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"Aiding and Abetting" is published today

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My new book Aiding and Abetting, Foreign Aid Follies and the 0.7% Deception is published today by Civitas. The press release is here. One of the book’s suggestions: that some of the UK’s bloated foreign aid budget be transferred to the UK military for “dual-use” heavy lift capacity, as well as its general criticism of UK government aid policy, was picked up by several of the UK newspapers today:

Daily Telegraph – Divert Billions From Aid Budget to Turn Britain into ‘Foreign Aid Superpower’, Civitas Report Says,

The Independent – Give Overseas Aid to MoD and BBC, Says Thinktank

Daily Mail – Foreign Aid? Simply a Ruthless, Self-Indulgent Con Job Says Scathing Study

Daily Express – Stop Blowing Our Billions on Foreign Aid, Prime Minister David Cameron is Told.

The Daily Mail also ran a “digest” of the book under my name, entitled How Your Money is Squandered on Foreign Aid.

The Amazon link to the book is here though apparently they ran out of stock today and will take a couple of days to get more copies.

 

'The Indian Quarterly': Finally out; getting some attention

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For the last two years I have spent about half my time in Mumbai working on a new Indian publishing project.The Indian Quarterly (IQ),  the product of that work, finally hit the shelves of India’s bookstores in November.

The cover of IQ issue 1, volume 1

The magazine was designed to be an Indian combination of Granta, Intelligent Life and the New Yorker… with what we hoped would be a distinct “Bombay sensibility” (most Indian magazines these days being published out of Delhi).

The first issue includes:  essays by Lawrence Osborne, Justine Hardy, Jerry Pinto, James Scott Linville, Michael Hanlon, Sunil Sethi and Daisy Waugh; fiction by Omair Ahmad; travel pieces by Sadakat Kadri and I Allen Sealy; a mordant memoir of reporting the China-India war by Peter Worthington, photography by Dayanita Singh and Sooni Taraporevala, profiles of Rashid Rana and Kushwant Singh by, respectively, Girish Shahane and Mark Tully; an interview with author Ed Luce by his FT colleague and Mumbai bureau chief James Crabtree; a history of Marine Drive by Sidharth Bhatia;  a celebration of Mackenna’s Gold (India’s most popular Western) by Kaushik Bhaumik, paintings by Atul Dodiya and Sudhir Patwardan; and a diptych by Sarnath Banerjee.

As co-editor (with Madhu Jain) I’m very proud of what we achieved with a tiny, part-time staff and the help of some of the staff at Verve magazine. Now we are beginning to get some notices in the mainstream Indian media including this mention in Outlook magazine with its praise for IQ’s ‘superb production values’.

The magazine does not yet have a website (it is waiting for a budget commitment from the publisher) but we do have a Facebook page and a twitter account. In theory the second or third issue will be distributed in select bookstores in the UK and USA…

The Filkins Version and the Real War

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A review in the New Yorker of Tom Rick’s new book about General Petraeus reveals its author, Dexter Filkins of the NYTimes as well, an unreliable source, to put it kindly. He glibly claims of the early Iraq War: “When the real invasion got under way, in March, 2003, American soldiers came under attack from a hidden enemy that was wearing no uniform at all.” In that case who were all those corpses wearing Iraqi Army uniforms that I saw and photographed on the way up North? (see below) What were those burning/burnt out Republican Guard vehicles? And who were those thousands of khaki-clad prisoners in the custody of the 3ID?

Perhaps Filkins didn’t arrive in Iraq until much later in the conflict and simply hasn’t done his homework – though I recall his own book (which I reviewed here) suggests that he was in country at the time. But where were the New Yorker’s famed fact checkers when his story came in? Shouldn’t an editor have checked the piece with a trustworthy source like the magazine’s own sterling reporter Jon Lee Anderson?

I’m curious about the book and to hear what Filkins (who is an experienced and intrepid war correspondent) has to say but if he gets facts like that wrong in the first paragraph I wonder if it’s worth reading the rest of the review…

My latest pieces for India's Verve Magazine

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One of the pleasure of being partially based here in Mumbai while setting up the forthcoming Indian Quarterly magazine is writing light essays and features on a regular basis for Verve magazine, a publication I first wrote for in 2009 the aftermath of the 26/11 terror attacks (‘3 days in Mumbai’). My subjects have included India’s explosion of cafe culture, the new fashionability of “high tea” in Bombay, the astonishingly rapid evolution of New Delhi and my personal fitness recipe for sedentary subcontinentals (for what that’s worth).

