Archive | December, 2010

Dispatch from Mumbai: Dissolving Sugar

25 Dec

Long ago, Zoroastrians from Persia fled their native land for the more tolerant shores of India.  When their boat docked in western India, the local maharajah refused them entry.  A messenger was sent to the refugees’ boat in the Arabian Sea.  “Our country is this full,” the messenger said and pointed to a full glass of water from the king.  “How will you fit in?”  “Like this,” said their leader as he mixed a spoon of sugar into the glass.  The maharajah received the sweetened glass of water and was pleased.  The Parsees (as they came to be known) have stayed in India ever since.

Despite their small numbers, they have an outsized influence on India.  Dadabhai Naoroji founded the Indian National Congress that fought for independence and which is still the largest political party.  The Tata family of industrialists began the Indian steel industry in the 1800s, started Air India, and donated most of their stock to charity.  Oh, and they also bought Jaguar and made the world’s cheapest car.

Parsees these days are slowly going extinct; not from any intolerance but perhaps from a little too much mixing in.  Intermarriage with non-Zoroastrians is common (our neighbor in Bombay being one), but their children will not be considered Parsee if both their parents are not Parsee.  Consequently their numbers have fallen from over 100,000 at Independence to around 60,000.  When they do marry, they have too few children.  In 2007, there were only 99 Parsee births.  In fact, the Tata family currently has no heir.

Parsees neither cremate nor bury their dead.  They leave their bodies to be eaten by vultures and then dump the bones into a dry well.  This usually happens at the Tower of Silence in Malabar Hills in Mumbai.  Lately though, the vulture population has been declining, and it has become difficult to dispose of bodies traditionally.  Rumor has it that because this temple is on prime real estate, unscrupulous businessmen are poisoning the vultures to force them to move out.

Which will perish first?  The Parsees or the vultures?  Will it be the end to a fascinating Indian subculture?  Our Parsee friend seems to think so, and he sighs wistfully for a community whose days are numbered.

 

Christmas News and Gift Ideas

22 Dec

Here’s the news you should be hearing more about, but probably aren’t.

  • Most companies don’t pay taxes – The Government Accounting Office says that the 72% of foreign corporations and 57% of domestic companies paid no federal income taxes despite having billions of dollars of sales.  Next time you hear people talking about getting “government off their back,” check whether they mean off of Big Business’s tax bill and onto yours.  This is the same tax code that lets Warren Buffet (the second richest man in America) pay less in taxes than his secretary (17.7% versus 30%).  And he isn’t even TRYING to cheat on his taxes; he actually supports higher taxes on the rich.
  • Budget Director goes to Wall Street – Peter Orszag, Obama’s fiscally conservative budget director, retired from working in the White House to spend time with his family.  But before he did that, he made some noise about Social Security going bankrupt and how the United States needs to cut its deficit to please the bond market and extend the Bush tax cuts.  If that didn’t make sense, maybe his new job at Citigroup at a salary of $2-3 million explains it.  Citigroup, if you haven’t heard, is 12% owned by the taxpayers and the biggest welfare queen in the financial universe.  It’s also where corrupt, neoliberal Democrats go to retire like the infamous Robert Rubin who selected the Obama Cabinet.  Orszag is obviously being paid to lobby for Citigroup and against all the rest of us.  Oh yeah, and he dumped his pregnant girlfriend for a Eastern European hottie.  From class act to class war I suppose.
  • Americans too fat and stupid to join the Army – Here’s an interesting statistic: 75% of 17-24 year olds cannot join the military because they are physically unfit, didn’t finish high school, or have a criminal background.  One-fourth of military applicants fail the entrance exam that started in World War I.  The Department of Defense needs 15% of young people to join the military!  Too bad most people are ineligible to join.  If the recession ends, there will be fewer people needing to join the military.  Will stupidity kill the war machine?  Unintended consequences of the decline of American public education.
  • Stuff These Stockings – Columnist Katha Pollitt annually publishes her favorite charities for Christmas donations.  This year’s list includes Partners in Health (Haiti), a Gaza women’s group, and the Ubuntu Education Fund (South Africa).  Open your checkbooks and donate!  At the least, buy your loved one an Oxfam goat.

Issue XVLI: Manufacturing Beauty in the South and South Asia

15 Dec

The following was a paper I wrote for a film class I took about skin diseases and the movies.

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The Red Fort in old Delhi is a complete world away from the red hills of Georgia to the inexperienced observer.  Yet both places are epicenters in the manufacture of image.  Both are where foreign concepts of beauty were imported through colonialism and slavery and came to dominate the concept of beauty for both the South and South Asia.  The essay will seek to link how European ideals of beauty, skin, and hair came to dominate both the Indian and African-American mind.

Good Hair?

