Thursday, August 30, 2012

Notes on 'Mainland India' and the "unknown" part called 'the North East'.

Authors Note: You may read: Notes on 'Chinky' and this thing called 'racism' (Part-I) - HERE and Part-II: HERE.

In this post, I intend to address a few of the media-created-and-sundry-activists-and-talking-heads-fueled perceptions, since going by their longevity, these are very 'popular' indeed. Here are a few that regularly do the media rounds:

1.   Indians, the new terminology being: 'mainland India' - are unaware of the seven states that make up the "remote" North East (i.e. the North-Eastern parts of the country);

2.  'Mainland India' is hostile or is prejudiced towards 'North East people' (i.e. towards Indians hailing from the North-Eastern parts of the country);

3. Sportspersons hailing from the North-East (NE) are neglected.

4.   'Mainland India' thinks NE women are promiscuous.

5.   Why people from the "unknown" part called the North East feel out of place in 'mainland India'?

Frankly, all of these are incorrect perceptions; but before I begin my latest post in right earnest (and interspersed with wistful nostalgia), let's have a sneak peek at the perception-creators.

They are: failed filmmakers, sleazy-film makers, living-life-king-size journalists, frothing-at-the-mouth anchors, non-authors that are responsible for the deluge of drek in our bookstores, bad book writers that are somehow awarded top international prizes, habitual opinion dispensers, couch experts, apart from sundry other hired voice-boxes, rented pen-pushers and keyboard bashers.

All of the above are hungry for publicity, 'coz that is their route to survival - via remaining in the public eye. Perhaps we can also infer that their relationship with the media is rather symbiotic.

As for the media (read: television) the less said the better. We have undoubtedly come a very long way from those good ol' pre-liberalization days, when news was just news and not audio-visual bombardment.

In the glory days of DD (Doordarshan), everything was in moderation. News meant: no breaking news, no tickers, no cantankerous cacophony ... and no high BP. What we received instead was polished anchors: dignified, elegant and well-turned-out, and they brought to us uncluttered news, in simple English, which made sense even to those who were not very familiar with the language.

Think: Sunit Tandon, Geetanjali Iyer, Rini Simon nee Khanna, Usha Albuquerque, Sukanya Balakrishnan, Sangeeta Bedi, Komal G.B. Singh, Kaveri Mukherji, Neethi Ravindran, Tejeshwar Singh, Bhaskar Bhattacharyya, Shivendra Kundra, Nalin Kohli, et al and their clear diction and delivery?! Awesome, right?

[Here is a slice of nostalgia: LINK.

And here is DD's telecast of the first Indian cosmonaut, Rakesh Sharma's message from space: LINK.]

Known as newsreaders, news presenters or news anchors then, they were all casual staffers, selected primarily for fluency of language and correct diction, but there was emphasis on general knowledge too. They came as news presenters. Those who could cope with change evolved into news anchors. However, all of them were multifaceted personalities involved in theatre, PR, Education or Event Management and the like. What set them apart from the current lot is that, they were NOT a pack of bloodthirsty newshounds; churning out 'news' was not their full-time job. Needless to say, their silvery voices with clear diction left the listeners impressed, so much so that without much media attention or ado, they gained an enduring fan following; their voices are not likely to fade from public memory that easily.

We miss the heydays of DD and the difference between how the news was cast then and now is drastic.

Think Prannoy Roy (of the late 80's) and his widely viewed 'The World This Week' on DD. It was the best news program of all; with its stunning title jingles to the way they presented world stories. Even the international advertisements were refreshing: Cathay Pacific, MasterCard, JCT Fabrics and Gillette. Remember Appan Menon reporting from Golan Heights? There was a time when 'The World This Week' was the only India-based program that looked out at the rest of the world. It propelled Prannoy Roy and NDTV into super-stardom!

Now compare it with Roy's current avatar. You get the drift, don't you?

This is what Sunit Tandon (presently the director-general of IIMC, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication) has to say; "I still prefer my news delivered in an authoritative and calm way, but then, who am I to decide? It seems the majority like sensation. It used to disturb me earlier but a lot less now. The current bunch is very talented. And there is no standard accent, which is acceptable. Even BBC, which used to have a standardized accent, has all kinds of accents these days. Things have changed, and it's all for the better," he smiles.

Tandon is lost in the theatrical shouty sea of Arnabs, Rajdeeps, Sagarikas, Suhasinis and Barkhas. The much-vaunted 'liberalization' has not been kind to the icons of the Doordarshan era. Sadly. [Perhaps the liberalization genie was let loose without proper checks and balances. What do you think?]

Usha Albuquerque (now a Consultant and one of India's best known Career Counsellor) says DD was an excellent launch pad. "We didn't have visuals for every news item, so articulation and diction were very important." Nonetheless, with no competition, DD had all the TRPs to itself.

"Today, with so many channels vying for the same audience, it's not surprising that they have to depend on sensationalizing and blowing things out of proportion," says Albuquerque. "Competition has brought plenty of unsavoury aspects into journalism - unwanted intrusions, judgmental reporting, news anchors who behave like moralists, and news that is also politically motivated."

Albuquerque believes DD had a lot to offer. "We never coloured the news."

