Crabs in a Bucket

There is a famous Khasi middle class story about selfishness and it goes something like this. There were a number of crabs in a bucket and they were all destined to become dinner at some point in time. The crabs knew about this and they realised that they needed to escape this horrible fate. The story goes on to tell us about how one of the crabs had somehow managed to get a firm grip on the rim of the bucket and was proceeding to pull himself out to the relative safety of the outside world. However, just as he was about to complete his great escape, the other crabs resorted to pulling him back down to the bottom of the bucket. He was, thus, doomed like the rest. The moral that many Khasi people draw from this is that Khasis are like the crabs in that they are inherently selfish and would rather pull other Khasis down rather than raise them up to greater heights or glory (or as the story goes, to freedom). It is one of those stories that Khasi middle class society has learned off by rote and which comes out often during drinking sessions. I have heard it so many times that I instinctively cringe at it when I happen to hear the familiar lines: “Ki briew jong ngi te ki long kum ki tham…”(our people are like crabs…).

So firstly, this story is about as Khasi as sliced bread or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Many people the world over use the same allegory to voice the same complaints within their own particular contexts. The conclusion is usually the same so there is nothing Khasi about this in a strict purist sense. I have heard Bodo people say it, Mizos tell each the same thing, Bengalis as well as the Assamese. Selfishness it can be argued is a universal human feature. Now the other thing is – and this might shock some of you – crabs are not human beings! We may enjoy our Jataka and Panchatantra tales but they are hardly manuals on human behaviour. What do you think is going to happen?

The story of the crabs in the bucket is actually a philosophical experiment. It is easy for the listener to condemn the apparently selfish act of the crabs in the bucket but is it so straightforward? Who is actually being selfish? The singular individual crab or the clawed throng that pulls him back? The way you look at the story depends on the type of person you are. If you are a person who prides individual achievement over collective interests then you’d side with the lone crab hero. Most people would boo and jeer at the throng for their pettiness. However, the other side of the story is this: our hero is, probably, a real selfish bastard.

It is actually unfair that the story unfolds as it does. Does it tell us how many crab heads our hero stepped on to get to the top? It is a story – like many others – about the sacrosanct virtue of individual achievement. It is a nice story and many of us identify with that crab: triumphant, glorious (and undoubtedly) egotistical. We immediately associate crowds with hysteria, violence and viciousness.

When we turn to politics, we see this very clearly. Our politicians stand over us: unassailable, irreproachable, haughty. Many of them actually come from humble settings and humble locales but you wouldn’t know it based on the way they act. These are the crabs who’ve made it to the top but whom no one dared pull down. We forget that they rose to their current heights because of the belief people have invested in them. Upon climbing up high though they have proceeded to defecate upon the same devotees. Only the businessmen and contractor friends are enjoying themselves. The “common” people have nothing but filth on their faces.

If we are going to compare crabs with humans, perhaps, another version of the ‘crabs in the bucket’ story could be as follows: the crabs organise a ‘great escape’, after many sessions of careful planning and coordination, they come up with the idea of using a distraction to fool the humans while one of their best trained crabs climbs over the wall with the help of some others. The said crab would then drop down an escape line and thus everyone could be saved. This is a nicer scenario because it argues for a better, much happier conclusion. Rather than the original story which pits individual survival against collective doom, in this version of the story everyone is saved! This version lays emphasis on the importance of teams and team-work. That the crab-hero could not be triumphant without the aid of others is understood and accepted by everyone including the hero crab.

An interesting tangent that arises from my version of the tale is this: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to either drop the escape line and help rescue the others or to save only its own skin and run away? Based on these two choices, certain economists, politicians and technocrats say that people – being intrinsically selfish and self-involved – would choose the latter option as it is the one that requires the least amount of work and time. It turns out to be the most “profitable”. This was essentially the situation and conclusion proposed by the mathematician John Nash in a game he helped devise called “Fuck You, Buddy!”. Through it he inferred that humans would always try to fulfill their own selfish desires; so our crab-hero must always – according to his rational logic – desert his comrades and leave them to their fate. However, the actual results of Nash’s game showed that people, in fact, did not behave like that. Most people (empirically) tried to help one another and negotiate with each other in order to achieve a collective goal or desire in the game. Can we not apply this to politics and economics as well? Why must we be drawn into false binaries which do not reflect reality and the experience of living together as a society?

The last interesting thought that I want to extract from this scenario is perhaps the most realistic. Let me repeat the query again: when the crab-hero gets to the top, it has two choices – to rescue the others or to save its own skin. In a political sense, for its own future power, the crab-hero should save the others. Their gratitude and appreciation would guarantee the hero-crab the fruits of a secure and prosperous life. The other crabs would deify him for his apparent selfishness. This is perhaps the most Machiavellian (or Chanakyan if you prefer). It is also the most ‘true-to-life’ scenario which mirrors our political world today.

There is scope for a lot of abuse of power based on this outcome. Individuals could abuse the privilege of their office to gain and accrue wealth as we see it today in Meghalaya. The key to thwarting this must surely lie in the public realising its own power. The public will have to realise that the individual desire for power is real but so too is its own power to shape and control it. Unless this happens, only doom awaits us

Bad Management

How can Industry survive incompetent policies? The answer is ‘not very well’. In the case of Meghalaya we see this very clearly. Industry has never been a thrust area for this (and hardly any preceding) government. This is probably down to the fact that massive profiteering is easier when industry is unorganized and unarmed. If the industrial policy were ‘proper’, industrial organization would have to be proper. The result as things stand has been a ‘doomscape’ of inconsistent production and subsidy pilfering. No “planner” in the Meghalaya government talks about industry but rather individual capability, that is, an individual person or firm’s ability to raise capital, invest, generate income, and occasionally (very rarely) give employment to the local population. The truth is a wealthy individual or company does not constitute an industry.

