Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fasting for Zimbabwe

STARVING FOR A CAUSE: Activist Kumi Naidoo is on a hunger strike to highlight the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.
from The Sunday Times.

On the 21st of December I got a text saying “Security situation now much worse and very tense. Leaving BYO for Gweru and Harare tomorrow. Poverty situation more desperate than we thought.” It took me a moment to realize it was from my friend Kumi Naidoo, a South African activist and head of Civicus—a non-governmental organisation that champions human rights .

Kumi had gone into Zimbabwe with an undercover team to film Time 2 Act, “a series of personal appeals from the Zimbabwean people for the government of South Africa and the SADC to alleviate their suffering.” Just about 10 days before that Kumi had published a piece in the Huffington Post called Time for global civil disobedience?: Five things to Advance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In it he suggested that:

Petitioning, pleading, talking to our leaders, holding mass awareness events such as music concerts and so on are clearly not having the kind of impact that the current situation of tens of millions of men, women and children in rich and poor countries today urgently calls for. Assertive but disciplined peaceful passive resistance and civil disobedience, backed by a deep sense of moral outrage by the broadest possible coalition of civil society across the world is probably what it will take to ensure that these changes stand a chance to be realised.

On returning to Johannesburg Kumi and other like-minded individuals spearheaded the Save Zimbabwe Now campaign. On Jan 21st he embarked on a 21-day hunger strike saying I won't eat while Zimbabwe starves.

I am fasting in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, who are being forced to fast involuntarily.

In Zimbabwe, we saw a people and a country ravaged by want, destitution, fear and terror. We do not wish to battle this cruel and apathetic regime with guns or weapons, but we will oppose them with our bodies and our consciences through fasting. We want the Zimbabwean people to know that we united our resolve to oppose the brutality they suffer with every bit of our beings.

On Monday, January 26th, I arranged for Kumi to be interviewed on Nationwide Radio’s This Morning programme by Emily Crooks. It was good to hear his voice on the 6th day of his fast sounding as strong as ever. He joked about looking forward to coming to Jamaica to eat Ackee and saltfish when the strike is over and the situation in Zimbabwe resolved. For Kumi the support from Jamaica was like a shot in the arm; for the Save Zimbabwe Now movement every little nod from the outside helps.

On January 26 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an Extraordinary Session to discuss the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. Naidoo, along with 500 concerned citizens hoped to present a memorandum calling on the SADC to step up political pressure, acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, stop abductions and torture, and to release detained activists in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately they were met with a stone wall.

Buoyed by the hopes of the people on the Union Building steps, seven of us - including my colleague and friend, Nomboniso Gasa- tried to peacefully and respectfully present a Memorandum to the Extraordinary Session called by SADC, to try to address the situation in Zimbabwe. The Memorandum is a document that has been jointly written by a broad range of civil society in Southern Africa, united in its call for an end to the needless suffering of the Zimbabwean people.

The manicured gardens of the Presidential guesthouse could not have been more starkly removed from the reality of the hardships that most face daily north of the border -- or the reality of most within our own borders, for that matter. We waited patiently to present our Memorandum, but no SADC representative was forthcoming. We were instead asked to remove ourselves from the grounds and when we suggested an alternative arrangement -- to be accompanied by police to present our memorandum, we were forcefully denied.

. . . As I was being bundled into the back of the police van after six days without food, my most overwhelming emotion was one of profound disappointment. Disappointment with SADC - its lofty ideals of civil society empowerment are clearly only paper promises. Disappointment with the South African government - a nation built on the foundations of a grassroots movement for freedom and justice. And ultimately, disappointment with the inertia surrounding the political process to ease the crisis in Zimbabwe, which represents an implicit acquiescence to the current impasse.

It is tragic that the SADC leaders were unwilling to receive an appeal from a broad cross-section of Southern African civil society which called for the end of human rights violations humanitarian intervention, and justice for the people of Zimbabwe. By not receiving this simple letter, they are undermining their own stated commitments on the role of civil society in building a strong Southern Africa.