"Today, news anchors have to operate in an extremely competitive scenario," says Tandon. "The emphasis of channel owners is on grabbing eyeballs at any cost. There is less emphasis on voice and language skills, balance and journalistic accuracy."

[Do listen to Mr. Tandon's thoughts: LINK.]

News these days is big business, and so, it's a small wonder that it has been turned into a 24/7 monster with a huge appetite; so much so that news has to be actually manufactured and then dispensed at the top of one's voice with all sorts of sound effects, racy visuals, astonishing headlines, jumping anchors and all.

In the game of TRP, Vitamin M is the Emperor. And in order to attract loads and loads of the latter, the humble news has to be jazzed up with spicy content, the spicier the better.

Therefore, uncluttered news, in simple English, which made sense even to those who were not very familiar with the language, was passé. Sadly, for the last decade or so, even DD replaced "bland" news, which has been its signature style for years, with a more "viewer-friendly" format (apparently designed to win back at least some of the viewership, which it lost to others.) To cut to the chase, DD decided to imitate the more 'successful' private channels: a case of "join-'em-if-you- can't-beat-'em" syndrome.

Just who provides all this Vitamin M, meaning: whether it is star-bucks, moon-bucks, dragon-bucks or some other bucks, is not yet known. But given the trends - it's not difficult to decipher, no? [Aside: It's not just Japan or Vietnam that has been hit by 'Radia-tion', if you know what I mean :)]

Not unsurprisingly, the print media too takes a cue (from it's colourful and snazzier audio-visual counterpart) and follows suit, just like the sunflower follows every movement of the sun.

Result: Not only are path-breaking new terminologies like, 'mainland India' coined, but 'intellectually stimulating' debates on 'interesting' topics like:

1. Whether 'Mainland India' is unaware of the "remote" part called the North-East?

2. Whether 'Mainland India' is hostile or prejudiced towards the 'North-East people'?

3. Whether sportspersons hailing from the North-East (NE) are neglected?

... Et al are first conjured up, and then debated full throttle, with an 'appropriate' cast of 'experts' and sundry other professional opinion-dispensers!! [What type, I have already mentioned at the beginning of this post.]

Frankly, all of these sounds like (to my mind at least) repackaged tactics employed by the erstwhile 'East India Company' - that besides discovering new definitions, possibilities and opportunities offered by something as innocuous as trade, also found time to take the principle of 'divide and rule' to hitherto unheard-of heights. [Note: Please do read this paragraph slowly ... and then ponder over it.]

Some sane folks have been saying that the people running the show should be aware of their social responsibilities; that they can be catalysts for positive change, and if that is not happening, something is clearly missing, etc, etc. But then being aware of one's social responsibilities would automatically mean no Vitamin M chappar phaad ke (or at least a drastic fall in it's inflow) and that would in turn result in 'downsizing' (also known as 'rightsizing'.) You get it, don't you?

As for point # 2, i.e. whether 'mainland India' is hostile or prejudiced towards the 'North-East people' ... frankly, this one reminds me of the scene in 'Chak De! India' where the caretaker of the stadium (Sukhlal) asks one of the NE girls, Mary Ralte (Kimi Laldawla) from Mizoram - which country she belongs to. She mentions her state and then turning towards another fellow player, Molly Zimik (Masochon "Chon Chon" Zimik) from Manipur, says - "imagine being treated as a foreigner in your own country?!" - or words to that effect. And then they both ask Sukhlal, how he would feel if he were to be treated as a guest in his own country.

But before anyone amongst you decides to jump into clichéd conclusions or puts on the smug I-told-you-so expression, please remember that in the same film, the girl from Andhra Pradesh, Nethra Reddy, tells Sukhlal that the difference between Telugus and Tamilians is the same as that between Punjabis and Biharis - when he insists on calling her a "Madrasi".

[Note: How North Indians view South Indians? - the assumption that everyone hailing from the south of the Vindya Ranges are "Madrasis". And how South Indians view North Indians? - the assumption that everyone hailing from the north of the Vindya Ranges are ... well, what else but "North Indians"!!]

Umm, in my humble opinion, these (Chak De! India) scenes, rather dialogues very aptly capture or sum us up. By 'us' I mean, 'WE - Indians'. In short: These scenes/dialogues are succinct about the way we think, perceive and treat our motherland, per se.

Why this has happened? Unfortunately, it is a fast culture that is prevalent today (post liberalization, that is.) And though people (including students) have greater access to information through print and electronic media, besides the Internet of course, they prefer to remain content with shallow, incomplete knowledge and information - so long as they are able to find suitable jobs. They do not want to penetrate the depths of subjects, nor are they keen to gather information - for the sake of knowledge. That IS perceived as 'a waste of time'. Yes, you read it right, 'a waste of time'.

Students these days are more focused on their specific subjects, but specialization has made their visions narrow. They are more concerned about collecting information related to their profession/careers etc. Modern day education system has been geared to finding jobs. THE be-all and end-all of education IS to get hold of a good job or career. As for the parents, they are too busy pushing their wards toward professional courses that would (according to them) result in a fat pay packet: i.e. towards medicine, software engineering, management and the like.

Where all this will eventually lead? Well, none have the time to ponder that over. [Since, you see the mall-culture too is an impediment to clear thinking!]

