Conversations with my partner (perhaps I will call this series “in translation”)

Me: Yay! Today is World Books Day, so everyone is posting book lists!!!
Him: Everyone? Am I no one?!

Road tripping & listening

In addition to general travel and living in different places, we’ve been doing some long-range road tripping! And by we, I mean Daniel – given that my eyes are pretty poor, and driving on narrow roads with no shoulders in a stick-shift is pretty much not my jam. As an Appendix to this post, some podcast and audiobook recs from our travels. But first, some maps!

Road trip 1: From Segovia to Cavallano (April 7-10)

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While in Tuscany, we’ve been going on many day trips, which I’ll hopefully write about soon! In addition to all of the other missing blogposts…

Road trip 2 (planned): From Cavallano to Bruges & Brussels (May 10-14)

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Road trip 3 (planned): Brussels – Sernhac (May 18-21)

We’re staying with friends in Brussels, then picking Kaj up and staying a couple days in Paris, then heading to the south of France to spend a few weeks!

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I’m trying to keep my posts shorter so that I don’t let perfection come in the way of completion… but first, some audio recs for long car-rides:

What we’ve been listening to: some podcasts and an audiobook

  • Born a Crime, written and narrated by Trevor Noah, Audible. I would love to find other audiobooks, but I’ve found a lot of them to be dry/not as enjoyable as reading. Trevor Noah’s is a definite exception – and I’d say listening to his narrative is potentially even more enjoyable than reading it given his unique oratory gifts.
  • Longform podcast interview of journalist Azmat Khan , and The Daily podcast episodes (Part 1 and Part 2) of her and co-author Anand Giridharas’s reporting on The Uncounted – ground-truthing counted and uncounted civilian deaths and harm in drone attacks in Iraq, and reporting on what happens when civilians even try the process of proving they are civilians after being bombed (being counted as guilty – aka ISIS, which can have future harmful repercussions on any survivors as well – until proven innocent – aka civilian). Listening to Bassim Razzo’s account, his bare-minimum requests for remuneration, and seeing and hearing about his home and family before and after gave us goosebumps and tears. This is what war today looks and sounds and feels like, and it’s so far away and covered up and one-sided in many ways, we are completely detached from it.
  • Longform podcast interview of essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghanshah about her passion, motivation, and excruciating process of writing the profile – A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylan Roof (for which she later won a Pulitzer)
  • Invisibilia – The Pattern Problem (we’ll be listening to a lot more of these, because I am a huge fan of this podcast)
  • Rough Translation podcast – Brazil in Black and White (we’ll be listening to a lot more of these too – next up are The Refugee’s Dating Coach and Om Alone in India)
  • The most excellent Radiolab’s Border Trilogy (there are 3 parts. We’ve listened to 1 and 2, 3 is up next.)
  • Others on the list
  • On a personal note, I’ve started to listen to Crimetown (I got intrigued after visiting Providence recently) and Empty Frames (I was in a museum-y mood, and looking through the Isabella Gardner Stewart museum website, then for kicks decided to search podcastland for anything about it, and well, this is what came up). They’re good true crime shows, but I’m still looking for more story shows that are not either standup/short stories (like The Moth, great but not a long bedtime story) and are perhaps even outside of the true crime genre (as much as I enjoy it, it’s probably not the best thing to listen to while going to sleep, for example)
  • Oh. We have also been listening to the very few songs I have on my phone. Basically Indian Ocean, John Mayer, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Owl City, Maroon 5, U2, Remember Shakti, and soundtracks from Across the Universe, Masaan, and…Glee…. On the to-do list is figuring out how to do music better on road-trips where neither of us has connectivity…

Update: This:


My stream of consciousness on a recent interview of Jean Dreze

Jean Dreze is one of my heroes in life. It is definitely a dream to meet him, and I haven’t ever been to Jharkhand yet – a pretty large regret from all the time I’ve spent in India. One day soon, I’m going to go – that much I know. In the meanwhile, I content myself to take inspiration for keeping on thinking about well…the kinds of things I think about most of the time…from Dreze’s thoughts and writings.

