Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Growing Up Plural in a Singular World

This link goes to the Citizens for Peace site where Peter Griffin (also known as Zigzackly) has posted an essay by me with the above title. It's in response to an article entitled "We need to stop being such cowards about Islam" by Johann Hari in the Independent, UK, on Aug 14th 2008. Peter Griffin sent a link to his friends and I wrote my response after conferring with him.

It's worth reading Hari's piece before reading my response which appears in full below (if you go to the Citizens for Peace site, you'll read a proofed version -- Pete was kind enough to pass an editorial eye over it before posting. This was at my request since I can never write anything without including outrageous bloopers -- I can of course never see them till about a week later)

The question that began to appear in my head as I read Johann Hari's piece was: How long did it take before Christianity turned the corner that led away from witch-burning and towards enlightened rationalism? Seventeen centuries? Eighteen? Whatever the actual numbers, the point is, it surely took a long time and the changes that took place were wrought largely by thinkers and believers within the religion. That's a very different situation to the one in which the Islamic world finds itself today, in which profound transformations are being forced upon it by external forces, political as well as cultural.

So what I'm saying here is that we -- by which I am claiming membership to a global community of people who believe themselves to be enlightened rationalists -- need to refrain from piling on to Muslims and from making statements about their faith that they find hurtful or disrespectful. If that means we need to rein in some of our cherished freedoms of speech, then yes, so be it. We should do it cautiously, thoughtfully and with a view to creating greater freedoms in the long run.

What is being asked of Muslims by non-Muslims is that the Islamic world make an extreme turnaround without the benefit of a centuries-long process of introspection and carefully reasoned doubt. Yet even moderates and non-fanatics will pull back from the brink when their core beliefs are questioned or ridiculed by outsiders. In the arena of sports, for instance, it's a rare day when fans of one team will cross the floor to root for an opposing team -- and that's just sports, not god-and-cosmic-destiny. How much more must this be true in a world where faith is frequently tested at the point of a gun, or when small ethnic communities are pledged to maintain their customs and practices despite being surrounded by the beliefs of hostile neighbours?

I believe deeply in the principle of freedom of thought and speech. Nevertheless, I recognize that it is no longer possible to uphold those freedoms in a rigid, unidimensional way. We live in a world where monotheists must share space with other monotheists as well as polytheists, atheists, animists and perhaps various -ists who resist definition altogether. Maybe the price we pay for pluralism is having to redefine some core freedoms, having to be a little more inclusive about what each society considers "free" and having to wage painstaking battles over each redefinition. Making the effort might result in important insights being gained about the nature of pluralism and about what new elements might need to be packed into the small word "we" versus that bigger word, "they".

Take the issue of women wearing the veil (meaning the burkha). Belonging as I do to the veil-free segment of the world's communities I admit that I find it really unacceptable for women to be obliged to wear a garment that looks like a black bedsheet. However, over the course of many years of attempting to think cross-culturally, I have also come to think that the way women are manipulated by the fashion industry in Western countries is equally unpleasant. In fact, I have come around to thinking of the heavy make-up that (for instance) actresses and TV newsreaders wear as entirely analogous to the veil.

Think about it -- a fully made-up woman can no more give her face a good wipe-down with a hankie on a hot day than a woman with her face covered in a burkha. Make-up conceals faces while pretending to reveal them -- and many women who dress formally for their work-place joke about feeling "naked" without their lipstick and foundation cream. Being made up is supposed to be a choice that women make, but there's hardly much choice involved when, for many women, choosing not to meet cultural standards of personal grooming can result in losing jobs and career advancements.

But moderating attitudes to feminine dress codes to be inclusive of other cultures is just the front doorstep of adjusting to the realities of a culturally plural world. There are so many other levels. How do we train ourselves to be inclusive without becoming numbed to cultural signage? How do we let diversity in while leaving prejudice out?