As for sports ... what's that? With apartments and shopping malls coming up on whatever parks and playgrounds we have left, Xbox and video games - have taken the place of outdoor games. Only the thumbs are exercised ... and that's enough. In future, we are all set to scoop up all the gold medals that are available or can be manufactured - in thumb wrestling!!!

Moral of the story: Given our job-induced culture, we do not give any importance to sports, or even to learning about our own country, heritage and history. [Do read my earlier post: 'Our Culture, History and Heritage - Some Thoughts': HERE.]

But since TRP reigns supreme and we are champions in the fine art of kabaddi - the art and science of 'leg-pulling', we have done and are doing what we know and do best. This 'leg-pulling' bit is not playfully ... but more like: bringing someone or something down. As in, bringing down anything that should have been carefully nurtured, fortified and if not, then at least should have been left untouched; like merit, like talent, like excellence, like peace, like harmony, like ... a nation.

Parting shot: Perhaps one is born to be part of the proverbial rat race only; nothing else matters. Perhaps owning tons of Vitamin M, several swanky residences, fancy hot wheels, exotic vacations and being kitted out in Haute couture, patent leather shoes and snazzy wrist-and-eye-wears are far more important than one's motherland. Perhaps copying or parroting some script is the ticket to lucrative book deals. Perhaps playing politics and creating artificial rifts and issues - is THE right thing to do. Perhaps becoming puppets and dancing to the tunes of some or the other neo-East India Company is far more desirable than unprofitable and intangible things like, one's motherland. Who can say?

PS: The 4th point (i.e. whether 'Mainland India' thinks NE women are promiscuous) - I will discuss later. In the next post, lets talk about how things were a couple of decade or so ago. Do stay tuned.

Photograph: Indian Women's Hockey Team after winning the 2002 Commonwealth Games Hockey Final. Pic. courtesy: Link.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Notes on 'Chinky' and this thing called 'racism' (Part-II)

Author's Note: As promised, I am back with the 2nd part of this series. In this post, I will attempt to discuss the etymology of the word 'Chinky'.

You may read the 1st part: HERE

Chinky - this word as you may know has become well entrenched and keeps cropping up everywhere: media, talk shows, blogs, newspapers, magazines, interviews and what have you. Talking heads go blue in the face trying to emphasize how racist Indians are ... since 'they refer to people from the North-Eastern parts of the country as Chinky'.

But for whatever reason, none have so far tried to understand the etymology of this word or even made an attempt to. So lets do it! [Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.]

'Chink' (also: chinki, chinky, chinkie) is an English ethnic slur referring mainly to a person of Chinese ethnicity but sometimes generalized to refer to any person of East Asian descent. The use of the term is broadly considered offensive and has been compared in degree of offensiveness to terms such as 'nigger' and 'kike'.

However, the word 'Chinky' has its origins in the Indian reference to Chinese people.

Since the times of the Mauryan Empire (i.e. over two millennium ago) - there was continual contact between ancient India and ancient China. As for what the maps of ancient India and ancient China looked like, lets put that aside for a while.

In the North Indian languages (and even in Bengali), China is referred to as 'Cheen'.

And her people with the suffix 'ke-log', therefore 'cheen-ke-log' literally translates as 'people of/from China'.

Chronologically this word (cheen-ke-log) was popularly shortened to 'cheen-ke'. [Just like say, thank you has been shortened to thanks.]

'Cheen-ke' meant: anything of/from China (usually but not limited to people).

However, with the subsequent English colonization of India, one can speculate that: the (Indian) word 'cheen-ke' came to be adopted by the Englishmen, who then proceeded to develop their own connotations for it. [What those connotations were I leave you to speculate in solitude - in light of words like: Nigger, Kike, Black, Brown, White, Yellow, Coolie, and the like.]

The word, Chink's first usage is recorded from about 1890 but 'Chinky' had first appeared in print, as far as can be ascertained, in 1878. Chinky is still used in Britain as a nickname for Chinese food.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese immigration was perceived as a threat to the living standards of whites in North America and other similar nations. The Chinese were seen as invasive, and this mounting xenophobia culminated in Yellow Peril hysteria. In the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, banning Chinese immigration, within a few years after the first recorded use of Chink. The dehumanizing use of the word is argued by one author to be a racist justifier for the passage of the Exclusion Act. [However, a persistent labor shortage on the west coast meant that Chinese workers were still needed there; and apparently Alaskan fish canneries were so short of workers, that appeals were submitted to the US Congress to amend the Exclusion Act - but sadly nothing was done to quell the destructive xenophobic psychology.]

When Edmund A. Smith patented his mechanized fish-butchering machine in 1905, he named it the Iron Chink; some saw this as symbolic of the anti-Chinese racism during the era. Usage of the word (Chink) continued, such as with the story "The Chink and the Child" by Thomas Burke, later adapted to film by D.W. Griffith.

Although Chink originally referred only to those appearing to be of Chinese descent, the meaning expanded sometime in the 1940s to include other people of East Asian descent. During the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the word was frequently used to refer to Korean and Vietnamese soldiers, with numerous examples of news reports attesting to this. In addition, literature and film about the Vietnam War also contain examples of this usage of Chink, including the 1986 film "Platoon" and the 1970s play (and later film) "Sticks and Bones."

