Jul 062014
 

He thought she was a warmonger; she thought he was helping along a genocide.

Bass, Gary J. (2013-10-01). The Blood Telegram (Kindle Location 5592). . Kindle Edition.

(Gary Bass on the relationship between President Nixon and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

Among the more brutal events in the 20th century, was the birth of Bangladesh. And this is despite the fact that the holocaust and the partition of India took place in same 100 year span. The mass killings in East Pakistan, as it was then, was especially cold blooded because of two reasons a) the casualness with which people were being murdered b) the lack of reaction of western powers, especially the USA.  It is a testament to the brilliance of the perception management of the Pakistanis, that they could, in cold blood, murder their own people and get away with it. I also wonder, if  the west, especially the Americans, had clamped down on the sadism and excesses of the Pakistani armed forces at that point in time, would Pakistan have been such a failed state today. While the Germans, for generations, will have to bear the cross of the holocaust, the Pakistanis have gotten away scot free with being tarred with the same brush. There is little spoken about the issue, even less written about it. It is as though the sub-continent – apart from a few troubled souls, want to brush the stigma of targeted killing, ethnic cleansing, mass murder, mass rape, mass displacement, and genocide from our collective consciousness.  It allows those in South Asia to slot ‘genocide’ as an activity that happens elsewhere,  and it helps the West maintain its image of Pakistan as this cuddly, albeit, misunderstood entity.

The Blood Telegram - by Gary Bass

The Blood Telegram – by Gary Bass

Gary Bass‘ book “The Blood Telegram : Nixon, Kissinger & a Hidden Genocide” spares no punches in its description of the bloody events that led up to the birth of Bangladesh,  especially,  when it looks at the role played by the then US President Nixon, and his Secretary of State Kissinger and their attempts in hushing up the entire event. As the author points out one crucial difference between the events in East Pakistan and other instances of genocide, where the US was a non participant

Pakistan’s slaughter of its Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments.

The American tango with Pakistan, says Bass, was due to two reasons. One was that the Americans were using Gen Yahya Khan – an alcoholic megalomaniac, whom Kissinger thought was a moron – as their conduit to establish a working relationship with China, and the second was, rather more petty, that Nixon loathed Indira Gandhi (an emotion that was fully reciprocated) and quite liked Yahya Khan. Ultimately when you take away all the strategy, and the realpolitik (there was an alternative route to mending fences with China), and the lofty terms – it boiled down to less of National Interest and the ‘good of humanity’ at one end, and more of personal animosity and camaraderie at the other.

“I don’t like the Indians,” Nixon snapped at the height of the Bengali crisis.

Late in the book, Bass qoutes Nixon on India

“I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about India. There are 400 million Indians.” Keating corrected him; there were actually 550 million Indians. Nixon was surprised: “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.”

Bass brings alive the interplay between the various nations and their leaders with each other, at the same time as driving home the viciousness of the Pakistani action in East Pakistan, that ultimately led to the birth of Bangladesh. The author notes,

Nixon and Kissinger bear responsibility for a significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis.

It is a crying shame that Nixon and Kissinger were never called to account on the brutalities and scale of murders  in East Pakistan.

In the Blood Telegram, the story of the birth of Bangladesh is told at three levels – the story of an American Presidency that wanted to leave the restoration of links with China as its legacy; the story of an India, led by Indira Gandhi that was isolated in its support for the Bengali cause;  and a man called Archer Blood, the American counsel general in Dacca, whose relentless bombarding of the State Department with clinical observations of ethnic cleansing, murder and genocide gave the world the first indication of the level of bloodshed taking place in East Pakistan. The narrative moves seamlessly between the machinations at the State Department, Washington; Delhi and the interactions that the Government of India – which did not have the clout that it has now – with various nations and governments – hearing no most of the time; and Archer Blood in Dacca who has to choose between his career and his conscience. The Americans do not come out of this smelling of roses. If anything they look kind of flatfooted and clumsy (not to mention callous & woolly brained) in their decision making. Looking at the world around us today and US decisions, it seems that their penchant for poor decision making persists.

Archer, much to the chagrin of Nixon and Kissinger does not back down from documenting that which was distasteful to his political bosses. A decent man, he goes about his work with precision and the quiet rage of the righteous. He especially highlighted the plight of the Hindus in East Pakistan who bore the blunt of the Pakistani Army blood lust. 6 million Hindus fled East Pakistan. Till date, the numbers of dead, are at best, fuzzy. Entire villages were burnt to the ground, those who escaped to terrified to return. People are burnt alive, shot randomly, men picked out and killed, women raped and murdered – the stories of the genocide are recounted in a chilling matter of fact manner.

Blood finally gets his transfer orders out of Dacca

The chapter that deals with Nixon and Kissinger meeting Indira Gandhi and Haskar – a meeting before the war –  is worth its weight in gold. if India, had sold tickets for it then, there may have been no national debt now.

