Spaced Out

Zachary Kanin takes Sunita 'Suni' Williams's Boston Marathon in space a few steps further in this hilarious piece.

From One Small Step:

April 16—Suni Williams competed in the Boston Marathon on our treadmill. Although she did not win, she said that she enjoyed the “fresh air” and “being outside.” NASA is very pleased with us for finally doing something that people on Earth aren’t horrified by.

April 19—Today, Suni used the StairMaster to begin climbing Mt. Everest. She predicts that it will take several months to complete her ascent, but she is refusing food and water. Our colleague Oleg Kotov tried to explain that mountain climbers on Earth do not deprive themselves of sustenance, but she insisted that she would “hunt for food, like a human."

City of Djinns

There is something odd about rusticating in the Georgia countryside under a hammock and to be reading a book written by a Brit on an Indian city. William Dalrymple is one the finest scholars of the late Mughal era and one can understand his fascination and love affair with Delhi, which he calls The City of Djinns. The book, an account of a year in Delhi, is a fascinating portrait of India's capital city. He writes, "Delhi is a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns".

The book flits back and forth between the past and present as Dalrymple explores the city and uncovers its secrets - the mansions, the eunuchs, Unani medicine, Lutyen's Delhi, etc. Starting with the riots following Indira Gandhi's death in 1984, the book spirals backwards going back further and further in time till it ends with a solitary sadhu on Nimbodh Ghat. For a Brit, Dalrymple doesn't have much sympathy for the British era and his portraits of the Anglo-Indians and Brits who chose to be 'left behind' aren't sensitive but comic. They are a people suspended in an age and time that has long passed. For one particular class of Anglo-Indians he does make an exception and those being the 'White Mughals', notably Col. James Skinner and William Fraser (the ancestor of his wife Victoria Fraser). One can see why these Brits who 'went native' are so fascinating and to do justice he had to write a larger piece of work - The White Mughals. For these class of Brits he is overcome with wistful nostalgia and anguish over history's great missed opportunity. For a brief period the English, Hindu, and Muslim world lived side-by-side in an odd, harmonious marriage before the Revolt of 1857 and Victorian mores destroyed that idea forever.

Delhi doesn't boast the glitz or the financial muscle of Mumbai, and isn't anyone's idea of the cultural capital either. Around partition Delhi was a city where even milkmen and prostitutes could quote Dagh, Mir, and Ghalib. The indigenous poets and artists have long departed. What remains of culture is transplanted from elsewhere. Delhi, for most, is a political circus, where the Parliament meets, the location of the annual Republic Day Parade, and incidentally also the home of the Red Fort. Monuments are really empty if the culture around it has vanished. Dalrymple's central thesis is that the Partition all but killed Delhi's cultural richness that resulted from the mixing of the Hindu and Muslim worlds from the Mughal times. The Partition exodus resulted in the city being overrun by the boorish and loud Punjabis who have no love nor understanding of the city's language or culture. Modern Delhi is divided into two halves - the decaying and dying Mughal Old Delhi and vulgar and conspicuously consumptive Punjabi New Delhi. But as he explores Delhi's past, Dalrymple cannot escape the Punjabis who now run the city and grudgingly he gives them their due. He rents an apartment from the iron-fisted Partition-refugee Mrs. Puri and is driven around by the irrepressible Balwinder Singh from the International Backside Taxi (backside denoting its location behind the International Centre).

The world that he writes about is from the late 1980s (the book was published in 1993) where he had many encounter with the famous Indian bureaucracy, but things have not changed much since at least in terms of preserving history, culture, and architecture. He writes about two brothers from a family of nastaliq calligraphers. One brother continues to preserve the dying art and the other, the more pragmatic of the two, has all but shunned it in favour of taking soft-porn photos in the same premises where his ancestors laboured for princes, omrahs, and scholars. The death and decay continue. Monuments are still uncared for, valuable papers are still rotting in basements, and grotesque improvements and changes are being made in places that are of great historical importance.

In middle of this captivating account, the mid-morning Georgia sun made it presence felt and I had to run indoors for cover. I was halfway across the world but this plot of earth is only 10 degrees north of Delhi and in any case the red earth of Georgia does remind me of the Red Fort.

