Friday, November 24, 2006

Indo-US roller coaster on the brink again

Today,the Indian-American activists, who have been lobbying for better relations between India and the United States, are in a jubilant mood. They are basking in the glory of the Congressional approval of the India Bill. They are pleasantly surprised that the defeat of the Republicans has not made any difference to the outcome in the Senate.

In fact, it turns out that it was not the substance of the nuclear deal that prompted the Democrats to delay its approval. They simply did not want to hand out a political victory to President Bush. Now that he is down, even though not out, they have no reason to stand in the way of a strategic relationship.

Indian Americans, however, do not want to think of a scenario in which India walks out of the deal because of the conditions attached to it by the United States Congress. Many of them do not even bother to study the additional elements to see how much of it is vital to safeguard US interests before making an exception for India.

I asked a leading Indian American as to how the Indian community and the business circles would react if India backed out of the deal after they had spent so much time and effort to get the deal adopted by the US Congress.

For the first time in history, the US-India Business Council had hired a professional lobbyist to promote the deal. He did not even want to think about it as he felt that it would be a real disaster. Without challenging India's right not to be influenced one way or another on foreign policy issues, he felt strongly that India should focus on the core of the agreement and ignore what are essentially window dressing for internal consumption in the United States. They felt that India should take note of positions of Senators Edward Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, who are no enemies of India.

There is realisation here, as in India, that the deal goes beyond what it does to the nuclear issues between the two countries. It is more of a symbol of a transformation of bilateral relations. It will make a difference as to how the United States and the rest of the world look at India. The Cold War will end when cooperation begins under the deal. India will occupy a unique position in the global hierarchy and gain benefits beyond the terms of the nuclear deal.

Ironically, the opponents of the deal in the US are concerned about the narrow aspects of non-proliferation, while its critics in India are fighting the larger issue of US domination. For this reason, they see ghosts behind every clause in the Bill even before the final shape of the Bill is known. They see a conspiracy to induct CIA agents even behind proposals for scientific studies. The more innocuous the proposals, the more diabolical they become.

As the Senate was debating the Bill and dealing with 'killer amendments', I was speaking to the faculty and students of the James Madison University in Virginia. They were very surprised that there were critics of the deal in India after all the efforts made by the two governments to find an understanding on the nuclear issue. I had to dwell at length on the history of mutual suspicion between the two countries.

A young student asked what it would take America to remove Indian suspicions. Would India be happy only if the United States conceded every point in the negotiations?

I took refuge in the argument that India would be happy if the agreement of July 18, 2005 was left untouched. I did not tell them that there were objections even to the original agreement. I did not tell them also that the subsequent debate had brought the extremists to give up their tantrums about the original agreement.

One question on everybody's lips is where the two democracies will go if there is no deal at the end of December 2006. Will they be estranged again? Or will they be able to keep the relationship on an even keel? The answer is to go back to December 2000 when President Clinton and Prime Minister Vajpayee agreed upon a new architecture of bilateral relations without any understanding on the nuclear issue. The compulsions of cooperation between the two countries are too strong to be underestimated.

The roller coaster falls if it climbs the heights without reaching a plateau. President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have laboriously pulled the roller coaster close to a higher plateau. The fall will be fast and scary if it does not make it up there. But as long as the roller coaster remains on its rails, the landing will be soft and the climb can begin again.

The non-proliferationists in the US and the 'suspicionists' in India should remember that they too have a stake in preventing a steep fall. They should at least refrain from making it difficult for the next long haul.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night - A Trailblazer

Sonali Gulati, an Indian American film maker and teacher, became curious when a telemarketer pronounced her name perfectly for the first time and realized that the voice she heard, despite its American accent, came from her motherland. Her encounter with outsourcing took her to India to figure out how young Indians coped with the dual identities imposed on them by their profession. She discovered a whole new world of call centres and the social transformation that they were engendering in India. She saw the potential for a full-length documentary on it and began shooting a trailer to bring back to the United States to raise funds for such a film. But when she began editing the trailer, she realized that she had enough footage to cover at least one aspect of the new world, namely, the identity crisis among the young call centre employees. She decided to turn the trailer shots into a 27-minute documentary and a fascinating film called “Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night” was born.