As in other English-speaking countries, Chinese people were belittled in Australia too. The terms Chinaman and Chink became intertwined with one another, as many Australians used both of them with hostile intent when referring to members of the country's Chinese population - which had swelled significantly during the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s.

Assaults on Chinese miners and racially motivated riots and public disturbances were not infrequent occurrences in Australia's mining districts in the second half of the 19th century. There was some resentment too, of the fact that Chinese miners and labourers tended to send their earnings back home to their families in China rather than spending them then and there, and supporting the local economy.

In the popular Sydney Bulletin magazine in 1887, one author wrote: "No nigger, no chink, no lascar, no kanaka [laborer from the South Sea Islands], no purveyor of cheap labour, is an Australian." This was not an isolated opinion. Eventually, since-repealed federal government legislation was passed to restrict non-white immigration and thus protect the jobs of Anglo-Celtic Australian workers from 'undesirable' competition.

As with other ethnic slurs, associations with violence and discrimination are often made which may amount to hate crimes. Needless to say, the Chinese people (as well as other people of East Asian descent) considered the term offensive from the outset. Unfortunately, this psychology is still thriving well in the United States, Europe and Australia; so much so that even during the 2012 London Olympics there was an incident involving a sportsman of Chinese descent, if you remember? Else do look it up.

With this, I believe we can clearly understand the etymology of this term - Chinky; that is to say, how this term came into being, who coined it and the psychology behind it (that helped in its coining.)

With a lot of sadness in my heart, I would also like to add that, WE (Indians) - not only let our lands be colonized, but (what was and is much worse) WE allowed our minds to be colonized too.

And WE have not been able to shirk this colonization off completely. In fact, some of us are so much in thrall of it that whether consciously or not, they have been welcoming it and emulating it too.

Who coined the phrase, 'people with mongoloid features'? Certainly, no Indian! But some of us have been using it - nonchalantly :(

That is to say: some of us have been adopting aspects of an alien culture blindly, simply aping without giving it a thought. [My blogger friend, Sunil Balani (of expressions fame) has captured this very aptly as " ... a distorted form of collectivism attenuated by conceit of omniscience."]

Racism - is a mindset that has been born out of, is part of, and has come from a culture that has indulged in colonization and slave-taking. Now, does India or Indians have such a heritage or history?

No, neither India nor Indians have such a history. Therefore, the real connotations of this word - Chinky, or rather the psychology behind it - IS unknown to us. And no matter how much we endeavour, we will never really know.

And though I have said this before, let me say it again: this term 'Chinky' is NOT homegrown but a colonial hangover that has been lovingly adopted by neo-Curzons - who love to 'think in English'. [Do read Part-I of this series HERE, so as to understand what I mean by neo-Curzon.]

However, when I say 'think in English' - it should not be construed as my attack on the English language per se. You see, all I am trying to understand is: how did terms like Bitch, SoB, Coolie, Black, Brown, Fuck, Fucking, Sex-Worker, Retard, Loser, Queer, Adult Porn, Child Porn, Paedophilia, et al enter OUR vocabulary. ['Coz we did not even have such concepts in the first place!]

Let me elaborate on a couple of specific examples. Have you ever wondered as to how this word 'dialect' came into use, or why it has been rolling off our tongues effortlessly?

I am asking since we simply do not have this concept of dialect! For us, it has always been 'bhasha' or language. Many bhasha-s have co-existed in this land, and even if a handful of people spoke it, it was still bhasha (language) - never 'dialect'. This very concept of dialect is alien to us, so why have we been using it?

I would say: 'thinking in English' - is the cause.

Lets come to another much-in-use phrase: "sibling thing creeping into a marriage."

Now, though a lot of people (especially high-profile ones, like: sundry Page 3 birds, matinee idols, know-it-all celebrities, media savvy authors and hot-shot journalists) have been using this phrase - left, right and center; I am still keen to know your views on it.

'Coz to my mind: a sibling and a spouse are two totally different entities that cannot and should not be mixed - if you know what I mean. A marriage has many sides or dimensions, and love is an emotion with myriad hues and shades; but how can "a sibling thing creep into a marriage"??

Frankly, I have not a clue. But then yours truly is not a Page 3 bird, matinee idol, know-it-all celebrity, (self-proclaimed) conscious-keeper author or a much fawned-over journalist :)

[Note: Perhaps, such a phrase can only emanate from a culture that sees a mother breast-feeding her 2 or 3 year-old son, immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is 'sexual exploitation' or 'pedophilia, or some such ... and promptly goes to town about it! Frankly, it leaves us speechless, to say the least. Therefore, it is best that WE remain careful, choosy and alert about anything emanating from such a land and culture ... and think twice before adopting aspects of it blindly. In short: WE must refrain from simply aping without giving it a thought.]

Here's some mind-chow for you, until the next post:

1. Why do terms like - Chinky and Racism - rear their ugly heads every time there is a discussion about Indians that hail from the North-Eastern part of this country?

2. Are we adopting aspects of an alien culture blindly? Simply aping (that too nonchalantly) and without giving it a thought?

3. But what mystifies me no end is to see respected western newspapers, magazines and books spending reams and reams on 'how racist Indians are towards people hailing from the North-East'; while simultaneously choosing to ignore not only their own glorious history of rabid xenophobic psychology but also the veritable wealth of racist terminology - that have abounded and still abounds - in the English-speaking world (for centuries)!!