 

In Praise of Teatime (Verve Magazine, August 2012)

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Jonathan Foreman eschews the world of modern worries and fears, of a quick coffee or hurried after-work drink for the old-fashioned indulgence of teatime, and discovers that this ‘meal’ is for those who truly love and can afford luxury

There is nothing like tea. Not tea the drink but tea the meal – the traditional late afternoon snack taken with real loose-leaf tea, and often featuring cucumber sandwiches, cakes and scones. It is in a way the ultimate in culinary luxury, because its old-fashioned indulgence runs counter to so many modern worries and fears. For one thing, unlike a quick coffee or an after-work drink, a proper sit-down tea takes a lot of time out of the workday. And unlike any other in-between meal or snack, it presents one irresistible high-calorie, high-fat temptation after another. And in a sense that is the whole point: tea is a feast for the unworried, a time-out for the confident, a leisurely meal for members of the leisure class – or for people who want to feel that way for just an hour or two.

This is why afternoon tea, following its Victorian and Edwardian heyday became a speciality of the grandest hotels around the world, and an indulgence for those who patronised them either on vacation or as part of their normal lives.

Here in India and in many countries around the world, not least in the UK, afternoon tea seems to be making a major comeback, indeed to have become highly fashionable. (However, some might argue that in India, thanks to its clubs and five-star culture, the tradition of afternoon tea never went into hibernation as it did in Europe and America.)

It is almost as if people are rebelling against the pressure to rush things, to watch their weight, to spend every minute of the workday behind a desk. The business-person who invites a colleague or client for afternoon tea at the Taj or high tea at The Table is therefore implying that she or he is the master of her time and her figure (or at least her appetites).

But for many people who love or who are rediscovering afternoon tea, its pleasures have more to do with comfort and nostalgia. Both the timing of teatime and the food served at tea can be redolent of the nursery and parties with stuffed animals, or at least of the unhurried pace and endless afternoons of childhood.

For me it brings back afternoons in the English countryside, when, as teenagers on release from boarding school, we would come in from a cold, wet walk and warm up with tea and biscuits and savouries like sausage rolls. It is also reminiscent of university: when I was at Cambridge a couple of decades ago, tea-parties were de rigueur. After all, we undergraduates had long afternoons, no real cooking facilities, an abundance of cake shops, and were living under the influence of Brideshead Revisited and movies that evoked an elegant pre-war past.

Legend has it that the whole ritual of afternoon tea owes its origins to the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Russell, who was a close friend of the young Queen Victoria. While staying at Belvoir Castle in the 1830s she found herself getting hungry between luncheon (then a light midday meal taken around noon) and dinner (then taken as late as 10 p.m.) and started having Darjeeling tea and cakes served to her in her bedroom. Soon her friends started to join her and it began to become fashionable to take tea around 4 p.m.

By the early 20th century, afternoon tea had filtered down to the middle classes and below and was available in department stores and tea shops. It was at tea parties, sometimes accompanied by lectures, that many of the Suffragettes passed on their message of votes for women to female friends and acquaintances. Tea-parties were such a feature of Victorian and Edwardian life that they abound in the literature of the period, both serious and comic. Alice in Wonderland for instance, is inconceivable without the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Increasingly these days you hear about people getting together for high tea. This is actually a misnomer for the afternoon meal of cakes and sandwiches. High tea technically refers to another meal entirely: an early dinner. In the 19th and much of the 20th century ‘tea’ was the main evening meal for British working class people, especially in mining and factory towns of the North of England. (Sometimes people called it ‘meat tea’ because it featured dishes like shepherd’s pie or cold cuts.)

The same usage became common in Australia and New Zealand. In both countries even today an invitation to ‘tea’ can really mean an invitation to dinner.

Interestingly high tea was also the main evening meal for upper class children who would then be put to bed before their parents dined. Even today high tea, served around six is the main evening meal in British boarding schools.

It is American hotels that began to mislabel Afternoon Teas as High Tea, and that usage has been brought to the Subcontinent, by NRIs and restaurateurs trained in the US. However, India’s great hotels, like the Taj Mahal in Mumbai still call afternoon tea by its proper name.

The ideal tea meal features sandwiches cut into finger shapes for easy, tidy eating; scones, preferably with clotted cream and real jam and some other form of cake. The tea should be loose leaf, perhaps one of the new Indian high-end organic brands. The Sea Lounge in the Taj offers all this plus Indian snacks like bhel puri, though once you’ve had one of their afternoon teas you will be unlikely to want supper later.