When the documentary was screened at the Longwood University in Virginia as part of an international awareness week to an American audience, it touched a sympathetic chord, even though it also brought back the rural American grievance over the flight of jobs to distant lands. Many Americans voiced concern over the consequence of outsourcing for the labour force in the United States. When they were told that it was a win-win situation for the United States and India, they pointed out that the profits went to the big corporations and that outsourcing had rendered many Americans jobless. The film gave them a glimpse of another dimension of outsourcing that they had not been aware of. But they also felt that a film should be made about the impact of outsourcing on America.

Gulati, who was lucky to have been introduced to the right people, got ready access to several call centres in Delhi and she was allowed to film extensively on the condition that she should not shoot the computer screens or attach mikes on the people she was filming. She made up for the poor audio by adding sub-titles to the concerned frames. She was aware that she was covering only one aspect of the new phenomenon, but she could not exclude altogether the other aspects, such as the economic impact of globalization on India.

The name of the film suggests the depiction of an individual experience, but ‘Nalini’ in the film is a generic name, which embraces the whole new generation of young men and women, who have been swept into the vortex of change on account of outsourcing. Through a series of conversations with owners, managers, supervisors, workers and aspiring candidates, the film reveals the aspirations, struggles and joys of the world of call centres.

Gulati discovers that the call centres are not the sweatshops, which she had imagined them to be. The workers have decent work places, basic comforts and luxuries of the American corporate life such as exercise machines, indoor games facilities and even cola and burgers. They get picked up from home and dropped back in the morning as they work when the United States sleeps in order to use the time advantage. They have a sense of liberation from their parents because they leave home when the parents come home and they can stay as late as they want with friends even after work.

The best part is, of course, the money they earn. The average earnings of a 21-year-old college graduate with the necessary language skills is US$ 210 per month, the same that a highly qualified MBA gets on first recruitment, Gulati says. Needless to say, they earn more than their parents after many years of work and their home expenses are low as they live with their parents even after they take up work. The workers generally present a happy and contented existence, though there is uncertainty about the future. They do not seem to grumble about the large profits their companies make and even larger fortunes that the American companies amass in the process.

Gulati raises the question of identity as she notices that they turn into aliens not only in name, but also in accent and pronunciation to raise the comfort level of their customers. The new identity protects them also from the racial prejudices of their American customers. There have been reports of some customers abusing them when their accent or pronunciation betrays their identity. But the film does not examine whether the Nancies by night really live as Nalinis by day. That may well be the subject of another movie as they may also have the challenge of relating to the real world when they go home. They cannot but be affected by the work environment and the changed accent. An aspirant from Jharkhand, who has a problem about making himself understood even by Indians, burns the midnight oil in a pathetic effort to speak like a Bostonian. It is not clear whether he finally makes it to the chosen few.

Gulati says that she did not engineer the conversations in the film in any manner, not even the conversation about the film, “Face Off”, which also deals with identity. It was simply an unexpected windfall, which she fully exploited. She just happened to film the right scene at the right time.

Indeed the skill of the filmmaker is in the juxtaposition of her shots, animation and archival material to create a witty and personal narrative. The archival material establishes a linkage between the present phenomenon of outsourcing to past co-operation among nations in the field of communications.

Gulati’s own dual identity is projected through the movie, as she herself provides the commentary in her accented English. In fact, it is a truly one-woman movie except for the music. No wonder it is being distributed by “Women Make Movies”.

From the title of the film to its jovial ending as the name Sonali Gulati is spelt out, the documentary commands attention by a mix of seriousness and gentle humour. “Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night” will be a trailblazer for a number of movies, either fictional or otherwise, on globalization. Gulati, at a very young age, has established herself as a sensitive and artistic film maker.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Tale of Two University Visits

Following a son's footsteps is the greatest joy of a father. So when Dr, Ramesh Rao, Chair, Communication Studies and Theatre Department of the Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, invited me to deliver the same lecture that my son, Sreenath, delivered last year, I was more than excited. The long journey from Thiruvananthapuram to Farmville did not seem tedious at all as it was interspersed with meeting the family and friends in several cities and celebrations of Kerala Day in Washington DC, New York and New Jersey.

The Kerala Day celebrations were true to form with food and cultural festivals and speeches galore. I tried to introduce a certain focus by suggesting that a group of Malayalee achievers in the United States should be set up to advise the relevant people in Kerala on development. The idea was generally supported, but the focus was essentially on festivities.

