Sandip Roy

Islamophobia Rages from Texas to India

Mahesh Sharma, India’s Culture minister, and a high school in Irving, Texas have more in common than they realise. On the face of it, the two incidents appear poles apart.

Ahmed Mohamed, a fourteen-year-old freshman in a high school in Texas, was handcuffed and detained by police after he took a homemade alarm clock to school to show his engineering teacher. But another teacher thought it looked like a bomb and called the police. The boy in his NASA T-shirt was interrogated and taken to a juvenile detention centre, triggering off a huge row about Islamophobia and stereotyping.

Meanwhile over in India, Mahesh Sharma, the culture minister who has recently found his tongue with a vengeance, tells India Today TV that it makes sense to rename Aurangzeb Road after APJ Abdul Kalam because Kalam “despite being a Muslim” was a great nationalist and humanist. Sharma was actually trying to deliver a compliment. The Texas police were reacting to young Mohamed as a threat but both responses draw from the same wellspring of prejudice.

Both see being Muslims ultimately from a base level of suspicion. The Texas authorities might insist anyone carrying a contraption with wires to school would be subject to the same treatment but they will never be able to demonstrate that Ahmed’s name and religion were not factors as well. “I like science, but I look like a threat because of my brown skin,” said Ahmed. He is not just a teenager building a clock, he is a Muslim teenager building a bomb-like device. As has been pointed out, if it was indeed a bona fide bomb scare, why was the school not evacuated? why was a bomb squad not called? And if it was a bomb hoax, why would the perpetrator call it a clock and defeat the point of a hoax?

Sharma might insist he was trying to prove that he, in fact, had no prejudice towards Muslims by making Kalam the "good" Muslim to Aurangzeb’s "bad" Muslim. That was belittling enough to Kalam’s memory but Sharma took it a step further because as Siddharth Vardarajan writes in The Wire, “In the Culture Minister’s perverted worldview, being Muslim is a handicap that the former President had to overcome in order to serve the country.” That's a fine message to send out to the country's Muslims.


The point of the story is the stereotypes we harbour. And that includes Taslima Nasreen who tweeted out, “If I could see Ahmed Mohamad’s home made clock, I would hv mistaken his thing for a bomb. Why ppl think Muslims can bring bombs? Cause they do.” But Muslims don’t bring bombs. Bad people, who come in all shapes, sizes and denominations, do. Just because there are terrorists who find their inspiration in their religion does not mean Ahmed Mohamed deserves to be interrogated for building a clock. America’s greatest school tragedies have not been caused by Muslims bringing bombs. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Springfield. Blacksburg. Those shooters had names like Eric Harris, Dylan Kiebold, Adam Lanza and Seung-Hui Cho.

Ahmed, however has been flooded with support from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” tweeted President Obama. “Want to bring it to the White House?” It’s unlikely the Indian Prime Minister will say anything to Sharma. PM Narendra Modi, after all, is the face that launched a thousand #DespiteBeingAWoman hashtags after telling Sheikh Hasina, “I am happy that Bangladesh Prime Minister, despite being a woman, has declared zero tolerance for terrorism.”

Of course, it's also highly unlikely that Ahmed would have gotten anywhere near the White House with his contraption without triggering a security alert. But the point is the context. An unknown person with a jerry-rigged device with wires sticking out near the White House is clearly not the same as your fellow student bringing a clock to school and showing it to the engineering teacher.

Let’s be clear. No Qurans were desecrated here. No mosques vandalised. No one was beaten up for wearing a headscarf or a “beard like Osama”. But these forms of covert prejudice are more insidious and all the harder to root out because someone like Mahesh Sharma probably genuinely believes he was paying an ex-President a well-deserved compliment. Just as Ahmed’s high school, in a display of obdurate tone-deafness, has issued a statement without even a hint of apology, patting themselves on the back instead for “always” taking “the necessary steps to keep our school as safe as possible.”

Ahmed says he can “never look at the world in the same way”. But he is fourteen and hopefully the scars will fade and the support he has received is also unprecedented. As for Kalam, he is beyond caring about what anyone thinks of him. But what do we do about a Culture Minister who, despite being a Culture Minister, seems to show little appreciation for the breadth and diversity of India’s culture? Ahmed's clock was just a clock, but given his slew of explosive statements, Mahesh Sharma seems to be a ticking time bomb.

#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo--And Here's Why

Je suis Charlie?

Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.

Nothing - no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”

And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.

But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags also elides over the really thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.

Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.

Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

And that’s putting it mildly.

In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.

Let’s make no mistake - these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”

But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the view point being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.

In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.

As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.

In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.

But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.

And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas at Human Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.

A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.

Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France's xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.

And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”

But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.

I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.

#JeSuisCharlie? No, I'm Really Not Charlie Hebdo: Here's Why

Je suis Charlie?

Well, not quite. I really am not Charlie Hebdo.

Nothing - no cartoon, no book, no song – justifies the kind of shooting rampage that happened in Paris. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam of Drancy mosque in Paris says, “These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their souls to hell.”

And he is not talking about the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. He is talking about those who mowed them down and fled.

But the spontaneous outpouring of the #JeSuisCharlie hashtags obscures the thorny issue of free speech. While we want free speech to be absolute, in the real world, it is not. And even as we stand with Charlie Hebdo we cannot pretend not to understand that.

Today, as a tribute to Charlie Hebdo, outlets in India like Mint and NDTV have published a sort of collector’s edition of some of their cartoons. It’s a respectful gesture but it’s also somewhat misleading.

