Sunday, November 30, 2008

Of Tuckman's Stages, the Mulberry Bush and the Fierce Urgency of Now

It's early 2005. A warm day in January found a bunch of us sitting at a round table, nervously fingering our I.D cards as we fielded several angry looks from across the room that all asked the same question: "what are you kids doing in here?"

The pungent smell of human sweat--dried by several air conditioners on at full blast-- mixed with the burnt aroma of mass-produced milky coffee, the fuel of all administrative offices in South India. A few of us wanted to throw up. At least one desperately needed a cigarette. But no one in that room would leave their place for the world. We had all somehow edged our way into an open meeting with the district collector of Nagapattinam, and only another tsunami could have gotten us out of there.

In hindsight, there was no other way for that meeting to have ended. Apart from us kids, everybody at that table represented some NGO or organization that either wanted to provide fishermen with funds to repair their boats and nets, develop "tsunami-resistant" housing (no, I kid you not), provide for the mental health of the survivors of the Big Wave or deal with the sudden orphan/adoption crisis that was steadily growing in certain villages along the coastline at that time.

Competing interests meant that everyone was determined to have a say and rally support, while our little gang waited, keen and eager for the moment when we could chip in with a brief report of what we had seen-- the villages we had visited that hadn't even seen one government aid truck, that had no water, that had mini riots every time some NGO came by and dropped off sackfuls of rice.

At that meeting, representatives of the state administration told everyone that no rehabilitation would start till the government rewrote the zoning laws and fishing laws. We left the room two hours later. We never attempted to contact a government representative on the same issue again.

Cue January 2006: with a different group of students this time, a week or so before our one week visit to the Big Easy, I spent the day listening to Nagin and his aides discuss how plans for rehabilitating the 9th ward were being put on hold while "administrative and structural decisions" were made. Understandably, there were many citizens who were a bit, shall we say, a tad ticked off by their suggestions.

Cue the present day.

Mum always said, somethings never change.

Google "group dynamics" and one of the first links that show takes you to a Wiki article on a guy named Bruce Tuckman and his four stage model on group dynamics called-- no surprise-- Tuckman's Stages for a group:

Tuckman's model states that the ideal group decision-making process should occur in four stages:

* Forming (pretending to get on or get along with others);
* Storming (letting down the politeness barrier and trying to get down to the issues even if tempers flare up );
* Norming (getting used to each other and developing trust and productivity);
* Performing (working in a group to a common goal on a highly efficient and cooperative basis.

(N.B- Edgar Schein has some terrific insight into the stages in group development and organizational behaviour. Worth the trip to Amazon. Or Landmark, as the case may be.)

There have been numerous calls for collective action and individual responsibility since the attacks on the 26th of this month in Mumbai. There has been indignation at the role the media played in complicating the rescue operation carried out by the Army and NSG. There has been anger at local government representatives. There is a civil disobedience movement proposed, based on refusing to pay taxes. There have been nebulous calls to war against Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Penguins, Globalization, All Pink Things and other random entities by equally random citizens.

More importantly, there have been questions asked, SMSed, murmured, blogged, status-msged, forwarded and twittered that are growing into something approaching critical mass in terms of citizen participation in the administration of their own country.


Of course, it could all just die down. It has before, mainly because us Indians have been so caught up in celebrating our diversity for the past 50 odd years, that getting to the Norming stage of Tuckman's list is near impossible. Our genial need for disagreement, and our devotion to exercises involving the proverbial Mulberry Bush ensure that the only certainty regarding group meetings/collaborations is the amount of kaapi that will be inhaled.

But what about the immediate need to come together? To stand together and stand by the claim that we will not stand for any more... any more...
what, exactly?

Ask the average Indian about the Mumbai attacks, and the only widely held view will be how awful the attacks were. Why they were awful, what were the contributing factors to the event-- fugghedaboudit. Best to stick with the unity in diversity tag.

Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.

