Friday, September 26, 2008

Ghalib on charity-doers

This week's Ghalib moment relates to charity and philanthropy.

بنا کر فقیروں کا ہم بھیس غالب
تماشا ۓ اہل کرم دیکھتے ہیں

banaa kar faqiiro;N kaa ham-bhes ;Gaalib
tamaashaa-e ahl-e karam dekhte hai;N

1) having put on the guise of the Faqirs, Ghalib
2) [we] see the spectacle of the people of generosity

[Translation by Frances W Pritchett. Click here for interpretation on Desertful of Roses.]

As Josh succintly puts it: "The meaning is that It's not our purpose to become a Faqir and ask for alms. We've adopted the guise in order to see who is generous, and how generous, and in whom there is no genuine feeling of generosity."

In a class society, such as one Ghalib lived in, inequality is par for course. With inequality come doctrines of charity and exhortations to generosity. "Be kind to those less fortunate than yourself." "Give to the poor, for therein lies the salvation of the rich." And so on. Sometimes charity is genuine, from the heart, other times it is a show put on for the benefit of society.

To view the spectacle of the charity-givers giving alms to the poor, we ourselves sometimes disguise as a needy person. Only by assuming the disguise, the outward form (بھیس , भेस) and therefore the perspective of the poor do we get to see the spectacle (تماشا , तमाशा) of their ostensible kindness.

In this interpretation tamaashaa is used in its pejorative sense of a false spectacle or a show। The lack of genuine feeling among the rich is exposed only when they are viewed from the perspective of the poor.

Technically the verse plays nicely on the symmetry between "bhes" and "tamaashaa." Usually one puts on a bhes or disguise precisely to perform a tamaashaa, a play or a spectacle. Here Ghalib uses the affinity of meanings between the two words to nice effect. In order to view a tamaashaa, I am putting on a disguise.

There are other possible meanings that I haven't explored here. In keeping with the general spirit of The Ghalib Project to explore Ghalib in ways that carry social-political meaning today, we choose to emphasize the social charity aspect. Ghalib urges us to scrutinize philanthropy in our own world. What motives does it have? Can it ever put itself out of existence? That is, can philanthropy get rid of those very class distinctions on which it rests? Or will it always be a way for the rich to "manage" the poor, such that poverty does not threaten social stability? I favor the later.

Being an economics student this naturally takes me in the direction of an analysis of international development aid and its role in reducing or managing poverty. But I will save this line of thought for a separate post.

Please visit the parallel post on this verse on The South Asian Idea.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ghalib on leading and being led

In our collaborative Ghalib Project with The South Asian Idea Weblog, we have discussed she'rs that offer insights on contemporary politics and society. See for example the verse on impeachment posted around the time of the near impeachment of General Musharraf in Pakistan.

For this week, we have chosen a similarly politically relevant verse that talks about leadership, a commodity sadly in short supply in contemporary South Asia. First the verse itself:

chaltaa huu;N tho;Rii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahii;N huu;N abhii raahbar ko mai;N

1) I go along a little way with every single swift walker
2) I do not now/yet recognize a/the guide

As always we take our translation from Desertful of Roses, Prof. Frances Pritchett's excellent online divaan. Click here for commentary on this verse.

In this case, even a conventional interpretation serves us well. But even conventionally there are a few possible interpretations as always is the case with Ghalib (bhaai, shaari ma'ani afiirnii hai, kaafiyaa paimaai nahiN hai, he once remarked in a letter, rough translation, "Brother, poetry is meanning creation, not weighing of rhymes.").

Straightforwardly, Ghalib says, every person I see walking swiftly, as if they know where they are going, I walk with them for a bit. Why is that? Because I don't recognize or know of a guide, a leader yet. So in this interpretation, the lack of a reliable leader, a guide, makes the person gullible enough to follow whoever smooth-talking, fast-walking person comes along.

In a different interpretation sustained by the meanings of the word "abhi" which can mean "yet" or can mean "now" or "anymore". So the second line can be read as: "I don't recognize a guide/leader yet" or "I don't recognize a leader anymore." The first possibility we just discussed. The second meaning creates the following situation: "Nowadays I just follow whoever comes along, for a bit, because really, I have stopped believing in leaders. They are all just the same. So it doesn't matter who you follow."

