The Faithful Hound

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stone cutting blues

Last year my parents decided to upgrade their kitchen and bathrooms. My mother went through all her old issues of of Good Housekeeping and finally came up with layouts and designs she liked. She called a couple of my old friends, one of whom was now an architect and another a builder and got her plans approved. The builder sent in one of his contractors and a troop of laborers and work was soon underway.
I was in Bangalore on vacation at the time and volunteered to oversee some of the work when no one was home. The problem with vacationing in India is that everyone I know who's still in town is working in the daytime when I'm free, so I didn't mind killing some time supposedly watching over the workers, but actually enjoying the air-conditioning and a stack of '3 in 1' DVDs while they sweated outside. After a while I realized that it was impossible to watch TV and enjoy my sweet lime soda over the din of hammers and electric saws, so I stepped out into the backyard to watch them. To quote Jerome K Jerome - "I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours."
The contractor had left for another site, so there were just the three laborers hammering away at the granite slabs and cutting them into shape. I smiled, they grinned back, I asked to borrow a beedi, one of them obliged and even lit it up for me, I asked if they needed some water or anything, they said no and we all settled back to our posts - they hammered and sawed away while I sat on the steps and opened up some old 'Amar Chitra Katha' comics that my mother had lovingly saved up at the bottom of my cupboard.
At around 1:30 in the afternoon I went back into the house for lunch and asked the cook to send out some plates for the men. She returned and said that they told her they weren't hungry and would eat later after they were done.
At around 4:00 one of them knocked on the window to say they were leaving. I went out and distributed some baksheesh which they happily accepted.
"What are your names?" I asked
"Amit Mukherjee", "Ranjit Roy", "Mukesh Sen" came the replies.
I was surprised, but did not say anything. When my father returned in the evening I told him about it and he was horrified. Good Bengalis reduced to breaking stones for a living. Why, one of them may have even been a distant cousin.
After a few days it was Durga Puja and the house was bustling with the usual festivities. On our way out to the pandal my father and I stopped in the backyard to give our Bengali brethren the rest of the day off to enjoy the holiday.
"Where's Mukesh?" I asked, noticing that one was missing.
"Who?" They seemed puzzled.
" Mukesh Sen, your partner."
"Oh Mukesh" They looked at each other quickly. "He's at another site, he'll be back in an hour."
"You can take the day off, go enjoy the Pujas."
"No, no.. that's all right.. we'll finish our work and leave later."
My father seemed troubled and he stayed back to talk to them in Bengali as I proceeded towards the car to join my mother. He walked over after a few minutes, smiling happily.
"They're not Bengalis" he said, obviously relieved. "They're from Bangladesh. Illegal workers."
Well, that explained it. The fake names, the fasting (it was Ramzaan) and the willingness to work through Durga Puja.
Apparently there are close to 15 million Bangaladeshis living and working illegally in India. That's almost double the 8 million odd illegal Hispanics in the US. They migrate for the same reasons, better living conditions, willingness to work cheap and the lack of employment in their home countries. They have become an essential component of the manual labor workforce in many states. The Indian government is starting to be more active about the phenomenon and is tightening up border security, but a 4000 km long border is not easy to monitor, so the trend is likely to continue.
Frankly, after seeing the crap that immigrants have to put up with in the US, I'm more than a little sympathetic to those who travel far from home in search of a better life. Maybe I saw myself in the stone cutters - working hard in a foreign land, unappreciated but essential. I wish them well and hope they find what they're looking for.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Altruism and evolution

Let me start by saying that this blog entry was inspired by the comments posted on my previous blog entry.
What exactly is altruism? It is an emotion, possibly unique to man (I use the term loosely throughout this essay to include both sexes), to protect others of his species, often at a disadvantage to himself. It is the feeling that inspires charity, social welfare, intervention in foreign genocide and even the bravery of a stranger who rushes into a burning building to rescue an unknown cripple.
While the well-informed reader will quickly point out that most herd or pack based animals display similar sentiments - for example elephant cows nurture motherless calves and penguins stand guard over each other's eggs - I believe there is one fact that makes human altruism truly unique.
We are the only species that goes out of its way to protect those who cannot contribute back to society. In the animal kingdom, the runt of the litter is often deliberately killed or starved at birth. Older, sicker and weaker animals meet a similar fate. Protection within the herd is granted mainly to younger members that will soon grow to be strong and will eventually contribute back to the herd. A slow gazelle slows down the group and is not protected when the lions attack.
In the case of man, altruism has blossomed into a more generous sentiment. Protection is not offered simply to those who can eventually repay the kindness, but even to those who will never be able to fend for themselves, and who will always be dependent on their benefactors. This is more clearly visible in the West. In some American cities generations of a family live off social welfare that provides them with adequate comfort to never feel motivated enough to work. In Germany a growing number of young people are choosing to move back to their parents' homes and live off state funding that often pays more than a start-up job.
While India has not reached the levels of state protection seen in the West, the Indian left wing has not been inactive. The progress of society has often taken a back seat to the protection of the downtrodden. This can be seen in initiatives to prevent global trade, forgive loans to poor farmers, impede the development of large dams and slow the privatization of the incompetent public sector. The fact that you may feel that some of these initiatives are worthy shows the degree to which altruism has become ingrained into our DNA.
This brings me to the second part of this post. What is evolution? It is the process of slow mutation of a species allowing it to better adapt its surroundings. This is accomplished by giving more access to resources to those who are better suited to survive, thereby allowing them to reproduce more.
For example, Darwin studied finches in the Galapagos islands. When a drought caused smaller seeds that the birds ate to disappear, only the finches with beaks large enough to eat nuts had access to food. The rest starved to death. The next generation of finches were the offspring of the survivors and they all had large beaks which now made the species more resistant to drought.
So what am I saying here? Am I saying that altruism is counter-productive to evolution? Yes, in a way that's true. Man's attempts to always provide for the weak ensures that the human species will not evolve any further. Those that are physically or intellectually ill-suited for survival will continue to be cared for and will continue to feed the gene pool. In my opinion this will lead to the creation of two permanent classes of society - those that constantly contribute and those that are constantly dependent.
Now is this a bad thing? I leave that to you to decide. In my view it's not as bad as it sounds. Man does not need to evolve any further. He has already established his dominion over most forms of nature and has no vital threats to the survival of his species. At this point altruism is a luxury that we can all afford. But a luxury is not a necessity.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Left, right, left

