Monday, June 27, 2016

Keeping time with history

When young and keen on understanding the USSR, I had to deal with two different usages: the October Revolution, and the big celebrations on November 7th.  It always puzzled me that the October event was being celebrated in November.

Now, in the old days, there was no Google.  No internet.  And, of course, nobody to bug about this question either.

As years passed, I forgot about that issue altogether.  Who cared anymore when the USSR itself became history, right?

Well, except that I am now reading Secondhand Time.  It is not any old  novel like Tolstoy's or Turgenev's.  Secondhand Time is about the last of the Soviets, in which people refer to all things Russian, which are self-evident to Russians but not to aliens like me.  Which is why when Margarita Pogrebitskaya says "my favorite holiday was always November 7 ..." there is a footnote.  And that footnote both reminded me of my old annoying question that I had forgotten about, and answered it.
The Bolshevik uprising, which turned into the October Revolution, took place the night of October 24-25, 1917.
The rest of the footnote gets to the exciting part--those dates were "according to the Julian calendar, which is November 6-7 according to the Gregorian calendar that was subsequently adopted in the USSR."  I guess it is the academic in me that I read the footnotes even in the summer readings ;)

Wikipedia notes that Russia was the penultimate country to switch from the old Julian calendar to the Gregorian.  It happened in 1918--1 February became 14 February.  Just like that!  I suppose it was one of the first revolutionary moves ;)  The things I learn every single day!

If you are like me, then you are perhaps thinking: How about the US?  When did we change to Gregorian calendar?  Unlike the old days, I now have Wikipedia at my fingertips:
 In the British Empire (including the American colonies), Wednesday 2 September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752.
In the old country, my grandmothers' generation kept time with a "Kollavarsham" because of their roots in the old Travancore Kingdom.  The curious fellow that I am, I recall bugging my grandmother about when the home was built and she said that the original structure had the year noted on the external wall.  I went out, and was puzzled at the number that I saw.  When I reported it, she laughed and said it was not in the "English" calendar but in kollavarsham.  

Thankfully, the year the addition was completed is in the "English" calendar--the Gregorian calendar, to be precise.

A view from the terrace on grandmother's home--you can see the nearby temple "gopuram"
This was during my trip to Sengottai in ... ahem, you see the date stamp? ;)

I suppose we are all Gregorians now.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

I am concerned about the rainforest ... from the comforts of my home?

I have always been highly skeptical of economic growth and development that destroys the natural environment in the name of progress.  It was one of the many, many reasons that I could not understand what it was that I was going to contribute via engineering.  In those primitive days before the internet and television, The Hindu's reports on a guy named Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement fascinated me.  Yet, I was not completely sold on tree-hugging either.

Even early in graduate school, I met students who were committed to the environmental cause.  To many of them, it was not Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement, but it was Chico Mendes and his work to save the Amazon rainforest.  His assassination made a huge impact on many of my graduate-school-mates.  But, unlike this guy, for instance, I could not get myself to thinking and working only on the issue of natural environment, even though by then it was clear to me that professional advancement would not happen if I continued to spread my interests instead of focusing on one big thing.

It has always impressed me, however, that activists like Mendes completely dedicate themselves to the effort even when fully aware that their lives might get terminated by unscrupulous characters who take law into their own hands.  That level of commitment is phenomenal.

In India, Bahuguna has been honored for his work, with awards including India's second highest civilian honor.  The story of environmental activists in South America, of all the continents, continues to be violent.
2015 had the highest conservation-related mortality rates since 2010, with 185 confirmed cases (143 were reported for 2012 and 130 for 2011). In a previous study with data from 2014 Global Witness had counted 116 deaths, which implies a significant growth from one year to the next.
Latin America had the dubious honor of being the region with the highest number of conservationist murders—122; Brazil took the lion’s share with 50 killings. The investigation found that conflicts mostly involved mining (42 cases), agrobusiness (20), logging (15) and hydroelectric projects (15).
Killed, just like Mendes was, only because they were in the way of people who wanted to make money out of the natural environment.  How tragic!

