Saturday, September 29, 2007

The New York Times reports on events in India, 1857-1907

The New York Times has recently allowed free access to its archives dating back to 1850. The closest interesting event that I could think of was the Indian uprising of 1857. Search words, “sepoy mutiny’ yielded quite a few results. Some snippets.

The first reporting on the ‘crisis’ in India, occurs in the edition of July 6, 1857 which carries the news that,

“The Bombay and Calcutta papers received by late mails, contain accounts of a mutiny which, breaking out in the 19th regiment of native infantry in Bengal, was spreading like an epidemic through the native cantonments of the British Army in Northern India.”.

The report goes on to describe how the natives always suspected the British of attempting to convert them to Christianity and concludes,

“ Now, if the British dominion in India is held by so false a tenure that the teachings of Christianity and the influences of civilisation will overthrow it, pray what is its value to the subjects in India, or what credit does it reflect upon its protectors in England? If the one hundred and fifty million Hindoos and Mussulmans who have been subdued by the British sword can now after the lapse of a century, be kept in subjection only by being kept in paganism, what hope is there that their civilisation will ever dawn?

If you thought that the reporter was getting sympathetic to the Indian cause, correct that impression. He actually castigates the British for being too indulgent and tolerant of the natives.

As long as the British humour the superstitions and prejudices which benight the Hindoo mind, so long will its power in India be jepardised by the mutinies and rebellions of the natives. There cannot be two masters of the Indian empire. The Briton must rule it politically and religiously, or he must be overrun by the treacherous and rebellious Indian. Every instance of servile respect for the caste superstitions of the Hindoo subject can only be attributed by him to fear in his Christian conqueror. It emboldens him for rebellion. And when he rebels, whether against cartridges or against Christian laws, he should be met in that spirit which gave success to Clive when one hundred years back he met Surajah Dowlah at Plassey and set up for Britain the mastery of Bengal.

Given the traditional rivalry between the British and the French, one would have thought that the latter would have been critical of the former. But, no. The ‘white’ attitude prevailed. In its edition of April 10, 1875, the paper quotes a M.De. Valbesen, one of the most eminent French correspondents sbout to publish the history of the Sepoy Insurrection.

In this supreme struggle where all did their duty, English history was enriched with new and heroic figures, a veritable pleiad of illustrious soldiers, among whom shine the names of Henry Lawrence, Havelock, Nicholson, who fell on the field of honour under the country’s flag while defending the cause of civilisation and true progress.

Reflecting on the incidents of revolt even 35 years after the mutiny was suppressed, the paper, in its edition of August 3, 1891, traces the root cause. Yes, the bloody Russians.

It is evident that the (revolt) has been inspired from without and not from within… Great Britain has now a powerful and skilful rival in the East- a rival who avowedly aims at the control of Asia upto the borders of British India, a may fairly be suspected of designs upon British India itself, The great advantage of Russia in this struggle is the superior faculty the Russians have shown for getting on with the natives. The British, who find aliment for the national vanity in almost everything, attribute this to the fact that Russian civilisation is lower, and therefore, more akin to Asiatic civilisation…. There can be little doubt that the new spirit the natives of India are showing and their new contempt for the British power are the result of skilful and persistent machination on the part of the agents of Russia.

The edition of February 1, 1902 carries a review of a book by W.H.Fitchett, wherein he had tried to explain the reason for the mutiny in the following manner :

The mutiny was the end of the rule of the East India Company and the beginning of the rule of England. The end of one of the worst Governments that ever existed, The evil was not with the men, but with the system, for where you make government an ingenious and indisciplined tyranny, the men who carry out the orders are certain to be tyrants;.it seems clear that the mutiny was the culmination of the century of misgovernment by the company of merchants who resident in London, governed India for dividends. Each revolving day, echoes the execrations of thousands, aye, of millions, on the authors of those laws, for the misery which they have inflicted on misgoverned and plundered India.

Is the reviewer warming to the theme? Far from it. At this point he gets quite critical of the author.

Dr. Fitchett’s narrative fails to place the mutiny in its proper causal perspective. In not a few instances he seems to be a special pleader rather than a historian… In truth, the Sepoy barbarities which cannot be described, robbed them of every shred of sympathy from the civilised world, and roused the British to a not unnatural frenzy of revenge, The pit of Cawnpore cried aloud to Heaven with a voice that drowned the wail of a century of oppression.

A few years later, on Jan 23, 1909 to be precise, while reeviewing a book, “India, its life and thoughts”, by a Dr. John P Jones, the writer pooh-poohs a concern raised by Dr Jones that there was growing dissatisfaction among the natives, similar to what had triggered the Sepoy Mutiny, 50 years earlier.

The Indian mutiny occurred at a time when the Government of India was in the hands of a trading company. The protraction of the rebellion was made possible by the difficulties of communication and the ability of insurgents to seize and hold fortified towns. Today, India has 30000 miles of railroad and the artillery of the garrisons and the army is entirely in the hands of the white troops. Furthermore it is now the practice to send native regiments at least 1000 miles from the places in which they are recruited. Due to the scores of different races and languages to be found in India, this is virtually placing them among foreigners over whom they can exert but little influence.

