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Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — Material World

On the way from Worli to my aunt’s house off Nepean Sea Road, there are two gigantic posters for the new Mont Blanc Mahatma Gandhi commemorative pen. The posters feature a thin and grizzled Gandhi in profile. Against the photograph, rendered in historically appropriate sepia tones, a short quotation written in Gandhi’s own hand is featured in luminous gold: “The way to truth lies through ahimsa (nonviolence).” To the right of the photograph, is an image of the pen itself, uncapped, ready to be used. This pen, designed to honor a man who dedicated himself to the masses of India’s poorest, who dressed and lived in the strictest simplicity as they are forced to dress and live, costs $27,000, more than most Indians will earn in a decade. According to the billboard, it is available in Bombay exclusively at the Taj, the city’s most opulent hotel. For centuries, India has evoked for Western observers images of extreme wealth existing cheek by jowl with the worst human misery—Maharajahs weighed down by ropes of pearls and rubies the size of pigeon’s eggs using virtual slave labor to build extravagant palaces hung with rich brocades and filled with trinkets of silver and gold, while outside the palace gates skeletal subjects eke out a living with nothing more than their calloused hands and bent backs. The contrasts of wealth and poverty in India today are less visible but hardly less extreme. On magazine stands and in bookstores across the city of Bombay, a special edition of Forbes magazine featuring “India’s 100 Richest” is on sale. In the last year, a year when the rest of the world, especially the United States, reeled from a massive economic crisis, a year when India’s financial capital Bombay was hit with a devastating terrorist attack, India doubled its number of billionaires, from 27 to 54. These 54 individuals, according to the Forbes special-edition cover, represent 25 percent of India’s total GDP. The country’s remaining 1.2 billion people have to make do with the remaining 75 percent, and that is hardly distributed equally. 800 million Indians still live on less than $2 dollars per day; of those, half live on less than $1.25 per day. Absent from magazine stands is the recent annual UNDP Human Development Index report. While India’s richest were getting richer, its poor were barely running in place. India, the world’s fourth-largest economy when measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), ranks a miserable 134th on the UNDP’s human development index. 47 percent of its children are malnourished. Famed for its brainy software engineers, poised to become a world R&D center, more than a third of Indians are illiterate and only one in 10,000 benefits from higher education. In the streets of Bombay, these contrasts are visible as ever. During my stay in Bombay, the occasional beggar displaying twisted limbs or a baby with matted, russet hair has accosted my car when it stopped at a red light. Returning home at night from dinner, we have passed the recumbent forms of people too poor even to string a patch of tarpaulin over their heads; men, women, and children curled up in a thin blanket on the sidewalk. On either side of the manicured park where I go to walk each morning with my aunt, the slums still hug the narrow line where the land meets the sea. The stench from the rocks below the park can’t be blocked by the landscaping that screens the hunched backsides of people who have no other toilet. In the buildings of the rich, where apartments with polished marble floors equipped with wi-fi and flat-screen televisions are elegantly furnished and hung with paintings by contemporary Indian artists, servants are barked at and sleep on kitchen floors, in hallways, or in entry foyers. One does not reach across the table for the salt or pepper; one calls the servant who has retired to the kitchen to come to the dining room and move it nearer. The stark contrast between the physical size, the clothing, and the hairstyles—not to mention the bearing of the rich and the stunted poor—still shocks, though I have known this my whole life.

Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — After Tragedy

I remember returning to New York for the first time after 9/11. It was about a month after the attack. The media saturation that bombarded us all with real-time images and their infinite repetition had not prepared me to for the sight of the two still-smoking craters where the long-familiar twin towers had been, nor the smell of acrid smoke that clung to the downtown air. What shook me more were the candles and flowers on the street—in front of all the fire stations, of course, but also all around my East Village neighborhood and on sidewalks the length and breadth of Manhattan. Improvised posters with details of still missing persons clung to every light pole. The dead were omnipresent. They remained so for a couple of years. Only now, more than eight years later, have the signs of mourning dwindled down to the area around the site of the attack itself and an annual leaving of flowers and candles on the sidewalk in front of the plaques on every fire station listing the men who died trying to save people trapped in the Tower One or Two. The absence of any kind of similar mass outpouring of grief struck me on my first day back in Bombay after the attacks dubbed “26/11” (since they occurred on November 26, 2008). Where I was staying, there was absolutely no sign of the attack. As we drove toward the specific sites of the mayhem—the Oberoi, the Taj, the railway station, Leopold Café, Nariman House—there was also nothing. It isn’t until you get right up to these buildings where scores were slaughtered that you can see discrete signs of what happened, and even then you have to look. At the Leopold Café where the gunmen first opened fire, tables were packed, mostly, as always, with foreign tourists eating snacks and drinking cold beers. But there are bullet holes in the concrete wall and in the fractured plate glass window. Outside, on the corner between the two retro-style “Drink Coca-Cola” signboards that frame the café’s roof-line, there is a “Hang Kasab” sign posted by the benevolent-sounding Apna Welfare Foundation. (Ajmal Kasab is the lone surviving attacker whose trial drags on—to the frustration of many Mumbaikars.)

Mira Kamdar: Reflections on Mumbai — Arriving

I’ve become used to entering India via New Delhi, so it was a surprise to land in Mumbai and emerge into a nicer airport than the one I’d left 15 hours earlier in Newark, New Jersey. As in Newark, the now ubiquitous HSBC advertisements adorned the jet way, but the corridors were well-lit and freshly carpeted. There were no long lines at the ample row of stations at immigration where I was treated cordially, bags were delivered promptly, customs was a breeze with “Green: Nothing to Declare” channels. The airport I remembered from arrivals long past—with its fetid odor of malfunctioning air-conditioning, its dark red splats of betel juice in the corners, and its random groups of men loitering around in grimy khaki uniforms—was gone. Mumbai has performed a serious upgrade on its point of entry, becoming one more international airport against which Newark not to mention the dismally down-at-its-heels JFK (New York’s “Gateway to the World” and my usual point of leave-taking of the United States) unfavorably compare. But, clearly, the city is not stopping there. On exiting, there was construction everywhere. The taxi driver explained that additional terminals and parking garages were under construction. I’d picked up a bottle of scotch for my Mumbai hosts at the duty-free shop in Newark. I needn’t have bothered. One of the features of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is a gleaming duty-free hall through which one must pass between immigration and baggage claim with a far bigger selection of booze, perfume and chocolate than the cute little spot at the Newark Airport where I’d stopped. Cheaper too: I’d paid $37.00 for my bottle of 12-year-old Chivas in Newark, and was dismayed to see the same on offer in Mumbai for $29.00. As an old-time adopted daughter of this Indian port, I still can’t bear to call the city I have sometimes called home "Mumbai." For me, it will always be Bombay. Bombay is the name of the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, live-and-let-live-so-we-can-all-make-a-living city that welcomed my Gujarati family in the early 1960s. Mumbai is the name of a city run by the criminal-political nexus of the Shiv Sena, the pro-Maharashtrian, proto-fascist party that has made life infinitely more difficult for anyone it deems a foreigner—e.g. anyone who is not a Maharasthrian Hindu. Hence the name of the new international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the very same name that Shiv Sena has rechristened the fabulous old Victoria Terminus railway station. Apparently, there was a link between the martial hero of the Marattes and mass-transportation hubs which my reading of Indian history had not made evident. As two of the city’s most famous native sons now living in voluntary exile in New York, Salman Rushdie and Suketu Mehta, concurred during a panel discussion in which we all participated following the terrorist attack of November 2008, the target of the terrorists was Bombay, not Mumbai. It was to Bombay I had come because of that attack.

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