Saturday, December 25, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Year We Talked Privacy

The year 2010 will be best remembered for the questions it threw up about privacy. On the one hand, governments and figures of authority everywhere have stepped up their scrutiny of people: in the US, debates rage over the invasion of privacy caused by full-body scanners at airports; Indians are going to have to get used to having their biometric data collected; some schools this past year have installed CCTVs in school. Let me bite my tongue before it says Orwell!

On the other hand, we have those who belong to the Great Scrutinised trying to return the favour. Wikileaks, on twitter, links to a poster that says “Intelligence Needs Counter-Intelligence”. With the word redefined to no longer mean ‘disinformation’, the ‘counter-intelligence’ camp has people such as Wikileaks, RTI activists and a few remaining members of what we like to call ‘the free press’, who do more than accept the word of authority figures, that all that is done is for the greater good.

If the right to privacy is the right of an individual to ‘seclude information about themselves and reveal themselves selectively’ (wikipedia) then we are seeing more breaches of privacy than before in the name of safety. We need to not only redefine privacy in light of new technologies, but also ask whose privacy we are talking about. The privacy of an individual differs greatly from that of corporations (which are, nevertheless, granted personhood in law) and governments.

Privacy is also not the same as secrecy, though it’s a distinction governments and corporations are at pains to blur. When the heads of corporate houses invoke the right to privacy, what they really want is for their own excursions in information-gathering and in influencing policy to remain secret. When governments are red-faced over diplomatic cables being made public, what they object to is having already-held suspicions confirmed.

Let’s be honest: we’re all in the business of information gathering. It’s the reason why we hang out at coffee shops, over the neighbour’s wall, at the water cooler and on Facebook (whose position on privacy is, if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear from having your data in the public domain). We are all public creatures by virtue of being human and perfect privacy is possible only with perfect isolation.

Governments and activists operate on the belief that transparency leads to accountability.

Despite the not-very-stringent provisions we have in India to shield the data of individual and larger entities, it has always been possible (though not always legal) to unearth information, even if it’s carefully hidden.

In effect, what we’ve always had is not privacy but an illusion of it. This is one of the arguments that people in favour of the UID offer: that the perceived loss of privacy in having a unified identification number does not outweigh the benefits that many disadvantaged people will gain just by having their individual self recognised. After all, if privacy is inseparable from personhood, it has no meaning for those whose existence is not even recognised by the state. In other words, privacy is a concern only for those who have legal existence.

But as we’ve seen with the Radia tapes becoming public, the intention behind the gathering of data and the effects of its unintended use are two completely different things. Making some data public might have consequences we see as good; but what if, for instance, data is mined to persecute minorities – whether religious, caste-based, or gendered?

One way of achieving privacy is to hide behind a firewall of excess information, like Hasan Elahi did. When he found himself on the US government’s watch-list as a suspected terrorist, and was detained in 2002 and questioned by the FBI, Elahi began to make public every minute of his life as photographic material. He put up massive amounts of material online and called it The Orwell Project. Anybody watching him seriously would have to deal with a tsunami of information – at first with incomprehension and finally with disinterest.

As a blogger said, ‘Everybody is in favour of other people’s openness.’ I’m sure those in the privacy storms will agree – even if only secretly.

This appeared in today's edition of the New Indian Express.


Am awa on vacation, so the links in this piece are pretty sketchy; but for anything Assange related, please go to Zunguzungu. For the rest, all responses only in the new year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Serendip [No. 1460 of 2000]

The greatest find of the Hyd Lit Fest: a remaindered copy of Dom Moraes' Serendip at the OUCIP. Made even more special because it was owned by Issac Sequeira.

 The image below - which for some reason I am unable to rotate, though I'd done the rotating before uploading, and if someone can tell me how to fix this, I'll be most grateful - is DM's signature, with a line that says "This special edition is limited to 2000 signed, numbered copies of which this copy is number 1460."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Walking and Talking

A day that begins under the setting moon is a good day. These days, I wake up early and stand outside in the garden long before the sun has hinted at its arrival, and watch everything around me still asleep. The dogs have finished their chorus against the cold some time around 2am; the neighbours are asleep, the streetlights are still on.

For someone who used to enjoy spending time outdoors, I have recently found myself chained to my laptop. While my mother and son plant things, I retreat to my room and complain that the mosquitoes have a contract out especially for me. I cite allergies and the smoke from burning leaves as reasons for my voluntary incarceration. I memorise the appearance of new flowers from my window as if I had to pass a test on them. I baffle myself.

It wasn’t always like this. Where I live, it was easy to walk and I used to do a lot of that. In recent years, though, the narrow roads in our area have become congested with building materials and all the machinery associated with construction. With more people moving in, there’s more trash that doesn’t get lifted, and the municipal workers elect to burn the garbage in the collection bins instead of moving it. My excuses for not stepping out are valid: the air is noxious around here.

But the experience of early morning has recently inspired me, and on a weekend when my son asked to go cycling, I agreed to walk along with him. A few roads away, there is one sheltered square that, for some reason, is free from the urbanisation the rest of us have to endure. The roads are assiduously swept, and there isn’t much traffic. It’s safe for children cycling at reckless speeds, and perfect for adults who daydream while they walk.

It occurred to me that this was my natural environment: this place that successfully muffled the city but was within shouting distance of it; this carefully constructed parkland. It shames me somewhat to realise that what I call my natural environment is really a high-maintenance hothouse, preserving exotic species that are otherwise incapable of surviving the prevalent conditions outside.

But what can I say? I love cities in theory and in small doses. I don’t much like having to negotiate them on a daily basis. Give me my trees and the early morning and I’m happy.


As you read this, Hyderabad is hosting its first Literary Festival. Jaipur, Kovalam, Chennai and Delhi are all on India’s literary map and have been for some time now; but Hyderabad, stranded somewhere in the Deccan and close to no other place, has always suffered a literary drought. I spend a lot of my time cribbing to writer friends that they leave my city out of their itinerary when they embark on a reading tour.

Muse India, an online literary journal, has (with the support of several partner organisations), I hope, changed all that with this first festival. This year, most of the invitees are poets, and the emphasis is not only on Anglophone writers. I see this as an encouraging sign, and an opportunity for everyone to interact with writers writing in different languages.

The last time an event like this took place in this city was at the ACLALS conference in 2004. At that time, the buzz was palpable, with hotels and universities teeming with conversations and readings. It’s a measure of how little happens in Hyderabad that an event from six years ago should still be memorable.

Many places do their bit toward making the city a more culturally active place: Lamakaan, the Goethe Zentrum, the Alliance Française and the US Consulate all bring different events to the people. And yet, there’s a general feeling of discontent, as if all this wasn’t enough.

I think the reason is that the city itself doesn’t throw up enough of its own writers, dancers, playwrights, singers and artists. This is not to say they don’t exist; merely that they’re probably shyer than most, and they’re not in conversation with each other. Perhaps the Hyderabad Literary Festival will do its bit to change that.


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. Sonia Faleiro. Hamish Hamilton. Pp 216. Rs. 450.

The precise point at which Sonia Faleiro hooked me was a couple of pages into the first chapter, when she describes her protagonist Leela’s evident disinterest in the author’s life: ‘Leela wanted only to be heard. And the best way to accomplish that, she knew, was not to change the subject if the subject was her. So our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me.’

The relationship between Leela and Faleiro may be one-sided but it is far from being an exploitative one; in fact, it comes across as a genuine friendship that manages to bridge the uncountable barriers of class, experience and expectation. This must have something to do with Faleiro being a woman and one, furthermore, whose primary interest in Leela is not transactional. Just as a counterpoint, I am reminded of the documentary film I Am the Very Beautiful by Shyamal Karmakar, where the filmmaker’s more personal relationship with Ranu Das, the bar singer protagonist, is more troubling and the filmmaker’s position more invidious.

Faleiro’s position as friend and observer whose intentions are never suspect, opens out the narrative in directions other than the nature of relationships between writers of non-fiction and their subjects, with extraordinary results. The book ranges far to provide background while being tethered to the personal narratives of its subject and her friends.

