Sep 012014
 

My column in the DNA, last fortnight

Forty five years ago, the United States of America, did the unthinkable — it put a man, actually two men, on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went into the history books as the first human beings to walk on the surface of earth’s only natural satellite. The lines that Armstrong says on stepping on to the lunar surface “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is part of textbooks around the world. While there was great euphoria on this momentous scientific and technological achievement, the benefits from this, apart from national pride, were seen in the following decades. The investment in putting a man on the moon went beyond the material and the technological. It had a multiplier effect in scientific research, energy sources, food technologies and in many more fields. The impact on society was gradual; it wasn’t seen that pervasively in the decade that followed, but the Eighties and the Nineties reaped the benefits of this endeavour. From a communication perspective, the advances in satellite communication and miniaturised integrated circuits that were a by-product of the research into space exploration, transformed the world. Television, computers, mobile phones, and a host of other gadgets, that we don’t even think about, are the distant descendents of the investment into space exploration. The world, in the words of the famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “human family exists under conditions of a global village. We live in a single constricted space resonant with tribal drums”.

Twenty five years ago, in 1989, a British theoretical physicist, Tim Berners-Lee, working in CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, came up with an innovative way of getting computers in CERN to talk to one another, and thereby allow the various scientists working on different projects to share information. His work led to the creation of the Hyper Text Markup Language, known more popularly by its abbreviation HTML. It allowed people to cross link content, and direct users to different pieces of content sitting on different machines. This simple and elegant way of connecting content led to the birth of the World  Wide Web and the Internet revolution that we are living through. When it started, in 1991, there were fewer than 500 servers that were connected. Today, there is no point counting, because by the time you have finished counting the number of servers, a large number would have been added. HTML revolutionised the world of information publishing and sharing. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher, a distributor, a commentator. Like the printing press almost 500 years earlier, the World Wide Web changed the way in which people saw the world. Suddenly, you realised that your views or issues, your fetishes or hobbies were not in any way unique —  there were others like you elsewhere in the world. If the moon landings and satellite communication had made humanity a ‘global village’ – the World Wide Web made it even smaller.

On September 4, the most ubiquitous web brand ever, Google, turns a sweet 16. Two young men, Larry Page and Sergey Brin looked at all the content on the web, and the existing ways of searching for information and decided that it was not good enough. The algorithms that they created for searching, classifying and organising content made using the web a lot more easy, and a lot more accessible. If HTML changed the way we create and share content, Google changed the way we searched and consumed it. There are those of us who remember a world before Google. We used Hotmail for email, Alta Vista for search, Netscape and Internet Explorer as browsers – all that has changed with the advent of Google.

If you really strip away the jargon and the technology from these three landmark events — in essence what they have done is made the world a smaller place, and made people very cognisant of the fact that the differences between the peoples of the world, in different nations, of different languages and traditions is actually not so great. We all bleed when we are cut, grieve when we lose near and dear ones, are inclined to help others (even random strangers), laugh at almost the same things, dance to almost similar beats and so on. Also, what is seen is that the desire for freedom and democratisation, the need to aspire and achieve is universal. What divides us is far less than what unites us.

It is, therefore, not surprising that there has been a backlash against this sense of being a ‘global family’ with shared ideals and values from those who were the traditional custodians of power – those who held the power over life and death of populations — extreme forms of religion, patriarchy and defenders of ‘cultural purity’. These are people who, until a few decades ago, were obeyed without question. Today, they are, mostly, ignored. When we see the backlash of regressive elements — be it the khaps in Haryana, or the mullahs who are asked for opinions, be it former Pope of the Catholic Church or the most extreme of all reactions the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) – what they are railing against is that loss in absolute power over the lives of the people they controlled not so long ago. Cultural purity, religious purity, way of life et al are just excuses for wanting absolute power.

