Poverty, Surveillance, Cooptation: Three Thoughts on MIA’s Extraordinary Music Video “Borders”

In “Borders,” her recent music video, artistic provocateur MIA broaches a subject of great urgency—the contemporary refugee crisis. Performed and directed by MIA, this remarkable and widely reviewed music video presents humanity on the move—clambering over fences, marching in long files across dusty landscapes, setting forth on boats across the ocean. Here’s the video if you haven’t seen it yet:

MIA, “Borders”

And here are three thoughts on the video:

  • Poverty: Released in November 2015, a few months after the migrant crisis in Europe (often identified in the media as the Syrian refugee crisis) peaked during the summer, the music video has been most commonly seen as referring to that crisis. It’s worth noting however that MIA does not in fact specify the reasons the migrants featured in her video are on the move. As MIA herself has noted, her background includes being a Tamil refugee in Britain fleeing the political violence in Sri Lanka. Are the young brown men featured in the video meant to be political refugees? Perhaps, but the true power of the video lies in not focusing on a reason for the flight of these young men. By not identifying any immediate cause the video directs attention to a world structured in racial and economic as well as political exclusion—rather than episodic (Sri Lanka yesterday, Syria today, some other place tomorrow), the problem is structural. “Broke people (what’s up with that?)” goes one of the lines of the song. War and genocide are not the only reasons people are on the move across continents. Poverty is a reason too.
  • Surveillance: We live in a world filled with surveillance. Commentators have noted the fence that plays such an important role in the video. The surveillance camera that is perched on top of the fence has not received the same commentary. The camera features in many of the frames of the video, including one in which MIA is shown balanced over it. The camera indicates that the men clambering over the fence are being watched. There’s political intentionality behind borders of exclusion and the camera draws attention to that intentionality. The people who set up the fences haven’t abandoned the fences. They are watching and waiting for the men, and who can say what welcome they will give the men on the other side of the fence? Think Donald Trump. And we who browse the Internet and watch the camera watching the men—what welcome are we prepared to give?
  • Cooptation: Controversy has been raised about this video on exclusionary borders appearing on the platform of one of the mightiest corporations in the world (Apple). Let’s be frank—this is a problem worth thinking about. Corporations are not innocent when it comes to exclusionary borders. It might take sustained critical work to uncover their guilt, but implicated they most certainly are. It’s the old problem of cooptation (check out the Che tee shirt). Have MIA and her video been coopted? “Your privilege (what’s up with that?)” MIA asks her viewer in another line from the song, rightly suggesting the implication of we who browse the Internet on our laptops. Of course that question is even more resonant when aimed at a celebrity like MIA. Is MIA already aware of this issue? Is that why she’s the only woman in a video filled with men? The only one wearing fashionable sunglasses? And the only one picked out by a spotlight in the concluding frames of the video? Or is it rather that she is a self-obsessed celebrity? Round and round cooptation makes us go with its questions. Here’s the real question: what are we going to do with this knowledge of the problem of cooptation?

The Coward’s Manifesto, or I Want to Write about Guns but I’m Afraid

“I would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” [Presidential Candidate] Mr. [Ben] Carson, who has been surging in recent polls, said on Fox News. “I would say: ‘Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’ ” –Reported in the New York Times (Oct. 6 2015)

I’m afraid. What if somebody doesn’t like what I write?

It’s not as if I am silly to be afraid. It’s not as if shootings are so rare in America.

Another month, another five or ten or twenty dead on an American college or school campus. (Why such hatred of young people? What is it about young people trying to educate themselves that brings out such violence?)

In response to the latest shooting, my university’s Department of Public Safety sends out an email about “active shooter” situations. Do I want to be trained on what to do?

No, I don’t want to be trained. I just want to teach my classes, and I just want to live in a society where ordinary people like me don’t have to get trained by our employers in what to do in “active shooter” scenarios.

Imagine that. What two-hour session could ever train me to protect myself, my students, my colleagues from “active shooters?”

Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s great that my university’s Department of Public Safety is being proactive with this “active shooter” training stuff. Better something than nothing, I’m sure.

Still, I don’t think I should go to the training, well intentioned as it is. I would just waste everybody’s time. I would look up the etymology of the word active. I would start thinking about how to translate the phrase into other languages I know as a way of understanding it “culturally.” I would want to deconstruct the difference between an active and inactive shooter. I would test everyone’s patience by engaging in some ideology critique.

