Friday, April 17, 2015

Cover Art Gone the Way of the Dodo

Cover art used to be covert art. Humble and creative. Now it is rarely art and never covert. Sad how things have changed. Several people I know like to buy old books not simply from a store, but used items from eBay or Amazon, and not just for the low prices. Today’s cover art leaves a lot to be desired. Am I making a lot of noise over nothing?

There is a reason why people still like to read books on paper despite Kindle taking over a big chunk of reading space. This is the same reason why tablet interfaces for books tend to mimic pages of a real book- the layout, the little dog-ear when you turn the page, the sound it makes and so on. There is a mysterious and timeless quality to a page.

Getting back to cover art, take for instance the following contemporary covers of perennial favorites- PG Wodehouse and Enid Blyton.


This degeneration of a magnificent, if self-effacing form of art is reflective of our attitude towards literature in general- impatient, ill-willed, indecent and mercenary, instead of reflective, inspiring, principled and holding in balance the experience of reading and the edification from the source material to our knowledge or skills. We have lost the art of listening, and along with it the ageless art of reading. Cover art is meant to capture moments, themes and attitudes the reader will encounter in the book. I believe cover art began degenerating in the 80s and it has been downhill ever since. In my view it achieved its peak in the 60s and 70s. Here are some examples to prove it. And don’t talk to me about pulp fiction paperbacks- these are not representative of the best cover art, and should be relegated to the recesses of the mind in order to make a fair comparison.








This applies to covers of LPs, singles and other music publications as well. We all know the high art in Pinkfloyd covers. Take also for instance the following cover art for a collection of George Melachrino compositions:

Granted, it is mostly a photograph, but isn't the picture and the layout so much more appealing than the appalling contemporary Carrie Underwood album below?

QED, I think!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Venting- Buying a SIM Card

For any travelers to India seeking a local SIM Card:

1. Assuming you have a handset that supports GSM and is not locked (attached to a specific carrier like AT&T or Verizon), you go out to buy a SIM Card.
2. Although you can get this from any dealer for Airtel, Vodafone, VSNL, etc; be sure to get it from a store that you can access easily for the next 2-3 days, because you may need to go to the dealer a couple of times during that time.
3. Get a prepaid card. If you pay upfront to recharge this card over and above the minimum balance that the card gives you, get a receipt for this.
4. Be sure you have (a) documentation- basically a copy of your passport with the photo and bio pages as well as the India visa page and the page where your address is shown, (b) 2 passport size photos; (c) an address where you are staying (some dealers may ask you for proof such as a hotel invoice); and (d) a friend or contact whose cell number you must give- the company will call that number for verification and will later send a text message to the number that your phone is active.
5. It will take a minimum of 24 hours for the reference/verification to be done. After this your contact will get a text message requesting that the prepaid SIM buyer (you) call a number from the phone to activate the number.
6. When you call the number they will activate your number and after a 30 minute =delay you are in theory up and running
7. In reality you may find, as I did, that your talk time balance is Rs. 0, and you cannot make any calls. You can call the customer service number but they will direct you to the store from which you bought the card. You will need to check with them about the money you paid for both the basic SIM Card pack (there is a minimum talktime balance attached to it) as well as any recharge you made.
Then they will call Airtel and get the card recharged with the balane you are due.

In short what should take a few minutes will take you over 48 hours. Be prepared for this if you decide to buy a SIM card in India

Reflections on Landing in India

As the airplane touched down on Dubai’s airport runway and the setting Arabian sun pierced through the windows with hues of red, I sat back and thought of the people I had left behind for a month. Of Al, our short shouting match, for which I felt guilty, that my recent irritability at everything should cause such a ruffle in our otherwise calm moments before my leaving. All because she found my glasses dirty, had to clean them, and complained about the increasing dirt. Of David, his smiling face, so eager to please, his face expectantly looking up to see if there was happiness or any sign of displeasure, and if the latter, his face quizzical in expression, young life flickering like a candle, which we must be cautious to kindle and not starve of life-giving oxygen. Of Emma, her confusions, challenges and questions as we grows up- as she makes mistakes and learns, sometimes the hard way, sometimes through behavior-modification induced by cajoling from her parents. My loves. How I miss them already.

I touched down, texted my wife my belated sorrow at having caused her sorrow, boarded the connecting flight to Mumbai, and after touching down again, reconnected with Philip, my friend who took me to church as this was a Sunday. A loud, mostly young collection of people, with eagerness to share the reason for their joy and new ideas to express themselves through art, music, movies, food, et al. All concepts which have never been my strengths. Through the day, I kept thinking how Indian youth, and even people of my generation have become so tuned in to the emerging zeitgeist in India which is decidedly young (most of India is very young), and global in nature with a stubbornly Indian accent and mannerism.

I think of my poor parents, long in touch with technology- all the way upto the mid 2000s, now somewhat left behind by the new world of social media and smartphones, my mom disabled by her declining eyesight and sickness-forced reclusiveness, my dad who, though in better shape, has had his share of challenges posed by aging and a body whose immunity has become less effective over the years. Both of them gave their all to their work, and now receive a paltry pension from the government, while their juniors who retired after them receive far more. Today’s India does not care much for its seniors, or for that matter, people who hold no promise to produce goods or services.

In my childhood I remember talking to my dad about economic systems, and wondering if the socialist model had merit, while my dad, infused by the liberalization taking place in the then Soviet Union, East Germany and other places, denounced state-planned economy as if from a pulpit. Frm then I have always seen such systems as problems. As life went on and I worked my way through India and the US, climbing the ladder and experiencing the vagaries of capitalism, and all the while seeing India pass me by, becoming unfamiliar, both in appearance and in interactions, as if I were talking to a stranger who I knew a long time ago, perhaps in my childhood, who is now different in every way, except I know that our shared childhoods carry memories.