Of course, the government and corporate agents are corrupt as hell and work closely with the killers!
The clash between the different viewpoints on how to achieve development is more often than not resolved with violence. Global Witness warns that just a few cases result in the filing of a formal complaint that leaves a documented record. Even less frequent are cases resulting in a conviction. According to the NGO, impunity ends up benefiting not only the perpetrator of the crime but also the mastermind behind it, who can have a relationship with the upper levels of the economic and political powers.
It is easy to point fingers at corrupt politicians and businesses.  What is more difficult is for individual consumers, like me, to understand that it is pressure from us that businesses are also responding to.  We consumers want the next best thing and at the lowest possible price.  The killings are the hidden costs.  The irreplaceable destruction is a hidden cost.  Or, even if they are in plain sight, we choose to look away, or be in complete denial.  Taking care of the natural environment requires us to practice what we preach--which is one of the reasons I knew I could not ever completely dedicate myself to the cause without being a hypocrite.  I would rather accept my flaws and try to understand the big picture and spread the word.

I also know I owe the Mendeses of the world a huge thanks.  I feel so small compared to them.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Lessons from an "American" presidential election

(I have sent this across to the editor. Yet another column that draws from many of my blog-posts.)

The stereotypical image of the United States in the rest of the world is that we are not interested in them, unless it serves our selfish interests. That image lends itself to the humorous tongue-in-cheek line that God created war so that Americans would learn geography. On top of such a disinterest, the current presidential election season has turned out to be quite a soap opera mixed with reality entertainment, with a script that is sometimes even more colorful than what television offers. Thus, it is quite possible that we have been completely oblivious to another “American” presidential election, which was held in Peru.


The recently concluded contest in Peru is fascinating for one important reason—immigration. Peru is a Spanish-speaking country in South America and, therefore, we might expect to see the last names that will be familiar to us as “Spanish” as is the case in the neighboring former Spanish colonies. In Bolivia, the leader is Evo Morales. Ecuador’s president is Rafael Correa. And in Colombia, it is Juan Santos who heads the government. It might, therefore, surprise many of us here in the US that the winner of the election in Peru, which concluded in early June, was Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who will officially take over on July 28th.

The Peruvian winner having a Polish last name, Kuczynski, is only one half of the immigration story. The other half is the candidate who lost—Keiko Fujimori. How many among us would have ever imagined political leaders in a South American country having Polish and Japanese last names?

The names Kuczynski and Fujimori reflect the immigration from Europe and Japan to Peru. The 41-year old Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of a former president, Alberto Fujimori, who disgraced himself after a decade in office and is now behind bars. The senior Fujimori's parents immigrated to Peru from Japan. Pedro Kuczynski is, interestingly enough, the same age as Alberto Fujimori—77 years. Kuczynski's parents came to Peru at about the same time that Fujimori's parents emigrated from Japan. Kuczynski's Jewish father and his Swiss mother, fled Berlin after Hitler came to power.

Fujimori versus Kuczynski in a Spanish speaking South American country is one awesome example of the wonderfully globalized cultures that characterize our contemporary existence. We need to pause and appreciate the extraordinariness of this level of democracy, given the long history of humans organizing themselves based on their tribal identities and treating the “others” with nothing but animosity and deep-seated suspicion.

Both Kuczynski and Fujimori have extensive connections to the US as well. A Princeton graduate, Kuczynski spent quite a few years here in the US working in various financial institutions, most notably at the World Bank. Fujimori earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees here—from Boston University and Columbia University. The US can, therefore, rightfully claim to have played influential roles in shaping the minds of the two Peruvian leaders.

