Friday, December 22, 2006

The XYZs of gender testing

She crossed the finishing line at Doha with distinction but failed in the battle of the sexes, figuratively speaking.
Twenty-five-year-old Santhi Soundarajan, an athlete from India, was stripped of the silver medal she won in the 800 metres women's finals at the 15th Doha Asian Games after failing a gender verification test. But what exactly does a gender test mean?
Gender testing is not as simple as lowering one's skirts. It is a complicated issue, which even the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) regards as not "completely resolved". The International Amateur Athletic Federation, the previous avatar of the International Association of Athletics Federations, introduced gender-verification testing in 1966 to deter males from competing with females in sports.
According to the IAAF policy paper on gender verification, prepared by the IAAF Medical and Anti-doping Commission 2006, the first such test involved "crude" and "perhaps humiliating physical examinations".
This was followed by a method of determining "sex" chromatin through a buccal (oral) smear examination. But even this left too many uncertainties. For example, normally a woman has a pair of X chromosomes, and a man has an X and a Y chromosome, but there can be genetic abnormalities such as XO (known as the Turner's Syndrome), XXY (the Klinefelter's Syndrome) or XYY (the Supermale Syndrome).
Because of these uncertainties, the chromatin test was abandoned, first by IAAF in 1991 and, since the Sydney 2000 Games, by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Ever since, says the IAAF position paper, "a search has continued for an acceptable and equitable solution" to determine the gender of a sportsperson when challenged by a competitor.
Meanwhile, both the IOC and IAAF are working on a "consensus document" as a guide to dealing with cases of gender verification.
The basic position is that this kind of test is not mandatory, but can be carried out if officials want it or a rival team protests. Such cases cannot be resolved through laboratory-based sex determination alone, and a team of doctors — including a gynaecologist, endocrinologist, psychologist, internal medicine specialist and expert on gender/transgender issues — should examine the athlete.
IAAF holds that if an athlete undergoes sex change operations and appropriate hormone replacement therapy before puberty, then the athlete is allowed to compete as a female. If such procedures are conducted after the onset of puberty, the athlete has to wait two years for an evaluation.
According to Ms Santhi's parents, the 25-year-old athlete has yet to reach puberty. So, will it affect her career if she opts for appropriate hormone therapy? Will she have to wait for two years and seek a review by an expert panel following surgery and hormone therapy? All this is not clear yet.
Ms Santhi's ordeal started on Dec 9 when a gender test was carried out soon after her win. According to CNN-IBN, she apparently failed the polymerase chain reaction test, which identifies the actual genetic make-up of a person.
Since Ms Santhi's test results have yet to be made public, it is not clear if her gender verification test was comprehensive, as advised by IOC and IAAF. The BBC reported: "It is not clear how she failed the test at the Asian Games in Doha."
Interestingly, Ms Santhi failed a gender verification test two years ago when she applied for a job at the Indian Railways. However, she cleared this test at the Asian track and field championship in South Korea last year, where she won the silver in the 800m.
Can a person's gender change? Could Ms Santhi be a "he" in 2004, "she" in the games last year, and "he" again in Doha? There is no conclusive answer for now.
This controversy has also brought into focus the role of the Athletics Federation of India, which selected Ms Santhi to compete at Doha despite knowing about her disqualification for the railways job.
Though the Indian Olympic Association has decided to hold an inquiry into the issue, there is a pressing need to demystify the gender test at all levels, and find a conclusive scientific solution to the entire process. Six years into the 21st century, it is unacceptable that sportspersons and countries should suffer from such "confusing", ex post facto embarrassments.
Published in Today

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sam's Story

What is the nature of war? How does it affect your life even if it rages on and kills people hundreds of miles away from where you live? Can war’s futility be overemphasised?

Complex questions like these underpin the seemingly simple narrative of Elmo Jayawardena’s debut novel, Sam’s Story.

The novel’s comic façade and the charming simplicity of the text hide the dual core of anti-war and anti-racial prejudice messages that form the only turbulence in this smooth flight of imagination.

The novel is a first person account of a young, unlettered village boy, who is arbitrarily named Sam by Madam Martell of Colombo whom he served briefly as a houseboy. The story is set in the twilight years of the last century.

From a Sri Lankan village steeped in utter poverty, Sam comes to work in the River House, and comes to love both the house and its inhabitants.