(In the great British and French hotels that kept and continue to keep the tradition of afternoon tea going long after the Victorian Age, the sandwiches and cakes are often served on three-tiered stands.)

For some the appeal of tea is romantic. Even today at Oxford and Cambridge, a first date is often a luxurious afternoon in a tea shop or a fellow student’s rooms. Someone who invites a date to tea is signalling that they want to share unhurried time and indulgent food with them. For others, tea may be about comfort and the echoes of childhood. But for everyone tea is about a meal with no utilitarian purpose other than pleasure. And if traditionally it was reserved for those with the freedom to spend an afternoon chatting and eating cake – or Victorian ladies with time to fill – today it is becoming an option for people who just want to take an afternoon’s holiday.

Functional Fitness for India (Verve Magazine July 2012)

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Sprint rather than jog. Hop skip and jump like a child. Make your body your gym. Keep moving. Always take the stairs. Jonathan Foreman explains that your body will thank you for safeguarding it with Functional Fitness – which is not about looking good but training for your life

It is the latest buzzword in fitness. The successor to Zumba classes, powerplate, elliptical trainers, celebrity yoga tapes and all the other health and fitness fads that have crossed the Atlantic, conquered Europe and made their way East. Unlike its predecessors, Functional Fitness is not primarily about looking good. However, its advocates insist that their exercises will indeed give you an attractive as well as a strong, safe and useful body.

Indeed, like Corbusier, the architect who created Chandigarh and who believed that real beauty was a matter of efficient function, Functional Fitness advocates a belief that nothing is more beautiful than a body that does efficiently and painlessly what it was designed by nature to do.

The idea of Functional Fitness is that you are training for your life not for a marathon race or to be more attractive. You are safeguarding the only body you will ever have in this lifetime. You are maintaining and improving and preserving the temple in which your spirit resides.

One way you can assess your Functional Fitness is by asking yourself how comfortably and safely you could deal with ordinary physical challenges. Can you lift a box or a child without putting your back out? Can you put your bag in the overhead compartment on the plane without help? Does going upstairs wear you out and do you trust your strength and balance when you walk down steps? Can you sprint for a plane or enjoy vigorous sex without risking a heart attack?

A surprising number of gym-bunnies and regular runners are not actually fit in this sense. They may be able to pound a treadmill for hours on end, but when they sprint for a train or a bus they may collapse in agony, or they may put their back out taking a pot out of the oven. In other words, they look good but are not truly, functionally fit.

MUSCLE POWER
Functional Fitness is about natural and practical movements rather than artificial ones. Exercises for Functional Fitness generally involve several muscles or muscle groups working together and are designed to promote not just strength but also balance and flexibility.

Advocates of Functional Fitness point out that many of the movements that people do with weights or machines in the gym have no equivalent in real life. All that exercises like bicep curls prepare you to do is to lift more weights, they say. Moreover many if not most of the machines in the gym were designed for body-builders not ordinary people. Functional Fitness converts argue that there is little value – unless you are recovering from surgery or an injury – in using machines that exercise a muscle in isolation.

This may ignore questions of vanity. Many non-functional exercises will give you bigger muscles and burn off fat if you do them rigorously and often enough. But then the view of Functional Fitness advocates is that these “non-functional” exercises that you see so many people doing in the gym often cause injuries that result in people giving up the gym entirely and then getting really, really unfit and fat. It is an argument that is strengthened by the fact that much of the Functional Fitness concept has its origins in physiotherapy and rehabilitation.

Some Functional Fitness instructors actually eschew all weights and machines, believing that exercisers need to learn to control their own bodyweight first. (In the USA one of the leading proponents of bodyweight exercises is Mark Lauren, a former Special Forces soldier who wrote a book called You Are Your Own Gym.)

Of course, it could be argued that the ultimate bodyweight and body control exercise disciplines are dance, martial arts, Pilates, and yoga. The last, quite apart from its psychological and spiritual benefits, seems to be particularly effective as an antidote to the back, neck and shoulder stiffness caused by a sedentary or desk-bound lifestyle.

To the extent that they use any equipment at all, many Functional Fitness gurus prefer stability balls and wobble boards and other devices that force their clients to engage the core muscles of their abdomen and back.

Others use traditional gymnastic equivalents like climbing ropes, Olympic rings and the monkey bars found in children’s’ playgrounds. For instance, the legendary ‘Gym Jones’ training team of Salt Lake City that turned the cast of the film 300 into convincingly rippling Spartan warriors – and global pin-ups – used all these old-fashioned tools and also odd objects like tractor tyres and rubber bands to torture their clients into picture perfect shape.

