Sunday, October 21, 2012

Social Exclusion has its Own Consequences



This is in response to Preeti Mann's article published at UPenn's Center for Advanced Studiy of India:

http://casi.ssc.upenn.edu/iit/mann


Preeti Mann,
   This was a timely piece of warning for an India that is stomping, perhaps too fast, towards a model of development which has never been well-planned, despite the endless 'planning commission sessions', and a model which, as it unfolds, turns out to be a miserable patch work of aping the West's ostentatious consumer-culture. The fault lies not just in the lack of planning, but also of course in the pitiable execution of whatever little the rules or laws dictate.

The urban poor are not a new phenomenon, however, as you mentioned, the gap between the urban poor and the urban rich has never been so extensive and so stark. Unlike in the past, when there was so much less conspicuous consumption, it is a difference now in what they eat, what they wear, where they live, how they commute and everything else visible to the naked eye. Understandably, as a critical mass develops in the urban poor who are witness to such palpable inequalities, they are likely to resist the processes that propagate the status quo. Perhaps we are very far from a Tahrir Square, but individual acts of resentment/strike have risen unabated in modern centers nonetheless. Is not crime on the rise in metropolitan centers? Burglaries, rapes and petty crime, make even prime cities like Gurgaon appear resolved to a destiny of mindless commercialization and unsafe environments. It is as though, no one in that city stops to even for once think about the direction in which the haphazardness of urban un-planning is ballooning. From lack of public facilities like smooth roads and car parking, to parks and libraries for children, Gurgaon is an unfortunate example of how India can consistently lose every opportunity to create models of far-sighted development.

Gurgaon has manifested itself as a satellite city to New Delhi only recently, around the turn of the century. Even internet had materialized in the world by then, enabling access to vast libraries and other forms of information to study the models that have worked as opposed to repeating steps that have always failed in India, but of course all this only for one seeking it. Yet, Gurgaon differs from adjoining Delhi and Noida only in the price tags on most goods.

Part because of my training as an economist, and part because of the basic social environment that I grew up in, I am typically biased towards using as a first-cut, a two-step gauge to assess the development of a community. Do women feel safe.... to start with, do they feel physically safe, can they move about past dusk on their own, without a fleet of men as body guards? Second, are there functional public libraries? The recent spate of molestations in Gurgaon, answers the first question all by itself too well. And libraries? Really? Well, as my current on-going self-study on the Indian library system has thus far shown...the answer to second question is a resounding NO also. 

The solution to all of India's malaises will no doubt have to be super multi-pronged and versatile. Creating more streamlined public education system enabling access to educational facilities for the children of slums, can be a good start. And the list is endless. The bottom line though is that ignoring the urban poor in the process of growth is, as you pointed, indeed, both sad, and dangerous.

[Reference: Self Study on Indian Library System at: http://wetheworldenergy.blogspot.com ]

Keep the thinking cap on,
Best Regards,
Nidhi Thakur

Friday, August 3, 2012

Library: The Netflix of Libraries in Gurgaon and Delhi

In trying to search for the condition of those few existent public libraries in India----online data for which is pityingly absent---I came across a Private library project, currently operating in the National Capital Region (Delhi and surroundings)--Gurgaon, Faridabad included. It is called Library at Home. It is noteworthy for a couple of reasons:


a. When public provision of a good is negligible, private entities enter the field to supply to the demand for that good. With Indian authorship---in English language and Indian languages--- soaring like crazy (one just has to look at the long list of authors catalogued in the company's web-site-----heard of Aatish Taseer or Kunal Basu or Priti Narain or Varsha Das?)----it is amply clear that not only are Indians writing, but surely they are wanting to read too. That Library at Home has identified the existence of a possible market for loaned books, when culture of paid-borrowing of books technically does not exist in India, is itself creditworthy and then to invest money into it, doubly so.


b. I give even more credit to this company for the business model that it has adapted. The company's web-site does not explicitly say so, but upon learning about the process of loaning books, I can see that it is a beautiful adaptation of a well-proven process here in the USA---the Netflix model----of loaning DVDs of movies via snail-mail. This is a model that marries technology with existing postal infrastructure. Thus, users create online accounts, browse the well-maintained catalogue of books, and pay and order books online. The books are then delivered to, and upon ready for return picked up from, the doorstep of the user/reader, presumably by a courier or some registered mail. 


By allowing online browsing of catalogues, the company obviously circumvents the renting and maintaining of some valuable real-estate in the NCR region, but creating an uninterrupted flow of books to the reader, in India, can itself be a challenge. For instance, pilferage of books in transit is a big possibility unless the method adopted for posting books is an insured private courier who every time ensures that the book is certainly handed to someone inside the door of the address it was sent to. Second, Indian rains can be merciless when they come, and again, if the books are not deposited safely under a roof, possibility of damage to books can foil the experience for both the expectant reader, as well as the funding company. 


