Sunday, January 25, 2009

At the Inauguration

I wrote a very brief note in Washington DC on the day of Obama's inauguration on January 20th which I sent to some friends. Here it is below with some photographs I took that day:

"It was freezing cold today in Washington DC and I have never experienced this kind of chaos in event management in any developed country. However, I was extremely fortunate to get in to the gates and to witness a palpably historic event. Cold and lack of organization was simply not enough to dampen anybody's enthusiasm.

From the moment I got onto the metro at 7am to head to the Capitol Building to the time that I walked out of the venue at 1pm I was surrounded by an extraordinary bonhomie between people. There were stories on every street corner and I felt lucky to be around it all. As I walked up the escalator on the stop at Judiciary Square there was a girl behind me singing a surreally beautiful Negro Spiritual. The pride of African Americans in particular was clearly evident. The experience seemed to have brought people together and there was a warmth and friendliness amongst strangers that alas is not our normal demeanor. I had a marvellous day on the National Mall today. I hope that the promise of Obama's leadership is realized, even if only in part. He, perhaps unfairly, is the repository of tremendous hopes and expectations. This is a unique point in Amercian history and he carries an immense burden of history on his shoulders.We will have to see if he is up to the task.

I want to thank my Haverford friend Gendi who wrote to me while I was waiting in line to get in after seeing my Status Update on FB. His father was on the same flight as Obama's father when they both came to study in the US under a program sponsored by Senator John F Kennedy for Kenyan students to study in the US."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Debating Economics - What to Read if you Expect Intellectual Rigor

Mainstream US media is a vacuous echo chamber where conventional wisdom is endlessly repeated with a sprinkling of semi-relevant insider quotes and anecdotes to provide a veneer of credibility. Reading the popular press on economic and financial matters is a particularly frustrating experience. The more specialized a field the greater the propensity of journalists to rely on a few easy to reach sources of authority and pass half-digested opinion on to readers as information. To expect intellectually rigorous original thinking from economic journalists seems to be asking too much.

The global economy in general and the U.S. economy in particular is experiencing economic conditions unlike any other since the Great Depression. With the incoming Obama administration fully cognizant of the scale of the problem the urgent debate in the United States right now is focused on the best means to extract the economy out of its current morass. The nature of the problems and the debate about the potential approaches to ameliorate these problems can be staggeringly complex and given that we are in uncharted economic waters it is difficult to get a concise, consistent and fact-based discussion of the issues.

Most people are starved for time so they have to rely on a few easily accessible news sources to get the relevant facts. They will default to The New York Times (WSJ, FT etc.) or if they have a more serious appetite they will read The Economist. These are of course generally good sources but the richness and the quality of the debate on the internet can no longer be surpassed.

If you are not resistant to some minor wonkishness I would recommend two blogs for their excellent information content and relevant discussion of economic issues. Intelligently arguing a traditionally Keynesian view for an aggressively interventionist government role, informed by knowledge of depression-era economics and the Japanese "lost decade", is Krugman's popular blog "Conscience of a Liberal". Krugman does an excellent job of educating and informing while at the same time cutting through the fog of popular coverage. For an intelligent counter view, skeptical of government's capacity and ability to cure the economy's ills is Greg Mankiw's blog. Mankiw is a professor at Harvard and was the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Bush (do not write him off because of that). He was the youngest tenured professor of economics in Harvard's history (beating Larry Summers' prior record) and is an intellectual leading light on the conservative scene. However, the drawback of Mankiw's blog is that is fairly terse and not pedagogical enough when compared to Krugman. If you want to explore even more I would recommend the more frequently updated blog by Brad Delong (Berkeley) and the relatively new blog on Finance topics by the illustrious Eugene Fama and Ken French (U. Chicago).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Magical Trio - Kabir, Abida Parveen & Gulzar