Why this Kolaveri Di? :) What say you??

4. I am even more mystified as to why respected and renowned western scholars, analysts, experts, authors, thinking tanks (as opposed to Patton tanks) and journalists too never tire of speaking or writing about 'how racist Indians are towards people hailing from the North-East'? [While maintaining a studied silence about the glorious history and veritable wealth of youknowwhat - that they have been and are sitting upon ... especially since all of that youknowwhat is thriving very well. *Scratching my head*]  

5. Also, if you have noticed, certain respected and renowned Indian scholars, analysts, experts, activists, authors and journalists too never tire of speaking or writing about 'how racist Indians are towards people hailing from the North-East'; they even speak the same language as their counterparts half-way around the globe!!

Umm, does that mean telepathy is a criteria for anything, research grants and patronage included?

6. How is a mindset created?

Parting shot: The famous Bhajji episode, involving a dread-locked cricketer from the land of the kangaroos, created much storm; with racism making it to the airwaves and news-prints all over the globe - quite predictably, I would say.

But while many fingers were conveniently pointed at Bhajji and through him, towards Indians in general, and while several voice-boxes went hoarse talking about 'the racist attitude of Indians'; strangely, none brought up the plight of the so-called Aborigines in that shining kangaroo-infested country, to which even the purported 'victim' - the dread-locked cricketer himself, belonged !! [Even HE never spoke about it !!!]

Now, we all are quite familiar with the popular saying, 'there is much darkness under the lamp', aren't we? Here: lamp is a metaphor for people who do not see their own shortcomings, and utter the 'all is well' mantra instead. Meaning: they preach to others what they do not practice at home.

Wonder what dark shadows can be found under all those glittering lamps of freedom, democracy and equal rights - that certain nations and scholars hold aloft and zealously guard?

And last but not the least, does this word, racism, help certain folks and nations to project rather deflect their own ills, on us? Does all that convenient finger-pointing help in making those chimera-like glittering lamps to appear real? What do you think??

(More later…)

BlogAdda's Spicy take: In the wake of the riots in Assam and the panic prevailing among north-easterners from the city of Bangalore, Roshmi shares her view on racism that our fellow countrymen have to face. She explains the etymology and the psychology of why  people from the seven states in the north-east are called Chinkies.

Photograph: Combat at Guangzhou (Canton) during the Second Opium War. Picture courtesy: link. The Opium Wars also known as the Anglo-Chinese Wars, divided into the First Opium War from 1839 - 1842 and the Second Opium War from 1856 - 1860.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Burma: A nation At The Crossroads by Benedict Rogers

Burma: A nation At The Crossroads by Benedict Rogers is a Random House publication. Thank you Random House for sending me a copy.

I had vaguely heard of the author's name before and must say was quite happy to be able to read a book that dealt with the changing times - in this neighbouring country of ours. As you are aware, Burma, now Myanmar, is much in the news these days though not too long ago nothing much emanated from there; news was controlled and the nation itself was off the international radar.

A Snapshot, some snippets and a bit about the author: Today, it is a linchpin country in the evolving geopolitics of Asia. It shares borders with both China and India and in a way is the gateway to South-East Asia as well. Burma has an extraordinary wealth of untapped natural resources. So, needless to say, that policymakers everywhere, especially in Beijing and New Delhi, are feverishly planning ambitious infrastructure projects - pipelines, highways and railroads - that will allow them to boost their trade between each other as well as with Burma.

However, Myanmar is saddled with two generations of chemistry professors who have never conducted a proper laboratory experiment and mechanical engineers yet to handle hands-on equipment. From MBAs to lawyers, doctors and accountants, shortages abound. Of particular concern, is the lack of skilled technicians and workers, who will be sorely needed if an investment boom does come. So, to my mind there could be a tremendous opportunity for India here. We share a lot ... and not just our borders. There is a common history, culture, heritage and cuisine too. Buddhism came to Burma from ancient India, and the beautiful Pagodas there ... stand testimony to our ties that dates back not just centuries but perhaps millenniums.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights advocate specializing in Asia. He has traveled to Burma several times - to meet people, who either by providing information or by sharing their own personal experiences with him - contributed towards the writing of this book.

Rogers met with former political prisoners, members of Aung San Suu Kyi's former 'Tri-colour' security guards, elected members of Parliament, UN representative of the exiled government, '88 Generation activists, Chin activists, Kachin activists, Karen and Arakan Rohingya representatives, members of Burma's Women's League and Shan Women's Action Network, among others. He also interacted with people outside Burma - who work tirelessly for Burma's freedom and they have provided invaluable insights and information. These (people outside Burma) also include past British, American, Australian, Thai and Japanese diplomats who shared their recollections and analysis; as well as many former British Ambassadors. He also accessed St. Hugh's College (Oxford University) archive of press cuttings and other information about Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma.

