Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Telling Young Lives: A book review

I've been appallingly lazy when it comes to blogging, so while I'm still not quite upto writing an actual blog entry, I'll copy-paste something I had written earlier. This is a book review that was published by the Economic and Political Weekly in September, 2009.

Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth edited by Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson, Temple University Press, 2008, pp 220, Rs.1426

Images of youth as social consumers apathetic to politics abound in economic and political systems where the majority of youth are unable to participate as fully as adults, but as the success of the Obama campaign demonstrated in part, if addressed directly and mobilized, youth can make a significant difference in the formal politics of a nation. This is in addition to the many ways in which young people from a variety of backgrounds find ways to contest their marginalisation within power relations in the household, in the community as well as in wider society, as they negotiate hostile environments and aim to attain adult status- a theme that runs through the lives of youth regardless of differences in class, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and level of education. In Telling Young Lives: Portraits of Global Youth, Craig Jeffrey and Jane Dyson produce a volume that is global in scope but understandably not comprehensive in its approach, as researchers and youth collaborate to create thirteen vignettes based on the lived experiences of young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The editors consciously attempt to be mindful of the politics of representation and use the vignettes to explore the level of political engagement and social activism of youth without using the portraits to support a single agenda.

Jeffrey and Dyson aim to breach the confines of the academy to produce a volume that is global in scope, academic in its approach and accessible to a wide audience ranging from parents, educators and politicians to anyone else interested in the physical and material circumstances as well as the hopes and aspirations of youth today, including, not least, youth themselves. The focus is on individual vignettes, not with the assumption that each person is a microcosm, but because these portraits exemplify how larger processes may work together to produce a human outcome while reflecting the attitudes and experiences of the key figures as well as wider society. They allow the reader to see how youth find surprisingly similar as well as strikingly different ways to maintain the balancing act between the need to take on adult responsibilities and the lack of a comparable degree of rights and freedoms as adults, as they go about their daily lives.

Caught in Between

The discrepancy between rights and responsibilities that youth often experience is evident in 16-year-old Saka’s portrait. Despite the researcher’s explanation that she wants to work with young people, the head of the village forest committee and other men in Bemni Village, Uttarakhand, India discuss the proposed schedule while Saka quietly cooks dinner. Saka has contributed to forest and fieldwork since the age of five and by now she is the household’s main labourer- cooking and cleaning, sowing seeds, feeding livestock and gathering basketfuls of leaves and lichen while her brothers aspire to wage labour in the city. She dropped out of school early and has established herself as a diligent and skilful worker, conforming to local notions of acceptable femininity. Disproportional to her responsibilities and household contribution, her sphere of relative freedom is limited to the forest, where she used to herd cattle when she was young enough that socializing with boys was not strongly discouraged, and where she is now able to speak her mind and socialize with other girls her age, as she collects lichen. She understands that this is a stage that will be short-lived, where she has relative freedom reminiscent of childhood, giving way to adulthood as a married woman answerable to a husband and in-laws.

Directing and Being Directed
The process of moving onto adulthood seems to progressively reduce Saka’s freedom, but, considering her mother’s position and hopes surrounding gaining a daughter-in-law, there is an expected shift when a woman changes her own position within the socio-cultural paradigm by becoming a mother and mother-in-law and gaining control over other young people. This definition of adulthood as the shift from having to follow the directives of others to being able to direct other people is underscored in Mohammed’s portrait. In Freetown, Sierra Leone, Mohammed is considered a youth precisely because he does not yet have young people to "patronize," and serves as a "client" to a "patron" himself. He is a squatter who breaks rocks for the right to remain on the property as he works for different patrons, smuggling marijuana across the Liberian border, fighting for the pro-government Kamajor militia and doing political canvassing because he owes debts of respect and labour. He cannot afford to formally marry and one of the only ways for him to escape the obligations of youth and to reach adulthood is to move up along the chain by recruiting young people that he himself can protect and demand labour and allegiance from.

