अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

December 1, 2011

The Original Mark Twain

A day or two ago Google put on its search engine interface what they call a doodle. It was for celebrating the 176th birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. I used to have trouble recalling his real name, so commonly known and popular his pen name has become, something like that of George Orwell, who, by the way, wrote an essay about him titled ‘The Licensed Jester’ (note this down as evidence of contradiction).

I had read Huckleberry Finn during my first college degree days. At that time I was aware of the fact that Mark Twain was a famous writer. I had read a few short things by him in English text books. I had also read a part of Tom Sawyer, but couldn’t finish it because it had to be returned. But I did not know about this book, Huck Finn. I didn’t know that it was considered the first Great American Novel. But even before finishing that shortish novel, I had no doubt that it was one of the best American novels ever written.

Note the self-referentiality and pomposity and keep it in mind while reading the rest of this article.

But this article is going to be more of a cut-and-paste (copy-and-paste, to be exact) job. That’s because this is the only way to do justice to what I want to say here. And there is no editor and a board of reviewers to look over my shoulder, so that makes it easy. The source is also in public domain, so no legal problems. If you are a fair use fanatic, go read something else.

If even people like me have trouble recalling his real name, it can be expected that few people (other than literary scholars and may be some other literary geeks) know the story of the origin of his pen name. Those who do know, only know a part of it, and that too the part that is less interesting.

Now I can add here that there is a theory among scholars that this story is perhaps not factual. I am not aware of their arguments and since Mark Twain himself explained in detail why he became Mark Twain, and I also know him to be one of most honest people in literature or elsewhere, I will ignore that theory and get on with the one that I like.

In fact, when I first read this story it made such a great impression on me that I have been aching ever since to write about it. The story forms Chapter 50 of another of his great books, Life on the Mississippi. I read it some years after I had read Huck Finn and this time I had borrowed the book (from the British Library, if I remember correctly: note this down for your later judgement). Since I had it in my own name and was ready to pay the fine for late fees (which I did very frequently and they were substantial sums for me at that time), I was able to finish this much longer book (I was as busy as anyone can be in those days: note it down). I liked it almost as much as Huck Finn. For the record, I completed reading Tom Sawyer much later and didn’t like it that much. No match for Huck Finn.

The story, or the part of the story that is commonly presented and known, is also given on the Wikipedia page about Mark Twain:

He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating safe water for passage of boat, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); twain is an archaic term for “two.” The riverboatman’s cry was mark twain or, more fully, by the mark twain, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms],” that is, “The water is 12 feet (3.7 m) deep and it is safe to pass.”

The Wikipedia page goes on to say that he “claimed that his famous pen name was not entirely his invention” and that “In Life on the Mississippi, he wrote:”

Captain Isaiah Sellers was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “MARK TWAIN,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; … At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands – a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

As I said, the complete story forms a full chapter of the said book. The title of the chapter is “The ‘Original Jacobs'”.

Mark Twain was not faultless, of course, and he was also not one of those who only seem to become faultless by adopting the current orthodoxy about political and social correctness, taking no risks of their own, and having done that, they entitle themselves to judge and sentence anyone from the present or the past, say, for having shown a little bit of racist tendencies in the seventeenth century or of being a little sexist in the first half of the 20th century.

That is not to say that he did not do some nasty things in his time. In fact, the interesting part of the story is about just that. Then there is also the fact that he displayed considerable literary/stylistic prescriptivism in blasting some writers and critics of his time, but I am not going to go into that.

The introduction to the story is that there was another man who had used the pen name Mark Twain. He wasn’t a literary writer, but he was something impressive: impressive enough for Mark Twain to say that it was an honor to be the only one hated by him.

So here comes the copy-and-paste of the 50th chapter of Life on the Mississippi (I have left out the final paragraph, which is not relevant to the story):

Chapter 50 The ‘Original Jacobs’

WE had some talk about Captain Isaiah Sellers, now many years dead. He
was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and
on the river. He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in his old
age–as I remember him–his hair was as black as an Indian’s, and his
eye and hand were as strong and steady and his nerve and judgment as
firm and clear as anybody’s, young or old, among the fraternity of
pilots. He was the patriarch of the craft; he had been a keelboat pilot
before the day of steamboats; and a steamboat pilot before any other
steamboat pilot, still surviving at the time I speak of, had ever turned
a wheel. Consequently his brethren held him in the sort of awe in
which illustrious survivors of a bygone age are always held by their
associates. He knew how he was regarded, and perhaps this fact added
some trifle of stiffening to his natural dignity, which had been
sufficiently stiff in its original state.

He left a diary behind him; but apparently it did not date back to his
first steamboat trip, which was said to be 1811, the year the first
steamboat disturbed the waters of the Mississippi. At the time of his
death a correspondent of the ‘St. Louis Republican’ culled the following
items from the diary–

‘In February, 1825, he shipped on board the steamer “Rambler,” at
Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and
back–this on the “Gen. Carrol,” between Nashville and New Orleans. It
was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap
of the bell as a signal to heave the lead, previous to which time it was
the custom for the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were
wanted. The proximity of the forecastle to the pilot-house, no doubt,
rendered this an easy matter; but how different on one of our palaces of
the present day.

‘In 1827 we find him on board the “President,” a boat of two hundred and
eighty-five tons burden, and plying between Smithland and New Orleans.
Thence he joined the “Jubilee” in 1828, and on this boat he did his
first piloting in the St. Louis trade; his first watch extending from
Herculaneum to St. Genevieve. On May 26, 1836, he completed and left
Pittsburgh in charge of the steamer “Prairie,” a boat of four hundred
tons, and the first steamer with a STATE-ROOM CABIN ever seen at St.
Louis. In 1857 he introduced the signal for meeting boats, and which
has, with some slight change, been the universal custom of this day; in
fact, is rendered obligatory by act of Congress.

