Sunday, 20 February 2011

A Question For Swamination S Anklesaria Aiyar re: Dumping Opium in Afghanistan

Renowned journalist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar addresses an interesting question in his Times of India column. According to Aiyar, “one reason for the Taliban’s resilience in Afghanistan is the big money they make from the opium trade.” Destroying the poppy crop hasn’t worked. Neither have other options such as getting pro-western mullahs to denounce opium as unIslamic or promoting grapes, saffron and high-yielding wheat as alternatives to poppy.

How does one cut off the Taliban's revenues from drugs? Aiyar says that “since all proposed remedies so far have failed, we need to think out of the box and come up with a totally new approach. Forget any military or religious approach to the problem. Instead, let us understand what the laws of supply and demand imply in the opium context.” Aiyar goes on to put forth an ‘out-of-the-box’ solution. Which is to dump opium in Afghanistan. As a result, “Afghan opium prices will crash and farmers will turn to other crops.” Will it really?

Let’s see if we understand this. The idea is to cut off the Taliban’s source of funding and not that of poppy cultivators in Afghanistan. To quote Aiyar, “the Taliban levy a tax on Afghan farmers and also buy opium to be processed and smuggled abroad.” Afghan opium is smuggled into Iran either directly or through Pakistan. Middle-men take over and send it to Turkey and various Central Asian countries where it is processed into heroin. The processed heroin then makes its way to Europe and the USA. If opium is dumped in Afghanistan, it may reduce opium prices in Afghanistan. The Taliban will have to spend less money to buy the opium which they ship to Iran. How does that cut-off the Taliban’s source of revenue? On the contrary, the Taliban stand to make a handsome profit since it will cost them less to buy the opium they smuggle into Iran and Pakistan and sell to drug dealers there.

Let’s assume the dumping continues for many years. During this time the Taliban continues to make money hand-over-fist. Afghan farmers stopping cultivating poppies and switch to grapes or saffron. The US then stops dumping opium in Afghanistan and then what happens? Won’t the demand for opium cause Afghan farmers to re-start poppy cultivation?

If the Taliban are clever, they could also buy the opium dumped in Afghanistan and hoard it rather than sell it to drug dealers elsewhere so that prices don’t collapse. When the US gets tired of dumping opium, the Taliban could start selling the hoarded opium in easy stages, so that prices remain stable.

More importantly, how does one dump opium in Afghanistan? Is the US army expected to set up way-side stalls to sell opium at prices below market value? Or will CIA agents be expected to contact intermediaries who will discreetly offer the opium to the Taliban at cheap rates? In other words, who will bell the cat?

I don’t wish to belittle Aiyar and I should confess that I am not an economist. However, the issue raised by Aiyar is one that interests me greatly and the suggested solution doesn’t appear to hold water.

Aiyar suggests a second alternative. Aiyar says that “an alternative strategy could be for the US to legalize drug use. Once heroin becomes legal , its street price will plummet, and so will the Afghan price. However, political and religious opposition to legalizing drug use in the US is very strong.” I fully agree with Aiyar on this.

A third solution mentioned by Aiyar, but dismissed by him is to have ”the US to buy the entire poppy crop in Afghanistan, and then destroy it.” In my opinion, this is the only solution which even comes close to cutting off funding for the Taliban. Buying opium from the Afghan farmer will not wean him off poppies, but the Taliban will not make money by buying opium from farmers and smuggling it to Iran. However, Aiyar feels this approach will not work since it is contrary to the laws of economics. “Today, the Afghan poppy crop is grown mainly in southern provinces like Helmand. If the US or some medical council tries to buy up Helmand’s poppy production, opium will become scarce in the black market and prices will skyrocket. This will induce other provinces to take up poppy cultivation. Indeed, cultivation will also spread rapidly to neighbouring countries (Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan , Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the resultant opium will be smuggled into Afghanistan. The Taliban will, of course, profit handsomely from this illicit trade. Basic economics says that any strategy that makes opium scarce will fail, since it will encourage further cultivation. The solution lies in increasing the supply of opium so greatly that its price crashes, making cultivation unprofitable.”