Rogers, also the author of 'Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant', has been to almost all of Burma's borders, spending time with internally displaced people (IDPs) in the jungles of eastern Burma, meeting defectors from the Burma Army, Buddhist monks who participated in the Saffron Revolution and other dissidents and ethnic resistance leaders. He has sat with the 'Moustache Brothers', courageously outspoken comedians in Mandalay, met some of Suu Kyi's closest associates, including her lawyer, U Nyan Win, and the prominent journalist and dissident U Ludu Sein Win. He finally met the lady - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself, in January 2012. Rogers is effusive in his praise for her.

On 26 May 1989 the military regime in Burma changed the name of the country to 'Myanmar'. The democracy movement and the leaders of the ethnic resistance organizations, however, continue to use 'Burma', and have urged the international community to do the same. Recently, there was a controversy involving Suu Kyi as well - if you remember?

The regime also changed the names of various cities and divisions. Rangoon became 'Yangon', the Irrawaddy Division became 'Ayeyarwady', Maymyo became 'Pyin Oo Lwin', the Karen State is now called 'Kayin' and so on and so forth.

The Karen leader - Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, the then General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), the major resistance organization struggling on behalf of Burma's Karen people, one of the largest of the country's ethnic groups - has already been shot dead by unidentified gunmen. He - unlike some other Karen leaders that sometimes focused narrowly on their own specific Karen struggle saw the bigger picture for Burma. Padoh Mahn Sha worked closely with the broader Burman-dominated democracy movement and with the other ethnic nationalists, without compromising his devotion to his Karen people, that is. 

A nation of approximately 55 million people, Burma is one of the most ethnically diverse in South East Asia. Besides the Burman, Burmese-speaking majority, there are seven major ethnic groups. These are the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon, who inhabit eastern and southern Burma along the border with Thailand (although the majority of Karens are in the Irrawaddy Delta, Tenasserim Division and Rangoon); the Kachin in northern Burma along the border with China; the Chin, in western Burma straddling the Indian and Bangladesh border; and the Arakan or Rakhine, along the border with Bangladesh. There are numerous other sub-groups, such as the Pa-O, Lahu, Lisu, Naga, as well as smaller groups such as the Wa, the Chinese-speaking Kokang, and the Rohingyas.

Burma became independent from British colonial rule in 1948, and after a decade of democracy following independence in 1948, the civilian government was replaced by military rule - led by General Ne Win in 1958, with the purpose of restoring order to a nation torn apart by armed uprisings by the communists and several ethnic groups. In 1960, fresh elections were held and the previous government led by Prime Minister U Nu was returned to power. Two years later, however, Ne Win launched a coup d'tat and the military have ruled the country ever since, making it the world's longest-ruling military regime.

Albeit a regime that brutalized and humiliated it's own people and nation. Child soldiers that were recruited by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw) and sent to fight in the ethnic areas, were fed on dire warnings by their senior officers about what the ethnic resistance groups would do to them if they were caught. These child soldiers really had no choice, if they did not join the army they would have been sent to jail instead. These (child) soldiers too were subjected to cruel treatment, including regular beatings for failure to carry out basic tasks, so much so that life for them in the Burmese Army 'was like hell'. They witnessed attacks on villages and saw civilians being rounded up and forced to work as porters for the military. Some child soldiers that Rogers spoke with claimed that the troops were under orders to burn, rape and kill and that 'there was no law'. Some (like Kyaw Zeya) had been repeatedly warned that if he ever escaped and were captured by the Karen, they would kill him. He believed these warnings, but life became so intolerable that he decided to flee. 'I did believe that the Karen were very bad, and I knew that if I escaped, I might face the Karen,' he admitted. 'But I did not want to live.'

The reality was diametrically opposed to the Tatmadaw propaganda though. Almost as soon as he escaped, the Karen captured Kyaw Zeya, but instead of killing him, they provided him sanctuary. With the Karen he told Rogers, he felt 'safe and free and loved'. Other children tell similar stories. [Burma has perhaps the highest number of child soldiers in the world proportionate to its population.]

Aung San Suu Kyi is a very great leader, but our government does not like her very much: These words caught me by surprise not because of the words themselves or the sentiment they expressed, but because of who they were spoken by: a serving military officer in Burma.  'She is in a very difficult situation: he continued. 'But I pray for her: Discontent with the current regime, and a desire for change in Burma is not limited to students, monks and political activists. In the junior ranks of the military, morale is believed to be so low that rates of desertion and defection have reached worrying proportions for the regime.

Rogers also tells us that astrology is taken extremely seriously among many Burmese people, as are other forms of spirituality and superstition, including numerology, and a belief in nats or spirits. At 4.20 A.M. on 4 January 1948 Burma regained its independence following little over a century of British colonial rule, and several years of Japanese occupation. This early hour was selected by Burmese astrologers - as the most propitious for the country's new beginning. But at a party held to celebrate their impending liberty, someone had reportedly predicted that the wrong date had been chosen for independence; and that there would be nothing but bloodshed and fighting among themselves, and they would not be able to do anything to change this. This person had apparently done all the astrological calculations.

Yet whether or not the astrological dangers of the date chosen for Burma's independence mean anything, other factors contributed to a fragile birth. Just six months prior to independence, on 19 July 1947, the man who had led Burma's struggle against colonial rule, General Aung San, was assassinated, along with half his cabinet. Burma's most competent leaders, who had been preparing to take over from the British, were dead before the country had even become independent.