Anyhow, these are issues, which the company must surely have thought about, and priced themselves accordingly. So, while, it is true that I do not need to lose sleep over them, I point these out only because upon acknowledgment of challenges, one can further appreciate the entrepreneurship.


c. Again, I am possibly biased towards books, and therefore, I think that anyone who provides books, especially, in a cost-effective way, is worthy of applause all the time.


Having heaped all these accolades on this sole torch bearer, I come back to the point that India's growing young minds need many, many more sources of books----and at far lower prices. The Public Libraries, without doubt will have to step up, in number and quality. Even the private solution that I have raved about above, is only a very small part of the quantum that we need.  


To start with, in enterprises such as Library at Home there is a basic requirement of internet literacy and access for users. This itself cuts off the huge number of readers who are computer illiterate but are literate all the same. Second, howsoever big or small, there is a fee structure in the Library at Home shop.....as opposed to the gratis that public libraries provide. No matter what, there are always more important destination for money in the pocket, for a large number of potential readers--either to necessities, or to the ever growing number of flashier gizmos and apparel and eating out. Thus, only those who have surplus money, or have a super dedicated zeal for books, will end up subscribing to this system. This again rules out access for a whole lot of those people who could perhaps be allowed access to books as well as to their life-styles. Last but not the least, the variety of books that are currently available through this service is big, but certainly not exhaustive by any means. Furthermore, such services may pander more to 'popular' choices of books as opposed to both 'popular' and literary and serious works. For readers to truly gain a perspective or stand on the shoulders of giants, private enterprises can seldom provide the entire breadth of the shoulders of the giants. Thus an even more pronounced need for the public venture.


Free books will not necessarily translate into more readership directly. But free books may inspire more people to read. To sum up here, I would love to hear from people who have used the Library at Home---about their experiences--grapes or gripes---all welcome.


[Library at home is at: http://www.libraryathome.in/index.php ]



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This one's for you: Our littlest Little one

So my youngest kid, recently cut a real birthday cake- one that was deserved after completing one successful year, as opposed to those 'fraudulent' monthly cakes she got to 'cut' on some monthly milestones, in her first year of life. V junior---- (the older sis being V senior) as we call her when referring to her with dignity, is now a year plus and has started showing signs of that graduation from rear-facing to front-facing car seat. She 'gabbles' a lot, only wants to spend time in big sister's room, with or without company, going through her tiaras and bags and wands and all, and often refuses pureed foods. And yes, most importantly, she is beginning to attempt independent walking! And that is what tugs at my heart. For the last couple of months, our lives have been filled up with this crawler, who while doing the rounds of the house, manages to spot the lowliest and tiniest of spots and specks on the floor.  With her face typically positioned parallel to the ground while crawling, and her long black hair tied up in a 'fountainous' pony tail or two, she is totally someone unlike the other three residents of the house. She is a 'creature' and an adorable one at that.


In fact the other day when we were at some dog-owning family's house, the pomeranian puppy and our baby were almost interchangeable---both in white ---white fur coat matched with white cotton frock, both were hastening towards the same set of cheerios on the floor and both spent half their time on someone's lap being superly hugged and being mollycoddled. And now,  here we are. Littlest one is standing up, taking steps, rarely falling, ready to speed off to explore the world. I will miss the quadruped phase. Yes of course, it's time to buy another diva's pair of shoes----no easy job there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Library: A Young Reader's Longing

My eleven year old niece-K, is cutely unique for her age. She has taken the exact copy of her six feet plus dad's gene code for height and is already the tallest woman in the family (and trust me, we are no pygmies either!). In that tall being, resides a heart that is surreally pure and untainted by the glitz and glamour of the times we live in, and most impressively her hormones appear so much at peace, unlike those of a lot of eleven year old kids who seem to be in such a hurry to reach the teenage and let loose. However, the feature that most strikes me about her is her fondness for reading. That she is an avid reader--is a cliche and perhaps an under-statement. From the longest time now, I have seen her sitting in some corner of the house, or even right in the center of a bustling party, lost in a book, pouring over it, oblivious of everything around her. 

There is a neighborhood book store in the plush neighborhood of Gurgaon, India, where she lives. From when she could answer herself, whenever I have asked her if I could buy her something, she has walked me over to the book store to pick up a book for her. Needless to say that over the years, I have seen her writing very well too. She writes poetically and seems to have her heart in it. I know she is someone I absolutely love watching grow.