We can expect a lot more like the Peruvian story, thanks to people moving around in the world, and mixing with the “natives.” In India, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi almost became the country’s prime minister in 2004, after leading her party to a huge victory in the national elections. She stepped aside for a number of political reasons, even though the constitution of India—unlike the constitution of the United States—does not explicitly disqualify an immigrant from holding the highest elected office in the country.

In the United Kingdom, Sadiq Aman Khan, was elected London’s Mayor in May 2016. Khan’s parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan. A Muslim son of immigrants was democratically elected to one of the most high profile public offices in Britain, while many here in the US want to close the door on immigration and on Muslims!

Of course, in 2008, we too elected to the highest office a person with an unusual name—Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan. However, instead of wholeheartedly showcasing to the world the election and the winner as American symbols of democracy and humanity, many Americans, unfortunately, spent an enormous amount of time and money discrediting the President’s eligibility itself. What a contrast to Peruvians who enthusiastically embraced the Polish and Japanese roots of their presidential candidates!

The Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, who lost the presidential elections to Alberto Fujimori in 1990, wrote that "the women and men who brave the Straits of Gibraltar or the Florida Keys or the electric fences of Tijuana or the docks of Marseilles in search of work, freedom, and a future should be received with open arms.” The contest between Kuczynski and Fujimori exemplifies the “open arms” in Peru. I wonder what our own presidential elections will convey to the world about our arms.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Three men in a van ... and a woman too!

The whiteness of where I live is such a contrast to the multi-tonal mosaic of Southern California.  Heck, some of the whites are so tanned that they look even darker than me!

A view of downtown Los Angeles
from the daughter's apartment
The shuttle van driver was on time.  As he started driving, of course, I began my small talk with him.  It is so wonderful to understand life from the perspective of one whose daily life is very different from mine.  The small talk quickly revealed that he, too, had an accent that indicated he was from somewhere else.

"Hey, is that a little bit of an Iranian accent in you?" I asked him.

He smiled.  "No, Armenian."

"I was close. Neighboring country." I ought to know, given that I am tenured in the geography department ;)

He came here when he was a child, when the family immigrated just before the USSR came tumbling down.  I didn't ask him if they would have stayed back in a free and independent Armenia.

"I hear there are white supremacy groups in Oregon.  How do they treat you when you are a person of color?" he asked.  He was so articulate that I was sure there is a backstory to why he was being an airport shuttle van driver.  I didn't ask him that either.

We reached the hotel where he was picking up more passengers.  Two visiting Germans.  This kind of a spontaneous and serendipitous mixing of people from diverse parts of the world is one I miss in my life in Oregon.  The foreigners that the friend introduces me to, when they arrive here for short work visits, are welcome additions.

Other than the Germans occasionally struggling to think about the correct English word, we four had a great conversation the rest of the drive.  The driver talked to them about German soccer clubs.  "We are not into sports" the German male politely replied.  Vintners, from the Mosel region, who were here to market their wines.  He gave me his business card and asked me to check out their wines if our stores carried them.  Though I don't drink, I wonder if I should buy a bottle and then email him about it.

"My family still has vineyards in Armenia and they make their own wines too" the Armenian-American said.

"Ja, ja, Armenia is one of the oldest wine regions of the world" the vintner said.

I had no idea about Armenia's wines and history.  I had to later read up in Wikipedia in order to get an idea of what the German and the Armenian were talking about.  I tell ya, if only people realized how little I know about this world!

"I went to Varanasi.  I have never seen a place like it" she said.

I am from India and was born in a faith that cherishes going to Varanasi, yet I have never been there.  And, with personal connections to the city.

"The traffic in India is crazy" she said.  "There are no rules but everything works like magic" he jumped in.  "It is synchronized driving, like synchronized swimming" he added with a smile.  I like that characterization of India and its traffic conditions.

Like how the Passover Seder ends with a prayer of "next year in Jerusalem," I wish for a Varanasi visit some day soon.  For now, I will continue to observe life from here in Whitelandia!