Bhagat Kabir Das is a revered 15th century Indian saint poet much loved for his mystic verses that beautifully embrace a simple, non-sectarian and egalitarian spirituality. Sikhism's holy book Guru Garanth Sahib includes almost 500 verses by Kabir. Gulzar (born Sampooran Singh Kalra in 1936 in Jehlum District in pre-partition Punjab) is a modern Indian poet and lyricist best known for his sublime poetic contributions to Indian cinema. Abida Parveen has been mentioned on this blog a number of times. Hailing from Larkana, Sindh (born in 1954) she is one of the finest performers of sufi classical music and is justly referred to as the Queen of Sufi Music.

Below is a soul-stirring rendition of Kabir's "Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN" by Abida Parveen. In the introduction in Urdu, Gulzar pays rich tributes to Abida's divine talent. Here's a poor translation of Gulzar's beautiful words: "Her voice sounds like the voice of all worship. When she calls out to the divine you think yes, this voice must reach him; he too must be listening to this deeply sincere, truthful voice."

Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN
Bura Bhala Sub Ko Sun Leejo
Kar Guzraan Gharibi MeiN

Mera Mujh MeiN Kuch NahiN
Jo Kuch Hai So Tera
Tera Tujh Ko Saunp de
Kya Laage Hai Mera
Mann Laago Yaar Faqiri MeiN
Aakhir Yeh Tun Khak Mile Ga
KyuN Phirta Maghroori MeiN

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Sufi Islam in South Asia – “A Staggering Multicultural Achievement”

Every year, The Economist magazine prints a delightful ‘special holiday double issue” around Christmas. It is filled with unfailingly interesting essays on an amazingly wide array of subjects. This year’s piece de resistance is the essay on South Asian Sufi Islam titled “Of Saints and Sinners”.

The essay is a wonderfully reported depiction of popular Islam as practiced by the millions of devotees of Sufi saints whose tombs and shrines are dotted all across India and Pakistan. These adherents range from the more serious-minded who seek self knowledge as a path to knowing God through contemplation, meditation and Quranic recitations to the far more numerous who flock to these shrines to beseech the saints to answer their prayers, leave offerings of gratitude and to celebrate the popular festivals centered around the urs (death anniversary) of their respective saint. An urs is a festive celebration because the word literally means wedding night to signify the saint's union with God after death.

The Economist essay is focused in large part on the celebration of the urs of the sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan Sharif in Sindh, Pakistan where almost a million people congregate for this 3-day event. (2008 was the 734th anniversary of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar's death.) The descriptions of the throngs of devotees, their diversity and tolerance, the ubiquitous scenes of dancing and celebration with non-stop performances of beautiful music and sufi poetry are joyous and heart-warming.

The Economist does not acknowledge it but it would be unfair not to give credit here to Declan Walsh of "The Guardian" who first reported in the Western press on this great gathering in Sehwan Sharif last year and where I first learnt of this incredible festival in rich detail. His two pieces in 2007 called "Devotees go for a whirl at the country's biggest party" and "The greatest party on earth?" are well worth reading. In particular there is a fantastic audio slideshow that I highly recommend. It has several wonderful photographs from the festival and a very traditional qawwali performance at the shrine in the background.

We cannot move on without sampling some music deeply associated with Sehwan and Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The signature performance honoring Qalandar (also affectionately known as Jhuley Lal because devotees believe that he fulfils the fertility wishes of childless mothers) is "Lal Meri Pat Rakhio Bhala Jhule Lalan". Every major Sufi musician or Qawwal performs this regularly and it is not unusual to end the program with this as a finale as it tends to bring the house down. Here are distinctly different versions of this piece from two of the greatest sufi singers of the last half century. Here is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who is in superb form here:

and here is the inimitable Abida Parveen:

There has been a relentless onslaught in Pakistan against this popular and syncretic form of religion for the last 30 years. Since the beginning of the Russo-Afghan war in 1979, the Pakistani military state, Saudi Wahhabi zeal fueled with petrodollars and American cold war myopia all conspired to promote an intolerant and jihadi Islam that has done tremendous damage to the fabric of mostly tolerant South Asian Islam practiced in much of Punjab and Sindh for centuries. Mercifully, it has still survived in very large pockets because it has roots in the people. Yes, it is superstitious but it is also remarkably generous, tolerant and joyful.