‘BOOT CAMP’ PROGRAMMES
Many devotees of Functional Fitness have come to it through military-style ‘boot camp’ fitness programmes that have become so popular in the US and UK over the last decade or so. These days it’s hard to go to a big urban park in either country without seeing people doing jumping jacks, burpees or sit-ups under the watchful eye of a civilian drill instructor.

Another fitness movement that is often included under the rubric of Functional Exercise is CrossFit. (The workout in the ‘Sport of Fitness’ Reebok ads currently shown on Indian movie screens is a CrossFit based one). It is fearsome stuff involving calisthenics, weights, and gymnastic equipment like rings. If you watch CrossFit videos you will see small slight women hoisting improbably heavy barbells above their heads, though its leaders say that its workouts all involve ‘movements that mimic motor recruitment patterns that are found in everyday life! Squats for example mimic sitting down and getting up from a chair. Deadlifts make practitioners less likely to hurt themselves picking up dropped keys or a crying child.

CrossFit gyms around the world get a ‘Workout of the day’ from the company’s headquarters. The movement’s practitioners around the world can be so devoted that some have likened it to a quasi-cult. There is also a big overlap of CrossFit devotees and believers in ‘Paleo’ or ‘Neanderthal’ diets who restrict what they eat to the ‘wild’ protein-rich foods that would have been preferred by our pre-agricultural caveman ancestors.

BACK TO NATURE
There is also Primal Fitness or Wild Fitness, an originally French philosophy of fitness that emphasises running around in nature in the way of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Scientists have discovered that our ancient ancestors were taller and stronger than their agricultural descendants – and us – and that discovery has propelled fitness coaches to get their clients running and jumping around in the woods, picking up stones, and swinging from tree branches.

Tim Ferris, the author of the bestseller Four Hour Body, came to Functional Fitness through a quest to heal a number of persistent physical problems including immobile shoulders and a perpetually sore lower back. He became a devotee of moves like the ‘Turkish Get-Up’ and various exercises designed to open up an upper body that had been warped by too much time over a computer.

For many ordinary people, the great appeal of Functional Fitness-inspired training is that it is so much less boring and time consuming than conventional workouts. You don’t endlessly repeat the same tedious movements. You sprint rather than jog for hours. You get to jump, roll and skip like a child. You lift heavy objects a handful of times, then stop.

MOVE YOUR BODIES
The one thing that all forms of Functional Fitness have in common is the way they use whole body movements, rather than exercises that test and develop a single muscle. Whole body movements like squats and push-ups exercise small supporting muscles as well as big, limb-moving ones. It is the small supportive muscles that often give out first, causing back, shoulder and leg injuries, so it is important to exercise them. The other great advantage of these multiple muscle, full-body exercises is that they use many more calories and burn up much more fat in a shorter space of time. They also tend to provoke a strong endocrine response in the body, prompting your brain to release the hormones that simultaneously build muscle and burn fat.

Unlike old-fashioned trainers, physical training instructors who espouse Functional Fitness will often give their clients guidance on how to behave and move their bodies when they are not in the gym. (For instance, some advise you to brush your teeth standing on one leg.) The idea is that even the best workouts cannot make up for bad posture at your desk and in your normal life.

THE NEXT BIG THING
Whether Functional Fitness will become the next big thing in India the way it has in countries like Australia, the UK and the US depends on several things. One factor is the degree to which Functional Fitness has become fashionable in American universities. That is because most fitness fads make their way to Delhi and Mumbai not through scientific studies or professional athletics but via students and graduates recently returned from US campuses. (A lot of our Zumba, Pilates and even yoga instructors are just kids who enjoyed going to the gym in America and found that you don’t need any formal training or qualifications to set up as a coach in the subcontinent.) While Functional Fitness classes and programmes are undoubtedly the next big thing in New York, LA and London gyms patronised by adults and amateur athletes, their very grown-upness and seriousness makes them less appealing to college kids, especially those who see the gym as primarily a place to socialise, show off smooth skin and young, flexible limbs. This may limit its reach here.

Some of the lifestyle prescriptions of Functional Fitness gurus may also be difficult for Indians to follow, for the same social and cultural reasons that make many Indians so predisposed to unfitness, obesity, diabetes and other afflictions of a sedentary, servant-assisted life.