. . .My fast will continue for more than another fortnight, and my hunger has been replaced with a thirst for change and justice. SADC leaders may have turned us away, but they cannot ignore the hopes and demands of their citizens.

Do people in Jamaica and the Caribbean care enough about events in Zimbabwe to lend their help to this call for moral action? How can we help? What can we do to contribute? As Kumi noted:

The fast will not end after 21 days. Nomboniso Gasa, the chairperson of the South African Commission on Gender Equality will take up the fast from February 11th. She too will go for 21 days with only water, and on March 4th, another individual will take the baton in our relay fast.

But this campaign is not just about a few relatively well-known personalities fasting for lengthy periods of time. It is about calling every individual to civic action. We are asking people to go to, and to show their solidarity. Other actions will follow - and every individual will be counted.

Can a group from here undertake to fast one day a week in solidarity with this South African initiative? I’m willing to do it but I need company. Any volunteers?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Live and Direct from Washington, D.C.

This week i'm using my blog space to feature a thought-provoking response to President Obama's inauguration by a friend, Washington D.C.-based guest activist, Shani Jamila, the host of Blackademics on Pacifica Radio’s WPFW 89.3 FM. Shani spent a year in Jamaica in 2000 as a Fulbright Fellow. Read on:

Dispatches from DC: Election Day 2009

Inauguration Day, 2009! It’s been two months since the night that catapulted progressives throughout the country—and indeed the world—into a state of incredulous euphoria. Barack Obama was elected President of these United States. In Washington DC thousands of people flooded the streets dancing on top of cars as if it was an intellectual Freaknik. Multiracial African drum circles spontaneously gathered to announce the arrival of the first Black president, grown ass men went skipping down the sidewalk yelling out “Barack!” like they had Tourettes, and U Street became the site of what was arguably the largest en masse electric slide in recorded history. The sheer joy, not just on Black and brown faces but on white ones too… the naked possibility of it brought many to tears.

That same energy is still pulsating through the city, in a deep thrill that most African Americans have never known. In my travels throughout the African diaspora, I have regularly remarked on the deep sense of nationalist pride possessed by people who come from countries where they see their reflection in the highest echelons of leadership. As we enter this now time, where the symbolic power of Obama’s presidency has catalyzed the reimagination of racial identity in this country, there is undeniably a new sense of belonging that has arisen for many U.S. based Blacks. For the first time in this country’s history, Blacks felt invested enough in the outcome to vote in higher percentages than whites. Our heightened political participation, reflected in slogans like “Refuse us 40 acres and a mule and we'll take 50 states and the White House,” means that a historically disenfranchised people now see the “us” in the U.S. Whatever one’s political perspective on that fact may be, it is clear that with this election the boundaries of blackness have been expanded in a way that is unprecedented. Due to it, we as a people are forever changed.

We strut a little deeper, hold our heads a little higher, smile a little broader. We temper our brimming joy with a protective caution, clear that this bouquet of emotions does not relieve us of the responsibility for critical analysis. To truly understand, let’s take it back a bit to when the news of this transformative time first began to sink in…

House Negro
The news spread throughout Black America as fast as the sound of hands being placed on hips from coast to coast. He called him a what?? Yeees, honey. On November 19th, 2008 Ayman al-Zawahri, deputy leader of Al-Quaeda, released a video in which he declared President Elect Barack Obama a “house negro.”

While it is strangely remarkable that of all the racial cliches to employ, this one came from that camp, the discussion was not new within our own communities. In fact, al-Quaeda is not the first to call out Black White House operatives - some of our most brilliant minds have done the same. For example, Harry Belafonte famously made the same “house negro” characterization of Powell and Rice in 2002. Well before the disastrous advent of the Bush administration, Audre Lorde questioned whether you could effectively use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. And just as al-Zawahari’s insult was not singularly targeted (he included Condoleeza and Colin in his epithet as well), our analysis also extends beyond Barack to the general ascendancy of Black faces to nationally known positions of political prominence.