Most of the world is slowly moving towards the idea of a global village – people are escaping their shackles and aspiring for the better things in life, including not being restricted in their aspirations. The medievalists who want to drag people back into their cordoned off ghettos are trying their level best to hold on to their crumbling power base, that has been reeling under the onslaught of science and technology, through violence. Like others before them, who stood in the way of aspirations of people, these medievalists too will turn into a footnote in history.

Aug 082014
 

My column in yesterday’s DNA

All events take place from the point of view of the observer. With every observer, the perspective is different; the angle with which they see an event is clouded by where they stand — both physically and philosophically. Take something as simple as the eating of meat, in general, or beef or pork, in particular. For many western cultures, both are part of a sumptuous meal. For Hindus eating of beef is a sin as the cow is considered holy; for Muslims and Jews the eating of pork is considered a definite no – the pig is considered impure. For others, especially staunch vegetarians of the PETA variety, the eating of any meat is morally indefensible and if they had their way it would also be a crime. None of these groups is wrong — their views are formed by their beliefs. And it would be fair to say that in this particular case — the eating of meat — there are many truths, and each one of them is equally valid. For most issues in the world today the maxim that there are many, equally valid truths, can be said to hold true. And, nowhere is this more apt than looking at the issues in Gaza and the plight of the Palestinians caught in the crossfire between Israel and Hamas.

The first valid truth is that the situation in Gaza is untenable. We have all seen deeply disturbing visuals of children dead; of old people left to die; of homes that are totally bombed out; of the consistent stories of horror and terror of a civilian population that is unable to live a life approaching normalcy. We have been exposed to photographs and videos of devastated hospitals, of schools that have been blasted out of existence, of homes that no longer exist. More than anything else that makes one cringe, is the look of emptiness and the expressions bereft of hope that is plastered on the faces of the survivors. Do the people of Gaza have the right to live a life without fear, without the terror and horror that we have been seeing (and they have been experiencing)? The answer is definitely a ‘yes’.

The second, equally valid, truth is that Israel has the right to exist and thrive. Its people and population have the right to live without fearing another genocide. The Jews, through history, have been persecuted and the culmination of this was the concentration camps set up by the Nazis. The land promised to them in the aftermath of World War I, only became a reality after more than 6 million Jews perished in the Holocaust. Israel is the only homeland for the Jews. Associated with this truth, is the fact that Israel is in a neighbourhood where her neighbours want her destroyed and annihilated. Does Israel have the right to protect its people and territories and ensure that terrorists don’t harm it — most definitely yes.

The third truth is also about Israel and its treatment of the people who live in the occupied territories. The fact remains that those inhabitants are treated pretty much the same way as any occupier treats a conquered land. People are blockaded, jobs are difficult to find, education is scarce, civic amenities a distant vision and most importantly, civil rights a myth and the basic human dignity of those who live in the occupied territories is eroded on a daily basis. And this is even before the current targeting and indiscriminate killing of civilians. Would this lead to a rise in anger against the occupiers? Most definitely, yes.

The fourth equally valid truth is that Hamas that controls the Gaza strip wants to control all of Israel. It has refused, consistently, to recognise the State of Israel. In fact, its charter has consistently refused to recognise the two-state formula whereby there would be two states — the State of Israel and the State of Palestine that coexist in relative peace. The leaders of Hamas have called, repeatedly, for the destruction of Israel and its people. Furthermore, it has repeatedly used its own people as human shields in its ongoing war against Israel.

The fifth truth is that Palestine itself — split between the West Bank and the Gaza strip — is amidst a tug-of-war between the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, that controls the West Bank, and the more militant Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. While Fatah is relatively more amenable to peace, Hamas is not. It is difficult to have peace when one side will only be satisfied by the utter destruction and annihilation of the other.

There is one more truth here and that is the issues here can, most optimistically, be defined as being complicated. If you had to do a timeline of the conflict it can go back to early history of humanity. From that period till now, the history of the region has been bloody and brutal.