A bumpy plane ride from New York to Richmond ended in a warm welcome by Dr. Ramesh Rao, who drove me to his charming home in Farmville to be greeted by his wife, Sujaya and his wide-eyed and smart four year old son. As ardent Hindus, they treated me fully in accordance with the dictum, "Adhiti devo bhava". Dr. Rao was characterised by an American scholar as a "Hindu militant", but he turned out to be a scholar rather than an activist.

Classes in American Universities are dramatically different from those of my student days in India. For one, they are informal and interactive, with the teacher being just a guide and not the embodiment of all wisdom. I went to four classes, two by Dr. Rao on public speaking and communications and two by others on water issues and international relations. The easy informality of the class rooms facilitate exchange of views and the students are encouraged to do their own research rather than take down the teachers' notes, even in under-graduate classes. One amusing discussion was on whether students should be allowed access to pornographic material on the Internet link provided by the University. Both girls and boys were for a liberal approach and one of them argued that pornography promoted abstinence!
The questions on India from students, which I answered, were well researched, sympathetic and intelligent. Speaking to young Americans on India was a refreshing experience.

In an unusual gesture, the President of Longwood, Dr.Patricia Cormier, invited me to a lunch at her magnificent home, on the edge of a golf course, with the senior faculty. Her probing questions led to a delightful conversation on a variety of subjects. The entire faculty was alert, courteous and well-informed.

I was in Longwood to participate in an International Awareness Week and the other Indian event was the screening of an engaging documentary on outsourcing, "Nalini By Day, Nancy By Night" by Sonali Gulati of the University of Virginia. I have written elsewhere on the sensitive and humourous portrayal of the call centre workers in the film.

My lecture itself was on "India and the US- Two Democracies on the World Stage", an amalgam of the three topics that Dr.Rao had suggested originally. He wanted me to cover the points that unite India and the US and the factors that divide them, Indian democracy and India's experience and vision of the United Nations. I traced the various historic events that led to the estrangement of the two democracies, despite their common colonial past and values and aspirations. Speaking on a couple of days before the Senate considered the nuclear deal, I presented an optimistic picture of the future of bilateral relations. The questioning from the audience showed that they heard me with interest and understanding. The President herself was there and her compliments were flattering indeed.

Dr. Rao drove me for a couple of hours the next day to the neighbouring James Madison University (JMU), where our first meeting was with Dr. Sushil Mittal, Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Global Non-violence and Associate Professor of Hinduism. Dr. Mittal was born in Canada, but was brought up as an ardent Hindu and became a great scholar on Gandhi and Hinduism. As a true scholar, he has no links with Hindutva movements in any part of the world and he focuses on academic studies and lives as a Hindu and a Gandhian. He has built up the Gandhi Centre in AMU and believes that there is something called the Gandhi magic that brings him resources and opportunities to promote Gandhiji and Hinduism world wide. In his advocacy, he is forceful and convincing, just as he is uncompromising with obscurantism in any faith. The time we spent with him was most rewarding and enlightening.

Dr.Peter Pham Director, The Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs of JMU, a political analyst and thinker with strong Republican credentials, much sought after by the media, hosted two events for me, one round table with the faculty and a public lecture on "Indo-US Strategic Relationship". The nuclear deal figured prominently in both, since the Senate was close to considering it when we were discussing it. We also looked beyond the deal and looked at the scenarios with and without the deal in place. My optimism was shared by the audience. The response from the students was exhilarating.

After three wonderful and sunny days, I spent a day at the Richmond airport, waiting for the storms to clear for my flight back to New York. It gave me the time to think over the experience. Once again, I was convinced that it is the liberal education that the American Universities provide that makes the United States a strong and prosperous nation.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Machines Mar US Polls- Again

The last time I watched US election results was back in 2000 from a Las Vegas hotel room. The television was on throughout the night and each time I woke up, the results appeared different. The overwhelming thought was not the enormity of the change, but surprise over the sheer inability of the Super Power to manage an election without snags. This time, as I followed the election results from a Washington hotel room, the thought was not very different. The results were, as expected, a severe setback to President Bush, but the number of glitches in the voting and counting machines, which interfered with the prompt expression of the will of the people was amazing. The system is not even scrutinized in the case of clear verdicts and consequently, no serious effort is made to fix the systemic problems.