It is an interesting paradox of this historical moment that even as Black faces have become more visible in the political realm, our community is facing crises the likes of which we have never before seen: the devastating impact of mass incarceration, exploding rates of HIV and AIDS, rampant illiteracy that is the product of failing school systems, etc. Many attribute this to the catastrophe of conservatism that has assaulted our political system for the past 8 years. But it is of note that al-Zawahari’s comment demonstrated no distinction between African Americans who ascended to positions of prominence due to their affiliation with the Republican party, and Obama who campaigned on a Democratic promise of change. Rather, there is a line being marked in the sand between Black politicians and the larger community they hail from.

By its very nature, the term house negro is meant to evoke an elitist life of privilege and relative comfort in the midst of your people’s suffering. Many house negroes were, like Obama, the products of a mixed race lineage- although at that time this fact would have been due to the institutionalized rape that characterized enslavement. But the reality was that resistance was not solely contained to a certain segment of the community. Many house negroes (who by virtue of their daily proximity to whites were rendered more at risk for sexual assault) were able to utilize their access to rebel against enslavement in ways others couldn’t, e.g. spitting in or poisoning the food they prepared and stealing supplies to sustain their own families. In fact, seven generations ago my own great-grandmother learned to take meat from the big house by putting it in a sack and dragging it back to the slave quarters just before daybreak- when she had the cover of night and the dew was heavy on the grass. By dawn, the sunlight would perk the grass back up and there would be no trail to indicate her steps.

I provide this example to say we got to get deeper y’all, move beyond old stereotypes that are both inaccurate and don’t serve us. To be clear, a conversation about the evolution and implementation of Black leadership is valid no matter what community you come from, especially when that leadership now governs a multi racial country and functions as a world leader. Many of us are anxious for Obama to articulate stances that are more progressive than the centrist stands he has taken to date. But when people outside of our community feel entitled to publicly employ racial epithets, whether it is the political extremists of al-Quaeda or the liberal entitlement of Ralph Nader’s Uncle Tom reference, it is beyond Barack. Neither has the cultural capital to be able to employ these slurs without repercussion.

At this point, regardless of anyone’s personal perspectives about his politics, Barack may be a house negro, but as I’ve heard it said he is the White House Negro. How he chooses to play his position remains to be seen.

U.S. Blacks in the Global ImaginationThere are a lot of comparisons being made between our new President Barack Obama and Black leadership of previous eras. While there is certainly no question that he would not be in this position if it had not been for the work of countless Black people before him, many of these efforts are ill advised. For example, when al-Zawahari went on to say that “Obama is the direct opposite of honorable Black Americans like Malcolm X,” he was drawing a false parallel. They are both tall, slender, light skinned Black men with a tremendous gift for oratory and an inspiring passion for politics. They have both provided the tee shirt industry with a spike in sales. That is where the similarities end.

As Cornel West has distinguished, Barack is an American leader who is Black while Malcolm was a Black leader who was American. While I am loathe to prioritize identities as such, these are two fundamentally different constructs. Malcolm gave his life for the forceful advancement of Black people. Barack did his damndest over the course of the campaign to render his Blackness inconsequential. In fact, when confronted with the discourse of a man much closer to the legacy of Malcolm - Reverend Jeremiah Wright- he distanced himself. But this is not about a comparison of their individual personalities - in their respective ways both have done much to positively impact the Black community. This is about a historical moment in a movement of people of color.

On a large scale, this construction speaks to the ever evolving space that U.S. Blacks occupy in the global imagination. Historically, we have been identified as the anti-America, both here and abroad. Here, we were legally barred from citizenship and counted as only 3/5ths of a person. Abroad, Black folks were seen as cultural ambassadors and human rights advocates, people willing to suffer unimaginable abuse for the sake of challenging this country to claim our and its full humanity. This is what Al-Quaeda’s Malcolm reference was meant to evoke, and an examination of whether this status has changed is both valid and necessary.