So many gems and nods (from me!), from a recent interview of him by Ideas for India‘s editor-in-chief, Ashok Kotwal. These are basically my annotations/take-aways from this lovely piece:

  1. Even if theoretically, government is by the people…it’s not ( to different degrees in different places – a large part of political science literature is pretty much about this – “the extent of democratization” – and it’s largely ignored when thinking about policy). So it’s pretty important to parse our who you think you are advising!
JD: […] Economists, to the extent that they get involved in policy debates, think of themselves largely as government advisors. So, for example, this point about inflation and whether the government is going to index the transfers, if you are positioning yourself as a government advisor it is not much of an issue because indexation can be part of your advice to start using cash transfers. But if you are advising poor people rather than the government, things might look quite different. If poor people ask me, after hearing that the government may introduce cash transfers, whether they can trust the government to index the transfers, I would have to say no, there is no guarantee of it at all.
2. Clients hear what they want to hear. So when you suggest a multi-pronged solution, all of which relies on the other parts being implemented…gotta step back and see what the client is going to decide hear. And that means thinking about politics.
JD: […] So it is one thing to do the blackboard research and quite another thing to give real-world policy advice – because real-world policy advice means taking part in a very charged political process. Then you have to start thinking about where you stand; what are the operational aspects; you have to take into account that the advice you give may lead to something else because the government may take what they like and ignore the rest. Say, they may ignore the recommendation of indexing transfers and just go for cash transfers defined in nominal terms. Policy advice is not just a question of evidence and values, it also requires thinking politically.

3. Positionality, positionality, positionality. Actually on this point, I think I would have rather JD add another phrase, too – which is that being transparent about your positionality (who funds you, what your biases are, anything that could possibly affect how you see the question your are studying and its possible answers) should be requirement in whatever you write. A standard. It’s common practice for people like anthropologists and sociologists, but not for economists and political scientists, who deem themselves and their methods to be “objective”…which study after study have shown is not true. 

JD: […] So I think that wherever you are positioned – whether you are in the academic world or an activist or a consultant – you have certain biases and you see the world from a certain perspective. The way to deal with that is to try and engage with people who have different positions and different perspectives. That would apply to anybody.

4. Let’s get together and…feeel allllriiiighht. (-Bob Marley). Can the pendulum stop swinging between disciplines and types of people, or can someone truly find a way to bring them together? 

JD: […] Right, but conversely if you do not meet that person, you may not be aware of the hardships that people face. This is one reason why I would like to see more dialogue between economists and the so-called jholawalas because they both have important perspectives. Economists are obviously very important, their analyses and research can be very informative. They also have their own biases, professional prejudices, and so on – and the same applies to activist. There is great value in more interaction.