In one chapter, Faleiro sketches a brief history of Kamatipura while recounting a visit to the place to celebrate the birthday of Gazala, a brothel madam. While there, the cops come to demand bribes of the hijras and a fight ensues. Priya, Leela’s closest friend, who tolerates Faleiro for Leela’s sake, and whose interactions with the author are frequently prickly, watches the author and this is how Faleiro reports it: ‘“You wanted to know us better, Sonia,” she said, sardonically. “Come, come. Have your fun. Take foto,” she taunted.’

This willingness to put herself in the path of a subject’s scorn gives Faleiro herself a vulnerability that enriches her narrative: it is difficult to know someone else while keeping oneself safe from being understood in turn.

With a novelist’s skill, Faleiro shows Leela and her friends in their several moods – comic, feisty, despairing and indomitable – while never letting it be forgotten that it’s a brutal world she describes. Girls are raped, sold and abused in every way imaginable. They escape into a world that appears to offer them some measure of control over their own lives, some semblance of independence. But they’re aware that this independence and control is chimerical and temporary, depending as it does on their youth and beauty, on the favours of the men who surround them – the bar owners, the police, the landlordss and the gangsters – and they make the best of it.

If the ‘best of it’ is a determination to take every customer for what she can get from him, it’s an attitude that does not shock either the author or the reader. Because the reverse of this apparent manipulativeness is the desperation and insecurity that shadows the lives of these women; the marks of self-mutilation they leave on their bodies a testament to the difficulty of enduring their lives day after day.

Divided into two parts, Faleiro’s book begins in January 2005 and comes to an end nine months later, in September of that year, when the Maharashtra government’s decision to ban bar dancers on the grounds of morality, changed everything for these women, who thus far had considered themselves a cut above sex-workers, masseuses and others in ‘the line’ (a portmanteau word that suggests not just ‘profession’ but also gives a flavour of the adaptive properties of the English language).

In this second section, things become much darker for Leela and her friends. The spectre of HIV looms as many of them are forced to become sex-workers to make a living. Dubai is the promised land that could make things better for Leela and Priya, but the reader, just like the author, is skeptical –we recognise it for the mirage it is likely to be. Yet, Leela’s courage compels from the reader the same admiration, empathy and respect the author gives her.

If there is one thing this book could have done without, it is the unnecessarily eye-catching blurb on the front cover. Once you open the book, though, you’re in safe hands.

This review appeared in today's New Indian Express.

Friday, December 03, 2010

P. Sainath on the Banana Peel Republic

P. Sainath in this morning's Hindu:

Whether it is gas, spectrum, or mining, luxury private townships or other dubious land deals, the last 20 years have seen the consolidation of corporate power on a scale unknown in independent India. It would be wrong to disconnect the Radia tapes from this background. From pitching for licences, mines and spectrum using money and media power to pitching for ministerial candidates and portfolios by the same methods is not a huge leap. The same period has also seen the emergence of media themselves as major corporate entities. Today, we often have seamless movement between the personnel of some economic or financial newspapers and non-media corporations. An assistant editor goes off to Company ‘A' as a PRO, returns in a more senior post to the same newspaper. Next, goes on as chief PRO, or maybe even as chief analyst or a business manager to a bigger corporate. But the newspaper's door is open for his or her return, perhaps as resident editor.

The dominant media are not pro-corporate or pro-big business. They are corporates. They are big business. Some have margins of profit that non-media outfits might envy. Media corporations are into hundreds of businesses beyond their own realm. From real estate, hotels, mining, steel, chemicals, rubber and banks to power and sugar. Even into private treaties with other corporations in whom they acquire a stake. On the boards of India's biggest media companies are also top corporate leaders. Some who find places on the Governor's Forums of the World Economic Forum. Others heading private banks. And then there are top political leaders who directly own vast media empires. Who can hold ministerial portfolios (affecting these domains) while running their media fiefdoms. The dominant media are not pro-establishment. They are the establishment.
 Indeed. It's the perspective we needed after a week when everyone seemed to decide collectively that the Radia tapes were about a few individual journalists.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Hyderabad Literary Festival: Programme Schedule

Just a reminder that the Festival begins 10th December. Registration and other details on their website.

HLF Programme

Also, first time using this docstoc thing. Not sure I like it. Any alt recos?