Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.
Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for [2008 Booker-prize-winning White Tiger author Aravind] Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.
Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.” ...
In a recent report in The Hindu, Ravi DC, CEO of DC Books, Kerala’s leading publishing house, said the sale of Malayalam books has been growing by at least 30% a year. At the sixth international book fair, which DC Books organised in Kerala in November 2008, sales had doubled in a year. And, he added, “the demand for books in rural areas is on the increase”. The marketing strategy was now based on the concept that “books should go to people instead of people coming to book houses”.
Karan Talwar, a blogger and Freakonomics reader, writes about an interesting traffic nudge near Shimla, India. The roads into Shimla are notoriously dangerous, and traffic signs have done little to lessen the problem. So local authorities began constructing temple shrines at hot spots. The nudge worked like a charm: “Turns out even though the average Indian has no respect for traffic laws and signs, they will slow down before any place of worship and take a moment to ask for blessings!”
Most Indian men, at least those I see about town on the street, dress in what I call the “dude uniform”: a light-colored button-down long-sleeve shirt, slacks, and black sandals. As far as uniforms go, it’s pretty functional, working equally well for home and office, and requiring little in maintenance.
Younger guys, however, replace the sensible slacks with over-the-top denim: emulating their favorite Bollywood stars, they buy jeans that are dyed, streaked, distressed, and bedecked with clasps, latches, snaps, and pockets. Most of the time the pants are flared, giving them a bit of a disco feel.
On top, they wear a variety of shirts that make European clubwear appear dignified. Most are made of synthetic materials; gold lamé and neon orange are popular at the moment. Solid one-inch-wide black and orange vertical stripes were big in Fall 2008, but 2009 seems to favor a trompe l’oeil sweater-vest-over-T-shirt garment, usually in pastels. As far as I can tell, it’s the guys scraping by who wear the flashiest clothes. Too far down the socio-economic ladder and your duds turn to rags. Too far up and they become the dude uniform. Somewhere in between, though, is ‘70s gold.
Sari Bari grew out of years of workers from the Word Made Flesh mission organization listening to women in the commercial sex industry in the south of India. As WMF befriended the women they would ask, “What would freedom look like for you? How would you like to attain that?” Based on their responses, a WMF field director in Kolkata, Sarah Lance, and a former WMF staffer, Kristin Keen, came up with an idea to recycle used saris, the traditional clothing Indian women wear. The saris could be sewn into quilts or purses and sold. The required speed-sewing skills were hard-won, requiring six months or more to learn. During that time, WMF also offers therapy, math and literacy instruction. But once the women finish the training, they can leave the sex trade and experience something more like freedom.
And the bags and quilts they produced were beautiful—so beautiful that the women realized they were making art, not just textiles. So they began to sign their work. In the sex trade these women often go by a false name that helps them disassociate from what they have to go through. But when they signed their artwork they used their real, given names.
I don’t mean to be too flippant here, nor to accord cricket too great an importance in the great kerfuffle of life—I simply say that the reason that test match cricket exerts such a tremendous fascination is that is shares so many qualities with the greater, more terrible dramas that make up the human experience.
It does so in a condensed, peaceful form and triumph and failure on the cricket field are ultimately trivial but the game moves us just as great art moves us. To pretend otherwise is, it strikes me, silly. That is, sure it’s only a game but it’s also not just a game.
In other words, it is life. And like war, and life, that sometimes end in stalemate. Which means a draw. There are winning draws and losing draws and plain old dull draws. But without them, or the possibility of them, everything else is too neat, too simple and, in the end, too unsatisfactory.
To be sure, there is something unseemly in privileged people rhapsodizing about such places. Prince Charles, for all his praise, does not appear poised to move to a shack in Dharavi. Identifying the positive aspects of poverty risks glorifying it or rationalizing it. Moreover, some of the qualities extolled by analysts are direct results of deprivation. Low resource consumption may be good for the earth, but it is not the residents’ choice. Most proponents of this thinking agree that it’s crucial to address the conflict between improving standards of living and preserving the benefits of shantytowns.
