Friday, December 24, 2010

High alert!

A news item on Dec 5th this year reported: “A security alert has been sounded across Uttar Pradesh and other communally-sensitive places in India ahead of Monday's 18th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, a home ministry official said”

Presumably, the validity of this ‘high alert’ notice expired on the midnight of Dec 6th.. This emboldened some terror organizations to carry out a ‘low intensity’ blast in Varanasi, on the evening of Dec 7th. . Promptly thereafter, the Home Ministry issued a ‘high alert’ again. In fact, I heard one explanation that the terrorists must have planned to carry this out on Dec 6th, but must have realized it was difficult because the police was on ‘high alert’ that day.

Today, the Govt has issued another ‘high alert’ and has asked the NSG to stand in readiness.

What does this mean? That there will be brief periods of ‘high alert’ that will be announced in advance by the Govt and withdrawn after a few days, when the danger has seemingly passed? That the terrorists are supposed to lie low when the country is on ‘high alert’ mode?

In other words, when the default setting of ‘low alert’ mode is restored, you and I should be worried, very worried.

In one of his essays, R.K.Narayan writes about a childhood experience of an all-night journey that he had to undertake by bullock-cart to reach his home town after alighting from a train in a station thirty miles away.

“The bullock carts moved in a caravan, winding along a dark, tree-shaded highway. Robbers were known to attack such caravans about ten miles from the railway station at midnight. The menace was warded off by a simple expedient. One of the cart-men walked ahead carrying a lantern and a staff and throwing bloodcurdling challenges to the night air. “Hey, keep away, prowlers, if you don’t want your skulls pulped… Who goes there? and so forth, the other drivers also sitting up and urging their bullocks with the loudest swear words. This was kept up till we passed a jutting rock beyond the twelfth milestone; the moment we crossed this spot the challenger went back to his cart, curled himself up in his seat and fell asleep, the entire caravan following this example. By some strange law or understanding, the robbers never seemed to step an inch beyond the jutting rock. It always seemed to me that the robbers were missing a fine opportunity to attack with all the cart-men fast asleep and the only wakeful person being myself as I tried to sleep on a pile of straw expecting any moment to be killed.”

By some strange law or understanding, terrorists are expected to respect the Home Ministry’s ‘high alert’ warning and wait for the ‘all clear’ siren to be blown.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Be warned, Ministers.

In an article in The Outlook, Madhu Purnima Kishwar writes:

I fail to understand why almost every commentator, every TV anchor, every editorial writer feels compelled to pay ritual obeisance to the “personal honesty and integrity of Dr Manmohan Singh” while dealing with the scandals emanating from his cabinet colleagues. They do so even when there is clear evidence that the Prime Minister was well aware of various shady deals, as in the case of Telecom scam, and that he did nothing to stop the brazen economic crimes indulged in by his ministerial colleagues over the last 6 years.

Even if not guilty of an ‘act of commission’, the PM is certainly accountable for his various acts of omission. Doesn’t he know this?

While reflecting on the PM, I came across this passage from a book written by one Horace Wyndham. One of the characters suppressed by a feudal lord addresses the latter thus:

"Listen to me, Your Lordship. You have broken my business. You have ruined my home, you have sent my son to prison and my wife to a dishonoured grave amd you have seduced my only daughter. But, be careful, Lord FitzWallop, I am a man of quick temper. Do not try me too far. "

I thought this tone would suit the PM perfectly. I can imagine him addressing his cabinet.

Listen to me, you guys. Your have made a killing of several hundred crores from the Commonwealth Games. You grabbed apartments and buildings meant for war widows. You have made the nation lose Rs 1,76,000 crores by allotting the 2G spectrum for a song. But, be warned. I am a man of great integrity and quick temper. If I come across any instances of corruption, I will not tolerate it.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strong-arm methods

“Household Words” a journal edited by Charles Dickens, carried this chilling narrative in one of the issues that it brought out in the year 1856. It describes the practice of torture in the Madras Presidency by the District Collectors appointed by the British East India Company.

Indifferent as we are in England about Indian affairs, there are few who do not know that more than one-half of the entire revenue of that vast empire consists of a land-tax or rent, which is exacted from the occupiers by the government.

In Madras, the Honourable Company is not only the head landlord; but the sole landlord. No proprietor, no middleman, no intermediate grade whatever interposes between the actual cultivator of the soil and the great company which is at once his seigneur and his sovereign. The Honourable Company itself lets the land, fixes the rent, raises or lowers the rent, and collects the rent.

For the purpose of rent-getting the presidency is divided into a number of pleasant little districts, each comprising some three or four thousand square miles and containing from half a million to a million of inhabitants ; and over each of these is placed a British head-collector, who, besides making his own fortune within the limited time is expected to supervise the collection of the entire revenue of the district.

To assist him in this duty a large staff of tahsildars, monigars, curnoms, duffadars, peons, taliaries, and other nondescript native officials of high and low degree, is spread through the several villages of the district—but, as this native staff is described by unexceptionable witnesses as little better than a delusion, it may be doubted whether on the whole their services are precisely such as we should desire to see employed in the collection of public money, or in the delicate negotiations between the Honourable East India Company and the miserable defaulters in the land-tax.

Connected with this department, there is also another Indian institution, which may seem, a little harsh to English readers. We at home should object if the collector of income-tax, poor-rate, or county-rate were empowered to proceed summarily, by his own authority and without the interposition of a magistrate, or of any civil process whatsoever, to arrest the person of the defaulter. Even in India itself, bad as things were, this used to be unlawful. But the Honourable Company is strict in money matters and, by an enactment, now about forty years old, all authority, whether of the revenue, the police, or the magistracy, is vested in the same set of officials—those very gentlemen who are declared thieves by their friends.

And now let us see how the case stands. Messrs. Elliot, Stokes and Norton have collected information from all parts of the Madras Presidency, and have heard evidence from every class, directly or indirectly concerned, from the rent-collectors and the rentpayers, and from every section of both. These gentlemen unhesitatingly report, as the result of their inquiries, that personal violence on the part of the native revenue and police officials prevails throughout the presidency, personal violence of such a character that, in five recorded instances, "death has followed upon its infliction." They declare this to be the only conclusion that any impartial mind could arrive at.

The use of wooden pincers (the kittie),trussing a man, bending him double (anandal), squeezing the crossed fingers with the hands, punches on the thighs, slaps, blows with the fist or a whip, twisting the ears,making a man sit on the soles of his feet with brickbats behind his knees,  putting a low caste man on his back, striking two defaulters  heads against each other,or tying them together by the hair, placing in the stocks,tying the hair of the head to a donkey's or a buffalo's tail, placing a necklace of bones, or other disgusting or degrading materials round the neck,— are some of the usual ways of expediting the receipt of money.

The police officials often however resort to more severe procedures, as, for instance, twisting a rope tightly round the arm or leg so as to impede circulation, lifting up by the moustache,  suspended by the arms while tied behind the back,searing with hot-irons, placing scratching insects such as the carpenter beetle on the most sensitive parts of the body, dipping in wells and rivers till the victim is half suffocated, beating with sticks ; nipping the flesh with pincers,  putting pepper or red chillies in the eyes, these cruelties being occasionally persevered in till death, sooner or later, ensues.

Rent-day, then, round Madras is not like Rent-day in Great Britain. The rents which are there collected are not the rents of a mere private proprietor, but of the Honourable Company itself.

The officials who figure on the Indian scene are not the steward, or bailiff, of some great estates in the Highlands, or in Connemara; they are every one of them the chosen and salaried servants of that great public body which represents England in India, and for every one of whose doings the good name of England is pledged to the countless millions whom we have taken under our paternal rule in that unhappy empire. For every official deed of theirs, for every act of cruelty, injustice, or rapine ; for every anna of the wretched ryot's substance wrongfully extracted ; for every torture or indignity inflicted upon his most miserable carcase, the Honourable East India Company is responsible.

