Archive for the ‘ivory tower musings’ Category

A belated celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday
—though in my defence nobody seems to know the date anyway—
in which I realise too late that Shakespeare and travel writing have little in common…

And I’ll be sworn ’tis true: travellers ne’er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn ’em.
—Antonio, The Tempest

‘Say it, Othello.’ Picture the scene: a shabby-chic rooftop café somewhere, all nursing warm beers. The Moor is holding forth over a small pot of hummus: ‘battles, sieges, fortunes… hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach…’

It seems all your companions are equally well travelled. To your left, two women are comparing souvenirs. The Queen of the Fairies, waving a bottle of Hoegaarden, is showing off her latest: ‘a lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king’.

She is interrupted by a bearded lady, who proudly displays a severed thumb. ‘Yes, all the way from Syria… In a sieve I thither sailed, like a rat without a tail—it’s the only way to really see the place…’

You try a #humblebrag of your own. ‘This one time in Hampi, I swallowed a bug the size of a cat.’


Men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, woodcut map Tabula Asiae VIII by Sebastian Münster, Basel (1540)

Othello stares at you, and continues with his story:

          of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Shakespeare has a way with the world. As a cold, bored schoolchild, I was tickled by this playful geography—though today, as a sometime travel writer, it seems dangerous to admit.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, arguably the first great age of globalization, travel literature was almost as popular as it is now—and the playwright devoured it. His plays meander all over the map, from the castles of Denmark and Scotland to Vienna, Ephesus, and Fair Verona. Today, inevitably, a whole host of tourist companies have cashed in to offer Shakespeare tours.

But this geography is both evocative and slippery. After all, Shax didn’t actually travel outside England himself. Nobody is even really sure why his theatre was called The Globe. Sometimes his locations seem thin and almost interchangeable: deserts, wilds, blasted heaths and vasty deeps. The Tempest is set on a mysterious cloud-laced island—the Mediterranean? Bermuda? Ireland?—on the brink of dissolving into thin air. Ben Jonson, more of a details man, noted tartly that Shakespeare had located a ‘shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles’.

Then there are Shakespeare’s funny foreigners themselves, from Amazons to Othello’s Anthropophagi. He is hardly a documentary realist, or a cuddly liberal cosmopolitan: his world is stuffed with pirates, savages, witches, fairies, dukes, changelings, embittered Jews, perfidious Frenchmen, and rumours of mountain folk ‘Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em / Wallets of flesh’. (He appears to draw the line at unicorns.) Nor is his history any more accurate: his Cleopatra pauses to play billiards.

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? 'You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

Shakespeare’s travelling wisdom: who doesn’t learn languages the Caliban way? ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’

What is the hold of Shakespeare’s sense of place, then? Should we worry, with Jonson, about his relaxed attitude to authenticity? Certainly this isn’t travel literature as we know it—though great travel writers from Marco Polo to Bruce Chatwin have also been accused of telling porkies.

There is certainly something thrilling about the potential for wonder in the Shakespearean world. There can be no such words as HERE THERE BE DRAGONS in the age of Google Maps. Tall tales must be that bit shorter.

But only lazy writing is really about dragons in the first place. Shakespeare’s plays are not about the destination—but neither are they about ‘the journey’, as the cliché goes. Sure, his characters are stormed, shipwrecked, and jump off cliffs. Unlike most pre-millennial travel literature, though, only rarely do we see them actually en voyage. Instead we see people, in all their infinite variety, grappling with the cultural vertigo that comes from strange places, metamorphosis, and the inevitable comparisons with home.

It’s a curiously fitting vision for the twenty-first century. We, at least of we of the wealthy tourist class, are all castaways, constantly remaking ourselves (and swapping gender roles?). But it’s also an age when travel is banal, and Puck’s words are (almost) true:

OBERON: We the globe can compass soon,
Swifter than the wandering moon…
PUCK: I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

So I guess the lesson I took from all those schooldays with Shax was really quite simple. No matter where you are, go forth and chat with all the perfidious Frenchmen and bearded ladies you can find.*

* Author’s note: I wrote this a while before Eurovision, but… I rest my case.

conchita wurst

Conchita Wurst


Worlds collide

Posted: June 15, 2013 in ivory tower musings
Tags: , , , ,

Yesterday, lights flashed. Thunder crashed on all sides. And the cameras rolled.