Kaizad, an organizer of the Rise Up Mumbai, Rise up India! FB group wrote in post the rally in Mumbai on the 3rd:

...Yesterday, It felt as if almost the whole of Mumbai was the Gateway of India. It was a heartening show of solidarity and togetherness, and it seemed like finally, Bombay has had enough, and is not going to tolerate the political sham that runs our beloved city.
But as I passed the entire area, still deciding whether to fight the crowds and go in, or to just go home, I saw the number of people who had actually come to voice discontent or/and show solidarity, were far outnumbered by the people who came to apparently have a good time. It seemed to be a case of : If everyone's going, I'm going to go. I was appalled to see people fighting with each other to be in camera frames, and though the patriotic fervor was invigorating to say the least, it's a pity that people didn't understand the basic concept of HOW to display solidarity. I guess towards the end, it turned into a media circus, where all the major media companies got enough videos and pictures to fill their editions and bulletins for the next 20 days... I sincerely believed that the rally on the 3rd could have been the symbol of change we were hoping for, and though some of you might disagree with my views on this, I felt it wasn't. So many people together, united should have been the ideal platform for the message of progress and change to be spread. Yet all i saw was chaos, yelling, pushing and over pumped patriotism that will die out in a few hours.

Kaizad went on to say that he hopes the rally planned for the 21st will be a platform for promoting civic participation and the fierce urgent need for an overhaul of how government is run. I wish him and the group he administers only the best.

I share his, and others' concern over how this will all take place.

A few points for consideration, thus:

1. The media has always been a circus, a tricked out, parti-coloured dung beetle that survives based on the number of people who tune in. Signing petitions might get specific reporters or anchors off the air, but it won't change an ethos.
One might attempt switching off the t.v. though, or switching to good old DD. Pull a 'Cable Guy' on 'em. Replay that fantastic ending, and get your news from print media instead, via tree pulp or 54kbps.

2. The government in a democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people. Which means, you get what you pay for. There are suggestions to revamp the election system, to hold out for better candidates, to support independent candidates, to spread awareness about the need for responsible leaders. All good. All things that need to be started at the seed level: while the IAS goes to work revamping policy, school systems, colleges and universities need to teach and discuss these basics of a civil society. There needs to be more to an every day Indian's perception of government than just corruption, politics and the power of money & force. That only comes, ONLY comes, through traditional modes of education.

3. Civil Disobedience is marvelous. But like any Movement, Civil Disobedience only works when you have a figure-head up in front, being the peoples' god, saint, leader, truth-giver. Someone they can sacrifice for. Our society in India hasn't evolved to the point where a large number can act out of free will and revolt or otherwise on their own. Doesn't happen. Group think rules. And since we don't have another Gandhi, Malcolm, Bose, King or Obama, I can only hope that people can respond in large numbers responsibly, to this and other calls for public outcry. The tax bit is going to be the trip-up, mostly because majority of us don't understand how the tax system works. Those who do understand it well, are probably already benefiting from it to such an extent that going against it is in their disfavor.

4. The underestimated importance of outreach, organization and education. It's easy to throw your hands up in the air and talk about the impossibilities of developing more stringent security measures at the citizen level. And yet, all it comes down to is better utilizing that innate ability us Indians have to help each other out.

We've all seen it: kitchens set up in the wake of natural disasters, strangers visiting victims in hospitals, people pulling each other into buses to keep them from being late to school or work, stories of heroism during the recent attacks-- a thousand stories of good-will, all quietly done despite and in spite of the media, politicians and administrators. Why not make use of that same will to help?

Organize streets, apartment complexes, neighborhoods so that evacuation points are set up, safety procedures are posted on walls so people know what to do if such an event arises again. Teach folk how to take care of their own. Simple steps, which don't need a defense budget. Working together doesn't need a budget. It does mean patience, organization, and avoiding the assumption that others are either too young, too entrenched in certain ideals or too stupid to work with. Intellectual Exclusivity sucks bigger balls than the usual social bigotry we consistently condemn, and yet is far less chastised.