Today’s India doesn’t care much about providing universal healthcare or a living wage. But am I truly seeing things as they were back in the day? We were middle class, and with my dad’s rising career, moving upward and onward towards being ‘upper middle class’, which we were at the time of his retirement. For a few years after his retirement, his company paid for his healthcare, which they stopped doing after his angioplasties and two open heart bypass surgeries. Thank God for his grace, that after then, dad has not had a major medical challenge which required a procedure. Now he is stuck with declining strength, illnesses which take forever to subside, and a noticeable shiver in his voice and limbs, mirroring the tremors in his once-unshakeable confidence. Today’s India cares about celebrity, with newspapers showing on their front pages pictures of actors inaugurating a new school or hospital, while thousand die of Ebola, famine, war, terrorism, abductions and other causes that make Americans skip a beat each morning as they pore over Google News or watch TV news in the evenings. Today’s India teems with marching workers who stream through gates of gleaming edifices of newly minted technology companies or through converted factory campuses, green and leafy, with an old world charm belying the work that happens within, fitted now to house service workers taking calls, processing insurance claims or fare-filing for airlines. All the while there is human drama outside those walls, little children, the promise of our future, defecating on sidewalks outside their shanties, unashamed and surrounded by people.

Back in the day they must have been the invisible people, or were they simply people we chose not to see? Going about their lives in the slums, some of them trafficked from different states to work as maids or house-boys at a tender age when others in different economic strata would spend their time playing or reluctantly going to school, an exercise imposed on them for which they had no relish, but for which those others who lived in the shadows would have dearly given everything. Singing in trains and asking for food with indefatigable optimism expressed through toothy smiles and cocky rasping voices, not yet broken, but perpetually hoarse with tuneless singing.

Did our welfare state back then hold them any promise? For sure it promised them a lot during public rallies on the eve of elections. They were and are actors in an immense economic machine, without whom India today would collapse like a ton of bricks and fold up in a hurry like a cheap suit. Washing cars, scrubbing floors, cooking food, dressing babies, and doing a thousand other things for which they are ill-paid, although the new middle class would strongly disagree that they are poorly compensated. They would count the free food, accommodation (if they are live-in staff), safety, lack of commute and other such perks to make their case. A small increase of a thousand rupees to their salary, the amount some of them would pay for a dinner at a restaurant, would get their goat.

So which is better? The welfare state or the laissez faire? After all these years I don’t care. I’m an opportunist, so I will grab any opportunity to support those who need help. The aging, the uneducated, the slum-dwellers, the children, the women and myriad others whose lives are now simply factors of production.

India offers a lot of scope for reflection. The taxi driver who drove me to my meeting, who came to Mumbai 21 years ago from Jharkand, as a youngster, having come from a background he describes as ‘weak’, meaning mud huts (‘mitthi ka ghar’) and no support from anyone or anywhere, no job and no prospects in his state. He has now built homes for his family in Jharkand (bada ghar hain abhi), but his life is in Mumbai now. He lives with his family in a small house with hardly any space, paying a rent that takes away most of his income, but as he says, ‘That’s life-everything works for good, and we must see it that way.’ Which taxi driver talks this way in Chicago? That’s India for you. Heart on its sleeve, and none of the grit hidden, though our modern rising stars of the middle class would like to hide it all away behind glass and steel towers, shimmering as if in a desert, and a lifestyle at the opposite end of a pole from these invisible people.

The theme of invisibility is strongly upon my mind today. Perhaps because I’ve been listening the Sara Groves album, ‘Invisible Empires’. In it she sings:

And I don't know where we are
Are we passing through these wires
Are we walking through the streets
Of invisible empires

I hope we are passing through the streets of the one Invisible Kingdom that will be revealed when the dirt of this world's decay shall be peeled away and the rays of the rising Son would touch upon the invisible people.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Animal Spirits

At a gathering at a friend's home last week, we had a fascinating discussion on how our consumption-based model keeps America's economy alive on the one hand; while on the other hand this is perpetuated by the dollar supremacy that seems destined to reign for the foreseeable future.

We all agreed that innovation in the future is the big bet we are placing on in order to enable the debt repayments on domestic and foreign holdings, not to mention the currency itself which is debt in its pure form. To be able to print more currency, we assume that innovation will continue forever. I asked my friend if that were the case, then if there was any place for contentment in our economy. He replied there wasn't.

We also talked about the apparently unfair trade advantage that China has over us, as well as the outsourcing in blue collar work (I would add white collar work as well), as to how this will impact our economy. We discussed the notion of unending innovation as being the answer to these issues as the following chart illustrates. A new product X is created, and this creates jobs in the American economy. Eventually parts of its lifecycle are outsourced, so America does not benefit from "full employment" to the extent this product could offer. However a new product Y (or X + 1) is created through innovation, and it continues this cycle of peaks and troughs in employment.

My friend, though, made the point that innovation will mean less blue collar work, and less opportunities for those with less relevant education. This seems true, even as large innovative companies like Facebook and Google employ less and less people than such a corporation would formerly have, given their revenues and share in the economy.

So we agreed that even as America as a country will continue to prosper, we cannot" (a) prevent shocks such as a the recent housing bubble and the resulting financial meltdown; and (b) ensure reasonably egalitarian growth. In short the domestic economy suffers from both inconsistency and inequality. These are related. The richest will recover faster and more spectacularly from such recessions, and inequality will continue to increase. The richest benefit in this way because the government's currency regime, hinging on its ability to print currency to repay debt and bail out the largest players in the economy, will ensure this. The poorest will continue to get scraps from the table in terms of loan modifications, tax cuts, etc.

This creates challenges for: (a) people below a certain income level measured over a few years, who cannot create enough personal income and wealth to hedge against contingencies or to remain competitive in the face of a highly educated elite class with new toys that help them compete; and (b) countries other than the US which are forced to use the US Dollar as their currency. 

