Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mumbai Tragedy - A Perspective

The terrible terrorist tragedy is still unfolding in Mumbai with over a 140 dead and more than 300 injured. The attacks are despicable and should be unequivocally condemned by any sane person. However, the world (India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, UK, Spain, Middle East, Russia) has now been witness to an endless stream of these gruesome attacks. All pleas to attack this global problem not through the lens of a simplistic "war on terror" but instead at its political roots evokes a hostile response from national security establishments.

Engaging complex global political problems and draining some of the world's worst infected political wounds is not "action-oriented" enough and does not satisfy the immediate justified rage of the affected populations. However, it is the only imperfect long term solution to isolate the dead-ender ideological terrorists who must be defeated by force from the far more numerous sympathizing recruits they find amongst people who feel that they are victims of prolonged injustice at the hands of powerful governments (others and their own as in many Muslim countries). In India, for example, since the Babri mosque incident in 1992 there have been a plethora of tragedies creating a communal tinderbox; the Mumbai serial blasts, Mumbai train bombings, Godhra, Gujarat riots, Hyderabad blasts, Akshardham attack, Samjhota Express attack, Delhi bombings, Malegaon not to mention the festering Kashmir problem with the recent flaring of the situation due to the Amarnath yatra land dispute. Whoever invokes tackling the political dimensions of the causes of terrorism is instantly accused of the specious "moral equivalency" argument. It has now been clear for years that a security strategy alone is simply not sufficient to deter any suicidal armed group from inflicting harrowing damage on soft targets. A global rethinking is required to fight terrorism smartly and to dramatically reduce the number of people susceptible to this siren call of nihilism and anarchy. These sentiments often sound to people as if they are soft-headed "can't we all just live together" pleas but a hard-headed and realistic strategy of political engagement must be pursued in addition to robust police, intelligence and military action to reduce the threat of terrorism and asymmetric violence.

Deepak Chopra (whose mystical mumbo jumbo I have little appetite for) was on CNN commenting on the Mumbai attacks and even though his thoughts are meandering and not fully coherent (in my view) he makes some valid points that are not represented much in the mainstream media.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why Don't We Celebrate New Species?

I have previously linked to Olivia Judson's New York Times column called "The Wild Side". Her column is always illuminating and written with an infectious enthusiasm for the incredible variety of life on our planet. It is unfailingly lucid in explaining concepts in evolutionary biology in clear and concise prose. The column today is called "All Hail the Apple Maggot" and discusses a wonderful example of how a new species gets created from an existing one (including a great little primer on the definition of species). She also reflects on why we tend to more easily focus on lamenting extinction of species as opposed to celebrating the creation of new ones.

There is an unending stream of misinformation and outright lies being churned out on the topic of evolution and natural selection (see Zakintosh's blog post on November 17th called "The CREaTIoNist" for another unfortunate example; a supposedly scientific book by the Turkish author Harun Yahya). Given the constant hostility toward this scientifically sound but revolutionary principle I always like to link to good writing on evolution for laypeople so that at least anyone reading this blog can gain access to credible writing on the subject.

The appearance of a new species is not so dramatic. The first members of a new species will typically be indistinguishable — to us — from the species they have evolved from. And while extinction has a clear final moment — the last member of a species dies — the formation of a new species does not usually happen in a single recognizable instant. Which is why we haven’t yet raised our glasses to celebrate, say, Rhagoletis pomonella, the apple maggot fly.


The most common way to define a species is a group of individuals that breed with each other successfully. For example, dogs, despite their vastly different looks, can breed with each other, so they are are considered one species. Horses and donkeys are counted as different species because their offspring (mules and hinnies) are sterile. For individuals to be considered as belonging to separate species thus means that they are “reproductively isolated”: they can’t, won’t, or don’t breed with each other.


I can sense your excitement. And perhaps that’s the real reason we don’t celebrate apple maggots, or any of the other new species (and there are many we know about) that are in the process of evolving. For when a new species does appear, it’s just not that different from the old species. To evolve the flamboyant differences that distinguish a swan from a duck, or a human from a chimpanzee — that takes thousands, even millions, of years.
That is what we lose with extinction.

Photograph: Rhagoletis pomonella, the apple maggot fly. (Wikimedia

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Tufail Niazi – Pakistan’s Greatest Folk Singer

It was in my teens, almost 25 years ago, when I first heard Tufail Niazi singing "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" from Heer Waris Shah in that uniquely rustic and melodious but exceptionally virtuosic voice that has brought tears to my eyes many times over the years. Of all the wonderful music I grew up with (mostly because it was what my parents played in the house) this song by Tufail Niazi alongwith K.L Saigal’s “Ik raje ka beta le kar urne wala ghora” and Begum Akhtar’s “Chaa rahi kali ghata, jiya mora lehrae hai” have a special place in my imagination. (The youtube link above does not include it but Saigal's cackling laugh at the end of this recorded song on the LP is an enduring childhood memory). Every time I hear these pieces again they conjure up the same mesmerising effect they had on me when I first heard them huddled around my father's turntable or in later years, his various cassette players.