‘As general items of river history, we quote the following marginal
notes from his general log–

‘In March, 1825, Gen. Lafayette left New Orleans for St. Louis on the
low-pressure steamer “Natchez.”

‘In January, 1828, twenty-one steamers left the New Orleans wharf to
celebrate the occasion of Gen. Jackson’s visit to that city.

‘In 1830 the “North American” made the run from New Orleans to Memphis
in six days–best time on record to that date. It has since been made in
two days and ten hours.

‘In 1831 the Red River cut-off formed.

‘In 1832 steamer “Hudson” made the run from White River to Helena, a
distance of seventy-five miles, in twelve hours. This was the source of
much talk and speculation among parties directly interested.

‘In 1839 Great Horseshoe cut-off formed.

‘Up to the present time, a term of thirty-five years, we ascertain, by
reference to the diary, he has made four hundred and sixty round trips
to New Orleans, which gives a distance of one million one hundred and
four thousand miles, or an average of eighty-six miles a day.’

Whenever Captain Sellers approached a body of gossiping pilots, a chill
fell there, and talking ceased. For this reason: whenever six pilots
were gathered together, there would always be one or two newly fledged
ones in the lot, and the elder ones would be always ‘showing off’ before
these poor fellows; making them sorrowfully feel how callow they were,
how recent their nobility, and how humble their degree, by talking
largely and vaporously of old-time experiences on the river; always
making it a point to date everything back as far as they could, so as to
make the new men feel their newness to the sharpest degree possible,
and envy the old stagers in the like degree. And how these complacent
baldheads WOULD swell, and brag, and lie, and date back–ten, fifteen,
twenty years,–and how they did enjoy the effect produced upon the
marveling and envying youngsters!

And perhaps just at this happy stage of the proceedings, the stately
figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of
Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst. Imagine the size of the
silence that would result on the instant. And imagine the feelings of
those bald-heads, and the exultation of their recent audience when the
ancient captain would begin to drop casual and indifferent remarks of a
reminiscent nature–about islands that had disappeared, and cutoffs that
had been made, a generation before the oldest bald-head in the company
had ever set his foot in a pilot-house!

Many and many a time did this ancient mariner appear on the scene in the
above fashion, and spread disaster and humiliation around him. If one
might believe the pilots, he always dated his islands back to the misty
dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and
never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name
which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before. If you
might believe the pilots, he was always conscientiously particular about
little details; never spoke of ‘the State of Mississippi,’ for instance
–no, he would say, ‘When the State of Mississippi was where Arkansas
now is,’ and would never speak of Louisiana or Missouri in a general
way, and leave an incorrect impression on your mind–no, he would say,
‘When Louisiana was up the river farther,’ or ‘When Missouri was on the
Illinois side.’

The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used
to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the
river, and sign them ‘MARK TWAIN,’ and give them to the ‘New Orleans
Picayune.’ They related to the stage and condition of the river, and
were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison.
But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the
captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the
first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular
point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island
So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation
as ‘disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.’ In these antique
interjections lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the ‘Mark Twain’ paragraphs with unsparing mockery.

It so chanced that one of these paragraphs–{footnote [The original MS.
of it, in the captain’s own hand, has been sent to me from New Orleans.
It reads as follows–

VICKSBURG May 4, 1859.

‘My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water
is higher this far up than it has been since 8. My opinion is that the
water will be feet deep in Canal street before the first of next June.
Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under
water, and it has not been since 1815.

‘I. Sellers.’]}

became the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued it broadly,
very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to the extent of eight hundred
or a thousand words. I was a ‘cub’ at the time. I showed my performance
to some pilots, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the ‘New
Orleans True Delta.’ It was a great pity; for it did nobody any worthy
service, and it sent a pang deep into a good man’s heart. There was no
malice in my rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at a man
to whom such a thing was new and strange and dreadful. I did not know
then, though I do now, that there is no suffering comparable with that
which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in

Captain Sellers did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day
forth. When I say he did me the honor, I am not using empty words. It
was a very real honor to be in the thoughts of so great a man as Captain
Sellers, and I had wit enough to appreciate it and be proud of it. It
was distinction to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved scores of people; but
he didn’t sit up nights to hate anybody but me.

He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again
signed ‘Mark Twain’ to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought
the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient
mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it
was in his hands–a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I
have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.

The captain had an honorable pride in his profession and an abiding love
for it. He ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in Bellefontaine
cemetery, St. Louis. It is his image, in marble, standing on duty at
the pilot wheel; and worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it
represents a man who in life would have stayed there till he burned to a
cinder, if duty required it.

I find it interesting that the part that this chapter focuses on is always left out from the usual accounts, as far as I know (I am not a Mark Twain scholar, so I am only talking about what I have read).

I also feel that there is a lesson somewhere in this story for those who are receptive. How many would be receptive to such a lesson is something depressing to think about these days.

As a bonus for having read thus far, I invite you to read this, which was not published in his lifetime and about which he said, “I don’t think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.”.

October 4, 2008

What Hindi Film Music Doesn’t Have

I once mentioned the incredible diversity of Hindi film music. This is one stream of music that has absorbed musical waters from all around the world: from country to classical, from rural to urban, from eastern to western, from ancient to modern, and pretty much everything in between.

However, after I mentioned Bob Marley in the last post, I realized that there are some things that Hindi film music simply doesn’t have.

In fact, even if we consider music that can be seen as somewhat independent extension of Hindi film music, there is still no one like the two Bobs. There are a few like Jagjit Singh who have carved out a niche for themselves more or less outside the Hindi films, but they are not really outside the stream of Hindi film music by parameters like their musical and lyrical characteristics, amazing as they are. Even after the coming of the Music Video era, popular (urban) music in India is still mainly film music.

That’s an interesting question. Why has there been no Bob Marley or Bob Dylan in Hindi film music or in Indian popular music?

Yes, I know there are people like Gaddar, but they are in a different category. And they never achieved the kind of popularity that Dylan or Marley achieved even among the apolitical.