And concludes with a very perceptive description of the Bengali :

While the Bengali babu is the most vociferous of men, he is also the most timid and the slowest to act.

The Americans had gained their independence from the British a few decades before the Indian mutiny happened and one would have expected them to see events in a manner that was more sympathetic to the cause of freedom. Alas, this was not so. Realisation that there was more than one side to the story occurred much later- well into the twentieth century, when some early Indians visited or migrated to the USA and managed to raise the consciousness.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Conversation with daughter- 17

Me: I cleared the loft today

Daughter : ( gives disinterested look)

Me: I threw out so much stuff. Can’t believe we accumulated all that junk.

Daughter : ( continues to stare disinterestedly)

Me: Some of that junk must have been 15 years old……

Daughter : ( persists with her disinterestedness)

Me: ……… including that blanket you used till you were a year old. You would never let go of that blanket. Clinging to it all the time, like Linus.

Daughter: ( stops being Ms. Disinterested) What! You threw out that blanket!

Me : Of course, I threw it out. It was lying in that suitcase for over 15 years.

Daughter: You can’t be serious! You really threw out that blanket?

Me : Don’t tell me you are still sentimentally attached to it?

Daughter: No. I don’t even remember using it. But, that’s not the point. As a parent, you ought to treasure the first ever blanket that your daughter used. And not throw it out.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not so sublime

A subliminal message, says Wikipedia, is a signal or message embedded in another object, designed to pass below the normal limits of perception. These messages are indiscernible by the conscious mind, but allegedly affect the subconscious or deeper mind. Subliminal techniques have occasionally been used in advertising and propaganda; the purpose, effectiveness and frequency of such techniques is debated.

Shah Rukh Khan at Johannesburg yesterday, sporting a T-shirt with the words, “Om Shanti Om” tried his version of subliminal advertising for his forthcoming film, except that it turned out to be quite a blatant attempt to be seen among the victors and the national flags and gain unjustifiable publicity. Has this celluloid creature been elevated to the status of India’s permanent icon and flag bearer? Who gave him the right to walk coolly into the ground, as the players were on their victory laps? What were the security guards doing?

Sharad Pawar, ever the shrewd politician, grabbed the opportunity to position himself as a visible and integral part of the Indian victory. To me, nothing caused more annoyance than to see this guy’s mug subliminally planted along with that of the rejoicing players in the group photograph. There he is, right in the middle, grinning like a Cheshire cat, as if he had personally bowled the Pakistani team out. (Meanwhile in Cheshire, a cat was spotted grinning like Sharad Pawar. But, that’s another blog post). When we were knocked out in the World Cup earlier this year, this guy should have been made to stand with the downcast, distraught players. Then, the two photos could have been juxtaposed, to give us a balanced view. Ha, we will never see the other photograph.

So, in a few days from now, when you find yourself being pulled by a strange force to join the queue at the theatre to buy tickets for “Om Shanti Om” or, if in a few months, you find yourself at the voting booth, mysteriously casting your vote for Sharad Pawar, remember that you are a victim of subliminal advertising.

Evidence is already pouring in that the trick has worked. A Sify report here says that ‘the surprise attendance of actor Shah Rukh Khan in the stands and the numerous 'Chak De! India' being waved with gay abandon spurred India to victory in the inaugural Twenty20 World Championship at the Wanderers’.

Update 29/09/07 : Duirng the victory march to the Wankhede Stadium, when the BCCI sycophants asked him to travel in the same bus that the cricketers were in, Sharad Pawar refused and said, "let the boys have their fun". What magnanimity !
Update 24/11/07 : I saw a news item that said that BCCI had objected to Shah Rukh's constant presence in cricket matches and gaining publicity for his film. Shah Rukh, in turn, has replied that his presence helps Indo-Pak ties. The audacity.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The opinionator

Amit Varma, refers to a ‘remarkable quote’ by a socialite as reported in an article in The New York Times. While linking to that article, some other statement caught my attention.
Shobhaa Dé, (is) a model-turned-romance novelist as well as a lifestyle columnist for The Times of India, and the wife of one of Mumbai's wealthiest men………. After her fashion show, Dé explained to me Mumbai's social architecture. “If you are in Delhi, it's which minister you know,” she said. “If you are in Chennai, it's all about which caste you are. In Calcutta, it's what your grandfather did. But in Mumbai, it's not about that kind of rigid social structure any longer. It's about what you have done.
No, the point in extracting this purple passage from the article is not to rush to the defence of Chennai. I think that such ridiculous stereotyping of cities and people should be summarily dismissed from our minds with the contempt that it deserves and not allowed to gain currency and validation, through repetition.

But, I couldn’t help wondering and even grudgingly admiring, as I have done before, how an opinion of Ms De manages to get such prominent mention in a paper such as The New York Times, which has such an impressive journalistic history. Has she been appointed the spokesperson to wax forth on the country’s social architecture? What is it about her that has otherwise sane men seeking her expert views on matters on which she has absolutely no credentials or qualifications whatsoever to comment on?