The media had alerted the Government to the possibility of malfunctioning machines long before the elections. People had suspicion not only that machines might malfunction, but also that they might be manipulated. Curiously, neither the electoral officers, nor the manufacturers of the machines cared to assuage the concerns of the public in this regard. Even an invitation extended by a television channel to a representative of the association of voting machine manufacturers was rebuffed. All the latest computers in the world cannot guarantee accuracy and speed for the electoral process in the United States.

On the morning after, the results of the election to the House of Representatives were clear enough, but the position of the US Senate was unclear and, with the possibility of a recount in Virginia, it appeared as though the results would not be available for as long as a month. A recount is a simple matter, but interminable legal battles will ensure that it will be a legal decision rather than an electoral one. Like the proverbial ambulance chasers, lawyers will arrive in Richmond and raise so many issues that the recount will be delayed. With the Republicans and the Democrats sharing 49 seats each in the Senate, the results of Virginia and Montana will determine who will lead the Senate. It was the failure of the counting machine that held up the results in Montana. Apparently, the counting machine went back to zero at one point and the whole counting exercise had to begin all over again.

Undoubtedly, the elections were a referendum on President Bush, particularly his Iraq misadventure, but it is precisely on Iraq that the Democrats still do not have an alternate policy. Nancy Pelosi’s agenda for her first hundred hours in office does not even include Iraq. One thing that the Democrats can do is to cut off funding for the Iraq war to force the President to withdraw, but the Democrats cannot afford to do that mistake, having seen that even a botched up joke on the soldiers in Iraq could drive John Kerry into hiding. The farthest that the Democrats would go is to say that they would like to adopt an alternate approach, possibly on the basis of the Hamilton-Baker report on Iraq. In her first press conference, Nancy Pelosi, as the new voice of the people, spoke only about a bipartisan approach to Iraq and the need to fire Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. She was careful not to sound critical of the fighting forces in any manner.

It turns out that Iraq was not even the main issue that decided the outcome of the elections. Among the factors mentioned, Iraq (36%) comes only after corruption and ethics (41%) and terrorism (39%). It was scandals like aggressive homosexuality and indiscreet business deals which demolished Republican incumbents. A powerful Senator in Virginia suffered immensely for calling an Indian on the staff of his rival “macaca” (monkey). Congressman Foley’s folly of sending a suggestive e-mail to a young man on the Congressional staff hurt him and his replacement on the Republican ticket. But if terrorism and homeland security are still concerns, the Bush record is not unsatisfactory. He has ensured that anything like 9/11 never took place in the US in the last five years.

India was never mentioned in the elections, but India watchers and Indian Americans are curious about the fate of the Indo-US nuclear deal and the future of bilateral relations. The Democratic Party has more Indophiles than the Republican Party, but it also has more non-proliferationists. In the wake of the 1998 tests, friends of India of long standing in the Democratic Party were extremely critical of India. Many of them were apprehensive of the Indo-US nuclear deal and they went along with the related bills in the House and Senate Committees only after the non-proliferation concerns were incorporated in them. Senator Hillary Clinton was non-committal on the deal till the modified bill reached the Senate, much to the chagrin of her Indian American supporters.

The Bush Administration is still hopeful that the lame duck Senate will still approve the deal and a bilateral agreement will be possible soon. But with the President himself rendered lame duck by the elections, it remains to be seen how the deal will fare in the session of the old Senate. But for the rest of Indo-US relations, the President and the Congress will work together as there is bipartisan support for good relations with India. One new area of co-operation should be the management of men and machines during the elections!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Namesake is excellent

The pangs of migration, which run through much of Indian-American writing was the theme of the film. And the audience comprised those who could resonate with it by virtue of their own variety of the experience.

A Salman Rushdie-Padma Lakshmi-Mira Nair billing guaranteed the success of the premiere of The Namesake as the opening event of Aroon Shivdasani's sixth Indo-American Arts Council film festival in Manhattan on November 1.

The event was Indian American to the core, with its celebrities thronging the hall and delaying the performance by chatting away much beyond the social hour.