Or, if I were feeling less theoretical, I would raise my hand and ask: Is there a separate training for what to do with inactive shooters? Is that the session in which we talk about how to strengthen laws to keep guns out of the hands of shooters so that they don’t go from inactive to active and start raining bullets on us all?

You see, I just want to live in a society where, if someone disagrees with me or violently dislikes me, at most they will argue with me, or else beat me up or attack me with a knife or a stone. Of course, I would not like being attacked physically. Argument I might welcome as an invitation to citizenly debate, but being attacked by a knife? That I would not welcome at all. Still, I find knives preferable to guns.

I confess. I am a coward. And I know guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Which is why, coward that I am, I prefer people not having guns. I have a pretty strong hunch I would have much better luck running away from people with knives than people with guns.

I know none of this is very brave of me. But I don’t care. Don’t we cowards have the right to a reasonable chance of running away should someone decide to come at us violently? After all, we too are citizens and human beings. If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Why should we be sacrificed—again and again, in horrifying tragedy after horrifying tragedy—because some people want guns so they can play at being brave?

Don’t we cowards too have our inalienable rights? Where is our amendment to the US constitution—the one that reads “the right of reasonable and sane people to take to their heels to save themselves in the face of violent physical attack shall not be infringed?”


Game of Thrones, Neo-Orientalism, and the Politics of Inoculation: Calling Postcolonial Criticism to Account

It is 2015 and a kind of Orientalism, with apologies to Edward Said, is alive and well. Should you doubt me, watch the hit TV show Game of Thrones. I am surely not the first to judge the show in this regard (see If in the show Westeros is vaguely medieval Europe, the world across the sea from Westeros is all timeless Orient. Orientalism as the centuries-long clichéd and historically inaccurate portrayal of Asia and North Africa provides the content of this world. Turbans and decadence. Brown people and slavery. Deserts and caravans. All are shamelessly represented in the lands far from the all-too-aptly named Westeros.

Bad you might say, but Game of Thrones gets worse still. Not satisfied with reproducing a historically untenable opposition between the West and the Orient (remember Martin Bernal’s argument for the Afroasiatic origins of classical European civilization in Black Athena?), the show pursues an even more insidious depiction of the Orient, leading us to ask: why is it that the show makes no room even in its fantasy world for consequential characters who are not white? how is it that few non-white characters ever manage to do anything significant in it? and if they do are promptly killed and disappear from the show? The answer to these questions is clear—it is the old and tired association of agency with whiteness, as if you must be white to have the capacity to act, to make history.

But, still, Game of Thrones is not quite Orientalist in the way the nineteenth century novels that Said studied in his classic 1978 work Orientalism were. The scene that concludes Season 3 is enough to illustrate my point. The silver-blonde ever-so-white Daenerys Targaryen at the head of a great army has just freed the slaves of a city and now they surround her in a brown horde. From high above, the camera looks down on her, a white dot in the middle of a sea of brown-ness. Brown slaves with their white savior. It is pure Orientalism, isn’t it? But no, wait, the camera zooms closer and we now see in the crowd of slaves one or two pale faces. A white arm here and another there. In a sea of brown-ness, close up, a few specks of white.

Thus Game of Thrones would seem to protect itself from the charge of Orientalism—Orientalist? Not at all! Can’t you see the white slaves in the crowd?

It is true. Game of Thrones is only Orientalist in a kind of way. Rather, more accurately, it’s neo-Orientalist—Orientalist with a twenty-first century twist. Nearly forty years have passed since Said’s seminal critique, and after all the postcolonial studies classes that scores, perhaps hundreds, of professors have taught and are still teaching in American and European universities we get the neo-Orientalism of Game of Thrones. All that the postcolonial criticism of forty years and more seems to have taught the makers of the show is how to insulate it from the charge of prejudice by throwing in a few white faces and bodies here and there to mask the association of slavery with brown people—not to discard Orientalism, mind you, nor to challenge or undo fantasies of Oriental abjection and Occidental vigor, but simply to disguise the fantasies, package them in more palatable forms, so as to inoculate a tried-and-tested Orientalist narrative from charges of racism.

All that labor—all that careful and principled education of young minds in postcolonial studies classes—has it all been for nothing? Has it done little more than instigate a politics of inoculation meant to ensure the survival with a vengeance of hoary racist and Orientalist fantasies?

(PS: Much might also be written about how the show practices a politics of inoculation with regard to its representation of women.)


Bobby Jindal Is So White: Reflections on Being South Asian in America in 2015

It’s hard being South Asian in America. Just ask Bobby Jindal, he’ll tell you. It’s so hard, he’s white.