Ever since the Dutch cartoons that inflamed Islamic sentiments around the world, I have been thinking through some of my beliefs, trying to understand the type of fanaticism that leads to violent confrontations. I am opposed to organized religion and have no faith in any gods. Even so, I realize that it's possible to sympathize with the profound discomfort that is caused when a cherished belief or beloved icon is treated disrespectfully by others. I have discovered that this is true even when there's no overt intention to be disrespectful and even when there is no faith or deep conviction involved.

Here is an anecdote: I can remember feeling unhappy when I was introduced to the much beloved family cat of well-travelled American friends. Out of genuine affection for their pet and for the pleasant memories of their visit to India, they had called their cat ... Shiva.

Believe me when I repeat myself -- I am NOT religious and I am very fond of cats. I even acknowledge that this cat was a creature of tremendous dignity and philosophical depth. Yet the sadness was real, and it came as a surprise to me. It forced me to understand that culture is a very complex phenomenon. That for my friends to name their cat Shiva was no different to my naming one of my pets Odin or Pluto. That this kind of affectionate naming is not really any different to bringing home a tribal artefact from some other part of the world, only to use it as a as a lamp stand or soap dish in my house.

At what point does the inappropriate cross-cultural use of an artefact become disrespectful? Only when a member of the tribe to which a totem-figure is significant crosses the doorstep of a home that uses that item as a soapdish? Or when the tribe-member is considered a social equal to the extent that his/her cultural sensitivities will be respected?

To return to the specifics of the freedom-of-speech issues in our globalized world, yes, of course it's true that many of the more extreme responses to Western media are motivated by cynical power-mongers, people who are only too eager to fix upon transgressions that can be squeezed for political advantage.

At the same time, I think we all need to remind ourselves continuously and consciously that every culture has its tender spots in which, if that culture is poked, it will react with "unreasonable" anger.

In the West today, perhaps the icons of Christianity no longer have the significance that, say, references to the Prophet have for Muslims. Perhaps Christian icons have become invulnerable to attack -- we know that there have been very many instances of desecrations by Westerners of various icons of Christianity in the name of Art without grand general meltdowns. Then again, it's possible that Western Christians have become invulnerable to assaults on their religion because they are feeling invulnerable in general. It isn't difficult for a culture to feel invulnerable when it continues to be besieged by would-be immigrants, when its currency is considered highly desirable even by its enemies and when its products and inventions continue to define the standards of inventiveness in our world.

I wonder though, if the relatively mild response to desecrations involving Christianity in the West might be linked to the fact that the desecrators are, typically, people making statements about themselves and their own culture? Would the response be different if the desecration originated not just from another culture, but from one that was regarded as a threat? If that were ever to be the case, would the response turn towards violence? Would the violence become increasingly desperate as the gulf between the two groups grew in depth and distance?

And does the level of violence indicate the level of commitment to a particular tradition -- or only to the level of insecurity of the group that wants to cling to that tradition in the face of opposition?

Returning to the theme of freedoms, I believe that one of the most direct examples of constraints that nevertheless result in greater freedoms is to be found in traffic regulation: when drivers observe the rules of the road, everyone gets around faster and with fewer accidents. The effects of the OPPOSITE approach are clear for all to see. In New Delhi for instance, where every driver applies his/her own definition of freedom on the road, we experience continuous mayhem, extreme traffic delays and daily fatalities.

It will of course be enormously difficult to attempt to create a system of "traffic regulation" which can apply to the world's cultures and to the way in which the international news media report on all our individual selves in all our plural situations.

But that shouldn't stop us from trying.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


Clicking this link will take you to a simple two-dimensional maze but with an interesting twist: after you've completed the initial one or two challenges the cursor moves in mirror-reverse! Even though your mind accepts this immediately, the eye-hand coordinator chip in your brain (oh, allRIGHT -- just MY brain, then!) takes a while to accept the new rules ...