The Randolph, 14 June

India had come to Oxford. More precisely, to the Randolph Hotel, hub of scone munching and Morse murder mysteries. The encounter was revealing at least as much for its asymmetry as for the conversation.

The Randolph’s ballroom was decked out as if for a wedding, or maybe a post-wedding disco. Chandeliers overhead, rows of white sheets and big synthetic bows over the chairbacks, round dining tables up front for the more illustrious guests. The lights dimly flickered on the stage in alternating pinky-red and blue, like a strip club in the suburbs.

One of my students, a charming French-Algerian, lit up with recognition: ‘Ah! This looks just like the place we circumcised my brother!’

In the anteroom Oxford was gathering, a little nervy in uncharacteristically sharp dress. Over shortbread, the dons eyed the TV billboards around the room. On the screen Oxford talking heads chattered on repeat, the volume down low. Not quite your average lecture. ‘India Day @ Oxford’ was going out live on CNN-IBN and various other channels, thanks to Network 18—which might sound awkwardly like a neo-Nazi outfit, but is in fact a powerful media conglomerate. This was the first in a planned series of biannual collaborations.

Time for the show. Thundering beats! Whirling graphics! Action nouns! And overhead: ‘Right here! Right now!‘ How I wish all seminars began with Fatboy Slim. ‘Put your hands together,’ a staffer hissed. ‘Put your hands together!

It was one of those mornings that demands a lot of italics. We applauded obediently.


This. Is. CNN.

First was the inauguration of a memorial scholarship. The bemused speakers herded around to light candles. There was a nicely British scene between the two Indians: ‘After you, old chap’—’no, after you, I insist’.

BadadabamBOOM. Again the gameshow music. Let the analysis begin.

The discussion topics were both ones which obsess Indian elites. How can India translate its economic progress (if this itself can be sustained) into power on the world stage? And is Indian democracy in crisis? Answering the first was Salman Khurshid, external affairs minister, with the extraordinary hair-eyebrow combination of Alistair Darling.

Alongside him, Chris Patten, Oxford chancellor and last colonial governor of Hong Kong, kicked off proceedings in typically self-deprecating style. ‘Oxford was just named the best—sorry, second-best university in the world. First was CalTech, but that’s just a little boutique place.’

What did we learn? It is a delicate path between academic honesty and diplomacy, especially before the cameras. There was a lot of pleasant Oxford reminiscing, a lot of time-frittering gags, plus the inevitable references to cricket and Britain’s dismal weather.

The usual checklist of worries featured—the growth rate has almost halved, the ‘demographic dividend’ threatens to become a ‘demographic time bomb’, etc—but overall the tone was rather optimistic. We heard  too that India isn’t a world power (whatever one of those is), perhaps because it’s altogether too nice and polite. (On regional integration, the TAPI pipeline reared its utopian head again too.) The external affairs minister, of all people, suggested that foreign policy was very much subordinate to domestic politics: ‘India is like a dancing peacock: it sees its ugly feet, and begins to cry and shed its feathers.’

BJP grand dame Arun Jaitley livened things up in the second half, impatiently dispensing criticism (veiled and otherwise) on all sides. India has become far too cynical. Its population is ‘restless’. Naxalism in tribal areas worsening and all but incurable. Corruption is rife. He fears the concentration of power in the hands of one individual (though of course Narendra Modi doesn’t count). The quality of politicians is declining, he lamented, with caste and surname prized over competence.

Lest you fear this is a purely dystopian vision, he simultaneously assured us that Indian MPs are already the world’s most accountable, and only the BJP or the Congress can be ‘national anchors’ in parliament. He’s only 60, so this means he still has a quarter-century at the top ahead.


Curiouser & curiouser 

BadadabamBOOM. Reviewing the event, one journalist claimed:

The decor was very much Indian – a few sarees flowing down from huge panels on the stage – but the air was very much Oxford – suffused with irony, old boy jokes and a sense of ambition that extended far beyond today’s problems and even pessimism.

Yet overall this was a classic demonstration of the add’n’stir approach to bringing policy and academia together. The politicians emphatically dominated proceedings, with only the odd mini-lecture uneasily slotted between interviews. But if ‘very much Oxford’ ≠ academia, what does it mean?

The answer may have been inadvertently provided by two questions from the floor:

‘I am a Rhodes Scholar. Why don’t you engage us in politics? We are the natural pick. All the other Rhodes Scholars get handpicked for power in their countries.’ —A Rhodes Scholar

‘Oxford stands for merit. When will merit come to India? This affirmative action for the lower castes must end.’ —A Hindu activist

Ah, of course! ‘Oxford’ in the old elitist sense. How wonderfully traditional.