Piecing together Tufail Niazi's biography, his marvellously syncretic Punjabi life struck me as unusual even in pre-1947 Punjab but his life story is no longer even possible. He was born in 1916 in the only Muslim family in the Sikh village of MadairaN in Jallandhar district. MadairaN was only a short distance from Sham Chaurasi, famous birthplace of the musical gharana of that name (Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, arguably Pakistan's finest classical vocalist, hailed from this gharana). Tufail's family and ancestors were "Pakhawajis". (Pakhawaj is a tabla-like percussion instrument traditionally used as accompaniment in Dhrupad singing, the much older and temple-rooted form of Hindustani classical vocal music than the newer, more popular Mughal-era creation Khayal.) Historically, some of his family members were "Rubabis" who sang Gurbanis (songs in praise of the gurus) in Gurdwaras. Tufail followed this family tradition and started singing Guru Nanak's bani at the Gurdwara in the village of Pumba near Amritsar where his maternal grandfather was employed as a rubabi. After three years in Pumba he lost interest and his father, Haji Raheem Buksh took him to a Gaushala (house of cow protection) in Gondwal near the town of Taran Taaran. Here he joined the Gaushala singing party that went from village to village to spread the message of cow protection. Imagining a traveling Muslim rubabi preaching, in song, the protection of the sacred cow in his mellifluous voice brings a smile to my face.

Tufail lived in Gondwal for four years and would have likely moved sooner if it was not for the attraction of listening to great performers at the "chhota mela of Harballabh" held in that town every year (the main Harballabh Mela used to be in Jallandhar which attracted India's greatest musicians). After leaving the Gaushala, Tufail first became a "Raasdhari", street performers who just congregated impromptu audiences anywhere and performed an amalgam of theater, narrative and song often based on episodes of Lord Rama's life (Ramlila). He then joined a traveling theater ("Nautanki") and honed his theatrical and storytelling skills playing a hero in productions of famous Punjabi folktales like Heer Ranjha, Sohni MahiNwal, Sassi PunnooN and Pooran Bhagat. Most of this pre-partition part of Tufail's life today reads like a page not from 20th century history but a much older epoch that we can no longer even imagine.

At the time of partition, like all East Punjabi Muslims, Tufail too had to move from his ancestral lands and he ended up in Multan. To survive in this new unknown place where he hardly knew anybody, he opened up a milk shop. It was fortuitous that in 1949 a police inspector who had known him in East Punjab and had been a fan saw him and, on learning that Tufail had abandoned his music because he had no instruments and no other way to make a living, intervened. He got him instruments from the state coffers and organized a mehfil for Tufail introducing him to the people in Multan. It is unbearable to imagine that Tufail Niazi's voice could have been lost forever were it not for the effort of an ordinary fan who saved him from potential obscurity. We owe that unknown police officer a deep debt of gratitude.

Tufail soon became well known in the cultural circles of Multan after which there was no looking back. He started singing for Radio Pakistan and had the honor to be the first singer who performed on Pakistan Television, the day of its inauguration on November 26th, 1964. He sang his famous song "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" that day. It was at that time that PTV's senior producer Aslam Azhar gave him the name Tufail Niazi because Tufail had told him that his pir was Hazrat Pir Niaz Ali Shah. Before this he had been just Tufail, Master Tufail, Mian Tufail and lastly Tufail Multani. Later, under Uxi Mufti he worked with great dedication to help set up and sustain the National Institute of Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa) in Islamabad. He received the Presidential Pride of Performance Award in 1983 and died on September 21st, 1990. A stroke had left him debilitated and unable to perform and he died in poverty with a wounded sense of official and unofficial neglect which has been the lot of so many Pakistani artists. He is buried in the graveyard in Islamabad.

Here is a performance of "Laai beqadaraN naal yaari te tut gai tarak kar ke" from PTV:

Tufail Niazi was a folk musician deeply influenced by classical forms and it is the mastery of his classically trained vocals combined with a soulfully melodic voice that mesmerized his audiences. The wonderful Punjabi sufi storytelling of his repertoire as he stood singing energetically in his lacha and a silk kurta created the total effect of a performer who was involved in something that was inseparable from the rest of his existence. His singing is often intensely moving as he sings about episodes in the lives of Punjabi epic lovers most notably Heer Ranjha (this is a link to an excellent post on this Punjabi folk masterpiece on Pakistaniat) richly evoking their anguish set in a beautifully sketched Punjabi rural social milieu.

Many of my favorite songs by Tufail Niazi are rooted deeply in classical music. I can listen to them over and over again and they possess the power to stir the most potent emotions. Here at APNA's site are some great Tufail Niazi songs for which I cannot find youtube videos. Two of my favorites (in addition to "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal") that never fail to move me are "MeiN vi jaaNa jhok Ranjhan di" and "We tooN neRe neRe was we dholan yaar" (in Raga Tilak Kamod). In addition, I love a tappa-like song in Raga Khamaj called "Jhuk RaiyyaN meiN to" which I have been unable to find on the internet.