Chris Rock’s 2010 documentary, Good Hair: Sit Back and Relax, explores the black hair care industry from the perspective of a concerned father and a naïve man on the street.  As a black man, what should he tell his two daughters about their hair and whether it is good or bad?  When and what should they do with their hair when they become old enough to go to the hair salon?  Over the next 96 minutes, he visits the Atlanta black hair care convention and learns about the massive beauty industry that has been built around African-American hair.  He concludes that everyone benefits from the black hair business but black people themselves.    

African-Americans represent only 12% of all Americans but represent 70% of all hair care and salon sales.  However, this $9 billion industry benefits white-owned cosmetic firms, enriches Indian temples and Hollywood wholesalers, and deprives black women (and the men that support them) of disposable income that could be spent on education, housing, or food.  Chris Rock speaks to actresses who routinely spend $1,000 a month (minimum) on weaves alone.  Black men speak painfully about how they have to support black women’s salon and straightening habits to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars per month and dozens of hours lost annually to beauty salons.  Chris Rock pointedly refers to this spending to being worse than a crack-cocaine addiction.

Rock’s concern for his children is not as unique as one might think.  Sesame Street recently aired a song called “I Love My Hair.”  This song features a black muppet singing about how much she loves her naturally curly black hair and why she does not need to go to the salon to get her hair done.  The muppet also lists all the different things she can do with her hair that other types of hair cannot do.  This song and paean to black hair was actually composed by a Caucasian man who had adopted a black child, and he was concerned about her self-image and what she thought was “good hair.”  Media outlets reported that many black women cried when seeing this song and wrote letters to Sesame Street about how they wish they could have seen such a positive image of black hair when growing up.

The concept of “good hair” has deep roots in black history, and Rock omits some very relevant history and politics in his documentary.  Few know that the first female self-made millionaire was black.  Even fewer know that that Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune from selling black beauty products.  It was also common in her time to sell skin-whiteners to African-Americans so that they could better fit into the mainstream concept of good skin tone.  It is ironic that in the 21st century, another poor black woman from the South, Oprah Winfrey, has become the richest woman in America because her media empire is supported by cosmetic and beauty advertising.

Political and religious objections to “good hair” were absent in Rock’s documentary.  Part of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s emphasized natural black hair and afros to show that the Black Panthers would not submit to the white world’s concept of beauty.  But even before the Panthers were the hair styles of Rastafarians in Jamaica in the 1920s.  Influenced by Marcus Garvey in New York, they created a religion with a black god who lived on Earth in Ethiopia.  They worshiped Emperor Haile Selassie and proclaimed that dreadlocks were the appropriate way to display your faith and non-conformity with the white world and the Babylon of non-believers.  Hair, it seems, is a statement of pride, power, and ethnicity.

Bollywood and Beyond

When Chris Rock visits Tirupati to see where weaves bought in America come from, it represents one of the few interactions between African-Americans and Indians on film.  Interestingly, Indians and the Indian film industry have their own hang ups about good hair and skin and bring with it its attendant politics.

India’s roots in the skin color debate are ancient.  Historians claim (with some controversy) that Aryans, an Indo-European nomadic people, invaded and/or migrated to northern India around 1500 B.C.E.  They displaced the native Dravidians into South India.  The ones who stayed in the north were bound into the lower rungs of the Hindu caste system.  It is well-known that higher caste Brahmins are lighter-skinned while the lowest castes and untouchables remain dark-skinned.  Brahmins and other high castes proclaim their Aryan descent.

Another important development in the history of India that associated lighter skin color with power and prestige were the Muslim and then British occupations of India.  Starting the 1200s, Muslims of Turkish and Persian descent began incursions into India that resulted in the Delhi Sultanate that ruled India for centuries.  These sultans, nawabs, nizams, and emirs emphasized their Middle Eastern descent and married within their ethnicity (as opposed to darker skinned Indian Muslim converts).  To this day, they remain a distinct community that does not mix or marry with outsiders.  Hyderabadi Muslimus, for example, live within the old city walls of Hyderabad and speak Urdu and not Telegu which the darker-skinned Hindus speak outside.  The coming of the British Raj in 1857 continued many of the customs and traditions of the former Mughal Court with local maharajas paying tribute to Queen Victoria instead of the former sultan.

When film-making came to India during the British era, it was only natural that the pre-existing power structure of beauty would come to dominate the Indian film industry.  Particularly after Partition, the Bombay film industry (Bollywood) has been dominated by fair-skinned North Indians from Sindh and Punjab.  The biggest actors and actresses are always tall and fair-skinned in Hindi movies.  Actor Saif Ali Khan, for example, is literally the child of royalty (his father was a Nawab and his mother an actress).  Actor Shah Rukh Khan caused considerable consternation when he started promoting a skin lightener for men (Srivastava 2010) despite the fact that such products contain bleach and harm the skin.  The “fairness industry” has a considerable market in a nation of 1 billion people.         This idealization of European and Middle Eastern concepts of beauty has also made Indian models competitive in international beauty pageants.  The superstar actress Aishwarya Rai began her acting career after winning the 1994 Miss World competition, for example.