If the US army in Afghanistan were to openly buy opium from farmers, whichever part of Afghanistan they may be in, and destroy it, the Taliban will not be able to play a role in the drug trade. The price of street heroin in the West will temporarily skyrocket, though the shortfall in supply will soon be met by drug dealers in Central America or Central Asia or the Golden Triangle (around Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand) and prices will stabilise. I repeat: This solution, which is dismissed by Aiyar, will work to a limited extent. Furthermore, it is the only feasible solution on the table, short of legalising drug use in the West. Some opium may be smuggled back into Afghanistan for domestic consumption since Afghanistan has many drug addicts, but it is silly to say that if the US army buys up all available opium in Afghanistan, opium will be smuggled into Afghanistan from neighbouring countries for sale to the Taliban, who will then smuggle it back to Iran or Pakistan or Central Asia.

Another solution which occurs to me (taking a leaf out of Aiyar’s book) would be to dump opium in Iran and Pakistan, instead of in Afghanistan as suggested by Aiyar. If the CIA can make very cheap opium available to good, able and honest drug traffickers in Iran and Pakistan (and may be even throw in some heroin processing units for free), the Taliban will not find buyers for the opium they procure from Afghan farmers. This would cut off the funding for the Taliban and also force Afghan farmers to cultivate something else. Goodbye for now and let me go back to my pipe.

Monday, 14 February 2011

"Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret world of Bombay’s Dance Bars" by Sonia Faleiro – Book Review

Most Mumbaikars know what a dance bar is. Some of the male connoisseurs living in Mumbai will even know what’s to be found inside one. Until August 2005, dance bars had young women dance to catchy Bollywood songs, with male customers, fortified with booze and mini-bites, cheering them on and throwing currency notes at the ones who caught their fancy. Many pretty girls from all over India, usually from impoverished backgrounds and with little education, made good money dancing at such bars. After a sanctimonious politician banned, on dubious moral grounds, dancing in ‘eating places or permit rooms or beer bars – all synonyms for dance bars – that were rated three stars or less,’ thousands of such dancers went out of business.

Beautiful Thing is a work of non-fiction, which, in neat and nice prose, inseparably intertwined with the barwali’s slang, explores the world of dance bars and the women who work in such dance bars. Sonia Faleiro, a reporter who at one time was based in Mumbai, has done something which very few journalists or writers have done before. Dancers at dance bars are not exactly easy to befriend, nor are they open about their lives. Faleiro has not only befriended a few dancers, their friends and families and got them all talking, but has also done extensive research into the wiring behind dance bars, their owners, their customers, the underworld which controls them, the policemen who take protection money from their owners. Affiliated businesses such as brothels, illegal ‘discos’ where girls dance half-naked, beer parlours where patrons get hand-jobs from women not good enough for the brothel, and the like can also be found under Faleiro’s canvass. Altogether, one gets a vivid picture of a large cross-section the flesh-trade that goes on in Mumbai.

The picture painted by Faleiro may be vivid, but it’s not pretty. In fact, it is downright grim. Faleiro tells us the story of the dance bars through dancing girl Leela, her family and her friends. It’s a tale of beatings and self-abuse, where families sell their daughters to pimps and bar owners so that they may be fed, one where prostitutes are raped by their own sons, girls are raped by their cousins and mothers steal from their daughters who work as bar dancers. At times, I found the going so tough I tried to tell myself that Faleiro must have got some of her stories wrong. I mean, isn’t it very much possible that some of the women whom Faleiro spoke with embellished their stories? I don’t know and I wish someone would tell me that some of the stories which Faleiro tells us are untrue or made up. However, when Faleiro tells us that for bar dancers ‘tears are the indulgences of those who haven’t suffered enough,’ the words ring undoubtedly true.

Amidst the gritty tales of the bar dancers and others in that line of business, Faleiro’s bar dancer emerges as a very interesting creature. Unbelievably self-centred and not particularly altruistic, the bar dancer is out to cheat her customers with her sighs and pouts, her tears and smiles, wiles and guiles. She treats herself to the best food and drink and clothes. And footwear of course. Though a cunning animal in certain respects, the bar dancer is taken for a ride by so many people. Because she wants to be loved or better still, have a traditional Indian wedding and a normal married life, there are professional scamsters who make the bar girl fall in love and take off with her money without much ado. There are customers who manage to lure the dancer from the safety of her bar, fete her and them dump her when they lose interest. When the bar girl actually falls in love and gets married or even lives in with someone, it is usually with a good-for-nothing man who beats her routinely and lives off her earnings. Last, but not the least, the bar girl’s family members think nothing of treating her as an endless source of money, though they hadn’t exactly pampered her when she was young, before the money started to come in.