And, as I asked in the earlier post, at what point in her life did she metamorphose from a mere columnist or author to a full-blown socialite? Is there some kind of certifying body that assesses one’s skills in this area and confers this degree?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Want to fly, climb walls?

In his book, “Pulse”, the author Robert Frenay refers to the study of penguins undertaken by a scientist named Rudolf Bannasch

“We have studied the energetics of penguins swimming in the Antarctic. These animals spend most of their lives in the water of the cold ice sea. They had to learn how to use their energy in an ergonomic way—how to spend as little as possible for swimming.”

Rather than being one smooth contour from head to tail, a penguin’s body has small undulations—subtle ridges around its circumference—which raise the speed of the water passing over them. Behind those undulations the passing water slows and curls in on itself. This creates a roller effect that separates the water flowing past it from the animal’s body, dramatically reducing friction.

Penguins feed on krill, a small crustacean, Bannasch says. “We analyzed their energy consumption and found that they need only one kilogram of krill to travel about a hundred and thirty kilometers in the sea.” That’s the equivalent, he translates, of using a liter of gasoline to travel about fifteen hundred kilometers in that water.

Back at his desk, Bannasch displays with some pride a photo of an athlete dressed in brightly colored shorts and T-shirt, standing next to an unusual-looking bicycle. It’s enclosed in a streamlined white shell that looks oddly like a penguin. The bike is a racer, and the light fiberglass shell was formed in a Mercedes-Benz lab. They have raced it, he says, and with impressive results.
Hmmm. I am now convinced that Superman was real. The reason Clark Kent rushed into the booth to change into his special clothes before flying, was because the scientists of Krypton had created his super-costume, by impregnating it with millions of undulations that minimized friction dramatically and took advantage of favourable eddies. Superman is neither a fictional character, nor a frictional one.

And, I am also convinced now that Spider-Man’s ability to cling to walls and his superhuman powers did not happen because he was bitten by an irradiated spider, but because he had special equipment. Already nanotechnologists in Turin, Italy claim to have created a "hierarchy of adhesive forces," using carbon nanotubes, which are strong enough to hold the weight of a person suspended from a wall or ceiling. This tech could possibly lead to a kind of microscopic hook and loop configuration, a la Velcro. And a world of wall-walking "underwear perverts" will surely ensue?

Nature, the ice-breaker

While human effort to create a shipping link between Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar is mired in controversy, Nature ( with, perhaps, some help from the global warming caused by humans) seems to have quietly cleared the northwest passage in the Arctic, that would provide a second link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Brittanica Blog reports:

“According to photographs recently published by the European Space Agency, the fabled Northwest Passage joining the Atlantic and Pacific to the Arctic Ocean is now open for business; as the ESA notes, those satellite images document the lowest Arctic ice coverage in history. There was a time, in a pre-warmed era, when sea ice would have blocked the channel; as the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the Northwest Passage remarks,

To reach the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic requires a hazardous voyage through a stream of about 50,000 giant icebergs, up to 300 feet (90 m) in height, constantly drifting south between Greenland and Baffin Island. The exit to the Pacific is equally formidable, because the polar ice cap presses down on Alaska’s shallow north coast much of the year and funnels masses of ice into the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Siberia.

But no more: whether through human agency or the vicissitudes of an obdurate nature, the
McClure Strait is now completely open, and the historically impassable Northwest Passage is now navigable from start to finish. Satellite images indicate a gaping hole in the sea ice that runs more or less directly along the North American coast, affording ocean going vessels making from, say, Liverpool to Osaka what will surely turn out to be a faster and less expensive route than the one that now passes by way of the Panama Canal. "

Ok, there aren’t huge icebergs here in the Gulf of Mannar, but can Nature intervene in some other ingenious manner and provide a deep-water link, keeping the Adam's Bridge unaffected?

Friday, September 21, 2007

The collective awakening.

First, there is a prevalent belief or idea that permeates the whole society. It lasts for years, decades or centuries. Then, something happens. Somewhere, some anonymous person questions this belief. The first spark is lit. The contrarian view catches on slowly. Spreads steadily. When a critical mass is reached, a social awakening happens. Collective consciousness emerges. Change takes place.

I am not talking about scientific ideas that changed when new evidence was found. I am talking about social customs, beliefs and taboos.

Take slavery. It was practiced universally, for several centuries. The Greeks, the Romans, later the other European powers in the Middle Ages and well into the nineteenth century, all indulged in slave trade. Slavery was regarded as normal, necessary and was something that was taken for granted. Somewhere around the year 1800, some people sensed it was wrong; they started making some noise about abolishing this practice. It was a ‘grass roots’ movement. Public opinion in Britain was slowly built. Perceptions gradually changed. Political pressure was mounted. Anti-slavery sentiment was firmly embedded in the national consciousness. An Act was passed in 1807, abolishing slavery in the UK. It took another 50 years and a Civil war to get the same thing done in the USA.

