Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Itchy moustaches and prickly beards

Some years back, I had to bid a tearful adieu to my moustache and had penned this moving epitaph when I was caught in the resulting maelstrom of emotions.

Now, BBC News reports that India’s famous facial hairs are disappearing as India enters the clean-shaven digital age. It quotes a book as saying that that the traditional belief that facial hair is a sign of virility appears to be facing the chop. Young people in particular do not want an itchy moustache or beard which they think makes them look old.

Apparently, clean chins are becoming more commonplace among younger people who no longer have role models sporting beards or moustaches.

What have I done to this country? I never realised that, by removing my fearsome moustache, I was robbing the young people of a powerful role model.

Gen Next

When I was a student many decades back, preparing for exams required solitary confinement. Cutting myself off from human society, I had to single-mindedly focus on the task at hand, to wit the cramming of the passages and the equations and the diagrams. Slightest of disturbances was enough to distract my attention and disrupt the flow of information into my sensitive brain.

Not so with my daughter now. When she is seemingly studying, she needs to have a galaxy of gadgets around her. Surrounded by her books and with music streaming into her cars from the iPod, she can keep text- messaging a friend on her mobile phone and chatting on the cordless landline with another, while catching some pieces of the action on the TV screen in front of her. Not only can she multi-task, she has to multi-task. Without the constant stimuli from multiple sources, her brain ceases to function, rendering her unfit to study.

The difference in behaviour, explains an article in Times (via) is due to the fact that I am a “digital migrant” while my daughter is a “digital native”, terms coined by the futurist Marc Prensky to distinguish between those who have merely adapted to technology and those who have grown up with it. As a first-generation immigrant, I may be reasonably proficient with computers, but I still need to print out hard copies, still need to check with recipient if he/she has received my e-mail and can’t figure out how to use the webcam properly. Natives, on the other hand, multi-task, thrive on instant gratification and claim to function best when networked.

According to research cited in the same article, we are in the midst of a sea change in the way that we read and think. Our digitally native children have wonderfully flexible minds. They absorb information quickly, adapt to changes and are adept at culling from multiple sources. But they are also suffering from internet-induced attention deficit disorder.

So, I have a wonderfully focused mind that can do one thing at a time well, but can be paralysed if asked to take on more than one task; Whereas my daughter has a wonderfully flexible mind that can multi task, but will start re-booting if denied simultaneous sensory inputs from, at least, a dozen sources. It’s all a package deal.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All you religious fanatics out there

So you believe that you are not the ‘religious’ type and, especially, do not subscribe to many of the methods and rituals that religions resort to?

Even if your claim is right, you could be an unwitting follower of other surrogate religions, such as “brands”, if we go by what Martin Lindstrom says in his book, “buy-ology” that dwells on the subject of “ how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong”.

Almost every leading religion has ten common pillars underlying its foundation: a sense of belonging, a clear vision, power over enemies, sensory appeal, story telling, grandeur, evangelism, symbols, mystery and rituals.

But, what is not so well acknowledged is the fact that these pillars happen to have a great deal in common with our most beloved brands and products.

Religions were meant to create a sense of belonging and identity. Brands do the same thing to you. If you are a Harley-Davidson aficionado, the chances are you will feel a sense of belonging among other users of the bike- it’s like being a member of a club.

Like religion, successful brands have a clear sense of mission. “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures and not subordinate to them” said Steve Jobs twenty years back. Apple mission continues to have its ardent devotees.

Sensory appeal is another key characteristic of religion. Light reflecting off the glass of the church, the tone of the bells ringing, the fragrance of the incense.. So it is with products and brands that evoke certain feelings and association based on how they look, feel or smell. The unmistakable Nokia ring tone. The leathery scent of a new Mercedes Benz car. Or the pleasing lines of an iPod.

Religions are propagated through story telling. Whether the New Testament or the Koran, every religion is built upon a heft of history and stories. Every brand similarly has stories connected to it. Think of Disney and the colourful characters that come to mind.

Most religions celebrate a sense of grandeur. Have you been to the Vatican? Among the vaulted ceilings and beautiful frescos and paintings, one comes away with the realization that all of us are mere mortals dwarfed by something far greater than ourselves. No building in Rome is permitted to be higher than the St.Peter’s Cathedral. Many companies, likewise, work to inspire feelings of awe and wonderment, from imperial banks to magnificent hotels and awesome flagship stores. All marketed to stir up notions of grandeur.

What about the power of evangelism- the power to reach out and secure new acolytes? Remember the devilishly shrewd way Google’s Gmail service started? By making the service available by invitation only. It became a virtual religion.

Symbols are ubiquitous in religions, as they are in brands. The cross, a dove, an angel – religions have their own icons. Brands have their logos that are instantly recognized. Think of the Apple icons. Think about Mcdonald’s Golden Arches or Nick’s signature swoosh.

Mystery is a powerful force in religion. The unknown can be as powerful as the known. For centuries, scholars have been pondering over the mysteries of the Bible or the Shroud of Turin. When it comes to brands, mystery can be just as effective. Coca Cola, for example, has drawn on a sense of mystery with its secret formula- a distinctive recipe of fruits, oils and spices that the company keeps in a safe deposit box in an Atlanta bank and guards zealously, to keep the aura alive.

And, of course, just as rituals are an integral part of any religion, they are quite extensively resorted to by brands as well. At Subway sandwich franchises, sandwiches are constructed in the same order each time, so customers know how to instruct the person behind the counter. Or the ritual of drinking Bacardi with Coke and a slice of lime. Clearly, rituals help us differentiate one brand from another.

To sum up, says Lindtrom,the emotions that we experience when we are exposed to iPods, Guinness and Ferrari sports cars are similar to the emotions generated by religious symbols such as crosses, Mother Teresa or the Bible. In fact, research work using brain scans on volunteers shows that the reactions are not merely similar; they are identical. Which is why marketers and advertisers have begun to borrow even more heavily from the world of religion to entice us to buy their products.

Glory be to the brand.

Stout denial

"Sticking to stout denial” was the tactic that characters in stories of P.G,Wodehouse would resort to, even when caught red-handed. For instance, in the Blandings Castle stories, Clarence or Lord Emsworth who had the habit of getting into trouble with his sister for some misdeed or other would simply keep denying that he had done it. For, “he was a great believer in stout denial and very good at it.”