Assuming most readers in India are not regular consumers of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, it gives them a more sanitized, PG-rated impression of their fare. As Jacob Canfield writes in the Hooded Utilitarian, “its cartoons often represent a certain virulently racist brand of French xenophobia. While they generously claim to ‘attack everyone equally’, the cartoons they publish are intentionally ‘anti-Islam’ and frequently sexist and homophobic.”

And that’s putting it mildly.

In reality, some of Charlie Hebdo’s most offensive cartoons would not be published in most parts of the world. Few media outlets would print a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad crouched on all fours with his genitals bared or show the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sodomizing each other. For that matter, most will balk at a cartoon like the one Onion put out showing a Lord Ganesha, Jesus, Moses, and Buddha all naked with erect phalluses having an orgy in the clouds? Now, that’s being equal opportunity offenders but that remains way outside the pale for most of the world. Anyway, in a freedom of expression absolute, it should not matter if you are an equal opportunity offender or a one-sided offender.

Let’s make no mistake - these cartoons are offensive to most people. And they are meant to be that way. They exist almost as a way to test freedom of expression to its limits rather than to make a satirical point. “This is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good,” writes Canfield. “Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist and remains racist.”

But that does not mean they deserved it. Not at all. The true mettle of freedom of expression is always tested against what we consider offensive or hateful or repugnant. That’s where the protection of freedom of expression actually means something. It’s easy to stand up for freedom of expression when we agree with the view point being depicted or do not care about it one way or the other. It gets far trickier when we are called upon to defend the right of someone to say what offends us deeply – whether it’s about our religion, our mothers, or our national leaders. The right to offend always butts up against the right to be offended.

In India, the latter routinely trumps the former. We prescribe to the thumb rule – when in doubt, ban. A publication putting out something like the cartoons Charlie Hebdo was infamous for would be picketed and shut down in double quick time. Our laws protecting “communal harmony” have far more teeth than our laws protecting freedom of expression. That’s why an NDTV or a Mint has to be careful about what images it selects from the Charlie Hebdo cartoons even as it wants to show solidarity.

As much as we might want to say “Charlie Hebdo tum aagey badho, hum tumharey saath hain” we cannot pretend that freedom of expression in India is the same as freedom of expression in France is the same as freedom of expression in the United States.

In an ideal world, the response to a cartoon that offends should be another cartoon. The response to a book that offends should be to not read it. The response to a film that offends could be a #BoycottPK social media campaign.

But the reality is there is no absolute right to free speech.

And yes, we forget that even France, which has become the embattled bastion of freedom of expression today, wears its own limits on its sleeve. Its staunch defense of freedom of expression did not prevent it from passing a ban on the niqab even though it was deliberately veiled as a ban on “clothing intended to conceal the face.” “Bans like these undermine the rights of women who choose to wear the veil and do little to protect anyone compelled to do so, just as laws in other countries forcing women to dress in a particular way undermine their rights,” says Izza Leghtas atHuman Rights Watch. Between April 2011 and February 2014, French law enforcement fined 594 women for wearing the niqab.

A Reuters report points out that many of the cartoonists in Charlie Hebdo got their start in another satirical magazine called Hara Kiri which proclaimed its aim to be “inane and nasty.” That magazine was banned in 1970 after printing a mock death notice for General Charles de Gaulle. Its reincarnation after the ban was as Charlie Hebdo.

Everyone will read the lesson they want into the tragedy in Paris. Some will see it as proof that Muslim immigrants can never be truly French because they do not get what former President Nicholas Sarkozy called an “old French tradition, satire.” Some will see it as evidence of France's xenophobic attitude towards immigrants coming home to roost. Salman Rushdie sees the attack as “the deadly mutation in the heart of Islam” and how “religious totalitarianism combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedom.” Of course, that “threat” is not news in many parts of the world. People being killed in Iraq and Syria by Isis or in Afghanistan by the Taliban have known that for a long long time. It just hits us harder when it hits us in Paris. Or Sydney. Or London.

And very ordinary Muslim immigrants minding their own business will probably bear the brunt of the backlash as Arabs and Sikhs in the US did post-9/11 for as Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo once told Le Monde while defending his right to offend that “when activists need a pretext to justify their violence they will find it.”

But that argument offers us no answers to the knotty question of freedom of expression, an idea to which we all think we subscribe. Those JeSuisCharlie profile pictures on Facebook, perfect little squares all of them, create an image of geometric uniformity as if we subscribe to that right in equal measure. But if anything this tragedy forces us to admit that when it comes to what constitutes freedom of expression, most of us are not even close to being on the same page.

I think of myself as a staunch supporter of freedom of expression but I realize the disquieting truth that I could never publish some of the cartoons Charlie Hebdo did. It would go against every fiber of my being. But I will defend their right to exist and condemn what happened to them with every fiber of my being as well. But I just cannot say #IAmCharlieHebdo.

Why the Nobel Peace Prize is a Red-Faced Moment for Pakistan and India

This may well go down as the Line of Control Nobel Peace Prize.

Even as India and Pakistan talk tough and lob shells at each other across the border, here comes the Nobel Peace Prize committee doing their version of marriage counseling.

A joint Nobel Peace Prize for Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi -- a Pakistani and an Indian. Now if that doesn't embarrass the two belligerent armies into a ceasefire, what can?

