Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Recommendation: The Meadow

One of the joys of reading a work of fiction is when you finish the book, you experience a sensation of leaving a world behind. Especially in the case of a tragedy when you feel attached enough with the imaginary world that you feel a cloud of gloom hanging over your head but detached enough that you feel gratified from experiencing that world and at the same time have no problem getting on with real life. When the work is non-fiction, however, and it concerns a land that you've visited and an incident that you were old enough to remember vividly, the sadness won't be compartmentalized anymore.

The Meadow describes the events around the kidnapping of six foreign tourists from the Kashmir valley in 1995. Too many of us are taught to believe that Kashmir is a simplistic case of a neighbour trying to snatch what is rightfully ours. Somehow the whole place is filled with single dimensional innocent cutouts that are caught in a game played by politicians. And perhaps, the blacks and whites of that portrait just have to be inverted to see Pakistan's version. With its thorough research, this account digs deep into many of the characters, and perhaps, that's why left me feeling defeatist about whether it's possible to extricate ourselves out of the mess. Both the people of the valley and the officials who govern them are victims for the most part, but also can be perpetrators in measures that vary with circumstance. The role of the neighbour does not come as a surprise but what's most disappointing is the duplicity of my own country. Everything seems to be set up, on all sides, to win the tactical day-to-day battles even at the risk of dehumanizing everyone in the process. So forget about the border getting decided amicably any time soon. Forget about not worrying about bombs going off in our parliaments and in our trains. Forget about repatriating people who were chased out of their ancestral homes. This mess is here to stay for a while.

I wanted to also add that you should read the book for its extensive research and its effective prose, but, like I said, stepping back and appreciating the aesthetics of a narrative of something so upsetting is hard to do just yet.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Caste Trap

I believe that there is such a thing as a poverty trap and that a good portion of the people born in poor families will die poor too. I also believe that any decent civilized state has a responsibility in creating enough opportunities for poor people to escape their predicament. My country's response to that was caste-based reservation (ok! ok! reservation targets other aspects of social justice than poverty alone, but let's keep it simple here). I'm not as singularly oppposed to reservation as most urban educated middle class folks from my generation are but here's my beef with it. It ends up creating a "self-reinforcing mechanism which causes casteism to persist" (and here i'm borrowing from Costas Azariadis and John Stachurski, "Poverty Traps," Handbook of Economic Growth, 2005) as this little table shows. This is from a public school in a remote village in the Pandavapura Taluka of Mysore district. They proudly show off the number of kids from the lower castes who are enrolled in their schools. They probably have targets to meet too. I'm not grudging the kids their rightful place in that school, but I cringed when I saw this kind of reporting in school after school. While attempting to dismantle the poverty trap, I believe we are creating a robust caste trap.