When the requirements of gaining full adult status are significant and the opportunities are few, there is a prolonged period of youth marked by the responsibilities of adulthood and the limited agency associated with youth. Vusi from South Africa is in his late-20s but is considered a youth in this volume: adult demands such as the exposure to political brutality and the need to provide for his girlfriend and child coexist with youthful traits such as economic dependency and a hedonistic lifestyle.

Surviving on Friendship
The importance of cohort in providing a level of relief and security, as a young person tries to follow multiple, incompatible approaches is emphasized in Blacc’s portrait. Homeless in New York City, he initially chooses to sleep on the train rather than stay at a shelter so as to not be separated from his friends. This is a critical survival strategy- friends can look out for each other, raise the alarm if there are policemen nearby, provide information about available food and shelter and even form tight-knit "street families". However, independence is also crucial for survival and shelters are designed to serve individuals. This need to negotiate contradictory strategies is a constant in Blacc’s life, as he has to fight for survival on the streets while also trying to lay low so as to not attract attention to himself or get kicked out of the shelter.

One of the ways in which youth cope with the challenges they face is by shifting strategies and even identity, to find the niche that suits them most. 17-year-old Norwegian Helena living in England exemplifies how racial identity can be bent. She is Caucasian but has a passion for hip-hop, rap and R&B swing, frequently tans her skin to look as dark as possible and attends dances where she is sometimes ridiculed for being the only white person in the group. She rejects “moneyed whiteness", asserting the authenticity of her interest in Black culture as opposed to that of more affluent "snobs" who follow trends but are not committed to be different as the definition of what is "cool" changes. In an effort to cope with her working class and foreigner status, Helena chooses to identify with a very different but also marginalized group to find a place where she can "fit in".

Reconciling Contested Identities

Kabir, an 18-year-old Scottish Muslim, refuses having to choose between possibly incompatible identities, straddling both his Muslim and Scottish identity in order to negotiate his environment, describing himself using metaphors such as that of a blue square, where neither characteristic compromises the other. In a global climate of fear and distrust of the Islamic faith and a society where he faces racism and intolerance, Kabir asserts his national identity at the same time as calling himself an activist for his right to practice religion and for the rights of his religious community. Through a description of his daily routines and long-term community activism goals, he consciously contradicts stereotypes of young people as apathetic and disengaged.

Like Kabir, Nala, a 36-year old Maasai woman from Tanzania, considers activism central to her role in society. Nala was a vocal activist for her community even in primary school, opposing discrimination against the Maasai, and has effectively organized youth and women’s groups since she was 16, negotiating a rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal society to attend secondary school and set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on women’s empowerment.

This volume provides a nuanced introduction to the lives of youth around the world through vignettes that illustrate youth negotiating the difficulties of life in their respective societies with awareness and consciously developed tactics. While material circumstances differ according to local context, the experience of marginalization and the effort to gain agency are central themes in the lives of youth worldwide. The experience of being a woman in patriarchal Maasai society is undoubtedly different from that of a working class caucasian woman in England, a Muslim man in Scotland, a homeless man in New York or a man coerced into the militia in Sierra Leone. Thus their tactics for negotiating contested space and attempts to gain agency differ too. This book does a good job of exhibiting different personalities of the youth, which also impact how they react to their various circumstances. However, within difference there is one great commonality; youth worldwide are trying to overcome marginalization, whether by attempting to change their own position in the system (Mohammed), changing the system that they choose to identify with (Helena) or changing how their own system functions (Nala).