The wild celebrations are already breaking out on social media at least. The Aam Aadmi Party has let Sh. Kailash Satyarthi know that “All of India is proud of you.” What AAP didn't say is most of India went “Kailash who?” before they were proud of him.

Chalo. On a day when one India-born Satya (Nadella of Microsoft) covered himself with ignominy and Twitter-shame for his comments about women in tech, another Satyarthi has redeemed our national honour. Satyameva jayate one way or the other.

But even as we puff up with pride we have to admit that this award is rather embarrassing on both sides of the border albeit for different reasons. It's a bit of a rude shock for most Indians to realise they know way more about the Pakistani Nobel winner than they do about their own home-grown one. Malala on the other hand gets a lot of coverage in India because the West has already turned her into a global icon. And as Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy know western attention automatically translates into fame at home as well.

We know about the Narmada Bachao Andolan but few Indians know about the Bachpan Bachao Andolan and fewer still about Kailash Satyarthi and that includes many of us in the media including this sheepish writer. We are righteously aghast at the Taliban's brutal attempts to prevent a girl from getting an education in Pakistan, and laud Malala's guts but Satyarthi too has faced risks to his life trying to rescue trafficked children from factories. But we are inured to the child slavery in our midst because it's so ubiquitous from tea shops to carpet factories. Three quarters of domestic workers in India are believed to be between the ages of 12 and 16 and 90% of them are girls. The Indian government's 2001 census says 12.6 million minors between the age of 5 and 14 are in the workforce. When a fifteen-year-old is rescued from Vasant Kunj with bite marks and head wounds infested with maggots and says she was kept naked by her mistress so she would not escape we call her a “maid” but in reality she is a “slave”.

Child slavery in India for most of us is one of the myriad “jholawalla” problems that's keeping the country down. Who knew that within that field there exists someone the committee found Nobel-worthy? Some will see in this Nobel, after the initial euphoria has died down, as yet more proof of a vast conspiracy to keep the international image of India as poor, ragged and starving as opposed to prospering, aspiring and Madison-Square-gardening.

But the larger embarrassment is while we rebuke a Maria Sharapova for the temerity of not knowing who Sachin Tendulkar is, we have been caught with our pants down as we desperately Google our first 100% pucca desi Nobel Peace prize winner. (Dr Rajendra Pachauri won in 2007 but it was really the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which he was chairing.)

But Indians can console themselves, as they often do, by looking across the border and saying the Pakistanis have it worse. We can be embarrassed about not knowing our Nobel laureate but at least we didn't drive our Nobel laureate out of the country to Birmingham.

For Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai's award hardly covers the country in glory. It really reiterates a horrible shocking and festering reality - the simple act of trying to get an education can get a girl shot in the head.

When Malala Yousafzai got the 2013 Ambassador of Conscience award she said she had written a short speech because she had to finish her homework. She said “With this powerful weapon of knowledge and education, we can fight against wars, terrorism, child labour and inequality” thereby unwittingly joining cause with Satyarthi's mission long before this joint Nobel. Now the Nobel has joined them together formally.

We may choose on both sides of the border to regard these Nobels as a way of humiliating our respective nations by only seeing our ugliest problems. Or we may regard the prize as a shining light on what should be a blight on our collective conscience.

That choice, and that challenge is up to us. As Satyarthi tweeted when Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister:
A tea-boy dares his detractors by becoming the PM of India. Now it's his turn to ensure that no child is forced to become a child labourer.

That didn't make news. He was just another jholawalla NGO-type then though the issue of child slavery was as unconscionable then as it is now. But perhaps now that we have all Googled him we will take him more seriously today.

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America’s Newest Public Enemy No1: The Humble Pressure Cooker

When I went to the United States for the first time, long before 9/11, I wondered if immigration officials would harass me, a single young man from a turbulent part of the world. I didn’t have to worry. Customs officials and their formidable sniffing dogs were much more interested in middle-aged Indian women. They rifled through the contents of the bursting-at-the-seams suitcase of a lady who could have been my aunt. In those days the “illegal immigrant” America was most nervous about a forbidden mango or a sneaky parwal.

September 11 changed everything. Soon shoes were suspect. Cosmetic bags were viewed as booby traps. Even the clearest liquids and gels signalled danger in an America that was permanently colour-coded threat level orange. And men with beards and brown complexions and Muslim names found themselves regularly pulled aside for questioning.

Now after the Boston bombings we enter confront the newest marker of the dangerous other – beware the pressure cooker.

Talal al Rouki, a Saudi student in Michigan found the FBI suddenly surrounding his house. Officers said a woman had called them because she had seen him carrying a “bullet coloured” pressure cooker out of his apartment.

The young man told the FBI he was cooking a traditional rice dish called the kabsah which he was taking to a friend’s house. 

“You need to be more careful moving around with such things, sir,” an FBI agent told al Rouki.

Indian mothers need to be more careful too in a jittery America. A Hawkins or Prestige pressure cooker has long been part of the must-have go-to-America-kit for any self-respecting desi student. The only question was how many liters – 2, 3, 5? I never took one with me when I went there, not because my mother was extraordinarily foresighted but because she was sure I’d make an absent-minded mess of it without her on-the-spot supervision.

However the hiss and whistle of a pressure cooker has always been the signature sound of apartment complexes filled with H1B families as much a marker of desi-dom as Subbulakshmi singing Suprabhatam. “The whistle is not working” is a domestic crisis on par with a lost green card. In Kolkata, my abiding memory of Sunday morning, is the pressure cooker whistling in kitchens around the neighbourhood – promising a Sunday lunch of goat curry and rice. In a country where it is hard for grown children to tell their mothers “I love you” and vice versa, we make do by asking “How many whistles?” the sharing of that pressure cooker wisdom as sure a sign of love as any Hallmark card.

