WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Travel

Blood in the canal

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Nargis as the Christlike Mother India (1957, Mehboob Productions).

Mother India is a monumental and deeply disturbing film. (Spoilers ahead!) Released in 1957, ten years after the Partition of India and independence, the film features Bombay leading lady Nargis as Radha, the mother of a family and an archetype of Indian motherhood. When the film opens, it is the present day (the mid-fifties), and a canal has just been completed. Radha, the oldest resident of the village nearby, is given the honor of pulling a rope to release water into the canal at the dedication ceremony.

As Radha is grasping the rope and just about to pull it, the narrative shifts back to when Radha was a young woman and a newly-married bride. Most of the rest of the movie takes place in this flashback. Radha’s adult life is a series of calamities: her husband loses his arms in a farming accident and abandons the family to die alone, the village is washed away in a flood, and Radha’s baby is killed. Then when Radha’s two surviving sons grow up, Birju, the ever-rebellious younger son, terrorizes the villagers and turns to a life of banditry. Birju murders the village landlord, and in the end Radha herself wields a rifle to shoot her wicked son and end his reign of terror once and for all.

After Birju dies in his mother’s arms, the flashback ends, and Radha is back at the dedication of the canal. She pulls the rope, and water rolls through canal’s gate—red at first, then clear. And thus the film ends.

Why is the water in the canal red? Because the scene takes place immediately after the son’s death, it is clear that the red water is a symbol of Birju’s blood, shed for the good of the village. To me, the red water in the canal has a broader significance as well, and it is this—more the kin-murder—that makes the film so disturbing.

I read Mother India as a metaphor of socialist nation-building. Birju’s murdering the landlord represents land reform. In turn, Radha’s killing Birju refers to the rooting out of dissident anti-national elements to create a homogeneous socialist society. This happened on a large scale in China and the Soviet Union, and on a smaller scale in India. As in the large communist countries, the Indian government suppressed certain indigenous and other non-mainstream communities in the interest of national unity.1 India’s socialist development also dispossessed untold millions of villagers as land was cleared for infrastructural projects such as the canal that Radha dedicates. These people’s blood is also in Mother India’s canal.

  1. To be fair, capitalism could be just as destructive of non-mainstream communities. Consider the systematic destruction of Native American communities during westward expansion in the United States. []

Keeping them flying

If you use an Internet-enabled device (and if you are reading this, you do), you are almost certainly familiar with software updates. These ever-present parts of our daily lives can be annoying, because they come with increasing frequency and always seem to slow down your machine at the most inopportune time. But they do include security updates and other tweaks intended to keep your machine working in the changing digital world.

Software updates are a form of product support, a responsibility of producers to provide continued assistance to customers who have bought their product. In the digital world, product support can represent a long-term commitment. Microsoft provided mainstream support for its Windows XP operating system until 2009 (eight years after its initial release in 2001) and extended support until 2014. But XP running on some embedded systems is still supported even now, and will continue to be supported until next year, eighteen years after the OS’s release.

Long-term product support predates the software industry by decades. Car manufacturers provide support for their models, as do aerospace companies. In 1948, back when aerospace was only aeronautics, the Lockheed Star (the company newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation) reported on the activities of the Inactive Models branch of the company’s Service Engineering Group:

Among the diversified activities of Neil Harrison’s Service Engineering Group, supervised by Nels Griffith, is Inactive Models, a misnomer according to several in the department, since the so-called obsolescent type airplanes such as the Model 10, 12, 14, 18, PV-1, PV-2, and P-38 are anything but inactive.1

The engineers in Inactive Models provided technical data and specifications to the Spare Parts department to produce replacement parts for out-of-production aircraft designs being flown by assorted foreign and domestic operators. The major domestic airlines operated newer designs, as did many of the prestigious flag carriers of other nations. But second- and third-tier domestic feeder airlines used older aircraft, many of which had been bought secondhand when their original owners upgraded to newer planes. Demobilization after World War II created a glut of used planes, which had to be supported by Lockheed or other companies with spare parts. (Failing to anticipate the secondhand market, Lockheed built a prototype feeder airliner, the Saturn, but it was a flop and never entered production.)

In addition to supporting spare parts, the Lockheed Inactive Models branch designed upgrades of designs. One such upgrade was the design and installation of fire-protection features for National Airlines’ Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar fleet. Although the airline had pressurized Douglas DC-6 planes by this time, its older Lodestars were still in operation and needed safety upgrades.