When the ban on dancing in bars came into effect, the government (as may be expected) did little to rehabilitate the thousands of dancers who were deprived of their livelihood, along with many more support staff and hangers on. Does Faleiro’s Leela turn to a more respectable profession or does she sink deeper into the mire? Do please read this very good book, which takes a surprising turn in the last two dozen pages, to find out for yourselves.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Aditya Sudarshan's "Show Me A Hero" - A Review

Aditya Sudarshan has come up with his second novel “Show Me A Hero. Since I had enjoyed his first one (“A Nice Quiet Holiday”) a lot, I made haste to get hold of and read “Show Me A Hero”. I was not disappointed.

Like “A Nice Quiet Holiday”, “Show Me A Hero” is also a crime novel with a murder that needs to be solved and a few scenes of mob violence. And that’s where the similarity ends. In all other respects, “Show Me A Hero” is as different from “A Nice Quiet Holiday” as chalk from cheese. Vaibhav, the protagonist, is an unlikely hero. A young man who has trodden the path less taken, Vaibhav is not too happy with his existence in general and his not-so-well-paying-job in particular. Vaibhav is brought into contact with Prashant Padmanabhan, another young man who is so difficult to understand that Sudarshan devotes a substantial amount of space trying to dissect him and yet doesn’t achieve total clarity even till the end. Prashant is trying to make a movie, yes one of those amateur, small budget movies, about his hero Ali Khan, a former cricketer who in his heydays courted more than his fair share of controversy. Vaibhav agrees to help Prashant with the movie. All of this leads to trouble and ……........ a murder.

The murder is just of the mysteries in “Show Me A Hero”. An even greater mystery is why Ali Khan, who was dogged by allegations of match fixing during his career, gifted Australia a win in a crucial semi-final by ‘walking’ even before the umpire lifted his finger. You don’t get answers to these questions till the end and Sudarshan keeps his reader shrouded in a gentle cloud which drifts along very slowly. “Show Me A Hero” is even more slow-moving than “A Nice Quiet Holiday” to the extent that the reader at times feels like shouting at Vaibhav to get a move on. For example, even after the murder takes place, the protagonist (who hardly deserves the honorific of ‘detective’) doesn’t jump around and take urgent action. Instead, there is masterly inaction, which, with the benefit of hindsight gained by finishing the book, is quite realistic.

Sudarshan writes very well, his sentences longish rather than short, at times forcing his reader to do a double take when confronted with a longish phrase or sentence. Sudarshan is very good at showing a picture from various angles. You get to see one side of a person’s character and then, without warning, a totally different side. The protagonist Vaibhav is almost as complex a character as Prashant. At times very sensible and perceptive, Vaibhav also appears rather daft once in a while. When his long distance girl friend tells him ‘say something nice’ he doesn’t really understand, till another pretty girl who is in greater proximity to Vaibhav, explains matters. Does Vaibhav’s relationship survive or does he get into another while on his path to ‘finding himself’? Please read this novel to find out for yourself!

Prashant and Vaibhav are not the only complicated characters in this novel. There’s Animesh who is even more mysterious. The numerous young characters in the book are all trying to understand themselves and each other and the reader is also taken along on the various paths to self-discovery, which stretch on till the end of the novel.

Since Sudarshan’s characters are all taking alternative paths to self-realisation, Sudarshan is able to place them in contrarian positions. For example, when Prashant is upset with his mother over something trivial and throws a tantrum, Vaibhav is found thinking, “I felt a perverse desire to obstruct him further. I couldn’t make any sense of his outburst and I wanted to register my own protest; to stand for my right as a guest not to be privy to the house’s scenes.”

This is definitely a good read, though not a light read, despite an attempt to ‘package’ it as one. As mentioned earlier, this novel moves along slowly, but doesn’t drag except may be at a couple of places. It’s the sort of book which forces the reader to put the book down after every dozen pages and reflect. For cricket lovers (like me), the (fictional) descriptions of various cricket matches and (made-up) cricketing trivia involving Ali Khan are an added bonus. “Show Me A Hero” is definitely a big step forward for upcoming writer Sudarshan who seems to be almost ‘there’.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion – A Review

Harper Collins has come up with a collection of short stories, which audaciously seek, in the words of Anita Desai who has written the foreword, to 'present India'. A daunting challenge no doubt, but one which, after reaching the end, I feel has been ably met.

Edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, author of Arzee the Dwarf, these stories are drawn from all parts of India and belong to various periods in time. There are 13 stories, 3 each from the North, South, East and West and one from the North-East. Amazingly, eight of the stories are translations from various Indian languages. In editor Choudhury’s own words, “many of the riches of Indian literature are lying invisible in the shadows, waiting for a translation that will release their rhythms and energies into the world.” In his preface, Choudhury tells us that he hopes to arouse in his readers “the desire for a more sustained encounter with writers whose work is every bit as good as their better-known counterparts in English.”

I liked all 13 stories, except one, a lot and the one I didn’t like as much as the other 12 (“The Whale” by Nazir Mansuri), was also pretty good. It speaks volumes of Choudhury’s familiarity with the Indian literary landscape to be able to select such a terrific mix of short stories which span across genres and tastes.

The stories are meant to present India, region by region. And all of them do, some more than others. Salman Rushdie’s “The Prophet’s Hair” is one of the few which does it to a lesser extent. Set in Srinagar, against the backdrop of the 1963 incident when the famous relic (the Prophet’s hair) housed within the Hazratbal Mosque went missing, “The Prophet’s Hair” has Rushdie’s magic realism stamped all over it. An amazing story which will make you wonder if there is any limit to Rushdie’s vivid imagination, “The Prophet’s Hair” is so well written with all of Rushdie’s customary flair that despite the setting in Srinagar and the obvious Kashmiri characters, one doesn’t get more than a faint whiff of Kashmir.

On the other hands, Mamang Dai’s “The Scent of Orange Blossom” makes one feel one is in Arunachal Pradesh, where women enjoy rights and a status in society practically unknown in most of India. Nenen, a woman and the lead protagonist, is not just being treated equally by everyone around her, including her shy husband Kao, but also treats herself well. When Nenen says “tonight I will see everyone well fed and happy” you know that Nenem is a capable woman able to do exactly what she says. There are references to a previous partner David invoking sadness and nostalgia, but not stigma. When Nenen thinks “Together they would raise a family, guard their land and live among their people, observing the ancient customs of their clan. Surely these were enough gits for one lifetime”, one can’t help but feel very happy for Nenen and Kao.

The idea of a woman having her own way is looked at from a different angle in Anjum Hasan’s “Eye in the Sky”. Dawn decides to take a coach to Goa on an impulse. She is pursued by a man who was the same coach, but Dawn doesn’t panic. In fact, she lets him get a little bit close and hold her hands till she decides to chase him away, with help from two other (middle-aged) men. The story ends on a delicious note, in a restaurant with Dawn and the male helpers having a good laugh over fresh fish and booze, leaving a number of possibilities open

Some of the stories are set in the past. “The Sound of Falling Leaves” by the late Qurratulain Hyder is set in Delhi and Lahore just before and after Partition and it beautifully captures the values of those times. A beautiful woman has an affair with an army man and he beats her up often. The man’s right to beat his woman is taken for granted, not just by the man and woman, but even by the narrator in a manner that tells the reader that those were the values that prevailed then and there’s no point wringing one’s hands over it now.

Some stories, like Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” go even further back. In this marvellous story, we are transported to the days of Shah Jahan when the Taj was being built.

None of these stories appear to have been written specifically for these collection. Rather they have all been reproduced with permission. Some are extracts from previously published novels. For example, Mumbai is presented with all its grime, crime, grit, enterprise and glory in full bloom through Vikram Chandra’s “Ganesh Gaitonde Sells His Gold”, an extract from his “Sacred Games”, a novel that needs very little introduction.

Village life is admirably captured in a number of stories. “Asura Pond” by the late Fakir Mohan Senapati describes a village pond. There is no plot or twists or turns, just a vivid description of the pond and the people whose lives revolve around it. The late Panishwarnath Renu’s “Panchlight” describes a single event, the purchase of a Petromax lantern by a low caste community, the Mahtos, in a village. The community has ostracised one Godhan, for having sung paens to Gulri’s daughter Munri. It turns out that only Godhan can operate the Petromax lantern. Should the community get help from an outsider or should it take Godhan back into its fold? What could be the lesser insult? How does Munri feel about Godhan? Do read this story for yourself and find out. It’s worth it, I promise you.