One reason that could be given is that it is due to the way Hindi film music works. Someone (the lyricist) writes the song, someone else (the Music Director) composes the music, and someone else sings them. In most cases, there are three different individuals or teams for these three aspects of the creation of what is called Hindi film music (which is actually Hindi film *song* music, as background score is not really given that much importance in Hindi films and is usually taken care of by someone less important). The Bob Marley or Bob Dylan kind of music can’t be produced under such conditions, as the two Bobs are present in all aspects of their music, like the movie directors who are honored (honoured for the non-dominant party) by the term ‘auteur’. Moreover, the songs have to fit in (in the Hindi film kind of way) and be approved by the movie director and the producer and perhaps even the financier.

The explanation given above may be a good one, but I still wonder whether there is something deeper that has prevented an Indian Bob Dylan or Bob Marley to appear on the musical scene and become popular.

I strongly suspect there is.

Conspiracy theory! Conspiracy theory!

Conspiracy of silence?

June 13, 2008

Sharing Yves Montand’s Gift

I can’t resist sharing this legendary song by a legendary singer. It’s possible for you to watch him sing this song which was introduced by him a long ago but has since been sung by innumerable singers, including his mentor Edith Piaf.

It’s called ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ (‘Autumn Leaves’ in English) and is based on a poem by Jacques Prévert and has music by Joseph Kosma. I am sure a part of the tune has been used in an old Hindi song, but I am just not able to place that song.

This is also a gift from technology. There are people who, over the decades, have helped in the development of technology for this. And there are people who have helped make something like ‘precision’ (and/or) cluster bombs.

Perhaps the intersection between the two sets is quite large.

Did they have to? Necessarily?

By the way, here is the link for the residents of IIIT, Hyderabad who won’t be able to see the video above as the youtube site is banned there.

I mean here.

Too dangerous a technology.

But the in.youtube site (which was inaugurated with news stories in the national mainstream media) is not banned so far. I hope nationalism ensures that it remains unbanned. It should be of some use. Nationalism. Earn its keep. If it works hard enough.

Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t recognize the in.youtube site.

But nationalism has not saved the India Together site from being banned. And the funny thing is that I am perhaps the only person on the campus who tries to access this site.

While I am at it, I may as well share a song by Edith Piaf.

March 30, 2008

Discovering Delightful Connections

I have been thinking about writing a post about what (at least one thing) to do when life seems unbearably depressive and you are in the grip of the EIM (Everything Is Meaningless) syndrome. When you feel that you can’t really believe in anyone or anything. Even the ‘best’ people start turning out to be unreasonably mean and nasty. And there seems to be no point in doing anything. Even waking up. Or eating.

By the way, psychologists would love to have this one more syndrome. Or have they already (gladly) got it?

I just came across something that reminded me of one such thing. I mean one of the things you can do at such EIM etc. times. And that is discovering delightful connections. I discovered one such connection.

A few days ago I had seen a movie (La Mome) about the legendary French popular (female) singer Edith Piaf. I will write about her later, but one of the things I learnt during my post-movie (re)search on the singer was that another legendary French popular (male) singer Yves Montand was discovered and mentored by Edith Piaf. He was also, for some time, her lover. Anyway, after seeing this movie, Edith Piaf became one of my favourite (favorite for the dominant party) singers.

Some months ago I had written about the director Costa Gavras and one of his movies called ‘Z’. This happens to be one of my favorite films. But I forgot who played the role of the assassinated (really) democratic leader in that movie. I am not very good at recognizing French (or other non-Indian and non-Hollywood) actors, though I have seen many many French films. Probably because they don’t have as strong a star system as Hollywood.

Today I (re)discovered that it was Yves Montand.


This is what I call a delightful connection.

One that can bring a smile on your face.

One that can make you recall that not all is meaningless.

One that can make you happy.

A little bit, if not much.

And make you Happily write a post again.


(In case you are wondering, the use of a capital letter above is not arbitrary).

But there are one or two more connections that I would like to mention. At the end of the movie ‘Z’, when the military takes over the government, a list of things is announced which have been banned. The list goes something like this:

Peace movements, strikes, labor unions, long hair on men, The Beatles, other modern and popular music (“la musique populaire”), Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Aeschylus, writing that Socrates was homosexual, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Samuel Beckett, the bar association, sociology, international encyclopedias, free press, and new math. Also banned is the letter Z, which was used as a symbolic reminder that Lambrakis and by extension the spirit of resistance lives (zi = “he (Lambrakis) lives”).

This list is from the Wikipedia page about ‘Z’, but I remember one more banned item from the movie: Pinter. The writer Harold Pinter.

Where are the connections? First, note the inclusion of popular music in the list. Second, ‘the spirit of resistance lives’ is used as a kind of a motto by the site ZNet (or ZMag) where articles (among other things) by a great many of the world’s intellectuals and activists are published.

The Hindi section of ZNet (still pretty small) was started by your’s truly. Another thing I found out today is that some of these translated articles have started making appearance on other (Hindi) sites and blogs.

Reason enough to smile. Even if the ‘best’ people are turning out to be (at least) mean and nasty and you feel EIM.

Does it sound somewhat Frank Capraesque (as in It’s a Wonderful Life)? No, I wouldn’t go that far.

A smile is enough.

March 28, 2008

Chomsky at His Best

I have read quite a lot of Chomsky. And here I mean his non-Linguistic writings. But today I found the transcript of an answer that he gave after a lecture on 5th November 2001 in Delhi. It’s Chomsky at his best.

Within one answer to a question about the idea of Clash of Civilizations, he has compressed almost everything that one needs to know to understand how the world works. Even though I am very much familiar with his ideas, it was a treat to read this transcript.

I can’t resist the temptation to just quote him wholesale in this post. It’s not a very long article, so it can be read quite quickly. If you think something that he is saying is wrong, you can go ahead and verify it. He has written about the details elsewhere.

