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Sunday, January 20, 2008

Washington Post on India’s Schools and Caste system

Following up to my previous post - here’s something else that needs work in India - if it is to come up to the 20th century.

A WaPo story on Indian schools and another on the caste system. (see Indian Author Tackles Prejudice “Inspired by ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ storyteller seeks to raise youth awareness of unjust caste system.” by Emily Wax and India’s Schools Work to Break Its Iron Castes)

The government since independence has done various things to fight “casteism” following up Gandhi’s original fight for the “untouchables”. This includes the various “reservation quotas” for college admissions and jobs - similar to the affirmative action programs in the US. But as in the US, the wealth effects of a growing economy, has created anomalies, and it is not uncommon to hear educated (upper) caste hindus (and others that do not fall into such favored categories) bemoan the limited access to college and government jobs because these have been whittled down after various scheduled castes and tribal reservation (i.e. lower caste) quotas are included. And evidence (as if it were needed) that inspite of the so-called rigidness of the caste system, India is a dynamic society - Indians have adjusted to this artificial “quota” by turning it on its head: you often hear that there is a heavy blackmarket in fake documents certifying scheduled caste/tribal ancestry obviously for the use of upper castes - after all this is a country that has pretty much invented the parallel economy, with parallel colleges, parallel licenses for everything from driver’s licenses to building contracts, housing pugdees etc. -

But more later.

While my post on fighting child labor seemed as if I might be fighting for the status quo - neither there nor here am I saying that the status quo is satisfactory - but as in the case of fighting against the women’s veil in Arab countries, I think the groundswell of a country’s own internal public opinion is what should force change not the arbitrary or vested interests of foreign governments and media that want a slice of that country’s economic pie.

In India’s case I hope I am not a paranoid sitting here - but the US educational industry seems to have put India’s vast market potential in its sights.

As long as that is not the driving factor behind the push for change in India…

More later.

Monday, January 14, 2008

This, by Monica Ali - On stopping Child Labor

Another insightful perspective from Monica Ali's Brick Lane.. pg 301 - one of the many letters from Hasina, the protagonist's villager-sister:

Lovely tell me she will start Charity for stopping the child worker. Which ones will you stop I asking to her. Oh she say all of them. The maid next door? I asking her this. She look surprise. But really she like daughter to them. The boys on roof who is now mend gutter sweep leaves? She look bit cross. That different she say. Which are the ones? The boy who come around sell butter? Lovely say are you washing that floor or not?

Here’s a good commentary on the impracticality of anti-child labor activism. I'm not sure whether most of this activism began with the loss of jobs from the West to low-wage countries of South East Asia, but if so, it is the first clue to how progressive liberals have allowed themselves to be used to impede the cause of true liberalism. Is it really the urge to remove poverty and exploitation of the children of the world, that most anti-child labor ardor springs from or is it the urge to protect one’s own labor market? How is such protectionism consistent with a liberal’s aspirations for the world around them? Especially when there is enough evidence that employment, and the resulting increase in purchasing power of developing economies can only improve their economies, and create the foundations of a marketplace for exports of our own country's goods? It amazes me how we want to force the opening up of world markets, even if it requires the near dumping of our agricultural and farm products, but will not allow the equivalent "dumping" of their labor on grounds that it is "not on level playing field" - they have no health care (like we do? ha!), they allow child labor, they allow unsafe work conditions etc. etc. While these concerns are indeed important, Western countries must understand the local context before belaboring such issues. Sometimes, a child employed is a child that is off the streets, not begging, not stealing, but being apprenticed to a trade; I am not saying that unscrupulous businessmen do not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of such children, but what I am saying is that there is such a wide scale of unfortunate events that can and do happen to children, adults, women, men in the third world, that being forced to take up a job that can feed members of one's family, is sometimes not the worst thing that can happen to a 12 year-old - call it the mirror opposite, the third world version, of your expensive $1,500 kids' practical montessori training, lemonade stand, camp, or summer internship rolled into one. Children cannot be children, I can hear you wail, and my heart does go out to them - they should be in school, yes; but if the alternative is a poorly run government school, with absent or worse still, ill-taught teachers, ill-equipped classrooms, it could well be that a factory floor that guarantees the teaching of a trade, and a stipend to boot, is not such a terrible occurrence.

Why not allow the governments of developing countries, the child laborers of the world, their family and employers to be guided by your own norms - “think globally, act locally” ??

All this makes me sometimes question whether I am indeed a progressive liberal or a mean exploitative closeted capitalist – perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. Or perhaps the goals and core philosophy of the current crop of progressive liberals are not completely consistent with true liberalism.

