Lecture given in 3 parts at the Goat Island Symposium at the end of the last Summer School, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, July 26, 2008.
Part 1 (6 minutes)
Uma walked slowly and deliberately a few steps behind her father as young brahman boys threw stones at her and called her names she did not understand. This happened not once but every day of her life that she went to school. She was wearing chappals, or open shoes with a toe hold, and she held books under her arm.
A convergent problem is one where solutions devised to solve it converge over time to one perfect solution. A divergent problem diverges to multiple solutions, both simultaneously and over time.
Over centuries of Indian culture the problem of how to store water, carry it, and pour it was solved by the evolution of the lota. A design consisting of a slim convex neck (for holding), a long lip (for dripless pouring), and a round bottom (for maximum volume and stability) became the universal Indian solution to the problem of water.
Bryan, you know how buildings are built. The foundation, the supporting columns, the load-bearing walls, the facade, the gossip. If I want to describe to you my friend the building I live in I must tell you about all these things.
What if I told you my building was a nunnery as late as 1933? That a nun living on the first floor once had a quarrel with a nun living on the third floor. That the nuns on the first floor could hear everything that went on on the second floor and that the nuns on the second floor could hear everything that went on on the third floor but never in the reverse direction. There are stories I could tell about nuns being possessed by the love of god and others by the god of love.
I love you. Do all three words have the same power? I - Love - You?
Examine these words as the common functional form y is a function of x. When you say y is a function of x you remove yourself from the xness of x and involve your self instead in the the yness of x.
In I love you, love takes over and emerges as all important. You emerge as all important. But I am lost. That is tragedy. That is classical economics.
I am a tiger. I am untamable. Do not attempt to fight me. Goddess Durga knows that to befriend me you must ride upon my back. I am Durga's vahana. Together we ride through the beautiful jungle of the Sunderbans.
I was thirteen, developing my character, a tiger, for my brilliant theater teacher Arun.
Arun was a third generation conservationist. His grandfather had worked with Jim Corbett studying the behavior of maneaters, or man-eating tigers. Tigers as a general rule find human flesh repulsive. Too salty, Arun would remark in mock seriousness and burst into a loud laughter, finding his own joke very funny. We didn't know then that hidden within his joke was a grain of truth. A salty grain of truth.
A nice way to do this is to say, arre baba enough! smiling all the time. You can only do this if you are older than the other person or a social equal.
What is value? Economists have tried to answer this question for at least two hundred years. I will try to answer it in a minute.
There is an inherent value in all things and beings.
It is the inherent dignity of a rock, tree, or person that gives it its value. The classical economists as well as the Marxians miss this simple point. A tree may have no economic value-in-exchange nor reflect any labor expended by humans but surely it has value.
I am not knowing if I had someone in my life or not, I am not knowing if I had another man or not, I am only knowing that I am loving you.
These immortal words are uttered by my favorite actress, Shilpa, whose name means well proportioned, and who incidentally went to school with me in Bombay. She says these words to Ram, her husband. Ram is an avatar of Vishnu in the epic Ramayana though in this movie he is a wealthy businessman. Her lover, whom she may or may not acknowledge, is simply named Dev, or God.
Banganga? We awaken a man sleeping next to a hot coal iron to ask, Banganga? He points in the direction of the bazaar. My mother and I walk that way. The market is full of exploding plastic lotas in every shade of purple, plastic scouring pads in yellow, and plastic images of Ram, Krishna, Hanuman, and Devi, with her lolling red tongue and garland of human skulls around her neck. The air is thick with incense and diesel fumes broken up by the salty air from the Arabian Sea of my childhood memories.
We arrive gawking at the gorgeous ankles of the girls out on Colaba causeway shopping for sandals. We ask for beer in cans and the waiter says we never serve beer in cans here and Bhaskar says nai, we always get beer in cans here and I add, and cheeselings. The waiter scratches himself through his Leopolds monogrammed shirt and insists, beer in bottles and peanuts. Okay baba bottles and peanuts but make it fermented beer. Bombay's the only place in the world where you can get fermented beer.
Part 2 (12 minutes)
My name means fearless eleven. That is my first name means fearless and my last name means eleven. I have been pondering the question of what my name means for over 30 years. Is there the possibility of being fearful of eleven? What is it about eleven that would generate such a question?
In my researches on the origins and meanings of my name I have looked most recently at numerology. If I use Pythagorus's formulation eleven becomes a very interesting number. For instance both Harry Potter and Voldemort become eleven. September 11 is an 11-11.
