where trouble was needed

June 7, 2014

Not only toilets

Filed under: Comment,Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 4:13 pm
Tags: ,

Dear Editor,

While I agree that "access to sanitation and water are fundamental human rights" the assertion that "a lack of these services is putting hundreds of millions of children, girls and women at risk each and every day" where the risks refer not to health and hygiene risk but personal safety and freedom from violence, takes attention away from basic equality and humanity.

Yes a woman should have a clean place to go and yes for the sake of public health this should not be out in the open, but even if a woman goes to the toilet in the open she should not fear for her safety.

Obviously we don’t expect Bill and Melinda Gates to look into issues of caste, gender and land tenure when they’ve got a huge toilet program going on. Good for them. But let theirs not be the last Word on the matter.

In response to

Two girls died looking for a toilet. This should make us angry, not embarrassed

Attacks on girls and women as they look for somewhere private to defecate are frighteningly common. Improving basic sanitation, as a global goal, would do a lot to make them safer.


May 23, 2014

Affordable health care begins with breastfeeding

Filed under: Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 10:30 pm

Response to

Most Women Can’t Afford to Breastfeed

The New York TImes

Cynthia Colen is an assistant professor of sociology at the Ohio State University.

MAY 22, 2014

Affordable health care begins with breastfeeding. Look at the countries with the most positive health indicators and you will see that they also provide for at least 6-12 months of maternity leave, along with reasonable working hours and dignified working conditions for all.

Formula is a precursor for packaged foods. Breastfeeding children learn the taste of real foods. Breastfeeding is the foundation of healthy eating and lifelong health. If we care about our health, our food and our economy we should recognize the importance of breastfeeding and all of the work parents do and make it possible to balance the work on various fronts. Maternity leave is not such a difficult thing to implement if you recognize its value. Neither is flex-time, part-time and other ways to balance work in the home and in the office. Instead we see everyone working increased hours and prices rising – we are on a treadmill that benefits no one.

March 28, 2014

Soni Sori, candidate for Lok Sabha

Filed under: Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 10:28 am

India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy INDIA VOTES

Tribal Activist Candidate Poses a Problem for Aam Aadmi

By NIDA NAJAR MARCH 27, 2014, 1:35 AM

My Comment to New York Times: Soni Sori was in jail not for any crime but for opposing the powers that be in the state – hence human rights organizations campaigned for her release. A large number of tribal men and women are unjustly imprisoned in Chhattisgarh, awaiting trial for years on end. Who will address their plight and the causes for which they went to jail in the first place, the gross injustices that the tribal people of Chhattisgarh face? It is a correct and courageous move for a political party to recognize the strength of a woman like Soni Sori to stand up for the downtrodden and lead the way towards a just society for all. I salute her determination to overcome such extreme torture in police custody and keep up the courage to fight for her people. Listen to the sincerity in her heart as she talks about the problems tribal youth face and how she would address them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFNyP4GhC8c (NRI Samay interview). You can only say that her candidacy poses a “problem” if you are looking at politics in the most narrow sense of winning an election. Her candidacy restored my faith that there is a political process that has space for selfless service. If people who have borne the brunt of the worst excesses of corrupt powers still have faith in democracy, and are willing to stand up and be part of the solution, then how can the rest of us be cynical? Recognizing the potential of Soni Sori to serve in the Parliament was a brilliant move by the AAP Party.

January 28, 2014

Little things lead to bigger things

Filed under: Memories,We Shall Overcome — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm

Farewell to another conscience-keeper, who made trouble where trouble was needed.

Pete Seeger marching with  Occupy Wall Street protestors, October 2011.

Pete Seeger marching with Occupy Wall Street protestors, October 2011.

He articulated my vision of activism to the letter:

“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what [the album] ‘Seeds’ is all about,” Seeger said. “And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.”

From Democracy Now! “We Shall Overcome”: Remembering Folk Icon, Activist Pete Seeger in His Own Words & Songs

And he fearlessly spoke truth to power when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee:   Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times obituary:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.

Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress.

Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94 By JON PARELESJAN. 28, 2014

December 24, 2013

The Diplomat and The Help

Filed under: Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 8:03 am

New York Times

India Ink - Notes on the World's Largest Democracy

December 19, 2013, 8:59 am 131 Comments

The Domestic Help’s Views in Debate over Diplomat’s Arrest



When the allegations first came out that the diplomat was not paying the wage stated on the official documents, her father and others protested that she could not afford to pay that much, or even minimum wage. People even trotted out the defense that "all the diplomats do it."

When this cut no ice, all we heard about was increasing the diplomat’s immunity, not about holding her accountable or restoring unpaid wages to the domestic worker, Sangeetha Richard. Furthermore the Government of India proposes to designate Indian domestic helps working abroad as government servants on contract in order to exempt them from US wage laws.

Regarding the employers’ claim that "they make up for lesser wages for their staff by providing a home, food and transportation." the question is, is this what they stated on the visa application form?

Sangeetha Richard and Safe Horizon are taking on a significant uphill struggle. The government of India, which never tried using its clout to change US Policies on issues affecting pollution, food security and other matters affecting hundreds of millions of Indians, has acted swiftly in this case. Going well beyond the issue of treatment in police custody, the Ministry of External Affairs has clearly taken sides with the diplomat and left Sangeetha Richard, also an Indian, to fend for herself.

Many domestic workers earn much less than Sangeetha Richard. I hope this case empowers more of them to speak up for their rights.

December 20, 2013

Fighting Inequality, Indian Style

Filed under: Uncategorized — Aravinda @ 9:40 am

New York Times

Inequality, Indian Style

Published: December 19, 2013


Indian TV-Gurus are peddling your message of "change must come from within" 24 / 7.

Are we giving up on the idea of democracy, that we can collectively make policies that work for society as a whole? At times, I plead guilty … but every day, I wake up and snap out of it. Of course, we must change ourselves – it is very hard, too. Hats off to Ravi Gulati, but if he finds that his peers aren’t interested in conversations on the subject of inequality, he is clearly hanging with the wrong crowd.

Not 5 km from Khan Market, near Jantar Mantar, 200 elderly people are sitting in dharna for pensions. Struggling to live with dignity in old age, they are demanding that the government fulfill its promise to provide social security benefits. Their dedication and faith in the democratic process reminds us that we must join our voices with theirs, we must be the change.



November 22, 2013

The Penance of Tarun Tejpal

Filed under: Provocations — Aravinda @ 6:46 am

As if we weren’t already disillusioned by the declining standards of Tehelka from its eminent days of exposing arms dealers and communal rioters, and barely able to give benefit of the doubt when it comes to the corporate sponsorship of conferences like THINK that pretend to be venues of socially and politically conscious discourse, with the aim of working for a just society,

… and the pain still raw from the death of Tarun Sehrawat, courageous young journalist who worked for Tehelka and, while on assignment in Chattsigarh, succumbed to malaria at the age of 23,

… now we find not only has THINK turned out to be far more than the venue for the media to get in bed with corrupt industrialists but for the editor-in-chief of what the world hailed as one of the last bastions of independent, investigative journalism, Tehelka, Mr. Tarun Tejpal, to engage in sexual assault of a staffer, behind the closed elevator doors of a luxury hotel.

AND that the best excuse he could offer for his behavior was that it was “drunken banter.”

Pardon my ignorance, but some of us are shocked that the THINK conference hosts “drunken banter.”

But I’m afraid it is way too late for that.

In his own words, Tarun Tejpal’s crime – “misreading” a situation, an “untoward incident, “a bad lapse of judgement,” and, as a last resort, “drunken banter.”

The most unkindest cut of all, though is his “penance,” which he calls “the penance with lacerates me.”

No word for what he has done to her: it is all so vague – it is a situation, an, incident, a banter … the closest we get to a verb here is “misreading.” But for himself, the verb is sharp and clear: “lacerate.”

The more I read of Tejpal’s letter, the more I wanted him to STOP.  For a journalist he seems astonishingly oblivious to the fact that the more he says the sleazier he sounds.