What kind of cultural and political ambassadors have Black folk become? Before the advent of the Obama administration, the appointment of Black conservatives to high profile political positions has meant that the face of African America in the global gaze has morphed from Martin, Fannie Lou, Malcolm, and Josephine to what the late Damu Smith called the three C’s-- Colin, Condeleeza, and Clarence. The masses of people on the ground who give their lives to work in the continuum of Black struggle, including those in third party politics who also ran for President in 2008, are not given their due shine by the mainstream media. Therefore, this distorted impression of Black America, combined with the targeting of Black and Brown communities by the military industrial complex, means we are disproportionately represented as the face of imperialist occupying power in other countries of color.

What we are witnessing is the browning of American imperialism. And this is the double edged sword of Obama’s victory- Black Americans now feel more included, but in what? Did we just, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “integrate into a burning house?” Or will we be able to harness this desire for change percolating in the air, and in the tradition of our greatest ancestors work to redirect the country to a human rights agenda?

The Politics of Possibility
In the months leading up to the election, I’d argued that this was really a proxy referendum on white supremacy. If McCain could be elected after eight years of Bush - especially when he and his choice of running mate were so obviously inferior to the Democratic ticket - with up to three Supreme Court justices on the line and the fate of key cases such as Roe v Wade hanging in the balance… when this country could leave its own citizens to rot in Gulf Coast waters while sending money and manpower overseas to fight in immoral and illegal wars… when the economy has gone to hell at the hands of a Republican empire…. If in the face of all that we did not have a President Obama at the end of it, the only rationale would have been racial prejudice.

And I fully expected that American racism, woven so intricately into the fabric of this country’s culture, would have been strong enough to withstand the qualitatively different capabilities of the Democratic and Republican candidates. This is why - for a full week after I danced teary eyed down these DC streets - the first thing I would do when I awoke was smile an incredulous smile, and then quickly scan the headlines to make sure it was still true. The blow to white supremacy that Obama’s election signifies is a triumph beyond measure. However, while his election definitely signifies a large shift in the racial landscape of this country it most certainly does not merit the post racial paradigm being bandied about by pundits domestically or globally. The goal should be to celebrate our diversity and get post-racism -- which means a dismantling of structural inequity in addition to individual triumphs.

The true blessing of this moment is the transcendent politics of possibility that his election signifies for all. Events we never dared to imagine have proved possible. Can we all be inspired now to believe bigger about bringing an end to the epidemic of police brutality, and to the massacres in Gaza, Iraq, Darfur and the Congo? As Tavis Smiley asked, can we build the grassroots movement that will be the Frederick Douglass to Obama’s Lincoln? Can we, in the words of the World Social Forum, make another world possible?

Today, as I move with millions through these DC streets, I am buoyed with the hope that answers in the words of My New President (!!!!!)- “Yes, We Can.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And then came President Obama, the Stone of Hope...

In October last year I was invited to the University of Miami to give a talk organized by Pat Saunders of the Department of English. They were launching their Caribbean art website and a whole series of activities had been planned around it. During my stay I was taken to the university bookstore where they had these beautifully packaged little dolls modelled on famous people such as Shakespeare, Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and others. There was an entire shelf full of Obama dolls and a shelf full of McKain dolls. It was then that I realized that Barack Obama was going to win the US Presidential election by a landslide for the Obama shelf only had a handful of dolls left while the McKain one was practically full. And this in Miami, stronghold of Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans.

The three of us scrambled for the few remaining Obama dolls and I managed to get my hands on one. Manufactured by Jailbreak Toys the Obama doll was advertised as “An action figure we can believe in.” Brilliant, I thought. That is certainly the image one has of Barack Obama, that he is someone who believes in action rather than rhetoric. And today he will assume the most powerful position in the world—the Presidency of the United States.

What a day, what a day as someone once sang. Never before have people all over the world felt as involved and interested in American politics. I remember being taken aback at the response of David Lublin, Professor in the Department of Government, School of Public Affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C. when I asked if he was surprised by the extent of the interest worldwide in this last American election. He basically said that considering the dominance of the United States in world affairs it wasn't surprising at all (this was at one of those media discussions the US Embassy in Kingston kindly invites me to. Participating in them has greatly enhanced my experience of the election).

