The water rises and Canute drowns

The Genetic History of Indians: Are We What We Think We Are?. The answer is that people of all races have always been what they always were. What we think about what we were…well, that changes.

“I KNOW PEOPLE won’t be happy to hear this,” geneticist Niraj Rai says over the phone from Lucknow. “But I don’t think we can refute it anymore. A migration into [ancient] India did happen.” As head of the Ancient DNA Lab at Lucknow’s Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP), he earlier worked at the CCMB in Hyderabad and has been part of several studies that employed genetics to examine lineages. “It is clear now more than ever before,” he says, “that people from Central Asia came here and mingled with [local residents]. Most of us, in varying degrees, are all descendants of those people.”

Some researchers, even those associated with the current study like Shinde, aren’t quite convinced that an ancient influx of people into the subcontinent from the northwest has finally been established by the latest findings. Shinde does not like the word ‘migration’. “It is better to say movement,” he says, implying a two-way pattern. “Everyone back then was moving to and fro. Some people were moving here and some were moving out. There was contact, yes. There was trade. But local people were involved in the development of several things. So I am not very sure of the interpretation.”

As Rai points out, the analysis of the DNA sample they will present will be of a period before the Steppe people supposedly arrived in India. If R1a is absent in the Indus Valley sample, it suggests that it was brought into South Asia, perhaps by a proto-Indo- European speaking group, from elsewhere. “How do I say it? See, I am a nationalist,” Rai says over the phone. “People will be upset. But that’s how it is. All the studies are showing that people came here from elsewhere.”

I’ve been hearing from Indian journalists that some of these researchers have only “evolved” over the last few months. First, it’s a credit to them if they changed their views on the new data. If the above is correct they got usable DNA from one Rakhigarhi sample. I predict it will be like “Indus Periphery”, but with more AASI. It seems rather clear they’re going to submit a preprint within a month or so (that’s the plan, but it’s been the plan for a year!), but the results are being written up now.

Meanwhile, the ancient DNA tsunami is going to come in further waves in the near future. Various groups have huge data sets from Central Eurasia that are going to surface. Unfortunately, samples are going to be thin on the ground from India, but we have enough now that in broad sketches most people are now falling in line with what happened demographically from the northwest. The “AASI” ancestry is deeply rooted in South Asia, and it doesn’t look like there’s much of an impact of this outside of the subcontinent aside from nearby regions.

The real action is now in understanding the cultural and archaeological processes involved in the perturbation in the years after 2000 BCE. I’ve talked to a few of the geneticists working in this area over the past month or so, and they agree.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: A Look into the Underbelly of Modern India

I am cross-posting my review of Arundhati Roy’s latest novel. This review originally appeared on The South Asian Idea in June 2017.

Ever since The God of Small Things was published to great acclaim in 1997, Arundhati Roy’s fans have been eagerly awaiting her next novel. It was a long wait—two decades—as Roy transitioned from being a novelist to being an activist and a non-fiction writer. Now, the wait has finally ended with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

The novel focuses on several characters, most of whom are outcasts from the new rising India. They include a hijra named Anjum, a Kashmiri separatist (or freedom fighter) named Musa and Tilottama, the Malayali woman who loves him. Over the course of the novel, these disparate characters encounter one another and their stories intersect, sometimes in surprising ways.

Much of the novel is set in the Kashmir Valley during the 1990s—at the height of the insurgency against the Indian state—viewed by many Kashmiris as an occupying force. Musa’s wife and daughter are killed in crossfire between the Indian Army and Kashmiri militants. Tilo herself is harshly interrogated by the Indian Army and is only let go because of her connections to an old college friend, who is high up in the Intelligence Bureau. In this section of the novel, Roy evocatively describes the brutality of life in Kashmir and the impact it has on those on both sides of the ideological struggle.