The second interpretation particularly appeals to me with respect to Indian politics. The Indian electorate in recent times (i.e the last decade and half or so) has shown remarkable political maturity and has taken to extracting whatever political mileage it can from its "leaders" who are perceived as corrupt to a (wo)man. Anti-incumbency is the norm but rather than being a sign of voter gullibility (they never learn their lesson, just keep on changing governments in the hope that something will change) in this reading it is a sign of voter sophistication. Knowning that the political system is thoroughly compromised, the masses participate in a game with their "leaders." They don't promise undying loyalty to anyone, but merely use whoever is in office (or looks like (s)he is headed for office) to press their demands.

Please visit the parallel post on The South Asian Idea for more on the verse and its relevance to Pakistan.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ghalib and Jesus on stone throwing

For this week we have chosen a very well-known she'r from a well-known Ghazal:

میں نے مجنوں پہ لڑکپن میں اسد
سںگ اٹھایا تھا کہ سر یاد آیا

maiN ne majooN pe la;Rakpan meiN 'asad'
sang uThaaya thaa ke sar yaad aayaa

1) against Majnun, in boyhood/childishness, Asad,
2) I had picked up a stone-- when {I got hold of myself / 'the head came to mind/recollection'}

Click here for commentary and translation on Desertful of Roses

This is a justly famous verse, beautiful as it is in its simplicity, using very common/ordinary words to communicate a profound thought. In my opinion, it is through verses like these that Ghalib reminds us, "Although I am capable of fancy jargon and rhetorical fireworks, I can equally well say things simply, if I want to."

Although the verse has a well-known conventional interpretation, we are once again interested in exploring if it can sustain more unconventional interpretation, more relevant to our times. The conventional interpretation is that majooN is the archetypal mad lover who wanders the street aimlessly, lost in his love of lailaa. Children, as a pastime, jeer and throw stones at majnooN. Our "hero" (the lover, the "I" in the verse) in his boyhood/childhood had similarly picked up a stone to throw at MajnooN. But at the last moment the boy/child "recovers either his maturity or his prudence" (FWP), remembers his own head or gains control of himself ("sar yaad aanaa" can mean both).

However, as FWP also says la;Rakpan (लड़कपन) not only means actual childhood, it also means the state of childhood or childishness. If we lean towards the interpretation that it is the adult who is being childish in the present, not really recollecting his own childhood days, then the verse says: "in a moment of childishness I picked up a stone to throw at majnooN, but then (in the nick of time) I remembered my own head/gathered my senses." Why? Presumably because I myself have become like majnooN in my love for my beloved.

So far so good. Here then is the twist that can broaden the interpretive horizon of the she'r. majooN, as noted earlier, is the archetypal lover, but perhaps he can also stand for the archetypal "deviant," a person who is different from "us" for whatever reason. This "other" is the object of ridicule and metaphorical stone throwing for the rest of "normal" society. But Ghalib says this is childish behavior. "I too, in childishness, ridiculed and abused the person who is not like me or is differnet from me, but then I gathered my senses. I remembered my head, because his head is not really that different from mine. I remembered that I am equally well a "deviant" or "the other" in someone else's eye, and therefore equally "worthy" of being stoned/insulted. So when I stone majnooN, I open up the possibility of getting stoned myself."

At this point, the well-known parable of Jesus comes to mind, which Ghalib may or may not have had in mind (perhaps some of our readers can comment on this). A woman considered to have sinned (accused of adultery) is about to be stoned by the self-proclaimed moral police. Jesus appears on the scene and says, yes by all means, if she has sinned stone her, but let him who has never sinned throw the first stone.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Inequality, Choice and the New Indian Dream

In the image (see New York Times article Vogue's Fashion Photos Spark Debate in India) a child from a visibly poor Indian family is shown wearing a bib prices at $100. The cation says "Its never too early to start living in style." But what defines India in this neoliberal period is not merely the such obscenity (unthinkable in media before the 1990s), but the even more incredible fact that apologists for this obscenity are not afraid to make a case publicly for its legitimacy.