While the account is quite shocking to read, it must also be recognized that there were conscientious citizens in Britain who brought to light these excesses committed by officials of the East India Company and raised awareness.

You miserable sub-45 creatures.

Mark Lowry, comedian, in this hilarious interview when he turned forty, explains how the description of birthday changes every decade.

You BECOME 21. You TURN 30. You're PUSHING to 40. You REACH 50. You MAKE it to 60. By that time,you’ve built up so much speed you HIT 70. After that, it's just a day-to-day thing"

Yes, old age catches up quite fast. I can vouch for that now. But it is not all bad news.

In a recent article, The Economist dips into various global studies on the subject and explains the correlation between age and happiness.

When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.

….One paper, published this year by Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University, and Angus Deaton of Princeton, breaks well-being down into positive and negative feelings and looks at how the experience of those emotions varies through life. Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

In short, what these studies tell us is that, after the peak happiness in the twenties, there is a steady decline till the age of 45 or so. At this point, there is a U-bend and we start the upward climb on the happiness curve again.

So, what I want to convey to the kids in the age group 25-40 is this: No doubt you are young and all that. But you are on the downward slope of the happiness curve and will keep sliding steadily for some more years. Whereas, I have bottomed-out of that curve and am well on the ascending part of the graph. Take that, you miserable lot.

Hill cricket

A few years back, a friend of mine suddenly decided to leave the corporate world and join a Foundation that was into social work.

What drove him- someone with a promising career ahead of him- to make this jump, I had asked him.

He had happened to attend one the programs organized by the Foundation, in one of the southern districts of Tamilnadu, he told me. It was a sports event- the Village Olympics- in which hundreds of farmers and others from the rural community had taken part. It was perhaps, for the first time in their lives that these people had ever indulged in a properly organized activity of this scale and nature. There was much fun and revelry and the simple folks went back home in such high spirits. It occurred to my friend then that if he were a part of the Foundation, he could put his organizing capability to good use and contribute to the cause of bringing joy to hundreds of people.

Quite an amazing decision, I felt, my friend had taken. And he didn’t sound morally superior or use a condescending tone as if he was the chosen one to light up the lives of the villagers. I felt his passion was quite genuine.

I was reminded of this friend when I read this story of the 1,342-team T20 Mahasangram cricket tournament being organized in the hills of Himachal Pradesh.

In its second year, the tournament, branded as “the world’s biggest”, hopes to take cricket to every village of Himachal Pradesh. Organised by the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association (HPCA), the tournament, which began on November 29, will go on for a month and a half. The participating players are mostly local villagers and though the organisers provide them balls, they have to pool in for bats and helmets, food and travelling expenses.

With breathtaking views of the Kullu Valley and the Dhauladhar ranges, the setting is spectacular. But the playing conditions are nowhere near perfect. The pitch is matting and the playing field is far from level—balls hit by a right hander towards the leg side tend to roll downhill where children in slippers play with bats crudely carved out of any available wood and balls made of cloth.

Balls are sometimes hard to field when they slide off slopes or plop into streams. Occasionally, play has to be stopped as cattle and ponies traipse along the outfield, on their way to the jungle to graze.

Yet, the game goes on. The players, dressed in white, like regular Test cricketers, come in all shapes, sizes, ages and professions. The enthusiasm shows when they bend that little bit extra to send the ball racing, then dive to stop singles and come up smiling after having saved runs and bruised their elbows.

It is a wonderful story, well narrated by Jonathan Selvaraj, the IE reporter.

Friday, December 17, 2010

India vs Egypt

Amira Nowaira, in her column in The Guardian, writes on the eve of the Egyptian elections:

Egypt's contradictions may be a source of infinite amusement, but also one of genuine distress. Where else can you find a state of emergency that stays in place for 30 years? The word "emergency" implies a brief, intense situation that should disappear as soon as it is dealt with. But 30 years?

And where else can you find a presidential candidate casting his vote for another instead of himself? This was what the 90-year-old Ahmed El-Sabbahi did in 2005, when he proudly declared that he gave his vote to Mubarak.

More seriously, where else can you find a banned organisation like the Muslim Brotherhood getting high-profile coverage in the media and a sizable representation in the 2005 parliament? If the organisation is illegal and banned, why are they all over the media, giving interviews and making statements?

Where else can you find a nation with more than 50% of its population under the age of 15 that is ruled mostly by septuagenarians and octogenarians? Whenever the ruling NDP tries to indicate its endorsement of the nation's youth, it is actually referring to people in their 50s. One must admit, though, that the NDP deserves marks for consistency at least, for if power is still in the hands of octogenarians in the prime of life, then the 50-year olds of the NDP are green youths still being groomed for their future.

Well, the ‘emergency’ in India lasted much less than 30 years. Also, I don’t think I’ll be able to cite examples of any Indian politician casting his vote for another opponent. But, to that question about octogenarians ruling a country where 50% of its population is less than 15-years old, I believe I can provide a strong counter-claim.

In Tamilnadu, we have a 85-year old Chief Minister who has to be taken around on a wheel-chair. Competing with him is the Governor who is also 85 years old and who can barely get up from his chair..

According to a report, the average age of the Indian Union cabinet is 64.4 years which is almost two-and-a-half times the country's median age at 25.9. This is far greater than most of the developed economies where the difference is only a decade or so. Even the Chinese leadership is more youthful with an average cabinet age of 61.2 years.

The only way we can correct this geriatric tradition is by adopting the system suggested by Italo Calvino in a short story -which I had cited in an earlier post.

Sorry for what?

In one of the Radia tapes, Mr Tarun Das, ex-CII, is heard accusing Mr Kamal Nath of corruption. The Hindu reports

Mr. Das says Mr. Nath can still make his “15 per cent” on this. “You can do national service and also make money… and do really something worthwhile here,” Mr. Das says, to which Ms. Radia's responds: “This is still an ATM [automated teller machine] for Kamal Nath.” “Absolutely,” says Mr. Das.

Asked by The Hindu how he could speak of a Minister doing national service if he was “also making money” and why he pushed for Mr. Nath's candidature despite harbouring apprehensions about corruption under his watch, Mr. Das said his “15 per cent” remark was “irresponsible and unfortunate.”

I regret that, he said. “Loose talk. My public apologies to Mr. Nath.”

Should Mr Tarun Das have apologised?

All of us have some private conversations which we, under normal circumstances, don’t allow to get into the public domain. Talking to my wife in the privacy of my home, I might use the choicest expletives while describing my boss, secure in the knowledge that he is not going to hear about it. But, if my phone had been kept on by mistake and my curious boss- the crook- at the other end manages to eavesdrop on the sensitive dialogue, am I supposed to apologise to him?

Taking the argument one step further, suppose there is a device invented that can read my mind, will I be arrested on charges of harbouring an intention to molest a woman, when I am just fantasising about her?

The rules of civilised behaviour do not apply under all conditions. Digging my nose in public may be gross, but it is perfectly alright when I am alone. If someone catches me doing it, using a secretly-embedded camera, am I supposed to feel bad?

Bug anybody’s phone or room, several dark secrets and skeletons will tumble down. It would be stupid of that person to apologise for something he or she had said during a private and exclusive conversation with another person. Such conversations are like the noise created by a crashing tree deep inside a forest. No one else is supposed to hear it.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Indian Alchemist

Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence in its despatches in the year 1846, narrates this interesting case.

The ingenious knave who successfully contrived to defraud an unsuspecting conicopillay in the service of his Highness the Nabob of no less a sum than 425 rupees, and who almost immediately after the achievement became noninventus—has been apprehended at Chittoor, and is now there in durance vile.