I have pulled out some of the themes as they are unraveled in the lives of some of the youth considered in the volume, but it is certainly not exhaustive. As Nala’s profile illustrates, when personal biographies are used to forward a global agenda, facets of the person’s life can be compromised and misrepresented. A partner organization of the NGO that Nala manages used pictures of a Maasai coming of age ceremony for fund-raising, a measure that they considered extremely effective to show their commitment to and understanding of the people they are working with, but to Nala this was a betrayal of the trust of the community through public use of photographs without permission. The authors and editors of this volume are mindful of the politics of representation and attempt to use the voices of the youth as much as possible as they go about describing their lives. Nonetheless, key themes can be followed through and the introduction and afterword function as bookends for a volume that manages to form a coherent whole despite its ambitious scope.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


There was supposed to be a flash mob near the Red Square yesterday. A month before the UN Copenhagen conference of Dec 7, a group of Muscovites had arranged to stand near the square, open up umbrellas under a clear sky and wonder what weather they might predict for the future. The choice of day was unfortunate, coinciding with Veteran's Day activities. A tight cordon of police officers blocking all access to the area, including the crossings and the actual Red Square and surrounding spaces, made getting to the scheduled spot impossible as a Communist Party procession blocked the entire road for a few kilometers (who knew there were so many of them still in Russia?!). The message? Political ideological struggles take precedence over worries about climate change, and the hundreds of pro-communist protesters were far more organized and visible than the handful of scattered people with umbrellas.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

150 kms from the Arctic Circle

Russians like to travel south for vacations but I have to tendency to do things backwards. I went to South America when it was winter there and now, I just spent the last bit of good summer weather by traveling as far north as I have ever been (and will ever be, most probably). I went to Solovki- it was cold, windy and full of pilgrims who were often just short of fanatics deeply concerned with the salvation of my atheistic soul, but it was mostly sunny, the two times it did rain I saw rainbows, I had a bicycle I could ride/pull through where four wheel drives were stuck in muck, the swamps were full of berries and mushrooms and oh yes, it was absolutely beautiful. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The wrath of the carnivores

Different people have different notions about what it means to be a vegetarian. There are places where the concept is unheard of, while a fair number of people equate vegetariansm with 'malnourished hippies who only eat vegetables' or 'people who dont eat any milk, cheese or other animal products' (that's veganism). While traveling in South America I came across some other interesting misconceptions regarding this group of 'social radicals.' Here's an example:

An otherwise fantastic country, Peru, was fairly disappointing when it came to food for the vegetarian budget traveler (moi). The food seems to include a lot of meat (often fried, but I digress) and finding someting I could eat was a bit of a challenge. I generally resorted to "I'm vegetarian. Do you have something on the menu that does not contain meat?" I mostly subsided on rice and salad but there were times when joint after joint responded to my query with a negative and affirmative responses have been followed up with "we have chicken" or "how about fish?" While fish don't help me any, I can see where they might be coming from, but chicken?! How is that not meat?

My rant continues... I find myself seriously dreading the ordeal of airplane food. The vegetarian meal is generally labeled 'special', reminiscent of the euphemism for disabled people in nations like the United States. There have been times when I have forgotten to specify a vegetarian meal when booking my flight, but then I deserved what I got. However, it really disturbs me when there is a delicious-sounding non-meat option (like cheese ravioli) offered to ther passengers, but my tray is snatched away from me right before I can peel back the foil, as the stewardess remembers that I am consigned to a dessert-less vegetarian non-dairy version of boiled vegetables and rice. I get a bun of bread but no butter. Worse, someone goofed up on my flight from Lima to Sao Paolo and they had no meal for me. The flight was three hours late to start with and instead of giving us meal vouchers we were served ham and cheese sandwiches (for beverages, we had Coca Cola and Inca Cola- the South American version of radioactivically yellow cough syrup with gummy bears dissolved in it, but no water). I was understandably looking forward to the meal on the flight but after much waiting they offered me the 'chicken meal' with the pieces of meat picked out. (How is this not a perfect opportunity to sue the airline?) When I refuzed, not without the adamant tone of a martyr, the flight staff became apologetic and offered me extra salad, a bag of chips and a green puree of unidentifiable content that they called soup. Not the most fabulous meal I've ever had but at least I didn't have to go hungry. Something similar happened on my bus from Cuzco to Lima (the trip took 20 hours) but there I had to resort to pulling out the meat from the sandwich and trying to ignore the smell and taste.