The South Asian love affair with the pressure cooker is legendary though it was invented by a Frenchman. The blog TiffinCarrierAntiques hails the stainless steel workhorse of the Indian kitchen for being mother’s little helper in managing the “patriarchal expectations of a ‘complete Indian meal’” – a fairly impossible task which “would have been Herculean without the humble pressure cooker.”

Now thanks to the brothers Tsarnaev, the workhorse of the Indian kitchen is being viewed as the Trojan horse of America, its hiss more ominous than comforting. Swati on the blog WhistlingPressureCooker.com remembers how the pressure cooker saved her during Hurricane Irene in 2011.

(W)hen the electricity failed and the shiny, contemporary convection stove and oven beneath it at my in-laws’ house in Rhode Island were rendered useless, I cooked chicken tikka masala and rice in my pressure cooker over our tiny gas camping stove. Instead of ripening deli meat sandwiches made with stale bread, my in-laws and I ate a fresh, piping hot curry.

Now she writes of her dismay at the end of innocence as she sets her caramel custard in her trusty pressure cooker.

"(T)hat a pressure cooker could be used for anything other than cooking tasty food fast had never crossed my mind. I now feel nervous professing my love for my pressure cookers, and pressure cookers in general, openly."

Swati might be well-advised to change the name of her blog before the FBI comes knocking at her door. But one could also argue the Swatis of the world have been in blissful denial. As Praveen Swami points out in Firstpost, the pressure cooker has been cooking terror for a long time:

"In India, the Indian Mujahideen’s urban terror networks have used pressure cookers on several occasions—starting with the attack on Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market in 2005. Pressure cookers were also used in the 2006 attacks on a temple in Varanasi and the Mumbai’s train system; again, they were used to in the recent Dilsukh Nagar bombing in Hyderabad. On other occasions, though, the group has used steel milk cans and flour-boxes."

But Indians take the pressure cooker’s dark side in their stride. You can still get onto a bus or a train with your pressure cooker without everyone clearing the compartment.

In America it’s a different story. But it should not come as a surprise. Soon after 9/11, the Shaikh family of Pennsylvania found secret agents in moon suits and gas masks going through the spice cabinets in their kitchen after neighbours spotted them carrying a large pot of biryani into their friend’s home.

At that time I had written:

Multiculturalism was supposed to take care of this fear of the other. But despite Diwali greetings to Hindus from the White House and International Day at school, in the end, multiculturalism has proven to be just a cute, fancy dress party. If it has really made a dent on how we conceive what it means to be American, it hasn’t trickled down to the Shaikh family’s biryani… Multiculturalism might have made the foreign a little more familiar. It certainly did not make it any more American.

Now we find the pressure cooker has remained resolutely un-American as well – the shining symbol of diversity that needs to be hidden at home, not carried out into the yard. Perhaps some enterprising pressure cooking enthusiast will embark on a Take Back the Pressure Cooker whistlestop tour of America to restore its lost shine.

Until then you have to careful moving around pressure cookers in America these days. Guns, not so much.

    Wikipedia’s Sexist Turn: Men Are Novelists, Women Are ‘Women Novelists’

    At 5:44 PM on April 1, John Pack Lambert, a 32-year-old student of history at Wayne State University took a small step for one man which proved to be a giant leap for mankind.

    And I mean MANkind, not humanity.

    Lambert moved Patricia Aakhus, author of The Voyage of Mael Duin’s Curragh from American novelists to the category American women novelists.

    Two minutes later, teen romance author Hailey Abbott suffered the same fate.

    Then Megan Abbott.

    At 8:51 PM Lambert, the one-man army to engender order in the universe, created a new category, Nigerian women novelists and put Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie there.

    James Gleick’s account in the New York Review of Books of how Wikipedia fell into the great gender gap is a riveting read, a sort of detective story for category-geeks. (Read the full storyhere).

    The next day Lambert was briefly sidetracked by a discussion of whether there should be a Category:Jeans enthusiasts (for “celebrities and famous people who are always wearing or frequently spotted wearing jeans”), but then he got back to work and A. L. Kennedy, till then a Scottish novelist, became a Scottish woman novelist. On April 3 he created a category for Greek women screenwriters; so far it has only one member.

    The rest of the world cried “Sexism.” Leading the charge was Amanda Filipacci, one of the women writers who suddenly found herself banished to the ante-chamber while the men hogged the living room. (Sounds like an old-fashioned Indian wedding.)

    Filipacci complained in a post on The New York Times:

    People who go to Wikipedia to get ideas for whom to hire, or honor, or read, and look at that list of “American Novelists” for inspiration, might not even notice that the first page of it includes far more men than women. They might simply use that list without thinking twice about it. It’s probably small, easily fixable things like this that make it harder and slower for women to gain equality in the literary world.

    Even Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales was gobsmacked. In a post titled WTH, he wrote:

    My first instinct is that surely these stories are wrong in some important way. Can someone update me on where I can read the community conversation about this? Did it happen? How did it happen?

    Lambert stoutly defended himself to Gleick. “This whole hullabaloo is really missing the point,” he said. “The people who are making a big deal about this are not being up-front about what happens if we do not diffuse categories.”