After all, one reason, according to the Functional Fitness advocates, that so many Americans and Europeans need to take regular vigorous exercise is that labour-saving devices have made them weak and lazy. Only two or three decades ago people did not press a button to open a car window but used elbow grease. For that matter they also did without power steering. Turning a window lever burns only a handful of calories and exercises the arms and shoulders only briefly, but if you multiply that handful by 300 or more days a year, you end up with 1000s, and the equivalent of several pounds of weight or inches around the waistline.

In India, daily life for many tends to be even less calorically demanding and physically rigorous than it is for people in the First World. But while Indians may not have every labour-saving machine found in Western homes, by and large, they have in their place labour-saving human helpers. How do you keep fit if you don’t even have to stand up from your chair to get a cup of tea or a glass of water from the kitchen, or a cappucino from the café?

It is hardly rocket science that if more people were willing to take the stairs instead of the lift and escalator, if they walked short distances instead of taking a car, if they even did the kind of every day housework or gardening that many prosperous Westerners do for themselves, they would not need to worry so much about heart disease, sore backs or pot bellies.

In the meantime though, it could be worth looking for a trainer or a class steeped in functional fitness. Your body will thank you for it.

Brewing it Up (Verve Magazine December 2011)

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The arrival of global coffee house behemoths in the country proves that modern Indian café culture has reached a new level of maturity and competitive excitement. Thanks to the espresso machine – and all that comes with it – a generation of young people has been liberated, observes Jonathan Foreman

A micro-skirted, skinny, short-haired young woman with enormous eyes and a very small dog in the crook of her arm is asking the unflappable man behind the counter for an organic spelt loaf and a coffee to match her figure: a tall decaf skinny cappuccino.

Behind her in the high-ceilinged cool of the big dining room there is a long wooden communal table and a wall decorated with what look like iron farm implements. Everything about this airy wood-floored space proclaims a stylish superiority to your everyday coffee chain. We could be in Paris’ St Germaine, London’s Notting Hill or New York’s Greenwich Village, but we are not. The skinny woman with the tiny dog clicks on spindly heels out of this new branch of Le Pain Quotidien and into Mumbai’s heat, just up the street from the Gateway of India.

The arrival in India of ‘PQ’ as international devotees of the Belgian high end bakery-café chain call it, is an event of some significance, especially taken together with the recent announcement that Starbucks is finally coming to India. The global coffee house behemoth has made an agreement with Tata that should result in the first Starbucks branches coming to India later this year and also a major investment in the Indian company’s coffee plantations.

Starbucks was, of course, the original modern café chain. Beginning in the early 1980s it introduced a version of Italian coffee house life – with all the language, technology and rituals of espresso and cappuccino-making – to parts of America where the only alternative to instant was weak or bitter drip coffee. By the late 1990s, upper middle class suburbs around the US were being labelled ‘Latte towns’ and the term ‘barista’ had come into vogue to describe anyone who worked in a coffee shop. The taste for pukka espresso-based coffee eventually spread down to ordinary working class people – so that it became common to see burly construction workers asking for grande lattes at the chain. Starbucks now has more than 15,000 stores around the world and is in every major Middle Eastern and Asian country except India. (China has 500 branches.) Apparently the first Indian Starbucks will be inside Taj hotels.

The arrivals of both PQ and Starbucks – one chic and European, the other trendy and American – show that modern Indian café culture has reached a new level of maturity and competitive excitement. After all, an overtly foreign, up-market establishment like Le Pain Quotidien would never have even considered opening its first branch in India if existing café chains like Café Coffee Day, Barista and Costa Coffee had not already been so successful in discovering and fostering a new market. But that is actually to underplay the significance of coffee in India today, because it is very much more than a business story.

The coming of hundreds of foreign-style cafés to India’s metros arguably represents a huge cultural revolution – a radical change in the way that millions of people, especially women, live their lives. As the Café Coffee Day tag line goes, ‘A lot can happen over coffee’. And it’s true. Thanks to the espresso machine and all that comes with it, a generation of young people has been liberated.

It is easy to forget how different things were before the cafés started to open in colonies and malls across the country: how the social interactions of young or unmarried people of the opposite sex, were confined and limited by restrictive social rules – and by the fact that there were so few appropriate places to go. For girls and women who wanted to meet each other outside the home there were even fewer places outside the beauty parlour. But a café, unlike a bar or a nightclub, is a kind of chaperoned space. A girl or a woman can sit in one all day, alone or with her friends and not be seen or treated as less than respectable.