This case reminds me of a recent sequence of events involving sexual harassment in the media profession – the case of Bora Zivkovic, a leading light in the science blogging community, who had helped many science writers, both men and women, and yet harassed and molested several women along the way.  Stories of his behavior were almost as revolting as Tejpal’s but at least when the women finally spoke out in public, he apologized without making any excuse:

I decided to check Tejpal’s twitter feed but found zero tweets.

Tarun Tejpal Twitter

In any case all we have to go on is the self-declared penance (a word associated with rishis doing tapas) and his series of euphemisms for his crime. The “drunken banter” excuse makes me grimace most of all.

After reading the letter that the concerned journalist wrote to Shoma Choudary, this has gone beyond disgusting.  NOTE:  I leaned that this letter was illegally leaked without the consent of the journalist.  Read the Statement of Journalists on this matter.

Creating a hostile environment (as “drunken banter” might) is bad enough but according to her letter what he has done is criminal by any standard.  Merely resigning from Teheka will not be enough. I expect him to go to jail for this. He is unlikely to get a job in journalism, or anywhere, again.

And he has succeeded in getting the BJP and AIDWA to agree on something, namely where he can go to do his penance. 

Jail is best place for Tejpal’s atonement: Brinda Brinda Karat  (AIDWA) November 22, 2013
Let him atone in jail, Meenakshi Lekhi (BJP), November 21 2013.

October 3, 2013

Feminism and its masks

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm

A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen
Published: October 3, 2013 Comment


The masks for the war-scarred women and children were undoubtedly magnificent, though one wishes they did not need them. The mask you put on to speak at the awards ceremony was also strong and beautiful. Thank you for drawing from your own experience as a daughter and as a mother, and sharing your insight regarding the mutually enhancing circle of love that allows us to discover our inner strength and beauty at every age.

September 9, 2013

Quotation Approval

Filed under: Comment — Aravinda @ 8:00 pm


So, who knew this was a thing?  But it turns out I’ve been doing it too.  Reading this article I feel a little sheepish about it, but in my defense, journalist David Von Drehle, points out:

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

from David Carr, “The Puppetry of Quotation Approval,” in The New York Times, September 16, 2012.

I have found this to be true when speaking about education and homeschooling for example.  Many people are wary of giving interviews simply because the resulting articles have turned out so awful in the past.  Unless one practices succinct answers that do not allow for misquoting, one cannot trust these interviewers.

It is not as if we want journalists to behave like publicists or promoters of the ideas of those whom they interview.    We do want them to ask tough questions that inspire us to think rather than just repeat our practiced answers.  Such a process would help us challenge ourselves and sharpen our ideas, enriching the public debate.   We can’t expect every journalist to share this goal.  So it is up to us to find out more about the journal and the journalist before agreeing to the interview.

Incidentally I came across this article because a sentence in it was quoted in today’s edition of “A Word A Day


noun: A servant or a low-level employee tasked with many things.
From Latin factotum, from facere (to do) + totus (all). Earliest documented use: 1573.
“Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums.”
David Carr; The Puppetry of Quotation Approval; The New York Times; Sep 16, 2012.

Explore “factotum” in the Visual Thesaurus.

Here is the article:

The New York Times

The Puppetry of Quotation Approval
September 16, 2012

Now that it’s become clear that many journalists covering politics and government agree to quotation-approval as a condition of access, it’s tough not to see the pageant of democracy as just that: a carefully constructed performance meant to showcase the participants in the best light.

In July, my colleague Jeremy Peters pulled back the blanket on the growing practice of allowing political sources to read and approve quotations as a precondition for an interview. His story got attention inside and outside the Beltway, in part because the quotation is the last refuge of spontaneity in an age of endlessly managed messages. When quotations can be unilaterally taken back, the Kabuki is all but complete.

Those rules of engagement drew new scrutiny last week when Michael Lewis, the author of a forthcoming profile of President Obama in Vanity Fair, acknowledged that he had to get approval for the quotations he used from eight months of extensive access.