    Diffuse is geek-speak for moving things from a parent category to a sub-category. American novelist, said Lambert was just too big to be useful. “It is really a holding ground for people who have yet to be categorized into a more specific sub-cat,” said a user called Obi-Wan Kenobi. “It’s not some sort of club that you have to be a part of.”

    May the force be with Obi-Wan Kenobi but really? If that’s the case why not move the men out to Male American novelists? There was a proposal to do that. It got shot down fast. That is our problem in a nutshell. We categorize by minority and therefore it’s hard to escape bias.

    So after The New York Review of Books (again!) scooped all the big pubs by tracking down the mysterious Misha, the so-called Svengali alleged to have “radicalized” the brothers Tsarnaev, many commenters complained that he was described as half-Armenian. Why not describe him as half-Ukrainian complained angry readers, probably Armenians.

    On the flip side, Indian American publications routinely complain that Kamala Harris is described as California’s first African American Attorney General when she is also its first Indian-American Attorney General.

    But Wikipedia’s women problem is different. It’s not about the clumsiness of describing Kamala Harris as California’s first female African American Indian American attorney general. Like much of the online world Wikipedia has a gender gap. But as it has become the default go-to site for information, its gender gap is showing in embarrassing ways.

    In 2011, Noam Cohen wrote in The New York Times that the contributor base was barely 13 percent women. That means there’s gender bias that shows up in the very act of deciding what topic is worthy of meriting a wiki entry and how long it is.

    A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

    For example, during the royal wedding in 2011, Wikipedia members debated furiously about whether Kate Middleton’s dress deserved an entry. Wiki founder Wales thought it did because it had more social and cultural interest than “100 articles on different Linux distributions, some of them quite obscure… and (they have) virtually no impact on the broader culture.”

    Well intentioned, I am sure. But a problematic example to use to try and fix a real gender problem. As one reader said at that time:

    “I really see this idea that keeping this article does something to remedy the gender imbalance here to be facile at best and insulting at worst.”

    Pardon me, Wiki, but your slip is showing.

    It’s a knotty problem that goes beyond one OCD history student. How do you create categories without creating hierarchies? Especially given the fact that a “gay writer” is happy to claim a Lambda award given out for LGBT writing and a woman politician is grateful for support that comes her way thanks to a group like Emily’s List which wants to encourage women in politics. But neither want those honours to disqualify them from being “writer” or “politician.”

    The problem is not one of the categories you belong to but the ones you don’t – this idea that somehow a woman American writer is not an American writer as well.

    So in the world according to Wikipedia Maya Angelou belongs to 20th century women writers, African-American memoirists, African-American women poets, African American writers, American Activists, American dramatists and playwrights, American people of Sierre Leonean descent – everything but 20th century writer.

    But the first categories Salman Rushdie belongs to are 20th century novelists and 21st century novelists.

    Until Wikipedia understands that the difference between the two entries is not just one of ordering but of perspective, it’s doomed to keep falling face first into the gender gap.

    Life of Pi Presents an Imperfect Slice of India

    I don’t think I spotted a cow but I might have missed it because I was too focused on the orang utan and the zebra and the hyena and the Royal Bengal tiger.

    The meandering cow, such the stock character of the ‘realistic’ Hollywood film set in India, seems thankfully missing in Life of Pi. There is a goat but it does have an important cameo to play in film instead of just adding local “gee whiz we are in India” colour. In fact if you are an Indian, and a vegetarian, as many Indians are, be warned before you rush out to see this film. This film should come with a statutory warning – not for the squeamish vegetarian.

    The colour and visual spendour of India tends to overwhelm any film that is set in India. And Life of Pi is no exception. Ang Lee pretty much admits as much to DNA when he says “the country overwhelms you, with the warmth, the culture and its beauty”.
     
    Even in the hands of a director as astute as him, India feels over saturated, wide-eyed and eye-popping, prone to fortune cookie maxim. It’s a striking contrast to the richly detailed but so much more atmospheric Shanghai he created for Lust, Caution. That felt epic and intimate at the same time. This India feels Amar Chitra Katha – bold colours without much shading.

    The book was widely regarded as unfilmable but author Yann Martel has said he never thought so. “The novel is full of contrast colours: the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the brown boy, the orange and black tiger, the green island,” he told Hollywood Reporter. “And India is very visual.”

    “It’s a very spiritual and fascinating country. It’s also very inspiring and colourful,” Ang Lee told TOI. But the India portion takes its Technicolor too literally. It feels weighed down by its own big fat marigold garlands. The conversations at the dining table are strangely stilted. Mama-ji’s oddball Peter Sellers routine is astounding, as in astoundingly anachronistically bad. And the whirlwind tour of Hinduism feels like a National Geographic special with some little-baby-Krishna bedtime tales and a thousand flickering diyas. And every homily is hammered home with a sledgehammer.

    The problem is, as audience members, we are not being made to feel as if we are in India. Instead, we constantly feel that we are looking at India. But this is not a Passage to India film. Pi lives in India. He is supposedly so at home here he does not want to emigrate to Canada for a better life. But the film isn’t at home in India. It’s still stuck in a discovery of India mode. We are more forgiving of films like Pi because it’s mostly about Incredible India as opposed to Slumdog India but it’s an outsider’s gaze either way.

    Martel disagrees.

    “I like how they lingered on India,” he said. “They could’ve hurried through that and focused on the Pacific. It’s so visually stunning. It’s rare to have India portrayed in cinema — despite it being an economy of a billion people, it’s quite rare to have it shown in the screen as it is.”