While Lublin's statement is quite true, it made me wonder if the Americans didn't fully realize how extraordinarily different it is this time. Lublin after all is a young, savvy, astute political scientist yet he didn't seem to be aware of the unique interest this particular election had aroused worldwide. For instance American might and power has never made me take an interest in their political system before. Yet once Obama showed that he was a force to contend with I started to be interested; how far would this unusual candidate get? What would his tactics be? How long would the American political system tolerate this challenge from a political nonentity? I'm sure there were millions like me all over the world. And trust me Barack hasn't let any of us down. And for a change neither has the United States, which has proved that its much vaunted democratic system of governance actually can and does work fairly. The Americans should be congratulated for that.

The following Facebook conversation sums up many of the hopes and doubts people all over the world are feeling as the United States installs its 44th President, Barack Hussein Obama.
January 19, 2009
Franka wonders if people realise that Barack can't walk on water or cure the sick...

SB at 11:29am January 19
Valid point Franka-More than 7 in 10 Americans think that the Obama administration will be able to improve conditions for minorities and the poor , increase respect for the U.S. abroad, and improve education. In T&T I think a lot believe he is swearing in as the next Prime Minister of T&T

Franka at 11:31am January 19
Girl... the topic of today's World Have Your Say programme is 'Are people expecting too much from Barack Obama'... need I say more?

KR at 11:37am January 19
Reality will set in after Tuesday...Obama will do great things..but he cannot turn water into wine...or rum!!!!

Franka at 11:45am January 19
He needs to sort that rum thing out though.. water into rum. He wld win wid dat!

CC at 12:29pm January 19
all might be true....but he is the first glimmer of hope people have had for a long long time. can he walk on water...NO can he cure the sick...not likely with his own hands....but he can and has restored hope where hope did not exisit and HOPE can cure....belief can.
As a canadian, we hope our political administration could show this type of progression.

Franka at 12:38pm January 19
I know what you mean Chas, but from where I'm sitting, the mania is a bit much. I get a feeling of lots of people will be sorely disappointed when he has to do unpopular things.

CC at 12:46pm January 19
maybe....but why we don't let the man start his new job first....

Cybele at 1:34pm January 19
I think part of the euphoria has to do with the fact that finally, you're seeing some one who apparently has some integrity. That, to most people accustomed to brazenly corrupt or hopelessly lethargic alleged public servants is a huge breath of fresh air. There is no doubt in my mind the opposition and disappointment will come. After all, we are dealing with fickle humans, and fixing Bush's mess will require tough, even harsh measures (LOL at Bush looking for absolution at this stage!). But I for one plan to give him a minute to sort himself: he deserves it and I believe my patience will be rewarded.
Amen to that! Only time will tell if President Obama will really prove to be a stone of hope carved out of the rock of despair that Martin Luther King talked about in his 'I have a dream' speech. Happy Inauguration everyone!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kingston Logic

When Derek Walcott launched his insult-laced diatribe in verse against V.S. Naipaul at Calabash 08 you heard of it here first. As another blog noted, “The press was actually scooped on this story by a blogger in Kingston, Jamaica, Annie Paul.” There have been several other occasions when my readers have received advance or inside information about one thing or another from this blog.

For instance many of you would first have come across the latest Waterhouse musical wunderkid, Terry Lynn, right here on Active Voice. My good friend Peter Dean Rickards had been assaulting me at regular intervals with outtakes from his maiden music video, The System, featuring an amazing new female singer called Terry Lynn. I say 'assaulting' because PD had decided to use the graphic butchery of a pig to depict the predicament of youth from communities such as Waterhouse which the singer lyrically rhymed with 'slaughterhouse'.

When I mentioned Terry Lynn's The System back in August last year the music video hadn't been completed or launched yet. Although its subject matter made me flinch I thought the video brilliant and showed it in Guangzhou at the Guangdong Museum of Art last November where it aroused a lot of interest. Since its release the video has been doing really well, becoming an underground favourite in several places outside Jamaica.