It may be remembered that the fellow, a Fakeer, set himself up for an alchemist, and that having won the confidence of the conicopillay by a prefatory trick, he undertook to convert as many silver rupees as this man could furnish him with into as many gold mohurs, by a process which terminated in his own favour at the time, for it made him master of 425 rupees, and set him, thus enriched, on a felicitous tramp into the interior.

But his joys were destined to be of short duration, for a talliar of police, armed with a warrant, was sent in pursuit of the fugitive, and soon came up to the chase.

How the minion of the law came to direct himself to that especial point of the thirty-two points of the compass is problematical, and can only be solved by ascribing to the nasal organs of the officers of police that nicety of scent for carrion which distinguishes the vulture. But be this as it may, the Fakeer was apprehended and on him was found the "handkerchief" which contained the reagent, but not the reagent itself.

The Fakeer acknowledged the fraud, and said that he gave twenty rupees to each of bis accomplices. He may be expected here shortly to undergo the process of magisterial purification.—

Suckers and conmen have been around for a long time. Only the tricks have mutated and evolved over time, keeping pace with new technology

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Taking the queue.

Indians have this reputation of ‘jumping’ queues, and – quite often- not forming one at all. Why can't we accept the simple fact that someone reached a particular spot before we did, and so is entitled to that space? Yesterday, while at the airport, I had the experience of being ‘jumped’ over quite a few times and ended up feeling like I was a piece in a game of Chinese checkers. While some did it brazenly, a lady sought my permission to move ahead of me, as she was late for the Delhi flight- incidentally the same flight I was going to board. Yet another guy shoved me aside at Security and pushed his bag through the scanner. Why? Why?

A paper ( or rather a draft of one) that I found on the net has this to say on the subject:

The queue is, effectively, a mechanism of social regulation in which a randomly assembled group of strangers is caused to act, quite counter-intuitively, in a particular way. Previously unrelated strangers are somehow persuaded to subscribe collectively to a normative code which they then police themselves.

Waiting in line is one of the great levellers of humankind. The queue is no respecter of persons. In the citizenship of the queue no rank is relevant other than the rank order of one’s position as determined by the coldly neutral datum of sequential arrival in the line. Within the queue, roles and relationships become ‘demystified and objectified’. Differences of background, class, reputation, education or socio-economic status count for nothing.The queue is one of the ultimate manifestations of the democratic impulse – in some jurisdictions almost the only evidence of democracy at work.

There is some evidence of a cultural or socio-legal affinity between the ultimately Anglo-Saxon conceptualism of estate ownership and the social discipline of the queue. The practice of queuing tends to be most strongly prevalent in jurisdictions which have always been familiar with the legal apparatus of ‘estates’ in land, that is, with the sequential arrangement of various grades of time-bounded ownership. It has been wickedly observed that ‘[a]n Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

One intriguing study of queuing in Hong Kong’s Disneyland has also pointed to the strong resistance to queuing culture exhibited by mainland Chinese visitors to the park as compared with the greater degree of queue conformity evident amongst Hong Kong Chinese themselves. Nor is it without significance that the 15 million inhabitants of Beijing are currently being indoctrinated, through the medium of mobile phone text messages, in the practice of queuing. In preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games the Chinese Communist Party has designated the eleventh day of each month as ‘Queuing Day’

So, what explains our extreme reluctance to fall in line? Our relatively recent exposure to laws governing property rights? Our desire to increase the entropy of the Universe, which after all is the natural order? Because a queue gives us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies? Or we see it as a plain nuisance and a silly Western habit? Or all of you just ganging up on me and pushing me out of my rightful place in the queue?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Boys will be...

A news story in The Hindu today.

A boy who swam to reach the central hall of the temple tank located near the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore here on Monday drowned midway. According to police sources, the unidentified boy aged about 13 years was seen swimming towards the central hall of the tank holding a thermocol sheet around 7 a.m. A few metres ahead of the hall, he drowned.

It is sad that it had to end this way, but the boy deserves a salute for displaying the spirit of a…boy.

When one is a 13-year old boy, there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ or ‘too dangerous’. Doing things the ‘done’ way is unthinkable. Climbing down the stairs from the third floor is not an option, when a perfectly good system of sunshades and pipes exist. Tall trees need to be climbed to untangle kites, 8-ft high walls need to be jumped over to retrieve the cricket ball, cycles have to be monkey-pedalled, swings need to be subjected to rigorous testing to establish its escape velocity, dad’s razor sets have to be tried out and experienced, puddles must be dived into and water splashed all around, bee hives must be stoned at…. This is a very basic instinct hardwired in the brains of boys and, in the days when food had to be hunted, probably helped them prepare for the hard years ahead.

So, the boy who spotted the thermocol sheet near a water body must have immediately converted it into a raft and set sail for a distant land- the central hall of the tank in this case. It was the only logical thing to do. The thermocol sheet couldn’t have existed for any other purpose.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

To write stories, read poetry

If you aspire to be a good writer and a story teller, where do you get your ideas from? To begin with, says Ray Bradbury, you could read poetry every day of your life.

Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanse paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommend them for browsing.

My story, “The Shoreline at Sunset” is a direct result of reading Robert Hillyer’s lovely poem about finding a mermaid near Plymouth Rock. My story, “There will come Soft rains” is based on the poem of that title by Sarah Teasdale and the body of the story encompasses the theme of her poem. From Byron’s, “ And the Moon Be Still as Bright” came a chapter for my novel. “The Martian Chronicle’ which speaks for a dead race of Martians who will no longer prowl empty seas late at night. In these cases and dozens of others, I have had a metaphor jump at me, give me a spin and run me off to do a story.

What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. Don’t force yourself too hard. Take it easy. Over the years you may catch up to, move even with, and pass T.S.Eliot on your way to other pastures. You say you don’t understand Dylan Thomas? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children. Read him as you can read a horse with your eyes, set free and charging over an endless green meadow on a windy day.

Diwali- 1836

Carey’s library of choice literature, published in 1836, carries this description of the Diwali festival in Benares:

In no part of Hindostan can one of the most beautiful of the native festivals be seen to so great an advantage as at Benares. The duwullee is celebrated there with the greatest splendour, and its magnificence is heightened by the situation of the city on the bank of the river, and the singular outlines of the buildings. The attraction of this annual festival consists in the illuminations : at the close of evening, small chiraugs (earthen lamps,) fed with oil which produces a bright white light, are placed, as closely together as possible, on every ledge of every building. Palace, temple, and tower seemed formed of stars. The city appears like the creation of the fire-king, the view from the water affording the most superb and romantic spectacle imaginable,—a scene of fairy splendour, far too brilliant for description.

Europeans embark in boats to enjoy the gorgeous pageant from the river; all the vessels are lighted up, and the buildings in the distance, covered with innumerable lamps, shine out in radiant beauty. European illuminations, with their coloured lamps, their transparencies, their crowns, stars, and initial letters, appear paltry when compared to the chaste grandeur of the Indian mode; the outlines of a whole city are marked in streams of fire, and the coruscations of light shoot up into the dark blue sky above, and tremble in long undulations on the rippling waves below. According to the native idea, everything that prospers on the evening of the duwalee will be sure to prosper throughout the year. Gamblers try their luck, and if they should be successful, pursue their fortune with redoubled confidence. Thieves also, anxious to secure an abundant supply of booty, labour diligently on this evening in their vocation : while others eat, drink, and are merry, in order that they may spend the ensuing period joyously.

This festival is instituted in honour of Luchmee, the goddess of wealth, and those who are anxiously desirous to obtain good fortune, seek for two things on the night of its celebration : the flowers of the goolur, a tree which bears fruit but never blossoms; and the soul of a snake, an animal which is supposed to deposit its spirit occasionally under a tree.