Lahore, where I grew up, is a city full of shrines and mausoleums of saints with each of these hundreds of sites tended to by dedicated keepers and visited in large numbers by devotees, particularly for the annual urs celebration. Each saint has their own legend and mythology and locals keep these traditions alive primarily through oral story-telling. Even when you move beyond the large and well known destinations, like the tomb ('mazar') of Data Ganj Baksh Ali Hajveri (the 11th century sufi who is virtually the patron saint of Lahore) or that of Hazrat Mian Mir (the 16th century saint deeply venerated by Jahangir and Shahjehan and whose tomb was constructed by Shahjehan's son, the poet-prince Dara Shikoh), there is an endless stream of people who visit lesser known but no less fascinating shrines of saints whose stories read like something out of Arabian nights.

There is the shrine of Madho Lal Hussain (which is actually two separate people, the Hindu boy Madho and the saint Lal Hussain, who legend has it were inseparable), the site of the annual Mela ChiraghaN (Festival of Lamps) and a place revered by both Hindus and Muslims. There is the remarkable 16th century mazar of the child saint Ghoray Shah (who died when he was 5) and who, it is believed, loved toy horses so a gift of a toy horse from his followers would result in their prayers being answered. This mazar is crowded with people and you can see the many toy horses that devotees continue to bring for Ghoray Shah. There is also Bibi Pak Daman (Chaste Lady), one of the most popular shrines in the city (not far from Queen Mary's College) which is reputed to be the sepulchre of Ruqqaiya or Bibi Haj and her five virgin sisters. Again, according to local legend Bibi Haj was from Hazrat Ali's family and came to the sub-continent in the early 8th century several years after the battle of Karbala. However, the earth opened up and buried her alive after she had been asked to appear in front of the local ruler which the chaste lady did not wish to do. (Historians date this grave instead to the 12th century and surmise that the daughters buried here were those of Syed Ahmed Tokhta Tirmizi). And hundreds of these Shehrzad-like stories go on and on in a muddled but tolerant, rich and captivating mix of religion and superstition.

Credits: Information about Lahore's shrines are sourced from Yasmeen Lari's excellent Heritage Guidebook on Lahore.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Gotham Book Mart's Collection Goes to Penn

Having whiled away many pleasurable hours in antiquarian bookstores, this story about New York's historic Gotham Book Mart caught my eye. The precious collection of books from this bookstore, founded in 1920, will now belong to the University of Pennsylvania thanks to an anonymous benefactor. It is amazing that the entire inventory valued at several million dollars was bought up for a mere $400,000 at auction.

Here's a little excerpt and a photograph from the news story that gives a sense of the bookstore's history:

The Gotham Book Mart was founded on West 45th Street in 1920 by Frances Steloff. It was the haunt of literary figures like Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, John Updike, J. D. Salinger and Eugene O’Neill. It exhibited the works of the artist Edward Gorey. Its customers included George and Ira Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Alexander Calder, Stephen Spender, Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, John Guare, Katharine Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At various points, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones and Tennessee Williams (for a day) worked as clerks there.

The Gotham Book Mart was famous for its literary eminences. A December 1948 party for Osbert and Edith Sitwell (seated, center) drew a roomful of brightlights to the Gotham Book Mart: clockwise from W. H. Auden, on the ladder at top right, were Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, Charles Henri Ford (cross-legged, on the floor), William Rose Benét, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Horace Gregory, Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart,Gore Vidal and José Garcia Villa. (Photo: Gotham Book Mart)