In the first case, that of individuals, their 'basic needs' as defined by economists a century ago, namely, food, shelter and clothing, may be met, but the definition of basic needs as I mentioned in another post keeps changing. The above chart also illustrates this. An innovative product will either become irrelevant as soon as new technology replaces it; or it will go through a period in which it becomes a 'basic need'. For instance, a smartphone today is not a basic need, but it may soon become one even as it supports digital payments instead of credit cards,serves as a tool to prevent home break-ins,  controls access to cars, serves as a GPS device or as a tool to access repositories for documents, media, financial information and control. If traditional mechanisms for transacting merchandise and services make way for digital or virtual mechanisms via such devices, then a person who does not carry such a device becomes noncompetitive and therefore dangerously close to dire circumstances, the equivalent of a person who today does not know how to pay cash for food. This is why all innovations, such as in healthcare, communications, education and so on, eventually become human rights as economies progress, because though human rights are absolute in nature, they are dispensed via interactions and therefore relational (not relative). The need for a smart phone may not be a human right now, but the need for a certain level of education is- and this may call for a device such as a smartphone in the future. In other words, if human beings build up infrastructure for community, such as nations and economies, then each human being who has any part in such community (as a member, partner, beneficiary or an unrelated stakeholder) has levels of needs which must be considered basic human rights for that community, in that time and age.

In the second case, that of countries other than the US, it gets tricky. They cannot inflate the economy as wantonly and elaborately as the US does, because they will need to repay the debt that arises from it. Unfortunately for them, their debt is not denominated in US Dollars. So while economists like Paul Krugman who argue against austerity are right in that European countries which suffer from their levels of unemployment, low growth, low productivity, etc, should spend in order to recover, they need to be much more cautious (than the US) to ensure their debt does not get out of hand. These countries are also tied at the hip to the US via trade. This can help them immensely, as it has in the case of China, which has seen remarkable levels of growth and the redemption of millions of people out of poverty. While they have this benefit, they also are vested in the growth of the US as they hold US government debt which could be repaid only if the US grows enough to keep up. In the case of countries like Russia, we see that this economic relationship is a Faustian bargain which will turn on them if they misbehave, never mind that the US itself is guilty of similar behavior. Russia's options are limited in the face of the current gas price war and limited sanctions in the wake of their attack on Ukraine. Is this a good thing? Americans would say it is, but the price for such punishment is always borne not by leaders but by workaday human beings just like them in Cuba, Russia, Iran and other countries.

Years ago, John Maynard Keynes coined the term 'Animal Spirits' in economics to describe public mood or consumer confidence which drives consumption and therefore investment. People today believe, as my friend did, that the desire to "have", or the "wants", or as Gordon Gecko would put it, "greed", drives innovation. In other words, necessity is the mother of innovation. I think this is only one third of the story. If this were indeed true, why is it that human technological progress increased rapidly from the industrial revolution, and not in the previous centuries? Were human beings less intelligent prior to that time in history? It doesn't seem that way at all. The ancients did produce great works of mathematics, philosophy and literature. We tend to blame our institutions, such as religious or governmental, for stymieing progress. Maybe there is some truth to this. But I believe innovation stems from (a) our need; (b) our desire for truth; and (c) God's sovereign provision. All of these, I believe, are designed and given to us, which means that at some point, they could slow down as they did prior to the Industrial Revolution, or even stop altogether. Betting on unlimited innovation, simply because we seem to have unlimited greed, seems to be betting on fool's gold. Innovation stems first and foremost from a creative God who has blessed us with creativity.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Christmas Cocoa Message- December 13- to Emma's Friends

Exactly 30 years ago- in December 1984- I was about your age. I grew up in Southern India, Southwestern India, to be exact. Southwestern India is a tropical place, full of coconut palms, beautiful lakes, beaches and cottages. I grew up at a time when neighborhoods celebrated festivals like Christmas together. Each home would have very carefully arranged nativity scenes, lights on trees, huge paper stars hung up everywhere, on trees, rooftops, on strings hung between trees and so on, in different colors, all lit up with bulbs inside, and in some places, made entirely by hand with pieces of wood, string, glue and paper!

Christmas of 1984 was very special to me because the previous year my granddad was diagnosed with cancer and after long treatment in a faraway city, he had come home. Relatives from all over came to visit and in fact stay at my granddad’s house (and in nearby relatives’ homes) for 3-4 days, during Christmas. Uncles, aunts, first and second cousins, my granddad’s closest relatives, all came together to celebrate. I think everyone felt that he had been saved from cancer by God’s grace, but he was very old, so he only had a little more time to live on earth, so they wanted to come and celebrate with him.

As you can imagine I found it a wonderful time. We all played our part in decorating the house, in building a huge nativity scene, playing games with cousins and friends, listening to carolers who were common in our part of the country in those days. Carolers would come and perform small plays, besides singing. One of the songs that was popular in those days went something like this (in translation):

God is being born
As a human being in Bethlehem
In a mountainous valley filling up with snow
Joyful laughter filling hearts in heaven and on earth
From a sweet, angelic melody

I felt very sad when Christmas day came to an end and everyone left the following day. I’d received a toy drum whose skin I’d broken by poking it hard with the end of the drumsticks- it was a cheap drum! Besides that we were done with all the fun! On the evening of the 26th, granddad’s brother saw a crow (raven) which was struggling to fly. It was on the ground and he realized it was wounded someplace. So he took it and placed it in a cage we had and gave it some food. Sadly it died in a couple of days. Everyone thought it looked sad, refusing to eat, probably wanting to be with other crows and not in captivity.

In the years that followed, I’ve tried to remember that Christmas and wondered what made it so special. I’m sure when you grow up you will have lots of memories about Christmases that were the most fun. So what made it really special? Was it because of the kindness shown by family and friends to my granddad? Was it because this was the first time I thought seriously about who Jesus was and why he came to earth to be born into a feeding place for animals, in poverty and squalor, in fact even threatened by a king who wanted him done? Was it because of the gifts? Was it because of the joy I remember on the faces of my family that I have not seen so clearly in the years to come? I’m not sure. But each time I hear that song I remember the joy:

God is being born
As a human being in Bethlehem
In a mountainous valley filling up with snow
Joyful laughter filling hearts in heaven and on earth
From a sweet, angelic melody

Our carols tell the Christmas story clearly, don’t they? We have heard these songs so many times, so we may not spend much time thinking about what they are saying:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.’