Judging by the values of today, it is incomprehensible how the reprehensible practice was accepted without question for so many centuries even by deep thinkers and philosophers..

The issue of women exercising their franchise is even more bizarre. In the UK, women were not allowed to vote, though there was no law against it. This anomaly was corrected in 1832 and they were explicitly prevented from doing so, through the Reform Act of 1832. The campaign for women’s suffrage started around 1850, developed into a full-blown demand that was finally granted grudgingly in 1918 for women over 30 years and in 1928 for women over 21, on par with men. New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote. This happened in 1893. Incredibly, it took another 50 years ( 1944) for France to grant their women the right to vote. This from a country which had the ideals of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” as early as the 17th century. Unbelievable, that 50% of the population was not allowed to vote and the practice was accepted as par for the course. Incidentally, some countries such as Saudi Arabia still do not allow their women to vote. (Not that they have too many elections. I read this about some local elections that took place in 2005)

There are many issues now that are slowly gathering momentum and picking up traction. For example, when did the consciousness or awareness of global warming happen? Has the tipping point been crossed?

Is there something that is embedded deeply now in our collective consciousness as normal, right-thing-to-do, which will, through a process of enlightenment in the future, convince us was a terrible mistake and will make us let out a collective gasp, wondering why we did not even realize that it was wrong all along?

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Rahul Dravid, in an interview with Times of India, replies to criticism that he is not aggressive enough.

“For me aggression is not show of emotion. It never has been. For me aggression is performance... You can show as much emotion as you want on the field but at the end of the day what counts is how you have performed. In India, we get caught up with this thing; even get a little carried away. We often treat emotional show and aggression as the same.

.. there was an incident early on in my career when I got a hundred in Kolkata. I was a bit worked up and I pointed the bat in a frenetic way. And so many people came up to me and said, 'oh yeah, you were really aggressive, fantastic'. I look back at it now nd feel that was not the great thing, not the highlight of my innings. In fact, that was an easy thing to do pumping my fist and raising the bat or jumping up and down. It didn't require any skill. The tougher part was to get the 100. For me that's what counts. That's what I have focussed on all my life… Then, there was another incident when I hit Allan Donald for a six and Donald had this thing with me and people said, 'oh what a great moment'. And I felt that wasn't the thing for me. The challenge was actually before that, when I actually hit the shot. That was the real thrill. The fact that I was able to play it was aggression for me. I guess that's my personality.”.

My respect for the man went up even higher when I read this.

As behavioural psychologists like to pontificate, aggression is not about thumping one’s chest or indulging in sabre-rattling at the slightest opportunity or letting out blood-curdling war cries. Being assertive is all about confidence in one’s own abilities and in going about one’s mission with quiet determination.

I would urge all of you to practise this diligently. Believe in this approach passionately; try to be undemonstrative and control your emotions, But, should this be misconstrued as weakness and people try to ride rough-shod over you, don’t react. Simply catch the person by the collar and choke him with your bare hands. Then pullout his nails, one at a time using the Swiss army knife which you should always carry in your pocket. Then make him lie down and jump on his chest.

Remember, no emotions allowed, as you do all this. You have to live up to the image of being the strong, silent, undemonstrative type.

Update 22/03/08 :

Wasim Jaffer, in this interview responds to criticism that he is not demonstrative enough:

Look at Dravid, Laxman or Kumble - they are all so sober on the field and yet they are such great cricketers. It's your personality, and your cricket that's reflected on the ground. …You don't have to show off, that you are running around or leaping about here and there. As long as you are motivated inside, your focus is on the game and you are doing your job well, that's enough.

"I will narrate a story here," says Jaffer. "During our Test tour of South Africa in late 2006, there was a lot of controversy surrounding Sreesanth. So one day Dravid addressed the team on what he thought aggression was all about. He told us that aggression is about standing up to be counted when your team is in a dire situation. Aggression is getting your team through in times of need, Rahul said, and not abusing the opposing player.

It takes two to create a record....

As Garfield Sobers returned to the pavilion, after his innings in which he smashed six sixes off an over from Malcolm Nash, the latter walked back with him smiling. Later, when a media person asked Sobers what Nash had muttered to him, he clarified, ‘He told me that mine was not the only name that would appear in the record books. His would figure too, alongside”.

So, when we talk about Yuvraj’s record-breaking six sixes, let’s spare a thought and raise a toast for Stuart Broad who also makes it into the record books.

Incidentally, Nash tried to equal his record again in 1977, but fell two runs short, when he conceded 34 runs in an over to Frank Hayes, also at the same ground. (source). Let’s hope that Broad will repeat the feat soon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

India, the person

Glancing idly at a world map and marveling at the variety of shapes of different countries, I find myself swelling with justifiable pride.

China may be an economic giant, but its map, alas, resembles a hen in the process of hatching its eggs.

The map of Italy looks like a weak-kneed footballer about to strike the Sicilian ball , rather tamely.