However, the Indian film industry is not homogenous.  Focusing on Bollywood films ignores the regional film industries of India.  Each state has a film industry that makes movies in the vernacular language of that state.  The biggest regional film industry is the Tamil film industry in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Tamils are Dravidians who have a very separate history from the rest of India with their separate classical period and their own ancient language separate from Northern India’s Vedic period and Sanskrit language.  Tamil Nadu also has its own political parties, the DMK and AIDMK, which began from a nationalist movement during the Tamil Renaissance of the late 1800s.  The Tamil nationalist movement emphasized the linguistic unity of all Tamils and fought against the imposition of imperialistic “Aryan culture” from the North.  The Hindi language and the caste system were viciously attacked as being alien impositions on Tamil society.  Anti-brahmin and anti-caste movements led to a polity that rejected the idea of a fair-skinned high caste elite ruling over the majority of lower caste Tamils.  Vigorous anti-Hindi protests after Independence led Tamil Nadu to stop the teaching of Hindi as a compulsory subject (reducing the demand for Hindi movies).  Many of these protest movements were led by Tamil stage actors and playwrights.  The current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, is a playwright and has been in and out of office for decades.

Unsurprisingly, Tamil cinema has different conventions than Bollywood.  Actresses are   darker in complexion and rounder in the waist than in Hindi films.  The current king of Tamil movies is “Superstar Rajnikanth”, the second-richest actor in Asia (Hendrix 2010).  He is not attractive, tall, or slim.  Rajnikanth is not even Tamil.  He is rather average, and that is the magic behind his appeal.  Superstar Rajnikanth is a man of the people, a very Indian man who will not compromise his Indian-ness to appeal to outsiders.  This former bus conductor shows great style in his films but is utterly relatable to his audience by his ordinariness.  Rajnikanth is a hero for a people who respect themselves and their body image.

Conclusion

This essay has shown the popular concept of beauty is intricately wound up in the power structure of the society one lives in and even more directly by those who control the local media.  Chris Rock’s journey to South India in the movie Good Hair raises interesting cross-cultural comparisons between South India and the South.  But what is Rock’s solution?  What is his message?  Does he have a consistent idea?  I believe he does.

Chris Rock has been criticized for his vulgarities and racist language.  He has been pilloried for his offensive stand-up routines by conservative pundits.  However, one critic astutely pointed out that a closer reading of his message would find that he is actually rather conservative in his opinions about the needs and solutions for the black community (Swanburg 2005).  He once complained that money going into expensive tire rims would be better invested in stocks.  Misplaced priorities and wasted money are problems intrinsic to the black community, not imposed from outside.

Good Hair makes more sense in this vein.  His favorite topic of frivolous spending by the black community has moved from hip hop accessories to something even more basic: their hair.  As one interviewee pointed out in the movie, the black community is wearing its oppression on its head every day of the week it puts on relaxant and weaves.  How can a community let outsiders make billions of dollars off of their hair?  And if the black community cannot address its own hair, how can it hope address the even bigger issues?  Where does it begin the fight when blacks themselves discriminate against African-Americans with natural hair?

It begins at home.  The solution begins in self-respect and empowerment and in the ability for people of all ethnicities to love themselves and not what the television tells them to love.  Mental colonization is perhaps the most insidious of all colonialisms visited upon people of color.  What the Black Panthers and the Tamil nationalist movement taught the world is that it is only with self-awareness and organized campaigns of empowerment and self-respect (like Afro pride, Tamil heritage pride) can a community resolve its inner contradictions and confidently face the world outside.  And it is only when a people feel proud of themselves that they will ever see someone like themselves in the movies.

References

Hendrix, Grady.  “SUPERSTAR Rajnikanth: The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of.”  Slate: September 27, 2010.

Srivastava, Arunima.  “Addicted to fairness creams? Not Fair.”  Times of India: November 18, 2010.

Swanburg, John.  “Chris Rock: the William F-ing Buckley of stand-up.”  Slate: February 24, 2005.

WikiLeaks Favorites

6 Dec

While the media crows about how evil WikiLeaks is and Bill O’Reilly wants the government to assassinate its founder Julian Assange, I figured the Bhatany Report should focus on the actual substance of the cables.  Here are my favorite revelations so far.  Think about what it means for the lie machine that is our nation’s foreign policy.  The WikiLeaks website has a mirror at www.wikileaks.nl.  You can find coverage at the Guardian and the English edition of Der Spiegel.