Hark! The herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled

Or take our readings in the Advent season: ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.


‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.’

Why do these songs talk about light, joy, glory, triumph, peace, mercy, a new born king (though he was born in poverty)? You’ve heard the Christmas story many times, about the star that guided wise men to a manger- a feeding place for animals in a stable, angels singing praises to God and guiding shepherds also to this place, about Mary and Joseph who did not find any room to stay in Bethlehem to which they were traveling, and finally giving birth to Jesus in the stable and laying him in the manger in swaddling clothes. I would like you to think about this event and why it was so special that over 2000 years after this event, people around the world are still singing about this and talking about it, some with doubt and anger, others with joy and peace. I’d like to close with the words of a newer song called ‘Welcome to our World’ that captures the meaning of this joy and peace:

Tears are falling, hearts are breaking
How we need to hear from God
You've been promised, we've been waiting
Welcome Holy Child
Welcome Holy Child

Hope that you don't mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make yourself at home
Please make yourself at home

Bring your peace into our violence
Bid our hungry souls be filled
Word now breaking Heaven's silence
Welcome to our world
Welcome to our world

Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born

So wrap our injured flesh around you
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
Perfect Son of God
Welcome to our world

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Contextual Intelligence and Misunderstandings

Nearly every opinion of culture, especially a foreign culture is influenced by our understanding of right and wrong. Tarun Khanna's article on contextual intelligence in the September 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review talks about the implications of applying Western business understandings to other cultures.

The Aristotelian view of human activity classifies it into three distinct components. Nearly all our misunderstandings of culture arise from confusing these categories, especially virtue (an application) confused with universal principles (an overarching truth). I made this illustration to highlight this fact:

And so, our desire for truth, a universal principle, could mean 'telling the truth' at all times in a society like the United States, but something different, say in Nazi Germany, where people like Oscar Schindler likely needed to conceal their activities to accomplish what was right. When we conflate virtue and universal principles mistakenly, we often get an impoverished version of reality.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Failure

A few days ago a former colleague shared with me that another former associate was facing some difficult times. He was doing alright financially and at work, but his wife had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. The local hospital had declared it inoperable and he had taken her to the University of Chicago Hospital, which is a teaching hospital. I called him and he asked me to pray for him. He said he was hopeful that his wife will be healed, and that many other friends are praying for them. I offered him help with looking after kids or any other meaningful help, but he lived a ways from me, and though he acknowledged my offer politely, did not take me up on it.

This friend is a very socially active person. In the days when we worked together he organized the local Indian community to donate food and supplies to a local humanitarian organization called Loaves and Fishes which helped the homeless. He also teamed up with the pastor at a large Assemblies of God church to work with his community to support Loaves and Fishes. He has been working with the mayor and leadership of his city to support community activities among Indians. He is a leader in the local shakha or wing of the community organization Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. This organization enables training in Hindu virtues and doctrine. Borrowing a page from Christian youth education, they have Sunday school-like classes, along with social activities with a cultural twist, including regular picnics and camps. He has hosted Hindu victims of persecution from countries which have treated Hindus shabbily, and his love for them is genuine.

Often in conversations he would complain about his job and the fact that many people around him do not respond to his work rightly, that often there is unfairness in performance reviews. He firmly believes that Indian ethos means essentially good things, and anything such as rape, female infanticide or other social ills in India are in fact foreign and the result of the advent of Kaliyug, the final dark ages in each cycle of an aeon, which repeats itself infinitely.

Over the past few weeks many events in my life took my attention away from his case- sicknesses and deaths of near and dear ones- and I followed his updates on Facebook. Recently he mentioned that his fruits and flowers which he placed before the idol in his home showed traces of a sacred flame, and felt that these were signs that God was listening. He also posted messages of thanks to over a hundred (literally) friends individually. These people had visited him, helped him tangibly, bringing food, prayers and other elements of support. He posted pictures of some of them, and was touched by their support.

From my own interactions with people, I have often wondered how much they are called to sacrifice to move out of a community with such strong ties and pledge allegiance to Jesus. To a person whose life revolves around such community ties, we often offer a poor imitation of the real thing. Missionaries, especially cross-cultural ones, intentionally offer them real and sincere friendship, but I wonder if such things could ever be a match. Granted, my friend was so active socially, that a lot of this is natural. I doubt that even if with my own family and friends numbering in the hundreds, I would receive such love and support in such a situation from so many.

Is it any wonder then, that when we approach a person with the message that Jesus loves her, she finds it nothing more than a well-intentioned generic message of God’s love that she could uncover from any religious text anywhere? The message of Jesus’ sacrifice is singular and unique, but as we proclaim it as a proposition, without proof in and through our lives that He indeed loves her, I don’t believe that what we are proclaiming is in fact the full gospel. If that were the case, we could send notes containing the basic message of the gospel and not inter into anyone’s lives at all.

In the book ‘In the Company of the Poor’, Gustavo Gutierrez, credited with coining the term ‘Liberation Theology’ in his 1971 book ‘A Theology of Liberation’, says, “Liberation Theology begins with the question, ‘How do we tell the poor that Jesus loves them?’” Sharing the gospel with the poor must accompany our understanding of their longing for justice- and not only eternal justice, but temporal justice as well. Without the missionary herself identifying with the poor and actively undertaking to accomplish justice on behalf of the poor, I believe that what the missionary preaches is in fact not the Gospel. Liberation theology is often accused of having a horizontal focus with even an intentional denial of the propositional gospel. This is not universally true of liberation theologians, though, and while I think this is a serious mistake and denies the gospel outright, I believe the propositional gospel as a proposition, as a set of facts without a personal context is not the Gospel. The propositional gospel must inform the contextual evangelization and the love of the missionary for the people in order for it to be the full Gospel.

There are reports of people having come to faith by just reading the Bible. The Holy Spirit works to accomplish what we cannot. I believe that this upends all our claims to be effective workers for the kingdom. In that sense, the propositional gospel enters into the lives of people through God's direct intervention. More often, though, God works through people to make this happen- and He himself seals the deal through conviction, repentance and faith.