As there is no need for me to add or explain, I will just quote. I hope I am not infringing on anyone’s IPR. If I am, I will withdraw the quote. But I would hate to do that.

Here he is:

Remember the context of Huntington’s thesis, the context in which it was put forth. This was after the end of the Cold War. For fifty years, both the US and the Soviet Union had used the pretext of the Cold War as a justification for any atrocities that they wanted to carry out. So if the Russians wanted to send tanks to East Berlin, that was because of the Cold War. And if the US wanted to invade South Vietnam and wipe out Indo-China, that was because of the Cold War. If you look over the history of this period, the pretext had nothing to do with the reasons. The reasons for the atrocities were based in domestic power interests, but the Cold War gave an excuse. Whatever the atrocity carried out, you could say it’s defence against the other side.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pretext is gone. The policies remain the same, with slight changes in tactics, but you need a new pretext. And in fact there’s been a search for pretexts for quite a long time. Actually, it started twenty years ago. When the Reagan Administration came in, it was already pretty clear that appeal to the pretext of the Russian threat was not going to work for very long. So they came into office saying that the focus of their foreign policy would be to combat the plague of international terrorism.

That was twenty years ago. There’s nothing new about this. We have to defend ourselves from other terrorists. And they proceeded to react to that plague by creating the most extraordinary international terrorist network in the world, which carried out massive terror in Central America and Southern Africa and all over the place. In fact, it was so extreme that its actions were even condemned by the World Court and Security Council. With 1989 coming, you needed some new pretexts. This was very explicit. Remember, one of the tasks of intellectuals, the solemn task, is to prevent people from understanding what’s going on. And in order to fulfil that task, you have to ignore the government documentation, for example, which tells you exactly what’s going on. This is a case in point.

Just to give you one illustration. Every year the White House presents to Congress a statement of why we need a huge military budget. Every year it used to be the same: the Russians are coming. The Russians are coming, so we need this monstrous military budget. The question that anyone who is interested in international affairs should have been asking himself or herself is, what are they going to say in March 1990? That was the first presentation to Congress after the Russians clearly weren’t coming – they were not around any more. So that was a very important and extremely interesting document. And of course, it is not mentioned anywhere, because it’s much too interesting. That was March 1990, the first Bush Administration giving its presentation to Congress.

It was exactly the same as every year. We need a huge military budget. We need massive intervention forces, mostly poised at the Middle East. We have to protect what’s called the ‘defence industrial base’ – that’s a euphemism that means high-tech industry. We have to ensure that the public pays the costs of high-tech industry by funnelling it through the military system under the pretext of defence.

So it was exactly the same as before. The only difference was the reasons. It turned out that the reasons we needed all this was not because the Russians were coming, but – I’m quoting – because of the ‘technological sophistication of Third World powers.’ That’s why we need the huge military budget. The massive military forces aimed at the Middle East still have to be aimed there, and here comes an interesting phrase. It says, they have to be aimed at the Middle East where ‘the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.’ In other words, sorry, I’ve been lying to you for fifty years, but now the Kremlin isn’t around any more so I’ve got to tell you the truth: ‘The threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.’

Remember, it couldn’t be laid at Iraq’s door either, because at that time Saddam Hussein was a great friend and ally of the United States. He had already carried out his worst atrocities, like gassing Kurds and everything else, but he remained a fine guy, who hadn’t disobeyed orders yet – the one crime that matters. So nothing could be laid at Iraq’s door, or at the Kremlin’s door.

The real threat, as always, was that the region might take control of its own destiny, including its own resources. And that can’t be tolerated, obviously. So we have to support oppressive states, like Saudi Arabia and others, to make sure that they guarantee that the profits from oil (it’s not so much the oil as the profits from oil) flow to the people who deserve it: rich western energy corporations or the US Treasury Department or Bechtel Construction, and so on. So that’s why we need a huge military budget. Other than that, the story is the same.

What does this have to do with Huntington? Well, he’s a respected intellectual. He can’t say this. He can’t say, look, the method by which the rich run the world is exactly the same as before, and the major confrontation remains what it has always been: small concentrated sectors of wealth and power versus everybody else. You can’t say that. And in fact if you look at those passages on the clash of civilizations, he says that in the future the conflict will not be on economic grounds. So let’s put that out of our minds. You can’t think about rich powers and corporations exploiting people, that can’t be the conflict. It’s got to be something else. So it will be the ‘clash of civilizations’ – the western civilization and Islam and Confucianism.

Well, you can test that. It’s a strange idea, but you can test it. For example, you can test it by asking how the United States, the leader of the western civilization, has reacted to Islamic fundamentalists. Well, the answer is, it’s been their leading supporter. For instance, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state in the world at that time was Saudi Arabia. Maybe it has been succeeded by the Taliban, but that’s an offshoot of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia has been a client of the United States since its origins. And the reason is that it plays the right role. It ensures that the wealth of the region goes to the right people: not people in the slums of Cairo, but people in executive suites in New York. And as long as they do that, Saudi Arabian leaders can treat women as awfully as they want, they can be the most extreme fundamentalists in existence, and they’re just fine. That’s the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world.

What is the biggest Muslim state in the world? Indonesia. And what’s the relation between the United States and Indonesia? Well, actually the United States was hostile to Indonesia until 1965. That’s because Indonesia was part of the nonaligned movement. The United States hated Nehru, despised him in fact, for exactly the same reason. So they despised Indonesia. It was independent. Furthermore, it was a dangerous country because it had one mass-based political party, the PKI, which was a party of the poor, a party of peasants, basically. And it was gaining power through the open democratic system, therefore it had to be stopped.

The US tried to stop it in 1958 by supporting a rebellion. That failed. They then started supporting the Indonesian Army, and in 1965 the army carried out a coup, led by General Suharto. They carried out a huge massacre of hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people (mostly landless peasants), and wiped out the only mass-based party. This led to unrestrained euphoria in the West. The United States, Britain, Australia – it was such a glorious event that they couldn’t control themselves.