  • Al Jazeera ain’t so neutral – the Arab world’s number one satellite news channel is not as editorially independent as it tells the world.  However, this doesn’t mean it’s propagandizing on behalf of Osama bin Laden; it’s carrying water for the Qatari royal family that sponsors it.   Certain countries Qatar is mad with will get negative coverage until they patch up with the royal family.
  • America is spying at the UN – the United States is showing blatant disregard for the United Nations by spying on its key staff.  The State Department was ordered to spy on Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and to collect his fingerprints, credit card numbers, iris scans, and frequent flier account numbers to track his movements.  Wiretapping was encouraged as well. 
  • Who got Iraq’s oil? – Despite invading Iraq for non-existant reasons of weapons of mass destruction, the only American company that made out like a bandit in the invasion was Halliburton.  Oil companies that benefited from the Iraq invasion were all foreign.  Not only do we do wars of conquest, we suck at them too!  After the invasion, Iraq had to import gasoline   

WikiLeaks is the future, and other international bad guys await its scrutiny.  Before America huffs and puffs too much about the unwelcome scrutiny, keep in mind that the next three victims will be Russia, Wall Street, and BP.  Who wants to defend them?

Issue XLV: The Old and the New

3 Dec

The past has receded away quickly in my short life in the two nations I know best: India and the United States. America and India have changed immeasurable since I was a child. India was the place of poverty and shame while America was unquestionably in charge. In the 10 years since 2000, the U.S. has declined further and further while the American Dream packs itself up and moves itself to Asia. I would like to share what I have observed with the coming of the New and the withdrawal of the Old for both countries.

Last month I rounded with an attending physician who was a throwback to a recently-departed era. He was an infectious disease doctor who had practiced in a medium-sized town in Texas for two decades before returning to academia. To my mind, he struck as what the paleontologists call a “living fossil.” The good doctor can best be summarized as the “Old Texas”, and he embodies an era and attitude more thoroughly than anyone I have met in recent years.

The Old Texas talks of faith, miracles, conservative values, and slow but steady honest work. It is suspicious of the new and the morally questionable. It puts its certainties into received wisdom, common sense and the good books of (pre-revisionist) history and the Bible.

His world is Tommy Lee Jones lamenting to another sheriff in No Country for Old Men that when you stop hearing “sir and ma’am” society is bound to fail. He asks, “Who could have foreseen good ol’ American boys and girls with green hair and noserings in the golden days?” Well, the New Texas has space for them and more.

And if the Old Texas couldn’t foresee witchcraft, tattoos, and hip hop, it certainly could not have foreseen he would be rounding with a team consisting of a Jordanian, an Indian, a Vietnamese, a Nigerian, and only two “regular” white Americans. The team rounded with was decidedly the “New Texas.” It is urban, multiracial, globally-connected, and with less deference to the past. The New Texas is also decidedly more and less educated with more college graduates and more high school dropouts.

His was the land of segregation, but the land of 90% income tax rates. His was the land of feudal Democratic Party bosses who controlled rural and South Texas where democracy was a joke that was bought and sold with an ease that would make the Carter Center blush. The New Texas has real and full democracy for all races, but somehow that makes it much less appealing and interesting. In New Texas, no one knows what our place is. In the Old Texas, we did but it meant we had to rigidly fit in the hierarchy of history, race, and gender.

As the New Texas bumpily moves into the future, we cast such restrictions behind. But by the wayside we leave prudence, common courtesy, family values, and sound financial planning as it stares into its iPhone, oblivious to its surroundings.

The Old India still exuded the colonial British India at times. This was the India of Ambassador cars, the spiritual satisfaction of the movie Gandhi, and centuries of rural life unchanged by millenia of changes in superficial things like maharajahs, colonial governments, and the modern Republic. Where cinematic kisses were as unthinkable as general prosperity.

The New India jumps from the glossy pages of TIME, proclaiming a middle class nation with a computer screen glow that shines away the darknesses of hunger, illiteracy, and the Naxalite war. Now the children of shepards are being sent to school. Not just to read and write in Kannada but in English. The hysteria and pressure for education and a good engineering college can be seen from Times of India advertisements for after school tuitions and the fantastic movie Three Idiots.

Yet despite the contradictions and hype of India’s successes, the motherland is a nation on the make. As the American Dream fades so the Indian Dream begins. The American Dream meant millions of immigrants rising above their birth in the old European class hierarchy by leaving for America. It’s now a nation of rising inequality and increasing classism, fearful of the world around it while ignoring the fundamentals that made it a great nation. The Indian Dream is to rise above millennia of caste hierarchy and rural isolation to a world of merit and hard work and just rewards for good work. It too is starting to forget and disdain its past, as Americans do.

Funny how much can change in twenty-five years.