At year end Pitchfork Media -- “the most popular independent-focused music publication online” selected THE SYSTEM by the Rickards Bros. as one of the top 40 videos of 2008. Spin Magazine deemed it one of the 20 Best Music Videos of 2008 ranking it at No.12 worldwide and saying “Sometimes really brutal imagery is necessary to express pure rage at unforgivable social injustices. Leave it to Lynn to lyrically elaborate.”

Dan Cairns of the Sunday Times, UK, declared Terry Lynn, one of the 10 hot new music acts for 2009 in his picks of this year’s “next big things” saying, “Terry Lynn Williams’s first album, Kingstonlogic 2.0, is one of the most exciting debuts I’ve heard in ages.With blues-infused folk, some doo-wop soul and electro synth-pop aplenty, there’ll be something for everybody.”

I've just previewed Terry Lynn's new music video, Kingston Logic, by the Rickards Brothers (and others). It will blow the charts and make history. watch out for it! Using laborious animation techniques which stretched the process out way beyond what a normal video would have taken to finish the Rickards Bros have raised the bar of musical production considerably. The extra time and effort spent was well worth it; the video is a multi-faceted Kingston diamond combining crazy lyrics, a compelling electro beat, seriously creative imagery and razorsharp editing. I can't wait to see where such a superlative, stylish vehicle will transport Lynn.

It'll be a week before the video is publicly released and I can put it up here. But here's The System for those with the stomach to watch it.

The middle and upper classes in Jamaica are whipping themselves into a moral frenzy over Daggering--the latest dance craze to sweep Kingston streets-- screaming in the best tradition of the former slave-owning classes (Upper St. Andrew logic?) for the authorities to do something, anything, to curb the feverishly creative dancing masses (while themselves preparing for the thrusting gyrations of carnival; Eve Mann has a provocative blogpost about this, Soldering that is what young women want). Meanwhile Terry Lynn has given birth to a brand new paradigm with her debut album KingstonLogic 2.o.

2009 is going to be an exciting new year for Jamaican music! Remember--you heard it here first.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Playing with Fire

Contrary to what the title may suggest this post is not about the Israeli attacks on Gaza. While i was watching the fireworks at the Kingston waterfront on New Year's Eve i found myself thinking how odd it was that in the individualistic West personal lighting of firecrackers is not permitted and legally proscribed whereas in countries such as India where community is prized above all bursting or lighting firecrackers is something enjoyed by individuals. I remembered that i had been asked by the Style Observer to write about my memories of Diwali in India. It was also a puff piece for a restaurant called Akbar's in Kingston which has some of the best waiters in the country. Read on if you want to partake of my memories...

Diwali Riddim

Whenever I see young vendors dodging between cars at Christmastime selling what I think of as petty firecrackers like sparklers and rockets I smile to myself and feel superior. Having grown up in India my relationship to such incendiary delights is quite different; like most Indians, where patakhas or firecrackers are concerned I’m something of a hands-on connoisseur.

For in India there is Diwali, the festival of lights (and crackers and bombs and rockets). Usually falling in November or late October, it is the biggest festival in the country, the closest thing we have to Christmas. There are several versions of the reason Diwali is celebrated in the way it is but they all boil down to the victory of good forces against evil ones. The good forces having prevailed, Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, is propitiated. Hindus paint their homes and buy new clothes to wear on this nationally celebrated holiday.

As a child I wasn’t really interested in the whys and the wherefores of Diwali. Instead I would be completely swept up in the preparations for this magical festival. A few weeks before the happy day vendors would set up their stalls all along the sidewalks, their carts overflowing with every manner of gaily-wrapped and decorated combustible. Over the days leading up to Diwali we would assemble our arsenals, buying judiciously and storing patakhas till the evening of D-day when joy oh joy we could all become pyromaniacs for the night.

Sparklers were for babies. My favourites were hawaiis or flying saucers, a more densely packed, airborne version of chakris or Catherine wheels. Chakris could either be lit on the floor where they would create magical spinning wheels of light or you could hold them on the end of a wire stick so that you looked as if your extended arm had a fiery wheel of shooting sparks at the end of it.