I didn’t realize that, hundred years after these books were written, the technique of “stout denial” would continue to be practised with vigour, in Pakistan. So it is that even in the face of unimpeachable evidence of involvement of their men, they resolutely stick to “stout denial”. Wodehousian philosophy is well and alive.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

We won! We won!

As a nation, we seem to harbour the impression that we had emerged victorious after the recent terror incidents at Mumbai.

Many TV channels had showered encomiums on our NSG commandos on winning the 3-day encounter against the terrorists. “Mumbai fights back” they said when thousands of citizens lined up at a rally a few days later, holding candles. “We won’t let the terrorist cow us down” said one banner. Another screamed, “You are just 15. We are 15 million”.

“Nation displayed tremendous courage” proclaimed the Prime Minister in Parliament, no doubt, complimenting the one billion people who tenaciously fought the war against the ten terrorists.

In the opening line of this post, I find that Dilip D’Souza uses the expression “ …..after the terror attack in Mumbai was finally defeated.”

Yesterday I saw a headline, “Triumph over terror: Taj and Trident back in operation”.

Alas, such semantics and sentiments are remnant of the era of “paleo war”, as Umberto Eco refers to it in one of his essays. ( I talked about in an earlier post). In those old-fashioned wars, conquest of territory was a key motive. So, an aggressor was considered victorious if he managed to capture a piece of territory belonging to an enemy, while the defender was considered the winner, if he managed to thwart such a move.

Conditioned as we are to this “chess board” logic, we view the eventual killing of the terrorists holed inside the Taj and Trident, as a clear sign of victory. As if the intention of the terrorists was to permanently annex and rule over the territory marked by these hotels, and by not allowing them to raise their flags and open a head office there, we have the right to claim victory..

In the neo-wars that terrorists choose to fight, the motives are completely different and varied, as are the techniques. In the case of the Mumbai attacks, it may be to prove a limited point that they could, while consuming minimal resources, cause serious economic damage, kill people without any compunctions and in one stroke destroy the reputation of India as a safe haven for foreign tourists and investors. And, of course, while doing all this, also gain sufficient mileage through the media, ever willing to reach out to them and oblige. If this was their agenda and if were to judge their performance against the objectives, they achieved 100% of what they set out to achieve. The fact that the few actors eventually succumbed to our gunfire is of no significance whatsoever. Make no mistakes, they won.

To say that they were “finally defeated” is to delude ourselves. Our act of patting ourselves on our backs for the courage could have been charitably dismissed as funny, if it were not hallucinatory.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Work less, consume less

A report filed by Reuters says that the recession in the USA is “a rude awakening for a generation of shoppers who grew up on easy access to credit and have never had to limit purchases to simply what they needed or could afford. Instead, buying and consuming have become part of the national culture, with many people using what is in their shopping bags to express their own identity, from the latest gadgets to designer handbags.

For those who need to abruptly curtail spending, that leaves a major void…People that have been ... identifying with and defining themselves by their material objects and expenditures are losing a definite piece of their identity and themselves”. ,

The article concludes that the downturn represents a chance to move away from "irrational" and "careless" consumerism toward "a more discerning consumer."

All very easily said. How does one curtail consumption?

Tim Harford asks in his post, “Why don’t we all simply work less, earn less, spend less and consume less?” The typical British man, he says, earns roughly twice what his father earned at the same age. When today’s teenagers are in their forties, there is no reason why they shouldn’t decide to enjoy their increased prosperity by working less instead of earning more. Rather than being twice as rich as their parents, they could be no richer but start their weekends on Wednesday afternoon.

The difficulty in attempting to working less and earning less today is that income is linked to our desire for status, which is collectively insatiable because status is largely relative. If my neighbour has a bigger car, I crave for one too. So, the solution is to force everyone to work less, earn less and consume less.

To begin with, why don’t we abolish Mondays from our calendar?

Which path?

In an article in Business Line, T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan points out that Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Economist, Dr. Amartya Sen share a quality that is central to their success; neither takes any but the most central of positions on any issue. The Left and the Right could both claim them as well as criticise them. No one knows what they really stand for.

They believe that the ‘middle path’ is the most pragmatic route to take. You could say that both men want to have the cake and eat it too. On the other hand, you can’t pin them down, because both can trot out opposing quotes or theorems. In a way, concludes Srinivasa-Raghavan, they typify what the poet A.K. Ramanujam described in his perceptive essay called Is there an Indian way of thinking?.

(In that essay Ramanujam had observed that Indians don’t have an absolute sense of morality. Context is everything. The same action can be viewed as objectionable in one context, but permissible or even desirable in another.

In fact, the essay opens with the assertion that even the question Is there an Indian way of thinking?can mean different things and elicit different answers depending on which word you choose to stress, as in:

Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?
Is there an Indian way of thinking?)

Anyway, going back to the ‘middle path’ theory. This seems to suggest that the practitioners of this method carefully evaluate the two extreme positions of the spectrum, and then take an average of both to determine the coordinates of the path they ought to take. So, if one extreme position is that India should open its doors unconditionally and fully to foreign investments, and another is that we should hermetically seal ourselves and prevent the entry of more East India Companies, then Dr Manmohan Singh will adopt the policy of allowing FDI upto 49% of equity in select sectors for a limited period and subject to Govt approval, leaving the holders of both extreme positions bewildered .

I have tried to apply this principle myself. When a blogger takes an extreme position, I make sure that I read the views of another blogger with an opposing view, so that I can then carefully balance the views and take a middle position.

The problem is that when I read the first blogger’s views, I get totally convinced. When I go across to the blogger who has diametrically opposite views and read the posts there, I get equally convinced that he or she is right. This leaves me thoroughly confused and unable to cling to either of the positions, or to take a middle path. A blog I read regularly had provided a remarkably cogent argument to prove that climate change was real and could wipe out humanity by the year 2030. This was so convincing that I couldn’t find a single flaw in the reasoning. Hurriedly, I went across to another blog, which dismissed the whole thing as hype created by doom-mongering Cassandras. Again, I couldn’t pick a single hole in the reasoning.

You must have heard the following story before:

Prosecution : Based on the evidence, Your Honour, it is clear that the defendant has committed the crime.
Judge: You are right. I tend to agree.
Defence : Your honour, the evidence is entirely fabricated and my client was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
Judge : You are right. I tend to agree.
Clerk: But, Your Honour, both of them can’t be right.
Judge : You are right too.