Industry involves both Management AND Labour. Today when one talks about industry in the popular press, it is usually along the dictats of the management cadre. This cuts across public and private sectors. MNC management, IAS and PSU officers can often be seen together on TV deliberating upon industry, pointing to stats and speculating about growth and trajectory. They are at home in each other’s company in spite of the alleged animosity PSUs have with private undertakings. In fact, it appears, management within many PSUs seems hell-bent on capitulating and acquiescing towards private sector desires. Divestment, for instance, looks set to be a high priority agenda for this government at the Centre. I have heard all the arguments for divestment a thousand times before. There are just a few compelling ones. However, that aside, my main point for contention in all of this is simple: where does Labour figure in any of these plans?

Forget about the fact that robots can now do the work of a hundred men, forget about mass production and cost effectiveness for a second. Those are not too much of a factor at the moment in Meghalaya where statistically most employment is in the area of non-mechanised, intensive agriculture. What efforts has the government made in this sector at this current junction? It sends officers, engineers and ministers on ‘exposure tours’, ‘technical workshops’, ‘seminars’ etc. These in turn have a gala time clicking selfies and visiting (ahem, ahem) interesting “districts”. All this would be fine if they actually brought knowledge back and didn’t waste government money i.e. my money, your money. Now I am sure to a European, our Meghalaya officers, engineers and ministers might seem like the lumpen ignorant mass of savages they were told to expect but we, the ones from within the state, know their true nature and privilege. We know very well that our farmers, orchardists, artisans etc should be the ones going on these “tours”. After all, these are the people who actually work and struggle within these sectors. They are not a bunch of salaried, unprofessional louts who have been mismanaging the resources and futures of this state’s people.

I am not saying everyone within administration is like that, there are many hard-working people within the government. However the striking thing is how easily it is to become de-motivated within such a system. But that being said, I am hopeful that young energy shall eventually surge its way through the depressing, greyish, banal corridors of the Secretariat. These too have a role to play as an important cog within the wheel of Labour.

Up to a few years ago, employees of the government did not feel the need to worry about organizing themselves. After all, the task had already been done for them especially within Central government offices. They perhaps thought of themselves as separate from the various trade union and labour movements that were underway in different industrial sectors throughout the country. Now, I think it is safe to say, there can be no illusions. They might have felt safe at one point in time but their type of employment is under threat; the younger employees especially are increasingly drawn from the huge contract/casual reservoir and many no longer have any of the protections that their seniors enjoy. On the other hand, Management i.e. IAS, IPS, MCS, MPS etc have been gaining more and more benefits and perks at great expense to the Exchequer. A progressive government must redress this and narrow the income and benefits gap.

Eventually, a lot of jobs might become redundant. But again, perhaps this depends on the system of production and consumerism that we choose as a society. In Meghalaya, it is unclear what sort of economic development model the administration is aiming for. Will it be large scale and mechanised? Or maybe artisanal and sustainable? The government lazily waits around for some tycoon or firm to approach them and it is he/they who set the terms and conditions for investment. It is, clearly, management that is calling the shots at that stage. Between government and investor, management is speaking to management. The work force have no say in the process. And that is where shifts have to be made. Re-schooling labour and assigning more managerial roles to them should be the top priority of any progressive government. Major threats to trade unions come from within, from the complacency and reactionary attitude many have towards their own industry. Most of the time, negotiations happen after an event has been initiated by management, but who says that should be the case? Labour always needs re-skilling.

Meghalaya is suffering because Labour is suffering. The attitudes and world-views of our work-force have been shaped by years of anti-labour policy and departmental inactivity. Instead of organizing within their respective sectors, our employees and workers have had to outsource their grievance redressal to outfits like the various pressure groups. Instead of coal miners organising, we call the KSU; instead of cement plant workers coming together, we call FKJGP. These outfits have never empowered the sectors from within by instructing Labour to organize itself. Instead, they have assisted them just enough so that a dependency is created. Thus labour unions have never really taken the stage for themselves in this place. They have simply become part of the noise.

The greed of the management cadre coupled with their inefficiency stemming out of their ignorance has been disastrous for the state economy. Officers might sanction the creation of a farmer’s market place for example but will not pursue plans for marketing of the products there. The chain between farm and fridge is never realised and the project ultimately ends in a quagmire. As a manager shouldn’t one seek the organization of Labour for the sake of smooth functioning and efficient production? But that is where it gets interesting. I personally don’t think just organizing labour into unions is such a great idea. We need the unions to think along the lines of the managerial cadre as well. Simply organizing worker into a union might not always be such a great idea. They are not automatons after all. But in no small measure, the future seems to be headed towards making them as such. Intervening now and infusing new ideas into them would be a crucial task.

Show me the money!

Business and economic planning in Meghalaya is arguably the most neglected area of governance by past and present policymakers. Now, there are a number of problems within the entire topic. There is immense wastage of energy and time, inefficiency, corruption on a sinful scale. The officers are drowned in oft-times pointless paperwork and become indifferent while the MLAs use the misery and poverty of people as an excuse to accentuate their supposed nobility and generosity, when they deliver umbrellas and blankets to the constituency. It is a cyclic nightmare. None of the people will escape poverty and the rich will continue to dominate elections.

No one wants to give serious thoughts to creating a Meghalaya which is self-sustainable and economically independent. Forget the pre-election rhetoric, the policies do not reflect it. To actually initiate such a task would require work, will power and actual thinking! A Meghalaya that stands on its own two feet is a Meghalaya where the citizens stand on their own two feet, and that my friends, is dangerous for the dominant power structure. An economically confident citizen is not going to simply follow what is ordered from above without questions. Such a citizen would have the means to critique Power. This is why an economically feeble state is such a danger to the democratic ideal. I am aware that there are a number of other threats. After all, even economically powerful states and countries have to deal with other dangers to their democratic apparatuses. Europe is a good example currently. However, as any good Wiki Marxist comes to realise: in the last instance, it is the economy.