Interestingly, Aung San predicted his own death when he met the British Governor Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith in 1946. 'How long do national heroes last?' Aung Sang reportedly asked. He then answered his own question, saying: 'Not long in this country; they have too many enemies. Three years is the most they can hope to survive. I do not give myself more than another eighteen months of life.' Aung San is respected to this day in Burma as the father of the nation and the founder of Burma's army; he was also the father of Burma's current democracy icon, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San's assassination in 1947, when his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi was just two years old, deprived him of the opportunity to see his dreams fulfilled and his country of an exceptionally able and wise young leader. He was just thirty-two.

In his meeting with Suu Kyi, Rogers informed her about this book and that he had changed the title. Originally, this book was to be called 'Burma: A Captive Nation'. She responded by commending the new title (Burma: A Nation At The Crossroads) - saying that Burma truly is at a crossroads and people must shed their status as captives. Suu Kyi went on to say that in her view, in the debate over Burma's future, there are three types of people: those who are unquestioningly euphoric and enthusiastic about the process of change; those who are supportive of her decision to engage with the regime and in the political process, but are cautious, skeptical and weighing the evidence; and those who, for whatever agenda of their own, simply do not even want the process to be tried. It is the second category that she values, and she made it clear that she does not understand and has no time for the first or the third.

Besides Rogers, another undercover journalist that has toured Myanmar several times and has met Suu Kyi twice, has penned a new biography titled, 'The Lady And The Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma'. His name: Peter Popham.

Aung San Suu Kyi's struggle against the government at the end of the 1980s was characterized by a steely refusal to entertain the possibility of any contact or dialogue with a morally tainted regime. Today, it is precisely this path, the path of dialogue - difficult, messy and opaque - that she has chosen to travel. The choices ahead will be tough, and they are likely to involve more pragmatism than principle. (Indeed, the NLD's entry into parliament was briefly marred by the activists' refusal to take an oath to the current constitution - a point they were soon forced to concede.) At the end of Popham's book, Gene Sharp, the famous theoretician of nonviolent regime change, trenchantly observes that Aung San Suu Kyi "is not a strategist, she is a moral leader. That is not sufficient to plan a strategy."

In April 1988, Suu Kyi returned from England to Burma - to nurse her sick mother (Khin Kyi) ... but, within six months, found herself the unchallenged leader of the largest popular revolt in her country's history. When the party she co-founded (NLD - National League for Democracy) won a landslide victory in Burma's first free elections (held in thirty years, in 1989), she was put under house arrest (in July 1989) - and barred from taking office by the military junta. Suu Kyi has sacrificed much - remaining under house arrest for so long and been denied contact with her family too. She left her sons (Alexander and Kim) then aged 15 and 11 respectively, in the UK - to come back to Burma, to care for her ailing mother. 

Her husband, Dr Michael Aris, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, it was later found to be terminal. But despite appeals from prominent figures and organizations, the Burmese junta refused to grant Dr. Aris a visa, on the pretext that they lacked the facilities to care for him, and instead urged Suu Kyi to leave the country to visit him. She was at that time temporarily free from house arrest, but was unwilling to go, fearing that she would be refused re-entry if she left. She did not trust the military junta's assurance that she could return. [Aris died on his 53rd birthday on 27 March 1999.]

My two pence: Most of the positive moves (with respect to democratization) made so far can be (sort of) traced or attributed to the personal initiative of the current President Thein Sein (a former general); yet he is an elderly man whose health is clearly not the best. He suffers from heart disease, and has paid a visit to Singapore a few months ago - to get his pacemaker replaced. If he were to suddenly vanish from the scene, it is entirely possible that hard-liners will seize the opportunity to reassert themselves. The Burmese system remains opaque and it is extremely hard to assess the strength of the support, rather approval - for Thein Sein's somewhat reconciliatory course within the regime - i.e., within the military as well as the military dominated Parliament. Very few are likely to claim that the current president's reforms are irreversible.

Now though Aung San Suu Kyi is feted for her struggle, I would say she has lost valuable time and opportunity. Ideology and values are all very good but one has to be pragmatic too; that is the nature of politics, of governance and is the mark of a visionary leader. Instead of losing over two decades - agitating and remaining under house arrest, a dialogue with the powers-that-be and with other political stakeholders may have been a better option; so as to collectively agree on common points and arrive at a road-map, for the future. Networking and building bridges is important, and staying the course is most crucial. Positive change - the type that we want to see in society - does not happen suddenly or by itself; the big picture is essentially made up of many many tiny pixels that has to be patiently and painstakingly put together. Perseverance and remaining focused is the key to achieving this.

Staying out of the political process only helps in creating a void, a political vacuum, and it does not remain so indefinitely. Other forces rush in to fill the gap and one can only speculate as to the nature of the forces that fills such voids. Non-participation only makes difficult situations even more difficult; left unattended, wounds start to fester and result in gangrene - if you know what I mean.

Suu Kyi's party offices are crumbling, there is little organization, the leadership is old and archaic ... and she herself is 67 and not in the best of health. Infusing new blood and ideas into the party, grooming them, turning it into a close-knit unit, adapting to changing times and geo-political scenarios, reworking the vision and the mission (of the party) and getting the rank and file to identify with it, engaging with various political groups within and with key international players ... is a gigantic task. Apart from her, Burma does not have a tall leader, someone who is respected cutting across identities. But most importantly, Burma lacks a visionary leader ... and there exists a lot of push and pull from various directions.