Those who have followed Roy’s non-fiction will find many resonances in this novel. Asides from the Kashmir conflict, the plot touches on rising Hindutva, the Maoist struggle in the forests of central India, and Dalit assertion against upper-caste violence. One consequence of such a large canvas is a certain fracturing of the narrative. For example, when the narrative moves to Kashmir, Anjum has to be abandoned in Delhi. Although Roy convincingly brings the characters together at the end, there is a sense of disconnect while reading the story.

At times, the overt political focus detracts from the literary quality of the novel. Roy seems less interested in portraying her characters’ inner feelings than in using them to develop a polemic against what she sees as the dark side of contemporary India—increasing religious intolerance, casteism, and human rights violations.

There is no inherent reason that such an intense political focus should detract from literary accomplishment. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance deal powerfully with subjects such as Partition and Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Roy’s own The God of Small Things is equally political, focusing on inter-religious and inter-caste relationships as well as untouchability. However, in these novels the story is primary and the politics emerges organically from the plot. The characters are fully developed and one feels the authors are invested in their lives. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, in contrast, is much more polemical. The plot seems to be an excuse for Roy to express her ideas on the subjects that have consumed her for years. An ambitious and honest portrayal of the heart of darkness at the center of contemporary India, the novel is likely to underwhelm many readers who are not Ms. Roy’s devotees.

To read more of my book reviews, you can visit https://kabiraltaf.wordpress.com/

 

Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles

An Excellent essay from Aeon
(https://aeon.co/essays/why-its-as-hard-to-escape-an-echo-chamber-as-it-is-to-flee-a-cult)

What are Echo Chambers and Epistemtic Bubbles?

C Thi Nguyen: Both are social structures that systematically exclude sources of information. Both exaggerate their members’ confidence in their beliefs. But they work in entirely different ways, and they require very different modes of intervention. An epistemic bubble is when you don’t hear people from the other side. An echo chamber is what happens when you don’t trust people from the other side.

Current usage has blurred this crucial distinction, so let me introduce a somewhat artificial taxonomy. An ‘epistemic bubble’ is an informational network from which relevant voices have been excluded by omission. That omission might be purposeful: we might be selectively avoiding contact with contrary views because, say, they make us uncomfortable. As social scientists tell us, we like to engage in selective exposure, seeking out information that confirms our own worldview. But that omission can a

also be entirely inadvertent. Even if we’re not actively trying to avoid disagreement, our Facebook friends tend to share our views and interests. When we take networks built for social reasons and start using them as our information feeds, we tend to miss out on contrary views and run into exaggerated degrees of agreement.

An ‘echo chamber’ is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. Where an epistemic bubble merely omits contrary views, an echo chamber brings its members to actively distrust outsiders. In their book Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (2010), Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Frank Cappella offer a groundbreaking analysis of the phenomenon. For them, an echo chamber is something like a cult. A cult isolates its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy. A cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.

In epistemic bubbles, other voices are not heard; in echo chambers, other voices are actively undermined. The way to break an echo chamber is not to wave “the facts” in the faces of its members. It is to attack the echo chamber at its root and repair that broken trust.

Modern Love

(The post by Razib about encountering racism in the US reminded me of a short story, part memoir part fiction, that I wrote last year. I feel that fiction is a better tool to understand complex issues and tried my hand at it).

 

Imagine that you are a Pakistani man living alone for the first time in an American city. How do you cope with it? All your friends are back in Pakistan, the time difference affects your relationship with even your closest comrades and for the first time in your life, you stop berating your insomniac friends; they are all you have right now because of the eleven-hour time difference. Living alone is fantastic but it gets quite boring after a while. You go and watch a good movie, attend a stand-up comedy show and go sight-seeing. You have spent close to a month in the city and yet you don’t know anyone here. There are days when the only conversation you have is with the library staff who ask you for ID every time you enter. How long can you survive like that? You need to find people to talk to, share jokes with, learn from, cry with. Listening to playlists of your favorite music seems like a drag after the umpteenth time. Netflix loses its charm after a few weeks. Distant friends stop replying to your messages. You are studying for an exam which is unpredictable and even if you pass it, there is no guarantee that you would get the job you want.  You descend into a state of sub-clinical depression. You can’t go up to people studying in a library and engage them in a conversation, especially if they don’t know you at all. The way most people meet other people in the United States is through their workplace or in school or college. One can also find people to hang out with in bars and clubs. However, what do you do when you have no money, no job, no friends and you live in a one bedroom apartment with your brother, and his wife.