5. Calls for a fight against terrorism is not the same as a call for communal rioting. Terrorism is a delicate dog fight fought in circles that us mortal bloggers, community folk and random soap box orators will never enter, let alone move in. What we can do as citizens is to alter perceptions of terrorism: by not elevating it into a cause, by not assuming everyone from a country or religion supports or is associated with terrorism, by teaching and learning, impartially, about how terrorism is affecting the world at large, and India specifically.

6. The most important thing the last week has taught us is the vast amount of un-knowing, on the part of the public, the media, the local government. We are no longer safe in living off the fat of our land. The time of India being stereotyped as the home of nerdy computer engineers, snake charmers,cow patty makers and 7/11 grocery store owners is over. Like it or not, the country is now associated with wealth, international partnerships, nuclear power and economic development. We even have baseball players.

Gird your loins, maami. This land will never be the same again, and if we are all to survive democratically, should never be the same, as well.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The anti flag waving piece: this isn't v 2.0 of 9/11

If you haven't read Ingrid Srinath's take on the Mumbai attacks yet, you should.

This post originated as a comment on Ingrid's original piece. I'm not sure if I can fully convey how fiercely glad I am that she worded her reflection just the way she did.
Nailed it on the head, Ingrid has.

What resonated with me most is that what she has done is successfully point out the real, grit-ground that exists between bill-board versions of black and white heroes and villains, with the cavalry riding in just on cue. The piece tells us that it is on the citizens of a city, any city, to come together if security and a way of life is to be preserved.

She is absolutely right: no emergency law can come into effect, only because there are too many loop holes, far too many variables to control; stricter laws would fail every glorious mission just as any crack down would.

That is not to say that security at the state and national level cannot be reviewed seriously. India needs no Military Industrial Complex, but at the very least, no one should be able to approach a city's port without being reviewed by coast guards. Well-trained, well-armed coast guards. A lot more than just metal detectors are required in this brave new world of ours, if we intend to preserve life and limb of everyone: not just the powerful, the majority, the rich or the foreign.

What I would like to see is a grass-root, decentralized guerrilla movement of our own-- Not one that equips youth, the lonely and the estranged with hatred, propaganda, fanaticism, weapon skills and fake passports, but one that equips that same youth, the blissfully ignorant and brooding, the passionate and the complacent, the middle-aged, student and everywoman with an awareness of what it takes to preserve one's home and city-- the community skills and ideas that make individuals realize that they are the first care-taker and good neighbor, not the police, and that there is no entitlement to safety & well being based solely on social or income levels, anymore.

Not just idealism. Practical facts of life as well, such as-- don't crowd around an attack site. Don't hang around because it's exciting. Don't participate in rabble-rousing. Just the basics, really.

It's worked for Linux, for Google, for Obama, Live Earth and Second Life: we know that people can and do come together, online and in person, without the burden of hierarchy, more positively and effectively than ever before. Why not have our own training cells, our own workshops, our own classroom visits? Every action causes an equal and opposite reaction, we're told.
It's about time we stood up and counted ourselves as part of the response to glocal terrrorism.

It's about time that we-- Indians, Tourists, Mumbaikars, Policy Makers, Writers, Film Stars, Dhoodh Wallas, NGO workers all-- stop, really, STOP with writing off Bombay in packaged, star-dusted, jalebi-like versions of the truth. Today's NYTimes carried an article by Mr. Suketu Mehta, a tribute that subsided into romanticized notions of Mumbai as some sort of colourful, cheerfully sinful Camelot, hated for its Camelotness by the evil baddies, who Mr. Mehta paints as multi-lingual ogres and fanatical knights. Views like this can only complicate the situation. Yes, Mr. Mehta--- keep the spirits of the city up by all means, sing and dance and spend money in Bombay-- Celebrate life, its spicy excess! But in the name of everything that is awake, adopt some of the ideas, at least, that Ingrid suggests in her piece: participate and learn. vote and organize, don't just blame. party hard, but thrash out ideas, work at divesting your children and families of stereotypical thinking even harder.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A guide on being thankful in the 21st century

A while back I decided to stop blogging because somehow, the endless outpouring of self-justified edification and quirky observations created a bitter taste: existential word verif. combinations jeered the very notion that anything other than self-pleasure was going on.

