things and nothings

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Chomsky illustrated

Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.(AFP/Getty Images/Chris Graythen)

A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Flood waters continue to rise in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina did extensive damage when it made landfall on Monday. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Hurricane Katrina is one of the worst natural disasters America has ever faced. A friend of mine, whose relatives are in Louisiana, tells me that something like this happened in 1965 too, but then there was no looting. In Daily Kos, I found this comment about looting in New Orleans from which I quoted the above two photos with captions.

So, when the whites do it, it is finding food. When the blacks do it, it is looting!

We believe the media. We have to. We do not live in New Orleans. So, when forming our opinion about New Orleans or Katrina or looting or blacks or anything for that matter, we have to believe someone. This is where the power of the media comes in. And this is exactly how the dominant, privileged section of the society foists its view upon the rest. Subliminally. Subversively.

This is not just a problem with the right-wing, commercialised, big media houses. (I believe this is where Chomsky is wrong, or just too specific) Every media outlet colours reality with its own objective, own agenda. All we can probably do is be aware of the particular bias of the source when we filter the information. Blogs are a boon in this respect - they may not yet be primary source of news, but they are doing an excellent job of dissecting the inherent biases in the mainstream news media.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Wonderful words

Okay, I have been delinquent of not having done my part of the duty to propagate this meme. Sorry, Urmea. I was too busy with something, nothing or other things. So here are a few words that I like, culled from different languages.

  • mot juste: The French expression for that slippery thing called “just the right expression”
  • coinage: The idea that words and expressions are circulating coins that carry thoughts across space and time somehow seems beautiful to me.
  • amor: This Latin word is almost the same as eros, but I love it for the sentimental dimension it adds
  • litost: I thank Kundera for giving the world this Czech word, which he defines as a “state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery”. It is a sad, sudden, free-falling, gut-wrenching self-discovery. Read the relevant passage from Kundera here. I request, if you have read my blog this far, please go to the previous sentence, click on the link and read it.
  • charaibeti: Move on, march on, there are no limits. The word symbolises the enchanting, almost seductive, call of the infinite. Can someone quote to me the original Sanskrit hymn from which this we got word?
  • mon: Mon, the very common Bangla word, is often very loosely translated as mind. But mind is too coarse, too intellectual, too utilitarian. Mon is much more delicate. On the other hand, the heart is only a repository of feelings and emotions. Mon tells us that how the thought, the emotion and the imagination go hand in hand, how inseparable they are. Try translating monkharap into any other language, and the beauty, the delicateness of the word mon will come through to you.

I don't know whether this tag is still alive, but I would still do my bit in tagging some who I know have not been tagged:

Tiny Tim, Priya, Runglee and memorykeeper.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Hello mic teshting 1-2-3

I do plan to make this one a bilingual just testing. Blogger does support hindi fonts, but not Bangla yet. So here is a roundabout way. If anyone knows a better way, please let me know.

This one is a poem written by my friend Teebro Ray.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Thanks, Ron (no, I cannot link him, I have non-blogging friends too) for leading me to this great site. I will try to list some economics blogs. I find them interesting. Call me nerdy if you want..

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Losing my language

That day someone wanted me to translate the term "Killer instinct" into Bengali. I could not. Whatever I came up with, was forced, stilted or off-the-mark. I noted that this is not like translating Artichoke or Stroganoff; Bengalees today understand the concept of killer instinct, have it in plenty and sure enough, use it in their everyday conversations. Then? I blamed it initially on my inadequate knowledge of Bangla, but then I asked around and did not get anything satisfactory. That set me to the task of checking whether there are other such words that are not satisfactorily translatable by at least me, a well-bred Bengalee who grew up on the staple fare of Rabindranath and Bibhutibhushan and Jibanananda and an occasional Kamalkumar or Binoy, and I realized that there was a whole vocabulary of them. In fact, I cannot speak a whole sentence that involves abstract concepts and does not contain English words. I realized that I grew from primarily a Bengali speaker to a bilingual person to primarily an English speaker over time, whenever matters outside the routine things of the daily life are concerned. And so have most of my friends. I feel scared, desperate.

One can be bilingual in two ways. The sentence structure may be English but the concept used is Bengali: We had great adda with telebhaja, or the other way round: Sachin’er dwara test jetano hobe na, kono killer instinct nei. All the conversation that educated Bengalees have in Bengali is of the second kind. And, not only do we use English for words untranslatable in Bangla, we are increasingly substituting English words for Bengali for abstract concepts: or hasi’ta bhishon artificial lage, ekta reasonable daam bolun na dada…Using words like “kritrim” or “juktipurno” here sound artificial, stilted, affected and unreasonable or even archaic.