The whole of the Moosulman population arc abroad to witness the superb spectacle produced by the blaze of light which flames from every Hindoo building at the duwallee, and the festival being one of a very peaceable description, goes off without broil or bloodshed—and what is still more extraordinary, without occasioning the conflagration of half the houses;

Friday, October 29, 2010

Leave him alone

Every now and them, we have some writer or other imagining what Gandhi would have done had he lived in these times.

Thus, we have B.S.Raghavan, in his column in The BusinessLine, telling us what Gandhi would have done had he been in charge of Reliance now.

The dress code would henceforth be nothing more than white khadi pants and shirts and ordinary chappals, if not wooden sandals. He would immediately effect an across-the-board cut in the emoluments bringing them down to a tiny fraction of the present package.

The very sight of Rs 4,500 crore worth, 28-storied, 400,000 square feet of living quarters of the elder Ambani would transport him to heights of ecstasy.

He would look upon it as a ready-made home to shift the entire slum population of Mumbai, using the huge landing grounds of helicopters and the swimming pools on half-a-dozen floors for hospitals, schools and orphanages.

He would see to it that all the assets of the Reliance Company are converted into a People's Trust, insisting that the rich should live for the poor and not for themselves, and their life's mission should be to wipe every tear from every eye.

The advantage in writing such stuff is that nobody can refute this or challenge your assertions ,even though they sound deceptively similar to the Rajinikanth jokes that are doing the rounds. You are merely transporting the person to a new era and applying his attributes in a new context.

Which is precisely why I liked Naipaul’s observations on Gandhi. He says that Gandhi was a special product that materialized at the appropriate time. Many circumstances- his mother’s austerity, English Law, South Africa – had shaped him before he arrived in India. He was a unique mix of several parts that made a significant whole, but the combination of his traits worked in a certain context. It is impossible to create another Gandhi with the same blend of attributes as it is impossible to create the set of circumstances that had shaped him. Similarly, the context is so different today, that the same Gandhi if he were alive will not be able to have much of an impact.

Let’s leave him alone, shall we?.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I, Drill bit.

When it was clear that the Chilean miners would be rescued soon, several Christian factions in Chile were squabbling over which of them had been instrumental in getting God to answers their prayers. The Evangelical, Adventist and Catholic clerics each claimed credit for what they said was divine intervention in the survival – and expected imminent rescue – of the 33 men who had spent 67 days beneath the earth.

Now the Wall Street Journal says that capitalism was what saved the miners. The basic principle is that innovation happens when you let free markets operate unhindered and incentivised by profit motives, as illustrated in the famous parable of the pencil ( “I, Pencil”)

In the case of the Chilean miners, several factors converged to create the possibility of rescue. The central rock drill bit- that stood out for its toughness - was made by a small company in the USA. The high-strength cable winding came from Germany while the communication cable that kept the miners contactable came from Japan. . Samsung of South Korea supplied a cellphone that had its own projector. Cupron Inc. in Richmond, Va., supplied socks made with copper fiber that consumed foot bacteria, and minimized odor and infection.

The WSJ article concludes:

In an open economy, you will never know what is out there on the leading developmental edge of this or that industry. But the reality behind the miracles is the same: Someone innovates something useful, makes money from it, and re-innovates, or someone else trumps their innovation. Most of the time, no one notices. All it does is create jobs, wealth and well-being. But without this system running in the background, without the year-over-year progress embedded in these capitalist innovations, those trapped miners would be dead.

Morals without God

Whatever criticism we may level against religion, it has to be admitted that it has provided us with a moral framework or compass. Even the most non-theistic societies in the world have derived their sense of morality from religion. In short, there is no evidence anywhere for what morality would look like without religion.

Frans B. M. de Waal, a biologist, has written a fine piece in the New York Times in which he argues that even if we managed to throw out religion from our lives and develop a different framework to advocate a certain moral outlook, the elements of that model will look pretty similar to today’s religion. It is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion.


Friday, October 15, 2010

12000, 13000, 14000.....

Watching Tendulkar when he is in full flow is a joyful experience, but I have found his continued success in the last few years quite annoying. After some analysis, I have concluded that my irrational reaction is mainly due to a) the dread of the sugary, syrupy statements that he insists on making after breaking some record or other  and b) the thought that, for the next few days/weeks, the media will resort to painful hyperbole, such as “ He is the greatest living Indian”, etc. Both get to my nerves. I am more than willing to concede that he is an excellent batsman, but I am not going to raise him to the level of a demigod or collude in such efforts.

In contrast, I am far more relaxed while watching Dravid bat. I know that if he scores a century, he will come up with an honest statement, without any added sugar or preservatives. Moreover, the media chooses to leave him severely alone and doesn’t make him out to be a cult figure. So, I don’t have to worry about an imminent onslaught of screaming,bold-fonted headlines.

But, even a diehard Dravid fan has to admit that the 'law of diminishing returns' caught up with him long back, even while Tendulkar, who is of the same age, has been  going from strength to strength.

Many theories have been put forward to explain Tendulkar’s sustained age-defying brilliance. His poise, his balance, the way he understands his body’s limitations and stays within that, his child-like enthusiasm, his commitment, etc. But are these qualities good enough to keep him going?

In the book, “The upside of irrationality”, the author Dan Ariely while arguing that too much stress or motivation can be counter-productive, cites an example from the movie “First Knight” starring Richard Gere and Sean Connery. In it, Sir Lancelot is a vagabond expert swordsman who duels to pay his bills. Seeing him win consistently, a person named Mark asks him how he managed to do that. Lancelot offers Mark three tips: first to observe the man he’s fighting and learn how he thinks; second, to await the make-or-break moment in the match and go for it then. Up to that point Mark nods happily, sure he can learn to do those things. Lancelot’s final tip however is a little more difficult to follow. He tells his eager student that he can’t care about living or dying. In other words, Lancelot fought better than anyone else because he had found a way to bring his stress level to zero. If he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, nothing rides on his performance. He doesn’t worry about living past the end of the fight, so nothing clouds his mind and affects his abilities- he is pure concentration and skill.

I thought of Tendulkar when I read that. His power of concentration or his technical wizardry or his commitment, by themselves, could not have enabled him to excel this long. If so, Dravid too has these qualities in abundant measure. So, taking a cue from Lancelot, I would like to submit that what sets them apart is this. Dravid takes his sobriquet of “The Wall’ too seriously. Consumed by the sole objective of holding on to his wicket, even as his reflexes get slower, he stresses himself out completely. Tendulkar is unburdened by such thoughts. He bats as if there is no tomorrow. So nothing clouds his mind and the resulting serenity more than makes up for any age-related drop in his levels of concentration and skill.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Can faith trump logic?

Siddharth Varadarajan agonises in The Hindu today that “Force of faith has trumped law and reason in Ayodhya case”.

…..leaving aside the question of who “the Hindus” referred to by the court really are and how their actual faith and belief was ascertained and measured, it is odd that a court of law should give such weight to theological considerations and constructs rather than legal reasoning and facts. Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas in 16th century Ayodhya but made no reference to the birthplace of Lord Rama that the court has now identified with such exacting precision five centuries later.

The “faith and belief” that the court speaks about today acquired salience only after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a political campaign in the 1980s to “liberate” the “janmasthan.”

He is entitled to his views, of course.

An hour or so spent on Google Books provides me a different perspective.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, there was a directive from the British Legislature that Indian subjects of Britain must be protected in their rights according to the ‘laws and constitutions’ of India, on the principle that law can only sanctify long-held human customs and traditions. Following this, there were attempts by many to determine what were the ‘laws and constitution’ that would apply in India. Examples : William Jones, Colebrokes, Sutherland – these were some of the authorities engaged in the task. They even went into differences in belief systems in different regions of India. For example, in his book, “ Hindu Law principally with reference to such portions of it as concern the administration of justice in the King’s courts” written in 1830, Sir Thomas Strange, Chief Justice of Madras, has compiled an exhaustive list of cases in which opinions of learned pundits had been taken while delivering verdicts more suited to Hindu tradition.