In addition to being miffed about the inconvieniences my dietary choices often amount to, I'm sick and tired of having to explain why I'm a vegetarian as I eat rice around a piece of chicken or discover that the crouton in my soup is actually a chunk of bovine femur. I'd like to hear you bloodthirsty carnivores defned your hedonistic diet for a change! What pisses me off even more is when people knowingly nod their heads and say "aah, you're from India" (and thus vegetarian by default). My agency and the conscious (and admittedly somewhat self-righteous) decision are taken away from me, replaced by ill-founded prejudices about regional religious superstition. And those of you who find it funny to tell me to try a bit of your meal, that it's a type of shoot/exotic vegetable when in fact it's bovine intestinal lining, you may be my friend but you are throughly evil. I am right and you are wrong and you would be a vegetarian too, if only you knew better!

I'll end the rant here for today. Don't get me started again!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Adventures of Ali Baba and Vodka

Jamaica Kincaid points out that the tourist is an ugly thing: a squinting, camera-toting ball of dough who keeps bothering people who are trying to go on with their lives with silly questions barely framed in a bad mockery of the local language (if they try at all). While I'm all for traveling (a traveller is nobler than a tourist) I remember expressing disgust at people who sign up for slum tourism, for example. What do they expect out of it- to see people poorer than they had imagined possible so that they may feel happy about their own lot while also congratulating themselves for their ability to be a bleeding heart foreigner who helps the poor people by bringing in some revenue (it is arguable whether any of the money goes to the community)? Of course my holier than thou attitude takes a bit of a beating when I get to Sao Paolo or Rio and a part of me wants to take a look at the nearby favelas. This is perhaps also in part because of the danger, not despite it, though to say the truth I don't really believe that it is extremely dangerous (the ignorant tourist?).

When it comes to exoticization, I had thought of the tourist as the one with agency- the one who gawks at the local people and customs to come to some conclusion along the lines of 'how quaint'- while forgetting that the local people also have prejudices that they may be more than willing to share. There is currently a hugely popular soap opera running on Brazilian TV that becomes the topic of conversation every time my nationality is mentioned and after a lot of smiling and 'namaste'ing, I am asked questions such as "why do Indians follow the caste system?" While getting on the bus at Sao Paolo, someone asked me where I was from (this happens rarely unless I open my mouth, apparently I look Brazilian) and as the bus pulled away, he yelled "Ali Baba" after me. Tania, on the other hand, has almost awalys been greeted with the word 'vodka' when she mentions where she is from. I guess Indians can claim a slightly more varied heritage in the common Brazilian consciousness than Russia.

To be a foreigner can be a very convienient thing. People have generally been very helpful when it comes to navigation, sometimes stopping what they were doing to show us the way- some may call it mollycoddling but it's convienient and wonderful after hours of fruitlessly trying to find the place on our own, so I won't complain. We asked a cop for directions in Rio yesterday (we needed to figure out where to take a bus to the metro from) and instead of pointing out the bus stop, he gave us a ride to the metro in his car. He was very excited, in fact ecstatic at having met a Russian who speaks Portuguese and an Indian who speaks Russian. Of course we didn't mind the cool ride either. I doubt he would have done the same for people hailing from less exotic places. Maybe I should put on a bindi and start namaste-ing before any conversation with the locals :P

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Istanbul, July 30-August 2, 2009

I love Istanbul. The food, the sea, the tramway that makes navigation so easy, the hilly roads and by-lanes that make navigation impossible, the people, the food, the shopping, the magnificent opulence juxtaposed with colorful little European style houses with flowers on balcony grills, and did I mention the food? Of course nothing can beat baklava (and I ate enormous quantities of it) but I also loved sipping Ayran (similar to lassi), salatali pilav (similar to veg pulao for the desis) with kuru fasulye (bean soup) and kumpir (which is similar to крошка картошка, a baked potato served with cheese, yogurt, beans, peas and some 20 other toppings). I've decided I need to move to Istanbul, sit by the Bosphorous as I gorge myself on baklava and then trek back to my apartment on top of a hill on a hard-to-find nook of Beşiktaş.

