Friday, May 23, 2003

love, the mystery unsolved

Abandon by Pico Iyer, Viking, January 2003. ISBN 037541505. Price Rs 450 (US$9.50), 354 pages.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in May 2003).

Even before Islam supplanted communism as the mysterious enemy of western civilization, novels that blurred the boundaries between religion and politics had become commonplace. Most of these books, of course, were thrillers. None were about faith. Communism may be dead, but Belief still scares us. Abandon, the latest book from Pico Iyer, may be the first novel since the end of the cold war to take on the task. The result is a remarkable book, though its attempt at translating religious ecstasy is cryptic and, finally, unsuccessful.

Iyer, a writer of Indian extraction who was raised in Britain and now lives in California and Japan, is one of globalization’s first writers. Better known for his nonfiction writing--which has appeared in Time, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books and other top magazines—than for his fiction, Iyer nearly always writes from a perspective of displacement, seeking, perhaps, to explain the unfamiliar by knocking down all the usual borders. The titles of some of his books hint at what drives him: Falling Off the Map, The Global Soul, Video Nights in Kathmandu.

Abandon is thus, in some paradoxical way, familiar territory. Moving from California to Syria to Spain to England to India and to Iran as though these places were no more remote than Canada or Mexico, the novel traces the quest for understanding of John MacMillan, a British scholar of Sufism and Sufi poetry. Like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Abandon blurs the line between the detective story and literary investigation. Or, perhaps, between the mystery and the Mystery.

Sufism, or the mystical dimension of Islam, focuses on the surrender to the love of God. Unlike other Muslims, the Sufis believe that through this surrender—abandon in both senses of the word—it is possible to come close to God and experience his love while one is alive. The Sufi poets produced an immense body of literature to express the rapture of this state and guide others to achieving it. In Abandon, Iyer’s protagonist believes he has stumbled upon a lost manuscript penned by the most famous of these poets, Rumi, who wrote hundreds of poems in the 13th century and founded the Mevlevi Order of dervishes, better known as the Whirling Dervishes of Sufism. MacMillan’s detective work is both literal and literary, therefore, for he must discover not only whether the manuscript is genuine but also endeavor to understand what the poems mean.

The novel’s backdrop is intriguing. Though Iyer’s characters are scholars, this is a field where danger lurks and hidden treasures promise to resurface. Discussions of colleagues trail off into this realm… with professors who write articles under assumed names to protect their families in Iran, or students of Scientology who enter the witness protection program, an event explained dramatically (and with some unintentional comedy): “They found out about his thesis, I gather.” But the evocation of the fear and wonder that belief evokes in us is not without nuance. One professor confesses of his attraction to the study of Islam, “But I do have a regular person’s interest. It was the sixties, there was all this stuff in the air—Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Muhammad Ali, all of that. And the Moslems were always the big bad wolf in every story. I guess I just figured we were so busy making all these jokes about how they called us ‘the Great Satan,’ we didn’t stop to think we were calling them ‘the Great Satan’ ourselves. Except we didn’t have the balls to use words like ‘Satan’ and ‘infidel.’”

In this strange academy, the engaging voice of Iyer’s nonfiction writing serves him well. “The Sufis,” MacMillan scrawls for his postgraduate seminar, “so-called for the rough woolen gown they wear, or suf—emblem of their austerity, their voluntary poverty, their anonymity—were a small group of Moslems who began to gather in groups, often secretly, at the beginning of the eighth century, soon after the Prophet’s death. Their aim, quite simply, was to find a direct path to the divine…. Their goal was not to conquer the world, but to conquer themselves.” The message is clear: Although his characters are the victims of the Iranian revolution, Iyer’s subject is not the fanaticism of persecution, torture and destruction, but the fanaticism of ecstasy, of faith. It is an almost impossible subject.

Iyer turns to the metaphor that countless poets have used to link the divine to the mundane: love. “The Sufi ideal is one of love, but it is not the love of the compassionate mother, or of Jesus, he speaks of; it is the ravenous, consuming eros of the lover inflamed,” MacMillan explains to his class. Likewise, floundering with Rumi’s poems, MacMillan discovers himself falling in love with Camilla, a woman with her own mysteries. Seemingly damaged beyond repair, Camilla cannot allow herself to plunge into love. Instead of surrendering, she does what she can to sabotage her own chances for happiness, even though (a Californian through and through) she has a psychologist’s awareness of her self-destructive impulses. Struggling to convince her to let herself go, MacMillan comes to realize the extent to which he has manacled himself against happiness.