There are ten levels. And once you're through, you can visit the home-site where there are DOZENS more games ...

Caferati's FLASH FICTION Contest

I'm posting the following invitation on behalf of my buddy Zig, of Caferati

Hi all,

We're delighted to be able to tell you about this contest we have just got up and running. We're presenting it in partnership with LiveJournal, one of the oldest, most respected names in the community blogging world.

It's a pretty simple challenge we have here, one that will particularly appeal to all the fiction writers among you, but light enough for those of you who prefer other forms of writing to give it a bash.


Can you tell a quicker, snappier story than anyone else? Would you care to pit your story-telling abilities against those of your peers?

Quick Tales, the LiveJournal - Caferati Flash Fiction contest, asks you to tell us a story in 500 words or less. On offer: delicious cash prizes (top prize: Rs 19,999), global visibility and the chance to be part of a book.

You probably know what Flash Fiction is all about - we have run Flash Fic contests for the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival for the last three years, and FF tags and memes have been floating around the blogosphere for ages - but, just in case you do need a few starting tips, see this page: STARTING TIPS

The contest is open to residents of India who are members of LiveJournal's India Writing community. (If you're not an LJ member, joining is free. Click the "Create a LiveJournal Account" link at the top of any LJ page.) The theme is "Journal," and your deadline is 7th September.

Prizes? The top 5 winning entries take home cash prizes of Rs 19,999, Rs 16,000, Rs 12,000, Rs 8,000 and Rs 4,000, respectively. And the rest of the top ten get paid accounts on LJ for one year. Each of the top 100 entries will also be highlighted on LJ's India Writing community - for the world to see. (Short-listed stories may also be included in a book that LiveJournal plans to publish at a later date.)

Go straight through to our Quick Tales microsite for all the details, and don't forget to join India Writing, which is the place where all the updates will be happening. Live Journal has more plans for writers in all languages in India, and that community will be HQ.


We'd also be very, very grateful if you chose to tell your friends about it, and, if you have a blog or personal site, or are a member of other writing communities, to link to the site as well.

Good luck, and we hope to see your entry soon!

Peter Griffin, Manisha Lakhe and Annie Zaidi
Editors & moderators, Caferati

Friday, August 08, 2008

Link to Express piece

Here's a link to the piece that appeared in the Indian Express yesterday (Thursday, Aug 7th, 2008) entitled Whose Right Is It Anyway? I thought it might be worth providing a link on account of the comments from people who read the story there, then came here and found the article on Naga Naresh.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

An Ah-maaazing and Inspiring Story

I got this story in the mail from -- no, NOT Anvar this time -- but Amar. I don't know who wrote the article or where it was published.

[a couple of hours later. I found a number of blog links of which I'm posting just one. There seems to be some disagreement about the correct spelling of his name. I've decided to go with the one featured in this title, but the article spells the name with an "a"] Naga Naresh Karuturi

'God has always been planning things for me'

Naga Naresh Karutura has just passed out of IIT Madras in Computer Science and has joined Google in Bangalore .

You may ask, what's so special about this 21-year-old when there are hundreds of students passing out from various IITs and joining big companies like Google?

Naresh is special. His parents are illiterate. He has no legs and moves around in his powered wheel chair. (In fact, when I could not locate his lab, he told me over the mobile phone, 'I will come and pick you up'. And in no time, he was there to guide me)

Ever smiling, optimistic and full of spirit; that is Naresh. He says, "God has always been planning things for me. That is why I feel I am lucky."

Childhood in a village
I spent the first seven years of my life in Teeparru, a small village in Andhra Pradesh, on the banks of the river Godavari . My father Prasad was a lorry driver and my mother Kumari, a house wife. Though they were illiterate, my parents instilled in me and my elder sister (Sirisha) the importance of studying.

Looking back, one thing that surprises me now is the way my father taught me when I was in the 1st and 2nd standards. My father would ask me questions from the text book, and I would answer them. At that time, I didn't know he could not read or write but to make me happy, he helped me in my studies!

