floater in my vision. Before I found out what it really was (and reassured by a doctor) I was gunning for permanent blindness. Just a few months ago, I could hear my heart beat in my ear. It sounds ridiculous, I know. What kind of an arid unromantic am I? But then I googled it and found that it was Pulsatile tinnitus (at least that is what I settled on after a lot of browsing, since my doctor had advised me to stay away from google after the blindness episode). Just after Christmas when it got really hot in Australia, I decided that my frequent thirst and fatigue was definitely related to the possibility that my pancreas have failed and I have contracted Diabetes. Since this runs in the family, I found that my thirst aggravated miraculously after I made up my mind about being diabetic. Sometimes when I feel low in the evening and very happy in the morning, I imagine that I might be bipolar. One day, after an eight hour day at my part time job, which primarily consisted of entering weights to the fifth decimal in an excel sheet, I concluded that I sometimes reverse the digits in numbers owing to a latent dyslexia. Today,  in my breaks from data excavation, I am googling up "sore calves". Although I have a perfectly plausible explanation (an overdose of suryanamaskaras; 50 a day for the past one week),I would  like to go with Pseudothrombophlebitis syndrome.I should not bore you with my version of being a hypochondriac. The following excerpt from the 'Three Men in a Boat' was the inspiration for this post. I think every one should have this book by their bedside. :)

"It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine 
advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am 
suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most 
virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly 
with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment 
for some slight ailment of which I had a touch - hay fever, I fancy it 
was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an 
unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently 
study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I 
plunged into - some fearful, devastating scourge, I know - and, before I 
had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in 
upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of 
despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever - read 
the symptoms - discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for 
months without knowing it - wondered what else I had got; turned up St. 
Vitus's Dance - found, as I expected, that I had that too, - began to get 
interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so 
started alphabetically - read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening 
for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another 
fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a 
modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. 
Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have 
been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six 
letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was 
housemaid's knee.

I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of 
slight. Why hadn't I got housemaid's knee? Why this invidious 
reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I 
reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I 
grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid's knee. Gout, 
in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my 
being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from 
boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there 
was nothing else the matter with me.

I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a 
medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! 
Students would have no need to "walk the hospitals," if they had me. I 
was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, 
and, after that, take their diploma".

Imagine what would have happened if Jerome K. Jerome had access to Google!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Selected Amartya Sen

I had resolved to put together selected works of Prof. Amartya Sen a few months ago. I stumbled upon some lectures that I had heard previously. In 2008, I wrote a review for one of his popular books The Argumentative Indian, in which he takes the reader through an entertaining yet refreshingly academic journey through India's history of public dialogue.That was the first time I read anything written by the Nobel laureate. However, since then, I have downloaded many of his more serious essays and articles on various developmental issues. His research in the theories of social choice is considered amongst the pioneering works in the field. However, he is better known for his work on famines and poverty.

I have a limited understanding of economics. Sometimes, I have to look up other references to clearly understand Sen's arguments but I think the struggle is worth it. The links I have included in this post are some of his famous academic talks. So there is bound to be a lag between listening to what he says and understanding it to the best of your ability, especially if you do  not have a background in economics. Nonetheless, I would urge everyone to make the time to listen.

This lecture  titled Identity and violence : the violence of illusion, takes a closer look at the reasons behind communal and religious violence, not just in the Indian context but all over the world. He articulates not just on how divisive politics works but also on how and why it is received so well in some situations. His book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, which I go back to every now and then is a thesis on the many faces of human identity. In his narrative, Sen elaborates from time to time on the many identities that a single human being could have without any internal clash with one another and how, the clashes occur only when a single identity is isolated and glorified and pitched against a rival. He criticizes the popular 'clash of the civilization' theory and the attempts by politicians all over the world to try and put the world's peoples into isolated boxes. 
His thoughts on accepting the plurality of our own identities while scrutinizing each one one of them in an independent and critical manner is what the world really needs when it comes out of the Age of Religion. He is an atheist.However, instead of rejecting the existence of God, he takes us back to a 14th century Hindu text that accepts atheism as one of the schools of religious practice within Hinduism. 

This New York Review of Books article is titled More than 100 million women are missing. Sen comments on the female:male ratios all over the world, with a special analysis of South Asia. The ratio varies significantly even between the states within India. Northern states of Punjab and Haryana have the worst  ratios while Kerala (which ranks high both in status of women in general and literacy) has the highest. He frequently refers to this issue in his other talks as well and his analysis makes you reflect on how much of an enigma the Indian social fabric really is. This issue is close to my heart because it makes me aware that being an only girl child in a country such as India isn't the norm. When I read/listen to what Sen has to say about the development of women in India, I am also reminded of the many faces of feminism all over the world. In India, feminism exists with a passive resilience. We would never have a majority of Indian feminists reciting My Short Skirt. But millions of women are being empowered to have a little more control over their own lives and their own decisions day by day. 

Lastly, this 1999 Kenan lecture titled Human rights and consequences is something I highly recommend. He begins his lecture by saying that people advocating the establishment of clear and uniform human rights around the world are looked upon as softies or impractical intellectuals. However, just looking at it through an Indian perspective, I doubt whether we as a diverse society unified under a common identity of being Indian, have even given the concept of human rights enough consideration. Sen not only defines the scope of human rights but also reflects on the process of granting a right. He speaks about the disparity in the perception towards human rights between cultures, classes and sexes. He conducts the lecture by constantly bringing us to the critic's perspective on human rights. That makes it more convincing than if it were just a lesson.

In one of the chapters in his book on Violence, Sen talks about Robindranath Tagore's short story - Gora. It is about the life of a devout Bengali Bramhin who believes in the superiority of his 'Hindu', 'Brahmin' identity to the extent of making it his mission. Years later, his mother tells him that he was adopted after his Irish parents died in the mutiny of 1857. His whole world comes crumbling down and he is faced with the ironic challenge of applying all the rules of his Hindu superiority to his new identity. In the end, he accepts that no matter what his real identity is, he will always feel at home in India. 

Although we often stumble upon our own identities, it is not a mere discovery. Having discovered an identity does not mean acquiring it. Wearing it with confidence, conscience, flexibility and respect (both for our own and others') is a matter of careful choice. It is time that we all wake up to this choice.