Metaphors resonate, and instruct, by showing us in a flash how two unlike things are alike. Their lessons burn like an instant revelation. But the comparison of love and faith, neither of which we know for sure, don’t strike with the same clarity. Perhaps that is why somewhere along the way, the love story of Abandon fails. There is too little of the familiar here. MacMillan’s love for Camilla is inexplicable. She has few charms, it is all too apparent, and her capacity to repel is infinite. What could be more unattractive than someone who cannot complete a conversation without uttering something as banal as, “I disappoint myself every day, every moment. You’re the first person in a long time who’s given me a chance to show I might not be completely worthless.” That’s a line that could only be delivered by someone who owns three or four cats, and Camilla keeps serving up the same swill. That MacMillan keeps asking for more is, to be frank, more difficult to believe in than God, not less. Only the investigation of the lost Rumi manuscript and MacMillan’s engaging thoughts on the nature of Islam—which Iyer valiantly resists reducing to the specter of terrorism--can keep this battered engine clunking along.

an insider's view of india

India in Slow Motion, by Mark Tully, Gillian Wright. Viking. £17.99

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in May 2003).

IN INDIA IN SLOW MOTION, long-time BBC correspondent Mark Tully argues that the primary force holding India back is neither its history of invasions and foreign domination nor its religious fatalism and divisive caste system. The fundamental problem is "a peculiarly Indian form of bad governance.

"That observation will not come as a revelation to anyone--certainly not to Indians. But, fortunately, Tully does not waste pages cataloguing the endless train of governmental malfeasance that comprises India's recent political history. Instead, he examines a few choice examples of crusades--grass-roots or personal--to provide the safety from economic exploitation, access to water and freedom from religious persecution that are the promises of "good governance."

Although the book jacket lists Tully's partner, Gillian Wright, as co-author, Wright's role is not clear as all the essays are written in the first person from Tully's perspective. The old India hand brings an infectious love for India to the task, but his is not a blind love. Born in Calcutta and educated in England, he spent 25 years as South Asia correspondent for the BBC--getting a journalist's tour of the region's grimmest catastrophes. These experiences colour all the chapters of Slow Motion, and some of the finest writing is essentially memoir of a life covering Indian politics; of strong friendships forged with complex politicians.

The scope of the book is wide. In a chapter titled "The Water Harvesters" Tully examines how government corruption has exacerbated drought problems in Gujarat. At least one village has eliminated the drought problem with a network of water barriers that the villagers built themselves. But the government remains focused on a large infrastructure project to dam the Narmada River. The money the government has allotted to small-scale irrigation projects is often directed to contractors who build dams of mud, with a thin plating of concrete, or who don't build dams at all, except on paper.

In "Creating Cyberabad," Tully addresses an innovative programme undertaken by the chief minister of Andra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. Naidu, who turned Hyderabad, the state capital, into an information technology centre second only to Bangalore, now seeks to bring the IT revolution to the common man by creating a system of "e-governance." The pilot programme eliminated much of the waste and frustration endemic in India's bureaucracy. Now, instead of needing six clerks, six counters and six queues to renew their driving licences, pay bills or register a birth, constituents can accomplish 18 formerly onerous tasks at one counter, with one clerk equipped with a computer. But this obvious improvement won Naidu as many enemies as friends, the writers say, because bureaucrats know that good governance is bad news for them and the Indian democracy is addicted to "leg pulling"--dragging down people doing good things.

While these two chapters (and several others) relate directly to the book's central theme, in other chapters the connections are more tenuous. Some of the essays do not seem related to bad governance at all. "Altered Altars," for example, touches on the Catholic Church of Goa's role in fighting corruption, but it is less about graft than about India's religious pluralism, a subject that Tully picks up again in "The Sufis and a Plain Faith." Certainly Indian politicians have exploited caste and religion to gain and hold power despite failing to improve the lot of their constituents--as Tully argues in his introduction and conclusion. But these essays do not advance that argument; rather they reinforce the already well-established view that India is a mix of cultures and not a Hindu state.

Unfortunately, the book's appealing discursiveness also prevents its authors from exploring either the central argument or his intriguing stories in their full complexity. For instance, a chapter that recounts a sting on the Defence Ministry conducted by the dotcom company Tehelka, relies wholly on an interview with the reporter who orchestrated the coup. Tully and Wright fail to advance the story or to investigate the reasons why the defence minister caught taking a bribe was ushered back into power less than a year after the scandal.

Tully's and Wright's characterizations are acute, their knowledge of the subject is exhaustive and their writing taut and unpretentious. The real reason to read this book, though, is for the unique insider's perspective that Tully's long tenure as the BBC's top man provides. Few writers could match nostalgia for once-peaceful Kashmir with a cogent analysis of where Farooq Abdullah's government went wrong, as Tully does in "Paradise Lost."