What sets The Namesake apart from the other Indian nostalgia-cum-rebellion movies is the sensitivity with which the writer Jhumpa Lahiri and the director Mira Nair have treated the story.

Tabu, apparently Mira's third choice for the lead role, lifted Ashima, the Bengali bride, who had more than her share of stress and trauma, to the level of a heroine of legendary proportions. The serenity and calm on her face even at the height of emotional drama, speak volumes of her innate strength, which initially prompts her to accept the challenge of a life abroad.

When she is told at the traditional 'bride viewing' about the loneliness of housewives abroad, her response is that, after all, 'he' will be with her and she hardly knew him! She faces adversity stoically and has a life as a singer beyond the dissolution of her family and her husband's death. Her grief is dignified and her acting restrained.

Irrfan Khan as Ashoke Ganguly is the perfect Bengali intellectual, to whom books gave the joy of travel without moving an inch. Nikolai Gogol, the mystic writer from the Ukraine inspired him more than the Bengali masters to the extent that he gives his son the name Gogol, which has a Bengali ring about it.

It is a copy of Gogol's Overcoat that changes his life in more ways than one, but he does not even try to persuade his son not to change his name into Nikhil, an uncanny adaptation of Nikolai. He is an extraordinary liberal father when it comes to his children and there is hardly any clash between father and son on account of their cultural identities.

He clings to his values and culture, but does not resent the customs of others, even a peck on the cheek by his son's girlfriend. He accepts the transition with dignity and even trains his wife for a life without him by moving to another city for a while.

Even the way he faces death, without protesting against his having to wait in line for medical attention makes him an embodiment of pathos. He may be a bit unreal in the context of desi culture in the US, but not exaggerated or artificial. His Bengali pride and sense of history stand out in the film.

Kal Penn is an unusual Indian name, but as Gogol, he is the epitome of the second-generation desi in America. He is tethered to the rock of an Indian upbringing, but he pulls it as far as he can to be part of the culture that he has to live in. He is extremely loyal to his parents, but sees no contradiction in having a family of his own by virtue of a relationship with a white girl. He quickly accepts his mother's suggestion to marry an Indian, but ironically finds that his Indian wife is disloyal.

Gogol's relationship with his mother and father is portrayed in a subtle manner and he becomes the true hero of the movie when he handles his varied roles with equal devotion.

Others in the film, except Jacinda Barrett, Gogol's American girlfriend, are just part of the wide canvas that Mira Nair uses to tell her story. None of them commands individual attention. But all of them merge into the scenery and accentuate different aspects of desi life in America. The slice of desi life that the film presents is authentic.

Jhumpa Lahiri was not at the premiere, but it is her genius that permeates the film. Mira Nair did justice to the novel by her casting, her sympathy for the theme, which, she said, was her own story in a way, and her superb sense of timing. The opening scene in an Indian train and the accident that follows bring in the change in the Ganguly family with a bang.

The film is likely to lose a couple of its explicit sex scenes when it opens in India. But the scenes are integral to the movie and the first scene of Ashoke and Ashima in bed with all their clothes on contrasts with the prompt shedding of clothes by Gogol's Indian girlfriend. Migration, it is clear, changes even the way people make love.

Indian Americans love to delve deep into their own lives and they lap up all the desi literature and movies about themselves. But they are very discriminating in their taste. The Bombay Dreams musical, which did well in London, flopped in New York because of the exacting standards of the Indians in New York.

Many tearjerker tales of desi nostalgia have disappeared without a trace. But The Namesake is sure to be received well when it is commercially released early next year. The celebrity audience on November 1 has already passed the verdict: "Excellent!"
Saddam Hussein

The news has just arrived that Saddam Hussein has been sentenced to death by hanging. As expected, there are supporters and opponents of the verdict. But was not this a foregone conclusion ever since tha Americans went into Iraq? If a soldier had shot him to death when he was found in a hole, the matter would have ended then and there. So the question is why the Americans went through this whole legal process to bring him to judgement. It could be a genuine desire to see that justice is done. The present sentence has been given by an Iraqi court after the due process of law.

Saddam Hussein should also feel satisfied that he had an opportunity to defend himself and show his contempt for the new rulers in Baghdad. There may be reactions to his hanging, but the question is simply whether a dead Saddam Hussein will have a greater impact on history than a live one. History alone will tell.

November 5, 2006