After all, if you are South Asian you live your life in the public eye as a stereotype. As a doctor or a software engineer. A cabdriver or an abused domestic worker. Or a terrorist.

Bobby is no terrorist. He is a politician. He is the Governor of the State of Louisiana. And he’s running for President.

That is why Bobby is white. That is why he can’t be brown. No way, no how. Think about it. When was the last time America had a brown president?

It is true America has a black president. Bobby knows Barry is black. But he doesn’t want to be black for the same reason he doesn’t want to be brown. His way of getting taken seriously requires him to be white. Anything else is exhausting for Bobby.

There have been a few times—as in, a few times every day when he passes a reflection of himself—when the thought has crossed Bobby’s mind that he might, really, when all is said and done, still be brown. Bobby doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like the unwelcome intimation of his possible brownness trudging wearily across the desert of his mind. Like some undocumented migrant worker crossing into Arizona from Mexico.

It’s exhausting for Bobby. Thinking about being a South Asian in America in 2015. Getting people to take you seriously as a politician because—no, make that, if—you are brown. Exhausting. Even though you were born here. And have a certificate to prove it. Exhausting.

Bobby doesn’t like being exhausted—so much easier to be white!

No, Bobby can’t be brown. It just won’t do. Bobby is not a doctor or a software engineer. Or a cabdriver or an abused domestic worker. Or a terrorist. He is a politician. The two-time Governor of Louisiana. And he is running for President. He can’t be brown—it’s just too hard being a brown politician. That is why he is white, so white. See his portrait, if you don’t believe Bobby:


Bobby Jindal is so white his first act as President would be to deport his own father for being brown.


Shakespeare Was Wrong–All the World’s Not a Stage: Sexuality and Freedom in Chennai

[Note—Picture Credits: Mohandas Vadakara]

I recently saw Marappachi’s play Naanga Ready (We Are Ready) in Chennai. In an open-air auditorium called Spaces on Elliot’s Beach Road, I sat with the capacity audience on jamakaalams spread out over sandy ground. The evening was sultry and the Bay of Bengal lapped at the Chennai shoreline a short walk away. On the crowded beach, where I had gone for a stroll before coming to the play, vendors of all kinds plied their wares. The old and the young, the rich and the poor, had come to the beach to escape the heat. They strolled down to the water or else sat on a low wall to watch. Couples promenaded… no…

No, that won’t do. It won’t do to blithely write couples; as far as the world knew, heterosexual couples promenaded, sometimes with their families. If there were people on the beach who were not heterosexual (and surely there were), they were not visible.

IMG (264) A

That was the beach. Inside the auditorium, things were different, for Naanga Ready tries to make visible that which society renders invisible. In a series of vignettes loosely held together by the characters, the play explores the impossible gender choices that society forces upon us. Mangai is the director and presiding impresario of the play, which was written by Prema Revathi based on interviews conducted by Sumathi Murthy and Sunil Mohan. Mangai is a veteran of alternative Tamil theatre in Chennai. Her roots are in equal measure in indigenous performance traditions like koothu and political theater from around the world (she is, I know, a keen reader of Kenyan playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Both influences were apparent in Naanga Ready. The set design—a clothesline from which clothes and body dummies hung, a net from behind which a gay character spoke of his tortured relationship to his mother—was abstract and suggestive; and the impressive concluding sequences of the play featured folk traditions, including the performance of divine possession, prominently.

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Rather than narrative drama, Naanga Ready is “movement theater” meant to articulate positions and provoke reflection. Ideas rather than narrative are at the heart of the play. That the play goes about its serious activist task without compromising entertainment value is an indication of its success. Naanga Ready initially makes its points about the “constructedness” of gender identities through humor. The powerful opening scenes of the play, set in a school for “gender correction,” are horrifyingly hilarious. Later the play turns more somber when the characters—representing a range of trans identities and sexual orientations—set out into the world to find jobs, housing, relationships, a measure of joy and security that the “normal” heterosexual world takes for granted. Based on actual interviews, these aspects of the play has an air of reality about it. The play’s strength is in creating for the audience through a cast that delivered strong performances a temporary space of safety where difficult truths can be spoken and acknowledged. (See the Naanga Ready leaflets in Tamil and English below for full credits.)