History is replete in many places, and often in India, of missions attempting to replace a community’s most cherished attributes with a culturally compromised version of the Gospel- and not just in the songs, religious text, practices, holy days and community. Sometimes this is necessary, but often not so much. I feel I have let my friend down in his time of need- but many others, some from his community and some others from outside it- have not. In my goal to be an intentional missionary to everyone that I come across, I have failed miserably to care enough for this person. And this should be food for thought as to whether what I’m sharing is the full Gospel.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Giving up on God

I found this article in The Guardian and posted a comment on it. The link to the article and my comment are here:


Comment (appearing on Page 8 of the comments section):

I think this is an important question to ask. Is Dr. Brantly justified in thanking God, when many others are dying of the same disease, some even after receiving the medicine that Dr. Brantly did? I think the answer, unfortunately for most people, is not and cannot be simple. We have all heard the reasons that believers tend to give: that God has a better plan for everyone that we cannot see, that man, not God, is responsible for these deaths, because of our callousness towards those in need, that God’s purpose in suffering is to save or strengthen souls.

While these explanation serve to strengthen faith in believers, people who ask questions like the one Ms. Hanson asks are not looking for these answers. For each question there is a context, and Ms. Hanson shares hers: the inability to relate to God as being transcendent from physicality (this is significant, and not puerile- as a transcendent God could be misunderstood to be absent or uncaring), the lack of divine retribution for offenders (or as a corollary, sorrow and pain for many devout), a view of the faithful as being intellectually impoverished and as peddling God. These do not cover the range of reasons as to why people disbelieve, but they are some that are mentioned in the article.

It is important to realize that God’s goodness does not necessarily equate to principles we have derived, say from nation-building or economic efficacy. Therefore it does not translate to pleasant lives for all- or for that matter, even pleasant deaths; or equal economic status or rights. This is not to say that such things are not good- but our judgment of God is not based on whether several thousand die of Ebola, is it? Isn’t it based on the question why even one person has to die at all- of Ebola or anything else? Or in other words, isn’t it based on why there is any suffering at all?

Works by people like Dr. Paul Farmer show us how in history human beings have created systems that have killed others. Poverty has not appeared in a vacuum. It has been even intentionally created and perpetuated by people. In his book, Infections and Inequalities, he demonstrates how diseases like AIDS, Ebola and TB, as well as natural disasters strike and kill the poor disproportionately. The 2010 Haiti earthquake cost the country its entire GDP, and 250,000 people died, while millions were injured or displaced. Earthquakes do not kill many people directly, falling buildings do. We have the technology to prevent these building collapses, and they have been proven only recently in California, how even with a moment magnitude of 6.0 no lives were lost though there was financial damage- a mere $2 Billion as one newspaper estimated.

People looking for a simple answer to God’s workings are not likely to get it, because such people are not asking real questions. For example, you could ask me: “If God exists, what does his toenail look like?”- as Ms. Hanson asks in the article, clearly in a facetious manner, but the point is well taken. That question is not so much a question as it is rhetoric. Ms. Hanson clearly gave up on God much before she says she did. The question to ask, then, is this: “My heart and mind are looking for meaning, in my life and in the lives of others. When people die of horrific circumstances in the millions, I fear that there is no meaning. Is there meaning anywhere” The search for God is a sincere search for meaning.

I would like to tell you that there is indeed meaning, and it is people like Dr. Brantly, Dr. Farmer, Dr. Gary Haugen and several others who follow God’s call to serve those who are victimized, who find it. Many others do as well, even without such sacrifices. It is not my place to judge them. They are content with the answers they have been given. Each of us must seek God from our own vantage points.

If the history of our struggle against suffering could be juxtaposed against our agonizing questions, we find that God has indeed intervened on our behalf. We claim science has delivered Dr. Brantly, and not God. Dr. Farmer’s research, as that of many others, shows that pills alone don’t make anyone well. The heart of God makes ways to reach each of us, despite our active campaigns against it. “Giving up on God, ever” is a statement that reveals intent, not conclusion. I pray that you will continue your search.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Soulless Faith

The pithy sayings that permeate our lives in church: "if you find a perfect church, don't go there- you'll ruin it", or "there are no perfect Christians, only forgiven ones" aim to discourage seekers from finding a people who could be held to the standard of Jesus. But how about if a person looking for a church was in fact looking for Jesus himself- the perfect spotless lamb of God? Shouldn't she find Jesus among the people? Sure enough, she may find Him if she were to use a magnifying glass- in the songs, praises, homilies, quotations from the Bible, and so on. Often they substitute genuine passion for passionate oratory, music and "relevance" as evidenced by their astute understanding of prevailing zeitgeist

.But what if she found a people who wouldn't allow non-Christians to join their schools, and did charity instead of seeking real justice in the world, who cared about personal piety rather than the spiritual bankruptcy of the world, of political victories rather than kingdom victories, of allaying one's conscience rather than always living in the tension between the world's tragedy and Jesus' hope? 

I have seen this since coming to the US- and though initially disillusioned, this eventually gave new meaning to those pithy sayings. Truly, there are no perfect churches- but there are churches in which the gospel is long lost, then there are churches which are "Bible-believing" in that they believe in a set of propositions that sum up the Gospel, which if you believe you are saved, but whose lives don't look very much like they are indeed saved. I think this is the case with every person who was saved in the third world and has come to the West hoping for maturity of faith and fiery passion, the kind they see in some of the missionaries who visit their country every so often.

Unfortunately, just as they do not find such passion, most of these people succumb to the culture and become passionless themselves. They become the imperfect church. Curiously enough, in my experience, I have seen something else happen- the passion that once symbolized the churches in India, fledgling at the time, has been long lost- though they are now thriving in therms of the number of members and seekers and the resources at their disposal. Their conversation betrays a strong theological understanding and a global experience with the practice of such theological discourse.