He likes his friendly master, the Big Boss, who pilots an aerobblane, admires the lady of the house who is generous with food, and loves their two children, especially the boy, who come for vacations from their school in a far away place.

In the river house he is put to do what most poor people do in rich people’s houses: sweep the garden, water the flowerbeds and the lawn, wash the cars, open and close the gate when the cars come and go, feed the dogs and switch on and switch off the house and garden lights. This makes Sam an errand boy and gardener because there are others who do the other, more important jobs: Leandro, the cook, who is the ‘other kind’ and has a big room to himself and Janet, the housemaid, who is also from the ‘other kind’.

Who is this other kind? “The kind that made war, and killed soldiers and threw bombs at our leaders,” defines Sam.

“I didn’t like them,” says Sam upfront about Leandro and Janet. The boy, narrator of this tale, is generally naïve but he clearly knows what moves him and what irks him. “If I knew I had to work with their kind, I would not have come to the river house. But I was here; I couldn’t go back, nothing to go back to in the village.”

In an otherwise likeable set up, Sam has to put up with these two from the ‘other kind,’ his bete noir. They constantly remind him of the racial war their ‘kind’ was raging in the villages and killing the state’s soldiers. Their presence makes him a virtual pawn in the war and he feels to be under enemy fire all the time between Leandro, the vocal enemy, and Janet, the silent type enemy.

Sam didn’t like Leandro’s stupid war talk—“this Elam and tiger business”:

“It was about the war where his people were fighting my people and about cutting the country into two and such things. I didn’t know enough to talk back to him. Leandro knew everything. He knew who died and where the bombs exploded. He knew how many died and who shot whom and why? He even knew who was going to die. I mean which one among our leaders was going to be killed.”

As if that wasn’t chilling enough knowledge for Sam, he had to contend with more of Leandro’s patent exultation in violence against Sam’s people: “He would listen to the radio carefully and the come running to taunt me…Leandro would strut about his kitchen like a peacock and relate the news stories with pride, as if he himself had killed the hundred…Then he would run and tell Janet. It always ended with Leandro giving his chicken laugh.”

Despite his naivety, Sam understands the crux of the problem, the politics behind Leandro’s hatred for his ilk: “I think this war had split way beyond the leaders who were planning and the soldiers who were fighting. It had even made stupid cooks like Leandro hate stupid gardeners like me. It was a matter of what kind you belonged to—you always hated the other kind.”

Elmo has shown, through this kind of hatred among the man on the street, the level of rottenness in the country’s society.

Sam’s best friends in the river house are not humans. They are the two pet dogs of the family, Bhurus (actually Brutus) and Lena. And why are they his best friends? “Bhurus and Lena were my best friends. They didn’t throw bombs. They didn’t kill any people.”

Once Sam’s story is on the roll, the plot gets stalled in a way until the end, and the narrative in between becomes a collage, a mosaic of character studies seen through the eyes of Sammy boy.

Nevertheless, it is interesting, especially its myriad light moments held together by Sam’s bucolic humour. Otherwise, the narrative’s jet engines slow down. Those looking for a racy war novel here are in for a disappointment.

The cadence of the story is rhythmic and repetitive, echoing the rural storytelling tradition of the country. One wouldn’t expect an unlettered narrator to wax eloquent like the narrator of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, also a novel on divide in society (casteism in this case) and loss.

War is futile. Sam and Leandro realise this when the images of war’s violence cease to become mere images on the television screen. They get completely disillusioned with the hoopla of war. Leandro changes for good: “I don’t think Leandro wants to join the fighting any more. He was very sad. I don’t think he wants to have anything to do with the war after what happened to the river house.”

That is one of the most humanising moments in the novel—Sam and Leandro sharing the same pain, forgetting the divide of race and politics. Their loss becomes common now. It circumvents their divide, makes it pointless.

Sam’s Story also demonstrates the helplessness of the poor, and even the rich, who don’t choose to be party to conflicts and yet suffer its consequences.

Sam’s boss, who wanted no part of the war, pays the price for being at the wrong place in the wrong time. His innocence, his non-partisan attitude does no good to him. He used to say: “That war is purely political, to fulfil the empty ambitions of our leaders…It is a war for the rich to get more rich and for the poor to die.”

This cannot be truer than in the present time, and it holds water not just for the war in Sri Lanka but for all the wars that are ravaging our world today. And who would know it more intimately than an aeroplane pilot after 911 and the recent Heathrow bomb plot? That pilot is none other than Captain Elmo, the creator of Sam and his heart-touching story.