And no other writer could have produced "A Tale of Two Brothers," an article about the relationship of former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh and his gossip-addicted, politically doomed brother. The chapter captures the machinations of Indian politics and the enduring, complex loyalty of Indian families. That is the Mark Tully readers have come to adore.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

want to get involved? call youthreach

A catalyst NGO, Youthreach connects young professionals with organizations that need their help. Cleaning up the environment, teaching disadvantaged children, helping the disabled--you name it, Youthreach has a project in mind.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in Span in May 2003.)

If their offices were more swank, the fourteen attractive young women who staff Youthreach could easily be mistaken for the editorial board of a fashion magazine instead of the staff of an innovative service organization. But these women are not only young and upwardly mobile, they are also women who live their lives with a sense of purpose. That’s the combination that makes Youthreach—a non-governmental organization founded to mobilize the skills and enthusiasm of New Delhi’s young middle class—a winning proposition.

In 1997, three young people came together with a common desire to contribute to the community. Uday Khemka, a non-resident Indian who splits time between London and New York, provided the seed funding for the project. But he needed dedicated partners to manage and build the organization. He teamed up with Nanni Singh, who’d started an NGO in Chandigarh when she was just 18 years old but was then working with her husband in the export business, and Nandita Kathpalia Baig, another young woman with an entrepreneurial spirit. For inspiration, they went to the wellspring of most good ideas: they thought not only about the needs of those people they wanted to help, but about what they themselves wanted to get out of the experience. They set two goals. They wanted to create a shift in consciousness, instilling a sense of responsibility in Delhi’s young, and they wanted to build a bridge that would allow other NGOs to leverage the skills of young professionals—doctors, lawyers, accountants, even CEOs.

“We founded Youthreach essentially as an organization that would look at giving young people like ourselves, who had a lot to be thankful for, a chance to really address the sense of disconnection and disempowerment from the larger reality that is India, the very immediate gaps that exist at the traffic light between [us and] a child who comes up asking for some generosity.” explains Nanni Singh, the 33-year-old director of the NGO. “Mostly, how we react to these things is a sense of apathy or disempowerment: ‘Oh God, what is it that I can do? Surely it is somebody else’s problem.’ We wanted an organization that could create a link between this sensitivity--this wanting to do something more or wanting to know more--and organizations on the ground that were really handling these issues at the grass roots.”

Today, Youthreach seeks to get people directly involved with NGOs working for children and the environment. It has partnered with around 25 groups in Delhi and 10-odd organizations outside the city that are working to protect children from exploitation and provide basic services. Youthreach also works with around 15 NGOs working to protect the environment. Youthreach interacts with the leadership of each of its partner organizations to ascertain their human resource needs and creates a master list of projects for prospective volunteers. The list can be daunting. Salaam Baalak Trust needs doctors and dentists to treat street children. The Association for Cricket for the Blind needs editors and copywriters for its publications. The children’s rights group Butterflies needs a web designer. The Hope Foundation needs gynecologists and psychologists for leprosy patients. But though Youthreach seeks to provide its partners with hard-to-find, skilled staff, not all the positions require advanced degrees. There is plenty of room for dedicated people whose hearts are in the right place to teach English or Mathematics, to read stories, to play sports and organize games, or to participate in letter-writing or poster campaigns.

“We have two categories of volunteers, and we deal with each one differently,” says Singh. “We have volunteers…like bankers who don’t want to bank and look at your financial books but who want to work directly with children, reading stories or whatever. We call them direct volunteers, persons with direct contact. Then there are volunteers who want to give inputs, professional inputs…help an organization build the east wing of a small health center, help another organization look at using their office space more effectively. Doctors, health care workers, etc.”

One volunteer who provides that professional input is Monica Kumar, one of the founders of Manas, a registered trust that provides mental health services. Already operating a clinic providing psychotherapy and special education services to individual clients and working with a dozen of Delhi’s top schools, Kumar and her associates decided after three years it was time to reach out to the community. But they didn’t know how, and they were too strapped for time themselves to do the legwork necessary to find out. That’s where Youthreach came in.

“It was always in the back of our minds that we needed to do it,” said Kumar. “Youthreach gave us that backup [of resources] without which we wouldn’t have been able to have done it. We would have had to make a fresh start, but there were already communities existing, where all we had to do was go and work.”

Manas has provided counseling services to teachers and students at three Youthreach affiliates: the Delhi chapter of the National Association for the Blind (NAB); Karm Marg, a shelter for street children; and Navjyoti, an NGO that provides education for slum children.