Great Britain, for all its greatness, reminds me of a cartoon character called Baby Huey.

And the map of USA, no offense meant, has the appearance of the posterior of an oversized Uncle Sam.

And India? Ha, she is different and stands tall in all her glory..

No country’s map lends itself so readily to anthropomorphist delight as does India’s. The north-south length and the east-west spread, with Jammu and Kashmir as the head, Punjab and HP the slender neck and peninsular India as the legs, manage to imbue it with such symmetry and grace, as to give it a perfect human-like shape.

Aren’t you proud?

By the way, back in the pre-Internet era, hard copies of Time, Newsweek and Economist used to carry the map of India to reflect the status quo, that is along the LOC,. They had to carry a correction (defacing the map with a rubber stamp) that the map was neither authentic nor correct, or they would be accused of serious cartographical conspiracy. It is still illegal, but the Internet cuts across such geographical boundaries and such instances are far too many, for authorities to track.

But, the point that is of relevance to this post is that without the areas that are called PoK or the Chinese-controlled area, the map of India loses its sense of proportion and resembles a human body with a distorted and vacuumed-out head. At least for this reason, we should not cede this territory.

In fact, carving out Pakistan did us lot of good. We now have perfectly drooping shoulders and outstretched arms, which would have been seriously distorted had we carried the baggage of Pakistan on our back.

Way to go, India.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The power of commodity

A 355 ml can of Coca Cola contains about 10 teaspoons of sugar. About 5 times the amount that an average coffee-drinker in India would use for same quantity,

No, this is not one of those email forwards that warn you of the terrible things that cola can do to your system. Far be it from me to preach on what you should drink or eat.

I was just trying to read up on how the fortunes of business conglomerates or empires often rest on a single, simple commodity. The case of oil and the OPEC countries is well known, but so many other basic items have been controlled by a few parties with vested interests. For several centuries, Arab seafarers and Venetian merchants kept such a tight control over the movement of spices, especially pepper from India.

For Coca Cola, the main raw material and their life line is sugar and they need to secure the supply of this valuable commodity. In India, according to some reports, Coca Cola is the single largest purchaser of sugar. This thesis claims that during World War II, when sugar was rationed in the USA, Coca Cola along with another large sugar consumer, Hershey chocolates, managed to get plentiful supplies of sugar from Cuba and kept its production in full swing, actively lobbying with the Govt at every stage. No sugar, no Coke. And Coke entering the sugar market can drive the prices up or keep the supplies down..

Mcdonalds is believed to be the single largest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes and apples. Similarly, Heinz is one of the largest purchaser of tomatoes. Supplies of these items are critical to the business and the price of these commodities will determine the profitability.

In his classic book, Bound Together on how traders, preachers, adventurers, and warriors shaped globalization, the author Nayan Chanda, of the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation, quotes a Reuters news item which said that the four giant roasters and retailers - Procter and Gamble, Kraft Foods, Sara Lee and Nestle- which together control 40% of the world’s coffee have benefited immensely from the falling price of coffee. They have passed on some of the lower price to consumers but have also fattened their margins considerably. Prices paid to growers have plunged more than 80% since 1997, but average retail prices for ground roast coffee in American cities have fallen only 27 to 37%. The companies that have done well in this downturn are specialty boutique retailers like Starbucks that charge customers up to 5 dollars for a cup of coffee- of which barely one penny goes to the farmer.

In its website, Starbucks claims that twenty-one percent of the Fair Trade Certified™ coffee imported into the U.S. in fiscal 2005 was purchased by Starbucks, making them the largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified™ coffee in North America. And what does Fair Trade Price mean? The Fair Trade Certified™ label certifies that farmers who grew the coffee received a minimum price.

The story of De Beers and their attempt over the decades to control the price of diamond has been very well chronicled. One of DeBeers’ main roles is to maintain the notion that diamonds are a scarce commodity. This they do by means of advertising and by purchasing excess supplies when that is needed to avoid price decreases: as a matter of principle, prices are never lowered by DeBeers.

So, the most basic of commodities and the most precious can confer enormous power when amassed on a large enough scale and hoarded or released in a controlled manner.

The power of the basic commodity has been used in history; the tea in Boston tea Party to make a point of “no taxation without representation’; the salt in the Salt Satyagraha movement or even the lowly onion in removing the BJP Govt in Rajasthan and Delhi in 1998..

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Rash promises

The old story about Alexander the Great, regretting that he had only one world to conquer is, apparently, not the right version. A contemporary of his by name Anaximenes of Lampsacus, had postulated that there were worlds other than earth, and he was the one who put the conceited Alexander in his place and deflated his ego by telling him that he had merely conquered one of the worlds. Big deal.

I wish someone had told Dravid and his team, and also the euphoric fans that, in winning the ODI at the Oval, they had not conquered the world, but had merely won one of the matches.