I feel like that Judge most of the time.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

On boring cricketers

Why do cricketers sound so dull, even dumb, when answering simple questions put to them by the media? Why do they need to be politically correct all the time? Why can’t they lower their guard, once in a while, and speak what’s on top of their heads? Why are they obsessed with the need to avoid controversies?

Tendulkar epitomises this breed of boring speakers. “How does it feel after the century?” he is asked. He replies with a deadpan expression, “Every century is special, but a century that helps the team win is what I cherish the most”. How does it feel to break the world record?”. “Well, I never play for records. Important thing is the honour of playing for the country”.

Some years back, when he had taken some important wickets to clinch a match for India, he gave a boyish grin and said, “Slowly, slowly, I am becoming bowler too”. Spontaneous and a top-of-the-head remark that stood out for its refreshing honesty. Today, the same Tendulkar, will deliver a pious speech filled with motherhood statements about how the wickets are dedicated to the victims of the terror attack and how he salutes the country for its bravery and courage. And end up sounding completely insincere.

The bovine fixation

In an essay titled, “Confessions of a Xenophile” that came as a supplement to the latest issue of Outlook magazine, Amitav Ghosh describes his stay in a little village in Egypt, in the 1980s. He later gave this village the name of Lataifa.

The villagers, he says, knew no English while Amitav knew very little Arabic. So, conversation languished, till the time they mutually discovered one medium of communication: aflaam-al-Hindeyya, that is to say, Hindi film songs. Everyone would ask him detailed questions about various film episodes, especially of the fifties vintage, featuring stars such as Raj Kapoor, Nargis, etc.

Another aspect that they would torment him with was ‘cows’. He would face questions like, “Was he a devotee of cows?”, “At what time did he conduct his prayers to cows?” “Could they witness his prostrations?”, “Wasn’t there a risk of being splattered with dung?” etc. From the barrage of questions, says Amitav, one would have imagined that Bollywood was a veterinary enterprise and that cows, not Raj Kapoors, were the true stars. Till he went to Egypt, says Amitav, he had no idea that cows played such a central role in Hindi films.

I had a similar experience once, more than 20 years back. A colleague from our UK office was visiting India for the first time. I picked him up from the hotel in the morning and as we set off to meet our first customer, he pulled out his camera and expressed his intention to take a few photos of cows on the road, something that he had heard about from his friends who had visited this country earlier, and a subject that fascinated him. He had never been seen cows on the road.

I told him that the chances of filming cows on the high-traffic city route that we were taking were pretty slim. And, that he was in for some disappointment. By the end of the day, however, he had spotted cows of every variety and in different settings, including one inside a tea shop. He finished an entire roll of film before sunset.

I guess that cows are so much a part of the scene here that we no longer notice them. It takes a new pair of eyes to discover them.

The softened target.

Glancing through my daughter’s history book, I find generous references to the role played by stalwarts of our freedom movement. On Independence Day, she had also taken part in a play with the clichéd theme that the British were a blood-thirsty lot out to butcher the heroic natives at the slightest hint of resistance or the faintest murmur of the words, “ Vande Mataram”.

Our history books, of course, will tell us only that version of the story and much of it is probably true. But, till recently, the average citizen did not have easy access to other versions and so could never attempt a detached, dispassionate study, removing the filter of nationalism. Google Books, fortunately, provides an avenue to gain another perspective. What was the mind-set of the British people in those times?

Much as we like to give the entire credit to our brave freedom fighters for throwing out the British, a fact that was also responsible for the softening of their imperial stand was the growing consciousness among the British people, starting from the Victorian era, that much wrong had been done in the name of colonialism.

After the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, many in Britain did endorse the orders given by Brigadier-General Dyer and even complimented him on “nipping the next Mutiny in the bud”. But, some like Churchill could take a more detached view and see the incident for what it was – “an episode without modern precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.... Our reign in India or anywhere else has never stood on the basis of physical force alone, and it would be fatal to the British Empire if we were to try to base ourselves only upon it...”. The Hunter Committee eventually found Dyer guilty of using disproportionate force.

Dr. Rod Thornton, in a paper , touches on this incident and narrates how the mores and values of British society were undergoing structural changes by the beginning of the twentieth century, so much so, that an increasingly affluent middle class came to be influenced by a sentiment that manifested itself in a distinct turn towards liberal values and philanthropic action. Among other things, he says, a desire was generated among Government ministers and other opinion-makers of the time to correct certain wrongs committed in the name of imperial expansion up to that point. This sentiment stressed the virtue of humanitarianism and urged that imperial expansion, if at all, must be compatible with the new ideals of honour, duty and use of minimum force. These ideals, explains Thornton, melded with the Romanticism that dominated literature in the nineteenth century. Such chivalric principles were also publicised through the efforts of the Victorian school system. So, when the Amritsar massacre happened, the British- and the Army- were shocked by the uncharacteristic brutality. For, the understanding of the English Common Law, by that time, was that no more or no less force than necessary to restore the peace was to be resorted to. There was, of course, no precise definition on how much force was warranted in different circumstances, but this was left to good judgement.

So, by the time the freedom movement gained momentum, there was a corresponding softening of the stance already taking place on the other side. And, it was only a question of time, when both these forces would combine and hasten the departure of the British.

"He asked for it"

“Far from being brave, Karkare, in trying to take on the terrorists on his own, was reckless and even senseless”, was my comment on one of Guru’s posts.

Jonah Lehrer, at Frontal Cortex, explains that cold-hearted comments such as mine are the result of “Just-world hypothesis” – a phenomenon by which we tend to rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world. This is the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is "just" so strongly that when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault..

This is also the tendency to justify a rape, on the grounds that the victim ought not to have gone out alone in a taxi in the first place. “She was simply asking for trouble” someone would invariably comment.

A victim always deserves sympathy and the perpetrator of the crime our strongest condemnation. No caveats to either of these.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

On men biting dogs.

“Man biting dog’ is more likely to be reported as news than ‘dog biting man” is a cliché in journalism. Reuters took this piece of wisdom literally and carried a report some time back that a man in South India had indeed bitten a dog that was running off with his duck.