Neha Malik, the young woman who acts as the counselor, explained how the program works. “I conduct workshops with the children and with the teachers, basically talking about mental health issues: how to handle problematic behaviors of children, be that either emotional, behavioral or academic issues. We have a workshop once a month – we’ve had three so far. Other than that I go once a week and interact with the children over there. Basically, they have cases lined up for me, and I provide counseling.” She has already seen the benefits, and, perhaps more importantly, so have the organizations she works with. “I’ve got a very good response from NAB. They’ve really seen a lot of improvement. In fact they kept saying they want a full-time psychologist. They keep asking me, ‘Can you come twice in a week, can you come thrice in a week?’ But unfortunately because I’m also going other places, and I’m doing clinical work here, once a week is the best I can do.”

Youthreach has mobilized professionals from fields ranging from engineering to architecture to the arts. Dancer Ashley Lobo conducted a dance program for 50 street children, with the idea that he could not only give these kids a chance to earn a livelihood in the arts one day, but also give a serious boost to their self-esteem. David Mansfield, then Food and Beverage Manager at the Grand Hyatt, conducted a workshop on resume-building for 12 children from the National Association for the Blind, and he held a capacity-building workshop for the staff of Deepalaya and Salaam Baalak Trust, which work with slum children and street kids, to explain what the hotel looks for in a job applicant.

For other volunteers, Youthreach has provided a route back into working world. Gitanjali Krishnan had been a professional teacher for 18 years in Bombay, but she was a full-time homemaker when she came to Youthreach and said she wanted to volunteer three years ago. She was soon teaching class four students at the Deepalaya Ramditti School and teaching English to students of the National Open School at the Deepalaya Kalkaji School. Six months later, when the principal of the Ramditti School fell ill, Krishnan took over. She never left. Today, in addition to managing the day-to-day operations of the school, Krishnan handles all the volunteers Youthreach sends to the Deepalaya schools.
A key partner in the Youthreach mission is the U.S.-based International Youth Foundation, which has selected the Delhi-based NGO to manage and administer its grants locally. Established in 1990, the IYF operates in nearly 50 countries and territories and is one of the world’s largest public foundations. IYF works with hundreds of partner organizations like Youthreach to strengthen and expand programs that are helping young people. Over the last decade, IYF and its in-country partners have helped more than 26 million people gain access to life skills, education, job training and other opportunities.

Youthreach has distributed nearly Rs. 30 lakhs in IYF grants, funding the expansion of a Chandigarh-based education program for slum children, a computer training center in New Delhi, a school for 150 child beggars and casual laborers in Bangalore, and a program that provides basic services including education, healthcare and nutrition for 190 children in New Delhi.

One of these programs, New Delhi-based Ankur, provides alternative education for underprivileged children living in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Basti. “The school doesn’t teach the regular ABCDs, it teaches children to think for themselves,” explained Shabnam Sahni Arora, who administers Youthreach’s grant-making activities. For the talented, motivated children of parents who work as daily wage laborers, vegetable sellers and housemaids, the school presents a “very different avenue” from those available to them at government schools. With seed money from Youthreach and the International Youth Foundation, Ankur was able to set up a computer lab called Compughar—complete with PCs, a digital camera, and tape recorders--that the students use to create a monthly “wall magazine” covering their community, which they post on the walls of neighborhood buildings. Student reporters and designers produce the entire publication, developing story ideas, interviewing members of their community and writing the stories themselves. The idea is part of a larger agenda to create a community archive, according to Ankur’s program coordinator, Prabhat K. Jha. “We want to redefine history,” he said, explaining that the lives of the people in India’s slum communities are virtually undocumented. “This is not a computer center. They’re using the computer as a creative tool, not to learn the skills to provide cheap labor.” For the young people of this low-income community, this was the first time anyone encouraged them to be creative or to think about what their lives mean.

“Some of them are really amazing writers,” said Shabnam. “[And] they’ve learned an incredible amount about computers.” Compughar also teaches students about responsibility. The students themselves select the writers they believe are capable of participating in the project, and now five students earn a small stipend in exchange for training eight others in the computer skills needed to produce the wall magazine and archive content. In 2002, the team produced a slick paperbound book about their neighborhood called By Lanes. More than a hundred pages long in English and Hindi, the book comprises samples of their writing and photography. The arresting passages written by these young writers are proof enough of the program’s impact:

The sound of vehicles coming and going.
The sound of someone selling something.
Peanuts. Buy peanuts. Hot and crisp peanuts. Almonds of the poor are peanuts. Buy! Buy!
After some time I was standing outside my lane, when the earring seller came. Earrings of gold for the price of pebbles, he said. The women surrounded him. Arre bhaiya, show us this one. How much is it for?