And, I should learn not to get carried away. When we needed 50 runs off 40 balls, I told my wife that if the young Uthappa took us to victory, I would eat as many uthappams as the number of runs he scored. He ended up scoring 47 runs. And sure enough, when we went to Woodlands this weekend, wife called my bluff and insisted that I should honour my word and eat the 47 uthappams. I managed to extricate myself from the tight spot, but swore that I will not make rash promises in the heat of the moment.

Reminded me of this scene in the Laurel and Hardy classic “Way out west” where Laurel would make a statement that ‘if they didn’t get the deed, he would eat his hat’. That evening, Hardy would remind him of what he had said and insist that he should eat his hat. Laurel takes a reluctant first bite, a second, a third; then adds some salt and pepper and continues….

Saturday, September 08, 2007

My lazy ancestors

Queen Elizabeth can trace her ancestry back over many centuries and several generations. So many people in the British Isles believe that one of their forefathers came into the country along with William, the conqueror, in the 11th century. There are many Americans who can claim that some ancestor came over in the Mayflower. The author Alex Haley claimed to be the seventh generation descendant of Kunta Kinte, a native of Gambia who was kidnapped in 1750 and transported to Maryland, to be sold as a slave there. A Finnish colleague of mine takes pride in stating that he has his family tree dating back to the 14th century.

I am always impressed when I hear all this. For, I can barely trace my family tree back to my grandfather’s time. I know nothing of where he came from or what his grandfather did.

While on this forefather business, another thing I notice, with families such as the Tatas and the Birlas, is that somewhere in the family history, some grandfather has broken away from the routine, ventured into uncharted territory, taken risks which paid off, accumulated wealth and dutifully bequeathed all that to their descendants. The grandsons or grand-nephews such as Ratan Tata and Kumarmangalam Birla are enjoying the fruit of the entrepreneurial zeal of their ancestors. Building the fortune further is relatively simple. It is creating the base that is the difficult part and which was handled by the grand fathers.

I am sorry to report that my great grandfathers don’t seem to have had such noble thoughts. So, when the grandparents of Ratan Tata and Aditya Birla were toiling away and creating business empires for their descendants to enjoy, my great grandfather appears to have wasted his time and frittered away a golden opportunity to amass wealth for his great grandson. Just to cite an example, if only he had purchased a few hundred acres of land inside Chennai city those days when an acre of land probably cost a few annas ( equal to two thambis, at today’s exchange rate), and left it behind for my use, life would have been a lot easier.

No, I hear you say, not all wealthy people have inheritance from their ancestors. Didn’t Bill Gates or Dhirubhai Ambani become first-generation billionaires, on their own steam? Good question.

But, that’s exactly my point. My grandfather, like Gates or Ambani, could easily have become a first-generation entrepreneur, if he had tried.


East meets west

The NewScientist, has a section called Last Word, where readers ask some interesting questions and other readers, including some experts and specialists try to answer the question. Many other publications ( including The Hindu) have this feature, but I am picking out the NewScientist, because I happened to read a compilation of the questions and answers published in a book titled, “ Why don’t penguins’ feet freeze?

One of the questions asked was: “Is it true that the living outnumber the dead?”

The first to send in a reply was a Roger Thatcher, presumably from England. He went into detailed calculations published by the International Statistical Institute and other estimates provided by historians with access to census data over the centuries. He finally concluded that the total number of deaths between 40000 BC and the present comes to something like 60 billion. The present population is around 6-7 billion. Therefore, the belief that the living outnumber the dead is clearly a myth, he submitted..

The final contributor was a Shah Ahmed, presumably from the Indian sub-continent, who explained, “ In the Indian epic, Mahabharata, the eldest Pandava, Yudishtira was asked many questions, including the one posed above, by the God Yama, who was the keeper of the underworld and all that is righteous, to test Yudhistira’s knowledge, power of reasoning and truthfulness. When Yama asked, “Who are the more numerous, the living or the dead?” Yudishtira answered without blinking, “The living, because the dead are no more!” Shah Ahmed did not even state his conclusion; he must have felt that it was a no-brainer.

The answers, one by a person used to western methods of logical reasoning, measurement and analysis and another by a person steeped in Indian tradition of seeking philosophical explanations, reveal much. Same conclusion was reached, but using two different approaches.
Update 09/09/07 : As pointed out by Usha and anon, I have goofed. Conclusions are actually different. East is east and west is west. Twain shall never meet. Please adjust.

The game of the name.

Can someone tell me why Bombay Jayashri has not changed her name to Mumbai Jayashri, long after the name “Bombay” made way for ‘Mumbai’? Or, for that matter why didn’t ‘Bombay Dyeing’ grab this opportunity to become ‘Mumbai Living’?

I remember how Bombay Electric Supply and Transport, when Bombay became Mumbai, didn’t change their name to Mumbai Electric Supply and Transport. Instead they cleverly assumed the name of Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport. East or West, they decided, they will be BEST always, never MEST. Admirable loyalty to an acronym, but that was cheating. The acronym should actually be BMEST, pronounced by holding one’s breath and releasing the compressed air from the mouth.