Part of what might have made me feel so at home in Istanbul is the Turkish language. I only knew a handful of words before and the language sounds completely foreign but throughout the days in the city, I kept coming across words in Turkish that are either the same as or very similar to words in Hindi (talk about linguistic borrowings leading to a complicated displaced sense of 'home'!) Here's a sampler for those interested: kitap (book), hafta (week), sabah (morning), meydan (arena), hakim (judge), sabun (soap), amrut (guava), nar (pomegranate), sharap (alcohol), shikayet (complaint), just to list a few. In terms of hospitality, it also helped when I saw people going far out of their way to help us out- a woman who was rushing somewhere stopped when I asked for directions and asked around for about 15 minutes until she found and showed me the doorway of the house I needed. It's in stark contrast with the city I currently live in, which I love for other reasons, but where any pleas for assistance will almost certainly be met with a "не знаю".

I think my favorite part of Istanbul (besides the food :P) was the view. The hilly roads coupled with the view of the water reminded me of Athens and it made me nostalgic for a place I barely remember but want to return to. While we had some minor scares between me and my friend- like a lost cellphone (found), a lost MP3player (gone), overbooking on the flight and someone else with the same seat designation, a night spent at the airport due to late night arrival and misinformation about taxis, etc., they were minor blips on an otherwise excellent couple of days.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hasta La Vista!

I haven't blogged in a very long time, what with the advent of summer, several camping trips, friends and parties, a reading spree and life otherwise taking precedence- this is also the first summer when I am not a child or student, but expected to work 10-6, five days a week...sigh. I've also been spending a chunk of my time planning a trip recently and several months of Spanish lessons, four visas, two immunizations, long waits in 'official' spaces and a bunch of hours of frenzied planning later, Tania and I are more or less ready to take off on a month-long trip in less than a week! For those of you who care, I'll put up the itinerary as it now stands and I'll try to touch base every once in a while when we are on the road.

Thurs, 30 July- Istanbul
Sun, 2 August- Sao Paulo
Wed, 5 Aug- Rio De Janeiro
Fri, 7 Aug- Lavras
Sat, 8 Aug- Belo Horizonte
Sun, 9 Aug, Brasilia
Wed, 12 Aug- San Ignacio
Thurs, 13 Aug- Santa Cruz
Sat, 15 Aug- La Paz
Tue, 18 Aug- Puno
Thurs, 20 Aug- Cuzco, Machu Picchu
[~] some days to make up for late buses, missed transfers, getting lost, and otherwise adding some time to breathe
Tue, 25 Aug- Lima
Fri, 28 Aug- Sao Paulo
And come September, its back to Moscow for me.

We touch Turkey for a bit before making our way through Brazil, Bolivia and half of Peru by road, before I fly back to Sao Paulo and then Moscow (and get back to work) and Tania spends another month traveling through Argentina and possibly Colombia before heading back through Brazil. (Those of you who might be feeling jealous of me, concentrate the evil thoughts and send them her way instead :P).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Fiend

A Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Unlike most of Fitzgerald's short stories, this one is not about high society, the roller coaster ride of money gained and lost or love and relationships among wealthy (or stuggling upper class) Americans in Paris or Prague. Instead, this six-page story opens with a newpaper-article like report of the murder of Mrs. Crenshaw Engels and her seven year old son while they were taking a walk on a sunny afternoon in Stillwater, Minnesota. The particulars of the murder are not mentioned and the author tells the readers that the circumstances were "so atrocious that, fortunately, it is not necessary to set them here." The murderer is also never named anything other than "the fiend."