Shakespeare was wrong. All the world’s not a stage. Sometimes, thankfully, the stage is a welcome refuge from the unrelenting cruelties of the world. It is a bounded space of exploration in which to articulate ideas and desires ruled out of bounds in the world. Not all boundaries are bad. Theater has a long and distinguished tradition of calling intolerance to account from within its bounded space. Naanga Ready belongs proudly to this history. It calls to strict account the prejudices of the world at large, so blissfully taking the air on the beach nearby.


Nanga-Ready-A4-leaflet-English (1)


Before There Is a Woman There Was a Girl: The Hard But Real Road to Empowerment

Before there is a woman there was a girl. In India, girls have to be eighteen before they can be married; but up to fifty percent of girls are forced by tremendous pressure to marry earlier. India’s constitution mandates education for all children until the age of fourteen; but two years later, at the end of Class 10, only thirty percent of girls are still in school. India is supposedly making tremendous economic gains; but only forty percent of women work for pay.

I learn these facts from Anusha Bharadwaj, the Executive Director of Voice 4 Girls in Hyderabad (full disclosure: she’s my niece), and Sharanya Nandini Gautam, the organization’s Development and Communications Officer. I am at the offices of Voice 4 Girls to visit my niece, and to see the other side of the story—that is, the other side of the litany of rapes and sexualized objectification that has become the story of Indian women. Since I blogged about the dark, sexist underbelly of Indian society recently (see “Full Spectrum Sexism” below), I feel obliged also to acknowledge the flip side—that across India there are many organizations like Voice 4 Girls, led by women, that successfully bring positive change into the lives of girls and women.

Voice 4 Girls—you can visit its website here: and see videos about it here:—works in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. It runs holiday camps and year-long programs for adolescent girls who are mostly from urban and rural government schools maintained by the Tribal Welfare and Social Welfare Departments. The girls come from difficult social circumstances; they are largely from Scheduled Caste, Backward Caste and Scheduled Tribe low-income backgrounds. Voice 4 Girls empowers the girls by teaching them practical skills (spoken English, hygiene) alongside critical knowledge and life skills (elementary facts about their rights as citizens of India, strategies to recognize and deal with abuse). This curriculum, a judicious mix of the practical and the interventionist, is designed to be attractive to the girls as well as their parents.

What exactly is the change Voice 4 Girls has wrought? It is hard to quantify, but there are the wonderful stories that Sharanya shares with me—stories about girls like enterprising Manasa who has involved herself in a sustained way with the different programs of Voice 4 Girls, become a Sakhi (or student leader in her school), and even written a book! There are about 4000 such Sakhis. And over the four years of its existence, Voice 4 Girls has reached over 14000 girls through its camps and 55000 girls indirectly through its Sakhi program. Another 8000 girls will go through the summer camps this year. How can these numbers not be change of a kind, of the right kind?

As it happens, my visit to Voice 4 Girls ends with a lively discussion of the Vogue “My Choice” ad starring Deepika Padukone. That ad has come in for so much recent commentary about whether it really empowers women that I am determined to say nothing about it here beyond registering my opinion that it is less than what it seems. Whatever you yourself think of that ad, spare a thought too—and perhaps even a few bucks—for Voice 4 Girls and organizations like it. They may not be as glamorous as Deepika Padukone but they (too) walk the hard road to empowering women and the girls who become women.


Full Spectrum Sexism: India’s Problem Isn’t Just Rape

As chilling as the rape in 2012 of Nirbhaya are the opinions of the lawyers of the convicted rapists. You can hear these opinions in the banned BBC documentary India’s Daughter. That doesn’t mean words spoken by ostensibly educated men who should know better—one lawyer declares he would set his own sister or daughter on fire if she were to engage in premarital sex—are equivalent to a horrific collective act of rape that resulted in unspeakable physical trauma to the body of the woman and, eventually, murder. One (rape) is as chilling as the other (expression of opinions) not because the two are equivalent in intention or in effect but because each reveals in its own way the depth of India’s problem.

India’s problem with sexism can’t be reduced just to rape; India’s sexism is far more wide-ranging and pervasive, seeping into the most ordinary of acts, in which men routinely belittle women in myriad ways or else, equally problematic, idealize them away into passive nonexistence. As the bizarre political posturing on India’s Daughter showed, shock at the rape of Nirbhaya is not incompatible with patronizing attitudes towards women (some male commentators, for example, declared that they did not need the BBC to protect “their” women, they could do it themselves). Some men just don’t seem to get it—rape is not an isolated social phenomenon separate from the ways in which they themselves relate to women. No, most men are not rapists, but neither are they not part of the problem. Are you a man who considers himself entitled to have his morning cup of coffee brought to him by a woman (your mother, your wife, your sister)? You are part of the problem.