She has been visiting me in the States every year for three years in a row now. Even otherwise, her family travels quite extensively, and at her small age, she can, if she wanted, boast that she has traveled in more countries than the number of candles on her cake.  It thus surprises me not much, when I see that nothing surprises her  here in the U.S. Almost all the gadgets, the toys etc, she has seen them all, or read about them enough to feel a sense of familiarity. And then it touched me, the other day, when I casually asked her what is it about the U.S. that she liked most, 
and she said, "The libraries." 

As a background, let me quickly state, that every time, the moment she lands in the U.S., we take her to the library, and stock up on her books, exhausting all our twenty books quota on every card we have. Of course, we make that trip soon again, a couple of days or a week later to exchange and re-stock---for our kid who devours, not reads, the books! She even carries a cross body pouch at all times, fitted with a book (the way we adults carry our IDs or wallets). Upon being asked why, she said "Sometimes the waiting lines for where we are going can be so long....so a book comes handy!)  

Coming back to her answer, indeed it is so true that even in the shining phase of India, not much has been done to develop an infrastructure for a library system in India. Last I googled, I did find contact information for some self-proclaimed private libraries (but these places did not have web-addresses), and the one line descriptions of them, made them seem more like shops than reading centers or agencies that loaned reading material. I am currently investigating into these 'listed' private libraries. More of this to come in the following blogs. 

She is visiting me in the States now, and the buzz of the 'Kindle' reader (by amazon), appeared to catch up with the family. I am one of the last people on the earth to ever be seen with gadgets, catching a whiff here and touching a texture there are still my way of learning and exploring the world. Yet, I have to say that Little-Big K's reason for buying a Kindle is one of the most original and convincing ones I have come across till date. She said, " I don't like it when mum throws away my old books, because of storage space. I like to read my books again and again. So with Kindle I can go back to my books easily."  If you are a book-reader, you will immediately identify with that sentiment. Every one of us has a book or few, that we like to go back to, just like that. I have two of those myself. So, it is only fair that for an eleven year old kid on a reading roll, she has stacks of books she calls 'comfort books'. Not to forget to mention that having a library close by, is keeping those comfort books within your reach, forever.  




Sunday, June 10, 2012

Library: Bradbury-library

Today, I introduce you all, to a project that I have been working on for sometime now. It is a particular topic in my larger passion for literacy--the significance of a good Library System. My self-guided project, superly supported by my husband, focusses on the various aspect of the library system. The backbone of the entire thesis will be our joint experiences as students in India and the U.S. Throughout the work, the goal is to create a comprehensive raison d'etre for the unfortunately absent public library system in India.  


I start here with an essay that remembers someone whose larger message in life, contributes greatly to the zeal of this cause .

Author Ray Bradbury died this past week, at the age of 91. For many of my readers, like me, his name may not be a very familiar one. After all, he was most usually known as a science fiction writer, and that is a not a genre of literature that's everybody's fancy.... not mine for instance. Besides, even in that genre, he was no Issac Asimov--the most commonly known popular sci-fi author. Yet, as one can read from many of his obituaries, he was a writer of depth, and a literary figure whose collection of writings will continue to inspire long after him. 

I first came across his work, in a short creative writing class I took a while back. Parts of a chapter from his masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 were presented to us to appreciate the style of writing. Later, I got a copy of that book from the library, to read. I am very far removed from sci-fi (as I say, I prefer the real flesh-and-blood humans with all their social and moral dilemmas and the fuzzy gray areas their minds constantly live in and run from). 


Thus, I read the book half way through, and on my next trip to the library, the moment, I caught hold of another book---Glaciers (a novella by an ignominy---but a sweet and cute souffle of memories of a simple life of a thrift-shopping Portlander) I gave up on my maiden voyage through Bury-land. However, the main theme of the book Fahreheit 451 was one I have identified with for many years, and thus that book continues to be my book that is a must-read for the larger project I have undertaken .... the cause of the library. 

First about F451: In order to justly capture a review based on a complete reading of the book, I quote from amazon.com's official review of the book:
"In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don't put out fires--they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury's vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal--a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, "Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs.... Don't give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.""

It comes as no surprise to me now when I read about the life of the author of a book whose scintillating title ( F451 is the temperature at which paper burns) is a message unto itself, that Bradbury loved the library system. As he was once quoted : "I never went to college, so I went to the library", he told the Associated Press – and tried to protect them from the encroachments of short-sighted budgeting and the shallowness of TV'**.

To the extent that libraries---particularly ones which house hard copies, as opposed to just soft copies of books, provide access not just to books we are seeking, but to an entire experience of soaking in written words, and wandering through the unwritten and imagined, I, audaciously perhaps, feel, that absence of libraries, particularly for the growing children, tantamounts to censure and ban on books. 