_________________ .... _________________

As an aside, I must say I was a bit put off by the stilted language adopted by Ali for Hasina's speech/writing.
I couldn't put my finger on where the fault lay till I stumbled upon Anita Nair's website - frankly I hadn't heard of her (my deficiency entirely) until then, but was totally captivated by Anita's website, where under one of her FAQs (below) she gets exactly to the point I was having trouble with in Ali's prose for Hasina:

What makes your writing different from other Indians writing in English?

First of all, my books are set in the everyday world of India. Secondly, the characters who speak English in my book do so without making a farce out of it. To me, what a person says is more important than how they speak their words. And, this belief has found its way into all my writing. The other aspect is that in a book such as The Better Man that is set in a village, English is seldom spoken. But that does not mean that the average Keralite is illiterate or unaware of the world. He has probably read Omar Khayyam and Marx, Russell and Tolstoy in translation so that degree of education is perceived in the way he uses his words. So if some of my characters sound erudite, they are, in the language they grew up speaking. In such a context, Hybrid-English or the lack of it makes no difference to the atmosphere or plot or characterization.

Granted Hasina, who Ali forces to speak 'farcical' English is a villager and seems unlikely to have read Omar Khayyam or Marx; but even a villager such as she, a Bengali at that, who seemed to have such an expressive, original personality as shown through her letters to her sister, would speak her native Bengali fluently. The ill-phrased, ill-constructed, ungrammatical sentences made her seem to be more doltish than the spunky, tom-boy of a village-maid that her actions showed her to really be.

So here I am expressing some minor disappointment with that part of Ali's composition - but who am I to be disappointed at someone who has put together such an otherwise beautifully perceptive, almost fully believable tale of a people - something which every immigrant, whether Bengali, or Muslim, or Hindu, whether rich or poor, whether crossing into the US, or UK, or even urban Mumbai, can surely identify with!

{Crossposted at}

[UPDATE] I hasten to add that nothing I’ve said here absolves governments of developing countries who need to do their best to provide quality schooling and education (I heard that the Indian government has plans to open up a slew of high level universities across the country - I wonder whether, they first need to make sure that their elementary and high schools are fully up to snuff, and poor families have equal access to good education, and find it worth their while to send their kids to such schools instead of opting for short term gains at local factories.) But developed countries need to get off their high horse - no use pretending that labor activism of any kind is not out of the most inward looking, illiberal motives!!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Monica Ali - On immigrants’ complaints

Just finished reading Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Enjoyed it.

Some thing hit a nerve - on immigrants' complaints - p 53

Nazneen said, “My husband says it is discrimination.”

“Ask him this, then. Is it better than our own country, or is it worse? If it is worse, then why here? If it is better, why does he complain?”

I have heard variations of this comment myself here in the US. And my answer is this:

This is absolutely a false dichotomy. Life in the US is indeed better than back home, but it could be enormously better, given this country’s seemingly endless resources. The US holds itself as first among all; its policies affect the whole world whether it’s trade, or human rights, or spreading democracy, or spreading war and death and destruction. And that is why I cannot bring myself to refrain from complaints and criticism. My complaints are not on my own behalf, but on behalf of all those who would help make this country a better yardstick of civilization’s progress. Many of us came to this country because it was a “beacon of hope” as the cliché goes. I remember attending an event at a Kerala Church in NY a very long time back and listening to an elderly immigrant grandparent “karnavar” of sorts, bearing witness aloud, proclaiming his thanks to God for bringing him and his family to this Promised Land. To him, the US was indeed the Biblical Promised Land. My complaints, when I make them, (sometimes in less than diplomatic terms,) is merely an effort to bring this adopted homeland closer to an universal Promised Land!

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Collecting Kerala Christian Names - 1800's???

I wanted to develop a repository of Kerala Christian first names from as far back as possible to see patterns, if any.
This is going to be an exercise in anthropology probably.. in the US, for example, the Social Security Agency often releases most girl and boy popular names. And it would be interesting to take this concept to Kerala for as far back as we can go! I'll leave this post as a new post every day for about a week to see if we can get any volunteers and I'll keep publishing any interesting feedback!
So you can list names of your male and female relatives, in-laws, cousins nth times removed, friends in no particular order with just approximate birth-year, and place of birth (if outside Kerala); if you don't want to post in the open comments, you can email.
So for starters I have:
Eliyamma (c. 1890)
Marykutty (c. 1940) - variations, mariakutty, kunjumaria, mariamma)
Thresiamma (c. 1930) (Tessy - 1925)
Thankachen (c. 1950)
Mutthachen (c. 1955)
Kuriachen (c. 1940)
Varkichen (c.1920)
Joichen (c.1940)
Chackochen (c. 1930)