Hectic city life in Calcutta (sic) is recorded in all its hustle and bustle in the late Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s “Canvasser Krishnalal”. Translated by Phyllis Granoff, “Canvasser Krishnalal” is different from most other stories in this collection in that, in addition to presenting Kolkata with all its crowds, atmosphere and dirt intact, it has a plot and a surprise ending. City life is also favourably contrasted with village life, which is shorn of all romantic halos.

An exploration of India is incomplete without a train journey. Jayant Kaikini’s “Dots and Lines” does just that for the reader. The story of a beautiful friendship that develops between two young men travelling together, it is a gentle reminder that sometimes life can be as simple and uncomplicated as two male friends holding hands, a common-enough sight in India.

I found all the stories except one to be very realistic. “The Whale” by Nazir Mansuri has, to use the editor’s description, an “undertow of seething sexuality”. There’s Lakham, in his mid-twenties, half-Portuguese, very well-built and blond and Rani in her late thirties with a full figure and ebony complexion. Rani’s husband has been missing for many years – either dead or living in Africa with another woman. Lakham is in the business of killing whales and I didn’t really find the descriptions of the whale hunts to be very realistic. Nevertheless “The Whale” is very well written and I’m sure it will be enjoyed by many.

Each of the 13 stories carries an introduction by Editor Choudhury. Never more than half a page, in some cases even less, these introductions are a superb display of fine writing combined with astute knowledge of the subject matter. When introducing Senapati’s “Asura Pond”, Choudhury tells us that it is “sly and salty and wheedling, nipping here at the hypocrisy of village social life, there at the greed of British colonialism, Senapati’s prose here illuminates the village pond (to this day often the source of water for domestic use in rural India) as a space where all the currents of village life, from myth to gossip, fishing to bathing, the worldly and the divine, come together.”

Choudhury also confidently tells us, as part of his introductions, that Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay is arguably the greatest of Indian short-story writers, that Nazir Mansuri is one of the best of contemporary Gujarati writers and that Gita Hariharan is one of India’s most distinctive practitioners of fiction in English. One may or may not agree with these assertions, but one is left in no doubt that Choudhury is very comfortable occupying the editor’s chair.

A superb read, one that should be found in every Indian book-lover's shelf.

Gifting Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood

President Mubarak wants to leave on his own terms (by early autumn) and has rallied his supporters who are now clashing with the pro-democracy protestors. The army is standing by, playing neutral. It is understandable that Mubarak and his cohorts will not want to give up all that they have and go into exile without putting up a fight. The West, for its own selfish reasons, has not demanded that Mubarak should leave immediately. The violence has been escalating and I can see only one winner, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Until now, it has kept a low profile, but now the protestors are bound to turn to the Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised opposition in Egypt, for help. And help they will. They will help the pro-democracy protestors fight Mubarak’s goons. After that, they will help themselves to power.

If ever there was a slim hope that Egypt will end up with a moderate leader like El Baradei, it’s almost gone. If only the West would have common sense to cut its losses and call for Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt could go Turkey’s route. Now it is more likely to end up as a Sunni version of Iran.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

When Democracy is Inconvenient

Hundreds of thousands of people are thronging the streets of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan seeking the overthrow of dictators who have been in power for decades. Obama and other western leaders are unable to throw their weight behind the protestors. They offer platitudes to an orderly transition, but no one takes them seriously. The lesson learned from holding democratic elections in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, which resulted in Hamas gaining power in the Gaza Strip, is still fresh in their minds.

The West wants to have a say in who holds power in the Arab world. It has all along wanted to. Earlier this was because of the Cold War. Now, it is on account of the War on Terror. And Oil. Oil more than anything else. All of these are selfish reasons, no doubt. It is possible that the persons or entities who gain power will not be Islamic fundamentalists. El Baradei is by no stretch of imagination a Taliban supporter. What of the Muslim Brotherhood? Islamic but not so fanatic, the Muslim brotherhood has been tolerated all along by Mubarak’s regime, though it is officially banned. The Muslim Brotherhood has been keeping a low profile, but is it behind the mobs at Tahrir Sqaure in Cairo? If the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will not be worth the paper on which it was written and signed.

It’s a bit late in the day to say this, but if only the West had insisted (right from the Cold War days) that Mubarak, Saleh and Ben Ali be less autocratic, less corrupt and spend more money on infrastructure and education, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I say ‘we’ because even I, notwithstanding my democratic ideals, am nervous that Islamic fundamentalists may come to power in North Africa, Yemen and Jordan.