 

Your brother doesn’t have these issues; he is married, to the girl your parents chose for him. You finally understand why he never really opposed that idea. He and his wife come back from work late at night and neither of them has the energy to indulge in conversations with you. You don’t have any issues with Alcohol but you have never been to a bar alone and you tend to drink only if you have company. It’s a chicken and egg type situation. You have tried talking to random people on the street, in the metro or at the University campus where you use the library but you feel shy starting conversations with people whom you don’t know already. You decide to try the world of online dating. Statistics show that almost 40% people in the United States are meeting new people through online dating. You have read Aziz Ansari’s book titled ‘Modern Love’ dedicated to online dating and have a cursory knowledge of the whole thing.

 

You decide to launch a frontal attack and download Tinder, Zoosk and Match.com. They are the top three online dating apps in App Stores. Something’s gotta work. The first issue that you face is that of finding a perfect picture. You discover for the first time in your life that you don’t have a perfect picture, or even a good picture. You have deliberately shied away from the camera all your life and now you rue your life choices. Your friends and well-wishers have always told you that your personality is very different from your appearance. You find some half-decent pictures of yourself and upload them in hope your profile is good enough for someone to ignore your bad looks (and worse pictures). You create a profile that lists your interests, likes, dislikes, idea of a perfect date and what you are looking in the other person. You have never been in a stable relationship for long so you write whatever comes to your mind. You also buy the Service Packs on Zoosk and Match so that at least you can see who has viewed your message and the ability to send replies.

 

Valentine’s Day is approaching in a week and the sight of red balloons, gifts and valentine-themed treats at every store sickens you and worsens your loneliness. You right-swipe every second girl on Tinder, press the ‘Heart’ button on Match and Zoosk, in hope of at least having a conversation. You take advice from Aziz Ansari’s book and try sending personalized messages to everyone (after carefully perusing their profiles). It takes a lot of work though. Every break that you take from studying, every minute that you spend at home, even the time spent on the metro station, you are right-swiping, pressing ‘Hearts’ for anyone within a five-mile radius (since you don’t have a car) and with mutual interests (which you can always lie about). You have seen ‘Masters of None’, the TV show based on Aziz Ansari’s book and you think that anything could happen.

 

A few days pass by and you have received no replies, no right-swipes, a few spam messages asking you to contact girls (based in Russia) through email. You constantly alter your profile, adding new photos, deleting old ones, coming up with funnier descriptions of yourself, trying to sound funny. You discover some distinct patterns emerging from your time on the apps: Most girls are looking for Caucasian men with a certain expectation regarding income. You are a lighter shade of brown and don’t have much income to speak of. A week goes by and you are stuck in the vicious cycle. There are times when you wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the screen of your mobile. You wish you lived in the futuristic world of Spike Jonze’s movie ‘Her’. After ten days of signing up to the dating apps, you have received a total of two replies. One day, you get a reply from a girl who lives slightly further but is well-travelled (according to her pictures) and looked good. You chat with her on the app for two days and then you asked her number. She gives it to you. You think you have made it. You forget all the misery and felt on top of the world. You ask her if you can call her and she tells you to call her the next day. The next day is Valentine’s Day.