    But really it’s only when the film leaves behind the heat and dust of “visually stunning” India and moves to the open seas that it finally takes off for me. Then it’s a story of a boy and a tiger, man and nature and the film relaxes and feels at home even though both of its characters are out of their element in the middle of a vast ocean.

    I stop being jarred by the hotch potch of accents. I stop wondering why people who should be normally speaking to each other in Tamil in Pondicherry are speaking strangely accented English instead as if they were all in Spoken English class. And I stop being annoyed by an array of characters, whether it’s swimming champion Mama-ji or the dancing school teacher, delivering their lines as if dredging up the wisdom of the ancients because we in India are just so in touch with our hoary cultural heritage we cannot say “pass the curry” without sounding like we are sharing a valuable nugget from the Rig Veda.

    Its India connection is what makes Life of Pi of such interest to Indians. “It’s a masterpiece!! So much Tamil in it!! Don’t miss it,” gushed AR Rahman recently on a social networking site. But the book (and the film) is set in India by accident. Martel just happened to be here for six months in 1997 working on another novel that did not happen. The spark that gave rise to Pi came from a Brazilian novella about a castaway and a jaguar. He then added India to the mix because, as he told Outlook, “India lends itself very well to such a story because it has a lot of animals and a lot of religions.” So let’s not get carried away. This is not Octopussy but it’s not the “India as it is” that Martel thinks it is. The story is a twist on the classic immigrant story – about a boy who leaves home (which happens to be India) and then ends up, not in America or Canada or London, but in the middle of nowhere. That’s the real story and the far more interesting one.

    “We will sail like Columbus,” says Pi’s father enthusiastically while announcing the decision to move to Canada.

    Pi, dejected at the thought of leaving Pondicherry, responds, “But Columbus was looking for India.”

    So it seems is Hollywood. Even when it is in India, it is still looking for India.

    Economist Fears Historic Loss of Assets for Minorities

    Editor's Note: The current economic downturn could lead to the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened, says Alan Fisher, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition since 1992, which advocates for the right of low-income communities and communities of color to have fair and equal access to banking and other financial services. Alan Fisher was interviewed by NAM Editor and host of UpFront, Sandip Roy.

    Whether we call it a recession or not, what's the effect of what's happening in the economy on the low-income communities who are part of your coalition?

    I think low-income people and people of color have been struggling for many years now. The "recovery" has not helped them. Recent reports say that income levels for families are the same dollar-wise as they were in 2000, which means they are worth much less now. Food prices are going up, gas prices are going up and we have a huge housing crisis.

    How many people are impacted by the housing crisis?

    The housing crisis doesn't just impact those who are in the homes that are in trouble -- who in California may be half a million households -- but it impacts all of their neighbors and their city. Their neighbors' houses lose value, as their houses lose value. The cities are losing tax base, our whole state has been relying on home sales to keep going. The state says it has an $18 billion deficit in a fiscal year that ends June 30. I think we are in a deep crisis and whatever the economists may call it, regular people are suffering and having great difficulty.

    Can you give an example of how regular people are suffering and what are the first signs of recession in these communities?

    I think the signs of recession are people having to cut back on the basic things that they buy, on less meat, not being able to buy clothes for their children -- but much of this has been masked because of easy access to credit cards. Many people are in huge debt on their credit cards and have substituted those, or have taken out payday loans, to try to keep going. So, it's a dangerous situation that's been masked by the wealth of the most wealthy -- corporate profits -- while the people who are our neighbors are in tremendous trouble.

    But wouldn't something like a recession rip this mask off, with the way people have been relying on credit cards and payday lenders to get by?

    I think, whether we call it a recession or not, that it would be something that happens as people are unable to pay their credit card bills, as people are being forced to go into bankruptcy. With the new bankruptcy laws, it's even more punitive. Yet at the same time bankruptcies are going up.

    Homelessness is also on the rise. There are many people who are tenants in homes, and if those homes are foreclosed on, then, even though they pay their rent every month, they are forced out. They don't get their security deposit back, and where do they go to look for housing? Rental prices are going up, so it's a tremendous squeeze on families.

    There has been so much coverage of homeowners, but we haven't seen much on what has been the impact of the economic downturn on tenants.

    I think we are just beginning to hear that. It's sort of hidden because you don't see it in the same aggregated fashion. We know it's happening; we're hearing it more and more. We're hearing from homeless organizations that it's impacting folks that are becoming homeless, but there are no numbers at this point that I know of.

    Are you seeing a new profile of homeless people? Are homeless organizations reporting on new kinds of people who are becoming homeless and are coming to them for help?

    I think it's just starting, so I haven't heard that yet. I've heard concerns about tenants and we've tried to get state legislature to do something about tenants, but the opposition from the mortgage industry and the bankers pushed it out of the bill.

    Why are the mortgage industries opposing measures about tenants?

    Because they want the houses, they want people out immediately, and they want to try to sell them again and recoup their money. As you can see from the Bear Stearns rescue, the concern is about the corporations at the federal level because of campaign financing. So no one cares that people are being forced out of their homes because these people aren't the big contributors; they might be written off as not even voting.

    Where else would you be looking for to see the cracks, the great pressures that communities are going to be subjected to as result of the downturn?

    What's caught my eye is that the city of Vallejo, Calif. almost went bankrupt, and it's still on the edge of that. They went bankrupt because they were paying their workers a decent wage. The governor took away the vehicle tax money when he first came into office, which meant that police and fire -- the most basic things that every city needs to have -- got cut.