India was always like this, but it wasn’t always exactly like this. I don’t suppose there is any period within memory that India was not patriarchal; still, we err if we think the present is always better than the past. Last week there was news of an attack on Puthiya Thalaimurai, a Tamil television station that had prepared a program debating the pros and cons of some women choosing not to wear the traditional “wedding necklace” (thaali). The program was cancelled when Hindu extremist groups objected and set off a bomb at the television studio in Chennai. When I read the news report, I was reminded of a scene from Komal Swaminathan’s great 1980 Tamil play Thaneer, Thaneer in which the female protagonist rips her thaali from her neck and throws it in her husband’s face to denounce him. Thaneer, Thaneer was a tremendous hit and played on stage for years. It was indeed controversial, but not for this scene in which a married woman discarded her thaali (the controversy concerned its ostensible Marxist-Leninist perspective). Now, we cannot even debate the thaali. Compared to 1980, what exactly is our “progress”?

To be blunt, contemporary India has a problem with women. I suppose it is necessary that I try to inoculate this blog against imbecilic attacks by noting (1) that the same could be said about every other country in the world, including the US where I have lived for a good portion of my life (the nature of the problem might differ but not the fact of its occurrence); and (2) that there are many aspects of Indian culture and the Indian present as well as past worth preserving and recovering for their potentiality to fight discrimination against women. These qualifications notwithstanding, the matter is simple: contemporary India has a problem.

There is no point in sticking your head in the sand about this: India suffers from full spectrum sexism. The phrase “full spectrum” originates in military doctrine and is used to describe a complete and comprehensive dominance over the enemy through every means available. It seems to me an appropriate term with which to characterize contemporary India’s problem with women—not the reality of Indian women, for after all women (and some men) through many deliberate as well as covert acts do get in the way of the achievement of a full spectrum sexism. I mean the phrase to identify patriarchal intention rather than reality.

Full spectrum sexism—that is India’s problem, and things won’t change until we understand and confront all that this phrase means.


Karl Marx/Winston Churchill/London in 2015

Karl Marx: The memorial to Karl Marx is a bust at his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery in North London, far from the madding crowds of Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. If you visit, you will find flowers, candles, perhaps three or four visitors lingering around the statue. This is the way London remembers a man who profoundly affected recent world history. The victors write history, it is said. Surely, London is the creation of the victorious British bourgeois class that so impressed Marx, though he was no friend of it. Why would London support a grand memorial to Marx?

On the other hand, looked at in another way, it is fitting that Marx’s memorial is so modest. Imagine a towering, grand edifice built to commemorate a man who, in all his immense personal ambition, still aimed to undo the Great Man view of history—the Ayn Rand notion that history is made by and is the story of Great Men. It is good that there is a memorial to Marx, and just as well that it is a modest one.

Winston Churchill: Churchill is a Great Man, at least to the British elite. Witness the recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral. He is everything that Marx is not. British bulldog. Nationalist icon. Wartime savior of Europe. Arch-imperialist. Racist. Failed defender of empire—did he not in his own lifetime watch the Empire slip out of British grasp?

London is his city. And it’s not. For every solemn notation on tourist maps of shrines to the man who called Africans “savages” and sent millions of Indians to their death to save Europe (see: Bengal famine), there is a black or Indian Briton whose very presence in the streets of London is a kind of repudiation of Churchill.

London in 2015: Where is London’s Lincoln Memorial? Where is its Raj Ghat? Architecture is not just visual—it is not just some structure that you gaze at from a distance. Rather you experience architecture tangibly. You touch it, feel it, walk through it. Even in 2015, London assaults you at every turn with its architecture of war (Trafalgar Square), torture (Tower of London), pillage (British Museum) and privilege (Buckingham Palace). London manhandles you with its buildings.

Then again, tear away your eyes from the buildings and consider the ordinary people beneath the extraordinary architecture. Consider the languages on the tube, the foods on offer in the restaurants, the local cultures on display on the television channels. A different—global—city emerges. A post-imperial city, with all the contradictions implied. Not necessarily the city of Marx, but nor so obviously the city of Churchill.


Time for Class Warfare on College Campuses: How the Managerial Class is Taking Over the Public University And Why We Have to Stop It

What good is a university if it doesn’t educate students?

Strange question? Not in the ever more bizarre world of the American public university.