The headlines were, ‘A gleam of light in Asia’, ‘A hope where there once was none’, ‘The Indonesian moderates have carried out a boiling bloodbath’. I mean, they didn’t conceal what happened – ‘Staggering mass slaughter’, ‘The greatest event in history’. The CIA compared it to the massacres of Stalin and Hitler, and that was wonderful. And ever since that time, Indonesia became a favoured ally of the United States.

It continued to have one of the bloodiest records in the late twentieth century (mass murder in East Timor, hideous tortures of dissidents, and so on), but it was fine. It was the biggest Islamic state in the world, but it was just fine. Suharto was ‘our kind of guy’, the way Clinton described him when he visited in the mid-nineties. And he stayed a friend of the United States until he made a mistake. He made a mistake by dragging his feet over IMF orders.

After the Asian crash, the IMF imposed very harsh orders, and Suharto didn’t go along the way he was supposed to. And he also lost control of the society. That’s also a mistake. So at that point the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, gave him a telephone call, and said literally, ‘We think it’s time for a democratic transition.’ Merely by accident, four hours later he abdicated, but Indonesia remained a US favourite.

These are two of the main Islamic states. What about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors, let’s say the Al Qaeda network. Who formed them? They’re the creation of the CIA, British intelligence, Saudi Arabian funding, Egypt and so on. They brought the most extreme radical fundamentalists they could find anywhere, in North Africa or the Middle East, and trained them, armed them, nurtured them to harass the Russians – not to help the Afghans. These guys were carrying out terrorism from the beginning. They assassinated President Saddat twenty years ago. But they were the main groups supported by the US. So, where is the clash of civilizations?

Let’s move a little further. During the 1980s, the United States carried out a major war in Central America. A couple of hundred thousand people were killed, four countries almost destroyed, I mean it was a vast war. Who was the target of that war? Well, one of the main targets was the Catholic Church. The decade of the 1980s began with the assassination of an archbishop. It ended with the assassination of six leading Jesuit intellectuals, including the rector of the main university. They were killed by basically the same people – terrorist forces, organized and armed and trained by the United States.

During that period, plenty of church people were killed. Hundreds of thousands of peasants and poor people also died, as usual, but one of the main targets was the Catholic Church. Why? Well, the Catholic Church had committed a grievous sin in Latin America. For hundreds of years, it had been the church of the rich. That was fine. But in the 1960s, the Latin American bishops adopted what they called a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ At that point they became like this mass-based political party in Indonesia, which was a party of the poor and the peasants and naturally it had to be wiped out. So the Catholic Church had to be smashed.

Coming back to the beginning, just where is the clash of civilizations? I mean, there is a clash alright. There is a clash with those who are adopting the preferential option for the poor no matter who they are. They can be Catholics, they can be Communists, they can be anything else. They can be white, black, green, anything. Western terror is totally ecumenical. It’s not really racist – they’ll kill anybody who takes the wrong stand on the major issues.

But if you’re an intellectual, you can’t say that. Because it’s too obviously true. And you can’t let people understand what is obviously true. You have to create deep theories, that can be understood only if you have a PhD from Harvard or something. So we have a clash of civilizations, and we’re supposed to worship that. But it makes absolutely no sense.

Reminder: This is the the transcript of an answer that Chomsky gave after a lecture on 5th November 2001 in Delhi.

February 29, 2008

Can Confrontation be Turned into Collaboration?

In the last post I tried to put across some points against blind reviewing. The intention was to show the limitations of blind reviewing. As I said in that post, I don’t have the correct solution. But I do know now that blind reviewing is not as good an idea as it seems on the surface.

I will have more to say about this, but in this post I will digress from the topic a bit and consider a hypothetical situation.

At present, when the author(s) of a paper get the reviews, they (in most cases) have no venue to reply to the comments made in the reviews. Now, suppose we had completely open reviewing. Not double blind. Not single blind. Zero blind.

Zero blind means that the reviewers know who the author(s) are and the author(s) also know who the reviewers are.

Hard to imagine? But we already have such a reviewing process in real world. In fact, this is the most used process. This is how books are reviewed in the media. Or movies. Or anything artistic or scientific.

Yes, I know, the situation with research conferences and journals is a bit different and there are many practical difficulties. But let’s ignore them for the time being and just assume that a zero blind process is in place and a paper is sent to a conference.

Now, the reviewers do their job and based on their comments and scores (if any) it is decided to reject the paper. This is again not a universal thing, because there is also something called ‘killing a paper’ where a single reviewer can virtually ensure that the paper is, well, killed. Regardless of what other reviewers might have said. This actually happens.

But we will ignore this too for our hypothetical case and just assume that the paper was rejected after considering all the reviews and discussion among the PC members.

Now, when the authors get the reviews, they believe that the reviewers have made mistakes in understanding the paper. Also, that the reviewers have made statements which are not justified. The authors, because they know who the reviewers are, write a detailed reply and counter all the comments and statements made by the reviewers which they think are not justified.

The reviewers are also interested in the problem that the paper is about and they probably are also working on the same problem. Which is why the paper was assigned to them in the first place.

Once again, this is an assumption for the sake of idealization. In reality, the reviewers often are not working on the same problem and may not even be interested in it.

What is going to happen now? The reviewers also reply to the author(s)’ comments. This could start a confrontation which goes on for a long time and arguments are traded back and forth.

Note that the decision about the paper has already been taken because the only reform that has happened in this hypothetical situation is that we have zero blind reviewing instead of single or double blind. So the confrontation was started by the reviewing process, but it is no more a part the process now.

‘Conventional wisdom’ says that confrontations (with words and verbosity) among researchers (or, in general, members of a group) are bad. This is the same wisdom which says that confrontations (with weapons and violence) may be good among nations or communities because there are things called national interests or communal interests.

So how about collaboration? Can this exchange of arguments lead to collaboration among the author(s) and the reviewers?