In my opinion, the sooner a person discovers this the better. The disillusionment that follows may yet give way to a renewed desire to be not conformed to it, but to change. People I have seen who are pillars of faith have been often the most troubled. They are our teachers along the way.

Paul Farmer from Mountains Beyond Mountains:

If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.

I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that because you should feel ambivalent. 

The tension between the world's tragedy and God's hope- we should always live there. That is the only place to have real hope. We cannot take our eyes off either end. Even as we lessen our psychic discomfort, it should never be fully done away with. Even as we may be discouraged often, we must never lose hope. On the one hand, our churches revel in God's abundant provision- of salvation, of hope, of creature comforts, of healing. On the other, we defend ourselves on being imperfect- why should we? Shouldn't we lament instead that the person of Jesus isn't found among ourselves when a lost soul comes to seek him?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Mountains Revisited

After so many years, I listened to the Audio Book version of 'Mountains Beyond Mountains' again, the book that first talked to me about Haiti and inspired me. Annie Dillard is right- it unfolds with a force of gathering revelation. It was all I could do to hold back from tears towards the end, just before the Afterword, when Farmer, Kidder and assistant Ti Jean have spent 11 hours walking to seek out 2 patients and resting under a tree in the starlit Haitian night on the way back to Cange.

I read this interview with Kidder on Huffpost recently, by writer Mark Klempner.

MK: Do you feel you were able to get to the truth of what makes Farmer tick, and how his organization has been able to gain so much traction for their idealistic principles?
TK: The little t truth. The big T truth doesn't belong to us.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Persons of Promise

India’s Public Sector in 67 Years of Independence

‘Commanding Heights’. That was the phrase which India’s first prime minister, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru used to describe the role of the government in shaping India’s economy. For well over 50 years this was true in India, nourished by substantial investments, broadened in scope and size, encompassing financial services, healthcare, education, mining, manufacturing, food production, services, manufacturing, research, transportation, hospitality and tourism, this philosophy was followed assiduously by each succeeding government. The private sector was reined in by an elaborate system of licenses, permits, taxes, inter-state levies, joint-sector (public-private partnership) agreements and other devices that kept checks on profits and investments. In the early nineties, following a well-publicized liquidity crisis, the Indian government began a long process of policy change, involving overseas loans, currency deregulation, divestment from many public undertakings, encouraging foreign investment by institutions into its financial markets as well as direct investment into its industries, the movement of currencies across India’s borders, and other reforms.

Early on India’s creditors- the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other overseas lenders and investors insisted that the divestment take place fast and decisively. There has been foot-dragging on this which has persisted to this day, some bolstered by arguments which had merit, others simply due to political, bureaucratic and populist inertia which has often proved counter-productive. Often the divestment initiative has overlooked some large industries which are profitable and has remained within government ownership and control, some others which are unprofitable have been spared the ‘fire sale’ due to large numbers of people employed in such industries, who would face the prospect of mass layoffs under private ownership.

Public Sector- both a Mogul and a Pauper

In retrospect, it may have been a good thing that India began this process slowly- first allowing for less than 50 percent private ownership in key businesses. Reviewing the history of hasty divestment in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant oligarchies and the flight of capital and cash across their borders, India as a fledgling free-market economy did well in restraining the process as it did. However, the process itself has been devoid of a clear policy as far as the responsibilities of the government in the economy and society are concerned. And thus, the government retained control of several large businesses in manufacturing, mining and services, while neglecting sectors that desperately need their increased and aggressive investment such as public healthcare or law and order.

Even a cursory review of the so-called ‘general hospitals’ in India’s public health reveal to the observer that the number of physicians, nurses and support staff is hardly sufficient to serve the number of patients, not to speak of the infrastructure required for prevention and care. In addition, as is the case with every developing country, infectious diseases, especially ones that strike the tropics seasonally, such as dengue and chikungunya, not to speak of virulent diseases such as cholera, lay waste to thousands of people who could otherwise receive life-saving care and restoration relatively quickly and easily. This reveals other areas in which such investment in sorely needed- sanitation and the availability of clean water across the country, for instance- the prevalence of cholera, especially in the Central Indian states of Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal. There is strong evidence that cholera is often underreported in the country as well. States which have severe sanitation problems in the northern regions of the country have not reported cases as frequently as have states such as Kerala, where sanitation is far less of a challenge. Trust in public institutions is low, and for good reason.

Law and order in India has received much less investment. The current framework, built by the British, has creaked and groaned under the severe load of cases, which has resulted in untold numbers of people waiting to get justice in criminal and civil cases, some languishing in prisons waiting for arraignment for decades together, others incarcerated without proper procedure or just outright bullying by the police. Corruption festers in the environment. Low pay, a severe lack of resources, improper knowledge or training in police process or forensic analysis, judicial incompetence or corruption, methods of prosecution or defense which border on manipulation of the law in subversive, often illegal ways, and a myriad of other ills have plagued this system.

Needless to say, these pathologies- as is always the case in every developing or underdeveloped country- affect everyone, but they affect the poor with particular violence. The middle classes, the upper middle classes and the upper classes try to circumvent such challenges using the private sector- and thus the prevalence of large, well-equipped private hospitals, medical schools and private security businesses. The poor by necessity have to depend on century-old systems which are funded poorly by public finances.

It is easy to say that Indians have become apathetic to the conditions of the poor, and there is truth to this. Clearly due to lack of space, homes of the wealthy exist cheek by jowl with the shanties of the poor in India’s large cities. I’ve heard the rich whine about the fact that they are forced to endure such sights, but few have talked about the problems of the poor. But this fact, while significant, may hide the reality that there is only one entity that has accountability and the mandate to ensure that basic services are accessible and affordable to every citizen- the public sector.

A look at the so-called ‘Navratnas’ in the public sector ( reveals a myriad of business owned by the government- nearly all of them capital intensive and in fields where the government shouldn’t be operating- engineering consultancies, hospitality, airlines, manufacturing, insurance, mining  and other sectors. A case could be made that part of such businesses- such as insurance and banking- which serve the underserved need to be controlled by the government. But clearly the underserved are not the only people such institutions serve. A large number of staffers is another reason to withhold privatization, but this is not an insurmountable challenge- the public sector businesses have been offering early retirement packages to employees for years; and non-controlling private ownership in these industries could release capital into basic services that Indians sorely need.

The Poor

It is important to understand who we mean by the ‘poor’. As a child, I saw many ostentatious acts of charity which made it clear that such acts were given magnanimously by the rich to the poor. A relative created a clinic and named it the ‘St. Joseph’s Poor Dispensary”. My father found this offensive, and I shared this distaste. He often remarked that using the word ‘poor’ is in fact a reminder to both ourselves and those about whom it is used, that they are inferior in some sense. He tended to interpret in unorthodox ways Judas’ comment in the passage found in Matthew 26: 7-13 about using the perfume from the woman’s alabaster jar for the poor, rather than wasting it on Jesus. Jesus responded to this statement from Judas this way: “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” My father’s explanation of this was that Jesus was being sarcastic towards Judas; that he kept talking about the poor all the time, and not at all about Jesus himself.

While I understand this line of reasoning, there is another point of view which presents itself. In his book ‘Infections and Inequalities’, Dr. Paul Farmer writes:

The objectification of the poor is, of course, a risk run by anyone who employs some sort of class analysis… At the same time, I’m not skittish about using the term: striving to understand a commonality of constraint is hardly tantamount to denying the salience of personal experience. I’ve been impressed, in my work in Haiti and Peru, at how often people use the label “the poor” to describe themselves. These people do not share nationality or gender or language or culture; they share only their relative social positioning at the bottom of the ladder.

I too have seen often that the poor use the term to describe themselves. In my father’s understanding, this could be the result of systematic and consistent tagging of such people by others, and they have now internalized such tags, bringing with them the idea that they are lazy, filthy, uneducated, incompetent, and incapable of real accomplishment or emancipation. In Farmer’s view, their usage of the term denotes an accurate understanding of their social situation, which can help them relate to the world correctly and seek solutions intelligently. In my mind, both these points of view have merit, but I believe Farmer’s view can lead the way to hopeful solutions. Emancipation or liberation begins with understanding one’s condition, and addressing it bluntly.

So, who are the poor really? Objective measures to define poverty abound, and can be used to approximate the level of poverty experience by a population. I will not debate the actual measure used, although this too has been a contentious issue, especially in recent years in India. I will however point out what symptoms accompany the poor.

If one’s income, assets, social standing, geographical location or available infrastructure- both public and private- cannot assure a basket of goods and services that must be deemed basic needs (although this basket will necessarily need to accommodate qualitatively more, not less, such goods and services as time goes on and human development takes new definitions), then they must be understood to be poor.

For instance, if a patient cannot receive preventive care for infectious diseases already mentioned, via preventive medicine, routine checks, sanitation, nutrition, protection from the elements and other safeguards, she must be understood to be poor. If a child cannot receive good quality primary education (K through 12) that prepares him for employment opportunities, the child must be understood to be poor. Granted, this often depends on several factors, such as teachers, differences in quality among schools and so on; but having a common set of high standards to which to adhere across the country is only reasonable to expect in any country. If a person needs to spend an unaffordable sum of money to get a good lawyer to defend herself against allegations of civil or criminal misconduct, she must be understood to be poor. If people are typically denied their Miranda rights, or have their premises searched without a warrant, or spend inordinate amounts of time in incarceration while awaiting their arraignment, they must be understood to be poor. If a population suffers from cholera because their neighborhood adjoins railroad tracks along which they relieve themselves, they must be understood to be poor. In short, people who are indeed at the bottom of the social ladder know that they are poor and have no qualms about describing themselves that way, because they see it only too clearly. It is upto the economist to strive to define basic needs- and this definition must vary slightly on the basis of circumstances.

NGOs and the Public Sector

In several recent publications by different authors such as Linda Polman and others, a growing consensus around the role of NGOs has arisen. This consensus claims to not know the solution, but unanimously castigates humanitarian organizations for prolonging the very misery they hope to avoid in places of conflict or disaster. There are authors who posit various solutions, but none of them satisfy- precisely because they add the disclaimer that such ideas only address the challenges faced by NGOs, and do not guarantee their own standing as real world solutions to real world problems.

Dr. Farmer in ‘Haiti after the Earthquake’ approaches this differently. Throughout his narrative of Haiti’s earthquake and its immediate aftermath, he records the bitter debate between those who advocate prevention alone and those who call for immediate care. Farmer, along with experts in the fields of disaster relief and infectious disease, call for aggressive initiatives in both. He describes how poorly equipped the ‘general hospital’ in Port-au-Prince was to deal with the aftermath of earthquake. Prior to the event, it was poorly equipped. Hospitals such as Zanmi Lasante, which Farmer himself had helped create, and the venerable Albert Schweitzer hospital, did provide good care- but the one organization that had the mandate and the only one with the accountability to serve the people of Haiti was stretched and overworked beyond its capability to serve the injured and the dying, who numbered over in the hundreds of thousands. Due to this, several overseas aid organizations and professionals came to help, and they lived alongside the afflicted in tents, which gave the city the name ‘Tent City’. Over a quarter million were dead under the buildings and several more injured, and each tent clinic was like a mini-republic, following its own processes. Some stayed on after the worst effects had abated, and some moved on. Farmer commends the life-saving work they did by pointing to specific successes and how such feats altered the lives of the patients, and it is tough to see how any of it could be a bad thing. But he also laments the fact that humanitarian aid groups bypassed the public sector instead of strengthening it. The general hospital had been crying itself hoarse for support which Haiti’s dilapidated public finances could not supply, and the NGOs, church groups and private clinics provided care far more than building capacity internally. The organization that needed strength was clearly the one that had the mandate and the accountability to serve the poor- and unfortunately it did not get it.