    You hear about libraries that are being closed down. They're talking about closing the parks; education and health care are being cut back by the governor. I think it's the whole infrastructure of society that's under attack. In a way, it's so large that it's hard for people even to take in what it means.

    With the foreclosure crisis, for example, I've heard that one of the interesting things was that it was affecting both African-American communities and Latino communities really hard, but in different ways. African Americans were being affected mostly because they were existing homeowners who had refinanced their homes, not understanding the terms. For Latinos it was more of a language issue. First-time buyers had locked themselves into mortgages that they were not going to be able to pay. The results were the same -- both of them were losing homes -- but the way they were getting there was different. In cases of the economic downturn and recession, do you see that affecting different communities differently?

    I think, as you are saying, the reasons for things may be different. The Asian-American and Pacific-Islander community -- the Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans may be coming to home ownership later, like Latinos. It will have a broad impact, but I think each community is different in how it's going on.

    But I know it's generally agreed that there's tremendous concern that this could be the greatest loss of assets for communities of color that's ever happened. We've all seen an increase in home ownership, but it was filled with fraud and greed on the part of the real estate industry and so people are in trouble now.

    These communities are also reliant on payday lenders, especially poor communities, and I know your organization studies that. Have you seen any spike in payday lender abuse as a result of this downturn?

    One of the difficulties with all of the statistics is that they're late. So, all we know about really is last year and that doesn't show a huge increase. But we are hearing that people are increasingly going to payday lenders, which are the lenders of last resort. We have a bill that we hope can make it through the legislature, to cap their interest rates.

    The Federal Reserve has been taking some steps to avoid foreclosures; the state government is doing something. How would you grade their efforts?

    I think the state government, the Federal Reserve, the federal legislature, the federal government are all making efforts that will have no large impact on the homeowner. Clearly, the federal government and the Federal Reserve had looked at large corporations and are concerned about that infrastructure. The predictions, which are probably very low, are that two million people could lose their homes. There's nothing that's comparable to that and many of the bills that would have really made a difference have been cut back in the legislature. There was an effort to try and soften the impact of bankruptcy on people, and that was soundly defeated by the corporate interests. There's been nothing that really can help people, and meanwhile thousands of people are losing their homes every week.

    The Truth About Guantanamo

    As one of the U.S. Army's few Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee thought he was serving both God and country at Guantanamo Bay. But in September 2003, two days after receiving an excellent evaluation, Chaplain Yee was arrested, charged with espionage and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. When he left the Army in 2005 after all charges were dropped, he received a medal. He recounts his journey from Muslim American poster boy to "enemy of the state" in his memoir, "For God and Country." Yee was interviewed by Sandip Roy.

    Sandip Roy: As chaplain at Guantanamo Bay you served not just the soldiers but also 660 prisoners. What did you have to do for them?

    Captain Yee: I was an advisor to the command on the unique religious paradigm in Guantanamo, where all the prisoners are Muslim. I had open access to them and I would talk to them daily, understand their concerns and relay that information to the command so some of the tensions in the cell block between soldiers and prisoners could be relieved.

    Donald Rumsfeld has called the prisoners some of the "worst of the worst." How did you find them?

    I disagree with that characterization. Clearly many of them are innocent. At least three were between 12 and 14. There are a dozen Uighurs from western China. Some of them have been deemed to be not enemy combatants by the Pentagon's own review board but still haven't been released.

    I saw prisoners who were so despondent they would no longer eat. At least two were permanently in the hospital being force-fed through a tube. One prisoner attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.

    There were also mass suicide attempts. A prisoner would attempt suicide, the guards would unlock his cell and take him down, and the medics would come. Fifteen minutes later another prisoner would attempt suicide, and this would go on for hours. They were demanding the commanding general apologize for the abuse of the Koran.

    Did you see any abuse?

    As a chaplain I was able to ensure some things like halal meals, the call to prayer, the painted arrow pointing to Mecca. But the Koran was desecrated. In the conduct of searches, it often ended up ripped. There were confirmed incidents where interrogators threw the Koran on the floor and stepped on it.

    When the Newsweek report about the Koran desecration outraged the entire Muslim world, the Pentagon responded by showing that there was a policy in place that gave proper guidance on how to correctly handle the Koran. What the Pentagon never said was that the chaplain they had accused of spying and threatened with the death penalty was the one who authored that policy.

    The government says the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, but you write that's not how it felt on most days at Guantanamo.

    There was really strong anti-Muslim hostility directed not just toward the prisoners but also to the patriotic Muslim Americans serving there. I wasn't the only one singled out. Two others were arrested around the same time.

    But was this the bigotry of a few bad apples, or more pervasive?

    The commanding general told me he had enormous anger toward "those Muslims" who carried out the attacks on 9/11. When new soldiers came to Guantanamo they were given a briefing that seemed to indicate the 660 prisoners there planned and carried out 9/11. E-mails referred to Muslims as "ragheads." Muslim personnel who attended services on Friday were sometimes called "Hamas."

    What do you think triggered the suspicions about you?

    The Muslim personnel pray five times a day, bowing and prostrating just like the prisoners. We read the Koran in Arabic just like the prisoners. To some over-zealous, inexperienced and bigoted few, we were some kind of subversive sleeper cell.

    But my ethnicity also played a role. I found out that someone had said, "Who the hell does this Chinese Taliban think he is, telling us how to treat our prisoners?"