Apart from practical constraints, is there any reason why this can’t happen? I mean, even if collaboration is ruled out in many cases due to practical constraints, it may still happen is some cases. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for research?

Of course, I am talking about Computational Linguistics and Natural Language Processing, where most of the action takes place on computers. Which are likely to be connected to the Net. So, collaboration, i.e., long distance collaboration, is not a Utopian dream.

And I also know it’s not just that collaboration may not happen, there may be an ugly confrontation. This might lead to worsening of social relations among the researchers. It won’t be a good situation.

But wait a minute!

Aren’t researchers supposed to be mature people who, for the most part, think rationally? Aren’t they supposed to be objective, or at least rigorously and honestly subjective? Aren’t they supposed to be good enough to take the responsibility of deciding which research paper should be accepted and which should be killed. Or not allowed to be born, to put it more politely? In fact, aren’t they assumed to have a lot of qualities which we don’t so easily assume in ordinary mortals? Such as the fact that when they recommend the rejection of a paper and make sure it’s never published, they won’t take some ideas from those rejected papers and use them for their own work as their own contribution? Unconsciously, if not consciously. To suggest otherwise (i.e., that they can be unknowingly plagiarist) would actually be considered a blasphemy. And if someone gets caught, it would be considered a great scandal. There is some social psychology involved here which I would rather not talk about right now.

If the researchers who review papers are already assumed to have all these wonderful qualities, can we also assume that in most cases they won’t get into an ugly confrontation? That they would, if possible, convert a possible confrontation into a collaboration?

It all depends on what our preferred model of relations among researchers is. If there is a four colour (color) spectrum, which one is your preferred color:

  1. Between Newton and Leibniz
  2. Between Einstein and Bose
  3. Between Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein
  4. Between Hardy and Ramanujan

In case there is anyone reading this, and assuming that they don’t think this is all pure BS…

What do you say? Which model do you think can work? Which is your preferred model? Which model would you recommend for application in the real world?

In today’s world? But more importantly, in tomorrow’s world?

February 17, 2008

Mr. Expert-Vexpert, Please Leave Them Alone

My laptop was out of order for some days. For the last one year, since I bought it (my first), I was completely addicted to it. I became a laptop junkie. Then suddenly one day it was not available.

Life stopped.

But not for long. I picked up one book and again became a reading junkie. I finished ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ (another British Man Booker Prize winner written by an Indian woman). I won’t talk about it now. Deserves more than a few lines. I also kept reading a (Linguistics) book I am going to review. Then I picked up D. J. Taylor’s biography of George Orwell.

I have not finished it, but whatever I have read has provoked me to write this post. I will complete it and if there is something significantly better than what I have read till now, I will modify my comments. Eat my words as any person proved wrong should.

So what was in the book? A wealth. Of trivial details. Of no significance. I was hoping I would at least get some new insights about what kind of a person Orwell or Eric Blair was, if not about his work. The biographer claims to be an Expert on Orwell, so much so that when someone else wrote a book about Orwell, he reviewed it with the feeling of his territory being trespassed. He says he has read and researched Orwell for over twenty years.

He doesn’t seem to have much to show for it. I didn’t find anything new of any value about Orwell or about his work, even though I haven’t read any other biography of Orwell. I have not even read his literature as extensively as this biographer has. Then how come I got nothing new? Because what the Orwell Expert presents to the reader are a deluge of bits of information which are not even well connected. And these bits tell nothing of interest or consequence which can’t be obtained from reading Orwell’s two three novels (1984, Animal Farm), one or two non-fiction books (Homage to Catalonia), some essays written by him (Shooting an Elephant, Reflections on Gandhi) and some essays written about him (Tourism among the Dogs by Edward Said).

What the bit torrent from the big expert boils down to is that Orwell was not really a ‘secular saint’ and that he was just a mortal with many shortcomings. Of course, all this comes with a lot of technical trappings, just to show how big an expert the biographer is about Orwell and how much research he has done.

Big deal.

I knew that much just by reading one of his books.

The fact is that Orwell was one of those authors who are quite self-conscious and self-consciously responsible. He doesn’t really hide what kind of a person he is. Of course, a small margin is due to everyone, including the saints. He shows up in his writings quite clearly. The biographer (I am not writing about Taylor because I want to make a general point: My objective is not to review his book) does try very hard to show that Orwell was in many ways different from the impressions his books give. But he fails miserably. Every ‘insight’ that he tries to derive from his extensive research of two decades is easily derivable from the books written by Orwell. From just a few of his books.

Mind you, I do believe that trivia can give illuminating insights quite often. But not always and not everywhere. The biographer seems to have forgotten that.

The fact also is that Edward Said, who wrote quite critically and disapprovingly, did a much better job at showing that Orwell was not as great a human being as some of his fans might believe. And he did this in a short essay I mentioned earlier, not in a fat book.

Tell you what: George Orwell or Eric Blair was nonetheless a great and rare human being and an even greater a writer. He was (relatively) exceptionally honest in his writings. What’s more important, he was unpretentiously honest, which many of the ‘high class’ elite writers, artists, scientists, movie makers etc. are not. Of course he was no saint. He never claimed he was. Just as Gandhi didn’t: A fact which Orwell pointed out in his essay.

Knowingly or unknowingly, the ultimate effect of the book (in cases where it has turned out to be effective) is to undermine Orwell’s writings and concentrate on showing that Orwell has two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two hands, etc. and that he ate food to keep alive, that he needed money to buy food, that he had to earn money, that he managed to earn some money from writing, that he tried to have relations with women, that he even flew into a rage once in a long while etc. Very illuminating. Should we thank the author to tell us that Orwell was a more or less normal human being but was also quite different?

There are references to Orwell’s writings, of course, but they mostly seem to be dismissive in the sense that author is more interested in proving the above mentioned fact than what Orwell’s work tells us. There are a few interesting things, but they are very infrequent.