The past couple of years, months, days and hours have been working hard at changing that decision.

Desperate times, desperate measures and such.

Ergo, while the U.S. spends the next 12 or more hours giving into a celebration of tradition and excess, dipping into nostalgia as a salute to the times of unchecked spending now gone by, with a clenched-jaw energy intent on creating les bon temps in the midst of a great winter of malcontent, I now proffer a guide to giving thanks. This is for those of us who will continue the day un-turkeyed, albeit glazed over, hyper-caffeinated and searching every news source for the latest developments re: the attacks last night.

A Guide to Being Thankful in the 21st Century [OR] PJ's List of 8 Mental Health Tips

1. Ignore CNN, Fox and related "sister" networks. For real news, find the blogs and RSS feeds of bloggers of Mumbai and from Mumbai, and give praise to your individual gods for their energy, intelligence and intensity.

2. Avoid chaos theories proposed on aforementioned networks. For actual facts on how international affairs/foreign policy works, visit foreign policy magazine online, or the Brookings Institute. Celebrate the fact that non-partisan, collaborative discussion is still supported the world over.

3. Pursue and enjoy self-preservation. Citizen reporting is one thing, but in a situation where there are guns and bombs going off in several locations, with the ATS, Army and police trying to control chaos and shut down the baddies, you standing there sending MMS/SMS updates and capturing the scene with your camera-phone is only making things worse. Being a by-stander is only allowed at parades, not killing zones.

4. If you're part of a country that consists of multiple communities, religions, languages, income levels, political leanings, religious holidays and calendars, hold hands and dance! Who you are and where you are makes it that much more difficult for politicians and business people to sell you gung-ho, black and white [or red, white and blue, or saffron-hued/Indian green] patriotism. Rejoice that there are no easy answers, no one bad guy, no one bad country.

5. Respect your luck. If you made it in the nick of time, or avoided an ill-fated train, road, or restaurant, silently salute karma. No more, no less.

6. Give praise for the inherent power in the mute and on/off buttons on your remote and radio. It is your one mode of control over the mass hysteria fanned by media channels in order to boost their TRP ratings.

7. Light candles for your cities, both attacked and as yet, non- targeted. If said cities are in a country as described in no. 6 on this list, it is only by a strange, whimsical grace that nothing worse has happened... yet.

8. Send love to folk like Google, who have made it possible to check on loved ones in cities under fire. All named and accounted for, over IMs, offliners, emails, blogs and twitter. Technology also meant following the attacks from the moment they happened, and not having to wait on second-hand news.


N.B-- a) what I find curious and disturbing is how in the past few years, horrible events have coincided with calendar holidays. Christmas for me will always carry memories of the 2004 Tsunami, even tho it did happen on boxing day. Today, there is talk of feasts against the background of repeated footage of a city I haven't visited since I was a child, but which is home to a large number of people I love, respect and cherish. Somethings get harder to stomach as I get older. Wonder who else feels the same.

b) It's time for Bombay to implement the kind of security measures other major metropolitan cities in the world have. It will change things forever-- but haven't the events of last night already done that? It means more check-posts, more CCtvs, more cameras, stricter i.d. requirements and those "see something, say something" signs. Metal detectors and sniffer dogs aren't enough, any more. It's not just about national politics and separatist movements, any more. Wake up. Stand up. Don't let them sell you packaged hatreds and suspicions. Protect your own.