Tuesday, September 9, 2008

French Lessons

When I was an undergraduate in college (in the last century), French was considered the language of diplomacy. My United States passport, despite the recent estranged “Freedom Fries era” of Franco-American relations, still states most entries in both English and French. Alas, in this brave new age, the diplomatic power of French appears to be slipping, not the least in Europe, and especially on its now contested borders with Russia.

France currently holds the presidency of the European Union, in which role and under the enterprising leadership of President Nicolas Sarkozy (whose name it is really too tempting in the present context to spell “Czarkozy”) France undertook to broker the withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgia after their recent incursion to “liberate” South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With typical French panache, the whole thing was neatly presented, apparently understood, and expected to be rapidly executed. However, it quickly became apparent that certain critical details of the original French draft of the terms of Russian withdrawal had literally been lost, or at least warped, in translation.

It all hinges on a prepositional dispute. Does the draft agreement call for security “for” South Ossetia, as the Georgian and English translations state, or does it call for security “in” South Ossetia as the Russian translation allows. The Russians are sticking with their translation, which they are interpreting to mean that their presence in South Ossetia is essential for security in this disputed territory. Mon dieu!

Alas, it was not always thus. For more than a century, French was the language of Russia’s erstwhile aristocracy. From 1762, when Catherine the Great became Russia’s czarina, to 1917 when the aristocratic family (down to the last child it was recently proved) was taken out into the woods and shot, the Russian ruling class liked nothing so much as to converse and write in the Gallic tongue. Catherine’s enthusiasm for the French philosophes and their bewitching ideas found their apogee in her fascination with Diderot, her subvention of his megalomaniac Encyclopédie project, her charitable purchase of his library, and her tolerance for—perhaps even her masochistic pleasure in—his rapturous transports of philosophical monologue in which he would so firmly and so repeatedly grip the monarch’s tender limbs that she protested: “I cannot get out of my conversations with him without having my thighs bruised and black and blue.”

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How times have changed. An oligarchy an aristocracy is not. I’d like to see Bernard Kouchner try that move on Vladmir Putin!

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In the meantime, perhaps it is time to concede that the linguistic imperium of 21st-century Europe is neither French nor Russian (nor Georgian), but English. If the European Union, under any presidency, just stuck to English, clearly the new lingua franca of Europe, all parties would be able to tell their “fors” from their “ins”—and get out of where they shouldn’t be as directed.

This is also posted on The World Policy Blog at http://worldpolicy.org/wordpress/2008/09/08/mira-kamdar-french-lessons/

Saturday, August 18, 2007

India at 60

India celebrated 60 years of independence on August 15.

Many were the nay-sayers around the world who scoffed at India's experiment with democracy. They have all been proven wrong. Democracy -- the fact that India belongs to her people -- is India's primary achievement, and may yet provide its salvation.

Will India fulfill the promise of this moment and make good on the pledge Jawaharlal Nehru made to the people of India in his famous midnight speech to free all Indians from 'poverty and disease and inequality of opportunity'?

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Will India have the political courage and the intellectual daring to imagine a post-industrial, 21st-century national destiny grounded in its own ancient traditions and the truly revolutionary message of non-violence that secured its freedom, or will it fall prey to the seductions of a 20th-century industrial consumer society in the American mode?

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I fear all signs are that India is choosing the latter path, betraying both the wisdom of one of its greatest progenitors, Mahatma Gandhi, and the life chances of most of its people.

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Here is the link to an article I published for a special report on India's independence for Forbes.com (in the privileged company of lead author Amartya Sen). http://www.forbes.com/2007/08/05/india-us-relations-oped-cx_mka_0813us.html

And here are links to two review essays that mention my recent book Planet India. The latter, by New America Media editor Sandip Roy is an interesting piece. I'm putting New America Media on my links if you care to read more there.




Friday, August 10, 2007

The World is Wet: The Globalization of Monsoon

It's raining, again, in Manhattan. Two days ago, torrential rains virtually shut down New York City. Thousands of commuters were stranded when the downpour flooded the city's subways and brought mass transportation to a grinding halt. Given no information by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, commuters desperately made calls on their mobile phones. Hundreds massed at street corners hoping against hope for a cab. Thousands crammed into overloaded buses.

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Now where have I seen this before? Oh right, July 2005, Bombay! Rains fell so hard and fast the city was paralyzed. Over 2,000 people died.

It was raining in Paris when I left last week. Unusually heavy rains paralyzed Britain last month, stranding residents and tourists alike, drowning motorways, campgrounds, and city streets. My Parisian and Londoner friends complain that this has been the dreariest summer they can remember. You'd be better off taking a rain umbrella than a beach umbrella to Paris Plages this year.

But none of the inconvenience the rains have inflicted on Britons, Parisians and New Yorkers this summer can remotely compare to what they have done to the long-suffering rural poor of India and Bangladesh. There, the monsoon is an annual event, essential to the survival of billions of people in South Asia. Every year, there is flooding. Some damage and deaths are expected. 2005 was really bad. Last year was also bad.