After the nineteenth century when there was Bengali was developed and polished with an active effort by the Renaissance intellectuals, there was no conscious effort in the twentieth to nurture it and develop it further. I am not disparaging literature or Bengali writing in the twentieth century. While the literary movements in the west indeed influenced us (think of Kallol), what did not happen was development of a Bengali vocabulary that took new words and ideas from the west and translated them. So, outside the arena of literature, all the new concepts that came through English words remained in English – till date we use those concepts in the form of the English word. The reason is simply that the Bengalee intellectual is always English educated, and if he is not writing literature, he does not care to express himself in Bengali. Actually, the foremost Bengalee scientists of this century, Satyen Bose was well aware of this problem and tried to develop a Bengali scientific parlance, but due to the lack of a more broadbased awareness, there never was a concerted effort and words like Draghimangsho and Akshangsho (longitude and latitude) remained confined to textbooks. Or even very common words like “motivation” which came into wide coinage only in the last century have never been translated into Bengali (I am told that in Bangladesh, they use “Preshona” – but you get the picture.) Even if some words were invented and used in writing, they never got unanimous acceptance – so they never came into coinage. Bengali thus remained divided into two distinct flows with less than desirable exchange: one the written language (not necessarily shadhubhasa, but the language of academic writing) and the other, the spoken vernacular. The problem remained two pronged: on the one hand, new ideas were not translated into Bengali words, and on the other, even many ideas that were not new and had Bengali expressions, were expressed in English in the spoken language, and in Bengali only in the written language. Today even simple words like “kritrim” and “juktipurno” are not spoken by the urban Bengalee, these are confined to the written language. And English has permeated the spoken language so much that we have developed our own English words for very homegrown concepts: "smart" and "homely" for example.

So we are left with a moribund written language that is at a loss for words when ideas like "killer instinct" or "survival instinct" have to be expressed and an increasingly distanced urban spoken language, which is evolving for sure, but mostly as a mishmash of Hindi, English and slang. Nothing wrong with that, per se. The urban, spoken language is evolving, absorbing new ideas, and growing organically. But the coins being alien, they are in limited circulation. Since Bengali cannot act as a vehicle of these new concepts, they are not percolating to the vast multitudes uncomfortable with English. As a result, the urban educated milieu is speaking a language that is increasingly different from that of the others, and we end up with a society with increasingly alienated vertical strata with a low level of osmosis of ideas between the strata. We become, as a whole, a poorer society as a result.

Yes, that affects me as a social being. But why do I, as an individual (evidently belonging to the privileged stratum), care?

Because I feel a tug at my roots. Along the process of my education, imperceptibly the coins of my thought started changing – I started thinking in a mixed language. Over time, the mix shifted more and more towards English. With that, the colours of imagination, the shades of feeling, and the metaphors I use to interpret my world – all changed. I feel too far from my home and hearth today. The Boro tip, the lalpar shada sari, the tulsipradeep, the sandhya’r shankh – all that I once used as coins for romance, seem to belong to a world which is still very evocative, but which is no longer mine. I feel like a tourist in that world.

My world of coffee cups and cigarettes is intellectually satisfying – but they still do not evoke poetry in me. I miss writing poetry. I hang between two worlds.

Friday, July 08, 2005

The London Bombing

London has been bombed. Middle of downtown. Amidst the swarming sea of passengers. Maximum damage. On the first day of the G8 summit. Maximum focus. Just like 9/11.


Two different theories are offered up, one by Thomas Friedman in the NYT and the other one by Robert Fisk in The Independent. Both of these accept that the issue is too complex to put the blame on any one party. But they suggest entirely opposite solutions.

Tom talks almost like Bush. His piece is alarmist at best and fearmongering at worst.

Yesterday's bombings in downtown London are profoundly disturbing. In part, that is because a bombing in our mother country and closest ally, England, is almost like a bombing in our own country. In part, it's because one assault may have involved a suicide bomber, bringing this terrible jihadist weapon into the heart of a major Western capital. That would be deeply troubling because open societies depend on trust - on trusting that the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway is not wearing dynamite.

Like a Bombing in our own country?! The same, tiring it-can-happen-to-you-tomorrow! Maybe yes, maybe no. But I suppose the big contribution of Michael Moore is to have shown that fearmongering always benefits the establishment, and is therefore practised rampantly. Just that one did not know that the "most respected" NYT journalist talks in the red-orange-yellow language that one ascribes to Rumsfeld.

Tom, you are wrong in the next sentence too. "Open societies" trust the person sitting next to not wear dynamite because western capitalist societies are based on incentives as the only motivation of human action, and therefore have still not fathomed how a person can wear dynamite, or do anything, for a cause. This, after so many suicide attacks. It is here that there is a language problem between the east and the west. The west does not understand Islam. All alliances, all trade, all exchange, and all theories (economic, and today, political too) that the west has, are based on an idea of mutual benefit. A cause is a collective interest to which the indiviadual interests are meant to be subdued. That is a moral position enforced by tradition, not a rational one. No wonder then that the west that is focussed on the individual as the rational decisionmaker is flummoxed. No wonder that they do not understand the idea of brotherhood or the idea of dying for a cause without any gain. And as long as this lack of understanding persists, the west will always be afraid of Islam in general. Fear will breed violence, use of force on a national scale, and attempts to convert Islam to the western ideals. All this will lead to Bin Ladens - more of them. This is the classic civilizational struggle. It will go on. The west will use its military might, and the Muslim brotherhood basically its ideological might along with the tactical vulnerabilities of the west. These forces will reinforce each other, and it will go on.