An elderly man is our neighbour. He is from Pakistan. His name is Mirajo. But we call him chacha… Once the boy I was just telling you about brought some more boys with him. They had two eggs in each hand. Bhai Mirajo …was sitting down to eat when those boys started pelting eggs at him and his house. Poor bhai Mirajo didn’t do anything. Yesterday, when he came to our house, he was weeping as he was saying, ‘If I do something wrong, you can all hit me. But I haven’t done anything. Why do all of you needlessly bother me?’ He had tears in his eyes. Seeing him, we also wanted to howl.

Another IYF grant helped Anubhav, an organization that works to help child ragpickers make the transition from the streets to the classroom, double its staff of outreach workers. Most of the children of New Delhi’s grim Mayapuri Industrial Estate supplement their families’ meager incomes by collecting scrap metal. All day long, they scramble through the battered landscape of junk cars, automobile parts and garbage, using magnets to attract stray bits of scrap metal to sell. Black with soot and living on the bare edge of survival, these children have no motivation to go to school and nobody to motivate them to go to school. Anubhav therefore has to go out into the community and convince children to come to the local education program—which provides a recreation center, nutritious food and medical care as an incentive to encourage attendance. “It’s a nonformal education system,” said Shabnam. “But after they get them up to a certain level and used to going to a center and sitting and listening to someone, they try to get them into a formal system of education in government schools.” Before receiving a Youthreach-IYF grant, Anubhav had two teachers canvassing the community to draw in students, neither of whom had been paid in more than eight months. The grant allowed the organization to pay those teachers and hire two more, as well as begin a nutrition program that is a major incentive for children to turn up at the school. Subhash Bose, the head of Anubhav, has also established links with local dispensaries and medical professionals to monitor the health status of the children. In 2002, Bose had more 142 children enrolled in his informal education program, and he regularly provides food for 120 kids.

For Mobile Creches, an organization that provides daycare for the children of day laborers on Delhi construction sites, a Youthreach-IYF grant made it possible to hire a fulltime person to focus on building awareness about the program, which started in 1969. She has reached out to schools, targeting class eleven students, as a way of forging a link between affluent communities and the workers who build their homes. Class eleven students volunteer to work with the Mobile Creches program, either as daycare workers or in back-office jobs. The young volunteers inject a vital dose of enthusiasm, and the stories they take home to their parents are a terrific aid to the organizations fundraising efforts.

Youthreach volunteers are vital to making these programs work. Jyoti Gupta, a freelance advertising designer, volunteered to design a brochure and fundraising bulletin for Mobile Creches. Tanisha Sangha, who writes profiles of inspiring women for Cosmopolitan and India Today, helped the NGO develop case studies to use in their newsletter and annual report. Montessori teachers Bhavna Ledlie and Pincha Singh conducted capacity-building workshops to train Mobile Creches teachers to introduce primary-level English into their curriculum, and volunteers like Amrita Bhandari and Gemma Wall signed on as teachers. Because English is a requirement for admission into Municipal Corporation of Delhi schools, the program was important for the NGO’s mission. Likewise, Martin Auer, a German writer visiting India, taught creative writing skills to the students and teachers of Ankur. Vikrant Rathore, a disc jockey, helped Anubhav with communication projects and administrative work. Another volunteer helped the organization balance its books.
This March, Youthreach confirmed a grant from the Ford Foundation that will allow it to expand its awareness-building activities.
Youthreach developed a three-year expansion plan that will see the organization publish pamphlets on environmental protection, conduct an outdoor advertising campaign on hoardings at bus shelters, as well as create radio spots and short promotional films to be screened in Delhi’s theaters along with the trailers aired before the feature films. The organization will also increase the scope of its workshops, which include films and discussion groups, ramping up to reach out to all of its NGO coordinators and to 20 corporations and their coordinators, volunteers and staff once every six months. The Ford Foundation will also help Youthreach improve its information technology package, enhancing tracking and communication with donors and volunteers. The NGO will link its web site with partner organizations with similar mandates and increase its e-mail database, seeking to link up with 15 partner sites and build an e-mail database of 8,000 addresses in three years.

“The Ford Foundation has really come on board with a very open mind,” said Singh. “They came to us and basically told us, whatever it is that you think is important and where you’d like to put this money. It was for us to put together a proposal.”

We’ve heard of you and are interested in what you’re doing, the Ford Foundation said. Why haven’t you ever approached us for funding? For the five-year-old NGO devoted to building bridges, this might be the longest bridge of all.