 

You are excited to talk to this White American girl for the first time. You have talked to many White, Black and Brown American girls before but never like this. Never in an ‘online dating’ context. You call her on the decided hour and she picks up after two rings. She sounds nice, your inner monologue starts. She tells you that she is a massage therapist and works at a spa. She went to school for learning massage therapy after working as a Barista for many years. She has also visited India in the past, which you think is really cool. You tell her that your best friend got married that day in India and you couldn’t have attended the wedding, even if you were back in Pakistan. You joke about high rates of open defecation in India and then tell her about yourself, how you ended up in the States and what had you done on your previous visits. She hears you out and doesn’t say much. You are about to end the call and before saying goodbye, she says, Oh and Happy Valentine’s Day. You are elated, overjoyed, over the moon. You text her the next day and she doesn’t reply. You wait for a full day, try to call her and send another text. She texts you back, apologizes for the delay and ‘regrettably informs you’ that she doesn’t feel this could work. According to her text, she wanted the relationship to be more about her than you and all you talked on the phone was about you. You suppress your anger and don’t tell her that you asked her everything about her and that she didn’t have anything to say. Your dream shatters and you are back on your knees, swiping, clicking on ‘Hearts’, changing your photos and updating your profile.

 

You also sign up for a speed-dating event in the city. Maybe in-person interaction will work better than online interaction? You arrive slightly later than the designated hour because of terrible traffic in the city. The venue is a small bar with five tables and chairs on both sides of them. There’s barely space to walk when all five of those chairs are occupied. You see that there are five ladies and seven men. You’ll have to be better than at least two other people if you are going to match. It is Darwinism at its finest. Everyone gets six minutes with each girl and then you have to move on. Everybody has ‘scorecards’ and assigned numbers. At the end of the night, you are supposed to write down your top five matches and if any of them put you in their top five, you’ll get their email and can contact them. You sit opposite the first lady. She is very good looking (and your standards are miserably low) and is wearing a low-cut dress. You can’t keep your eyes off her. She is a cosmetician with an 11-year-old son. You find it hard to concentrate on her face. You try your best though, and try to have a decent conversation. By the time you have composed yourself, your time is over. You move on to the next lady.

 

She works in marketing and seems to have an imposing, bossy personality. You try your best to survive those six minutes. The third lady is a cross-fit trainer and massage therapist. You hit it off instantly with her. She has seen all your favorite TV shows and you spend most of those six minutes talking about them. There is a break in between during which you go and talk to the ‘men’. One of them tells you that for online dating, you need excellent photos and that you should get them professionally taken. The event resumes after a ten-minute break. Your next potential match is a Nursing student. You decide to ramp up the charm offensive and do some stand-up comedy material for her (you have always wanted to perform stand-up on stage). She can’t stop laughing at the jokes and those six minutes pass by before you could even breathe. The last lady works as a data analyst and you try some of the jokes with her as well. You also talk about the city and she tells you her experience living there for the last five years. Times flies by and the event is officially over. You feel good. Even if none of them picks you as a match (and you secretly hope it is the cross-fit trainer/massage therapist). Once you get out, you are approached by a lady wearing a suit and a charming smile. She works for a company that ‘grooms’ people for dating, providing them with suggestions on how to work on their personality. You are in high spirits so instead of rejecting her offer, you joke with her, calling her the ‘Love Guru’. She gives you her company card, just in case. You take a cab, reach home and start waiting. You receive an email next day from the Speed dating company with two names and email addresses, the cross-fit trainer is not among them. It’s the two girls whom you made to laugh. You email both of them, only the nursing student replies and after a day or two even she stops. Your self-esteem goes down the gutter. You wish you were a white guy. You go back to reading Aziz Ansari’s ‘Modern Love’.

 

 

Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)

This is just a short note from Irfan Muzammil. I hope to have Irfan writing blog posts directly on Brownpundits, but he is a busy man (and a real scholar), so this may take a while. Until then, I will be copying and pasting some of his musings..

Omar

Medieval Muslim scholars and courts seem to have been obsessed with the question of superiority of races: Arabs, Persians, Greeks, Indians, Franks, etc. (a debate that still rages). Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdi’s al-Imtāʿ wal-muʾānasah (Enjoyment and Geniality), a classic of Arab literature, presents discussions conducted in Baghdad at the court of the vizier Ibn Saʿdān al-ʿĀriḍ, who was executed in 984 AD after a short period in office. It illustrates the debates regarding a movement called Shuʿūbiyyah, which claimed cultural equality or superiority for the Persians over the Arabs. But the most surprising part, at least for me, is at the end.

