Blog Posts by Girish Shahane

  • Is Turkey the Key?

    Of the countries I've visited, my favourites happen to share important features. They are all large but not intimidating in size, with proportionate populations. They have a varied landscape, a mostly temperate climate, and enough fertile land not only to feed themselves, but to have evolved exceptional cuisines. They are old civilisations possessed of the cultural self-confidence that comes from having been centres of empires, without the hubris or smugness of perpetual victors. I'm thinking of Spain, France, Turkey and Iran, and would have added Italy to the group, had its citizens been less loud, rude and vain. Turkey, despite all its gifts, and a convenient location straddling Asia and Europe, went off the world's radar for decades. The Orient Express stopped running, and was replaced in the popular imagination by Midnight Express. Indians, who now flock to Istanbul and Cappadocia in the thousands, had little connection with Turkey between the collapse of the Khilafat movement and Read More »from Is Turkey the Key?

  • Osama, icons and iconoclasm

    Accounts of the life and death of Osama bin Laden typically describe him as, 'an icon to the cause of terror', and, 'the face of global jihad'. Bin Laden's face became iconic because of the way the world saw him: in interviews, snatches of archival footage, and video recordings made to spread his vision. His sensitive eyes, calm demeanor and softly enunciated speeches were unlikely and compelling transmitters of a virulent ideology. He understood the power of television and used the medium as no other terrorist has come close to doing. Recently discovered tapes, released by the US government as part of its propaganda war, reveal the extent of Osama's preoccupation with his own image.

    His deployment of that image is deeply ironic given the nature of his faith. He adhered to a strand of Islam called Salafism or Wahhabism which strongly opposes any kind of human representation in art and religion. In this view, the power of images makes them dangerous; they seduce humans into worshipping

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  • Fast Food and Smoking Guns

    When Ronald Reagan was wheeled into surgery after being shot in March 1981, he was minutes from death, but hadn't been bled of his sense of humour. Addressing the assembled team of doctors he said he hoped they were Republicans. The surgeon who would save the President's life, a liberal democrat named Joseph Giordano, replied, "We are all Republicans today". The formula 'We are all X today' is now commonly used to signify identification with a group in crisis. 2011 has thus far proved a prime year for deploying the phrase. In early January, we were all Tunisians; later that month, we were Egyptians, standing in spirit with protestors in Tahrir Square. In early February, Yemen briefly commanded our attention, but Libya soon took over the headlines. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami drew our gaze eastward in March before the World Cup's knockout stage brought it home. Anna Hazare cannily postponed his fast to preempt a clash with the infinitely more compelling drama of the India - Sri Read More »from Fast Food and Smoking Guns

  • Chocolate and Petrol

    The Cocoa Exchange on Wall Street, a highrise built in the early twentieth century, is now dwarfed by characterless towers containing offices of the world's biggest trading institutions. The building's name is as surprising as its quaint, ornate appearance. Who would have thought cocoa once merited a skyscraper of its own in the world's financial capital? Despite the millions of chocolate addicts across the world (I can be counted among them), cocoa does not figure in our imagination today as a crucial driver of the world's economy. When the French military participates in a UN backed operation in Ivory Coast, we do not cynically dismiss it by saying, "It's a conspiracy to control the world's chocolate, led by France whose culinary industry depends heavily on the commodity." Few politicians will lose votes because Easter eggs are dearer this year than they were in 2010.

    Cocoa was first grown and consumed in Mexico, but it was Europeans who discovered it combined well with sugar, and

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  • Of Football, Potholes and Britishness

    I read the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn Rovers' defence. Other journalists are bound to pinch and twist John Lennon's words, as I have done, in describing Blackburn's 1-7 defeat to Manchester United. There will probably be a few chicken jokes thrown in as well. The 27 November encounter was, after all, only the second game after the team's takeover by Venky's, an India-based producer of broilers, hatchlings and powdered eggs. Venky's obviously found it easier to buy into the EPL than the IPL. The firm's surprising acquisition underlines an issue that's been discussed with increasing urgency in recent years: What is English about the English Premier League?