There were many different kinds and sizes of rockets and rocket bombs and the variety of bombs would leave you dazed if not deaf. Our favourites were the long ones that looked like green and red cigarettes strung together like Christmas lights. You lit the fuse and then flung it away from you and the string bombs would explode all over the place. The single fat ‘hydrogen’ bombs were more dangerous, sometimes exploding before you had time to run from them. The sound they made was absolutely dreadful. Far more benign were the phooljadis or flowerpots, triangular earthenware creations gaudily dressed in multicoloured foil. When you lit them--depending on their size--they would shoot a shower of sparks into the air that gained in intensity until it assumed the shape of a Christmas tree.

What fascinated me most when I first started celebrating Diwali however were the ‘snakes’. You bought them in rolls, flat black tablets a little larger than an aspirin. Put a match to it and the tablet would magically grow, shooting forth like a sooty fat tubular creature that writhed and twisted as it grew. It made a sizzling noise and left a sulphuric smell in the air.

Of course a big part of Diwali was the fancy food and feasting that was also a big part of the festivities. Hundreds of luridly coloured sweetmeats would make their appearance in the food stalls. As a child I wasn’t that interested in this aspect of things though that is mostly what Diwali has been reduced to now that I’m an adult.

I was reminded of this when I was invited to Akbar’s to participate in a Diwali lunch with Rajiv Bakshi, his sister, Rajni, and their friends last week. I am altogether more appreciative of good Indian food now and at Akbar’s there was no shortage of this. It was a pleasure to see Rajni again, visiting from Bombay, and catch up with Rajiv whom I see far too infrequently considering we inhabit the same city.

The food was fab and I tucked into warm tender rotis and naan with my favourite dal makhni. I could easily have made a meal of just that but there was also a delicious paneer cauliflower dish, tandoori chicken, rogan josh and alu raita. The food was not as highly spiced as I would have liked, no doubt taking into account the Jamaican palate, but extremely good nonetheless. The service too was good . There is something so comforting about going to a restaurant over the years and meeting the same staff. There were several familiar faces and I was particularly pleased to see Cyprian again. Now there’s a man who takes the job of waiting seriously.

Was it normal to have meat dishes at a Diwali lunch asked someone? Why not? Those who eat meat, will have either chicken or lamb, beef being taboo. And the large numbers of vegetarians will stick to what Rajiv dismissively called ‘ghaas poos’ or leaves and grass. In Bengal and Kerala fish is bound to be on the menu. In places like Trinidad and Guyana however there is apparently a lot of fuss about Diwali meals being purely vegetarian but in Mother India tastes and customs have changed. At any rate there is far more latitude at home than in the diaspora it seems.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Blogging Caste

I'm really glad the Jamaican government decided to spend $12 million (Jamaican of course; J$80=US$1) on fireworks at the waterfront on New Year's Eve. It was a mere series of blips compared to the displays in Hong Kong and Australia but they were our blips and we enjoyed them. I hear the mutterings and rumblings about how the money could have been put to better use etc but it's not as if Jamaica is Zimbabwe or Iraq. We haven't been ravaged by disease or war in quite the same way and there's a limit to the difference a hundred and fifty thousand American dollars could make to the general well-being of the population.

In fact a firework display for all to enjoy was one of the few ways the money could have been used to benefit many. All things considered the fireworks did briefly manage to prop up a generally sagging public morale I think. As bad as things seemed by the end of the year at least we weren't too poor to afford fireworks. Thousands turned out to reclaim the normally abandoned downtown and waterfront areas of Kingston and I hear Tivoli was popping with a more rollicking session of Passa Passa than usual. I'm sure vendors and hustlers did a roaring business that night. And it wasn't just downtown. Cars and people lined the Palisadoes road all the way to the airport to watch the fireworks and set off their own.

I surveyed the numerous firework displays from the lofty heights of Stony Hill where we enjoyed a commanding view of the city. A private home in Jack's Hill threatened to rival the fireworks at the waterfront. We viewed it as a struggle between the private sector and the public to outdo each other. The latter won, just about.