The conclusion is an unsurprising one: academia and politics are tricky to mix. But silly old me—maybe that mixture wasn’t the real point. The event closed with an announcement: Network 18 is about to inaugurate a 24-hour India-focused TV news channel…right here in the UK.

Apologies for the long delay, dearest Readers—I’ve been busy hobnobbing with some of India’s finest energy geeks and politicos. I’ve yet to fully digest the unevenly electrifying boluses they’ve slipped me, but here are some musings on what’s going well and what’s not.

1. Wooing the elites

‘Will they actually talk to you?’ innocent civilians often ask. Simply gaining access to the elites is the most obvious research hurdle—although it is eminently doable.

As a former Oxford Union president once Facebook-boasted with characteristic douchebaggy flair:

It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

The researcher of elites, one guide advises, needs many of the characteristics of the social climber: ‘everyone who might possibly know someone, must be contacted and asked if they will give introductions, vouch for one, and otherwise help one’s enterprise.’ (Non-corporate) Brits would undoubtedly cringe at my naked opportunism—I do cringe inwardly, alas, and often wimp out of asking directly—but people in India are fortunately more sympathetic, and friends, acquaintances, and interviewees have often been very helpful. Let’s face it: all elites of all societies operate on this principle, this one just more unabashedly than most.

The barriers to elite access have probably been overrated, too—at least for someone in my position. As wonderfully-named pair Gewirtz & Ozga argue, access is more likely to be granted if the researcher seems ‘perfectly harmless’. As a young, female foreigner, in my interviewees’ eyes I’m about as harmless as a sickly baby koala, and can get away with asking ‘naive’ awkward questions while they play teacher. (Senior politicians and civil servants in Britain would be far more suspicious and hostile, I’m sure.) The exception is business elites, who find me about as appealing as gonorrhoea on toast.

Physical access has been the most demeaning part of the whole process—although only for international conversations. Arriving 15 minutes early at the Australian High Commission, I was told I couldn’t wait outside but had to keep moving. So I sullenly read a book, taking a few steps every couple of minutes as the guards eyed me. At the American embassy the suspicion was probably my own fault: I was inadvertently carrying a highly questionable electronics-filled package. Visions of Gitmo flashed past my eyes.

2. The lost art of conversation 

The single most important technique for successful elite interviews, it is widely agreed, is extensive, customised preparation. True, except several interviewees have asked for almost spontaneous meetings—two hours’ notice on a Saturday for one particularly interesting bureaucrat. A far bigger problem, though, has been what Susan Ostrander called elites’ endearing

tendencies to converse easily, freely, and at great length but not necessarily with the kind of substantive content the research requires.

Try as I might, I just can’t get some of them to shut up and answer my questions, rather than trotting off down entertaining tangents, even when I’ve already outlined my terribly optimistic ‘agenda’ for the meeting. With an embittered sigh, one expert simply advises that it is courting frustration and failure to go in expecting clear answers to particular questions; digressions and overall impressions may be as useful, and are much more likely to be obtained. The most interesting details have emerged so far when interviewees are most relaxed and conversation is flowing freely (so turning on a recorder is also unthinkable). Sigh. Tips on a postcard, please.

3. Are they lying?

Everyone expects those with power to lie. But do they lie more than other people? How does any ethnographer know their informant is ‘telling the truth’? Actually, my experience seems more like that of Julian Brash as he investigated New York City’s business elites and municipal authorities. He began expecting to have to probe the linkages between capitalism and the bureaucracy indirectly and subtly, but was surprised to find many interviewees were open about it. Here too, as Brash suggests,

the powerful operate in a world that is almost completely self-justified, thus rendering obscuration and dishonesty unnecessary.

I am but a gnat on the Indian elites’ windscreen, and most are convinced they’re (trying to) do the right thing.

4. Are elites people too?

Before we hit the field, each research project goes up before NHS death panel-like bureaucrats who assess whether it will die/be cruelly amputated/allowed to struggle onwards towards the light. This committee also rigorously probes the project’s morality (although admittedly they do seem unhealthily fond of making mice innards luminous). This makes sense: anthropologists—who in any case tend to be ethically sensitive types, innately prone to outbreaks of fruitarianism and adopting street puppies—have traditionally worked with vulnerable subjects, seen as requiring protection and empowerment.