A corollary of this cliché is that ‘man biting dog’ is more newsworthy than ‘man not biting dog”. As at any point in time, in some part of the world or other, some man or the other is biting some dog or other, newspapers will always find such material to carry on their pages. The result being that news items on ‘men biting dogs” constitute 100% of the content in any newspaper.

So, when readers learn from the paper that “ 2 killed in road accident” or “ 5 admitted in hospital with symptoms of cholera” or “ 120 passengers of an Air India flight had a miraculous escape” they don’t pause to think that “ 9,999,998 people in that city managed not to get killed” or “ 9,999,995 people did not show symptoms of cholera” or that “ 99.7% of the flights that took off that day landed safely and uneventfully at the intended destination”. The news item has the desired effect.

So, in the interest of balance, for every sensational item that a newspaper publishes, should we insist on corresponding statistics such as what I have mentioned above?

No. It will render the newspaper too dull. They will simply have to continue with their stories of men ( or women) biting dogs. If you are looking for the 'dog-biting-man' variety, you will have to subscribe to, "the dullest blog in the world"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The doubt. That nagging doubt.....

There is an old story that I am sure you would have heard, but which I want to use in a new context.

"A husband suspected that his wife was cheating on him. But he could never be sure. He felt he did not have adequate proof. Or the clinching evidence.

So, he goes to a detective agency and seeks their services. He tells the detective, “I have this doubt, this nagging doubt about my wife. But I don’t have any proof to back it up.” The detective assures him that he will unravel the truth in a week and put an end to his misery.

In exactly a week, the detective reads out his report:

'On the evening of Thursday, the 19th of June, your wife (subject) was spotted walking out of your house. She took a bus and went down to Hotel Regal at the other end of town. There she met up with a tall, handsome man, around thirty years of age. They went to the restaurant where they had a candle-light dinner. The waiter at the table, whom we talked to later, informed us that subject and man were holding hands and uttering sweet-nothings to each other’s ears. The waiter managed to take a photograph too, which is attached with this report.

Soon after dinner, they walked out of the restaurant together, took the elevator and went up to a deluxe suite on the 3rd floor. The elevator operator told us later that they were locked in a tight embrace throughout the journey up. He also photographed them going into the deluxe suite.

We had positioned one of our spotters at a cafe across the road from where he had a good view of the window of the deluxe suite. Through the light falling on the curtains, he caught the silhouette of the pair kissing each other. Here’s a photograph of that too.”

At this stage, the husband stopped the detective, “What happened next? What happened next?”

The detective replied, “After that, they switched off the lights in the room and we couldn’t take any further photographs”.

The husband thumped the table and cried in frustration,” Damn it. That doubt again. Always, the nagging doubt. That clinching evidence still eludes me”.

I was reminded of this story when I read about Prime Minister Zardari’s reaction to India’s demand that Pakistan hands over terrorists, "I am definitely going to look into all the possibility if any proof is given to us," Zardari said. "At the moment, these are just names of individuals. No proof, no investigation, nothing has been brought forward.”

No proof?. If GPS data, IP addresses traced back to Lahore, recorded confessions, intercepted messages by US agencies, satellite images, CCTV footages, don’t constitute proof, I wonder what will satisfy Zardari.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Paleo and neowars

To quote Umberto Eco again ( I have just finished reading a collection of his essays and am trying to find suitable contexts to fit in what I have read):

In the course of the centuries, what was the purpose of that form of warfare we shall call paleowar? We made war in order to vanquish our adversaries and thus profit from their defeat.; we tried to achieve our ends by taking them by surprise; we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their ends; we accepted a certain price in human lives in order to inflict upon the enemy a greater loss of life. The game was played out between two contenders. The neutrality of others, the fact that they suffered no harm from the conflict and if anything profited from it, was a necessary condition for the belligerents’ freedom of action. Oh yes, I was forgetting; there was one more condition: knowing who and where the enemy was. For this reason, the clash was a frontal one and involved two or more recognisable territories.

But what are the characteristics of today’s war or neowar as we will call it?

The identity of the enemy is uncertain. Were all Iraqis the enemy? All Serbs? Who had to be destroyed?

Neowar has no front. Because of the very nature of multinational capitalism. It is no accident that Iraq or the Taliban were armed by Western industry. This falls within the logic of mature capitalism, which eludes the control of individual sates.

Also, a feature of the neowar, is that the media puts the enemy behind the lines. In neowar, the enemy is among us. Even if the media is muzzled, new communication technologies would maintain the flow of information- a flow that not even a dictator could block. How can you have a war in which you cannot surprise your enemy? And, when the media publicity makes even the death of one of our men unacceptable? Thus, neowar is a media product, so much so that it can be claimed, paradoxically, that it didn’t actually take place but was merely shown on television

A point that Umberto Eco misses out is that paleowar and neowar can co-exist. As was clear during the recent terror incidents. The terrorists had meticulously planned out a sneak attack ; they could take the enemy by surprise. They knew who they were targeting. To this extent, they were following methods outlined in paleowar manuals.

But, the responders had to grapple with all the uncertainty and fuzziness of a neowar. Who are these people? Where are they from? What are they fighting for? How many of them are out there? How well are they armed?

But, the other point that Eco makes- about the media- is worth pondering over. Watching the ongoing battle at Mumbai with the terrorists, the question that kept coming to my mind was, what useful role did the media play? Certainly, it did not bring any insights or meaningful analysis. On the contrary, it harmed the rescue efforts, by disclosing the intentions and movements of the NSG at every stage.

The intended outcome of the outrageous acts was to spread panic and terror among the public. And, what better way to attain that objective than by getting hundreds of obliging television channels beaming hundreds of real-time images every minute continuously for many hours? Twenty terrorists could hold the entire nation captive and horrified, by leverage the power of the media and its multiplier effect. We simply played into their hands.

Terrorists adept in neowar methods and psychology exploit this power to achieve their ends and gain enormous mileage for their cause. And, they know that the media will cry foul if a blackout of news is imposed. So, they can set out on their mission, secure in the knowledge that the media will be willing coalition partners.

If we have to prevent the terrorists from pursuing their agenda, should we simply switch off our television sets at the first sign that there has been a terror attack?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


There are many philosophies available to help people cope with the idea of death. One religion will claim that you don’t have to worry about death, as you will be reincarnated again. Another will tell you not to worry too, but because you will land up in paradise, another will tell you that you won’t be conscious to know the difference, so why worry?