Orwell’s name has been so much misused that it’s no less than a tragedy that a person who claims Orwell to be his territory and has read and researched on him for over twenty years seems to be so little interested in the insights that can be obtained from Orwell’s life and his work and so much more interested in the fact that Orwell studied at Eton.

I would any day prefer a ‘fictional’ biography like Lust for Life if I want to know about Van Gogh. Even if I want to read a ‘researched’ biography, I would like to read again (third time) Awaaraa Maseehaa (आवारा मसीहा) by Vishnu Prabhakar (विष्णु प्रभाकर) if I want to refresh my knowledge about Sharat Chandra (शरतचंद्र). Or Ray Monk’s Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude. Even though Ray Monk didn’t really like Russell, he still tells you much more about Russell. And he doesn’t waste pages in his two (fat) volume biography on proving that Russell had two eyes and so on.

My advice to expert-vexperts like Mr. Taylor, researching writers or artists, is to just leave them alone.

Do something useful with your life. Orwell’s work can give a lot of clues about that.

For the rest, just leave him alone. Your kind of expertise is not worth two pennies. Or two pens. Or two pencils.

P.S.: Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that this Expert of Literature understands so little of literature. You shouldn’t really expect much from a person who calls Guliver’s Travels a ‘children’s classic’.

December 9, 2007

Cinema on Cinema (2)

Filed under: Individual and Society,Movies,Responsible Creativity,Thinking Humans — anileklavya @ 12:41 am

Let’s talk about ‘Salam Cinema’ ([1], [2], [3], [4]) first (which actually means let me talk about …). The movie starts with a long scene of a very long queue of people densely crowded on both sides of the road on which the vehicle carrying the camera is moving. The scene culminates in a view of an almost riot in front of a building. It turns out that all those people have turned up in response to a small classified ad placed by the director Makhmalbaf for wannabe actors. In the hundredth year of the birth of cinema.

We see shots of all kinds of people: people of all ages; men as well as women; beautiful as well as not so good looking; and what’s more, the least to the most self-conscious. Jostling with each other for getting the form which has to be filled by the candidates. As the gates of the building open, we witness a stampede which reminds us of the numerous news stories of stampedes in which many people routinely get killed. Fortunately, no one gets killed here, as far as I know. We also see the shots of the director’s crew, holding cameras or making announcements to the crowd. Chaos is the word which will come to your mind if you try to describe this scene.

The scene then shifts to the inside of the building. We see a man sitting on a chair behind a table. A few yards in front of the chair and the table is a small square marked on the floor. We then see the prospective actors coming in and be told to stay within the square. The candidates are called in either individually, or (more frequently) in groups. Sometimes in large groups.

We realize that the dictator sitting on the chair and ordering the candidates to laugh or (more frequently) cry within 10 seconds is the director Makhmalbaf himself. The dictatorial director even counts loudly as the wannabe actors try to make a show of trying to cry or laugh. Which, of course, results in some strange spectacles. Those who can’t cry (i.e., almost everyone) in 10 seconds as the director counts up to 10, are summarily dismissed. But there are exceptions.

But if we keep our eyes and ears open, we also realize that the director is trying to show something more than the hold of cinema on the general population: the craze to be in the movies. That the director is deliberately behaving like a dictator to show us something indirectly. For example, when the two girls who have defiantly faced the director’s bullying are dismissed and then called back (more than once) and then finally made to sit in the director’s chair, they also start behaving like the bullying director. But before that, we see a long mock debate between the director and the two girls (well, for the girls it is not really a mock debate: they don’t initially know that the ‘screen tests’ themselves are part of a movie) about being an artist and being humane. Is it possible to be an artist as well as humane? After the girls fail to cry in 10 seconds, the director declares that they were humane but they failed as artists. There is another test for them. An old friend of the director who was with him in the prison during the Shah’s rule before the (Islamic) revolution has also come with his two children who want to act in the world famous director’s movie. The friend himself is questioned about his seeking favors from the director and is repeatedly reminded about how idealistic he was before the revolution. Actually, the director is quite sympathetic to him and is therefore also telling us about his friend so that we don’t judge him just because he is seeking favors the only time when we are probably going to see him. This friend, along with his two children, is often standing in the square with the two girls mentioned above. All of them are asked many times to cry or laugh. But the director brings in a moral dilemma for the girls by asking them whether they will sacrifice their places to the friend’s children as the friend had made sacrifices for everyone before the revolution. The girls hold firm and don’t agree to give up their places. The friend is also asked whether he can back out in favor of the girls and he agrees. We don’t know whether it is because he realizes that the girls are perhaps potentially better actors or he is making sacrifices for others again.

There is another argument between the candidates and the director. One of the candidates challenges the director to make his own professional actor (who is present there) to cry within ten seconds. The director initially denies that there is any professional actor present, but when the candidate identifies the actor, the director asks the actor in the same dictatorial tone to go stand in the square and cry within ten seconds. And he actually does just that. He is genuinely crying before the ten seconds are up.

Just to leave no grounds for misunderstanding (after all, when most people, including those who are supposedly scholars, don’t even know how to read properly, they can very very easily miss the point of the movie), the director asks the girls how could they be as cruel as him when they know how hard it is to laugh and cry on demand.

It is, of course, no coincidence that most of the screen time is given to the two girls (whose parents do not enthusiastically support their decision to act in a movie) and the old idealistic revolutionary friend.

It is also no coincidence that the director uses a dictatorial tone throughout the movie. He also plays along with the (men and women) ‘action’ lovers. In many shots we see the director firing with his hands at the ‘actors’ and the ‘actors’ making a show of falling down as if in a shootout. There are references to Hollywood movies and actors.

There are times when you feel that the movie is becoming exploitative. But the ‘actors’ are explicitly asked whether they agree to the ‘screen tests’ being a part of the movie. I don’t know whether it is pathetic or wonderful (from the magic-of-cinema point of view) that most of the members of the crowd outside the building (who are ‘killing each other’ to get into the movie) don’t even get to fill the form, let alone be ‘interviewed’ by the director. And those who are screen tested are not actually to be given any part in any movie except this one where the screen test is itself a part of the movie. Even though the girls and the revolutionary friend are told that they are already in a movie so they have become actors and will also be paid for their roles.