But what about when the asymmetry of status, voice, and power between subjects and researcher is reversed? Elites clearly don’t need humble research-lepers to empower them. What are the ethics of interviewing someone who can shield themselves from exposure or criticism, and quite possibly have you deported on a whim? Where is the line between self-censorship and deception? Some argue even obtaining informed consent from such interviewees ‘seems an impossible ideal…an implicit double standard’.

Inevitably, there are researchers who have (arguably) taken this too far (David Mosse’s controversial ‘breach of trust’ in belatedly deciding to write an ethnography, Cultivating development, of his own DFID colleagues; Jennifer L. Pierce’s getting hired as a paralegal at law firms to carry out covert participant observation). In fact, I’ve found most interviewees supportive of critical, political research. As Gewirtz & Ozga found, the powerful understand the purpose of academic research more than most others; indeed, already two have urged me to write a book on specific aspects of Indian energy policy. Elites may be more beautiful and damned than the rest of us, but they also appreciate most the analysis of how power works.

Doing the needful

Posted: April 1, 2012 in ivory tower musings
Tags: , ,

Bahai Bahai baby

Hannah and I have tinkered with the space-time continuum to keep you updated and mildly entertained while we voyage. By the time you read this, we’ll be over in the east, visiting (we hope) Calcutta, Darjeeling, and Sikkim…

A few days ago at the Bahai Lotus Temple (left), I suddenly realised I’ve forgotten how to speak English—or at least British English. Gesturing towards the shoe storage hut with a pair of leopardprint pumps, I said brightly, ‘Shall I do the needful?’

Hannah, within whom a thwarted Rajocrat’s heart beats, looked at me with incomprehension—and dawning horror. It’s finally happened: my mind has been colonised. I’ve gone native. (In fact, as you’re reading this, I’ll be on a Kurtz-like rampage through the hill stations as Hannah tries desperately to re-imperialise my twisted psyche.)

An old favourite, Hampi

Indian English—or ‘Hinglish’, as it’s somewhat pejoratively called—is a big flabby mixed-race beast, evolving at a high speed like some precocious but maddening elephant-headed toddler. The subcontinent’s languages are perhaps unusually open to outside influence: as David Bellos points out in his idiosyncratic book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, ‘there is no tradition of translation in India’. Instead, everyone simply grows up speaking three, four or five tongues, including the huge ‘vehicular’ languages of Hindi (800 million users globally), Urdu (180m), Bengali (230m), English (between 800 and 1,800m depending how puritanical you’re feeling), and a handful of others. Many people flexibly use vocabulary and grammar from each and can communicate surprisingly well with distant others—as Christopher Columbus probably did in Eurasian ports with his motley collection of Italian, Castilian, Portuguese, Arabic syntax, Greek, and Latin.

Sceptics might complain. Everyone back Home has experienced Bangalore’s unconvincing call-centre staff ‘Sally’ and ‘Mike’, with their comments on the weather in Basingstoke and last night’s X Factor. Academics, on the other hand, are climaxing over every recondite phrase and casual Hindi intrusion.

In the midst of this—and living in a francophone flat—I feel like an elephant in a beauty pageant. So here is a short guide:

Rule 1: Everyone trusts a Britisher. Indians buy British much more enthusiastically than Gordon Brown ever dreamed: booze from the ‘English wine shop’, ‘English drugs’ from the chemists, and biscuits advertised by depressingly white-skinned people laughing about dogs. Sure, the Brits might have sneakily partitioned the subcontinent and massacred a few hundred here and there, but they’re just so lovable when they look up at you with their big wet overbred eyes, unlike your sly bobble-headed countrymen—and you can be sure the products are safely made in Guangzhou. And if no English word covers the concept you’re going for… invent a new one!

e.g. Try latest timepass only: how good is your eyes? Girl, 29, convent-educated, foreign-returned, single and innocent, wheatish complexion, seeks a suitable boy, caste and creed no bar. Coca Cola…yehi hai right choice baby! 

Rule 2: And if in doubt, go for the Queen’s English. By queen, of course I mean Victoria; Betsy II really has cheapened the lingo with her ridiculous yoot slang and constant gangsta namechecking.

e.g. Do not pluck the flowers outside that laundry cum guard carriage—I must go and bathe!