But the most practical philosophy comes from Umberto Eco. He advises that the best way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that everyone else is a complete idiot.

If you lie dying, how can you confront death, if you think that desirable, young people of both sexes are dancing in discos and having the time of their lives, enlightened scientists are revealing the last secrets of the Universe, incorruptible politicians are enjoying a better society, newspapers and television are bent on giving only important news, responsible business people are ensuring that their products will not damage the environment and doing their utmost to restore a nature in which there are streams with drinkable water, wooded hillsides, clear, serene skies protected by a providential ozone layer and fluffy clouds from which sweet rain falls once more? The thought that you must leave while all these marvelous things are going on would be intolerable.

Instead try to think that the world is full of idiots, that the dancers at the discos are idiots, the scientists who have solved the problems of the Universe are all idiots, the politicians who propose panaceas for our all our ills are idiots, the journalists who fill page after page with vacuous gossip are all idiots, so are the manufacturers- all idiots. In that moment would you not be happy, relieved, and satisfied to leave this world of idiots?

When must one start thinking like this? Not too soon in life, says Eco. We should start by thinking that all the others are better than others and then, shift bit by bit, having our first doubts around forty, revising our opinions between fifty and sixty and attaining certainty soon after.

Even removing this piece of wisdom from the morbid context of death, Eco’s philosophy has immense appeal. There is something liberating and invigorating about the idea that everyone around you is a complete idiot. It makes one feel supreme.

Don’t you idiots agree?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Velcro generation

“The kids of the next generation may be net-savvy and may be wizards at their Playstations, but do they know to tie their shoe laces? Can they wear shoes only with Velcro straps?” wonders the author of this article.

“What else have we lost, or failed to pass along, to the generation of kids about to inherit an increasingly compromised planet?

Is this generation heading into a coming dark age with little more than the ability to update their Facebook statuses and watch Youtube, all with laces untied?

While this generation can text-message, download, update and surf online simultaneously, this constant deluge of information is in fact something of a mirage. Information is not knowledge, nor even close to wisdom. And it is actually getting harder to learn and remember things.

If the lights start to go out sometime in the near future, and Walmart closes its doors, who would really be useful? The answer changes, but basically it comes down to people who know how to do things, farmers, carpenters, doctors, people with a body of knowledge that can be applied directly, physically to the real world. It certainly won't be film critics or bond traders.

When it comes to the crunch, and if required to roll up their sleeves and dig ditches, the kids of today simply will not be up to the task.

If our first impulse is always to protect our children, are we actually doing them a disservice? If suffering breeds character, does a complete lack of suffering foster utter helplessness?”

Hmmm, an overly pessimistic view, but she may have a point. I wonder what you kids have to say about this?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The anti-depressant

A story posted widely on the Internet goes like this:

There was a man who lived by the side of the road and sold hot dogs.He was hard of hearing so he had no radio.He had trouble with his eyes so he read no newspapers.

But he sold good hot dogs.

He put up signs on the highway telling how good they were.He stood on the side of the road and cried; “buy a hot dog, mister?

And people bought.

He increased his meat and bun orders. He bought a bigger stove to take care of his trade.He finally got his son home from college to help him out.

But then something happened.

His son said, “Father, haven’t you been listening to the radio?Haven’t you been reading the newspapers?There’s a big depression.The European situation is terrible.The domestic situation is worse.”

Where upon the father thought, “well, my son’s been to college, he reads the papers and he listens to the radio, and he ought to know.”

So the father cut down on his meat and bun orders, took down his advertising signs, and no longer bothered to stand out on the highway to sell his hot dogs.

And his hot dog sales fell almost overnight.

“You’re right, son” the father said to the boy.“We certainly are in the middle of a great depression.”

The moral of the story is that phenomena such as depression, recession, etc are self-fulfilling prophesies. Negative sentiment can lead the world through a downward spiral.

Our Finance Minister, Mr P.Chidambaram, believes that the converse is also true. Keep harping on the few positives, try to keep the sentiment in check, wish away the problem and hope that the economy will hold up, at least till the elections. “Cut prices and boost demand” he exhorts the industry. “Go out and buy more” is the Friedmanian sub-text to the consumers.

If you are not sure what to buy, here is some help from the Smart buy section of BusinessLine.

Vu manufactures LCDs not only for your living rooms and offices, but now also for your glamour rooms! Luxury in the bathroom does not have to stop at that luxurious shower, the towel rail or the under floor heating. Having a waterproof LCD TV in the bathroom can help you relax better, is it not? Watch the game of football whilst you shower or just catch up with the latest news as you are freshening up. Vu Waterproof LCDs are available in two sizes 15 and 17 inches. The 17-inch Vu comes with a contrast ratio of 400:1 and a response time of 16ms, with built-in loudspeakers and is wall-mountable.

Rs. 48,000 – 15 inches

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Conversation with daughter-26

Me: I read an amazing story today. There is this British explorer deep inside a forest in Africa. With him is one of those Bushmen. Suddenly, in their vicinity, a lion hunts down a deer and kills it.

Daughter: Appa, is this one of the gory animal stories that you keep watching on National Geographic Channel?

Me: No. This has got something more. Let me continue. At the precise moment when the lion hunts down the deer, the Bushman points his finger in that direction and shouts “Gavangai”.

Daughter: What does that mean?

Me: That’s the mystery. The explorer was not sure if the Bushman was pointing to the lion or the deer or the tree or the grass or the hills beyond. So, he never knew what the word Gavangai stood for.

Daughter: So, what’s the rest of the story?

Me: The explorer lived for another 40 years, travelling all over Africa to find out what ‘Gavangai’ meant. He did not succeed. Finally, when he was all alone on his death bed, just before he breathed his last, it struck him that Gavangai meant ‘dying’. The Bushman had tried to tell him that the deer was dying. Yes, now the explorer knew. He died in peace. Is it not a moving story?

Daughter: Hey, wait a minute. If the explorer realized it only at the moment of dying and he was all alone, how do we know what went through his mind?

Me: The explorer wrote his memoirs posthumously. It’s all in there.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why didn't anyone notice it?

Queen Elizabeth has lost 25 million pounds in the global financial turmoil, according to this story.

When she was given a briefing on the economic meltdown, she asked the experts, “ Why didn’t anybody see this coming?” A question on all on our minds now, but when the Queen asks, she got a reply.