If you get a chance to pick up Sam’s Story, then please do. A smooth flight is assured. So, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seatbelts and enjoy your flight.

Sam’s Story, published by Vijitha Yapa Publications in Sri Lanka (1991) and Marshall Cavendish in Singapore, was awarded the prestigious Graetian Award in 2001 for the best literary work in English in Sri Lanka.

Captain Elmo Jayawardena writes novels when he is not flying jets for Singapore Airlines or working for his charitable foundation, AFLAC. For a detailed biography of Capt Elmo, please see this post by MediaCorp journalist Deepika Shetty.

I write because...

This year's literature Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk is a much admired writer. Honestly, I am yet to read most of his work. The only one I had tried so far in the early months of this year, without any idea of his forthcoming Nobel win, was My Name is Red. It is cited as one of Pamuk's best novels.

Over the years, whatever little reading I have done, I have realised that some works, even if they are much admired, don't work well in translation with readers like me. That's why while others enjoy works in translation, I often don't.

I tried reading My Name is Red (Benim Adım Kırmızı) but lost interest after page 50 or so. I give a book enough attention, time and effort until I am convinced it is not for me, at least for that particular time in my life. So I abandon it. I don't care what others think of me. I read for my own pleasure, and my instruction.

Will try again to read some of his other works in the coming months.

I liked one of the passages from his Nobel lecture:

As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.

I guess these lines echo the sentiments of most writers. If anyone asks you why do you write refer him/her to these lines of Pamuk.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

How to move out of the line of fire

JULY 15, 2001 was a remarkable day in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Pakistan's President Parvez Musharraf was on his maiden visit to India. He was to meet India's then Prime Minister A V Vajpayee the next day in Agra and issue a joint statement which would mark a thaw in relations between the two estranged neighbours.

Delhi was steeped in a discernible excitement and the 24-hour TV news channels went into overdrive speculating on what was going to result from this summit.

The two leaders met in Agra but the "Agra Declaration" was never signed. General Musharraf abruptly left India. A historic moment passed without being grasped.

What followed was an "eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation" between India and Pakistan on the border in 2002. Notwithstanding Gen Musharraf's overtures for "peace" with India on numerous occasions later on, not much progress was made and, after 911, his focus switched to the war on terror with his friend, United States President George W Bush.

Now that the clouds of war are on the wane and he has written a self-congratulatory autobiography, In the Line of Fire, after beating Al Qaeda in Pakistan, Gen Musharraf has once again turned his attention to resolving the issue of Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.

In an interview earlier this month with New Delhi Television (NDTV), he gave a "four-point solution" to solving the Kashmir dispute, which includes a phased withdrawal of troops and self-governance for locals.

The news made international headlines.Truth be told, there is hardly anything new in his purported "four-point solution".

Published in Today, Dec 18

Read the full text here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

In search of international success?

Reading the interview with Yiyun Li in The Guardian made me think more about the regime in China and the flight of the Chinese students to the USA (strangely about Indian students to the USA too), and much less about literature and short story writing.

Though I am yet to sample any of her stories, I am sure she makes a great impact as a writer, going from the kind of awards she has got and the kind of strides she has made in the literary world (apart from the letters of recommendation she has got from the likes of Rushdie and the editor of The New Yorker). Her story comes off as a success story of an immigrant who has achieved recognition in her field. Instead of a writer, it could have been the case study of a person from any other profession: metallurgy, nuclear physics, hydraulics, genetic engineering.

So what has she made me think about China?

The point I am going to make will only make sense to you when you compare it with India's case. The big picture in this context is this: The Indians and the Chinese make the highest number of foreign students in the USA.

From her interview, and after reading many accounts and reports, it seems that the Chinese flock to the USA (or any other developed country) for higher studies more for reasons of escaping the authoritarian regime at home than for anything else. Of course, making it to the USA is anybody's dream from poorer and less freer societies. Of course, Getting rich is glorious, as the Maoist slogan goes. That inspiration is always there. So the dream of success is there but I guess those who make it to the USA to settle down there for good make a good number (majority) of Chinese migrants.

This is understandable in the case of the Chinese. But what about the Indians? India is a democracy, there is freedom, all sorts of facilities are there--IITs and IIMs and so many other good institutions for many many decades. The why do members of the Indian elite flock to the USA for settling down there? What repression/system failure are they escaping from? While many are returning now, the majority of them still want to remain in the land of the opportunity.