Going back to the broad topic of economic planning, I would like to talk about a single but crucial issue that keeps coming up: capital, or the lack of it. I would like to build upon this with an example. There is a shop in Laitumkhrah which initially opened up as a retailer of specialty baked goods (in this case, cookies). Their products were priced along the lines of similar establishments in the major cities like Delhi. Needless to say, the shop didn’t flourish. After all, there are a number of other local purveyors of baked goods which have been selling their wares for half the price that the shop was offering. It was forced to shut down after a while. This would have been the end of the story – had the proprietors been Khasi/tribal. I know how that last sentence sounds but please read on. The same shop space later transitioned into a boutique (if I remember correctly) which also failed to attract customers. Finally in its last and latest avatar it came out as a cafe and since then it has become a popular eatery frequented by tourists and college goers.

Now as I said earlier had it been a Khasi/tribal business, in all probability it would have rolled down its shutters forever and a new tenant would have taken up the space. The lesson we must learn from this story of the trans-mutating store is this: when people have capital, they can afford to innovate. Or it can also be argued that a conducive environment allows for experimentation, but I want to look specifically at the issue of capital and its availability.

The cafe in my story is owned and operated by a Marwari businessman. The ability that the businessman had to continue paying rent in spite of bad sales indicates his financial capacity. A capacity that few tribal businesses can compete with. There are many sad instances that I have personally seen where the promise, excitement (and perhaps naivete) of a new undertaking quickly gives way to dejection and finally abandonment. Many Khasi parents are quick to further their children’s dream of being financially independent by shelling out the cash needed to set up a business. These are usually out of their own savings. Now, one must be very practical with money: can the business survive in the marketplace against constant competitors and toughened veterans? Would it be money well spent? Business literacy seems to be the need of the hour. The cafe in Laitumkhrah, for the Marwari businessman, is probably a diversification of money he has made from the ‘unglamourous’ and ‘uncool’ shop he keeps which sells dal and chini in Iewduh. It is based on risks which he can afford to take.

One must also keep in mind that the Marwari community like many successful trading communities has traditional institutions that aid it. Their community can ‘move’ money from project to project in an informal but highly efficient “banking system” which was honed over hundreds of years. This makes it extremely easy for them to access capital from anywhere, provided that the proposal is sound. How do tribal businesses compete with years of such experience (and money) if there is no helping hand from the government? Government intervention in economic affairs must surely extend into areas beyond infrastructural development! A policy of ‘positive discrimination’ would ensure that the current economic state of affairs does not spin wildly out of control. Measures like rent allowances (or control) for young start-ups, orders guaranteeing floor and shelf space for local produce are just some of the ways that a smart and progressive government would take.

If you look carefully you might notice that most protests in the state are, at the core, economic agitations. The ILP imbroglio, the predicament with the hawkers and many others are all economic issues. The government CANNOT absorb every single resident of the state into its service. It would be ludicrous for it to try. It must promote and regulate private enterprises. Especially the small and medium scale enterprises which are usually (I might be terribly wrong) tribal enterprises. Easy access to capital is one of the most important ways to ensure that these businesses are nurtured and reared properly. Right now, government policy with regards to banking sector practices more or less ensures that only the already wealthy tribal elites get their hands on capital. It is very hard for the people who need investment to get their hands on it. Instead of judging a proposal based on its merits and demerits, the only thing that seems to matter to banks is that one must have heavy-weight ”guarantors” for everything. What happens to those who don’t have any guarantors? The current manner of running financial institutions within the state is creating an inequality which we have never before seen in our tribal society. It will tear this society apart and I don’t think it is hyperbolic to imagine such things. The government has been impotent for too long in planning out poverty, in addressing unemployment, in mitigating income gaps. Ensuring the proper dispersal of capital investment into crucial areas would surely be a major step in righting the wrongs.

Deep Green

I.

The jungle is a torture chamber. Anyone who goes on rigorous nature walks will tell you. Within it you can be stung, pricked, cut, torn, stabbed, injected, bitten. It is humid and asphyxiating. Everything is fighting everything else and you soon join battle yourself as you slash along. Creepers smother smaller plants, the tall trees refuse to share light, the floor is covered by rotting leaves and mutilated insects. The jungle thrives because of these struggles for life.

Yet in spite of its brutality, I am full of affection for the jungle.

“I love it, I love it very much but I love it against my better judgement” says Herzog in Burden of Dreams. I also love the jungle.

For me, being in the jungle, has nothing to do with “being a man” but more about seeking out the human being under the layers of modernity. Being in the jungle, one is confronted with the reality of existence. It is a reality that is about diurnal calculations, signs of the river, hints at a passing, smells on the wind and knowing one’s own limits. The jungle makes you aware of how heavy you have become, how ungraceful and unbalanced, how tar-filled your lungs are. It will smash your teeth on a rock if you are too quick, it will smash your elbow in if you overreach. It is a critical mother who does not care for us, and somehow we are driven forward by her sneering. We love her like a hostage loves his captor.

We become more appreciative of company within the jungle. It reminds us of how terrible, isolation can be and how sweet the companionship of other people is. It is misery – ineluctable and embedded – that brings us together. Within the woods, our deadliest phobias – of fangs, spikes and claws – rush at us and we are forced towards a camaraderie.

Clutched together, against this maddening orgy of thorns, vines and webs, is it any wonder that our first ancestors were troglodytes? They must have sought out the dark because the jungle could not grow there. They sought out the cold, black void of the caves to shelter them from the chaos of the jungle.

II.

The jungle is the greatest experimental lab in the world. It is the direct and violent opponent of the garden. To quote Herzog again, in the jungle, “Creation is unfinished”. This is true, Creation – Biblical and grand – could only take place in the garden. Paradise – derived from the Persian word pardesu – that is a ‘walled enclosure’, that is, a garden, cannot dream up the monstrosities of the mad jungle. But it is a monstrosity borne out of necessity. The garden, paradise, in comparison, is a control set – an enclosure designed to hold its in-mates – with the hope of erasing any traces of savagery. But the jungle stays on inside.