Professor Luis Garicano, director of research at the LSE’s management department, was quoted as saying,

“At every stage, someone was relying on somebody else and everyone thought they were doing the right thing”.

It is that old fable again.

"There were once four economists: Everyone, Someone, Anyone and Noone. They had a very important task to do, namely to forewarn the world about an impending meltdown. Everyone was sure that Someone will do it. Anyone could have done it, but Noone did it in the end. Everyone thought that Anyone could have done it, but Noone realized that Noone will do it in the end. In the end, Everyone was angry at Someone because Noone did what Anyone could've done.The Queen lost 25 m pounds and asked "Why didn't Someone tell me?" Someone said that Everyone thought he was doing the right thing till it was proved wrong.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

No warning.

When the Sensex crossed 21000 last year, I remember hearing some feeble voices say that the aggregate price-to-earnings ratio of the Indian stock market was unsustainably high. But such voices were soon drowned in the general euphoria.

How can a galaxy of distinguished economists and analysts fail to see the imminent crash? When oil prices touched $140 a barrel, how come nobody could see that it would roll back very soon and touch $60?

With so many analytical tools in the armoury, why weren’t there stronger warnings that the housing bubble was just that- a bubble? And why didn’t a consensus of economists at universities and other institutions warn that a crisis was on the way? Why weren’t any small boys observing that the Emperor wasn’t wearing clothes?

The field of social psychology may provide some answers, says Robert Schiller in this article. . He cites a 1972 classic, “Groupthink,” by Irving L. Janis, the Yale psychologist, that explained how panels of experts could make colossal mistakes. People on these panels, he said, are forever worrying about their personal relevance and effectiveness, and feel that if they deviate too far from the consensus, they will not be given a serious role. They self-censor personal doubts about the emerging group consensus if they cannot express these doubts in a formal way that conforms to apparent assumptions held by the group.

To go against the grain or to take a contrarian position is to risk being thrown out of the group. Evolution favoured group behaviour and this instinct still keeps ticking in us, even the experts amongst us.

So, the lesson is that we will never be forewarned of any impending disaster or, for that matter, tipped about an upturn. So, just relax and enjoy the ride.


' “Coalition of the willing”, “War on terror”, “pro-life”, “pro-choice” are examples of phrases that smuggle in political opinion. A whole partisan argument is packed into a sound bite. These precision-engineered packages of language are launched by politicians and campaigners and targeted at newspaper headlines and snazzy television graphics where they land and dispense their payload of persuasion into the public consciousness.'

In his book, “Unspeak”, Steven Poole exposes the dubious nature of such manipulative expressions. For example, “Coalition of the Willing” seems to suggest that a large group of countries had joined together in the war against Iraq, whereas the truth was that only the USA and Britain were partners in this venture. “War on terror’ managed to legitimize the war on Iraq, by introducing associations with Al-Qaeda. “Either you are on our side, or on the side of the terrorists’ was the sub-text.

Anti-abortionists by calling themselves ‘pro-life’, managed to cast their opponents as anti-life and even pro-death, when the debate itself was on what constituted life and when does it really begin.

Policy makers and coal lobbyists in the USA also managed to tone down the term “Global warming” to “climate change” and to temper the public concern over coal plants. The former had connotations of inferno and hell, while the latter seemed to describe a routine, benign, incremental transformation.

Who came up with the expression “global meltdown” to describe the present economic situation? By calling it global, were the national governments trying to externalize the problem and disown responsibility? And ‘bloodbath’ and ‘carnage’ to describe a sharp drop in share prices at the Stock Exchange?

How we choose to describe something or what we term an event, can influence the way we perceive it and well determine the course of that event.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The watery trail

Whenever there is a political rally in Chennai (not an infrequent event), thousands of people converge from all parts of the state to ‘express their solidarity”. And, while in the city, they urinate all over the place. This act is not to merely mark their territories or leave evidence of their participation. It is simply because there are no public toilets. And even if a few exist, they are not worthy of patronage.

That’s why I was amused by this report on the daunting task faced by the organizers of the marathon event in New York, where 39000 runners participate. They need to gather and place 2250 portable toilets for a one-day event and then have them removed immediately after the event, as it ‘kinda starts smelling’.

Apparently, this practice has been started only recently. Till two years back, the marathon runners used to head for the bushes or a convenient slope near a bridge, even though “going to the bathroom in public is both an illegal act in New York City and a disqualifiable one in the marathon”.

I am trying to work out the logistics of bringing in thousands of portable toilets to meet the needs of lakhs of partymen who descend into the city each time. And, the challenge of convincing them to get into those boxes.

Rail or canal?

If the year is 1832, and you represent the East India Company in the Madras Presidency, and have to arrive at ways and means to improve the pace of movement of goods or the stones required for construction of various buildings, how do you proceed?

Do you try to build more roads or dig more canals or lay railroads? Railway lines not to move locomotives (that had just been introduced in England) but to move conveyance drawn by animals.

What you would need to consider are:

a) the expense of constructing such works

b) the returns they would make

c) the difficulties that might be expected, considering the present state of the arts in that country

d) what are the specific areas where such work should be undertaken so as to derive maximum benefit.

A committee appointed by the Company actually made an analysis and submitted its report to the British Parliament.( See page 679 in this Google Book link).

The conclusion was that a canal network would be more expensive and more labour intensive. It would also require more water, that was already in short supply in the Carnatic. And, a railway line would be a better option.

What about the difficulty in undertaking such work locally? “They are not such as the Natives under European superintendence cannot overcome” was the observation.

And what are the lines that should be carried out first?

It is probable that there are very few lines on which there is sufficient traffic in the Madras Presidency for it to be either profitable to construct works of this kind, or possible to combine the means of internal communication with those of irrigation. The only ones that hold any prospect of these are, 1st, the line from the coast of Tanjore through the towns of Combaconum and Trichinopoly (each containing 200,000 inhabitants), and the great grain districts of Tanjore and Trichinopoly to the province of Coimbatore ; 2nd, the line through Coimbatore along the irrigating channels of the Bhowany river; 3rd, that along the irrigating channels of the Noel, which passes directly through the centre of the same district ; 4th, those of the Ambravatty, which skirts the south-east part of the same district ; and, 5th, the line from near the town of Coimbatore to the Western Canal.