India would win on the battlefield, Nixon said, but a war would be “incalculably dangerous.” With the superpowers involved on opposite sides, it would threaten world peace. Hinting broadly at a possible Chinese attack on India, he told the prime minister that a war might not be limited to only India and Pakistan. Gandhi was blunter— if anything, less tactful than Nixon. Kissinger later wrote that her tone was that of “a professor praising a slightly  backward student,” which Nixon received with the “glassy-eyed politeness” that he showed when trying to muscle down his resentment. She ripped into U.S. arms shipments to Pakistan, which had outraged the Indian people, despite her efforts to restrain her public.

The book is a really good read, it is almost as thought i was the fly on the wall while history is unfolding.  When the Indian Government goes from nation to nation asking for support, it realizes that this is a battle that it needs to fight alone.

“Mrs. Gandhi went around the world saying this is a genocide ,” says Admiral Mihir Roy of the Indian navy. “Nobody listened to her.”

The relationship between the leaders, their aides and the world at large is reconstructed extremely well. More so, from the perspective of the Americans – who have copious notes and recordings of that era; and less from India – where papers from that era are probably still classified. The isolation of India, although not explicitly stated in the book, comes through very clearly. It was a lone, long battle, with the very real threat of China joining in on the side of Pakistan. When war officially began, it did so when Pakistan bombed Indian on the 3rd of December. Mrs. Gandhi is reported to have said, “Thank God, they’ve attacked us.” In Parliament she said -

“We meet as a fighting Parliament,” Gandhi stormed before the Lok Sabha. “A war has been forced upon us, a war we did not seek and did our utmost to prevent.”

A war that India won, to lead to the birth of Bangladesh.

If the history of the sub continent fascinates you, then this should be on the must read list.

Mar 312014
 

5 years late. But still makes a lot of sense…

“Why do people think “free” means diminished quality in one instance, and not in another? It turns out that our feelings about “free” are relative, not absolute. If something used to cost money and now doesn’t, we tend to correlate that with a decline in quality. But if something never cost money, we don’t feel the same way. A free bagel is probably stale, but free ketchup in a restaurant is fine. Nobody thinks that Google is an inferior search engine because it doesn’t charge.”

And this

With magazines it can clearly be effective to charge a minimal price, instead of nothing. But in most cases, just a penny—a seemingly inconsequential price—can stop the vast majority of consumers in their tracks. A single penny doesn’t really mean anything to us economically. So why does it have so much impact?
The answer is that it makes us think about the choice. That alone is a disincentive to continue. It’s as if our brains were wired to raise a flag every time we’re confronted with a price. This is the “is it worth it?” flag. If you charge a price, any price, we are forced to ask ourselves if we really want to open our wallets. But if the price is zero, that flag never goes up and the decision just got easier.
The proper name for that flag is what George Washington University economist Nick Szabo has dubbed “mental transaction costs.” These are, simply, the toll of thinking. We’re all a bit lazy and we’d rather not think about things if we don’t have to. So we tend to choose things that require the least thinking.

“The phrase “transaction costs” has its roots in the theory of the firm, Nobel Prize–winning economist Ronald Coase’s explanation that companies exist to minimize the communications overhead within and between teams. This refers mostly to the cognitive load of having to process information—figuring out who should do what, whom to trust, and the like.
Szabo extended this to purchasing decisions. He looked at the idea of “micropayments,” financial systems that would allow you to pay fractions of a cent per Web page you read, or millieuros for each comic strip you download. All these schemes are destined to fail, Szabo concluded, because although they minimize the economic costs of choices, they still have all the cognitive costs.”

Excerpt From: Anderson, Chris. “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.”

Despite the title – the books costs money :)

Mar 312014
 

“free” is a word with an extraordinary ability to reset consumer psychology, create new markets, break old ones, and make almost any product more attractive. He also figured out that “free” didn’t mean profitless. It just meant that the route from product to revenue was indirect, something that would become enshrined in the retail playbook as the concept of a “loss leader.”

Excerpt From: Anderson, Chris. “Free: The Future of a Radical Price.” Hyperion, 2009-07-06T18:30:00+00:00. iBooks.
This material may be protected by copyright.

Oct 142012
 

When i was younger, and far more hard headed and terribly more cynical, i found the realm of Magic Realism to be strange. Maybe growing up with Hindi films with God in special appearance, or a dream sequence did that to me.

I was not yet a teenager when Salman Rushdie’s first book Midnight’s Children was released. One summer vacation, I must have been around 13 maybe even 14, someone gifted us a copy. I tried reading it, and naturally, did not understand it. I trudged through it, hated it and went back to reading whatever it is that I was reading at that phase in life. Later on I discovered the works of Isabella Allende and her magnificent House of Spirits, Marquez and even the later works of Rushdie. But I never really got back to reading, what most critics considered to be his finest work,  Midnight’s children.

A few months ago, i got an eBook version of Midnight’s children. But, before i could start it, Joseph Anton was released. Joseph Anton tells the story of Salman Rushdie and how his life is impacted by the fatwa declared by Ayotollah Khomeni.