AK: I totally agree and in fact what you are saying is more than that – not just interaction with jholawalas but also interaction with those whom jholawalas interact with at the grassroots.
JD: I do not think economists would deny that, but the question is whether you give this enough importance. It takes some effort, and a little bit of a departure from the beaten track of academic research.
5. When the solution becomes the problem. 
JD: […] So I think it is a question of appropriateness, timing, and real effort to make the technology work for people. Frankly, with Aadhaar, I am not sure to what extent it was really an attempt to reform welfare schemes as opposed to using welfare schemes to persuade people to enrol with Aadhaar. That was perhaps the main factor. The welfare schemes were used to promote Aadhaar rather than the other way round – that is what it looks like to me.
6. To not love capitalism and to not love Gandhian village-centric systems (or communism or marxism) at the same time. To believe in basic principles and construct institutions from those, but not have a blueprint for a utopian/ideal society. Dreze echoes a lot of what Sen also says in his The Idea of Justice, but I love it because any time I try to have this discussion with an economist, they try to pigeonhole me into one or another, or ask the same question as AK – and then not accept a nuanced answer. Dreze’s description here is basically it. 
AK: You work on all kinds of problems – the minute problems at the micro level – and at the same time everyone has the impression, and I certainly do, that you have a bigger philosophical base behind many of your decisions and the directions you take. So, what kind of organisation of society would you ideally like to see? Are you quite okay with the market capitalism as long as it is sort of well-regulated and the government works well? Or would you be much more comfortable with sort of this Gandhian type of village-based, highly decentralised society?
JD: I am not comfortable with either. It is very difficult to come up with some kind of a blueprint of what a good society would be like; what is easier and more productive is to think about the principles of a good society, and then work for these principles whenever possibilities arise. Today, there are so many things that strike me as just completely wrong like the caste system, patriarchy, nuclear weapons, capitalism, and concentration of corporate power or State power for that matter. So I can see vast possibilities of rolling these things back and trying to construct social institutions based on principles of cooperation, equality, and justice, including in the economic field. For example, promoting cooperative modes of economic organisation not dependent on wage labour, and of course, a big expansion of public services to ensure that most people have access to the basic requirements of dignified living. It is possible to see huge scope for change and improvement in the way things are organised without necessarily having a blueprint for the ideal society. I certainly do not see it as a kind of village-based society – I do not really see the value of that. I think that would be missing out on a lot of opportunities. Nor am I reconciled to capitalism, or capitalism as we see it today.
AK: What do you mean by capitalism?
JD: Well, that is a part of the problem. It is not entirely clear whether what we see today is capitalism. It has a big element of State intervention; in many countries, there is a big element of socialism as well. And then corporate power – that’s not the market; in many ways it is anti-market. So one also has to distinguish between capitalism and the market economy. What I do see in today’s economic system and strikes me as very objectionable is the concentration of power; economic inequality; huge corporations with workplace relations that violate basic principles of equality and freedom, and so on. I would like to think that these aberrations will disappear in due course. We are already seeing a substantial growth of all kinds of other modes of organisation. For instance, private non-profit activity – including what is often called social business, a term I do not like very much – has a huge potential, certainly in fields like health and education where market failures are pervasive, but also in many other fields. In some countries, a lot of people are getting involved in all kinds of issues like the environment, free software, organic farming, and so on – giving their time, energy, and passion. This is seen as a kind of hobby, but it is not a hobby, it is very much part of economic and social life. I would like to see these forms of association grow, and the more objectionable ones, based on wage labour, the concentration of power and so on, fade away.
AK: Somebody like Stiglitz would not disagree with any of what you said like concentration of power, but the only point where they may be some disagreement may be if production should be organised as cooperatives.
JD: I do not think all production can be organised in a cooperative mode. But a lot of things that are being done today on the basis of employer-employee relationships could be done differently. This may require new institutions and also a new work culture. I think that changes in work culture, including the growth of solidarity and public spirit, can be of great help in developing alternative economic and social institutions.
AK: The more I hear you the more it seems to me that there is hardly any distance between what you believe and what many mainstream economists on the left believe. It is sort of similar practical things like taking care of market failures – that is how mainstream economists talk too!
JD: It is not just market failures. The caste system, for instance, is not a market failure; it is a social failure. So there are a lot of things happening outside the market that also have to be dealt with.
7. Where do his values come from? I’m one of those that has always been fascinated. To be honest, probably no other answer but this one would have been satisfying and rung true. 
AK: I would like to end with a personal question. Your personal history is fascinating to many people. You came from Belgium and you made India your home. You worked in these areas all your life. You took Indian citizenship. What was the spark? What was it that triggered your inspiration to do this? I do not know anyone else like this.
JD: I think there are a lot of committed people around. I certainly meet many of them all the time. It is very hard to say, ultimately, where our values come from, but I do know that when I see, for example, these koilawalas that I talk about at the beginning of the book – you have to make up your mind whether this is okay or not. And if it is not okay, then you have to do something. That’s all there is to it. Ultimately, I still lead a very privileged life. I do a lot of things that catch my imagination. I have no regrets at all.
AK: When did you first think of it?
JD: I think a lot of things go back to childhood, frankly. I had very caring parents with high values, and also many inspiring teachers at school. But it is very hard to trace the source of our core values and to account for them.

Reproducing social hierarchy and inequality…and what to do about it? (It’s a question)

Raka Ray’s Hindu article from 2012 about The everyday embrace of inequality certainly hits home on many levels. I have family and friends who have maids/servants at varying degrees (by that I mean on a spectrum from someone who comes to do some dishes and clean once a day, to live-in, does-everything-for-everyone), and I myself have co-employed a maid at various times when I’ve lived in Indian cities. Zooming out a little more, it really hits home on the general point of reproductions of social inequality and hierarchy on many levels. Almost anyone who has grown up in an Indian family, with Indian parents, that I know of (within or outside of India), has seen the gender roles in our home pretty clearly at play…and we mostly don’t talk about that stuff with each other.

Again – these play out on a spectrum, and there are plenty of reasons that can be offered. These are behaviors many of us have watched every day, in our own homes and the homes of our uncles and aunts and grandparents; explanations we heard if we asked questions about these behaviors (the degree of formal employment of each spouse, the amount of money being brought in by each spouse, etc. – but then, I think we forget to ask “why?” once more), and continued subconscious socialization (doting grandmothers, serving our fathers;  wives/mothers serving our fathers and grandfathers and us; daughter-in-laws taking care of their mothers and fathers-in-law while also working full time jobs [or not] and putting expiration date-labeled food in the deep-freeze for men who hadn’t yet at the age of 60 figured out how to use anything in the kitchen but a microwave…though perhaps that is better than the everyday making of “only fresh hot food” for all of them) In sum, I think the crux of Raka Ray’s observations hit home.