    A similar question could be asked about the town of Blackburn. One of the earliest cities to experience the benefits of the industrial revolution, it flourished as a textile centre operating within a classical imperialist paradigm: importing raw materials from India and exporting finished goods to that same

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  • Diplomacy

    The visit of Barack Obama to India began with commentators generally treating him with suspicion. Obama appeared to be damaged goods after his party's drubbing in the mid-term election. He had repeatedly made statements against outsourcing, interpreted as harbingers of a new protectionism and a threat to India's software services exports. During his Presidential campaign, he'd suggested the US prod India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, an idea that's anathema to the Indian establishment. By the time the US President left the country, his visit was being hailed an unqualified success, having combined symbolic value with practical progress. His speech to Parliament pressed all the right buttons, referring to the invention of zero, the Panchatantra, Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda and Ambedkar.

    At one point during his lavish praise of India, however, Obama pointed to a shortcoming in India's diplomatic policy. He said, "Every country will follow its own path. No one nation has a

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  • Armies and the man

    The construction of the Adarsh Cooperative Housing Society, a 31-floor structure overlooking sensitive military installations in Colaba, hints strongly at corruption among politicians and bureaucrats, as also among high-ranking officers in the armed forces.

    While journalists have been exposing conflicts of interest among those who signed off on building permissions, it might be time to reverse our gaze and ask, "What are military bases doing in areas occupied by slums and looming skyscrapers?"

    It's an unfair question at one level, because the military got there first. Considering how difficult it is to stop the spread of tower blocks and shanties in a place like Bombay, however, it's wise to take a pragmatic approach instead of simply asserting the military's precedence. The army itself has not been able to stop some of its land being occupied by squatters.

    The city has witnessed a long history of conflict between civilian development and security concerns. When the Bombay Stock

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  • The Lonely Planet Misguidebook

    They didn't fly down for the Commonwealth Games as some had hoped, but tourists are now thronging the country. I see more each time I visit town, ruddy-cheeked and flustered in the October heat, beset by urchins, hawkers and touts. Most have a guidebook in their hand, and it is usually a copy of Lonely Planet, India.

    Not long ago, the Australia-based Lonely Planet was merely one among many travel publishers. Let's Go dominated the young American backpacker market, and Rough Guides had established a strong following among independent British travellers. But those two lagged as Lonely Planet expanded beyond is core Asian destinations and shoestring itineraries. It then began eating into the market share of established continental European imprints, while fending off new entrants on its own turf. Since BBC Worldwide took a majority stake in 2007, LP has bolstered its online presence to supplement its physical ubiquity. It's possible more people today understand India through the Lonely

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  • Down the Drain

    Of the many foolish statements made in the past weeks by organisers of the Commonwealth Games, none was sillier than secretary general Lalit Bhanot's claim that, if some delegates were finding conditions in the Games Village intolerable, it was because "their standards of hygiene differ from us (sic)". Attributing the complaints to "cultural differences", Bhanot explained, "Everyone has different standards about cleanliness. The Westerners have different standards, we have different standards."

    Bhanot's words, entirely deserving of the ridicule heaped on them, were a novel twist to the philosophy of multiculturalism (MC). MC holds that different societies have varying value systems, each of which deserves respect.

    MC ideology was big in the 1990s. In North America, the metaphor of the melting pot was replaced by that of the salad bowl and the mosaic. In Southeast Asia, Lee Kwan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad argued for political systems based on Asian values, specifically a preference for

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  • A Recipe for Famine

    First the good news: India's inflation rate dropped substantially in August. Now the catch: the fall was due mainly to a change in the basket of commodities used to measure inflation. The government's new index curtails the impact of food prices, which have been worryingly high for the past couple of years.Â

    The Department of Food and Public Distribution's annual report reveals the irrational policies behind the nation's current food problem. The government's procurement of grain rose from 34 million tons in 2006-2007 to 57 million tons in 2008-2009; the minimum support price for wheat was hiked from Rs.650 per quintal to Rs.1000; the MSP for rice went from Rs.580 per quintal in 2006-2007 to Rs.950 in 2009-2010. The distribution of grain, meanwhile, barely budged, leading to an expansion in buffer stocks from 17 million tons in January 2007 to 47 million tons in January 2010. Storage facilities did not keep pace with the ballooning grain reserve. Remarkably, the total warehousing

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