[I think I have already displayed, my constant perusal of the library.]


As I continue to create my thesis on the library, I will present here relevant thoughts and data that I am collecting and analysing, on a fortnightly basis. In the mean time, it would be enriching to hear your thoughts on this article or on this topic.

Reference: ** http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/06/ray-bradbury-fever-inspiration

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cogito ergo sum? Or minus?

My eight year old nephew boasts of knowing latin, since he has memorised the title of my blog page. And that made me ponder if its really true that I think and therefore I am...then the infrequency with which I write here almost means that I DON'T  think? I guess, I can defend myself by saying that I think, but I don't as often write. One day, if the dear nephew actually sits down to read his aunt's blogs, I hope he will read this posting and think a little better of me.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

In support of International Women's Day (March 8, 2012):

In support of International Women's Day (March 8, 2012):

How can we, as a culture and as members of the global community, involve, educate, and inspire girls in a positive way? (http://www.genderacrossborders.com/blogforiwd/)

In order to answer this important question, we need to first define for ourselves what ‘positive way’ means? I hope that we can all agree that at the minimum, 'positive way' implies growth of the person. While there are various ways in which a girl child can be inspired, I think, the most important way is by creating examples and role models. Children learn more from what is not directly taught to them, but what meets the eye, than from their text books and in classrooms. I have most observed this with my own daughter. And it is thus, that I have suddenly become more aware of my own identity as a woman and as a person, than before. My interactions with my surroundings, my treatment of others--men and women included, and their treatment of me, is indelibly imprinting stories into my daughter's character. And this tells me that while I will never fully be in control of the person she will be (nor do I want to be), I can so beautifully influence the person she becomes by being the best person I myself can be.

And this all means that whatever I am doing right now, I better have a good reason behind it, for she is watching, she is listening, she is growing. And this translates to each of us being aware of those little pairs of eyes in our own houses, families and neighborhoods, and noting for ourselves, that mis-treatment of anyone is NEVER allowed. Men and women are different, but not unequal.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

My Cavernous Bag

A comment/reply/(add-on?) to To Erin Morgenstern's Flax-golden tale of Feb 24 2012:
(http://erinmorgenstern.com/2012/02/flax-golden-tales-necessary-supplies/comment-page-1/#comment-50593


Whimsical sisters.
I know them. I am one of them. Women are more likely to do something like this, than men, and sisters even more so. I know now what your sister's bag's belly carries---scarves and perhaps hats for the needy trees. Just like mine..though mine is filled up with rattles and pacifiers and emergency diapers and Desitins and all that for the baby's butts and of course the caramel mocha colored lipstick for my lips and a pair of sunglasses--them demanding their own real-estate in the bag--big round goggles, in equally spacious quilted bag for them. All of them tumbled with the cell phone, the essential keys, and of course the card-laden wallet. My bag is like a laundry machine in action, you never can get what you want right away. You will invariably have to feel with your fingers through various shapes and textures inside the cavernous bag, to eventually get what you want--and yes you sure will get it--sooner than later, or sooner or later.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rows and Columns

When I used to do research for a living, I needed to collect my findings, sort them into all sorts of categories, and present them such that they made sense, such that I was able to establish connections that (hopefully) no one had ever unearthed before. And for all this, and much more, I readily resorted to good old MS Excel. I selected two rows and in one click managed a bar-graph here and a pie-chart there. I added worksheets on the same excel file, and maintained thousands of data matrices on different but related inputs all in one place.

And then I became a mom, and the need to use a computer-aided sorter vastly diminished. It is real-time action now and the chances for those cogitated outcomes are rare. We are dealing here with 'pee-pee right now' and 'not hungry (forever)' situations where most presentations to the toddler are strongly rebutted with the endless 'whys' and 'hows' and the infant's desire to be stuck to her vending-machine (that's me) has crossed the realm of innocence and now seems almost a little devilish. So, after that long hiatus, today when I needed to actually make a formal list of a variety of things to do, for an upcoming event, and to then relate them to the resources on hand, I was glad that my instinct to go for the Excel sheet was still alive. Soon the big jumble of ideas and plans, that was giving me sleepless nights, was now formally 'sorted', under appropriate headings with relevant resources like time and person in-charge neatly tagged. And I thought to myself, "Ah! the power to confine ideas to their allotted rows and columns." The impermeability of the boundaries within the matrices, renders things less grey, and more black or white.

I know there are so many fantastic features in the software, but for me, for now, just the site of the grid, is gratifying enough. I can see that the upcoming event will be well fortified in the logistics. The spirits and attendance, I cannot guarantee.