In his poem, The Common Life, W H Auden reminds us that the life we have today is only possible by the presence of “… the very latest engines, for keeping Nature at bay”. The only way Men may control the jungle is to slash at it, to burn it into the ground. You cannot control the jungle while it’s transpiring. You must kill it if you want some respite.

Even then, its agents – the mosquitoes, flies and snakes – sneak over the parched earth into human habitation on an hourly basis. Every day the jungle is at war with us trying to reclaim the spaces we have won from it. The old buildings of Calcutta know this all too well. Like a parasitic cordycep, ficus plants perch atop these buildings whilst their tendrils rip into the brick-and-mortar flesh. The struggle continues.This is how the jungle makes us humble.

Man cannot triumph over the jungle because we are not separate and distinct from one another. The jungle is part of us and we – though we fear to admit this – are a part of it.

VAB is not the Issue

For the good part of two years, we have been hearing a lot of noise about the Village Administration Bill (VAB). There were protests and speeches about it, demonstrations and weary policemen. The people against it seemed to be in the majority and only the government side seriously thought it was a good idea. In Jaintia Hills, it went off fairly well and was passed without much delay or opposition. People who studied the JHADC VAB say it is a superior document than the one proposed by the KHADC. Well, that’s a short summary of the VAB imbroglio thus far.

Now, I have been thinking and I have got to ask one question: why should it matter at all? Before you raise your voice please let me continue. Why should it matter how we administer our “villages” when they are so ‘dead’? Please keep in mind that I am referring here specifically to urban and semi-urban villages. In particular, I am referring to the Shillong “dongs” (localities). Most of these hardly have any social vibrancy left in them. I am referring here to the community life that I remember as a child. I am not Romantic about the past, it was not all sunny days and cheerfulness but I think it is fair to say that we generally had more community participation back then than we do today.

Why should some law threaten us so much? We should be more alarmed by the way in which we have become alienated from one another. When we were children growing up in Mawlai, my friends and I had a playground of about 500 metres, that is, to say we played together everywhere in our neighbourhood. We didn’t know one compound from the next, we didn’t fear anyone and everyone’s garden was open to us. Needless to say, hide-and-seek was ridiculously difficult. Today when I look at the old neighbourhood, I feel nostalgic and a part of me wishes it was still the same.

What has changed in the last few decades? For one, we all “grew up”. Not always in a good way. For some reason, many who played in the local woods and fields, when they were children, do not want their own offspring to do the same. When you question them about this they usually say things like, “In our time, the world was less dangerous”. Well, I personally think that “danger” keeps the mind sharp, but that’s my own personal opinion. Firstly, if we agree that the world has become more dangerous today, will withdrawing from it make it less dangerous? Will deserted streets be safer than a street filled with night walkers? We are horrified about the seemingly rampant rapes and multiple molestations that occur in Meghalaya so instead of reclaiming the streets from the ‘bogey-men’, we lock ourselves in. In Calcutta, I regularly see women walking around at ten o’clock at night. Think about what that implies next time someone says, “Tribals respect women”. In our society, if a woman is out after 4 PM, the daddys start calling like maniacs! Maybe they should just lock them up like Rapunzel in her lonely tower.

The solution that many well-off “liberal” Khasi parents have for this “after-hours” conundrum is to give their children a car so that they’ll be “safe”. But again, this doesn’t make our streets and neighbourhoods safer. It just makes your own kids safer; there will be no pedestrians and the streets will continue to be sinister and nameless. Now if you don’t see a problem with just thinking about yourself and your own nest, then I am afraid you’re part of the problem. I’m not saying that we should all turn into compassionate Saint Teresas but we need to get more young people more involved within the local community. Our neighbourhoods and “dongs” are becoming worse off not because of the VAB or imagined evils but because we are retracting from them.

It seems that at the heart of it, no one has the time anymore. No one has the time to read books or listen to music – not while working or driving, just listening to it for its own sake. All we want to do is chillax after work, watch X-Factor and drink a peg or two (or five or six). No one wants to take part in some silly community activity so they contribute money instead. Sorry to break it to you, but what use is money when it is your presence that is sought? The relationships and sharing at a community event, whether small or large shows, are invaluable. If these lived-in spaces – “dongs”, neighbourhoods, localities – are not worth our time, what is? Let us clear some time for important things. Facebook and Instagram are not real social media; talking and contact are.

When I first stayed in Jowai, as a deracinated Shillong Pnar, I was immediately struck by the camaraderie and closeness that people there have. This is changing as well of course, but people there still enjoy being closely sociable. Sometime in the 1960s, some wise “wohs” (uncle sorts) foresaw a social schism, so they decided to foster community spirit by formalizing an event with the goal of bringing people together. Now, Jowai society is very closely knit even today so I often wonder how close they were before the 60s! The institution of the yearly “Chad Kut Snem” (dance rally) was probably drawn from the Christmas community feast which we still enjoy in Shillong (“bam doh”) but it has grown into a large secular event that embraces all (even deracinated Pnars).

Every Jowai locality competes with the other in devising the best dance tunes and parade floats. It is healthy competition which benefits Jowai community in general. Every locality has a name that needs to be upheld and an arch-rival to be bested. This is why Jowai carnivals consistently bring in bands from all over and it is a pleasure which draws in everyone from everywhere. Earlier, in Shillong, we had fetes and carnivals which were a real treat. Whatever happened to those? It is sad to say that most community fairs and “locality weeks” that I have been to seem like bad government shows. Every chief guest, usually an MLA or retired officer, seems hell-bent on telling you their entire life history. How boring! We need to take a few pages from the Jowai model and revamp our villages. Then we can worry about VAB.