The past cannot be solved. It exists. The future is what can be redrawn. The question is, therefore, quite simple, sans all the collected rhetoric of the last three millennia — peace or war? Coexistence or mutually assured destruction? The way forward is not to assign blame — if we go down that path there is no end to it. Rather, the way forward is to find a solution, for the future.

The world needs to stop taking sides and work towards a unified goal. Peace and coexistence are possible, only if there is no war for a few generations. If the people of Europe, who have traditionally fought each other throughout history; if the people of India, whose kings have fought battles with each other through history can live with their past and work together for a better tomorrow, more or less accepting multiple forms of diversity, there is no reason why the people in Israel and Palestine cannot. The people deserve a chance.

Aug 032014
 

Last week’s column for the DNA

The horrors of child sex abuse can be offset by a few simple but essential measures

There are many brutal things that one reads as a part of our news consumption – passenger airlines shot out of the sky in conflict zones; children killed in the escalating warfare between the Israeli government and Hamas; young schoolgoing girls kidnapped in Nigeria by fundamentalist terror groups; children dying of malnutrition; systematic violence against women; ethnic cleansing in Iraq and Syria; targeted violence against religious minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh – and the spontaneous thought is ‘thank heaven, it is not here’; thank the stars that we bring up our children in a relatively safer society. But that feeling of relative safety, security and a better tomorrow for the next generation gets shattered when we read about horrific child rape cases, that are increasingly featured in the media.

Last week, most of us reading or watching the news came across the story of the 6 year-old in an upscale Bangalore school who was raped by her skating teacher. As more and more details of the story emerged, the sense of horror and terror increased. The girl was allegedly raped by two staff members; one of the staff members, who was later arrested,  had child pornography depicting  kids in uniform being raped. There may have been other cases of child sex abuse in the same school that are still being investigated by the authorities. The school had outsourced the skating teacher’s function to an outside agency,  absolving themselves of responsibility. The school in question, as well as other private schools, also tried to get parents to sign a disclaimer that absolved the institutions of any responsibility for incidents that took place on premises or at school organised events.

This is not the first child sex abuse case to hit the headlines, nor will it be the last. Just last year we were shocked by the story of a little boy who was raped by school bus attendants. A six month old child who was raped; a three year-old abducted from home, raped and thrown away into the bushes. The horrors seem never ending and relentless. And, what makes it worse is that it is just the tip of the iceberg – stories that are reported as opposed to incidents that have occurred.

Child sex abuse is not a new phenomenon. There were always men, and sometimes women, who indulged their carnal desires with children. Not so long ago, it was believed that sex with a prepubescent girl would cure men suffering from sexually transmitted diseases. Children would be kidnapped, purchased and sold to men suffering from such transmittable diseases. The STD would not be cured, but the girls would be infected. It is not just false belief or superstition that drives such behaviour, but also baser instincts.

Children, today, are growing up in a far more complex and sexualised world than earlier generations. They are also exposed to images and behaviour that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Morality has changed, values have changed, and yet educators, the government and other bodies would rather cling onto modes of behaviour and deterrence that is better suited for a century earlier. These powers are seemingly taking an ostrich-like approach to the whole issue instead of taking concrete steps and measures that not just prevent such occurrences but also punish the offenders.

What is needed to keep our children safe? The first is a national level campaign educating parents, teachers and citizens in general about the dangers of child sex abuse. Creating an awareness that such a problem exists and steps that can be taken to counter it are essential. The solution is not to keep children at home – in many cases the home is as dangerous a place as outside. In many cases the case of sexual assault begins at home, by people who are supposed to keep the child safe. Simultaneously, making the children  understand that the world is not safe. That there are people who can touch and harm them in ways that are beyond their comprehension. Children need to be made aware of the dangers from such predators.