Another memory that doesn't go away is the floods in the village and how I was carried on top of a buffalo by my uncle. I also remember plucking fruits from a tree that was full of thorns.

I used to be very naughty, running around and playing all the time with my friends. I used to get a lot of scolding for disturbing the elders who slept in the afternoon. The moment they started scolding, I would run away to the fields!

I also remember finishing my school work fast in class and sleeping on the teacher's lap!

January 11, 1993, the fateful day
On the January 11, 1993 when we had the sankranti holidays, my mother took my sister and me to a nearby village for a family function. From there we were to go with our grandmother to our native place. But my grandmother did not come there. As there were no buses that day, my mother took a lift in my father's friend's lorry. As there were many people in the lorry, he made me sit next to him, close to the door.

It was my fault; I fiddled with the door latch and it opened wide throwing me out. As I fell, my legs got cut by the iron rods protruding from the lorry. Nothing happened to me except scratches on my legs.

The accident had happened just in front of a big private hospital but they refused to treat me saying it was an accident case. Then a police constable who was passing by took us to a government hospital.

First I underwent an operation as my small intestine got twisted. The doctors also bandaged my legs. I was there for a week. When the doctors found that gangrene had developed and it had reached up to my knees, they asked my father to take me to a district hospital. There, the doctors scolded my parents a lot for neglecting the wounds and allowing the gangrene to develop. But what could my ignorant parents do?

In no time, both my legs were amputated up to the hips.

I remember waking up and asking my mother, where are my legs? I also remember that my mother cried when I asked the question. I was in the hospital for three months.

Life without legs
I don't think my life changed dramatically after I lost both my legs. Because all at home were doting on me, I was enjoying all the attention rather than pitying myself. I was happy that I got a lot of fruits and biscuits.

'I never wallowed in self-pity'

The day I reached my village, my house was flooded with curious people; all of them wanted to know how a boy without legs looked. But I was not bothered; I was happy to see so many of them coming to see me, especially my friends!

All my friends saw to it that I was part of all the games they played; they carried me everywhere.

God's hand
I believe in God. I believe in destiny. I feel he plans everything for you. If not for the accident, we would not have moved from the village to Tanuku, a town. There I joined a missionary school, and my father built a house next to the school. Till the tenth standard, I studied in that school.

If I had continued in Teeparu, I may not have studied after the 10th. I may have started working as a farmer or someone like that after my studies. I am sure God had other plans for me.

My sister, my friend
When the school was about to reopen, my parents moved from Teeparu to Tanuku, a town, and admitted both of us in a Missionary school. They decided to put my sister also in the same class though she is two years older. They thought she could take care of me if both of us were in the same class. My sister never complained.

She would be there for everything. Many of my friends used to tell me, you are so lucky to have such a loving sister. There are many who do not care for their siblings.

She carried me in the school for a few years and after a while, my friends took over the task. When I got the tricycle, my sister used to push me around in the school.

My life, I would say, was normal, as everyone treated me like a normal kid. I never wallowed in self-pity. I was a happy boy and competed with others to be on top and the others also looked at me as a competitor.

I was inspired by two people when in school; my Maths teacher Pramod Lal who encouraged me to participate in various local talent tests, and a brilliant boy called Chowdhary, who was my senior.

When I came to know that he had joined Gowtham Junior College to prepare for IIT-JEE, it became my dream too. I was school first in 10th scoring 542/600.

Because I topped in the state exams, Gowtham Junior College waived the fee for me. Pramod Sir's recommendation also helped. The fee was around Rs 50,000 per year, which my parents could never afford.

Moving to a residential school
Living in a residential school was a big change for me because till then my life centred around home and school and I had my parents and sister to take care of all my needs. It was the first time that I was interacting with society. It took one year for me to adjust to the new life.