    When you were arrested were you subject to the same things the prisoners had complained about?

    I was transferred to the consolidated naval brig in Charleston (S.C.), where U.S. citizen enemy combatants are held. I was shackled in three places -- wrists, waist and ankles. They put the blackened goggles on my eyes so I couldn't see anything and heavy industrial earmuffs on my ears so I couldn't hear anything. That's how prisoners are transported from Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

    Were you afraid you would just disappear?

    When I heard the accusations I thought they were absurd and would be cleared in a matter of days, if not hours. It became much more frightening when I heard I was being taken to some undisclosed location. Nobody knew where I was. My parents and family were not informed. My wife and daughter were in fact waiting for me at the airport to come pick them up. I never showed up. I essentially disappeared for 10 days.

    Did the military learn something from the experience?

    My experience has worked to undermine the efforts in fighting the war on terrorism. What the world saw was if a U.S. citizen could not get a fair look under U.S. military justice, what makes anyone think that foreign prisoners in Guantanamo are going to get a fair shake?

    Now that you are out, what do you want? An apology?

    When I separated from the military in January 2005, I received an honorable discharge and another army commendation, but I didn't receive that apology. Now I, my family and supporters, and several congressmen are awaiting the result of an investigation that the Department of Defense inspector general agreed to take on as to how it really was that I, Capt. James Yee, landed in prison for 76 days, being accused of these heinous crimes and being threatened with the death penalty. We are all looking forward to the results of that investigation -- and a well deserved apology.

    A Mountain Tsunami in Kashmir

    Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali. The Kashmiri poet died in 2001. Only he, the self-exiled poet from what he called "the country without a post office," could have made sense of the irony of an earthquake that in one mocking fissure kicked the "Line of Control" between India and Pakistan into rubble.

    Though it rocked aquariums in New Delhi and collapsed buildings in Islamabad, the earthquake's real punch was reserved for Kashmir, the contested Himalayan territory over which both Indian and Pakistan have fought wars and which remains an emotional minefield for both sides, almost six decades after independence.

    Pakistani newspapers describe the death toll in "Indian-held Kashmir." The Indian dailies talk about the devastation in "POK" or "Pakistan Occupied Kashmir." But looking at the pictures it's hard to tell from which side of the line of control they come. As Agha Shahid Ali wrote, "In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other's reflections."

    I long for his poet's eye to make sense of the omens and symbols of this "mountain tsunami." It came while the Muslims were observing Ramadan. The Hindus were celebrating Durga Puja when the mother goddess comes home from her Himalayan abode.

    What symbolism does one read into reports that the earthquake shattered two piers of Aman Setu (Peace Bridge), a key bridge joining the two parts of Kashmir and over which the Srinagar-Muzaffarbad bus was supposed to ply in a fragile gesture of peacemaking? There is very little possibility of the bus plying on the route on its next scheduled date on October 20, a defense spokesman told the Press Trust of India, according to Rediff.com.

    It would have been a brave, romantic omen of peace if the bridge had withstood the quake which took with it at least 50 soldiers. But perhaps peace can spring yet from the rubble? Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quick to offer "any assistance with rescue and relief which you may deem appropriate" to Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf, while gracious, demurred, saying it was "sensitive."

    While people still remained buried under houses and hillsides, few were talking about peace. The Pakistani Daily News International quoted a shopkeeper in "held" Kashmir as saying "(India) helped America after Katrina but there is no help for us from Delhi." Meanwhile the Hindu has a headline saying starkly, "Pak Rules Out Joint Relief Ops."

    But editorials in other Pakistani newspapers like Dawn complained "the government's ability to cope with such a catastrophe was found extremely wanting." The Hindustan Times in India lectured the Indian government saying, "It is one thing to talk about 'disaster management' and quite another to practise it." It was probably cold comfort for either editorialist to notice that neither New Delhi nor Islamabad was quite prepared for the "big one" despite living near the fault-line where the subcontinent is slamming into Asia to produce the still-growing Himalayas.

    But there were steps forward. The two foreign secretaries spoke for the first time over a recently activated hotline that the two armies said they might use to coordinate rescue operations. And the Greater Kashmir newspaper reported that the Mutahida Jihad Council, an umbrella organization of 14 militant outfits based in Muzaffarabad, has decided to suspend operations in the quake-hit areas and instead urged its cadres to help the victims. On an email list I subscribe to, one poster wondered if the quake and the landslide had managed to do what no one else seemed to have had the guts for -- bury Osama bin Laden in his hiding place in the mountains of the Northwestern Frontier Province. I wonder what he thought as the world shook around him.

    There is one other person I thought of when I read the news of the 7.6 temblor. Shenaz Kausar, a citizen of Pakistan-controlled Jammu and Kashmir, jumped into a river in 1995 to commit suicide. Instead she washed up on the Indian side, where she was arrested as a spy. Raped by the prison guard, she had a daughter. In 2001 the Indians tried to repatriate mother and daughter back to Pakistan, but the border guards refused to accept the child, an Indian citizen. Both returned and the Indian government, unsure what to do, invoked the Public Safety Act and threw them back into jail until a crusading lawyer got them freed.

    Did Shenaz Kausar's daughter with her star-crossed bloodlines have the last laugh today, as the earth split into two to show, as Agha Shahid Ali wrote, that we are stitched to each other's shadows?

    Today I miss Agha Shahid Ali amid the ruins of a Paradise Lost. But I still hear him say with the kind of prescience only a poet can have:

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