At the end, you still keep wondering what was it that all these people were seeking: money, fame, glamor, excitement or all of these or something else (like simply a job for survival). Or perhaps most of them didn’t know themselves.

There is even a young man who (quite convincingly) pretends to be a blind man who is passionate to act in movies. He even lies that he spent the night in the open ground outside the building. And he even cries. But in spite all his deceptions, perhaps he is indeed passionate about movies. That won’t be very unusual, would it?

And you wonder about the difference between the life in front of the camera and that behind it. After all, the movie is about cinema itself. But I am not sure whether ‘Salam Cinema’ was an appropriate title.

Perhaps it was meant to be a bit ironic.

November 27, 2007

Cinema on Cinema

I saw two movies about movies within three days. Not quite intentionally. Both were by the high priests of cinema (auteurs, maestros). One from Italy and one from Iran. The first is called ‘8 and a Half‘ and the second ‘Salam Cinema’ ([1], [2], [3], [4]). If you are a movie buff (of the serious or the artistic kind), you might have heard of them.

How to describe these two movies? Disturbing is one word. Voyeuristic is another. Redeeming can also be tried. Both of them take a good look at cinema and the making of cinema and the people involved in cinema. And they do it quite mercilessly. The risks that both the directors take clearly show their confidence: obviously their kind of courage is not due to ignorance. It is because they know they are good. Lesser mortals won’t try things like these.

In style, the two movies are very different. While the first is still a proper feature film, even if it is a film about films (and one fictional film in particular), the second one is almost a documentary, though not the usual kind. There are other differences too. The first one focuses more on the director, while the second one focuses more on the actors. Or would be actors. Actually, about the mostly would never be (or could never be) actors. As a digression, I can also mention here (shameless showoff!) another movie which focuses mainly on the viewers: Nuovo Cinema Paradiso by yet another maestro, Giuseppe Tornatore. (I will hopefully write about another one of his movies in a later post). Of course, all of them cover the world around the director and the actors too. Still, the real focus of both the movies is cinema itself.

When language is used to talk about language itself, we call it Linguistics. What should it be called when cinema is used to ‘talk’ about cinema? Should it be Cinemistics? That sounds like Cine-Mystiques.

Never mind.

Many movies have been made about cinema, but these two are surely among the best. But only the patient ones will be rewarded with the pleasure (and the good kind of pain) that can be obtained from these movies.

(To be continued…)

November 11, 2007

The Work of a Responsible Genius

Here comes the rave I promised.

A few days back, in the middle of heavy workload, I happened to see Missing. It is a movie directed by Costa Gavras. For the uninitiated, he is the one who directed Z. Till now, these are his only movies that I have seen. Just like in the case of Missing, I didn’t know about Z when I saw it. And, at that time, I had not heard of Costa Gavras either. Still, I had no doubt even then that Z was the work of a responsible genius.

What does responsible genius mean? Long ago, Chomsky had written an extremely influential and important article called The Responsibility of Intellectuals. I would call a person a ‘responsible genius’ if that person fulfills the responsibilities indicated in this article and also deserves the epithet ‘genius’. Assuming that no word in this paragraph has been used lightly, especially the words ‘responsibility’ and ‘genius’. Of course, Chomsky’s is just a reference. Even if there had been no Chomsky, there would still be the idea of a ‘responsible genius’.

Note that what I said was ‘Z was the work of a responsible genius’, not that Costa Gavras is a responsible genius. He may be, but I don’t know much about him. What I do know is that both of his movies that I have seen are the works of a responsible genius. It is amazing how difficult it can be to understand (stock phrase!) the subtle differences in meaning due to slightly different phrasing. It’s not so easy to really learn to read. From my experience I have found that most people are bad readers, including those who are supposed to be scholars and intellectuals. I find that out again and again now that I am into research. Sometimes, from the reviews that I get for my papers, it’s hard to believe how badly the reviewers read. Reading is not about understanding syntax or even semantics. Reading is about understanding the meaning, including the fact that there can ambiguities and multiple interpretations, many of them intended by the writer. Good reading, like good everything, requires sincerity.

Digression! Digression!

Back to business. You may find it interesting to know that Costa Gavras is the man who refused to direct Godfather (at least that’s what I have read) because he wanted to make modifications in the script, which was not acceptable to the producers. His argument was that the script, as it was, glorified mafia. And he was offered Godfather because Z was actually quite successful commercially, even though (like Missing) it was an overtly political movie.

Both the movies are based on true events, and Missing much more so. In Z, we are shown how a judge (in Greece, with powers very different from that of a judge in India), who is a very normal non-radical person just trying to fulfill his responsibilities sincerely. And just in doing his work as he is supposed to (in theory), he brings down the government whose high ranking officials (including generals) have been involved in the assassination of a popular (really) democratic leader.

In a format which is almost that of a commercial thriller, we are shown how almost everyone in power is either involved in the assassination or in the cover up. In the process, we also get to see how fascism works at the ground level. This should not be unfamiliar to Indians, or to any other people for that matter, but it still needs to be shown effectively because no people are ready to see (and accept that they see) the true ugly face of fascism among them, until it reaches the Holocaust or pogrom level and at least thousands of people are very visibly killed and brutalized. If then.

So, Z doesn’t show anything very new. Nor does it boast of fancy, brand new stylistic effects. That’s why a lot of people don’t even notice that it is an artistic movie. Nor is it so easy to dismiss it as the work a loony-toony leftist.

But the movie doesn’t leave much scope for denial, provided you at least see it. And are prepared to see what it shows. At the same time, it is entertaining too. Without making many compromises or diluting the commitment. This is not so easy to achieve.

More to come. Next time about Missing.

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