However, while I agree with all of what is said here about the culture of inequality that is created and reproduced by having a female servant at everyone’s beck and call (and the particular reproduction of inequality that happens when one is socialized into hierarchy at home/in our most intimate social spheres), I’d like to zoom in a bit on this statement:

 A professional woman who wants to have a serious career learns to use her class advantage (the ability to hire a worker) to minimise her gender disadvantage (the inability to insist that your husband do his share of the housework and childcare). To put it bluntly, men simply won’t do housework and women don’t feel they can make them. The dominant ideology continues to be indisputably that men are responsible for life outside the home and women for life within the home, even if women work outside the home. The presence of a servant simply mitigates the need to insist that men do their share at home, and because it is the servant that does the housework, it continues to be devalued labour.

 I’d like to think more about how (economically/caste-ly) privileged Indian women are supposed to insist – since this is a pervasive household problem in almost every society in the whole world (even those where having a servant is not a normal middle-class thing),

You should've asked_012

and since the rate of female labor force participation (FLPF) in India is abysmally low and decreasing, even among the highest rungs of the class/caste hierarchy – and of course, social correlates abound.


[Source: ILO]

I am not arguing low FLFP makes having a servant, practicing all those behaviors of hierarchy, etc. the right thing to do as a society or as a household (also, what about if one does not have a family? then is it ok? when? for what types of household work? what behaviors?)…but privileged women, even in their households (especially those of the type that Ray has characterized here), don’t generally have much of a say to insist.

Anyway, I’d like all of us that have experienced having a maid/servant/etc. or have had a family that we know has had that experience to talk about this stuff a lot more. Here are some discussion questions that I am writing stream of consciousness style:

If you had to list out all tasks she’s responsible for, what work do you expect your maid to do? How many hours is she there? Besides salary, what is the rest of the relationship between you/your family and her/her family? How does this change the dynamic of her employment in your house? What do you teach your kids about what they’re allowed to ask of her? Who would do the work that she does if she didn’t come? If she works in other households, how many others, and what do you know about her monthly wages, and her household’s monthly wages? What do your neighbors in the same areas do in terms of domestic work arrangements? How do you/your family talk about your maid with others in your circles (complaints, talking about her problems, sharing how much you pay, etc.)? What rights do you think she should have to bargain/have a flexible schedule/etc? What rights should she not have? What do your family/neighbors/friends think? ….and so many more!

A pretty big part of the situation of employing household labor is that it is in such a private sphere (intimate, as Ray correctly terms it), is that everything happens behind a veil – and there isn’t any regulation or protection, or even any sort of social sanctioning for bad behavior. So. We should probably all talk about this a lot more – with each other, with our parents, and with our maids. I’d really like to have a lot more conversations about this out in the open – the first step would have to be some more conscious socialization. Because let’s face it, unless we consciously observe, own up to and talk about all of these things we see, have grown up with, and take part in as adults ourselves…especially for those of us in self-proclaimed “modern” or “progressive” households…these are insidious behaviors that can’t help but be replicated. Who doesn’t want grandma to serve them hot rotis every night when they visit? And who doesn’t want someone else to do their dishes when they come home from a long day of work? But them, you know. Who wants to take care of another family’s children when they have a few of their own and a husband and in-laws waiting for their own hot rotis at home….

Sujatha Gidla: Computer Girl & Hindu Conductor

What a journey and unabashed radical idealist. Though I may not understand, and therefore agree with, all of her perspectives, I think they’re all the more important to hear in such a forum. I can’t really pull out the best parts of this interview/conversation, because there are so many (…though I think some of the open Q&A really missed the point.) So I’ll just take one of her more inconsequential commentaries and say it was lovely, too. 🙂
COWEN: Bob Dylan?
GIDLA: No, underrated.
GIDLA: I like Bob Dylan. I like him a lot.
COWEN: Why do you like him?
GIDLA: I don’t know. That’s what I grew up with. We got all the music and movies 10 years after you have them. Even though I wasn’t from the Beatles and Bob Dylan times, that’s what we got when I was growing up. It really fascinated me that someone who’s singing nasally can be a popular singer-writer.
…and now, added to my ever-increasing reading list – all recommended by Gidla:
Oh, and in digression – I also just came across this interactive Kindle map about the top books read in each state in the U.S. in 2017. The Handmaid’s Tale topped the list, of course – but some of the seconds and thirds by state were also quite interesting.

“Another way of telling”

Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable.

We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.

The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life, even though not a few who follow that story line have bad lives. We speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us.

Even those who live out the best version of the familiar story line might not find happiness as their reward. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I know a woman who was lovingly married for seventy years. She has had a long, meaningful life that she has lived according to her principles. But I wouldn’t call her happy; her compassion for the vulnerable and concern for the future have given her a despondent worldview. What she has had instead of happiness requires better language to describe. There are entirely different criteria for a good life that might matter more to a person — honor, meaning, depth, engagement, hope.


Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.

There is a paradox at th

-Rebecca Solnit, “The Mother of all Questions,” Harpers, October 2015