This particular story was carried in several newspapers and blogs. One particular one caught my attention: the brief blog post in Managing Globalization, an International Herald Tribune Blog run of Daniel Altman. Read it. Then read my comment, Daniel's response and my long rejoinder. I am pasting only our exchange below. But to get the context you will have to go to the link above and read the brief original post.
My first comment:

Your assertions that “…India is a democracy, and you can’t simply tell people what to do with their money.” and “Nor can you tell poor people what they should aspire to in life” are laughable. One doesn’t know where to begin with such statements. The mythical “all-powerful planners” are faulted for their hubris in wanting to decide who spends how much on what, but the all too real market forces that effectively force the same decisions (tell people what to do with their money and what to aspire to) are rendered completely invisible in your “analysis.” Of course, from a neo-classical perspective this is perfectly “natural”, because as we know the free market is a force of nature like gravity while government interventions, except when they come to the rescue of capitalists, are to be fought tooth and nail. Such simplistic reasoning can masquerade as analysis (or better still “science”) only when it serves as a pathetic apology for power.

(From India)

Moderator’s note - Apologies for believing that people should be free to buy and aspire to whatever they want!

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 1:51 pm

[The "Moderator's Note" above seemed designed to invite further debate. So I obliged with the following]

My follow-up comment:

At the risk of appearing overenthusiastic about posting comments, I feel I should respond to the “moderator’s note” on my comment above. I fear that you have willfully misunderstood me. You may by all means believe that people should be free to buy and aspire to what they want. All I ask is that you not be naive enough to think that these wants and aspiration somehow appear out of thin air (or in economic terms are exogenously given). Rather I wanted to emphasize that they are endogenously generated within capitalism via advertising (and in other ways). Whether planners do it or the market, the point is wants and aspiration cannot be unproblematically taken as given. It is over one hundred years since Veblen wrote on conspicuous consumption. It is ten years since Juliet Schor wrote on the contemporary consumption culture in the United States and the damage it has wrought. It is a sad comment on Economics as a science if important discoveries made so long ago need repeated reminding.

And to return to your point about India being a democracy, i should point out that it is a political democracy, not an economic democracy. In the face of such massive economic inequality the power of political democracy is very seriously curtailed. And in a market system it is ability to pay that decides who buys what (you vote with your dollar or rupee), unlike political democracy where you get a vote regardless of whether you have a dollar or not. So conflating political democracy with economic decision-making is dangerous and misleading.

(From India)

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 6:59 pm

Daniel's response:

Amit, I want to be sure I understand you. Are you saying that advertising luxury goods to poor people is like advertising cigarettes to children? That somehow it should be prevented, in a spirit of beneficent paternalism?

I would like to hear your specific policy prescriptions for undoing the problems that you mentioned in your most recent comment. Do you propose to change the nature of advertising, marketing and production, or to change human nature itself?

Posted by: Daniel Altman (moderator) — 03 September 2008 7:00 pm

My rejoinder:

Dear Daniel
Yes, you raise important questions, which I fear I cannot do justice to in such short notes. But here goes.

First off, in these days when media is so pervasive, targeted advertising, though by no means extinct, has started to lose “targetted-ness.” In a sense this is what happened when television became universal in the US. People’s reference groups changed form their neighbors and friends to people seen on TV leading what seemed to be far more opulent lifestyles. So luxury goods (like $50,000 automobiles) are routinely advertised to people who can’t afford them (whether in India or the US). There is no question of preventing this in, as you say a “spirit of beneficent paternalism.” Taking that position would be tantamount to saying that there is a class of people who are “worthy” of being advertised to and others who should be “protected.” Further this type of want-creation and aspiration creation has fueled US capitalism to a large extent in recent times and made possible growth of other economies that depend on US consumption.

In fact rather perversely I see capitalism’s demise in this very process. Since I believe (an act of faith on my part) that the fruits of modernity can only be promised to the poorest of the poor, never actually delivered, if we set in motion processes by which the poor can increasingly make these demands (for higher wages, to be able to buy better and more expensive products) the contradictions of the system (which continually creates inequality and creates aspirations that cannot be fulfilled) will become clearer and clearer. If you are at all familiar with old-school Marxist arguments, what I have said above may sound awfully like the idea that capitalism’s contradictions will one day be its un-doing. I am not denying the affinity though I am not one to see socialism round the corner either.