First he quotes Ibn al-Muqaffa’, a prominent 8th century Persian philosopher, and seemingly a massive racist:

We said, ‘The Byzantines!’
“But he replied, ‘Not them either. They have strong bodies, they are good at building and at geometry but know nothing besides these two things and are good at nothing else.’
“we said, ‘The Chinese then!’
“He said, ‘They are good at handicraft and making artefacts; they have no deep thought or reflection.’
“we said, ‘well then, the Turks!’
“He said, ‘They are wild animals that can be made to fight.’
“we said, ‘The Indians?’
“He said, ‘People of delusion, humbug, and conjurer’s tricks.’
“we said, ‘The Africans!’
“He said, ‘Dumb beasts to be left alone.’
“Then we left the matter to him, and he said, ‘The Arabs!’ Continue reading “Race Stereotypes in Medieval Islam (and some lines on cousin marriage)”

Rajneesh and Sheela Ambalal Patel,

Any thoughts on
Wild Wild Country, the new Netflix documentary series about the Rajneeshees cult (also sometimes called sannyasins) who spent four years living in the Oregon countryside in the early 1980s.
Ma Anand Sheela

<i>There’s Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual guru. There are the followers themselves, most of them white, middle class, and college educated. But the actual villain and most compelling character of this story is a refreshing surprise. It’s Bhagwan’s right hand, his personal secretary who eventually showed how far a person granted an absurd amount of power will go to keep it. Here’s everything you need to know about the fearless (and ruthless) Ma Anand Sheela.</i>

https://www.elle.com/culture/a19634831/who-is-ma-anand-sheela-wild-wild-country/

Asians & Aryans

A few things jump out of this map:

(1.) Tibet is important, real important. These rivers feed half the world and these are the population centres of what we mean by “Asia.”

(1a.) Continents ultimately are arbitrary political constructs; what geographic feature cuts off Europe from Asia (is it really the Urals)? This map represents “core Asia” and more than ever I can see why the Middle East has an entirely different orientation. If a world government did ever come about; for fairness sake there would have to be some redistribution in how the Asian super-continent is treated; Africa’s population is burgeoning but difficult to see how it can match this.

(2.) It’s interesting to see how all the South Asian rivers have a common source (the Ganges has another source); a poetic meditation on the unity of the Subcontinent.

(3.) invaders or not; foreign or alien what is admirable about the Aryans is the extent to which they co-opted local traditions. As most readers of this blog know, Mt. Kailash is known as the home of Shiva and it literally feeds the Subcontinent.

(3b) Each initial wave seemed to have weaker and weaker ties to the land. The AASI seemed to have settled in the mists of pre-history, the (Elamitic?) Dravidian farmers may have fused with them to found the Indus Valley Civ.

(3c) the best way to think of the Aryan invasion is the Mongol conquests. The demographics of Central Asia and Mesopotamia shifted (and collapsed) as they did not (only) because of the rapacity of the Mongols but because of the failure to maintain the qanat (complex irrigation systems). I know that for a fact in Greater Iran whereas I can’t be sure that they used qanats in Mesopotamia.

(3d) At any rate either the Aryans filled in an ecological collapse (which seems unlikely since they spread with a rapidity elsewhere meaning that they had some technical and military advantage) or they triggered it. The indigenous compounded Dravidian-Negrito/Australasian (sorry for the loaded terms but easier to use Arya/Dravid than the newfangled terms) collapses and the remainder population did a Latin America where Aryans males were polygamous and high status.

(3e) the Aryans were the last invaders to both fully merge and embrace India as their core civilisation. The Muslim (Turkic?) invaders were oriented West and the British even further West. Each succeeding invasion wave was invested in India by an order of magnitude less than the preceding wave. The English returned to their colonies, the Muslims created Pakistan and the Aryans kept Aryavarta while the Dravidians have their local politics that tie them (especially in TN; the heart of the Dravidian movement).