The second, and this is a slightly more controversial measure, is to start sex education classes. There are a number of social and cultural norms that will challenged by this – but the purpose of sex education is not to make sex more attractive. As anyone who has gone through a sex education programme will tell you, it is most likely to put off youngsters  and push the age of experimentation by a few years. If children cannot, for whatever cultural reason, go through these programmes, parents can perhaps take their place. So that they are best able to communicate to the children the issues at hand.  In a world where the local paanwallah can give you a memory card loaded with films for an amount as low as Rs50, the system cannot cope with the kind of content that is being disseminated. Porn is legally banned in India, anyone caught downloading it is theoretically breaking the law. But, when people can access this kind of content through a very different mode of file sharing – memory sticks and pen drives – control becomes difficult.

And finally the authorities need to be both more sensitive and sensible. The job of the authority is not to preserve culture, that is the role of family and society. Their job is to deliver governance and keep citizens, especially the most vulnerable in our society, safe. They need to be put through an education programme that helps them handle situations like this with sensitivity. This would include elected representatives at the central, state and local levels; the police force; the judiciary; administrators and educators.

The problem of child sex abuse is not going away anytime soon. The sooner we, as a society and people are geared to combat it — leaving aside our preconceived notions — the more likely are children to grow up in a safer world.

Jul 132014
 

There has been a fair amount of traffic on my twitter TL on an article that was taken down in the DNA . People have, rightly, asked for an explanation.

Fact checking, misrepresentation of facts etc all good excuses/explanation to give when u pull down an article. However, they all sound rather silly – especially given that you have published it.   Sometimes silence is better than a hastily cobbled together justification. And, everything doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory. Nor does everything have to be high drama. Sometimes there are simpler explanations.

I could say editorial prerogative. But, that would be arrogance.  I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say i didn’t know it went up, but that would be cop out. Fact remains, I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t. I did exactly what I have ranted about, and outraged about for the last decade – that is in the need for speed, the desire to be first,  to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved. We have run far more scathing pieces by the author on Mr.Shah and they are still on-line. If I pulled down this one, it was for a good reason, and that reason is not fear.

I can understand readers ire on this, and appreciate the author’s anger  – i would have felt the same way if i was in her place. If I had the time on the day to make a call and sort it out, I would have. Unfortunately, I didn’t.  I was in a very long conference, where our phones were tucked safely away in our bags. Which is also the reason why I couldn’t respond to newslaundry.

Now to something else – when other TV editors/websites write about this, they obviously suffer from selective amnesia.  they have pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues. Was it fear, favor or fickleness? Or all three – that made them do this? And i am not even going into other areas of breach of ethics such as the cash for votes sting, or radia tapes, I am simply looking at spiked stories, and stories that disappeared. Seriously, i can appreciate reader ire, I can’t figure the hypocrisy of other media professionals. They know exactly what they had suppressed in their entire career Am sure if you follow any good news monitoring website you will know some of what has been taken off, what they have changed tack on, and where they have spiked their own stories.

I have not responded to this on twitter as  there are no 140 character explanations for things like this. Hence, this  blog.

And finally, far as the ToI piece is concerned – cute, very cute. Must be the first time that the ToI has run a piece naming a competitor without routing it through medianet.

 

Jul 082014
 

I have been missing the time to shoot. Film or Photos. Been really missing it. Feels like a part of me has been carved out.
Also, been looking for a new camera – if that makes sense. And, the question i ask my self is whether it makes sense to buy a camera when i don’t have time to use it. And, if i make time to use it, what camera should i buy.
Or should i just get the trusted Olympus cleaned up, buy myself the new mirrorless cameras or should i go for a full frame dslr. By the time I make up my mind and zero in on a product, i am sure there will be new entrants into the market.
In the mean time, some stuff i shot last year.

Pottery
This was in a little village in Uttar Pradesh.

The gathering of women - black and white copy

This was in a little kolum village in Andhra Pradesh (Adilabad)

interlocking branches copy
This was in the same Adilabad Village, loved the way the branches curved

The Gopurums
this was the Mylapore temple, chennai

ginger lemon
This might have been at Vile Parle market :)

still ife

Vile Parle Market (i think) – and i just loved the orange and the grape contrast

ok. maybe i will just shoot a bit before i buy. maybe atleast once a week …