This story succinctly deals with the unique relationship that develops between Crenshaw Engels and the murderer. Crenshaw loses everything as a result of the events of that afternoon- his wife and child, all happiness in life, his photography shop business, his home and even a measure of his sanity. The fiend is caught and sentenced to life imprisonment and after several unsucessful attemps to kill the murderer- ranging from desperate attempts to strangle him in court and to sneak into the prison to shoot him to more planned attempts to make capital punishment legal in the state- Crenshaw settles into his life of work as a department store clerk. His life is society is like a biluous dream while what really keeps him going are his regular visits to the two graves and to the fiend, where he uses all the tactics of mental torture at his disposal. It is only decades later, after the fiend dies suddenly of a ruptured appendix that Crenshaw realizes that somehow, over time, the fiend had transformed into his "only friend." This story poignantly captures the utter solitude of a man who lost everything, including the hatred that had been his last refuge in life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How I Got so Black and Blue

I see you wondering, when you look at my knee
for the sight is certainly quite plain to see
there are bumps, there are lumps, a scratch or two
How did I get so black and blue?

It's winter you know
the street's full of snow
there's even some ice here and there
While talking a walk
I was crossing a park
When I most definitely got a scare

I was returning home
and chatting on the phone
while munching on a tasty snack
I was taking a shortcut
through a small park, but
suddenly, there was a crack

I was climbing a fence -it was small
I would save me some time, I was wrong
well I slipped and I fell
and the marks here can tell
the impact was certainly strong

I swear I've ammended my ways,
I still take the shortcut these days
But now when I walk, I don't also talk
and my hands are ready, I'm as stable as rock
I step over carefully, I focus, not laze
and attempt to avoid further shock.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back

What is a lion to do, if a hunter insists on shooting him? Lafcadio tried to be civil:
"Hi hunter," he said.
"Good heavens," cried the hunter, "a ferocious lion, a dangerous lion, a roaring, bloodthirsty man-eating lion."

Lafcadio tried to reason with him but the hunter was simply not going to sway. The hunter exclaimed, "Lions eat hunters! So I must shoot you now and make you into a nice rug and put you in front of my fireplace and on cold winter evenings I will sit on you and toast marshmalows."
"Well, my goodness, you dont have to shoot me. I will be your rug and I will lie in front of your fireplace and I won't move a muscle and you can sit on me and toast all the marshmallows you want." The young lion was a polite as can be, if only perhaps a bit too curious about the ways of the hunters and the taste of marshmallows. When reasoning failed and the hunter attempted to load his gun to shoot the lion, Lafcadio had no option but to eat him up. Circumstances made out of Lafcadio exactly what the hunter had expected him to be, even though that was not what Lafcadio had started out as at all.

Well, time passed and Lafcadio became a great shot with the hunter's gun. After wave upon wave of hunters and other humans were shot by him, a man from the circus found Lafcadio and convinced him to become part of his business. Lafcadio accepted the offer, had his fill of marshmallows and was overall extremely successful in assimilating into the human world. However, at one point he seemed to have a mid-life crisis of sorts and his friends suggested going on a hunting trip to get his mind off of things. While at the hunt, he was recognized by one of the lions, and things came to a head when the hunters and lions forced him to choose a side.

"Poor, poor Lafcadio- what do you do when you don't want to be a hunter- and you don't want to be a lion?
"Look," he said, " I don't want to shoot any lions and I certainly don't want to eat up any of you hunters. I don't want to stay here in the jungle and eat raw rabbits and I certainly don't want to go back to the city and drink buttermilk. I don't want to chase my tail, but I don't want to play bridge either. I guess I don't belong in the hunter's world, and I guess I don't belong in the lion's world. I guess I don't belong anywhere.""

This feeling of having each foot in a different boat (or to stretch the metaphor, being an octupus with each tentacle anchored in a different culture, which are as differnt from each other as the worlds of lions and hunters) definitely resonated. "Is he a lion at all?" asks the voice in the blurb- and so perhaps the mixing of species in my metaphor is also strangely apt. Shel Silverstein's Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back is a children's story in the form of a modern fable that is enjoyable and thought-provoking reading for adults too. From the creator of beloved childhood poems in "Where the Sidewalk Ends," this is a must-read. The illustrations are an added bonus.