Now to your second point. The problems of inequality and lack of economic democracy (by which I mean grossly unequal decision-making power in the economy) are not going to disappear with some magic policy bullet. But for starters it would help if sovereign governments stopped genuflecting to international capital and gave themselves some policy space. Economists themselves can help by acknowledging that free trade and free mobility of capital is not a universal, unimpeachable good. There is no dearth of good proposals to make globalization more pro-poor. I see that one of your contributors is Joe Stiglitz, who has also written on this, as have Dani Rodrik, Amartya Sen and many other not-too-radical folks.

Naturally this above is a less ambitious program than imagining a wholly alternative economic system (”changing advertising, marketing, production”). Although there is no dearth of such alternatives either, they tend to be more piecemeal, experiments here, experiments there. If neoliberalism continues to wreak the havoc it is wreaking (mind you by havoc I don’t mean only poverty creation, I mean unprecedented wealth creation together with poverty creation), I am confident that these grassroots resistances (of which there are several in India, which one will not read about in the pages of the English language national press) will only grow. Mind you, I am not saying that as the poor are empowered they will necessarily demand this thing or that thing (because as you rightly say, who I am to decide what people should want).

Lastly, the human nature thing. This one really cannot be addressed properly here. Economists are fond of appealing to human nature when it suits their models. Stretching myself back to my biology days, the nature versus nurture problem was endlessly debated. I came away from those books and papers with the idea that human behavior is so complex and interconnected with its environment that any simple statement about it (humans are selfish, humans are altruistic, humans always want more, humans inherently want to help other humans) are sadly open to many caveats. Thus the interesting question is not what is “real human nature” but what values and visions guide us in our behavior. Different circumstances will bring out different behaviors (the same profit-hungry capitalist who will not hesitate to fire workers will become a loving and doting father and so on), the challenge is to create institutions that nurture our desirable natures (plural).

I must really apologize for this long essay. I realize this is not the place for such a debate.

Posted by: Amit Basole — 03 September 2008 8:00 pm

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ghalib on Fasting and Starving

Its the month of Ramadan. And Ghalib has something interesting to say as always. I once read somewhere in a Bombay newspaper that in Bombay one half of the city is starving while the other half is dieting. Just as this quip, in a funny way forces an important truth upon us, Ghalib uses the concept of the holy fast of Ramadan to make a similar point.

The verses in question reproduced below are not part of a Ghazal, but rather a verse-set known as a qat'aa (if you have a diivaan you will find it at the very end after all the ghazals).

iftaar-e-saum kii jise kuch dast.gaah ho
us shakhs ko zaroor hai rozaa rakha kare

jis paas roza khol ke khaane ko kuch na ho
roza agar na khaaye to naachaar kya kare

the one who has the wherewithal to open his fast

that person should indeed keep his fast

the one who has nothing to open his fast with

what else could he do but be constrained to "eat the fast."

[Translation: Anjum Altaf]

As with many Ghalib verses, this one too has layers which turn on paradoxes and word play. What is fasting? It is defined in relation to eating or the ability to eat. If one doesn't or can't eat, then where is the question of fasting. So not fasting need not be a sign of lack of faith. And then the use of "rozaa khaanaa" is great because it simultaneously suggests that such a person (poor, indigent) should not be required to keep rozaa (उसे रोजा खाने के अलावा क्या चारा है?) and that such as person may have nothing to "eat" except the rozaa itself. That is, the idiomatic use of the phrase "rozaa khaanaa" makes the verse witty. The phrase means not keeping a fast, but it can also be taken literally to mean eating the fast itself, that is staying hungry. So the person is both fasting and not fasting at the same time.

So much for Ghalib's paradoxes. I could spend the day exploring them! But we also chose this verse because it raises important question about hunger and choice today. For this I encourage you to visit The South Asian Idea Weblog and see the discussion there.