Also, why does the historian S.Muthiah call his column, ‘Madras Musings” when Madras became Chennai long back? Surely, this is to keep the 3M title of Muthiah’s Madras Musings alive? Either he should change his name to Chinnaiah and call his column, “Chinniah’s Chennai Cursings” or, if he is so keen on his baptised name and the 3Ms, call it, “Muthiah’s Mylapore Musings”. He can’t have it all.

Change of name is not so simple though. Years back when Madras Refinery Ltd (MRL) was forced to drop Madras from its name, I suspect that all the senior executives met at Fisherman Cove for a week to come up with a different name. After much brainstorming, someone must have come up with the ingenious idea that, why not they change the name to Chennai Refinery Ltd or CRL. Brilliant, everyone said, till one of the typists must have gently pointed out that CRL happened to be the acronym of Cochin Refinery Ltd and that much confusion would result. So, the senior executives must have thought and thought and finally come up with ‘Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd” or CPCL.

Too bad, that after all this work by MRL, Cochin became Kochi and CRL became KRL.

One of these days, some Tamil politician is going to stage a dharna outside the Madras Cricket Club and force them to change their name to Chennai Cricket Club. But, hey, this is a much better name. They can call themselves the 3C. Though, they might get into issues with Calcutta Chaat Corner, near my house. These guys chose their name carefully and wanted a minimum of 3Cs too. But, wait. MCC has a chance. I just heard that the Kolkata Kommunist Komrades have warned this bhelpuri shop that the continued use of “Calcutta’ in the name, could have serious consequences. So, poor fellow, he has ordered a new name board which says, “Kolkata Kachori Kiosk”.

As if all this is not enough, cricketer S.Sreesanth has changed his name to S. Sree Santh. He pulled up a reporter recently for spelling his name wrongly. He also listens carefully for the capital S in ‘Santh”, when you call out his name. Reminds me of a character called “Sir Jasper ffinch-ffarrowmere” in one of the short stories of P.G.Wodehouse. A piece of conversation from the story:

"Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?" said Wilfred.
"ffinch-ffarrowmere," corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

Same with Sree Santh. Approach him, if you must, with 3S.

Airlines have caught this bug too. Indian Airlines became Indian and later merged with Air India. This, in my opinion, is quite reasonable. After all, isn’t an Indian part of India? But, the other change, that of Sahara becoming Jet Lite is completely stupid. Do they expect all the maps of Africa to be changed, to show the “ Great Jet Lite Desert” in the northern parts? The other rumour that Kingfisher is going back to its scientific name of Alcedo Atthis is yet to be confirmed as Vijay Mallya, the UB king, has gone fishing, in a lake outside Bangalore.

Sorry, that should read as Bengaluru. Yes, Bangalore is dead. Long live Bengaluru. They wanted to change Mangalore to Mengaluru also, but I have confidential information that the Udupi Hotel Owners Assocation stalled it, as they would have had to incur expenses of crores of rupees to buy chalk pieces to correct the name of the item ‘Mangalore Bonda’ to “Mengaluru Bonda” on the black boards in all their joints scattered all over the world.

At least, Bengaluru doesn’t have to alter any of the acronyms as the first letter remains the same. The fuss that people make about names, acronyms and, not to forget, the 3Cs, 3Ms and the 3Ss. I am disgusted. As All Are Aware, I don’t Approve of these Artificially Arranged, Annoying Acronyms And Alliterative Adaptations.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The longest anthem.

Malayalam movie actor Mohanlal makes a statement in some context that “All Malayalees drink” and soon faces the ire of the Kerala association of Mahatma Gandhians. They want him to apologise as he has insulted the Gandhians of the state. A.R,Rehman is dragged to court, because he had come out with an audio CD in which the national anthem lasted more than the mandated 53 seconds ( or because it lasted less than the mandated 52 seconds, I am not sure).

A blogger is upset at the omission of the word, “dravida’ from the national anthem aired on the Air-tel ad. While another blogger laments the fact that Tagore had compressed the entire South India to just one word, “Dravida’, while assigning a full word each to Bengal, Gujarat, Sind, Punjab…

What kind of an intolerant world and humourless society we seem to live in? (Oops. I just made myself liable to legal action by the Humour Club – Chennai chapter for branding the entire society as humourless, in one grand sweep of my pen, sorry mouse. After all, they have been passionately promoting the cause of humour and so cannot brook any suggestion that they have not succeeded. )

I mean to say, let us grant these artists and poets some licence to indulge in whatever they want to do, without accusing them of acts of commission or omission. Just imagine. If Tagore had decided, while composing the anthem, to include every single state, every district and municipality, we would not have got past the opening stanza even once since 1947. We would have been a nation, whose anthem was a work-in-progress.

Scientists vs cricketers

Sunday afternoon. Switched on the TV. ESPN was telecasting the India-England ODI. The Indians in the crowd were celebrating every run scored by Sachin or Sourav with wild gestures and loud cries.