The old Indian coffee houses – wonderful though they were – represented a different kind of social institution. Like the British 18th century coffee houses where the likes of Dr Johnson gossiped with the playwright Sheridan, they were very definitely male establishments. Chai stalls are not much better.

The coming of the Western style café to every colony and shopping mall means that boys and girls whose freedom to meet, chat and flirt in person outside their parents’ home had been limited to the university campus, five-star hotels (for some) or to stolen moments in some corner of a public park, can now do so in a neutral, public, respectable and comfortable place.

Of course, it is not entirely clear why middle and upper middle class parents should assume their little darlings are having an entirely innocent time in a Barista or Coffee Day. While you rarely see much physical contact between the sexes in brightly lit, often noisy, air-conditioned emporia, if you sit and pay attention it soon becomes obvious that the young couples whispering or fondling their mobile phones are making arrangements to do things of which their parents would definitely disapprove.

It is a chicken and egg question as to which came first – the cafés or the café-going classes, but it is hard to imagine Barista and the others spreading so fast if there had not already been a big middle class of people willing to spend vastly more on a cup of coffee than they ever did on cups of chai at a pavement stall. There is also a theory that younger people liked the idea of cafés as places to hang out because so many of them had been exposed to the idea through the US TV series Friends – where the characters spend much of their time in a cool café called Central Perk.

But unlike many cafés in America or Europe, ours in India tend to be open late at night, long after the time when Westerners traditionally take anything caffeinated. Which is a sign that café going in India is already developing its own distinct flavour – and that if Starbucks is going to succeed it will have to adjust to that.

Traditionally, Italians drink cappuccino only in the morning – in the afternoons and evenings they drink espresso or macchiato (an espresso stained with a drop of milk). Flavours, syrups and even cinnamon are considered ridiculous, and lattes, like café au lait in France, are drunk only by children and the elderly, and at home. Tall decaf-skim no-whip mochas are not drunk at all.

But that’s fine for the Italians. If Indian yuppies want to buy cappuccinos at 10 o’clock in a café where videos are playing and music is pounding, it is because they have more important things to think about than a sleepless night. And also because they have something to celebrate – the freedom promised by a roasted bean.

Making much of the coffee bean

  • All coffee plants on earth have their ancestors in Ethiopia.
  • Coffee drinking made its way to Europe from Arabia in the 17th Century.
  • Coffee Houses became centres of conversation, politics, the arts and business: Lloyds the great international insurance company started life as Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House.
  • The Arabs had a monopoly on coffee cultivation until the end of the 17th century when the Dutch took plants to Sumatra and the French took some to the Caribbean.

 

Why India wins so few medals at the Olympics

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Last night the London-based Indian steel-magnate Lakshmi Mittal gave a lavish bash at his Kensington palace for India’s Olympic team. It was in effect a celebration of a larger investment that the billionaire has made in Indian athletics. Since 2005, he has been funding the $10 million Mittal Champions Trust to support 10 Indian athletes with “world beating potential”.  However it’s a risky investment in a historically feeble enterprise. For India, despite its vast population and genetic diversity has had an astonishingly unimpressive record in international athletic achievement.

Mittal started his trust after seeing India win only one medal each year at the 1996 (bronze), 2000 (bronze) and 2004 (silver) games. In Beijing, the Indian team won 3 medals including a gold, but was ranked 50th among all the nations participating, behind tiny states like Belgium, Finland and the Dominican Republic.

Most of India’s 20 Olympic medals have been won for field hockey though in recent years there have also been victories in air pistol shooting and womens weightlifting. (The country’s other strong teams are in events like archery and trap shooting.) The country’s record at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games is similarly poor.

So why is India so bad at games (with the obvious exceptions of cricket and, to a lesser extent squash)?

Although people like to explain it in terms of poor sports infrastructure and the corruption that undoubtedly afflicts sports administration in India, it is much more a matter of culture.

In general India is weak in sports that require high levels of physical fitness. And this reflects traditional caste and class attitudes to physical effort. India is after all a society in which even middle class people will have a servant bring them a glass of water from just a few feet away, and in which for centuries high status has derived in part from not needing to make physical effort, thanks to the presence of many others whose role in life is to make efforts for their superiors.

It is only very recently that elite Indians have started jogging rather than slowly walking in parks like the Lodhi gardens in New Delhi, and this change very much reflects the influence of the American and British universities their children have been attending for the last couple of decades.