N.B. Another thing that I have noticed in Jowai is that there are a number of open grounds in each locality where neighbourhood children can play in. These are ‘picnic’ areas during the annual feast at the end of the year but are mostly open throughout the year for other events. In Shillong, most of our small fields are being completely dug up in order to make way for indoor stadiums which, sad to say, are mostly locked up by local administrators, except for a few days in a year. Either that happens or high fences are constructed to keep intruders, and players, out. Most people have to go all the way to Polo to play games.

Planning for People

Every year, in March, I have to listen to the same pseudo-technical verbosity at State and Central levels being reported across various media outlets. The Budget Session, it is clear from all the attention and scrutiny it receives, is by far the single most important Parliamentary session there is, and rightly so. Economic activities are the life-blood of society. Here in Meghalaya sadly, the only sheets we know are bed-sheets (which we buy with money which isn’t ours). The grim reality of the state balance sheets has not roused us from our slumber. A quick survey of letters sent in to the editor of Shillong Times shows us that for good or bad, people do have various political opinions and certain positions that they hold up. I might not agree with most of the views but it is ‘healthy’ nonetheless to observe the flux and flow. It is striking though that economic opinions that make their way to the Shillong Times are too infrequent and callow when they appear. For sure, it is easy to drown in the verbal mire of economics and finance and perhaps this is why letters addressing these issues are so scarce. Economics has become, like Law, a specialist discipline. It should not be.

The people of Meghalaya have been their own political masters for a fair amount of time now. We have captured political power but economic power is still a far-cry. We barely produce anything on our own. Our capacity for production is only half-heartedly bolstered. Most of our essential commodities come from outside – rice, sugar, salt, oil – and we are effectively just a colony of consumption. Various reasons are touted for this problem: everything from mismanagement and corruption to the ineptitude and supposed laziness of “tribals”. There is no one correct answer but there must be resolution. The governments that have ruled Meghalaya thus far have been simply allocating money to various projects and departments, they have not been thinking about a living economy. Of course, we need capital investment but we need to have visions first and a commitment to work with the people towards those ends. The point of this entire financial hullabaloo is to try and make people’s lives better. It is that simple. There is no point trying to hide behind jargon – fiscal this and GDP that – when there is no clear goal.

The Budget Session must be quite tiring judging by the looks of the sleepy faces and drowsy heads. Why is that so? There is no doubt that there are a lot of numbers to be crunched and aside from a few passing observations mentioned in the newspapers by some legislators it seems that most have no idea what is going on. It is unquestionably boring and no one can visualise what any of the figures actually mean on the ground. This has to be changed if we are to proceed ahead. The economy and economics need to be simplified more (and their reach widened) because contrary to what many economists believe it is not rocket science. We will be doomed if we rely only on technocrats who do not know anything outside their offices. Unless more of us gain insight into the world of economics we will find it very difficult to mount any sort of counter argument.

To get some idea about the terrible state our economy is in we should look at a sector. Infrastructural development is probably the dirtiest business in the world. There is much money to be made and if you ally yourself with a political party, you can be a certified contractor chamcha. That is why there are so many contractors today, because government policy is inclined in that direction. The need for good and safe infra is not in question. It is an absolute necessity. However, planning in this regard continues to be implemented with no accountability. If the estimated costs for completion of a project are say 5 crores and actual costs come to about 4 crores, you can be assured that 70 lakhs will end up in the wallet of the contractor. The government stops caring when the building is up. It doesn’t give a damn about fair wages and the rights of the labourers nor has it shown an interest in minimum wage revision and other important topics. They can show in their books that the job was completed and wash their hands of anything else.

The point of governmental spending should not be to create a class of elites but to redistribute resources among the people. Taxation (wealth, income) is supposed to help address this problem by levying taxes on richer people and giving that to the many in the lower strata. This is why the wealthy want tax breaks. In Meghalaya, a dangerous situation is coming to a head. We have no means of controlling the hoarding of wealth and assets within the tribal milieu. What is happening (and I blame governments squarely for this) is that a few families and business houses are becoming too powerful and it puts our collective safety in jeopardy. The Land Act, Benami Act protects tribals from ‘outsiders’ but what protects tribals from other tribals? This is a very disconcerting question but it needs answering. Every major party in the state today is a serpent’s nest of vested business interests. Every political party operating currently exists to make their members richer and more powerful. They don’t care about the life and death of your small business nor will they protect local industry from outside competition. Our public debts are mounting and there is no easy way to bring it down. The gates are open and our local enterprises are left to fend off the giant commercial sharks, in a leaky boat, with a broken oar.

I recently heard an anecdote about the ex CM of Meghalaya, (late) B B Lyngdoh. A person informed me that Mr Lyngdoh would always convene a meeting with the local retailers, merchants and service providers of Iewduh every few months in order to understand the trends in the marketplace and to solicit their views about what needed to be done for a healthy economy. These were not just the big-wigs of the bazaar but included tailors, grocers and others. Such proactive inclusiveness cannot be imagined today in Mukul’s Meghalaya. It further highlights humility and a dedication towards public service which I have not seen in most of our sitting legislators. There was less money in the economy in those days no doubt but there was also less corruption. Maybe I am being naive but it sounds more like an economy of the lower rung, building up from below. Contrast this to our current economy of booze drenched party planners and in-bred contractor khandans and you can gauge for yourself how far we have fallen.

Comrade, I’ll add you on Facebook

Many politically active people love Facebook. It has made their need for expression more vibrant and has widened the reach of their deeds and words. Everyone now can have a channel or a medium for broadcasting their views and opinions. This is the so-called ‘democratic’ aspect of Facebook. This is the subversive, even supposedly radical, feature that it is supposed to possess. We are cornered today by Big Media like CNN and their indigenous offshoots such as Times Now. Facebook has come along to save us from these ‘nasties’.

Many people are on Facebook because they claim that it makes their access to, and consumption of, information easier. It is a one-stop shop for their information-needs. They consider it a vital link in the chain between the info-makers and themselves. This is true enough but as censorship of progressive issues by Facebook has shown, information is not without filtration. If we are seeking ‘real’ info about the world and the events in it, Facebook might not be the best way to get it. The Internet was touted until the early 2000s as a great “information superhighway” that would democratize knowledge and spread information equally throughout the world. Because of this perhaps many governments have initiated legislations to curb the power and scope of the Internet, such that today it has lost much of its liberating potential.

That potential is further weakened by the policemen – beyond the State agencies – which includes Facebook. Facebook has for all purposes become the Internet for a large number of people globally. The Internet might still in reality be a highway of information but its traffic is being controlled and directed in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. Facebook is one of these shepherds. Its advocacy for faster ‘lanes’ (speeds) within the Internet, the odious Free Basics project and its courting of vested government and corporate interests that are willing to pay to promote their products, within its programme, all point to a deep desire for control by the company. Maybe one can ‘subvert’ it but I doubt this; it seems that the Facebook revolutions that were claimed by many are no longer affecting much change. Maybe that is because they were probably never realised because of Facebook, in the first place.

Further, what Facebook has given us is not just information but a glut of it. Any credible news is immediately followed by oppositional info, such that we are drowned in the possibilities that all sides are equally and entirely correct (or wrong). This destroys in effect all possibilities of political change that might arise. For instance, the BJP might be accused of a scam and immediately someone emerges to accuse the INC of the same. The issue then becomes oppositional/polarised instead of progressive; the issue should be about corruption and how to tackle it; not about BJP honesty vs. INC honesty.

Because of the swiftness, and more importantly copiousness, of the information via social media, many of us forget to cross check or investigate the claims that are made. Traditional ‘long form’ journos lose out and wild outrageous news floods us within seconds. Facebook is not the only one to blame here of course but its ubiquity is something that must be looked at suspiciously.

Has Facebook really made our lives better than it was before it came along? I seriously doubt this. It has just stepped in and simplified our ways of connecting with each other but it has herded us into groups where we can all love, hate, dislike or like something collectively. Experts have rightly called Facebook an “echo chamber”, where one can only hear one’s own beliefs being articulated in a positive manner; real criticism is not allowed.

Facebook claims that this is not true and that people can make up their own minds about what to follow or like. But how easy is it to be on “automatic” mode, how seductive is the choice of no choice! Many of the groups, the majority of them, I’d have to say, don’t want to ‘mix’ with other groups. Facebook has made our borders more distinct when it could have chosen different models for user interactions. But that is what you get when you bring scale into the picture, I suppose.

Facebook is the prime example of a digital multicultural society with no integration/interchange, it mirrors reality, in the online realm; and much like the real world, power is held firmly by the few on top.

My own personal issue with Facebook stems from my belief that it has not enhanced creativity at all but severely reduced it to fit into a status bar. I mean this in relation to writers and not really audio-visual people. Facebook has destroyed the ability of writers to frame a thought beyond a few lines. The instant gratification of the ‘likes’ that our friends would (no doubt) bestow upon our oft-times reactionary silly ‘sweet nothings’ is too tempting for many to defer. This robs us of pursuing an idea further and making it more complicated, developing its body. The dangerous lulls of uncritical praise have stunted ideas into shrubs when they could have been trees. The immediate response that one might get from across the Facebook platform has made it addictive and appealing but is that why someone should write or create? There’s the thing we must ask ourselves.

Poets and wordsmiths might be put off by my assertions. The platform, after all, encourages brevity – the soul of wit. Many would also say that Facebook allows a free and wide distribution of their works which is one of the positives. Maybe at the stage of distribution it could be used effectively but a profile, for me, distracts the creative process a lot (unless the author is researching and writing about Facebook!). These are rigid arguments arising out of my rigid belief in the writer’s process. By arguing in this manner, I make my own beliefs clear and it is up to the listener to decide for herself whether she also feels the same way. You needn’t ‘like’ this.

Facebook Necro

There are a multitude of reasons to discard Facebook and get back to mundane existence. I suppose this opening sentence does not sound very enthusiastic. Well everyday life is mundane, it really is. Facebook is addictive because of that sad fact of life. Between the shopping, the raising of children and our imminent deaths there are very few moments of singular sparkling tear-inducing Beauty. Yes, we probably need distractions like Facebook to save us from our subconscious thoughts of depression and self-imploding doom.  That and for sharing pictures of food and cute animals. But I digress.

I find this Facebook ‘disturbing’ and that is because when someone passes away, their online profile still remains! This terrifies me because that person has, in effect, become a ghost. We, the living that remember and these dead are stuck in a digital Purgatory. We cannot ignore these ghosts either as they are still our “friends”. We carry memories of the dead with us always, no doubt, but this is different. Facebook profiles are run by living breathing human beings. They become ‘living things’ in turn, imprinted by the lives behind them. Unlike books, documentaries, footage and other forms of ‘record keeping’, Facebook profiles have no completion. They end only when the person, behind them, ends.

Our relationship with films, books such and such are premised on the fact that we maintain a “disinterested” attitude towards them, the creators of such works are no longer able to control what happens to them once they are finished. But profiles are not like this. They are online personas of people. They represent our connection with those people with all their quirks and customizations. When they die, that connection is severed. It is different from the nostalgia of seeing an old photograph on a mantelpiece or opening a cupboard and getting a whiff of a once-familiar smell. Unlike clothes or perfumes, online profiles were those people and not just a simple extension of themselves. Those uploaded photographs mean nothing without the comments that were exchanged between creator and viewer(s).

I think that such sentimentalism is traumatic. On that note, are all our memories of people filled with happiness and joy? There might be some which deserve to be forgotten. I am not an especially fervent advocate of this because I do believe History repeats itself, more often than nought, so we ought to remember it. But I suspect a survivor of abuse, or rape might not want to be reminded of the person(s) who caused them pain and trauma.