A judge who had to enquire into the subject; “ In whom vests " the property of the soil under the British government " in India; whether in the Sovereign, in the Zumeendar, " or in the Cultivator?" first had to determine which law to go by, the Hindu law or the Mohammedan law? In his book,” Observations on the law and constitution of India” written anonymously and published in 1824, the judge concludes that the public law in India was indisputably Mohammedan law and had been so in the preceding 800 years. He notes in passing:

It would, indeed, be absurd to suppose, that questions of property in lands, of revenue, finance, police, where the rights, interests, or regulations of the sovereign were involved, could ever have been remitted to the decision of any tribunal but that of Islaum.

By the Moohummudan law, the Daur-ool-Hurb, as a foreign province, becomes the Daur-ool-Islaum; that is, becomes annexed to the Moohummudan dominions by the mere act of conquest, and the exercise of even a part of the law of Islaum in it. "That country is the Daur" ool-Islaum," says the Jaumeea-oor Iiumooz, " in which the laws of the Moslemeen prevail;" and, adds the same writer, " it is stated by Zauhedee, that according to the unanimous opinion of the learned, the Daur-ool-Hurb becomes the Daur-ool-Islaum, by the exercise of even some of the laws of Islaum in it." Profession of the Moohummudan faith on the part of the inhabitants is not a condition. Therefore, by the Moohummudan law, India undoubtedly was the Daur-ool-Islaum : nay, is held by law to be so now; for it is not a necessary condition that the sovereign be a Moslem.

If, then, by law, the empire of India, by virtue of the Moohummudan conquest, become the Daur-ool-Islaum, that is a part of the Moohummudan dominions, it would have been absolutely contrary to law, even an heresy, in its most formidable shape, to have suffered any law or constitution to exist in India but that of Islaum. Every law, even private right and interest, which existed in the country prior to the conquest, by that act alone perished; and so strong is the Moohummudan law on this point, that supposing even a Moohummudan subject to have previously taken up his abode, and to have acquired lands or houses in India, by the mere act of. subsequent conquest by the Moslems, the lands of their domiciled brother would fall to the conquerors, along with those of the conquered infidel, although his .personal property would be secure to him.

The Moohummudan law of conquest is explicit; and the first act of the conqueror is required to be to carry the law into effect, either by partitioning the spoil and lands among the conquerors, or by fixing the khurauj, or public revenue on the lands, and the capitation tax on the heads of the conquered. The inhabitants are first called to embrace the faith. If they become converts, they enjoy all the privileges of Moslems; if they refuse, they are then called upon to pay the capitation tax; for if they consent to this and to pay the khurauj, it is not lawful to put them to death.

Thus, for 600-800 years, starting from the 11th century, there was absolutely no legal avenue open to the Hindus, especially in the region where Ayodhya is located, to seek justice. The writ of Mohammedan law ran large. It was either ‘silent belief’ or ‘death’. This was true even in the reign of so-called tolerant rulers such as Akbar.

But, the power of faith kept the belief in Ram’s birthplace alive, well into the nineteenth century. Lord Dalhousie had commissioned Montgomery Martin to make a survey of ancient practices in Eastern India, and the latter, in his book, “ The History, Antiquities, Topography and Statistics of Eastern India” ( pages 335-338) describes his visit to Oudh ( the British name for Ayodhya) and talks about the claim made by Hindus with regard to the birthplace of Rama and their contention that a mosque had been built after destroying the temple there. After some research, Martin concludes that there is no evidence that a mosque was built over an existing temple, but concedes that it was certainly built over the ruins of an Hindu temple or palace. He even provides a sketch of a pillar ( carrying images of Hindu gods) used in the construction of the mosque. (Justice Khan, while delivering his verdict yesterday has come to an identical conclusion).

So, Siddharth Varadarajan’s assertion that “the “faith and belief” that the court speaks about today acquired salience only after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a political campaign in the 1980s to “liberate” the “janmasthan” is completely incorrect. The ‘faith and belief’ has been alive for centuries- glowing, albeit on low flame, but glowing.

His point that in deciding on matters of law ‘theological considerations cannot come in the way of logic and reasoning’ can be accepted upto a point, but as the British legislators realised two centuries back, when it comes to law, ‘logic and reasoning’ cannot be completely divorced from ‘ faith and custom”.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vacuous and Verbose-21

In a Tamil play written by Cho Ramaswamy, a middle-aged man constantly dreams of a role -even a small one-  in the movies and keeps honing his oratory skills. One day, a director succumbs to his begging and agrees to cast him in a single scene in his movie. He would play the role of a postman who had to deliver a letter at the hero’s house. His entire dialogue would consist of the two words, “ Sir, Post”. He is asked to  appear for ‘shooting’ the following week.

The whole week or during the countdown to the shooting, the wannabe actor is shown practicing his dialogue and attempting several variations. Should he say “ Saar, post” or “ Saaar, pooost” or “ Saar ( pause) post” or a more musical “ Saaaar Pooost”? Ultimately, during the actual shooting, he has a nervous breakdown and ends up messing it up completely.

I remembered that scene on reading in the papers today that President Prathibha Patil will inaugurate the CWG, by uttering the words, “ Let the Games begin”, soon after the Queen’s message is read out.

I am not sure if that is all the President has to say. If so, she must be in a state of extreme agitation now.

In anticipation of the event, her speech writers would have smacked their lips and sharpened their pencils to write a grandiloquent speech which would cover in its broad sweep, our ancient civilizations, the embedded meaning in the Vedas, the archery competitions described in our epics, Buddha’s enlightenment, Shivaji’s valour, Gandhi’s ahimsa, excerpts from Vivekananda’s brotherhood speech, memorable lines fom Nehru’s “tryst with destiny’ speech, extract from Rajiv Gandhi’s “ I am young. I too have a dream” speech, etc and end with a flourish by referring to India’s booming economy, its vibrant people and its colourful customs. The President’s inaugural speech would start on the Opening day and continue in the background for the next week or two while all the events are conducted and finally end during the Closing ceremony.

That’s how it should have happened in the normal course.But then the CWG committee imposed this restriction and has asked the President to utter just four words. I can see her now practicing her speech. Which word should she lay emphasis on? Should she say, “Let the Gamesss begin” or “ Let the Games Beginnn” or “ Lettt the Games Begin” or " Let the Dames start Begging" or " Let the Blame Game Begin" or....

The President is going to end up being paralysed by the unreasonable brevity that is demanded of her. It is like asking a morose Russian author to compress his novel to the size of a twitter message.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Collective awakening-2

“Is there something that is embedded deeply now in our collective consciousness as normal, right-thing-to-do, which we will, through a process of enlightenment in the future, realise is a terrible mistake and will make us let out a collective gasp, wondering why we did not even question that it was wrong all along?” I had wondered in a post two years back. (Aside: Can someone help me re-construct that sentence? Or maybe break it up into two simpler ones?)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University asks the same question in his recent article, “What will future generations condemn us for?” in The Washington Post and provides some answers too. Our prison system, our treatment of the elderly, industrial meat production and our lack of concern for the environment….

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Flights of fantasy

In the introduction to his book, “Other Colours”, a compilation of his writings on Life, Art Books and Cities, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk says:

An imaginative novelist’s greatest virtue is his ability to forget the world in the way a child does, to be irresponsible and delight in it, to play around with the rules of the known world- but at the same time to see past his freewheeling flights of fancy to the deep responsibility of later allowing reading to lose themselves in the story. A novelist might spend the whole day playing, but at the same time he carries the deepest conviction of being more serious than others. This is because he can look directly into the centre of things the way that only children can. Having found the courage to set rules for the games we once played freely, he senses that his readers will also allow themselves to be drawn into the same rules, the same language, the same sentences and therefore the story. To write well is to allow the reader to say, “I was going to say the same thing myself, but I couldn’t allow myself to be that childish.