Banker to the Poor

If you want to make money on the stock market all you need to do is to remember to 'buy high and sell low'. Correct advice on what to do, but ultimately useless since it does not tell how. Similar is the concept that 'free market economics and education' is the answer to the problems in developing countries. Pray tell me how?

Muhammad Yunus's book 'Banker to the Poor' is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary person doing rather ordinary things for the most ordinary of people. It is a story of great courage and determination in the pursuit of an idea that was considered to be doomed from the start.

Muhammad Yunus is a patriot, who gave up a professorship in the U.S. to return to his country in 1971 following independence to help rebuild the new nation of Bangladesh. He got disillusioned with his first job at the Planning Commission and accepted professorship at Chittagong University. All along Yunus was really hunting for a cause. Before he hit upon the idea for Grameen in 1976, Yunus tried a number of things to help the villages around Chittagong university.

If Yunus hadn't been the head of the Department of Economics at Chittagong University, he would have been booted out by the bankers and officials when they first heard his hare-brained scheme to lend money to poorest people, ones who had no credit history or collateral. It was a scheme that was not only against all banking principles, but also against plain logic. The said that the poor would simply use the money for their own needs and not for a business and the project would surely fail.
Yet, he persisted and they lent him some money for a pilot scheme.

Only upon reading the book did I realise that in addition there were also social conditions that Yunus had to fight against. Yunus knew that he needed to target women to really make a difference. In Bangladesh most women observed purdah, left all economic decisions to the male in the household, so even getting them take the credit that was being offered was hard. On one hand were the religious right who claimed that women running businesses and taking loans was against Islamic law. On the other hand were the communists who insisted that this was 'capitalist' plot to rob the poor of their despair and rage.

Yunus is a devout Muslim, but not an Islamist. He tries to shy away from 'isms' and and he writes:

I am not a capitalist in the simplistic left/right sense. Bu I do believe in the power of the global free-market economy and in using capitalist tools... The able-bodied poor don't want charity. The dole only increases their misery, robs them incentive and, more important, of self-respect.
Povery is not created by the poor. It is created by the structures of society and the policies pursued by society. Change the structure as we are doing in Bangladesh, and you will see that the poor change their own lives.

It wasn't that Yunus simply had faith in the poor, he saw them differently. He did not see the poor as beggars but as potential entrepreneurs. Yunus did not patronize them gave them a thimbleful of help and hope and they responded. But why were the poor so much better at returning the money that Grameen lent them? Because that was their only chance to get out. It wasn't charity that they were seeking, all they wanted were the barest means for self-empowerment.

In hindsight all this seems quite logical, but many such schemes have failed to take off in other places. Why? Understanding a good idea is one thing, but implementing it is another. There is nothing small or simple about microfinance. It requires very specialized skills, lots of energy, and an acute understanding of local conditions. Grameen's success can be credited to the remarkable innovation and adaptability of their schemes. After every project Yunus and his team refined their program. In the early years, new hires were chiefly asked to observe and then criticize current schemes, and then they were asked to give their own ideas and suggestions for improvement.

Yunus isn't much of a believer in the 'trickle-down' theory and for a long time opposed the World Bank. Even schemes to directly help the poor are flawed. According to him, almost 75% of aid money is spent on commodities, technologies, and salaries of experts from the donor country itself. The rest of the money, if not embezzled, is spent on making the locals dependent on donor technology as opposed to harnessing local tools and technology effectively. And in most cases all development benefits and advantages are always captured by the privileged.

He mocks the per capita system of assessing economic growth. In his opinion, a correct measure of a country is assessing the per capita growth of the bottom 50%, more realistically the bottom 25%, of the population.

Microfinance, the hare-brained scheme of 1970s has now attracted the attention of the largest and biggest banks. With 97% of the loans being honored, they see it as another way to make a profit. While they can't realistically be expected to match the evangelical zeal of Yunus and his Grameen Bank, they still need to lend to the poorest. Currently, as the Economist recently reported, these banks are still vary of lending to poorest and are mostly lending to institutions, like Grameen, who have a proven track record. Ironic, huh?

It is easy to dismiss Yunus's aim to eradicate world poverty by 2050. In the 25 years of the Grameen bank's existence, it has not made much of dent in eradicating poverty in Bangladesh and there are no comprehensive studies to show that microfinance really alleviates poverty. But, it did make a difference to 6.6m of its borrowers. It did change the idea of how banking for the poor works. How many of us really are interested in being part of a solution?