(3f) I know it’s contentious but I would imagine the AASI would be like the Negrito coastal population and a related equivalent further upriver in the Indus prior to the Dravidian farmer wave. Prehistory was probably pretty ugly and tragic we just don’t know about it as we don’t have records but think the New World repeated time and time again.

(4) a final point as to why Iran may not have had as much a genetic impact. The Iranian plateau is exactly that a plateau. As I was told in Tehran a couple of years ago by a geographic; the mountain is life, every city in Iran is based on hills and mountains the rest is all desert (fertile plains are in short supply). It’s probably why it’s difficult to effect population replace in Iran as it is in its neighbours (Turko-Mongols introversion in Central Asia, Arabs influx in Mesopotamia, Aryan “invasion” in the Indus).

That’s all I can think for now btw the title is a bit misleading since Aryans are always a good lede lol.

India would have been a dump for crackpot science had Modi not Nehru been its first leader

Instead of being noted for its exceptional space programme (Mangalyaan!) and brilliant string theorists (Ashoke Sen!), India would have become a garbage dump for every kind of crackpot science. Medical research would have concentrated on medicines made from cow urine and cow dung, the celibacy of peacocks would be under intense scrutiny, astrology would be taught in place of astronomy, and instead of teaching actual mathematics there would be Vedic mathematics. As in Pakistan, Darwinian evolution would be considered heretical and destructive of religious faith.

Nehru’s stamp upon Indian science can be seen across the length and breadth of India in the form of dozens of scientific institutes and universities that owe to him. India is probably the world’s only country whose constitution explicitly declares commitment to the “scientific temper” — a quintessential Nehruvian notion formulated during his years in prison. Briefly: only reason and science, not holy scriptures, provide us reliable knowledge of the physical world.

I was able to see the huge difference that Nehru had made to his country while on a speaking tour in 2005 before audiences in about 40 Indian schools, colleges, and universities in seven cities. Without Nehru there could never have been the huge and palpable mass enthusiasm for science. This was manifested in the many science museums within a single city, and countless scientific societies working to spread understanding of basic science among ordinary Indians. I do not know how much of this has changed under Hindutva. But most definitely not even a fraction of such enthusiasm was visible then, or can be seen now, in Pakistan.

Nehru must also be credited with keeping a lid on his generals. In a democracy the army should be subordinate and answerable to civilian authority, not the other way around. And so, immediately after Partition, Nehru ordered the grand residence of the army chief to be vacated and instead assigned to the prime minister. This move carried huge symbolism — it said clearly who was boss.

When Ayub Khan’s coup across the border happened in 1958, it led to rules that further diminished the role of the Indian army in national affairs. Gen Cariappa, who had retired but praised the coup, was told to shut up. Officers, serving or retired, were strongly discouraged from commenting on matters related to public affairs and economics — and particularly their pensions and retirement benefits. There was no concept of army owned enterprises and businesses.

All this could now be changing. Army chief Gen Bipin Rawat, known for his bellicosity, has broken with the army’s tradition by freely commenting on many foreign policy matters — the Rohingya refugee problem, how India should deal with the Doklam crisis with China, and the need to call “Pakistan’s nuclear bluff”. Time will tell whether Rawat is an exception or, instead, the new rule characterising an interventionist army. Ominously for Indian democracy, criticising the army chief is being described by its media as anti-national.

How much of Nehru’s India will be undone by Modi and his cronies remains to be seen. A demoralised and broken Congress opposition means that they are here to stay for long.

Meanwhile, it is becoming easier by the day for Pakistan to recognise its mirror reflection across the border.

https://theprint.in/opinion/india-would-have-been-a-dump-for-crackpot-science-had-modi-been-its-first-prime-minister/51521/amp/?__twitter_impression=true