Sadly, about 15 years ago, I lost the ability to appreciate novels and movies. As Pamuk explains, to enjoy the experience, one must let go and allow oneself to be manipulated by the author or the director. This is precisely what I guard against. When I watch a movie, I am so conscious of the movement of the camera, the rapid zoom-in and zoom-out and the background music that is played with clear intent to create the necessary effect and to stir my emotions. Due to this constant vigilance, every scene looks artificial, every story completely unrealistic and every Rajinikanth movie over-the-top.. The net result being that I deny myself the simple joy of reveling in fantasy or even absurdity..

Clearly, such periodic and child-like flights of fantasy are necessary to re-charge one’s brain, improve powers of imagination and foster creativity. The old theory of right-brain complementing the left brain.

Note to self: Loosen up.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Leisurely cricket

While watching the Champions League T20 match yesterday, I took a break for about 10 minutes. When I came back I found that 2 wickets had fallen and 14 runs scored.

Far cry from the days of Neville Cardus who could get out of a match to get married without having to worry about missing too much of the action. Here is his report:

"There are many things about cricket, apart from the skill and the score. There is, first of all, the leisure to do something else. Cricket, like music, has its slow movements, especially when my native county of Lancashire is batting. I married the good companion who is my wife during a Lancashire innings. The event occurred in June, 1921; I went as usual to Old Trafford, stayed for a while and saw Hallows and Makepeace come forth to bat. As usual they opened with care. Then I had to leave, had to take a taxi to Manchester, there to be joined in wedlock at the registry office. Then I - that is, we - returned to Old Trafford. While I had been away from the match and committed the most responsible and irrevocable act in mortal man’s life, Lancashire had increased their total by exactly seventeen - Makepeace 5, Hallows 11, and one leg-bye

Update 13/09/10: Speaking of long or dull innings, here is a description of one played in 1931

Bruce Mitchell’s 58 for South Africa v Australia at the Gabba in 1931 was hardly an earth-shaking event. However, it may well hold two world records. Mitchell started on Saturday, 28th November 1931, and at stumps was 45 in 2.5 hours. Sunday was a rest day, and the next two days were washed out. On Wednesday, play did not start until 4:00 pm; Mitchell moved to 53 in the two hour session, failing to score for the first 90 minutes. On Thursday, he was out for 58 in 291 minutes.

The total elapsed time for the innings was about 4 days, 21 hours, which is the longest time, between first ball and last, ever played for any Test, and possibly first-class, innings.

Secondly, the 90 minute scoreless gap in his innings encompassed at least 35 overs. We don’t know how many balls Mitchell faced, but he almost certainly faced over 100, making it the longest scoreless gap known in any Test

Vacuous and Verbose-20

Queried about India’s chances against Brazil, India’s former Davis Cup captain Ramesh Krishnan says:

“….. On Friday if we can win two singles, then we should win 3-0. If we can win one of the singles, we are in with a chance for we can go into the last day up 2-1. But if we lose both singles on the opening day, it will be an uphill battle”.

This is as reported in the Indian Express today.

I don’t know if Ramesh actually said something as banal as this or the reporter made him sound so.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Left and Right Hand castes

In his  column, “Madras Miscellany”, in The Hindu today, Mr S.Muthiah reports on a program hosted by the Chennai Freemasons last week. Referring to one of the speakers there, he asks:

“Who are the Left Hand and the Right Hand Castes about whom K.R.A.Narasiah spoke? From the first days of Madras till well into the 18th century, they were at odds with each other, participants in the most common communal rioting during that period. With generally known caste-communities being found in both groups, the basis of the two groups remains a mystery. Narasiah felt it could be a division based on merchants being the right hand group and artisans the left hand group- but going through the caste-community lists of each of the two groups which kept changing over the years you’ll find even that broad definition comes nowhere near solving the mystery.”

Curious, I logged on to Google Books and found several references to the ‘left-hand, right hand castes”, in books dating back to 1800 AD.

A sample is reproduced below from page 79 of the book, “ Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’ by Francis Buchanan, MD, Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, London and a Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. The research was commissioned by Lord Wellesley and the book was published in the year 1807.

In this country ( Mysore), the division of the people into what are called Eddagai and the left and right hand sides, or Eddagai and Ballagai, is productive of more considerable effects than at any place that I have seen sides' in India, although among the Hindus it is generally known....

The origin of the division of Hindus into the right and left hand sides, is involved in fable. It is said to have taken place at Kunji, or Conjeveram, by order of the goddess Kali; and the rules to be observed by each side were at the same time engraved on a copper plate, which is said to be preserved at the temple of that place. The existence of such a plate, however, is very doubtful; both parties founding on its authority their pretensions, which are diametrically opposite.

The different casts, of which each division is composed, are not united by any common tie of religion, occupation, or kindred: it seems, therefore, to be merely a struggle for certain honorary distinctions. The right hand side pretend, that they have the exclusive privilege of using twelve pillars in the pundal, or shed, under which their marriage ceremonies are performed; and that their adversaries, in their processions, have no right to ride on horseback, nor to carry a flag painted with the figure of Hanumanta.

The left hand side pretend, that all these privileges are confirmed to them by the grant of Kali on the copper plate; and that they are of the highest rank, having been. placed by that goddess on her left hand, which in India is the place of honour.

Frequent disputes arise concerning these important matters; and on such occasions, not only mutual abuse is common, but also the heads of the divisions occasionally stir up the lowest and most ignorant of their followers to have recourse to violence, and encourage them by holding out the houses and shops of their adversaries as proper objects for plunder.

A very serious dispute took place at Seringapatam since it fell into the hands of the English. Thirty families of the weavers, belonging to the left hand side, joined themselves to the Teliga Banijigaru, and were encouraged by them to use all the honorary distinctions claimed by the right hand side. This gave great offence to the Panchum Banijigaru, and the Whalliaru were let loose to plunder : nor could they be repressed without an exertion of military force, by which several people were killed. In order to preserve the peace of the garrison, and to endeavour to bring the two parties to an agreement, it has ever since been thought expedient to prohibit any marriages from being celebrated within the fort.

(Pages 77 and 78 provide the names of nine castes included in the Eddagai ( left hand) group and the eighteen castes included in the Ballagai or right-hand group).

I am sure that a more diligent search through Google Books will clear the 'mystery' fully.

P.S: Browsing through the book, I also found this sketch of a “Brahmin with his wife and a son”.

 Striking colours for a 200-year old book, I must say..

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On our indolence and timidity

Mountstuart Elphinstone (6 October 1779 – 20 November 1859) was a Scottish statesman and historian, who later became the Governor of Bombay. He is credited with the opening of several educational institutions accessible to the Indian population. Besides being a noted administrator, he wrote books on India, notable among them being “The History of India’ in two volumes, in the year 1841.

In a chapter ( page 323) dealing with the manners and character of Indians, he makes the following observations:

…All persons who have retired from India think better of the people they have left after comparing them with others even of the most justly admired nations.

These considerations should make us distrust ur own impressions, when unfavourable, but cannot blind us to the fact that the Hindus have, in reality, some great defects of character.

Their defects, no doubt, arise chiefly from moral causes; but they are also to be ascribed, in part, to physical constitution, and in part to soil and climate.

Some races are certainly less vigorous than others ; and all must degenerate if placed in an enervating atmosphere.

Mere heat may not enervate : if it is unavoidable and unremitting, it even produces a sort of hardiness like that arising from the rigours of a northern winter. If sterility be added, and the fruits of hard labour are contested among scattered tribes, the result may be the energy and decision of the Arab.