And, the final recommendation:

It seems very advisable to send out a small quantity of rails and waggon wheels, to be ready for any of the works that are constantly executing in the Tank department. About 1,000 yards of light rails, such as are used for temporary purposes in England, and wheels for 40 railway waggons, might be sent out for about 250 1.-\- The rails should be plain square bars, and would cost nothing more than other malleable iron, and would always be available for ordinary purposes. Some other things, such as small cast iron cranes and windlasses, & should also be kept at Madras, and some of the principal stations up the country, for the general use of the department, by which a great deal of money might be saved.

So, had the East India Company decided to go ahead with the canal network instead of the railway lines, Lalu Prasad Yadav might be the Minister for Waterways now.

It's all in the brain

If you are obese and tend to eat too much, it is not because you are a glutton, unable to resist food. On the contrary, it may be because you derive reduced satisfaction from a given quantity of food. So, to attain a certain level of satisfaction, in absolute terms, you simply need to eat more food.

That’s what this article in Science suggests ( via Jonah lehrer). Obese people have reduced activity levels in the pleasure centres (striatum) of the brain and so need to keep binging, in a manic search for satisfaction.

As a commenter on Jonah’s blog observes, “I immediately wonder whether this effect also applies to sex, drugs, gambling, and anything else people get addicted to ….

A millionaire who craves for more money may not be driven by greed. Poor fellow, due to reduced quantity of dopamine receptors in his striatum, he actually gets reduced satisfaction from a given sum of money, and so has to simply have more money to derive the same level of satisfaction that you have with your measly savings bank account. He is actually physically handicapped and is to be pitied. Reach out to him…..

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

NMR's claim to fame.

“Uyire train completes 100 years of operation”. That’s the headline that TOI chose today for a news item on the centenary of the Nilgiris Mountain Railway. That's like describing TOI as the "paper read by Aishwarya Rai", disregarding its 150-year history.

While including the NMR as a World Heritage site, UNESCO report had mentioned:

The construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 46-km long metre-gauge single-track railway in Tamil Nadu State was first proposed in 1854, but due to the difficulty of the mountainous location the work only started in 1891 and was completed in 1908. This railway, scaling an elevation of 326 m to 2,203 m, represented the latest technology of the time.

It is a sign of our collective idiocy that a train which has such a rich history, which traverses such a picturesque route, which holds such memories for travellers over several generations and which can boast of a few engineering firsts should come to be better remembered as the “Chaiya Chaiya” train on which some actors were filmed shaking bottoms of assorted shapes and sizes.

If you took a guided tour of Ooty today, chance are that you would be shown several spots where different scenes from different movies were shot, complete with description of the actors who were involved. As if the mountains and the sceneries that have existed for several eons, could finally derive legitimacy only through their appearance in some movie or other.

What explains this madness? Watching a movie takes us on a fantasy trip for a mere couple of hours. But the extended activities such as idolising actors, worshipping sites that the scenes were shot on, forming fan clubs, etc can keep us engaged full time, and help us escape into alternate realities of our choice on a 24 x 7 basis. In earlier eras, mythology served this purpose. Now, movies provide that escape route. Everybody has to help in this process and fan the flame. Even TOI.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

On coaches, laptops and video footages.

When seasoned campaigners such as Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman struggled against the wily bowling of Mendis, Sehwag and Dhoni could play him with relative ease. The first three, perhaps, suffered from paralysis-by-analysis (watching all those video footages on the coach’s laptop), while the last two simply relied on their instincts.

A few years back, commenting on the decline of West Indian cricket, Greg Chappell wondered ‘if the Caribbean cricketers were in danger of having their natural abilities stifled by an unbalanced focus on biomechanics .He felt West Indians were attempting to emulate the highly technical and often confusing programmes originating from Australia and England instead of developing a curriculum and youth coaching method suited to the natural attitudes and instincts of the West Indian.’ (source).

Jonah Lehrer makes a similar point, in the context of football and in response to a decision of N.F.L to screen draftees for skills in logic and maths, the underlying assumption being that quarterbacks who were better at algebra will make better (and faster) decisions on where to throw the ball.

Unfortunately, this assumption's all is wrong. If quarterbacks were forced to consciously contemplate their passing decisions - if they treated the game like a question on the Wonderlic-- they'd get sacked every time, a classic case of paralysis-by-analysis. The fact is, the velocity of the game makes thought impossible. What recent research in neuroscience suggests is that quarterbacks choose where to throw the ball by relying on their unconscious brain. Just as a baseball player will decide to swing at a pitch for reasons he can't explain (he' is acting on subliminal cues from the hand of the pitcher), an experienced quarterback picks up defensive details he's not even aware of. Although he doesn't consciously perceive the lurking cornerback, or the blitzing linebacker, the quarterback's unconscious is still able to monitor the movement of these players. And then, when he glances at his receivers, his brain automatically converts these details into a set of fast emotional signals, so that a receiver in tight coverage gets associated with a twinge of fear, while an open man triggers a burst of positive feeling. It's these inarticulate emotions, and not some elaborate set of calculations, that tell the best quarterbacks when to let the ball fly. The pocket, it turns out, is too dangerous a place to think.

Similarly, the cricket pitch is a wrong place to think. Just go there, trust your instinct and heuristics and whack the ball. That approach has a better chance of succeeding than when you try to slice the bowler’s action into 64 different elements and then aggregate them together again.

Sack all those coaches. And, dump all those laptops.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Geriatric love

I watched a French movie on TV5 channel last week. Before you conclude that I am one of those high-brow students of serious cinema, let me clarify that I watch French movies only because I can understand them far better than I do English ones. The former provides me with the benefit of English sub-titles, while the latter erroneously assumes that I can follow the accent.

As usual, I don’t recall the title, but the story dealt with the tender love developing between a 75-year old man and a 72-year old woman, with some intimate scenes thrown in.

I was wondering what sort of audience would want to watch such movies, when I realised that most western countries have a demographic profile in which the average age is significantly higher than in the country that Bolly/Kolly/Tolly/Mollywood films cater to. So, the French movie that I saw would strike a cord with such people.

Cinema, with romance as the theme, engages the viewer in one of two ways. In the first, some part of the story or some facet of one of the characters makes the viewer recall and relate to some incident or episode that had happened in his/her own life in the past. In the second, it appeals to the ‘fantasy’ of the viewer and makes him/her wish that such an incident/episode would happen to him/her in the future.