How do you tell a liberal from a conservative in America? There are many ways to broach the topic.
"So, what do you think of the current administration?"
"Do you think there were ever any actual WMDs?"
"Did you watch Bill Maher last night?"
"Are you done with your taxes yet?"
"Isn't Ann Coulter hot?"
In today's label conscious world, what clearer tag to put on yourself than your black or white political predilection?
What strikes me the most though about the left vs. right debate in America is that there are so many questions whose answers place you on one extreme or the other of the political spectrum. There's no middle ground on your religious conviction, political affiliation, thoughts on minority rights, degree of patriotism, choice of media outlet or level of sexual tolerance.
You can either be a flag-waving, gun-toting, gay-bashing, Fox-news-watching, fetus-loving, tax-hating conservative
...or a war-hating, Clinton-worshipping, abortion-defending, beard-growing, free-loving, welfare-supporting liberal.
There's no in-between.
So, what happens to people who have varied views on some topics, and no views at all on others? I don't think that society in the US gives you that alternative any more. You choose a political direction and then you stick to it. Your opinions on all social issues will be decided for you, based on the political side you have chosen. Usually you're a liberal until you're 30 (if you have a heart) and you're a conservative after that (if you have a brain).
It's easier to have a political leaning in India because politics do not govern all aspects of social life. You're on the left wing if you're a Bengali or a Malayali who wants to start up the next communist revolution, save the Narmada valley and burn down the nearest McDonald's to protest against those filthy American capitalists. In this case, you dress in khadhi and call your friends 'comrade' (also if you're a woman you stop shaving your legs and OD on kajal). Instead, you're on the right wing if you want to tear down mosques, save cows from slaughterhouses and burn down the nearest McDonald's to protest against those filthy American missionaries. If you fit this description, then you usually dress in saffron (or khaki shorts) and carry a trident to work.
But, if you’re in the other 98% of the population, your opinions are usually your own and you make them without worrying whether they allign with any greater cause. You aren't being constantly indoctrinated by the media, your peers and your political candidates, so you try to approach issues from your own perspective. Perhaps this is because most Indians completely distrust their politicians and don't consider their opinions to be worthy of serious consideration.
It would seem that America could learn a lot from India when it comes to independent thinking on social issues.

If you're curious about my personal political beliefs, I guess I would consider myself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative - Do whatever you want, as long as you can pay for it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Unique business proposition for you

Where do these guys come from!!?
It seems like I always attract desi pyramid-scheme marketers in malls, gas stations, movie theatres etc. It's like I have a neon sign saying "Scam Me!" on my forehead.
Here's the general modus operandi -
You're walking through a mall and you stop outside the Aldo window, wondering how the new extra-long Nygels will look on your feet. Someone clears his throat behind you to attract your attention.
"Excuse me..." It's a chubby desi guy with a surprisingly attractive wife who's beaming away at you.
"Yes?" You slowly drag your eyes back to the guy.
"Are you from India?"
Duh!.. No, I'm Swedish.
"uh... yes"
"I think I've seen you at the temple before."
"What temple? I've never been to any temple." You don't want to seem unfriendly to fellow countrymen, so you attempt to keep smiling.
"Oh... might be someone else. " He's unfazed. "My name is Ashok and this is my wife Deepti."
"Hi Deepti" How the hell did this dimwit snag a woman like this?
After a couple of minutes of banal conversation - where from? how long in the US? etc. - he gets to the point.
"I have a unique business proposition for you." Alarm bells go off in your head. "I run my own online marketing company and I'm looking for a partner."
Sonofabitch!! They're bloody Amway scamsters! So that's why this silly cow has been grinning away at me.
"For a small fee, you can be a part of this great marketing concept." He goes on, oblivious to your red face. "You can work at it after hours, it won't take much of your time. By the way, who do you work for now?"
"I work for the INS. Immigration control. By the way, what is your visa status? Are you here legally?"
You search around for rocks to hurl at them as they flee in panic.
I mean honestly! Where do these guys come from? This is the fourth time this month, always a different approach, but always the same dumb line about a 'unique business proposition.' If you make the mistake of giving them your card they'll hound you with telephone calls for eternity, never remembering the curses you heaped on their head the last time they called.
Can you imagine their lives? Skulking around malls, shunned by family and friends, preying on the weak minded.
If you're one of them and you're reading this - SHAME ON YOU!