But, in India, a warm temperature is accompanied by a fertile soil which renders severe labour unnecessary, and an extent of land that would support an almost indefinite increase of inhabitants. The heat is moderated by rain, and warded off by numerous trees and forests : every thing is calculated to produce that state of listless inactivity which foreigners find it so difficult to resist. The shades of character that are found in different parts of India tend to confirm this supposition. The inhabitants of the dry countries in the north, which in winter are cold, are comparatively manly and active. The Marattas, inhabiting a mountainous and unfertile region, are hardy and laborious ; while the Bengalese, with their moist climate and their double crops of rice, where the cocoa-nut tree and the bamboo furnish all the materials 'for construction unwrought, are more effeminate than any other people in India. But love of repose, though not sufficient to extinguish industry or repress occasional exertions, may be taken as a characteristic of the whole people.

Akin to their indolence is their timidity, which arises more from the dread of being involved in trouble and difficulties than from want of physical courage: and from these two radical influences almost all their vices are derived. Indolence and timidity themselves may be thought to be produced by despotism and superstition without any aid from nature; but if those causes were alone sufficient, they would have had the same operation on the indefatigable Chinese and the intrepid Russian: in the present case they are as likely to be effect as cause.

The most prominent vice of the Hindus is want of veracity, in which they outdo most nations even of the East. They do not even resent the imputation of falsehood ; the same man would calmly answer to a doubt by saying, " Why should I tell a lie?" who would shed blood for what he regarded as the slightest infringement of his honour.

Perjury, which is only an aggravated species of falsehood, naturally accompanies other offences of the kind (though it is not more frequent than in other Asiatic countries) ; and those who pay so little regard to statements about the past, cannot be expected to be scrupulous in promises for the future.

It is in people connected with government that deceit is most common ; but in India, this class spreads far; as, from the nature of the laud revenue, the lowest villager is often obliged to resist force by fraud.

In some cases, the faults of the government produce an opposite effect. Merchants and bankers are generally strict observers of their engagements. If it were otherwise, commerce could not go on where justice is so irregularly administered.

It is probably owing to the faults of their government that they are corrupt; to take a bribe in a good cause is almost meritorious ; and it is a venial offence to take one when the cause is bad. Pecuniary fraud is not thought very disgraceful, and, if against the public, scarcely disgraceful at all.

It is to their government, also, that we must impute their flattery and their importunity. The first is gross, even after every allowance has been made for the different degrees of force which nations give to the language of civility. The second arises from the indecision of their own rulers : they never consider an answer final, and are never ashamed to prosecute a suit as long as their varied invention, the possible change of circumstances, or the exhausted patience of the person applied to gives them a hope of carrying their point.

Like all that are slow to actual conflict, they are very litigious, and much addicted to verbal altercation. They will persevere in a law-suit till they are ruined; and will argue, on other occasions, with a violence so unlike their ordinary demeanour, that one unaccustomed to them expects immediate blows or bloodshed.

...Their great defect is a want of manliness. Their slavish constitution, their blind superstition, their extravagant mythology, the subtilities and verbal distinctions of their philosophy, the languid softness of their poetry, their effeminate manners, their love of artifice and delay, their submissive temper, their dread of change, the delight they take in puerile fables, and their neglect of rational history, are so many proofs of the absence of the more robust qualities of disposition and intellect throughout the mass of the nation.

But, their freedom from gross debauchery is the point in which the Hindus appear to most advantage. It can scarcely be expected, from their climate and its concomitants, that they should be less licentious than other nations ; but if we compare them with our own, the absence of drunkenness, and of immodesty in their other vices, will leave the superiority in purity of manners on the side least flattering to our self-esteem.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Good news is no news.

Reports of accidents, floods, drought, recession, unemployment, incurable virus outbreaks, energy shortage, global warming, etc dominate the news programs of TV and newspapers. Forecasts of doom and collapse tend to get far more attention than predictions of rosy scenarios.

“Pessimism has always been big office” says Matt Ridley in his latest book, “The rational optimist”. It plays into what Greg Easterbrook calls ‘the collective refusal to believe that life is getting better’. People do not apply this to their own lives, interestingly: they tend to assume that they will live longer, stay married longer and travel more than they do. Yet surveys consistently reveal individuals to be personally optimistic, yet socially pessimistic. Dane Strangler calls this a ‘non-burdensome form of cognitive dissonance we all walk around with’. About the future of human race and society, people are naturally gloomy. It goes with the fact they are risk-averse: a large literature confirms that people much more viscerally dislike losing a sum of money than they like winning the same sum. And it seems that pessimism genes might quite literally be commoner than optimism genes.

“As the average age of a country’s population rises”, says Ridley, “people get more and more neophobic and gloomy. There is immense vested interest in pessimism too. No charity ever raised money for its cause by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page by telling his editor that he wanted to write a story about how disaster was now less likely. Good news is no news, so the media megaphone is at the disposal of any politician, journalist or activist who can warn of a coming disaster.”

Ridley adds: “Apocaholics exploit and profit from the natural pessimism of human nature, the innate reactionary in every person. For 200 years, pessimists have had all the headlines, even though optimists have far more often been right.”

Ridley has taken pains to debunk every doom prophesy- be it on climate change, population explosion, nuclear showdown, energy crisis, uncontrolled epidemic- and to show that each is based on irrational fears. True, in his zeal to promote optimism, he has at times, cherry-picked evidences that support his argument. But I’d like to believe him for the simple reason that he makes the world appear far less dreary than it did before I read the book.

Now, is pessimism all wrong? Doesn’t it have some virtues? Trust P.G.Wodehouse to find a silver lining in the cloud of pessimism. Here he is in his book “Something Fresh”.

Among the advantages of advancing age is a wholesome pessimism, which, while it takes the fine edge off whatever triumphs may come to us, has the admirable effect of preventing Fate from working off on us any of thoe gold bricks, coins with strings attached, and unhatched chickens at which Ardent Youth snatches with such enthusiasm, to its subsequent disappointment. As we emerge from the twenties we grow in a habit of mind which looks askance at Fate bearing gifts. We miss, perhaps, the occasional prize, but we also avoid leaping light-heartedly into traps.


Saturday, August 14, 2010

"I hate the system, not the British"

This is from the awesome “Letters of note” blog.

An inquisitive letter from a Kansas City resident provoked this insightful typewritten reply from Mohandas Gandhi in 1925. Written to a Fred Campbell just over a year after being released from prison - he had served two years of a six year sentence following his promotion of the Non-cooperation movement - Gandhi took the opportunity to personally respond to the allegation that he 'hated' the British people.

148, Russal Road,


26th July 1925.

My dear young Friend,

I like your frank and sincere letter for which I thank you.

You seem to have taken it for granted that I hate the British. What makes you think so? I have hundreds of friends among the British people. I cannot love the Mussalmans and for that matter the Hindus if I hate the British. My love is not an exclusive affair. If I hate the British today, I would have to hate the Mohammedans tomorrow and the Hindus the day after. But what I do detest is the system of government that the British have set up in my country. It has almost brought the economic and moral ruin of the people of India. But just as I love my wife and children, in spite of their faults which are many, I love also the British in spite of the bad system for which they have unfortunately made themselves responsible. That love which is blind is no love, that love which shuts its eyes to the faults of loved ones is partial and even dangerous. You must write again if this letter does not satisfy you.
Yours sincerely,

(Signed, 'MKGandhi')

The man’s clarity of thought was amazing.

Three score and three years ago.....

"The solemn reading of a royal proclamation on August 15, officially ends nearly two centuries of British rule over the squalid subcontinent of India. An era of adventure, conquest and imperial exploitation, in which India helped transform Britain from a scrawny little island off the coast of Europe into the richest and most powerful nation on earth is closed. "

Thus begins the article on the transfer of power from Britain to India, in Life magazine (in its edition of August 18, 1947). The photo round-up is also excellent.