The dead serve us best when they come fleetingly and privately – maybe to inspire, maybe to remind us to live – that is what distinguishes visitation from haunting. To construct a temple of mourning for them is grossly “Havishamian” to say the least. Facebook profiles of the dead are empty-eyed shells and like the remains of their owners should be consigned to Eternity. But what can we say about our global culture today? Indulgence, even of Death, is a juicy norm.

Women drinking in Bars

I found myself – yet again – in a packed dingy bar surrounded on all sides by a blanket of noise, cigarette smoke and general ‘run-downery’. This dive, started by a Chinese gentleman – whose portrait hung over the payment counter – was in an old market area of Calcutta – Chandni Chowk – an area where Parsi traders once plied their wares alongside French and Syrian merchants. It is one of many spaces in Calcutta that oozes out History with just a little light tapping at the, apparently, hard surface. Bars are great at offering us those much needed oases for pensive Romanticizing. As I walked and interrogated the market area around me, a swell of Time swept over me. My mind started to over-excite itself with figments of this and that. The bar conveniently offered its (relatively) inner calm for me; to weigh and sort out the thoughts which had been percolating within for the past two hours. I went in hurriedly.

As I sat down on a hard, worn down chair I remembered similar ‘austere’ bars of my hometown. Shillong establishments of old – but ill – repute like Ambassador, Golden Dragon came up. I remembered the loud, smoky camaraderie and the (frankly) stupid (but useful) ideas we often threw at each other. All these things have added layers to my life and I smiled to myself (psychotically) as I sipped the vodka, drawing out the incidences once again in my mind. The bar had wooden booths built along the sides of the wall. They were far more spacious than those we, in Shillong, are used to. There must have been about 10 in all. Out of them came the unfamiliar and pleasant sounds of women chatting. I say unfamiliar because in Shillong you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling a woman in a dive bar. Women, generally speaking, are routed towards fancier joints. Places like Pinewood, Cloud Nine and the like are considered ‘women-friendly’. Women can be free and ‘modern’ within such spaces. The rest of the drinking establishments of Shillong are quite clearly a ‘no go’ for women. Especially for ‘respectable’ women.

I had once walked into a bar with some friends only to be told that they would not serve us booze. The reason was because one of my friends had come with his then- girlfriend. We made a show and protest, deliberately trying to upset the men who were already drinking and stormed off after that. In hindsight, there have been many similar incidences like that. But then again we live in a society which has a terrible sense of business; where empty moralism trumps everything else. Must be one of those “salient features” of “tribal” society that I have heard so much about.

A few years ago, there were indeed a number of Shillong bars that permitted women to engage in the wonderful societal event called drinking. However, a slew of molestation/rape cases and a murder quickly led many authorities to point towards the bars as the progenitors of the root problem. It is a fairly common but no less idiotic declaration, in other parts of the country as well. After that, all the bars were ordered to close down by 9 pm and gradually, over time, the curfew was relaxed. However, bar management (probably with directives from the police) had somewhere along the line decided that women were a great liability to their continued business operations. The outcome was that women could not drink as freely as they once did and many bars openly turned them away. This situation still holds true even today, some 5 or 6 years after the murder of that unfortunate woman.

For women, every space is contended space. Even as I sat in that Calcutta dive, I felt this. Ostensibly, it is wonderful that the city of Calcutta seems to have such a nonchalant attitude towards women drinking in bars. It comes out favourably when you compare this to the terrible persecution, women in similar situations, often face in Bangalore, Delhi, etc. By many progressive meters, Calcutta is India’s most ‘civilised’ city. However, the fight for “spaces” is not over by any stretch of the imagination. While we may applaud the permissiveness of Calcutta, we must also note certain things: how drunk women are looked at by the staff and management, how women are usually expected to be accompanied by male friends, how they are hidden away – in their booths or special rooms – from the “serious” drinking lot, how they are talked to, so on. Women should never be complacent. A rape, murder or similar tragedy along with Right wing opportunism (whether political or social) could undo decades of progress. Women themselves must defend these hard-fought ‘battlegrounds’ because fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

The issue is, of course, not simply about a woman’s right to drink openly. It is about expanding the rights of women to do anything they wish to do. It is imperative to “perform” publically against the idiotic patriarchal ideas and practices which characterize most Indian communities. As I sat thinking about these things, with that glass in my hand, the various unfortunate situations which plague women in Shillong came up as well. Being able to drink in cheaper places, like those in Calcutta, ensures that women of every social stratum can enjoy themselves. In Shillong, sadly, this is not the case. If women want to drink, they have to pay through the nose.

Perhaps, a look at how rural communities of Meghalaya ‘handle their drink’ would be beneficial for urban dwellers. My friends and I once had a wonderful sing-along with a group of inebriated ladies in a village beyond Smit. So here is a little secret: We did not rape them, we did not succumb to the ‘beast that lies within all men’; we joked and croaked out popular tunes over the hills, enjoying one another’s company. On their part, the women did not run away at seeing, similarly inebriated, creatures. They saw the fun in the situation and made use of it. To imagine men as “beasts” or bestial, is probably the most harmful thing that we could do. We are not challenging ourselves as human beings, to be very honest, when we assume such things.  

Hiding women away from society, making “harems” (in which ever way) for their ‘protection’, does nothing but create more insecurity. Along the lake garden walkways at Rabindra Sarobar, I would see women moving about at 10 PM or so. This is a victory in a sense. Do the (middle class) Khasi parents encourage their daughters to participate in any activities after 6 PM? Do they encourage their daughters to walk around and explore Shillong? Sure, they might buy them a car and teach them to drive but that is hardly a “public space”. One should not be so surprised then, when women are turned away from bars, because in many ways we – as a male dominated society – are encouraging the recession of their public roles in a myriad ways. As a final invocation to Shillong youths, I would like to say: relax, turn “tribal” again, enjoy your soma. Cheers.