There are a total of 664 seats in Burma's national parliament and Suu Kyi's party (the NLD) holds only 38 of them. It won a total of 43 seats in the much-trumpeted April 1 by-election, and that includes these 38 seats (in the national parliament.) That's a tiny fraction - translating to less than 7% [6.4% actually.]

As for how much maneuverability this would provide ... well, my guess is as good as yours!

Also there are at least two generations of students lost, and empty classrooms gather dust. It is a country  severely handicapped vis-a-via skilled and semi-skilled workforce, but blessed with immense natural resources. And given their geography, there was and remains many possibilities.

About Suu Kyi, we have to see how things unfold. Being an icon is much easier than being a hands-on leader. The latter has to try and take along various shades of people and opinion ... and find common grounds - for cooperation. For a leader, give and take, compromises and difficult choices are the order of the day; one needs to get their hands dirty - so to speak. A leader has to be a strategist of the highest order, be clued into the goings-on - both within one's shores as well as globally; for international politics is a very choppy water ... not to speak of smoke and mirrors. There is always much more to it than meets the eye, rather ... it is never really what it seems or appears to be.

My Verdict: The production quality of the book is very good, it feels good to hold and that adds to the reading pleasure. The language is not too meandering or exalted, and hence is easy to understand. However the book jacket cover doesn't quite capture the colours and flavours of Burma (or even Myanmar.)

Though the author may have spent time in Burma and spoken to a cross-section of people, it is still very much a book through the eyes of a foreigner, more precisely ... from a westerner's perspective. The language, the observations, the inferences, the thought process, et al is clearly western. The human rights abuses, the brutal military regime, the hapless people, the sufferings, the poverty, the conflicts, the ethnic issues, the religious issues, the colour of skin, the remarks about beliefs, etc; the viewing of everything in black-and-white - is very unlike us. It is very unlike South Asia. Frankly, I was looking forward to having a sneak peek at the various shades in between: the cuisine, the culture, the customs, the attire, the rich heritage, the unique architecture, the colonial era, the natural beauty, the crafts, the folklore, the humour and the repartee, the music, the similarities despite the many differences, the festivals ... and the small milestones, as well. Or at least a few of these, if not all of them. Instead the book overwhelms the reader with ethnic conflicts, figures and statistics. Even the pictures - in black and white - are so depressing.

I mean, I cannot even imagine looking at a majestic Pagoda (a Buddhist Temple) - in black and white! Can you?

When I was studying, we had a fellow hostelite from Burma. Meaning: there was a Burmese student staying with us in the hostel. She spoke decent English, something that I would classify as Burmese English, the type we are likely to find being spoken across Burma - by ordinary citizens. But we had no difficulty in communicating with each other whatsoever. And from what we observed, she was very organized and neat, simple and humble ... and with a deep love for her motherland. She wore the Burmese dress: a long brightly-coloured wrap-around skirt or longyi, paired with a shirt or long blouse. I don't recollect seeing her wasting food or water, and in the hostel we all ate the same stuff - from the hostel kitchen, rustled up by South Indian cooks: rice, wheat chappatis, sambar, some curry (consisting of potato, cabbage, tomato, carrots, peas and the like), curd or raita, papad and pickles (for lunch and dinner) - i.e., a vegetarian diet. And poori-saagu (puri-sabzi), chappati-sabzi, idly-sambar-chutney, masala dosa, chitranna (lemon rice), puliogre (tamarind rice), etc - for breakfast; and she quite liked it. Different cuisine, you see; though the generous use of oil (in the dishes) did pose a problem sometimes. But she would be ever smiling.

We chatted a few times; she was always polite, friendly and soft-spoken, never interrupting while the other spoke - very attentive and a good listener. She also worked very hard at her studies. This, she did not take lightly, and if you are an Indian, you would instantly know what I mean :)

Though much older to us, nearly forty, and in a long-term stable relationship, she confided that they had not married yet as they were both keen for their respective families to accept the match. And for this to happen, they were prepared to wait. [Their families were taking their time but not harassing them, nor were they barred from communicating with each other; and both had immense faith in and respect for each other too.]

To my mind, if people of any country were to have similar or even some bits of these above-mentioned values, open-mindedness, qualities, thoughts and traits, a nation can and will be built - on strong foundations. Crossroads or no crossroads! It is best that the people of Burma themselves resolve their issues since they understand each other better, despite what may seem to alien eyes - as differences and tensions. In spite of magnified ethnic differences, there may be unknown reserves or undercurrents of tolerance and commonalities; perhaps many if not all may want to put their collective shoulders to the proverbial wheel. Let us wish Burma and her people all the very best in their journey forward. May they build their nation - together!

Details of the book: Burma: A nation At The Crossroads/ Author: Benedict Rogers / Publisher: Random House/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 2012/ Genre: Politics/ ISBN-10: 1846043468/ ISBN-13: 978-1-84-604346-8/ Pages: 304/ Priced at: 12.99 pounds [Rs.1,134.90]

Photograph: The book jacket cover of 'Burma: A nation At The Crossroads'. Picture courtesy: link.