Remarkably and sadly, I was not able to find any decent photograph of Tufail Niazi on the internet to include in this post. To end this piece, here is a youtube audio of the above mentioned "MeiN naiN jaaNa Kherian de naal" which is inspired by Raga Bilawal.

Credits: This post owes several biographical and other details to the book “Tufail Niazi”, compiled and edited by S.M Shahid as a tribute to this great performer. In addition to informative pieces in Urdu (Mumtaz Mufti, Chanan Gobindpuri, Bakhtiar Ahmad, Akhtar Imam Rizvi, Shahbaz Ali) and English (S.M Shahid, Sarwat Ali, Mushahid Hussain, Saeed Malik), the book comes with 2 excellent CDs of Tufail Niazi’s unforgettable folk songs.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama is the 44th President of the United States

My reflections on this momentous event will come at some later date but for now I just want to acknowledge this remarkable historic day.

Update: Bob Herbert in the New York Times comes closest to my feelings post-election so here they are even though I must say that I am already in the mode of anticipation of evaluating Obama's Presidency based on its actions. There has never been this much hope and promise but his approach in the first six months, more than anything else, will help me understand better if the tenor and the ultimate outcome of this Presidency will be noticably different from those in history.

Arthur Miller liked to say that the essence of America was its promise. In the darkest of the dark times, in wartime and drastic economic downturns, in the crucible of witch hunts or racial strife, in the traumatic aftermath of a terror attack, that promise lights the way forward.


We still have two wars to deal with and an economic crisis as severe as any in decades. But we should take a moment to recognize the stunning significance of this moment in history. It’s worth a smile, a toast, a sigh, a tear.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Waiting for History!

“And I swore I’d be in Chicago tomorrow, and made sure of that, taking a bus to Chicago, spending most of my money, and didn’t give a damn, just as long as I’d be in Chicago tomorrow.”– Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

(Hat Tip for the quote: Sean Quinn at

Christopher Hitchens Debates Religion with Rabbi Wolpe

In one of the world's largest synagogues, Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Christopher Hitchens today debated Rabbi Wolpe on whether "religion is good for the world".

I have followed Hitchens' writings for many years (starting with his edited collection "Blaming the Victims" about the Palestinian issue), well before he became nationally known for his outspoken and deliberately provocative views on everything from Mother Teresa, "Islamo-Fascism", Iraq war and God. He is relentessly polemical and has a penchant for contrariness to the point where one can't always be sure whether he is taking a particular position because he really believes in it or just indulging his pugilistic instincts. He can be outrageously demeaning and dismissive of his opponents and as is typical of debaters rarely acknowledges any validity in counter arguments.

But there is no question that he posseses an extremely sharp intellect, a rare articulate eloquence and an impressive command of language. He is a voracious and remarkably intelligent reader of catholic (no pun intended) taste and is an enviably prolific writer. For some of his best, most thoughtful long pieces I would suggest reading his contributions in the "Atlantic Monthly" archived here. Much to my disappointment over the years he has displayed an unsympathetic view of Pakistan and seems to have a visceral dislike for the country (probably in no small part due to its religion-based founding ideology). Even so, his March 2003 piece in these archives called "The Perils of Partition" is well worth reading. Just glancing at these pieces gives you a sense of his incredible critical range.

Now let's come back to his debate with Rabbi Wolpe today. Here is a summary of the debate in the New York Times. My sense from the reported exchange is that Hitchens comes out on top and that Rabbi Wolpe could not quite match the intellectual firepower and verbal nimbleness of Hitchens. Let me know via your comments if you think otherwise.

Christopher Hitchens:

It attacks us in our deepest integrity, in the core of our self-respect. Religion says that we would not know right from wrong, we would not know an evil, wicked act from a decent human act without divine permission, without divine authority or without, even worse, either the fear of a divine punishment or the hope of a divine reward. It strips us of the right to make our own determination, as all humans always have, about what is and what is not a right human action.

Rabbi Wolpe:

If you read the beginning of the Bible, which I strongly advise, you will find that Cain is condemned for killing Abel. Now why is he condemned, if the Bible doesn’t assume that you don’t learn that murder is bad until you get to Sinai? After all, Cain is long before Sinai. Of course, the Bible knows that human beings recognize that murder is bad. But the Bible also knows that they do it anyway, and that without a divine sanction against murder, people will think that it is a humanly invented sanction. And if they will violate it even when it’s God’s dictate how much more will it prove to be … a fragile rule when it’s the rule of human beings?

And so at Sinai, what you get is not a series of moral rules that you couldn’t have imagined for yourself — ‘Oh, I thought it was fine to kill before I got there’ — but the knowledge that it is built into the moral structure of the universe. It’s not a personal preference. It’s not a societal rule. It’s a mandate from God to all human beings. And if you think that mandate doesn’t matter, all I can say is you haven’t paid much attention to the 20th century.