There, my inspiration was a boy called K K S Bhaskar who was in the top 10 in IIT-JEE exams. He used to come to our school to encourage us. Though my parents didn't know anything about Gowtham Junior School or IIT, they always saw to it that I was encouraged in whatever I wanted to do. If the results were good, they would praise me to the skies and if bad, they would try to see something good in that. They did not want me to feel bad.

They are such wonderful supportive parents.

Life at IIT- Madras
Though my overall rank in the IIT-JEE was not that great (992), I was 4th in the physically handicapped category. So, I joined IIT, Madras to study Computer Science.

Here, my role model was Karthik who was also my senior in school. I looked up to him during my years at IIT- Madras.

He had asked for attached bathrooms for those with special needs before I came here itself. So, when I came here, the room had attached bath. He used to help me and guide me a lot when I was here.

I evolved as a person in these four years, both academically and personally. It has been a great experience studying here. The people I was interacting with were so brilliant that I felt privileged to sit along with them in the class. Just by speaking to my lab mates, I gained a lot.

'There are more good people in society than bad ones'

Words are inadequate to express my gratitude to Prof Pandurangan and all my lab mates; all were simply great. I was sent to Boston along with four others for our internship by Prof Pandurangan. It was a great experience.

Joining Google R&D

I did not want to pursue PhD as I wanted my parents to take rest now.

Morgan Stanley selected me first but I preferred Google because I wanted to work in pure computer science, algorithms and game theory.

I am lucky
Do you know why I say I am lucky?

I get help from total strangers without me asking for it. Once after my second year at IIT, I with some of my friends was travelling in a train for a conference. We met a kind gentleman called Sundar in the train, and he has been taking care of my hostel fees from then on.

I have to mention about Jaipur foot. I had Jaipur foot when I was in 3rd standard. After two years, I stopped using them. As I had almost no stems on my legs, it was very tough to tie them to the body. I found walking with Jaipur foot very, very slow. Sitting also was a problem. I found my tricycle faster because I am one guy who wants to do things faster.

One great thing about the hospital is, they don't think their role ends by just fixing the Jaipur foot; they arrange for livelihood for all. They asked me what help I needed from them. I told them at that time, if I got into an IIT, I needed financial help from them. So, from the day I joined IIT, Madras , my fees were taken care of by them. So, my education at the IIT was never a burden on my parents and they could take care of my sister's Nursing studies.

Surprise awaited me at IIT
After my first year, when I went home, two things happened here at the Institute without my knowledge.

I got a letter from my department that they had arranged a lift and ramps at the department for me. It also said that if I came a bit early and checked whether it met with my requirements, it would be good.

Second surprise was, the Dean, Prof Idichandy and the Students General Secretary, Prasad had located a place that sold powered wheel chairs. The cost was Rs 55,000. What they did was, they did not buy the wheel chair; they gave me the money so that the wheel chair belonged to me and not the institute.

My life changed after that. I felt free and independent.

That's why I say I am lucky. God has planned things for me and takes care of me at every step.

The world is full of good people
I also feel if you are motivated and show some initiative, people around you will always help you. I also feel there are more good people in society than bad ones. I want all those who read this to feel that if Naresh can achieve something in life, you can too.

Kenyan poet, Shailja Patel

I'm posting a link to a poem I just read, called Drum Rider by a young Kenyan poet of whom I had not heard till this morning: Shailja Patel.

I'm also posting the poem, but I may remove it (-- okay, I've removed it. Had cold feet. Will send an e-mail asking the lady if she objects)(she DOES object. So please go visit her site).

I received the poem by e-mail from Rubin D'Cruz, director of the Kerala State Institute of Children's Literature (whom I met last November, in Goa as part of the Indo-Swedish workshop I attended there). He was present at the Swedish literary meet (WALTIC -- Writers And Literary Translators International Conference), at which Patel performed her piece. It must have been very powerful.