But this year has been unusually bad. Fields waiting for a good soak were entirely submerged for days longer than anyone could remember, ruining crops that in many cases were farming families' only hope for survival. Entire villages were drowned. Refugees from the floods have not received enough food aid. Now, as the waters recede, fears of massive epidemic disease are growing.

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For this, and other reasons, India will again have to import grain this year to meet its basic needs. The price is likely to be high.

In France and in the United States, a dry spring followed by the freakishly wet summer have hurt the grain harvest badly. Yields are expected to be as much as 30 percent lower this year over last in some areas.

And as if this weren't bad enough news for global food security, an increasing proportion of productive farmland is being used to produce biofuels. The current rush to get into the potentially lucrative biofuel business is great news for the big agricultural industrialists and terrible news for small farmers in the United States and hungry people in Asia and Africa.

Meanwhile, Greece, Romania and Croatia were treated to searing temperatures as high as 45 C that sparked massive wildfires, turned normally fertile fields into hard-baked wastelands, and killed a certain number of people who simply couldn't cope with the heat. We learn that the amount of ice that has melted at the polar ice cap this year puts previous years to shame.

In New York this past year, the daffodils bloomed in December. It snowed in April. Torrential rain in August? Why not?

In addition to the rain on Wednesday, a rare tornado touched down briefly in Brooklyn, sending trees crashing down onto parked cars and ripping roofs off row houses. Meanwhile, understandably insular New Yorkers learned our fair city was ripe for getting slammed by a hurricane of potentially record-breaking proportions that would make last Wednesday's flooding look like a bare sprinkle. I live on the 2nd floor (1st floor in the rest of the world) of a small building in the East Village, a neighborhood almost entirely built on reclaimed marshland. Time to move?

But where to go when the monsoon has gone global? If this summer isn't a wake-up call for citizens around the world that it's time to do more than talk about dealing with global warming, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

One More Reason to Love Paris: Free Bicycles

There are many reasons to fall in love with the City of Light but Paris' progressive mayor Bertrand Delanoë has just added one more: free bicycles. The new program is called "Vélib'" - a neologism from "vélo," bicycle and "libre," free. This from the same man who launched Paris Plage, seasonal sandy "beaches" on the banks of the Seine for Parisians unable to get away to the seashore in summer.

There are bicycle stands all over the city now, even one on my street.

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You can sign up for a year membership or just a day or a week, swipe your credit card for security deposit, and then check out a bicycle. The first half hour is free, but it goes up quickly from there. Two hours costs 7 Euros (a little more than $10). But the idea is to ride to where you need to go, park the bike at a stand near there (ending your borrowing time) and then check out another one when you need to move on. My neighborhood has a lovely system of bicycle lanes and there a tons of people bicycling around the city.

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Even though the program just started, I would say about half the people I saw were using the new free bikes; the other half their own bikes.

I'm used to using ZipCar in New York, a private system of checking out cars by the hour which is not too different from the idea behind Velib' -- except that it is private and it is for cars. In principle, any Parisian willing to do some pedalwork and in possession of a credit or debit card to assure the security deposit can get around the city now absolutely free. And this in a city that boasts what may be the finest subway system in the world, the famous Métro.

The Vélib bicycles are stylishly retro, with little baskets at the handle bars so you can put the fruits and vegetables you picked up at the market and your baguette there as you ride home.

While I delighted in yet another public amenity in a city and a country that doesn't skimp on investing in the res publica, breaking news from America spoiled my carefree mood. First there was the horrible news of the steam pipe explosion near Grand Central. Then, not too long after, the even more horrible news of the Twin Cities' bridge collapse in Minnesota. The contrast was pretty stark: A country investing in public infrastructure specifically designed to relieve urban congestion, get cars off city streets and improve air quality (not to mention people's health - no need to pay for a health club if your biking to work every day!) versus a country whose 20th- or even 19th-century infrastructure is crumbling away because it doesn't directly pay anyone to keep it up.

Here is a bicycle lane near my Paris apartment, separated from the street by a line of parked cars, one-way. The other way is on the other side of a park built over a section of the Canal St. Martin.

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Of course, plenty of people bicycle around my neighborhood in New York, but they do so at some risk to life and limb. There are special lanes for fire trucks in New York City that are used by regular traffic when no fire truck is present but few lanes for bicycles, aside from the parks along the Hudson and the East rivers. The lanes that do exist on city streets are on the traffic side of parked cars with no curb or other protective measure. The result is that taxis, delivery trucks, people making turns and other motor vehicles constantly use the bicycle lanes, especially to double park. This creates a real hazard for cyclists who must then swerve out into oncoming vehicular traffic to avoid the cars and trucks parked in their lane.

As far as I know, Michael Bloomberg's visionary clean air plan for New York City does not include a system of free bicycles for use by city residents and visitors, nor major investment in a network of safe bicycle lanes separated from vehicular traffic.