So 2008 was a rough year and 09 doesn't promise to be any better. The Israeli pounding of Gaza underscores the grim future that awaits many of us. Meanwhile that ingenious merchant of hope, Barack Obama, gets ready to occupy the most powerful throne on earth. Will he actually make a difference? What will we be thinking and saying of him a year from now? And when is someone going to invent fast forward and rewind buttons for life so that we don't have to leave such matters to speculation?

My new year's resolution in 2007 was to start a blog in 2008. Determined to join the blogging caste I managed to kick start Active Voice last January and it picked up momentum during the course of the year. What an odyssey into the unknown it's proven to be, this excursion into the blogosphere; this deepening acquaintance with the internet and cyberspace. The world wide web is a sticky place and blogs are like mini-webs spun by human arachnids who aim to trap you with silky tripwires. Not to eat those who wander into their webs but to entice them to return, again and again, leaving trails of page views and visits and occasional comments— blogfood—that rich humus that feeds the growth of blogs.

How bloggers who never receive comments or a minimum of visits continue to maintain their output is beyond me. But then again its all relative. I think i've done well to have received close to ten thousand hits over the last year but when you compare that to Indian bloggers whose page views number in the hundreds of thousands you may as well retire coz it'll probably be the year 3000 by the time you get there. I mean Domain Maximus will soon reach the million viewer mark and the Compulsive Confessor is already a million plus .

So although advertisers would have us rate the success of blogs by the number of hits they attract on a per diem basis—apparently anything less than 2000 hits per day is not considered worth spending advertising dollars on —there are other indicators of blog health and success that may not be as easily quantifiable.

The other highlight for me has been allowing myself to get into Facebook in a serious way. At first I couldn't understand why I should join such a network. It seemed to me like entertainment for the feeble-minded or ultra young with its good karma requests and its past life, monster birth and mob wars invitations (all of which can be safely ignored). Then I read a New York Times article about 'Digital Intimacy' or something like that which explained the whole concept of the thing and suddenly I got why it's as innovative as it is.

From the album: Hitman Wally

Haven't looked back since. Life without Facebook is pretty damn unimaginable today. The poverty of the print media in Jamaica was brought home to me when I read Eve Mann's review of Sting 08 (Jamaica's top dancehall event, held every December 26) that she posted as a note in Facebook. Her excellent account underscored the anodyne, barely competent writing we tolerate from print journalists here. It remains a mystery to me why Jamaican newspapers offer their readers a third-rate product when first-rate writing is so readily (if not as cheaply) available. Surely they realize that like anything else you get what you pay for?

This preference for second and third-best isn't confined to Jamaica. In Trinidad and Tobago (and elsewhere) stunned readers of his column are expressing dismay that the Trinidad Express has terminated B.C. Pires's provocative and acutely critical weekly column. Ever one to lay bare the truth with wit and originality Pires probably wasn't as biddable as the Express would have liked. Without more information one can only speculate. In one of his last columns for the Express he interviewed himself. He was nothing if not hard-hitting and original.

Closer to home the Gleaner seems to have terminated the column of the punderous Dr. Orville Taylor (it never fails to amuse me the childish glee with which people brandish their titles here. Even 'Mrs.' is an honorific in Jamaica and she who has earned the right to be called 'Mrs.' is likely to rub it into your face with all the zeal of a Pond's Cold Cream salesperson). Dr. Taylor liked to announce his witticisms with an advance marching band of quote marks and both bold and italic type just in case there was a reader who didn't get it. In many ways Taylor was the opposite of B.C. Pires, lacking his finesse and acrobatic way with words and ideas, so his departure is likely to be met more with sighs of relief than regret, although he did have his fans (Stero?). Of course no one could be more grief-stricken than Dr. Taylor himself. Contrast his parting column, Swansongs and Auld Lang Syne with that of Pires, Write time, wrong place.

But guess what guys! The twenty-first century piece of all-purpose advice is no longer "Get a life!"; its "Get a blog!" Come join the blogging caste--the only caste you don't have to be born into. So what if your papers have cut you loose? Its their loss...light a candle, sing a sankey and find your way to! Your readers will follow suit.