During a break, I strayed to the Doordarshan channel. There was a live telecast of the GSLV launch that would put the INSAT satellite into space. The countdown had started. At T-15 seconds, the computers suddenly cried halt and the take-off was put on hold. The tension was palpable. The scientists looked worried, but remained calm. Launch delayed by 50 minutes, we were told. It was already 4.21 pm. Another 9 minutes to go for Rahukalam. Will the scientists take the chance, I was curious to know.

Back to ESPN. Yuvraj and Gambhir were batting now. Yuvraj, in particular, was hammering away. The Indian supporters were having the time of their lives.

50 minutes later, went back to Doordarshan. Further delay. That meant the launch would be after 6 pm. Well past the Rahukalam. Good.

So, back to ESPN. Dravid and Dhoni continued the good work. I was quite pleased with the performance. I was in a good mood.

At 6.20 or so, I surfed my way to DD channel again. The countdown had started. Two minutes left. Soon, there was fire and smoke as the rocket took off. It could be seen for a few seconds. Once it disappeared into the skies, the view shifted to the computer monitor which had two counters, one for the elapsed time in seconds and another for velocity in km/sec. The actual trajectory was projected against the predicted one. Several key milestones were crossed and after about 1000 seconds, the satellite was separated and placed in orbit. A flawless performance.

The scientists clapped as the rocket cleared one milestone after another and when it was all over, they got up and shook hands.

The contrast between what was happening on ESPN channel and DD was quite revealing. In the former, some guys in a funny blue attire could stir the whole nation merely by glancing a ball of 4” diameter down the leg side; the Indian spectators were dancing and hooting as if there was no tomorrow.

On DD, a bunch of scientists who had worked round-the-clock for several weeks had achieved something remarkable. Only a handful of countries can claim to have the ability to launch payloads of this size. These scientists had failed in their last attempt; the quiet determination to succeed this time was quite visible. More than Rs 300 crores was at stake, which could literally go up in smoke in 10 seconds.

Yet, when they knew they had succeeded, there was admirable restraint. There was joy, all right, but they were so undemonstrative. It was another day at the office. There will be more launches in the coming months. Hopefully, there will be more successes than failures.

The Hindu faithfully reported the event on page 1. The other newspaper that I buy, the Deccan Chronicle, did not feel it newsworthy enough to post on the front page.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Stick to the group

In his book, Ordinary Man, the historian, Christopher Browning, narrates the gory incident involving German (Order Police) Reserve Unit 101 that was ordered to massacre and round up Jews for deportation to the death camps in Poland in 1942. The orders were to shoot the Jews, if there was not enough room for them on the trains. The commander of the Unit, Wilhelm Trapp, was horrified, and gave his men the choice of opting out of duty if they found it too pleasant.

Only twelve out of the five hundred stepped out. The others participated in the massacre, though they were later disgusted with what they had done.

So, why did they participate at all, when they were so reluctant? It could not have been mere fear of authority, as in the Milgram experiment, for here they were given the choice to opt out. Anti-Semitism was also not so strong in these men, as they were ordinary middle-aged men of working-class background who hailed from one of the least Nazified parts of Germany and had been drafted but found unfit for military duty and so were placed with the Police unit.

The conclusion of the book was that the men of Unit 101 obeyed a simple rule that had been hardwired in them, namely, that they should stick with their comrades at any cost and not break ranks. This rule prevailed over their moral judgement and values.

Members of any given group feel the need to conform and to cling to the default setting. This gives a greater sense of identity and comradeship. To break away is to act against this comfort-providing rule. Even, if in some situations, obedience is at the cost of a troubled conscience.

What the army and the police try (or claim to) to inculcate for a positive cause, terrorist outfits try to duplicate, while pursuing their own agenda. Members can be convinced to let go of their reasoning powers and even set out on suicide missions, exploiting this programmed instinct for kinship. Call it brainwashing, indoctrination or simple peer pressure.

Gerd Gigerenzer ( he of the ‘catch the ball’ heuristic) discusses the above incident, in his book, “Gut Feelings”, to illustrate that most of the decisions we take in our lives is based not so much on analysis and reasoning, but on simple rules of thumb. The book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell had blazed this trail, but Gigerenzer gets deeper into the subject.

Dear Diary- 8

Dear Diary,

Today, out of the blue, I recalled a story that I had read many years back. It was about a man who had an amazing memory. He could remember every single detail – names, faces, dates, events. One day, he was admitted in an asylum in a completely delirious state.

Doctors who studied him diagnosed his condition as stemming out of an inability of his brain to forget things. Apparently, our sanity depends on the brain’s capacity to selectively forget the past and to prioritise on what to commit to memory. There is only so much space in the hard disk up there in your head. Overload can cause it to crash.

Wait a minute. Why did I remember this piece of trivia that I had read many years back? Has my brain lost the faculty to selectively forget? Has it suffered irreversible damage? I have been thinking all along that my rapidly diminishing memory is on account of my inability to remember things; whereas the real problem may be that I am unable to forget.

Note to self. Do the reverse of what you have been attempting to do. Work extra hard to forget, instead of trying to remember more.