But given the reality that poverty exists and seems unlikely to disappear soon, squatter cities can also be seen as a remarkably successful response to adversity - more successful, in fact, than the alternatives governments have tried to devise over the years. They also represent the future. An estimated 1 billion people now live in them, a number that is projected to double by 2030. The global urban population recently exceeded the rural for the first time, and the majority of that growth has occurred in slums. According to Stewart Brand, founder of the Long Now Foundation and author of the forthcoming book “Whole Earth Discipline,” which covers these issues, “It’s a clear-eyed, direct view we’re calling for - neither romanticizing squatter cities or regarding them as a pestilence. These things are more solution than problem.”
When a modern Japanese family sits round the supper table eathing their bowls of Japanese-grown rice, they are not simply indulging a gastronomic preference for short-grain and slightly sticky Japonica rice over long-grain Indica rice from Thailand. They are eating and absorbing a tradition—in the sense of an invented and reinvented past. While the television beside the dining table pours out a stream of images of the here-and-now, of an urbanized, capitalist, and thoroughly internationalized Japan, each mouthful of rice offers communion with eternal and untainted Japanese values, with a rural world of simplicity and purity, inhabited by peasants tending tiny green farms in harmony with nature and ruled over by the emperor, descendant of the Sun Goddess, who plants and harvests rice himself each year in a special sacred plot. Simple peasant rice farmers are as marginal in contemporary Japan as hand-spinners are in India, but the small rice farm, like the swadeshi [homespun-style cloth] industry, lives on as a powerful symbol.
Architecture | Can you copyright an iconic building? That’s the issue raised by an expensively marbled clone of India’s Taj Majal built in Bangladesh by a wealthy filmmaker, who says he built it for Bangladeshis too poor to travel to see the real thing. Indian official: “You can’t just go out and copy historical monuments.” Bangladeshi: “Show me where it says that emulating a building like this can be illegal.” [Times of London]
To have an effective cordon sanitaire against terror would require India to inject a degree of efficiency, alertness, and performance into an administrative apparatus that simply has not delivered on these scores for decades. For many interesting historical reasons (that need not detain us here), government and public institutions in India gradually ceased to be effective deliverers of goods and services, beginning in the 1970’s. There is much that democracy in India has achieved, including the famous overturning of the autocratic Emergency Rule that Mrs. Gandhi once imposed and the sense of participation many low-caste communities have in the country’s governmental institutions. But democracy in India has also become predominantly a means of electoral empowerment of different groups—low-castes, dalits, minorities, or even majoritarian Hindus who claim to have been “weakened” by the “privileges” accorded to minorities.
The growth of this politics of identity has made elections into the mainstay of Indian democracy. It has distanced politics from issues of governance, and has gone hand in hand with a deepening degree of corruption, financial and otherwise, on the part of politicians and officials. A large number of the elected members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them, and media reports suggest an elephantine, unaccountable, inefficient bureaucracy mired in the self-indulgent use of resources (corruption and inefficiency often going together). There was, as last week’s events made clear, no effective coast guard force on the Indian seas, in spite of the government having been warned of possible terror attacks on Mumbai from the sea. When the Taj Hotel caught fire, it took the first lot of firefighters three hours to respond. The commando force had to be dispatched from Delhi and it took about nine hours to mobilize them, as they are usually kept busy providing “security” to politicians, many of whom see such security as a matter of status and prestige.
One billion people live in slums. Their numbers are supposed to double over the next quarter-century. So: Who are those people — and what must their lives be like?
The Norwegian photojournalist Jonas Bendiksen has spent a good deal of time in Indian, Kenyan, Indonesian, and Venezuelan slums, and his website, The Places We Live, features dazzling 360-degree photos of homes and shanties, navigable and altogether immersive, along with audio recordings made by the inhabitants. Prepare yourself to gape, gasp, laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in between: In Mumbai, you’ll meet the Shilpiri family (15 people crammed into a tiny space through which floodwater and garbage regularly stream). In Nairobi, the head of the Dirango household takes great pride in his cramped abode, giving a tour that takes just seconds. “You have to visit somewhere before you judge,” he explains. Thanks, Mr. Bendiksen, for starting us on the journey.