Poor Tom does not understand that, and instead issues an alarm to the whole muslim world:

Because there is no obvious target to retaliate against, and because there are not enough police to police every opening in an open society, either the Muslim world begins to really restrain, inhibit and denounce its own extremists - ...- or the West is going to do it for them. And the West will do it in a rough, crude way -... making every Muslim in its midst guilty until proven innocent.
And because I think that would be a disaster, it is essential that the Muslim world wake up to the fact that it has a jihadist death cult in its midst. If it does not fight that death cult, that cancer, within its own body politic, it is going to infect Muslim-Western relations everywhere. Only the Muslim world can root out that death cult. It takes a village. ...(T)he greatest restraint on human behavior is what a culture and a religion deem shameful. It is what the village and its religious and political elders say is wrong or not allowed.

So the entire onus is on the Muslim world. Note that it is still carrot-and-stick: either restrain your lads or we will bomb you. The problem is, it does not work that way. Over the last few years, different places in the Muslim world are being bombed quite a bit. But all that it has managed to do is harden the jihadi psyche. In fact, Iraq really was not the focus of Muslim sentiments, nor was it a "jihadist factory". But I would suspect that by now, it indeed has a significant role in motivating the jihadist mind, in confirming the theory of the jihadist preachers. Incentives and threats do not work as well in the Middle east among the masses. Poor Tom, please take note. You miss the point.

Robert Fisk does not. He does not intellectualise. He puts it rather plainly, with a touch of poignance:

"If you bomb our cities," Osama bin Laden said in one of his recent video tapes, "we will bomb yours." There you go, as they say. It was crystal clear Britain would be a target ever since Tony Blair decided to join George Bush’s "war on terror" and his invasion of Iraq. We had, as they say, been warned. The G8 summit was obviously chosen, well in advance, as Attack Day.

And it’s no use Mr Blair telling us yesterday that "they will never succeed in destroying what we hold dear". "They" are not trying to destroy "what we hold dear". They are trying to get public opinion to force Blair to withdraw from Iraq, from his alliance with the United States, and from his adherence to Bush’s policies in the Middle East. The Spanish paid the price for their support for Bush - and Spain’s subsequent retreat from Iraq proved that the Madrid bombings achieved their objectives - while the Australians were made to suffer in Bali.

It is easy for Tony Blair to call yesterdays bombings "barbaric" - of course they were -
but what were the civilian deaths of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the children torn apart by cluster bombs, the countless innocent Iraqis gunned down at American military checkpoints? When they die, it is "collateral damage"; when "we" die, it is "barbaric terrorism".

But I do not support Fisk too when he goes to the other extreme and says that the west restraining itself is the solution. Blair, leave Iraq. Bush, quit. No, Sir. Thats not going to happen. It is a war. Above all, it is a war of ideas : of the west trying to convert the Middle east to the purported western ideals of freedom, democracy and individualism.

And in this war, a clash of civilizations, each is using its own weapons. Each is justifying himself, in his own ways. Is there an end in sight? No, I dont see one, at least as long as they speak in different languages. And, "democratising" the Middle East, as is the Neocon mission, is not possible either. The problem really is that the world, at least the connected world, cannot stay unipolar for too long. That Bin Laden is a direct outgrowth of the American handling of the cold war is now well documented. Throughout history, the only way a power is checked is by another power, or a combination of other powers. Thats the only equilibrium that can yield a steady state. Whenever the world grows unipolar, the one power grows expansionist. It struggles for a world domination. This automatically breeds its own opposition. And more often than not, the empire dies of overstretching (remember Napoleon?). It can be hit at various places, even by a weak, but quick opposition. Sounds familiar?

Today, the Neocon agenda is to spread certain ideals all over the world. And the land that corresponds to the antithesis of such ideas is the obvious first target. Democracy, freedom and individualism. These are noble ideas, indeed. But it is not an intellectual expansion alone. Very, very costly political and economic changes come in the package. And at no point does the west consider that there could be alternative world systems that are just as valid, as consistent and as effective as their own. It is this insularity that breeds most of the problem. And the west drives its agenda, blaming individuals like Saddam and Bin Laden. They are not the problem. The insularity, the blindness, keeps them from realising that one Bin Laden can give way to a hundred, if more Bombs fall on Iraq or Afghanistan. It is in this recognition of the systemic nature of the problem that the Jihadists are ahead of the Neocons. As long as the western intellectuals keep expecting to root out the "few terrorist elements" either by force or by persuading the "village elders" in the middle east (these two seem to be the responses of the conservatives and the liberals respectively), the problem will continue as it is. Unfortunately, I do not see a solution to this, except for a natural decay of a moribund empire.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005


In every post there is either a thing or no thing.
This one is about nothing. It seems that there is nothing in the news today. Indeed, most of the mainstream outlets are saying nothing bout it.
Apparently, some people create something out of nothing.