A ‘normal’ love story involving a young couple is a safe formula. You will have the ‘oldies’ reminiscing about their affairs of the past, and the teens wishing for a similar thing to happen to them in the near future. The formula works well when you are assured of a huge audience with an average age that is below 30.

But, when you have a population that has a high geriatric content, as can happen in France, what do you do? If you’ve got to make movies that can send this group on a trip of fantasy, you need to woo them with promise of romance. A 75-year old man watching the movie needs to be sent back home, heart filled with hope. He must be made to ‘voluntarily suspend disbelief” as Coleridge put it, albeit in the context of reading poetry.

France must be full of such lonely old people and to get them into the theatres, French movie directors need to spin fantasises and help infuse some romance into their dreary lives.

Maybe, this is the reasoning behind the “story of tender love developing between a 75-year old painter and a 72-year old woman, with some intimate scenes thrown in.”

But, why did I sit through and watch the entire movie? Wonder which one of my fantasies it pandered to. …

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Watch out.

I have also viewed ‘watches’ from a cold, functional stand-point. So long as the one that I am using, tells me the time with reasonable accuracy, I carry on with it. In the many decades of my existence, I must have owned no more than five or six watches. The last change happened when a fond nephew, disgusted with the antiquated piece that circled my wrist, insisted on replacing it with a more contemporary piece.

In my circle of friends, I have seen the entire spectrum. At one end are guys like me, and at the other are the aficionados. One of my friends has this compulsive need to change his watch once in a few months. He says that certain cyclical physiological and hormonal changes inside his body trigger this impulse. Another keeps half a dozen watches in his wardrobe and chooses one every day to suit his mood, attire or whim.

Yet another one likes his watches loaded with as many features as possible. Once, at the airport in Frankfurt, he was about to shell out 1000 Euros for a fancy watch. I asked him what was special about the watch and he told me that it was certified as water-proof (not just water-resistant, he explained the difference) even at a depth of 200 metres under the sea. It would release some inert gas to balance out the pressure, he pointed out.

I told him not to be an idiot, and hurriedly led him away to the flight which was about to depart. For one thing, he did not even know how to swim and the chances of him reaching 200 metres below sea level was remote, unless he was inside a submarine. For another, I certainly did not want to be an accessory to the crime of shelling out good money on a branded gizmo that reminded me of the series, “The man from U.N.C.L.E” where the agent sported a watch that had a built-in thermo-indicator, compass, laser gun, altimeter, radio, camera, etc. The tag line was, “the man who had a watch that had 99 different uses. 100, if you needed to tell the time”.

At the extreme end of the spectrum of watch lovers, is Pradipta. He is not only passionate about them, he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge on the history behind every brand of watch. The Hindu BusinessLine invited him to write a column on watches, and he has been doing so. The column is published in SmartBuy, a fortnightly supplement to the paper.

On my prompting, he started a blog called the “Keen Watcher” where he has cross-posted the articles. Do drop in there and give him your feedback.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The roots beckon again.

Talking about the ‘call of the roots’ in my previous post brought back memories of another incident that happened 15 years back.

While in Australia for a sales conference, I bumped into one of our dealers from the Fiji Islands. He was of Indian origin and was quite prosperous. In the course of a conversation he mentioned that he was planning a visit to India- his first- later that year. And, would I help him trace his ancestral village?

All he knew was that his grandmother, when a small girl, had been put on board a ship that had set sail for the Fiji Islands, where the British required some cheap labour. As they were Telugu speaking, he suspected that she must have started her journey from Vizag. She never went back to India. His parents had toiled hard, and when he grew up, he had invested a small sum in a hotel, and this eventually grew into a big business.

Like Alex Haley, he wanted to trace his roots now.

He came down to India as promised, and I put him on to my colleague who was located in Vizag. Ads were placed in all Telugu papers seeking information on the ship that had carried the workers off to an unknown destination, sometime around 1920. One tip led to another, and soon, my colleague was accompanying the dealer to the very village his grandmother had been born. More probing resulted in someone pointing out that there lived a 92-year old lady in the village who might remember, and they rushed over to her hut. The old lady, though quite senile, miraculously remembered the tragic event in which most of her kith and kin, were bundled together and shoved aboard. What’s more, the dealer’s grandmother turned out to be the old lady’s cousin. Hearing which, the dealer broke down uncontrollably, hugged the old lady, pulled out a wad of 500-rupee notes and handed it over to her.

Later, while walking away from the place, he pointed out the irony. This old lady who had escaped the deporting, actually thought that a great tragedy had befallen his grandmother’s family, while it was in fact a blessing. The deported lady’s descendant was now wealthy enough to fly down all the way and gift her cousin who had stayed behind, a fat bundle of 500-rupee notes, in her miserable hut. That’s life for you.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"If I forget thee, O India"

On the flight back from Brussels, the passenger sitting next to me was a teenager making his first visit to India. Ajay is a Canadian citizen, but his great-grandparents were born in India and migrated to UK and later to Canada. His grandfather was born in UK and his parents in Canada. His grandmother had been raised in India, though.

The great grandparents used to visit India at least once a year. And his grand-parents, maybe, once in two years. His parents rarely visited India. And, he, never.

So, why was Ajay visiting India now? His grandmother used to constantly sermonize on how they needed to stay in touch with their roots and had tried to convince his parents to make their ‘pilgrimage’ to India, once in a few years. This grandmother had died last year and Ajay took it upon himself to fulfill her wish.

Ajay’s tale reminded me of a lovely short story by Arthur C Clarke, titled, “ If I forget thee, O Earth”. Marvin, a ten-year old boy, lives in a closed lunar colony, cut off from Earth which had been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. On his tenth birthday, his dad takes him out of the Observatory and into a distant edge of the moon to have a glimpse of Earth, with its polar ice, hazy clouds and continents. Marvin understands why his father had brought him to that spot. His father may not be able to go back to Earth, but he needed to keep the memories alive by passing them on to his descendants, so that in a distant generation, when the winds and rivers have swept the radio-active wastes away on Earth, men could return to reclaim their heritage. So, to keep the dream alive, Marvin knew that he would bring his son too to the same spot in a few years.

The grandparents, by choice or by compulsion, may have struck their roots in unaccustomed earth, but the roots on accustomed earth, very often, refuse to let go.