Joseph Anton is a the name under which Mr.Rushdie lived during the fatwa period – an amalgamation of the names of two authors he admired - Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. The memoir is told in the third person. A form in which the author almost becomes a bystander in his own life. Things happen to him. It never seems that he is actively involved in any of them. Marianne Wiggins chases him, marries him and dumps him. Elizabeh West breezes into his life, loves him  and wants to have his baby. His friends pull out all stops to fight for him. His enemies pull out all stops to want to kill him. The press vilifies him. The politicians are unsure of him. The cops are there like a brick wall for him. And, in all this the protagonist Joseph Anton is almost an observer.  He participates sometimes, but the support cast are far more interesting than he is.

Among the more fascinating characters is his father, Anis – who woke the genie of story telling in a young Salman, telling him stories of the Panchtanra, Kathasaritasagara, Hamzanama & Hatimtai.

To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no ‘real’ genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths and the truth could not tell him, and second they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father’s, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard…his to laugh at and rejoice and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in turn.

Just as he grew with a from of narrative that gave you a story within a story – so too in Joseph Anton he gives you interlinked stories, that can work as stand alone ones. There is the story of the immigrant, who is caught between cultures, until he realises that he is not “rootless, but multiply rooted”.There is the story of his troubled relationship with his father Anis and the portions of the memoir that deals with these have the most emotional connect. It seems that there is a raw wound even now. There is the story of a bad marriage, with author  Marianne Wiggins, going off the rails (she is portrayed in terrible light). There is a love story with Elizabeth West. Then there is a Lolitaesque story with Padma Lakshmi. There is a story of friendship that endures. There is a story of betrayal. There is the story of a brave stand. Then there is the biggie – the story of the man on the run. And finally there is the story of the Freedom of Speech and what it means in today’s multicultural age, where each culture is trying to assert its identity.

A bulk of the book is about the fall out of the fatwa. The rush to find safe havens where he won’t be blown up, his having to live life as a protected person and the impact it has on his freedoms. The effect of ‘security’ and being in a state of suspended animation from normalcy on him, and those nearest and dearest to him. In this entire saga, his friends are there for him like Rocks of Gibraltar.

He would remember this, the nobility of human beings acting out of their best selves, far more vividly than the hatred – though the hatred was vivid all right – and he would always be grateful to have been the recipient of this bounty.

There are three very telling lines in the book, about Satanic Verses. The first is

The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an ‘insult’ he wanted to reply, I can insult people a lot faster than that

and the second was

“Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How would one write a quarter of a million words by accident?”

and then there was the writing on the wall

Throughout the writing of the book he had kept a note to himself pinned to the wall above his desk. “To write a book is to make a Faustian contract in the reverse,” it said. “To gain immortality, or atleast posterity, you lose, or atleast ruin, your actual daily life”

And, it came to pass. almost a decade of living in the shadow of terror. Of being a prisoner. of being reviled and hated. Of guilt on the deaths due to riots. A decade in which he became the focal point of protests on freedom of expression. A decade in which his political involvement increased, but his  writing suffered – the first few years he is barely able to write anything.

For a man who spends the bulk of the book defending his right to free speech and expression, he is very unforgiving of the choices of others, especially those who did not want to become a part of the fight. His universe is binary. Those who unquestioningly stand by him – no matter what – are  the good guys. Those who question him become grey. If a publisher did not want to publish the book because he didn’t want his staff bombed out, or the cops called off a book signing for security reasons it, in the book, becomes a more or less irrational decision. But hey, it is his memoir. He is allowed to be the hero in it.

How is the book? it needed a good editor to prune 200 pages out of it. IT is like every party, every celebrity, every slight  every praise had to go into the book and, therefore,  it did. It is terribly indulgent, and terribly long. The first 40 % is brilliant. absolutely brilliant. The second 30 % is decent.  The last third has all the charm and attraction of a plate of cold idli served at an express-way food court

A book about a fatwa on an author who wrote book, that changed lives . One the violence caused by the reactions to the book, he paraphrases his lawyer saying ..

 …the consequences of violence were the moral responsibility of those who committed the acts of violence; if people were killed, the fault lay with their killers, not with a faraway novelist.

In a world where offence is quick, and the call to violence is quicker – i agree with this statement a 100%

Salman Rushdie, for me, before I began reading this book was never a sympathetic character. I was a student in Britain in the days following the fatwa. It seemed that he not only instigated the issue, but revelled in it. It made him world famous. But, 25 years later as i read the book, i realise the flaws a binary teenage view of the world has. The easiest thing for him to have done is capitulate. It is not Rushdie against a fatwa. It is a man against governments of the world including his own government, with people venting hate at him, with tremendous pressure for him to recant , with a sense of guilt at people dying, and the cost to his own family. And he stood his ground. If nothing else, that requires admiration. It cannot have been easy. I only wish if i am in a similar situation – facing a mob or even a small group alone, with only the courage of my convictions on my side – i show some of the courage that he does.

I have finally begun reading Midnight’s Children, almost 28 years after i last tried to read it.

Sep 232012
 

just began reading, Salman Rushdie’s book Joseph Anton. This is the first part of the paragraph

AFTERWARDS, WHEN THE WORLD WAS EXPLODING AROUND HIM AND THE lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She had called him at home on his private line without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought: I’m a dead man.

I am hooked.