Don’t get me wrong: many American public universities still do a great job of educating students, but creeping rot is indubitably here (including at my own university). The worrisome trends are plain to see. Higher education is being defunded, the university is being corporatized. Universities are being driven ever further from their core mission of educating the future citizenry.

Full disclosure: I’ve got skin in the game. After all, I’ve worked in an American public university for more than half my life. In that time, I’ve watched the developing crisis up close.

The two most commonly cited causes of the crisis are ever decreasing allocations from state legislatures and ever increasing costs of facilities and services. No doubt, these causes are real. Less frequently mentioned, however, is the equally real runaway corporatization of the university.

The perception has steadily gained ground in the last couple of decades that a public university should be run like a private corporation, rather than treated as a common good in which citizens invest for the well being of the society we all live in. As if private corporations—the same polluting, gouging, hierarchical, non-accountable private corporations that have presided over and enabled an enormous transfer of wealth to the already wealthy in the last few decades—are such great models of spreading benefits to society at large! (For a critical analysis of the private corporation, see: Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation, ed. Purnima Bose and Laura Lyons, Indian UP, 2010.)

It’s not hard to see how corporatization creates and adds to the crisis of defunding. Who really benefits from corporatization, after all? Certainly not students, whose tuitions have gone up year after year, who are piling up debt, and who are being offered distance learning and online classes in place of classrooms. And certainly not permanent faculty, whose numbers have dwindled year after year, to be replaced by super-exploited adjunct labor.

No, think of corporatization this way: it is the redirection of funds to an ever larger and ever more well rewarded managerial class of administrators and their cronies outside the university. This class knows nothing about a classroom, which is at best a distant memory and at worst alien territory (students? what students? we manage clients!). No wonder resources for students and faculty are scarce.

The American university today is a crime scene. The perpetrators of the crime are the heedless members of a managerial class in cahoots with naked business interests outside the university. And the crime? Nothing less than a callous disregard for the dreams and hopes of students, many from difficult backgrounds. Sadly, my own university is not exempt—it too is witness to the slow murder of real education by corporatization and cronyism. (See and

We need to save the university from the managerial class. It’s time for class warfare on college campuses.


My Playlist, with Annotations and YouTube Links (The Music of the World is on My IPod, But There Is No World Music)

Here are five representative tracks from my iPod (with YouTube links):

1. Harris Jayaraj, Vaseegara

Everybody knows A. R. Rehman (of Slumdog Millionaire infamy) but Harris Jayaraj is another master of contemporary Tamil film music—soulful and super melodious. Another track of his I could have listed as a favorite is June Ponaal from Unnaale. (If you follow the link, try to ignore the video.)

2. V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Dasara Pada: Pogaadirelo Ranga (Raagam: Shankarabharanam)

The music of my childhood. Classical South Indian music. Idli, sambhar, and coconut trees. Except that the purity of sound produced by Doreswamy Iyengar’s veena defies all cliché.

3. Cheikh Lo, Né la Thiass

Senegalese music with cross-Atlantic touches of jazz and blues. The Black Atlantic sounded out in musical notes. Years ago, I heard Cheikh Lo in Dakar in a club owned by Youssou N’dour. The performance started at 11 PM and ended long past midnight. Wondrous.

4. Bob Marley, No Woman No Cry

Enough said.

5. The Byrds, Mr. Tambournine Man

If ever a cover could rival an original, this one does. A sunny and deceptively naïve rendition by the Byrds of a Bob Dylan classic. Marriage of American moods with the imported sounds of Swinging London that becomes a complete reimagination.

So there they are; but, should I want to, how should I classify them? Perhaps the only truly discernible pattern of my playlist is a highly personal one—one that reflects my personal biography and tastes—but what if I (or you) wanted to look for meaning beyond the idiosyncrasies of the personal?

We like to make comparisons, to look for patterns, to discern design. There is no avoiding this impulse, for it might very well be that all knowing is pattern recognition (though I will leave the final word regarding this to cognitive psychologists). It might, then, be tempting to call (some of) the tracks on the list World Music—as in the section of a music store all the way at the back in which you might find the first three artistes, for example.

Let’s not. World Music, perhaps even more than the similar sounding World Literature, is a sales gimmick—a classification through which music corporations set out to create a market for music that does not in their opinion easily fit into popular existing categories. The challenge for us—as opposed to the corporations—has always been to find ways to talk about the world without reducing it to formula. The world is not formula. Certainly, I have the music of the world on my iPod, but there is no World Music, a designation as absurd as World Literature (about the indubitable absurdity of which I have written at length elsewhere).