order, power, and the importance of history – hitler in india

here’s a topic i‘ve discussed in passing for the past five years and now i suppose it is time to write on it. this article just came out, covering, roughly, hitler, gandhi, and bal thackarey in indian political discussion. i am not entirely certain of article’s claims on the extent to which admiration of hitler and dissatisfaction with gandhi are part of the same conversation. or, how much of either can be attributed to thackerey. but i have certainly witnessed both the admiration and the dissatisfaction bits. i defer to maximum city on thackerey. i leave the consideration of gandhi and the birth-rupture of the indian nation-state for others.

when i first moved to chennai, i was fairly surprised to see copies of mein kampf available for sale on the streets. this sight, in turn, heightened my surprise when speaking with even well-educated indians who had never heard of judiasm (by the way, trying to use ‘you know how buddha was a hindu…’ doesn’t quite work to explain the old testament and jesus).

this ‘what are jews?’ point is disturbing for two at least two reasons.

first, india is home to several important and old jewish communities, including in kerala and in bombay (the latter were not missed by the perpetrators of the 26 November attacks in bombay). in one of my favorite books, (indian) author amitav ghosh feels a connection with an indian slave of a jewish businessman in in an antique land, placing jews in this historical context of ancient trading between india and the mediterranean. judiasm is a part of indian history and people not knowing it points to a deeper problem in awareness about ‘others’ and even ‘self.’

second, further, this point suggests large omissions in the global history taught in schools and popularly known. actually, not just global history, but indian history as well, since subhas chandra bose reached out to, and was rebuffed by, hitler to help with independence from the british. for all of hitler’s mis/use of aryan mythology, he didn’t actually seem to think all that highly of the people of the subcontinent. one might think that sort of insult would stick.

(third, the experimentation under the nazis is a key driver of research ethics today, which is yet another avenue to learn about some of the horrors in the holocaust.)

overlooking a relatively small religious group isn’t the only aberration i’ve found – also, not having heard of poland or proclaiming that south indians are the darkest-skinned people on earth or proclaiming complete ignorance (and lack of curiousity) about the beliefs of one’s muslim next-door neighbors. again, among people with master’s degrees.

to be honest, i was surprised that the students mentioned by dilip d’souza knew hitler had committed mass, systematic murder. in my experience talking with (some! only some!)  folks in india, many admire hitler and stalin (even naming children after them) in a way completely devoid of context. as far as i can tell, they see power, authority, oratory, and the ability to impose order without knowing anything of the whole ‘invading poland’ and ‘final solution’ bits. which is precisely what makes it all alarming.

it seems to be part of a craving for order and power that makes people name children after stalin, admire hitler, and proclaim that things would be better if india were more like singapore. a problem with this is that these longings seem divorced from history and context as evidenced, in part, by never having heard of ‘jews.’ it’s kind of hard to imagine what sort of instruction could teach about hitler without mentioning jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and so on. (yes, i know that sexuality and homosexuality in india are whole other cans of worms.)

of course, trying to cross the street in india – and seeing the messiness and corruption of democracy everywhere – everyone has an occasional longing for someone to impose order. the impulse for a philosopher-king, or a benevolent dictator, or someone to nicely just make decisions and get things done have been popular in the past and even now. but, as churchill said, democracy is still the best thing going given the options. sen has certainly commented on the non-need of strong-arm values to bring about development in asia and elsewhere.

democracy relies on having informed citizens – a civil civil society (e.g. here and one of my favorite diatribes, toward the end, here). has done since rome. will always do. this suggests we all have a resposibility in being informed and helping to inform.

in india, in the US, in a lot of places, we need to do better with our history, current affairs, and civics lessons. incomplete histories are dangerous things. it is not just those who don’t learn their history that are condemned to repeat it but also those who half-learn their history.

history is full of imperfect people that can teach us both how we should do things and how not to do things. we should know about both sides of past leaders. in the US ,we may largely equate hitler with evil and the fight against him as the last war we so clearly had a moral obligation to fight. anne frank is more or less required reading and we’ve seen cabaret or life is beautiful (the latter i had to watch before heading off to undergrad). this can make it all the more alarming when we hear people praise hitler or the nazi movement more generally.

some of the horrors of nazi germany may not seem so singular to those in colonies more recently gaining their independence. with good reason, and as we all should, people in india and elswhere learn and feel that the brits and americans have been plenty destructive in their own ways. this is certainly true. but hitler is a long way past imperfect and destructive. anyone looking to praise his oratory and authority needs to be fully cognizant of that.

(small addendum, 19 july 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/hitler-fried-chicken_n_3550351.html)

(19 feb 2014: from @urmy_shukla: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/LEADER-ARTICLEBRHitler-as-Hero-Society-Without-a-Moral-Compass/articleshow/32382342.cms. as she notes, strangely written but gets at the odd trend, which was yet again a topic of conversation following someone pulling out a swastik-ed bandana this weekend at ragasthan.)

diwali and drugs – lessons from drug sales in india

as, you know, possibly from watching The Colbert Report, it’s dwali. as stephan and wikipedia note, diwali is the festival of lights or lamps. 

being in india – or at least chennai – however, one might be hard-pressed to think that it was not the festival of sound (also, sweet pongal).  firecrackers – or ‘crackers’ – play a large role. at all hours. regardless of any noise ordinances. regardless of whether my parents thought i was under assault when talking to me on the phone. seriously, if you know a war vet that still jumps at loud noises, please avoid indian cities during diwali. dr. dischord and the awful dynne would be so pleased.

so it was (ok, and because of a hard mattress) that i went out in search of sleeping pills. up till that point, i had not needed to actually purchase drugs in india. since part of my background is in private drug sellers, i was fairly confident i would be able to get something that would get me through the exploding nights of the rest of diwali. the private drug-retail market in india is fairly infamous for being unregulated – or, ‘the free-est market’ as (many) people thought was a funny joke. imagine my surprise, then, when at drug shop after drug shop, sellers heard my request, smiled sheepishly, asked for my presciption and, when i could not produce one, refused to sell the pills to me.

 i finally found one shop at which the vendor, after looking around furtively, cut off some pills for a blister pack, stuck them in a little paper bag, and sent me off. i didn’t actually know what i had been given, so worked to reconstruct the letters visible on the back of the blister pack with my dad over the phone (no internet in chennai apt – this was 2007). i had some sort of anti-anxiety meds.

i tried asking around after that as to why my mission had been much more difficult than expected. the few non-‘i don’t know’ answers i got had nothing to do with fear of state regulation of pharmaceuticals but, rather, social censure. socially, people seemed to link sleeping pills, anti-depressents, and similar drugs with attempting to commit suicide. it was the community backlash from potentially being implicated in abetting a suicide attempt to which drug vendors were responding.

besides trying a few other times to buy sleeping pills and having difficulity, i haven’t researched this issue with any particular diligence. but, if true, it may suggest ways to work on getting drug vendors to behave appropriately, even if the formal regulatory system isn’t likely to catch up any time soon.

how is the body doing?

morning ayurveda lessons

dr. b, dr. s, & i

from a letter home from chennai in 2008, when i was there studying diabetes. drs. s & b, i hope it is OK to include this photograph!

To help add context to my research, I have undertaken a series of interviews with doctors and dieticians at the hospital to see how “biomedicine” in India “talks” about diabetes.  I have also interviewed five Ayurvedic practitioners on the same.  While four easily obliged to doing a one-hour interview on the topic, Dr. S, an 85-year-old practitioner declared that we could not begin with the diseased state, but had to begin at the beginning of Ayurveda.  Thus began some two weeks of early morning classes on Ayurveda by Dr. S and his son.  Dr. S is much aggrieved that the world does not know Sanskrit, and therefore cannot read and interpret the Ayurvedic texts for themselves to apply them to all aspects of living and research, which they would surely enhance.

Thus, every class includes at least one promise that I will learn Sanskrit (he swears I can do this quickly, which is how I have ended up buying three old (heavy!) ayurvedic textbooks).  The class also usually includes Dr. B (his son) reading in Sanskrit (Dr. S is nearly blind) from the texts, Dr. S interrupting when he remembers the verse to finish it off, and then usually his chiding his son on the fact that his Sanskrit is not up to snuff.

One discussion centered on the separation of the body, mind, sense and soul, the body primarily being a vehicle for the soul, the essence of the individual.  (After this class, I learned to begin our conversations not with “how are you?” but rather “how is the body?”).  Anyway, during this discussion, presumably to help illustrate the point, he said: You see, the soul is youthful, the soul is bubbling over with Ayurveda…but THE BODY is fatigued and THE BODY is SWEATING.”  By this point, he had risen out of his chair and removing his two shirts to relieve the sweating.  To prove his state, I was asked to both examine the shirts for their wetness and to feel them, in case one sensory experience was inadequate.

Then, addressing an invisible audience, he continued, pointing emphatically at his collarbone: THE COLLARBONE is DISlocated because THE BODY has fallen three times in the bathroom since January.

Since then, I have learned many things about his bodily state that I would have just as soon not know.  For example, he has a catch in the lower back due to an excess of wind cause by eating too many fried foods.  He also, at 75, suffered from weak urine flow, which he corrected through self-manipulation of the prostate…