On the Chinkyness of Saif Ali Khan

Been meaning to write something about the recent Nike “all female” ad which ad pundits have been trolling on and on about. When I first saw the ad on TV, my speculation was that the production team must have just given up on any new ideas and decided instead to go down the old safe road of celeb endorsement. Throw in a little “feminism by consumption” and you have yourselves something that can hobble along as a national campaign. Why the hell was Deepika Padukone featured in an ad with athletes? She’s a fucking model! Models (please don’t believe Bollywood) are not athletes. No one cares if she played badminton once upon a time (she was quite good at it apparently). The point is these are professional sportswomen and it is selling them short (and cheap) by glamming up what they do with models. Do not even get me started on the fact that two of the athletes are not even Indian citizens.

Let me ask a question: Where was Mary Kom in the ad? You remember her, right: India’s North East sweetheart, the same one who won shiny medals and brought so much honour to the country? The same country that refuses to lift the oppression of AFSPA from her home state, the same country that remains mute on issues of human rights abuse in Manipur. Why was she not in the ad? Did she decline or was it something else? Maybe she was busy, I don’t have the means to tell you. However, what is clear is that it is becoming very common to airbrush away (nuanced) representations of the North East. The hue and cry over Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom is justified. Sure, Mary is not an actress but neither was Chopra before becoming a beauty queen. The point is Chopra was given ample opportunity to develop her craft when she became a spotlight fixture. So why not for Mary or for that matter any Manipuri actress?

Part of the answer for the neglect lies in understanding someone else’s rise to stardom: Arnab Goswami. Ostensibly, Goswami is from Guwahati, Assam. I am not sure if he is Assamese or Bengali but he is without doubt from the North Eastern city. For someone with such a background, Goswami is remarkably silent on news coming out of the North East. That is because he realised something on his way up the ladder. One has to sell away one’s background in order to be bankable. Imagine if Goswami had decided to opt instead for a career covering news coming out of the North East and not Delhi or Bombay. No one would have noticed or bothered with him. That is the bitter truth. That in order to be bankable one must put one’s lot in with the majority. That what the majority wants must be given; this is the logic of profit. The rest of the country doesn’t care about what goes on in the North East. For the most part, this is fine but when people from other cultures start having stupid biases and stereotypes against North Eastern people then it becomes a problem. Isn’t the media supposed to inform us instead of ‘disinform’? Isn’t the media supposed to sensitize people about other cultures and places? It seems that in order to become a success, one must ‘whitewash’, no ‘brownwash’, no ‘de-chinkyfy’ one’s self. Goswami is the highest exemplar of this selling of one’s self for profit.

Popular ideas about the national image and national identity are often ludicrous. Most of them are premised on numbers. The larger (or economically powerful) groups decide what the smaller ones should believe in or follow. This is hardly a desirable state of affairs. In this country, in particular, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the field of representation and developing sensitivity towards others. Even larger minority groupings like those in the category of ‘Muslim’ still face much discrimination and hounding, so what chance do small tribal communities have? It is worse for North East tribal groups because they do not look “Indian”, they look “Chinese” or “Nepali” or something along those lines. They apparently look like “momo” or “chowmein” if racial slurs are to be believed.

Occasionally, the national news has to pick up on stories of racial and/or cultural discrimination experienced by people from the North East in the big cities. These are very infrequent but those “libtards” get somethings right once in a while. Much of the reports always come down to one thing: faces. In particular, how someone is discriminated against because they happen to look chinky. I find this very interesting. Why would someone looking chinky warrant such actions? Is there some sort of a value judgement passed on chinky people? Maybe it has to do with their food, maybe religion, maybe their language or their much-defended sense of individualism? I think the main reason why one people might discriminate against another might be owing to a misplaced sense of worth, a pride in being better than others. But if one is so much better than others, why be so insecure? If you are so much better than others, why would you even bother to do such things? It can’t possibly be because of a fear – like many Right-wing Hindus have – of the perpetually Mating Muslim™ who they believe will overcome Hindu control of India through ‘womb and scrotum’ tactics. North Eastern people can’t keep up with that sort of ‘mass reproduction’. The real reason would most probably lie in the truth of insecurity, a fear of the unknown. Maybe this misguided fear is actually a fear of the Big Chinky Mama™, China; and NE tribals just have to bear the brunt of it. Or maybe it is a fear of the mysterious newcomer whose face we do not recognise nor accept. We fear that they will disturb our sense of order. Except if they’re ‘white’, of course.

So who’s a chinky anyway? Personally I think Saif Ali Khan is very chinky. Did he get that from his Afghani (fairly chinky people) forefathers or from his Bengali mother? And yes, Bengalis are quite chinky. Especially those from the East, which is why the Bengalis won’t discriminate against you based on your facial features. They will do it because of religion, language, culture but never on what sort of face you have. That’s just crude! What would Bollywood be today without the chinky RD Burman and his even more chinky father, SD Burman? What about the half-Burmese chinky, Helen ‘’Golden Girl’’ Richardson? This is a country of diversity we are told but to watch the nonsense of Bollywood today one would think otherwise. Take the horrible, recently released film, Mohenjodaro; why is the entire city, in the film, populated by ‘’Aryans’’, where are the “black”, sorry Dravidian, people? Hell, while we’re at it, that famous Mohenjodaro ‘priest’ statuette looks sort of chinky, I reckon. I mean his eyes are slits, for god’s sake! The ‘negrito’ dancing girl might have been his girlfriend. So yes, it was probably a society, in ancient times, where a chinky man had a “black” girlfriend; that sounds more modern than anything we have today. The Bollywood set (this includes Times Now) seems happy to overlook important facts like origin, culture, distinctiveness in their pursuit of an “Indian” identity. We see that it often spills over into the curation of an actual physical appearance i.e. how an “Indian” ought to look like. They do this, not because of patriotism, but because it can be sold for great profit. The simpler it is, the more it will sell. That is the logic of the Market. When you create a simplistic, unilateral identity, you are, in effect, creating a brand. And that is priceless.