The story on page 27 is followed by an editorial on page 34.

The conquest and rule of India by the British is one of the most extraordinary exploits in the annals of mankind. At no time have there been more than a handful of Englishmen in India to govern 400 million people. As one of these administrators described the exploit, “England, not only, in fact, conquered India mainly with Indian troops rather than English troops, but actually made India pay for the privilege.

The British conquered no savage hordes but one of the great world civilizations. The Moghul Emperor Akbar was more powerful than his contemporary Queen Elizabeth and the richest monarch in the world. His grandson, Shah Jahan, built the only building since the Parthenon which is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but also flawless.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Take that, you @#$%^& customer

Having started my career as a Salesperson, I was trained quite early to treat customers with courtesy and never to lose my cool whatever may be the provocation from the other side. In the course of my long stint in Sales, I have met many kinds of customers, starting from the most polite to the most annoying. When confronting the latter type, the training takes over and I usually keep my equanimity intact.

That doesn’t mean that I enjoy doing it. Every salesman’s fantasy is to deliver a resounding kick on the backside of an unreasonable or a needlessly demanding customer. And, if said customer complained about you to your boss, to use some choice expletives against the boss as well and storm out of the office. Tap any salesperson on the shoulder and ask if he dreams of this day, the answer will be a resounding ‘yes’. This is true not only for salespeople, but to all frontline staff in the hospitality sector.

That is why this story about the attendant on a Jetblue flight heaping choice expletives on a misbehaving passenger and then declaring on the spot, “ I have spent 27 years with this airline. This is it. I am quitting, ok?” resonated deeply with me.

Not many of us can see our fantasies some true, but here is this excellent fellow who managed to do it in style. Having hurled the abuses, he deployed the emergency slide and jumped out, remembering to grab some beer cans while exiting. What a man!

Judging from the comments to the news story, most people seem to empathise with the flight attendant. The passenger deserved it, seems to be the general verdict.

A shining star of the sales fraternity.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Copied from 'original'

A few weeks back, I was a victim of plagiarism. Someone had borrowed the central idea and some passages- verbatim- from my blogpost of July 2007 and had managed to get his article published in The Hindu. I shot off a letter in anger to the newspaper. The ‘author’ denied the charges and claimed that he had, in fact, written it first in 2004, re-hashed it in 2008 in his blog and re-hashed it yet again for the article in The Hindu. By this time, I got fed up of the whole thing and left the liar to battle it out with his conscience.

In this opinion piece in the NYT, Stanley Fish explains how the concept of originality- on which rests the concept of plagiarism- is getting to be outdated or, rather, no longer understood or cared about. So much so, when a student is pulled up for plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, what he/she is punished for is “breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe”.

He adds:

In recent years there have been a number of assaults on the notion of originality, issuing from fields as diverse as literary theory, history, cultural studies, philosophy, anthropology, Internet studies. Single authorship, we have been told, is a recent invention of a bourgeois culture obsessed with individualism, individual rights and the myth of progress. All texts are palimpsests of earlier texts; there’s been nothing new under the sun since Plato and Aristotle and they weren’t new either; everything belongs to everybody.....

….Arguments like these (which I am reporting, not endorsing) have been so successful in academic circles that the very word “originality” often appears in quotation marks, and it has seemed to many that there is a direct path from this line of reasoning to the conclusion that plagiarism is an incoherent, even impossible, concept and that a writer or artist accused of plagiarism is being faulted for doing something that cannot be avoided. R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly “If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of plagiarism”.

So, if you are sure you can escape legal action, go ahead and plagiarise. There are no moral issues to worry about. No pangs of conscience to contend with.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Indian river

NEW DELHI: The Ganges holds a special place in a billion Indian hearts. But a Melbourne-born artist has become the first to paint the river from source to mouth.

Kevin Pearsh travelled by foot, boat and land vehicle, from the river's source waters in the Himalayan ice cave of Gaumukh to the sprawling delta where the Ganges flows out into the Bay of Bengal, to create an acclaimed series of 21 oils on canvas.

The painter, who lives in France, completed his journey in three stages in 2006 and 2007, keeping a comprehensive travel diary of sketches, notes, photographs and watercolours - all painted with Ganges water.

A Varanasi boatman called Deepak, who accompanied Pearsh for the entire journey, acting as interpreter and assistant, suggested he do 21 paintings because it was an auspicious number in Hindu astrology.

For centuries, the Ganges has provided the inspiration for epics ( Rajaji’s version of the Mahabharat starts with the words : “ “You must marry me whoever you are”. Thus spoke King Santanu to the River Ganges”) and poetry and..painting.

Here is an almost poetic description of the river in a weekly journal called “ All the year round” edited by Charles Dickens. No less. It appears in the edition of Sep 25, 1869 – page 392.

Like the Australian painter above, the writer starts from the source of the river and takes the reader through to the point where it meets the sea.

It opens with this paragraph:

From the mountains covered with eternal snow to the ocean basking in the rays of the tropical sun flows Gunga, the river. By Mahommedan mosque and palace; by Hindoo temple and serai; by European factory and English guardhouse; while all around is ever shifting; while men and manners come and go ; while those that to-day cool their parched throats, or lave their weary limbs, or sport in idleness in its cool and limpid stream, tomorrow float helpless on its bosom, hewn down by the sword of the invading warrior, or victims of a cruel superstition ; unchanged since history began, the river flows on unchanging still. Now bearing the rich goods of nature's Eastern storehouse; now made subservient to the machinery of Western civilisation; stained with the dye of indigo, or red with the blood of the slaughtered ; laughing with tiny ripple in the warm sunshine, or rough and tempest-tossed by the wild cyclone ; now creeping gently in the middle of its bed far away from the banks its course has worn away in the lapse of centuries; now roaring and rushing on, like a second deluge, and covering all around at the same time with fertility and desolation; now gleaming with the rude weapons, the gaudy trappings of some proud Mahommedan prince; now giving passage to a conquering band of fair-haired, white-skinned warriors ; slave of many masters, bestowing its inestimable favours on all; thus flows Gunga, pre-eminently The River.

And ends with this paragraph:

The western branch, or Hooghly, after passing its point of junction with the Bhagirathi, and until it reaches the southern extremity of Calcutta, presents an animated and lively picture, full of all the action and the thousand sights and sounds that surround the seat of government…... On, past private houses, factories, and native huts; past horrible burning-ghats, where the smoke and stench rise continually from funeral pyres; past crowded and dirty wharves, where piles of goods await removal to the ship, the train, or the warehouse; past lines of crowded shipping, with labouring crews and shouting coolies: past the ghat of the East Indian Railway Company, whose busy little steamer puffs backwards and forwards continually, conveying passengers between Calcutta and the train. On again, past English counting-houses and merchants1 offices ; on, past the Esplanade, with its public gardens and promenades, and its pretty line of East Indiamen that might well be mistaken for men of war, moored close to the bank ; on, past Fort William, past the Maidan, and Calcutta's Rotten-row,the Strand. On, past lines of shipping again; past Kidderpore Docks; past Allcypore, with its villa houses peacefully reposing in beautiful grounds; past Garden Reach, fallen from its suburban celebrity, contaminated by the presence of the ex-King of Uude ; past the Botanical gardens and Bishop's College; on, past Calcutta, native, mercantile, civil, and military ; on, past all signs of human habitation, once more alone with the swiftly-flowing stream. Then, the river widening, and retiring with its mud and jungle covered banks to the verge of the horizon, no other objects meet our gaze but lighthouses and telegraphic stations, until at length the lightship at the Sandheads rises into view, and we remember that the Ganges is no longer with us, but is merged in the boundless sea.

That lyrical prose makes you feel as if you are travelling on the river in a steam boat, doesn't it?