But hey, we'll always have Paris.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Mango Madness

I just posted a long comment ("Mango Madness") on Intentblog on the U.S. decision to clear Indian mangoes for import. It seems that none of the people understandably gushing about Indian mangoes and eagerly awaiting their arrival in America are aware that 1) all Indian mangoes coming into the United States must be irradiated in an approved facility before leaving India, and 2) only commercial imports are allowed. Sorry, no boxes checked in at the airport like our European friends so blithely do and no odd mango tucked into a checked bag or a carry-on, no matter how absolutely perfect it is.

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Check out my long comment, including an excerpt from Motiba's Tattoos on my grandfather's loving attentions to the crate of Alphonsos that he nurtured to perfect ripeness under his bed each season in Bombay at http://www.intentblog.com/archives/2007/07/mango_madness.html If that doesn't work, go to Contributors, go to my name and you'll get to the post from there.

Le Bollywood bis

I received several fascinating comments via e-mail to my post Le Bollywood, and encourage readers to post comments on the blog site. A revision: the Indian-origin population of France is more on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 people (according to French demographer and India expert Christophe Guilmoto), and the largest group are people from Pondicherry.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Le Bollywood

What is it with the French fascination with Bollywood? Not that Bollywood isn't popular around the world but the French mania for Bollywood strikes me as, well, so French. First, there is the fact that France, unlike the United States or the United Kingdom for example, has no major Hindi-language film buff population. So, the Bollywood mania is almost entirely driven by what the French call français de souche, or native-born, culturally French people and not by immigrants from India. The small South Asian population in France (where there are only about 10,000 people of Indian origin as opposed to 2.2 million in the U.S.) is mostly made up of ethnic Tamil political refugees from the civil war in Sri Lanka, and while the Indian grocery stores, sari shops and CD vendors that line the Boulevard Saint-Denis (Paris' equivalent of Jackson Heights, Queens) all sport posters of Bollywood mega-stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, they also have plenty of posters up for Tamil-language film and music stars.
Yet, what other country, aside from India or perhaps South Asia, has featured its candidates for the national beauty pageant (for the title the French call Miss France, not Mademoiselle France -- but that will have to be the subject of another blog!) has had its bikini-clad young contestants cavort on stage to Bollywood music as flower petals fell on them from above?

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I almost fell down myself last year -- and I did have a hurrying commuter slam into me -- when I suddenly stopped my rapid walk down a long tunnel connecting one train line to another in the Paris Metro to gawk at an improbable series of huge posters advertising a "pizza Bollywood" which promised to transport the eater to Delhi in 30 minutes. (That's right, Delhi, not Bombay or Mumbai as it's called now where Bollywood gets its name from.) Even more arresting for me was the fact that this bizarre confection was being peddled by Pizza Hut, an American fast-food chain that has never, to my knowledge, tried to market a Bollywood Pizza in the United States. The clash of cultures in this one advertised product makes my head spin. I think it is fascinating that Pizza Hut's "local" marketing in Paris, France takes a detour through India, or through some strange French mass consumer notion of India via a uniquely French orientalized Bollywood.

Are you an American dreaming of visiting France? Well, if you log onto the official French tourism site in search of castles, wineries and museums and find your way to Lille, you'll end up in India. You might think you clicked the wrong icon or that a malicious pop-up or hacker has taken you against your will away from the land of Gauloises to the land of Charminars. Lille is well into a thriving love affair with Bombay and India that has brought authors, dancers, musicians and stands selling all sorts of Bollywood inspired kitsch to this gray, industrial city in France's far north. Hotted up by Bollywood, normally frigid Lille has become a destination for French people seeking the frisson of Indian exoticism.

And speaking of kitsch, it is astounding the number of times that word comes up in France alongside the word Bollywood (just as it does in the U.S in all fairness, but at least there is one less language involved) creating a clash of cultures (I count four) as dissonant as Pizza Hut's French Bollywood pizza, as in "la toute dernière tendance, le kitsch Bollywood."
Then there is Pascal of Bollywood (no, it's not Pascal de Bollywood), a French musician who, without knowing a single word of any Indian language, became an overnight sensation singing Bollywood film songs. Apparently, he did take some Hindi language lessons but only after recording a CD and garnering a bit of success.

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In large and mid-size towns across France, the Bollywood soirée has become popular, "Indian dress required," where patrons are invited to dance the night away to Bollywood film music. Again, we are very, very far from Basement Bhangra or the London Underground where proper desi DJs get a mostly desi crowd moving to a remixed beat and most of the young crowd are dressed in tight black slacks. We're talking about white French people dressing up like what they think Indians wear in order to transport themselves, on the cheap, far away from their hum-drum French reality (except these events are part of the French hum-drum reality but they don't know that) for a few hours in a land of Indian make-believe.
Somehow, all of this seems a very coherent outgrowth of 19th-century French orientalism. But how far France has come from the serious, recherchée decadence of, say, Baudelaire in search of profound out-of-the-French-body experiences via the exotic. This is orientalism refashioned for a 21st-century of mass consumer culture where even exhausted working-class mass-transit commuters ordering up cheap pizzas for home delivery or slouched in front of the soft-porn delights of a Miss France dance routine on their televisions can indulge in a little post-modern culture clash, a dose of Bollywood kitsch à la française.