If games like squash and hockey seem to be an exception to the rule of sloth, that can be explained by the fact that the country’s  champions in such sports are almost without exception graduates of a handful of elite British style boarding schools like Doon, or have come up through the army —  all institutions that inculcate a Western or British attitude to sporting prowess.

Of course there is yoga, but it rarely translates into sporting prowess. There is also a strong tradition of “Hindu” wrestling (Dand) in some parts of the country, but it has produced only a handful international quality athletes. This is because it is rarely practiced by the ruling classes, and as you can see by India’s cricket team – entirely composed of people from English-speaking and therefore semi-elite backgrounds – those who come from the lower orders have little access to elite sporting training, facilities and selection. It also does not help that half the population suffer from malnutrition with all that entails for physical size and muscle growth.

On the plus side, Bollywood’s marked shift from tubby stars to slim, muscled ones seems to be having a positive effect on attitudes to training. These days there are more and more gyms in Indian cities (though still few by South East Asian, let alone Western standards) and a growing fashion for personal trainers who come to your house. It remains to be seen however if Mittals cash, and the 250 crore rupees the Indian government promised to spend on India’s team, will produce any medals.

 

Review of 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo (Mail on Sunday, July 1, 2012)

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Finding India’s Real Slumdogs

July 1, 2012

It is rare to come across a book as garlanded with praise as Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It is yet more rare to find one that deserves it. A page turner with a gripping human interest story, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the real India. It dives beneath official statistics and worthy rhetoric to show a corrupt third world society really works, and how it crushes the vulnerable.

It should be prescribed reading for everyone in the aid sector and anyone thinking of doing business in India.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo spent nearly four years interviewing the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum next to Mumbai’s new airport. Under the shadow of rising hotels, these people eke out an existence alongside pools of toxic effluent. Many depend on – and fight over — the thin opportunities offered by the rubbish tossed out from construction projects around the airport.

Boo’s book does not sentimentalize the poor, nor does it treat them as mere victims. Bracingly, it depicts them as capable of behaving just as cruelly as the authorities that make their lives a misery, and as ruthlessly as India’s new rich.

Boo’s cast of characters are mostly migrants to the city. They include a trio of teenage boys who hope their skills as sorters — or thieves – of trash will raise their families out of poverty, without bringing them into potentially fatal conflict with criminal gangs or the authorities. Then there is Asha, a mother who exploits the crooked machinery of government and the naivety of aid agencies to become the city’s first female slumlord.

But the person who sets a shattering tragedy in motion is Fatima, a cantankerous, highly-sexed schemer who plots to destroy the family in the hut next door. She does this by setting herself afire and telling the police that their hardworking son was responsible.

Mumbai Slumdwellers

The book offers a more intimate understanding of slum life than an academic study ever could, and much richness besides. You encounter in Boo’s coolly restrained prose both the brutalizing effects of corruption, poverty and official malfeasance, and examples of amazing human resilience.

(One of the extraordinary things about “Forevers” is that Boo uses real names: even those of the political bosses who give Asha money for a non-existent school in return for supplying crowds for demonstrations.  And Boo certainly does not spare the feelings or reputations of the impoverished people who talked to her – through interpreters – for so many hours.)

Her book is even more remarkable as an antidote to the recent celebratory bilge that has been written about shining India and the emergence of a huge “middle class”. It is the background Boo gives to her dispassionate narrative that is at least as shocking as the desperate measures taken by its protagonists. Boo matter-of-factly situates them in a world in which hospitals have no medicines because staff sell them on the black market, in which education programmes (some British-funded) are a joke on their supposed beneficiaries, and the police are thuggish extortionists whose services are rented to the highest bidder.

Thanks to her skillful storytelling, “Beautiful Forevers” races along like a novel, while packing the punch of a documentary. There are even times when you wonder if her subjects really could have said the dramatically perfect words she attributes to them.  If some of her reportage can feel too good to be true, it is also arguably incomplete given that you never hear the versions of the corrupt officials, police or doctors.

There is also a passage in which Boo foolishly blames the slumdwellers’ plight on “global market capitalism”. If she had been to India before the opening of its economy in 1989, she would know that the slums were at least as grim, officialdom at least as corrupt – and life was in many ways even worse than it is today.

That said, there is no question that Boo has done a great service not only to the people of Annawadi and other slums, but also to all the readers who find their way to the Beautiful Forevers.

 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo; Portobello; 288pp; £14.99.