My name was perhaps intended to prepare me for the great fictional battles of our time.
Then we see the stone steps. They are uneven and cratered, caked with mud from the rain. I walk my mom down the steps and even as we walk we realize we are leaving the plastic incense diesel behind and following the path that the great mythical hero Ram took 700 years ago. Then we see the cats! They are everywhere, under the wooden planks left so it seems for years resting against a paanwalla's store, on every balcony and wall. And we notice that everyone here has their front door propped open. Are we still in Bombay I wonder? After all my mom's flat has uniformed security guards 24/7 (though they are asleep when I come home each night), an intercom security system (turned off when the power is down).
And then we see it. Banganga! With a single arrow the exiled King Ram pierced the earth here and sprouted the holiest of the holy rivers, Ganga, to create this little tank in Bombay. Subsequent Mughal, Portuguese, and English rulers tried to cover it up, blow it up, and turn it into a garbage dump but 700 years later, here it is. Steep stone steps mostly eroded by the strong rains go down to Banganga. My mother hesitates. I worry about my Canon SLR slung carelessly around my neck. Then a young girl appears from nowhere. She is wearing a blue saree, gold bangles, ear-rings and a nose-ring. With a beautiful smile she takes mom's hand and leads her down the treacherous steps all the way down to Banganga and as I fumble with my camera and rush down the steps to capture a digital image of this apparition she is gone.
Mom smiles at me and says this is my Bombay.
I will call the inherent value in all things dignity value.
All things natural and created have dignity value. It is when a society departs from the dignity value of things that bubbles are formed. The dignity value of all the so-called financial innovations in the real-estate market and stock market is close to zero. Their existence is of no real value whatsoever.
John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out years ago that bubbles are created by innovations in a subject incapable of innovations. In other words 'new' financial instruments are given a high and rising economic value while their dignity value is zero. The rising economic values of these financial assets in relation to their dignity value creates bubbles.
Crashes return things to their dignity values. Bubbles must burst. There is after all a quiet dignity to that.
Unable to demonstrate in practice what their words threatened in theory, the stone-throwing boys over the years asked their younger brothers and cousin-brothers and neighbor-brothers to join them in the game of insults. This continued until Uma had learned to read and write. Then her father died. Uma was married off to a widower with children and soon gave birth to my mother. I thus owe my own life to the ending of my grandmother's schooling.
She continued wearing chappals after her father died.
Abhay sings Rabindranath Tagore's song Jana Gana Mana which was adopted as India's National Anthem. Another song of Tagore's was later adopted as the National Anthem of Bangladesh.
Tigers do not like humans. Though the rest of the animals follow with the jungle itself a steady cycle of birth and rebirth, humans intervene deep into the jungle creating a cycle of failure. Honey collectors go into the Bengali jungle and smoke out wild bees to collect honey. Boat people anchor their floating homes along the Bay of Bengal and clear the forest of vital dried wood and disintegrating vegetation to use as firewood. Humans attack the jungle, while the rest of the inhabitants of the jungle live the natural rhythms and cycles of the ages, in balance.
There was once a Bombay and a Mumbai. I'd go to sleep in Mumbai and wake up in Mumbai and then go to Bombay where I was beaten. Mumbai was the padar of aai's saree but often she'd be chopping vegetables and have a big knife in her hand. I could have done without Bombay and our Principal, Mrs. Doongajee scaring the shit out of me by wearing Santa outfits even as she twisted my ear until my ear stood upside down, or so it seemed then.
And you prefer Bombay? the pony-tailed author at the next table asks. Well it is what's in my bones. Bombay whacked me with a foot-rule every day until I was 10. How can I forget?
By the time we've finished our first bottle of fermented beer the waiter has brought us a small green plastic bowl of cheeselings.
The British colonial policy of divide and rule was an official policy of creating divisions where none existed. At the turn of the last century the British tried to divide Bengal into a Muslim East Bengal and a Hindu West Bengal even though the people of Bengal thought of themselves simply as Bengali, not Hindu or Muslim.
If you are younger but a social superior then you could try, basbasbasbassss! Again, smiling but not necessarily all the time. If you are younger and socially inferior you have to wave your fingers frantically as well as appreciatively, yes both at the same time. No that's not all. You should also bow, slightly waggle your head from side to side s-l-o-w-l-y and say, nainai-nainai-nainai-nainai.
A bubble is a perfect model for the economic system I advocate. It is non-hierarchical, has no top or bottom, has no beginning, middle, or end. It contains within the same substance that is without (air) and can be looked at as well as looked through.
When it pops nothing bad happens. The inside air meets the outside air.
Bubbles remind me of Joe Brainard's I Remember. The entire book has no beginning, middle, or end. There is no prescribed way of reading it.
An economy should be capable of being approached that way. The value held in any thing being equal to the value outside of it.
As a kid I always drew muscle-men with bulging I mean really bulging muscular arms and legs. So when I turned 13 I was thrilled to discover that I could myself be one of these men I used to draw. My brother and I pooled our entire savings together and proceeded to the sports shop next to Metro and bought the "Bullworker 3" devised by a Swiss genius to build unbelievable muscles.
The colorful book that came with it had chart after chart showing 'potential growth' at each age. Unfortunately the chart only went down to age 18. It was so frustrating! A man of 40 could expect a 300% increase in muscle in just 30 days. But what about a boy of 13? No one had an answer for me. It must have stayed at the back of my mind all these years because a year ago when I turned 40 guess what I bought? Yes a bullworker! It no longer comes with a glossy book promising potential growth. I am not sure if my muscles have increased 300% but my right elbow hurts a little.
The Salt March protesting a new British tax on salt, the most basic commodity used to flavor food, drew thousands of supporters as Gandhiji walked continuously for 25 days from his ashram to the Arabian Sea where he defied British authority and law by picking up salt washed off the sea water. He then said simply, British rule is now over.
While the building of a dome, like a lota, is a convergent problem, the use to which it is put is a divergent problem requiring divergent solutions. That is why a dual-use building is not only feasible but even inevitable given enough time just as the lota is used not only to drink water (held an inch above the lips, never touching) but also to clean the anal orifice (held an inch above the fingers of the left hand, never touching).
Part 3 (4 minutes)
While Gandhi resisted British policies by picking up salt washed off the sea, his mentor Ravindranath Tagore did so by singing a song. He returned his knighthood and wrote songs that were transmitted by word of mouth all over Bengal. Hindus and Muslims both spoke Bengali and sang Tagore's songs of unity in open defiance of British policy.
In the beautiful jungle of the Sunderbans in Bengal, the Hindu goddess protector of tigers Banobibi had no intention of separating from her male consort, the Muslim Dakshin Rai regardless of the divisive tricks of the British government. Banobibi and Dakshin Rai were after all as old as the jungle itself.
Cutting down and clearing the jungle to turn it into farmland changes weather patterns, erodes the soil, destroys the delicate balance of birth and rebirth. This disturbance of the endogenous forces within the jungle moves salt water from the Bay of Bengal inland.
As the salt content of the soil rises sources of fresh water are polluted with salt. Streams and ponds that the tigers habitually drink from are salty. Excessive levels of salt in drinking water causes liver and kidney damage, even failure. Stripped of their dignity, the weakened, dying tigers are driven to eating man as food and are henceforth referred to not as tigers but simply, maneater.
Sixty year old Narayanamma, whose name means mother of Vishnu, is a widow and a coolie.
In this poorest of poor regions in Southern India, farmers who are too poor to hire help during the all important harvest season are simply called coolies.
Narayanamma has enough water in her well to water her half hectare of paddy but the diesel pump has broken down.
A new pump will cost 2000 rupees but Narayanamma, like most coolies, has a natural business sense. She has a buyer in the village for her broken pump willing to give her 1,200 rupees and even haul it away. She is in good standing with her relatives who can gather among them 100 rupees for her, leaving her in need of 700 rupees for a replacement pump. The alternatives are to turn to her usurous landlord or starve.
The Coolie Credit Fund hears cases such as this each week. They approve for Narayanamma an interest-free loan of 700 rupees and turn down a farmer looking to buy an extra cow.
"The Coolie Credit Fund has 48 members and so far, no defaulters," says the Fund's Secretary Venkatarayappa, whose name means father of the sacred mountain Venkata.
"But as an external force, our role is limited. We don't think we can do anything more here." The private, nonprofit organization behind the Coolie Credit Fund is planning to leave. They recognize that their presence in the long run is unhealthy.
"We plan to slowly withdraw from all the villages."
In the long run the coolies themselves must transcend their name, their fate, and create their own microlending institution. Perhaps they will name it Dignity Credit Fund.
Notes and Sources:
A Short History of Financial Euphoria by John Kenneth Galbraith, 1990, Penguin Books, New York.
Banking the Unbankable: bringing credit to the poor by the Panos Institute, 1989, PANOS, London.