Rule 3: Want to sound modern and go-getting? Then spice up that Queen’s English with some sexy businessisms! They may be the aesthetic equivalent of bludgeoning to death a Corgi, but hey, that’s capitalism.

e.g. Please revert the letter, and we’ll prepone the meeting while you deboard the train.

Rule 4: India is special, with advantages and problems utterly unlike those in the rest of the world. This must be linguistically stressed wherever possible.

e.g. Theft is far more innovative than the poor old Brits could manage, as we see from ‘Frequent dacoities and looting of fish from bheris in the Sonarpur area’. Indian politics are also exceptional, with their own special varieties of strikes and protests (bandhs, hartals, gheraos), villains (goondas and badmashes), melodrama (tamashas and dramabaazi), and dodgy demagoguery (tax sops for aam admi).* 

Fortunately, there is no sexual harassment in India, only ‘Eve-teasing’. New university students aren’t savagely tortured by their contemporaries, but given a traditional welcome ‘ragging’. Police violence is usually confined to the charmingly rustic ‘lathi charge’, which sounds like a particularly enthusiastic variant of the Hokey Cokey. And in my own field I can confirm luckily there are no blackouts or electricity theft in India, but mere ‘loadshedding’ and ‘heavy AT&C losses’.

There is one problem I never realised I had before I arrived here, though—one so terrible that advertising girls have tears in their eyes and transnational corporations are forced to step into the breach. I am talking, of course, about Hair Fall. Previously I’d laboured under the misapprehension that the human head naturally shed 150+ hairs a day, but now I understand that I am in fact part of a feral, balding underclass. Truly, where would we be without Hinglish?


* India nerds—you know who you are—should also check out Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s exasperated ‘A Dictionary for Our Times’, Pts I and II.

What on earth does the doctoral student do with her long sunkissed exotic days? As this weary old meme-chart (and the meta-fact of the creation of this weary old meme-chart, and the meta-meta-fact of the writing of this entry on this weary old meme-chart, etc) suggests, less than she probably should. Much of the time fieldwork life seems to involve waiting, watching people, buying hard-to-find books, musing on stuff. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having a really good scratch of your onion bhajis.

In fact, there’s a great tradition of not doing a whole lot in India, especially for educated unemployed youths. There’s even an expressive Indian-English phrase for it: ‘doing timepass‘.

In clumps through the city, young men (and occasional women) kill time. I watch them sidelong, they stare at me. Rich kids like the spoilt brats in the awesomely titled Pakistani film Slackistan go to malls, have endless torrid affairs, go clubbing, sip macchiatos (I am extrapolating wildly from the trailer). Those a few rungs down the social ladder smoke bidis, ‘hang out’, drink tea, drink booze, dominate public space, wander around, play mobile phone tunes in parks, mutter to each other and leer and catcall at passers-by; these sleazy and occasionally aggressive young men are flippantly termed ‘roadside Romeos’, and their harassment of women ‘Eve-teasing’. If the cult-classic novel I’m reading—English, August (1988), purely because it’s by a bloke called Upamanyu Chatterjee—is at all accurate, marijuana and masturbation also play a central role.

Watching the day go by in Purana Qila

Many of these young people have little option but life in limbo, watching indefinite tracts of time flutter by. Waiting forlornly for a middle-class job to open up in a phenomenally competitive labour market, they collect endless degrees from fourth-rate colleges—the sort of places notorious for scandals like the entrepreneurial registrar who subcontracted postgraduate examination marking to schoolchildren, and student campaigns for the right to cheat in examinations because cheating is so widespread. The result, as in so many other countries, is a dangerously large and disaffected group who are really, really bored with the status quo.

One particularly idle afternoon of my own, paroxysms of guilt threatened to spoil my coconut-water. A new friend soothed me with an essay by Bertrand Russell, the title of which I’ve cheerfully nicked here.* With his caustic class analysis, slightly mad economics, and call for a healthy maximum dose of four hours of work a day, Russell is a primly reassuring voice in defence of laziness:

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of WORK, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work… The morality of work is the morality of slaves.

Idleness and leisure are essential for civilisation, and are one of the ends of life: surely a heartening message for the world’s millions of jobless educated youngsters. I almost feel inspired to start an NGO to spread the word. Right after I finish this onion bhaji.


* I tip my hat, in the oddly C19th blogospherical phrase, to Puja for this. In case you’re really procrastinating, the full text has been inexplicably provided by the Massachusetts Green Party here, and you can also hear it read aloud by a smug American or a more lovable world-weary robot.