Review of 'Eight Lives Down' by Chris Hunter, (Daily Mail, November 2007)

Essays/Book Reviews, Military/Defence Comments Off on Review of ‘Eight Lives Down’ by Chris Hunter, (Daily Mail, November 2007)

Defusing the Iraqi conflict

Few Britons have any idea of what our troops actually do in Iraq. The media’s coverage is generally limited to casualty reports, abuse claims and the odd, ill-informed screed about soldiers having the wrong equipment.

In four years no British media organisation, including the BBC, has bothered to establish a bureau in Basra. This lack of information makes Chris Hunter’s extraordinary Eight Lives Down all the more welcome and important.

But even if the ordinary travails of British troops in Iraq were wellcovered, this gripping memoir would be a revelation. After all, it’s by and about a man whose real-life job involves choosing between the red and blue wire so familiar in James Bond films – only on a daily basis.

Chris Hunter is a veteran ‘ammunition technical officer’ (ATO) or counterterrorist bomb-disposal expert.

During the first two months of his four-month tour of Iraq in 2004 ? a tour that coincided with the most intense period of the war in Basra ? his team was called out 45 times to disable various improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including remotecontrolled rockets aimed at Britain’s main Basra city base.

You might expect an account of disabling bombs to be repetitive or overly technical, but Hunter’s is neither. Each incident is fascinatingly different and edge-of-the-seat dramatic, and Hunter recounts them with vividness and clarity.

When he walks up to a dusty box by a highway with wires trailing off into a distant slum, or up to a car weighed down by explosives, he goes into his ‘other world’ ? he becomes a soldier with the concentration of a Zen monk and the manual dexterity of a surgeon.

Back at base, Hunter looks for patterns in the way that bombs are made and laid. At first his main opponent is a Sunni bomb-making gang, who are happy to slaughter scores of Shia civilians along with Coalition soldiers. Then, in the spring of 2004 comes the Shia militia uprising. They increasingly receive high-tech help from Iran and even Lebanese Hezbollah in using devices such as mobile phones and electronic car keys to detonate bombs by remote control.

Soon Hunter himself becomes a target for assassination: ‘They are out to kill the golden-haired bomb man in Basra,’ he’s told. Bombs are planted near schools and hospitals just to get Hunter out into the open and a sniper’s sights.

But it’s not all bombs and IEDs. Hunter also vividly describes full-on infantry combat, when on only his fifth day in country his convoy is ambushed on the main road. It’s one of several attacks on British troops after Piers Morgan’s Daily Mirror published obviously faked pictures of British soldiers abusing a prisoner.

The book reveals other uncomfortable truths. It turns out that the biggest handicap for British troops has been a lack of air cover. Often, when Hunter’s team disarmed a bomb, militiamen spied on them from rooftops.

On one occasion he was able to call helicopters in, prompting the watchers to flee. Mostly no helicopters came because it was either ‘too hot’ or none were available. Yet there were pilots twiddling their thumbs at base, and helicopters sitting unused at home in the UK along with other needed equipment.

Hunter is not a professional writer and the book is written in plain conversational soldier-speak peppered with military acronyms (there’s a glossary at the back), obscenities and cliché. Sometimes it feels as though he’s trying too hard to create a dramatic arc out of the question of whether his marriage will survive his tour.

But unlike much military nonfiction there isn’t a dull or needless paragraph. The action is relentless – Hunter saw more of it than most.

Indeed, as he was called out daily to different parts of the city, Hunter is probably a better informed guide to the war than more senior officers or the ordinary infantryman on patrol.

You also get a rare picture of professional soldiers at work: how they get on with each other and on with their jobs under huge stress.

There’s illegal drinking. There’s infuriating laziness on the part of rear echelon support troops. There’s absurd interference by senior commanders ‘too busy reminiscing about past conflicts to think about present and future ones’. There is compassion for the Iraqi people that the ‘bring-the-troops-home-now’ crowd could learn from.

You also get a powerful sense of just how amazingly filthy and run-down Basra is, even by Iraqi standards, despite promises of British aid.

Eight Lives Down is essential for anyone who wants to understand this war and the Army in general. It should be compulsory reading for Messrs Brown and Cameron and every single bureaucrat at the MoD.

In any case, it is almost certainly destined to be the British military classic of the Iraq war, and a book that will be read long after this conflict is over. Chris Hunter had already given extraordinary service to his country – and to civilians of Bosnia, Colombia, Afghanistan and Iraq – in one of the most dangerous military jobs. By writing this book he has also done a service to his profession, and created an enduring monument to his comrades.

JONATHAN FOREMAN has been an embedded correspondent with British and U.S. troops in Iraq.
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