Good thing those of us who cover business don’t have to deal with the same self-preserving press policies. Except we do. In an anecdotal survey of 20 reporters, it was clear that on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and at some of the big media companies I cover, subjects of coverage are asking for, and sometimes receiving, the kind of consideration that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

It used to be that American businesses either told reporters to go away or told them what they wanted to know. Now, a reporter trying to interview a business source is confronted by a phalanx of factotums, preconditions and sometimes a requirement that quotations be approved. What pops out of that process isn’t exactly news and isn’t exactly a news release, but contains elements of both.

“Requests for quote approval rise in direct proportion to the involvement of P.R. people,” said Felix Salmon, a business columnist at Reuters. “As the flack-to-hack ratio continues to rise, the number of requests for quote-approval will continue to rise as well.”

I’ve had my own encounters. Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.

As someone who has covered Hollywood, I can’t begin to catalog the number of distasteful communications customs in that industry. And reporters I spoke to said Wall Street companies have been trying to negotiate quotations for a decade, in part because one poorly chosen word could cost millions or even billions. But now it is leaking into all corners of the kingdom.

(How silly can it get? After sending out e-mails to reporters who cover business, I got many revealing stories. But guess what? In most cases their employers — news outlets — don’t allow them to speak on the record.)

When you think about it, business leaders have more leverage than government executives because there is a presumption that public officials should be just that, public. But politicians and their aides seize on the hyper-competitiveness and bargain with hungry reporters. Ben Smith of BuzzFeed said Mr. Peters’s story made him more mindful of the process.

“We resist it whenever we can and disclose it when we can’t,” he said.

A few things are at work here, some of them legitimate. Journalism is a blunt technology. Reporters don’t generally record most interviews and can’t always type or write as quickly as a subject is speaking. I have been written about enough to know that what appears in quotation marks is sometimes an approximation of what is actually said. Sources want to protect themselves from routine distortion.

But something else more modern and insidious is under way. In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article. Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.

Even when the ground rules are transparently conveyed in an article, it raises questions. In July 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek did a profile of Elizabeth Warren, the fearless champion of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Well, sort of fearless. Deep in the article the writer noted in passing, “The press office is jittery about allowing reporters to talk to staff on the record, and Warren agreed to two interviews on the condition that Bloomberg Businessweek allow her to approve quotes before publication.” That caveat made me read the profile with different eyes because the locus of control seemed to be reversed.

Of course, quotations often serve as furniture in a house that a reporter is free to build as she or he (or their editor) wishes, so it’s not as if sources can control the narrative by controlling what appears between quotation marks. But a great quotation, the kind that P.R. folks love to rub out, in my experience, can make an article sing or the truth resonate.

“I hate that we find ourselves at this pass,” said David Von Drehle, a writer for Time who has covered politics for a long time. “But we are not blameless. Sound-bite journalism that is more interested in reporting isolated ‘gaffes’ than conveying the actual substance of a person’s ideas will naturally cause story subjects to behave defensively.”

Thankfully, some pushback is under way and young journalists are among those doing the pushing. This month, the editors of The Harvard Crimson said they would no longer allow school officials to approve their quotations. The longstanding policy was discontinued, they wrote in a letter to readers, because “sometimes the quotations are rejected outright or are rewritten to mean just the opposite of what the administrator said in the recorded interview.”

Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.

September 5, 2013

Grammar, Jeff Bezos, Grammar Please!

Filed under: Provocations — Aravinda @ 12:58 pm

Dear Jeff – I was pleased to read in your letter to Amazon customers this morning that you are "passionate about books." Indeed, so am I. As an avid reader, I tend to expect good grammar. One thing that worries readers about the changing scene of book publishing, it is sloppy copy editing.

So I was disappointed to read this line in your letter:
"Kindle is the best-selling e-reader in the world for six years running. "

How do we parse this? Are you saying this is a good product for six-year-olds who run? Obviously not. You mean to say that for six years, up to and including the present, Kindle has been the best-selling blah blah blah.

I understand that you may not like the phrase "has been" next to the name of your precious Kindle, but were that you primary concern, you could easily have written :

"Kindle is the best-selling e-reader in the world, and has been for six years running."

As I recalled also that you have taken over the Washington Post, I felt all the more urgently the need to bring this to your attention. Please ensure clarity concerning past, present and present perfect and all other points of grammar.

Far more than your best-seller rankings depend on it.

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