In India, this has worked itself in different ways. Several private health systems such as the Christian Medical College (CMC), still a charity registered in New York, have now become local in operations and leadership. They have carried out work on behalf of the poor and taught and equipped medical professionals with training and resources that are world-class. They have also worked alongside the public sector in service to the poor. While CMC remains an organization where the poor can receive quality care, the number of such facilities has not kept pace with the number of people who need them, and the public sector, as mentioned earlier, remains underfunded and overworked. It is a common sight to see thousands of people waiting in line to see a doctor at the General Hospital in Cochin. All but those cannot scrape together even the most meager fees to pay depend on this facility. Others use private hospitals of differing quality, some affiliated to churches, others created by investors to optimize profits. Some of these private hospitals offer care comparable to the general hospital, but with less waiting time and slightly higher, albeit subsidized rates. Others have multi-million dollar helicopter landing pads on their rooftops, cafeterias offering a variety of cuisines, a fleet of rapid response emergency vehicles, professionals on call and facilities for exercise and entertainment. These newer organizations rarely, if ever, lend a hand to those waiting at the General Hospital.

This gives clarity to the central idea that the government is the one organization that has been given the mandate by the people to offer quality preventive and curative care to the people. Similarly it is the one organization to which we give the “monopoly on the legitimate use of coercive force through law enforcement”, as Gary Haugen puts it in his book ‘The Locust Effect’. While private security abounds in all third world countries, India being no exception, the police force is underfunded, overworked, ill-trained and rife with corruption.

The capital freed from releasing all or part of the ownership of large public sector industries could be used as investment and for the immediate relief of several urgent needs which are basic, and must be provided to everyone.

What of Missions?

Given that it is the role of a country’s own government to provide both preventive and curative care to its citizens; private mission organizations need to work alongside the public sector to the extent possible. This does not preclude providing direct care, especially in medicine- but it does mean that the public sector must be a partner in the process. This could be accomplished in multiple ways. Thinking long-term into medical missions, figuring out ways to keep track of personal medical histories, implementing EMR to assist in the process, teaching medical students to build local capacity, sharing date with the public sector about demography, disease and prevention, are all part of the package.

It is easier to quote specific examples rather than prescribe a process to illustrate this point, because each need demands a different process. Organizations such as CMC, Dr. Farmer’s Zanmi Lasante and other which have invested into teaching local medical professionals have created strength in the nation’s capacity to address medical needs in their home countries. Many have worked with the public health systems in these countries to bring relief to people. But the capital necessary to create more public health facilities and ensure that the professionals are well-paid (a necessary criterion for self-sustaining models) needs to come from the government. Similarly organizations such as Freedom Firm or International Justice Mission which expose the sale and purchase of human beings always work with the law enforcement systems in home countries- an incredibly hard and thankless job- to bring justice to the poor.

Will criticisms cease if NGOs worked with the local public sector? No, but they will make far fewer mistakes. Recently two SIM missionaries, Doctor Kent Brantly and Nurse Nancy Writebol, who were infected with the Ebola virus in Liberia, were given a choice whether or not to be treated with an experimental serum which had not yet been tried on humans, but had shown good results with monkeys. They chose to take it and have been showing improvements. Many people, especially Africans, have been outraged that such a serum was not provided to Africans who needed it most. Although there is real ethical consideration behind the decision to not give the serum prior to clinical trials, given the tragic history of such experimentation in the past in Africa, such voices argue- not without merit- that Africans could have been given the same choice to accept or refuse the serum. Just today, a Nigerian nurse, who treated the first fatality in that country from Ebola just 2 weeks ago, has died from the disease. As the outbreak continues and over a thousand are on course to suffer from the virus this week, the question looms large.

Of necessity, shrill voices will do down the committed missionary, bringing demoralization in its wake. But commitment, passion and expertise are not enough to bring about success. The process of healing a country is complex and ultimately dangerous if the ability of a local population to heal itself is compromised.

Persons of Promise

I titled this article ‘Persons of Promise’ for a reason. In seeking justice, an angle from which to partner with the poor, is to invest in for-profit enterprises. Microbanking and charitable investments are often acts that go beyond the profit-motive. However an economy does not subsist on such extraordinary acts, but on investments to profit investors. Beyond basic needs, the market for goods and services must be open to private enterprise and competition- which is the basis of my argument that the Indian public sector must divest in order to invest into basic needs.

Missions should think- while providing direct care- about strengthening the private sector and enabling individuals to partner with overseas capital to create enterprises which have a business case. I work in an industry which has created 3 million direct jobs and 12 million ancillary jobs in India- all of them positions which pay very well. For an economy to get into gear, to keep producing and being pulled ahead to produce more by fiscal and monetary policies, the initial capital must prove to be a catalyst to employ, to produce, to save and invest; and not only as immediate relief. This is why for-profit businesses are the only realistic solution to capital inadequacy.

I wrote this account bearing in mind a Haitian friend who had lost his job and would be in trouble if he did not find one fast. But in a country where unemployment runs at 80%, how will he manage? I think of how several entrepreneurs have managed to employ themselves in India, and a way out of this dilemma may be for my friend to partner with an overseas investor to create a services business for export. In my line of work this often takes the form of outsourced business processes or technical services. The huge machinery in India that has been privately created to scale such operations to industrial proportions may preclude my friend from achieving such spectacular success, but at an individual level, these are small but effective steps to take.

Sara Groves talks about a group of businessmen from Minneapolis who went to a country in Africa looking for a person of promise who was educated, capable and willing to commit to service in that country. These men would then invest their resources, skills and knowledge into the person. For days they did not find anyone and were frustrated. On the penultimate day of their trip they drove into a village which had been laid waste by HIV/AIDS and contained only kids. They were led by a teenager and had nary an item of clothing among them. Groves tells us that in an instant these men became like fathers, even giving of the clothes they were themselves wearing at the time. When they returned to Minneapolis they decided that the kids they saw would be their persons of promise and they will pour their collective resources and skills into them, to create a community that could then be a catalyst for change in the country.

Just as the public sector has a mandate to serve the poor, the people who will lead a society will by necessity need to be people who are vested- local, self-sustaining, skilled, enabled and empowered. These people must be the focus of our missions.