I am not saying that there is anything wrong here. I also suspect that many Indians would not buy this line of argument. But does it not strike you that the Indians, more than the Chinese, go to the US to get degrees and then settle down there? All my friends who went to the land of Uncle Sam have no intention of returning to India. Many have taken American citizenship and have married into the local community.

I never looked at these numbers, thousands of Indian and Chinese students, from two opposite socio-political system, immigrating to USA and other Western countries in search of suceess, in this light before.

We know what is lacking in China. But what about India? The Indian brain drain started a little after Independence. Since then, we might not have much else but we had plenty of freedom. So what caused the Indian brain drain? Nehru's socialism? But that was then. What accounts for this current outflow of students from a shining liberalised India?

And here is a relevant qrote. Arguing for allowing FDI in the education sector in India, economist Bibek Debroy writes (OPEN EDUCATION TO FDI TO REVERSE BRAIN DRAIN) in Tehelka: "First, with 1,20,000 Indian students going abroad annually, the annual foreign exchange outgo is $4 billion. If FDI entry leads to supply-side improvements, not only will this foreign exchange outflow be saved, there may even be some inflow, because students from elsewhere may come to India."

Clearly the problem is there. But for many Indians admitting even this, that there's this problem with the shining India, might be problematic.

Perhaps what is fuelling this exodus is the pursuit of success. Now homegrown success is not enough. International success is the authentic success. This perhaps cannot be more true in a globalized world. Getting success with an international label--a Penguin, a Random House, a Columbia Pictures, a Luis Vuitton-- is being more successful, being more recognizable than getting success with any of the big label's local variants, or much worse, with local brands. Everybody wants to be on the big billboard, beating the 'mini successful' crowd back home at the game of Warholean fifteen seconds of fame.

Is this the whole truth or there is something else behind the dream of super-size-me success and a Staffordean wives' lifestyle?

David Foster Wallace on Borges

Ever wondered what makes Borges' stories Borgesian?

I love Borgesian tales and that's why when I came across this review of Borges' biography in the NYT recently by David Foster Wallace, I loved to make a note of it. Here I am sharing it with you:

"This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots' centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially -- consciously -- a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there's finally no difference -- that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges's is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It's also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The General and his labyrinth

I am not very fond of political biographies. Most of my spare time goes to reading fiction or literary non-fiction. But I could scarcely believe my indulgence when I started reading General Parvez Musharraf’s autobiography, In The Line of Fire.

Despite its heavyweight theme, clichés and superfluity, it is written like a racy thriller. It starts with a violent beginning, a suicide attack on the President of Pakistan, and then like a flashback, portrays the journey of the man who was the target of the suicide attack.

At that time, when I started reading this book, I was between a novel and a political science book but the General’s opus wrested my attention so much that I had to keep everything aside. Even the eagerly awaited Bond flick Casino Royale had to wait for a week.

Every night I found myself delving deep into the world of this Delhi-born little Muslim boy who had migrated to Pakistan with his parents at the time of the sub-continent’s partition, who spent part of his childhood in Turkey, speaking a fluent Turkish like any other local Turkish boy of his age, was known as a dadageer (a bold, awe-inspiring person, more like a bully) amongst his peers, didn’t do as well in his studies as his bright elder brother and who ended up in the army. The boy turned into a soldier of promise who was destined to end the phase of “sham democracy” in Pakistan and save his country from the brink of disaster, from imploding as a failed state.

Too good to be true? But that's how the General has written his biography, which many have alluded to as "selective hagiography". At times, it looks like a justification palimpsest from this formidable ruler, who needs a crash course in humility; at others, it looks like his manifesto, especially the last few chapters of the book, on why Pakistan and the world needs him in the age of terror.

It makes sense, in a way. During the cold war, Pakistan was (still is) the ally state of USA in South Asia, a bulwark in the region. Now that China is emerging as the new super power, Pakistan is still useful as a bulwark state for China in an India-dominated region.

Hagiography or self-laudatory spiel, the book opens a window into the life of a military general, who once was in love with a Bengali girl, who rues over the unjust legacies from a painful partition, who broke down on the vivisection of Pakistan into Bangladesh and who vilifies India for her treacherous role in that separation.

Whatever the critics say, the book, it seems, has served its purpose. It is doing brisk business and his allies are impressed with his frankness, especially with the details of how he has played the role of a faithful ally in the war on terror.