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the "Buccaneer Route" of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar flying the “Buccaneer Route” of National Airlines. (Source: Bill Larkins on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Other projects of Inactive Models included structural repair of a Model 10 Electra (a design of the mid-thirties) belonging to a foreign customer, and winterization of F-80 Shooting Star fighter jets.

Product support—whether it be of Windows operating systems or Lockheed planes—is a form of maintenance, which has always been a key aspect of technology. As David Edgerton argues in The Shock of the Old (2007), we need to pay attention to the use of technology across time—including its maintenance—not just the development of new things. The development of a technology is the beginning of its story, not the end. And for some technologies, like National Airlines’ Lodestars, that story can be a long one.

  1. “Engineering Highlights,” Lockheed Star (California Division), August 5, 1948. []
View of Shillong with Shillong Peak in the background.

The restless records of Assam

On January 21, 1972, the Indian state of Assam lost its capital Shillong to a new state, Meghalaya. Shillong had been the capital of Assam since colonial times, and the Assamese were proud of their capital, a charming hill station at 4,900 feet above sea level. A cosmopolitan, polyglot town, Shillong was surrounded by tribal land where the dominant language was Khasi rather than Assamese.

The location of Shillong became an issue after the state legislative assembly passed the Assam Official Language Bill, 1960, which declared:

Assamese and English … shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.1

The tribal population of the Khasi Hills felt marginalized by the elevation of Assamese over their own language. Khasi tribal leaders joined leaders from the Garo and Jaintia Hills from to form the Hill State Movement, agitating for separation of the tribal areas of the Meghalaya Plateau from Assam. In 1970, Meghalaya became and autonomous state in Assam, and in 1972 it became a full-fledged state within the Indian union.

The capital of Assam moved from the hills down to Dispur, a suburb of Gauhati (Guwahati) in the Brahmaputra River Valley. (Dispur has since been swallowed up in Guwahati’s urban sprawl.) Assam government offices and institutions moved down to Dispur. In 1980, the records of Assam shifted from Shillong and were set up in the Assam State Archives in Dispur. Meanwhile, the Government of Meghalaya set up its own State Records Room in Shillong. The records kept there were about the period after the split with Assam, because the records from before had moved down to Dispur.

This is something I wish I had understood before going to Guwahati and Shillong for research: most of the pre-1972 records are in Guwahati, even if they pertain directly to Shillong. After spending a week in Guwahati, I headed up to Shillong and went on some wild-goose chases looking for things that were back in Guwahati.

I spent two days in Shillong looking for the Shillong Times from the 1960s. I had already looked for the newspaper in the Library of Congress, which has practically everything. Although the LoC does have master copies of the paper from the time period I was interested in, there were no copies that patrons could read. No matter, I thought; I would look for Shillong Times in India. It seemed reasonable to assume that I would be able to find the newspaper in the city where it was published—but I couldn’t.

I started my wild-goose chase at the Central Library, but the head librarian told me that they only had post-1978 issues in Shillong; everything earlier was down in Guwahati. She suggested that I try Sacred Heart College Library and NEHU (North-Eastern Hill University) Library. I spent the afternoon visiting the two institutions, but the helpful staff at both failed to turn up anything. The next day, I went looking for the Shillong Times office, which a librarian at NEHU had assured me would have what I needed. It took me a while to find the office, as it was tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the Rilbong area south of the city center. In Rilbong, I had to ask a couple of people before I found the newspaper’s office, housed in a yellow Anglo-Assamese bungalow. There was no sign out front, just two brass medallions on the gate, one that said “S” and the other “T.” I inquired in the office about the newspaper from the 1960s. An employee went into the back and returned with the oldest issue they had, from 1986.

The mini-partition of Assam imposed an archival amnesia on Shillong. The Central Library does not even have archives of the city’s newspaper before the split—and neither does the head office of the paper.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

A southern magnolia in front of the State Central Library Shillong.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

The NEHU Library is in a grove of tall, skinny pines that could almost be in Alabama.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Compound wall of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati.

Links

  1. The full quotation is: “Without prejudice to the provisions of Articles 346 and 347 of the Constitution of India and subject as hereinafter provided, Assamese and English, and when the latter is replaced under Article 343 of the Constitution of India, Hindi in place of English shall be used for all or any of the official purposes of the State of Assam.” The Assam Gazette, October 10, 1960, pp. 623-25. []

Page 1 of 30

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén