Monday, September 28, 2009

Holy cow! Tharoor got it wrong!

In the controversy surrounding Shashi Tharoor’s twitter message, many opinions have been expressed and many have taken strong positions, one way or other. His expression, “holy cows”, some felt, was directed at Sonia Gandhi and other senior Congress leaders.

Prof V.R.Narayanaswamy, who writes a column in The Mint, points out that the use of the phrase ‘holy cow’ was wrong, for a different reason. Tharoor mixed up the phrases “sacred cows” and ‘holy cows’.

“Sacred cow” has its origin in India. It alludes to the veneration for the cow among the Hindus. Kamadhenu, often known as the cow of plenty, grants the wishes of her worshippers. Raja Rao’s short story, Cow of the Barricades, presents the cow as a symbol of Mother India; the cow, Gauri, gives up her own life to avert a conflict between two groups. “Sacred cow” in its metaphorical sense is dated around 1910 and refers to any institution or organization that is above criticism. “Holy cow” as commonly used does not stand for any concept. It is an exclamation of astonishment, delight or dismay. It became popular with its frequent use in the TV film series featuring Batman and his aide Robin. There are several similar oaths, such as holy smoke, holy Moses, holy moley, holy mackerel.

Letters from Stan

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy have made me laugh the most. As a child, I watched a few of their movies in theatres, but it was with the advent of videotapes that I managed to catch up with their entire output spread over four decades. Even today, when I recall any of the scenes, I can’t suppress my laughter.

Via “Letters of Note’, I was delighted to come across this site that has catalogued letters from Stan Laurel from 1918 to 1964. The letters, claims the site, will serve to ‘better understand his life and celebrate his comedic genius.’

Which means that I have to commit myself to read 874 documents in the archives. Here’s another fine mess the pair has got me into.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mark Twain and Vishnu Sahasranamam

“The writings of Mark Twain : Vol 6” that I had linked to in my previous post turned out to be a fascinating book and I have spent the last few hours engrossed in it. Some more excerpts, at random:

On the Bird of Birds — the Indian crow. I came to know him well, by and by, and be infatuated with him. I suppose he is the hardest lot that wears feathers. Yes, and the cheerfulest, and the best satisfied with himself. He never arrived at what he is by any careless process, or any sudden one; he is a work of art, and "art is long"; he is the product of immemorial ages, and of deep calculation; one can't make a bird like that in a day. He has been re-incarnated more times than Shiva; and he has kept a sample of each incarnation, and fused it into his constitution….(page 30)

On names and Titles:..The princely titles, the sumptuous titles, the sounding titles,— how good they taste in the mouth! The Nizam of Hyderabad ; the Maharajah of Travancore; the Nabob of Jubbulpore; the Begum of Bhopal; the Nawab of Mysore; the Ranee of Gulnare; the Ahkoond of Swat; the Rao of Rohilkund; the Gaikwar of Baroda. Indeed, it is a country that runs richly to name. The great god Vishnu has 108 — 108 special ones—108 peculiarly holy ones — names just for Sunday use only. I learned the whole of Vishnu's 108 by heart once, but they wouldn't stay; I don't remember any of them now but John W. (page 35)

Were Indians the world’s first germ scientists? …When we went to Agra, by and by, we happened there just in time to be in at the birth of a marvel — a memorable scientific discovery—the discovery that in certain ways the foul and derided Ganges water is the most puissant purifier in the world! This curious fact, as I have said, had just been added to the treasury of modern science.

It had long been noted as a strange thing that while Benares is often afflicted with the cholera she does not spread it beyond her borders. This could not be accounted for. Mr. Henkin, the scientist in the employ of the government of Agra, concluded to examine the water. He went to Benares and made his tests. He got water at the mouths of the sewers where they empty into the river at the bathing ghats; a cubic centimeter of it contained millions of germs; at the end of six hours they were all dead. He caught a floating corpse, towed it to the shore, and from beside it he dipped up water that was swarming with cholera germs; at the end of six hours they were all dead. He added swarm after swarm of cholera germs to this water; within the six hours they always died, to the last sample. Repeatedly, he took pure well water which was barren of animal life, and put into it a few cholera germs; they always began to propagate at once, and always within six hours they swarmed — and were numberable by millions upon millions.

For ages and ages the Hindoos have had absolute faith that the water of the Ganges was absolutely pure, could not be defiled by any contact whatsoever, and infallibly made pure and clean whatsoever thing touched it. They still believe it, and that is why they bathe in it and drink it, caring nothing for its seeming filthiness and the floating corpses. The Hindoos have been laughed at, these many generations, but the laughter will need to modify itself a little from now on. How did they find out the water's secret in those ancient ages? Had they germ-scientists then? We do not know. We only know that they had a civilization long before we emerged from savagery. ( page 194)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The land that all men desire to see.

Mark Twain’s ‘variegated vagabondising’ brought him to India in the year 1895. “The writings of Mark Twain- Vol 6” published a year later, contains these passages and many more:

Bombay! A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place — the Arabian Nights come again! It is a vast city; contains about a million inhabitants. Natives, they are, with a slight sprinkling of white people — not enough to have the slightest modifying effect upon the massed dark complexion of the public. It is winter here, yet the weather is the divine weather of June, and the foliage is the fresh and heavenly foliage of June. There is a rank of noble great shade trees across the way from the hotel, and under them sits groups of picturesque natives of both sexes; and the juggler in his turban is there with his snakes and his magic; and all day long the cabs and the multitudinous varieties of costumes flock by. It does not seem as if one could ever get tired of watching this moving show, this shining and shifting spectacle…..

….This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations — the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.

….In India your day may be said to begin with the "bearer's" knock on the bedroom door, accompanied by a formula of words — a formula which is intended to mean that the bath is ready. It doesn't really seem to mean anything at all. But that is be cause you are not used to " bearer " English. You will presently understand. Where he gets his English is his own secret. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the earth; or even in paradise, perhaps, but the other place is probably full of it. You hire him as soon as you touch Indian soil; for no matter what your sex is, you cannot do without him. He is messenger, valet, chambermaid, table-waiter, lady's maid, courier — he is everything.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The future be damned.

“If we knew that what we have now would soon be gone, perhaps we could better appreciate what we have today. We might be more concerned about family and friends and what is truly important, instead of worrying about amassing more wealth” writes Gail the Actuary in the Oil Drum.

He then links to an earlier post ‘Life After the Crash: Lessons from Kenya,’ in which he had quoted from an email he had received from a Kenyan reader. The reader had responded to Gail’s presentation that had warned that ‘the need for growth in the future would collide with finite resources’:

"It's the mindset that makes most Kenyans experience a happiness most Westerners would never consider to be possible given realities - as they see and experience them.

In Kenya, we do use electricity (hydro / diesel), if we can. We have constant power cuts. But that's not the only limit. In fact, the vast majority of us, even the so-called middle-class, build our lives around limits. Limits are the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. It is, you could say, a way of life that is happy when it is not done in - not unhappy if things go wrong (I am not sure that this makes sense).

People there - including me - celebrate every day that was a good day. And a good day is one where we got by. I would say, for 95% of Kenyans, life there is very much focused on the hour - and hardly ever on the future."

According to Derek, people can be very happy just celebrating each day, and not worrying too much about the future. Even if we knew (or suspected) there was likely to be a crash ahead, we could be happy with what we had each day. There is no real reason to worry about possible future calamities. We can only live one day at a time, anyhow, and we are pretty limited as to what we can do to change things”

So, either learn to live today as if there will be no tomorrow or pre-suppose that it will bring good fortune. As the Arab saying goes, “Bukra fil mish mish” (Tomorrow there will be apricots), No point in living 'today' worrying about possible disasters that can strike you 'tomorrow.'

Saturday, September 19, 2009

West is beautiful

Tyler Cowen’ quoting from a book by Anne Applebaum asks “Where did all the gorgeous Russian women now gracing the covers of Vogue and tennis courts come from? Where were they a decade or two back?”

The answer, as the author explains, is that the beautiful women were there all along. But, they didn’t have the clothes or the cosmetics to enhance their looks, and couldn’t use their faces to launch international careers.

Cowen ( or rather Applebaum) uses this example to make a generalization that ‘open’ and ‘globalised’ markets bring in benefits in all spheres of human activity, just as it brought the beautiful Russian girls to the cover of Vogue.

Unfortunately, what open markets and cosmetics also do is to come up with a single standard of beauty- one that appeals to western sensibilities.

The book “Anthropology matters” ( courtesy : Google Books) points out that Western influence is distorting perceptions completely in Asia and Africa. In Nigeria, where plumpness was considered a sign of prosperity, good health and sexuality, (they even had ‘fattening’ rooms in which teenage girls used to be kept locked), women are under increasing pressure to conform to the thin ideal. Asian women in Korea, China, and Philippines are undergoing cosmetic surgery to remove folds and to create double eye-lids to conform to Western standards of beauty. And, all over the world, when it comes to cosmetics, the major western brands are sought after.

Almost all Bollywood stars follow a Western- and often bizarre- style of dressing and in their use of cosmetics. Anorexia has them all in its vice-like grip. My ode to the plump heroine of yesteryears captured my thoughts on this subject.

A dwarf variety that caused a giant leap

Did Norman Borlaug, deserve the accolades he received for ushering in the so-called “Green Revolution”? Was his work really responsible for saving millions of lives?

Nick Cullather, in a forthcoming book titled, “The Hungry world. Amercia’s encounter with rural Asia” (Link via Marginal Revolution) cites CIA analysts who attributed the bumper crop not so much to the dwarf variety developed by Borlaug, but to a pronounced shift in the weather, a phenomenon later to be called the El Nino cycle. And also to the fact that Indian farmers had till then not invested their resources on growing wheat, due to large scale imports of wheat from the USA. (Note the cause and the effect. Wheat was not imported because there was shortage or poor yield here. Rather, wheat was not cultivated because imports made local farming unviable)

But, he says, Borlaug did much more than prevent an imaginary catastrophe. In the 1960s, the sub-continent was viewed by the USA as a dangerous place. Separatist movements gained momentum drawing strength from the restlessness of peasants. The Rockefeller and the Ford Foundation, with the help of Borlaug, decided to introduce the dwarf wheat which would require the farmers to use methods that required more precision and a more scientific approach. This would change the attitude of the farmers and favourably impact their relationship with their families, leaders and each other.

In short, the dwarf wheat was a mechanical toy given to a naughty child to keep him engaged, quiet and more obedient. The Americans, ever the custodians of world peace and morality, took it upon themselves to rid the third world of its ‘militant attitude’ and decided to ‘move governments’ using the dwarf wheat variety as a red herring.

Commenting on the book extract, Salil Tripathi lists at least seven inaccuracies and wonders why he should buy the book.

Update 20/09/09: Graham Harvey, author of the book, “The carbon fields. How our countryside can save Britain” points out the unintended consequences of Borlaug’s revolution, in an article published in Times online.

“Borlaug intended his methods to be used for the benefit of people across the planet. Instead they were seized on by industrial countries with the wealth to pay for expensive seeds and fertilisers. Where they were used in developing countries, this often came at the cost of a crippling debt burden.

Today Borlaug’s ideas underpin the global food system. Three quarters of the world’s cultivated land is sown to grain crops and oilseeds. Most are dependent on massive amounts of oil energy in the form of nitrate fertilisers, pesticides, diesel fuel and heavy machinery.

Though the Green Revolution has undoubtedly given the world more food, it has brought with it worrying consequences. An investigation into agriculture funded by the World Bank concluded that the benefits have been unevenly distributed. Equally disturbing, the revolution has led to widespread environmental damage that may reduce the planet’s capacity to feed future generations.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Zero % GDP growth

The Oil Drum has an interesting explanation on ‘peasant’ behaviour and mindset. Some excerpts:

“We often think that we have a problem of scarcity of resources. It is not so: scarcity is not absolute. Whether we have enough of something or not depends on our perception of what we need. And, because we seem to think that we never have enough, we tend to use what we have faster than it can be replaced.

But human beings haven’t always been like this. Ancient peasants lived, mostly, in a "zero growth" world and, perhaps, in the future we'll return to a condition in which the finiteness of resources is an obvious fact of life.

Why is it, we may wonder, that the peasants do nothing to better themselves? Some scholars have concluded that they are too desperately poor to have time for social cooperation or for political agitation. Others have attributed the inaction to their being as impassive as their donkeys and oxen. Still others explain that the peasants have been exploited for so long by the upper classes that they would never join their social su­periors in any venture, for fear of being cheated. Each of these statements is true to some extent, but none by itself can account for the peasants' disregard of their own welfare.

Peasants view their total environment as one in which all the good things of life-land, wealth, power, friendship, sex, health, and honor-exist in only lim­ited quantities. As they see it, the limitation exists for two reasons: 'There are more of themselves than there are of good things, and they consider themselves powerless to increase the quantities available. Peasants have unconsciously extended a truth about the limited nature of their arable land to include all aspects of life. Like the land itself, good things can be divided and their ownership changed-but they cannot be increased.

Because not enough good exists to go around, a peasant family can improve its position only at the expense of other families in the community. A family that actively works to improve its lot thus represents a threat; whatever extra good it obtains must inevitably be taken from someone else. Peasants consequently regard modern farming techniques as ways to deprive others of their rightful share of wealth rather than as ways to increase productivity and thus to create new wealth.”

Letters of note

Via Jason Kottke, I came across this site which publishes copies of rare letters written by eminent personalities. There is one written in 1939 by Gandhi to Hitler, urging the latter to drop the idea of war. Another by Charles Darwin, to his friend, written a full 15 years before the publication of his “On the Origin of species”. Yet another written by Winston Churchill with instructions that it be handed over to his wife in the event of his death.

And a crisp, simple ‘thank you’ note from Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The long and the short of it.

This is the sixth story in the Bata Thatha series.

The Walkie-Talkies were on their morning walk at the Marina, discussing the details of the ongoing Test match, at the Chepauk, between India and Australia. The home team, sadly, was getting clobbered.

“Just look at the Australians. They are so big-made and strong. When they pound the ball, it races like a bullet to the fence” observed Polo T-shirt.

“And they are so tall. Take Symonds or Hayden. And compare them with Gambhir or Sehwag, who are barely five and a half feet each” added Nike Shorts.

“I have heard that the Australian coaches go around and identify small babies in their cradles, and make them undergo special surgical procedures and hormone treatment that would make their bones and muscles grow disproportionately” claimed Reebok Wrist-Band.

“Maybe so, but cricket is not basketball. Height isn’t everything in this game. A Tendulkar or a Gavaskar can smash the ball better than any tall batsman.. It is just a question of technique and timing” chipped in Adidas Track-pants.

“Gentlemen, you are forgetting Ishant Sharma” interjected Bata Thatha. He is one of the tallest cricketers around and he is not Australian. I follow his fortunes closely, as I have a grand nephew by that same name.”

“Was your relative a tall cricketer too?” asked Puma Socks.

“No. He never played cricket nor was he tall. Let me tell you more about him”

“My cousin’s grandson, Ishant, (said Bata Thatha) had always been fond of plants. Even as a young boy he had learnt many grafting techniques and, by the time he reached adulthood, had his own collection of bonsai trees. Whether his fascination for bonsai was because he himself was rather short – he was about 4’10” – or because he was born with a skill and keen desire to miniaturise everything, I can’t say. But he was constantly in the company of his bonsai trees.

As he grew up, this hobby turned into a fetish. He wanted to extend the concept beyond the realm of plants and into other areas. He became increasingly convinced that tall human beings were highly inefficient and were draining more resources from this planet than was warranted. No purpose was served by having people taller than 5’, he would argue.

“If adults were shorter and smaller, houses could be more compact,” he would explain. “Planes, trains, cars could have smaller seats and occupy much less space. Office cubicles, workstations, bathrooms, toilet seats, doors, would be more optimally sized. Sizes L, XL and XXL could be eliminated from the range of trousers, shirts, salwars, etc and shelves in shops would be less crammed. All in all, the world would be more efficient, less resource-consuming and more carbon friendly’, he would conclude.

After much thought, he came up with a diabolical plan, one he ominously referred to as “The Final Solution to the Problem of Inefficiency”. He would divide the human race into three distinct categories: unborn, those born and still growing and finally the fully grown. The first category would be taken care through genetic engineering methods that would inhibit growth hormones suitably and restrict the height. The second would be tackled with bonsai methods. A little snipping of the hair and nails, wiring and clamping of the bones here and there, some pruning of the muscles and trimming of the fingers and toes, followed by grafting and de-skinning as necessary. The third category, namely the adults who had already grown beyond 5’, would simply have to be eliminated. Inefficiency must be rooted out, after all.”

The rather enthused manner in which Bata Thatha was narrating the story seemed to suggest that he was fully endorsing Ishant’s scheme. Adidas-trackpants, with a worried expression on his face, asked him, “So, how far has the scheme progressed?”

Bata Thatha said, “Not too far. Just when Ishant was about to roll out his plan, Cupid struck, Yes, he fell madly in love with a girl, Jaya, who from her height of 5’2”simply towered over him. They soon got married.”

“And what about his plans to miniaturise the human race?” asked Nike shorts.

“I am sorry to say” said Bata Thatha, “Jaya put an end to it. Apparently, ever since she had been a small girl, she had been captivated by psychic phenomena. In particular she had closely studied the methods of one, D.D.Home, who had lived in the nineteenth century in London. Home had demonstrated the capacity to elongate his body by a good 11 inches, as if he was being pulled up by his neck. Later he could cause elongation in others. He had written down his methods in great detail. A copy of the manuscript had fallen into Jaya’s possession and she made it clear that she planned to test it out very soon.

“So, would you care to assist me in my research?” asked Jaya

“I shan’t, I shan’t” replied Ishant emphatically.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Near miss-2

I can’t resist the temptation to complete a trilogy of my ‘missing luggage’ stories. The first two are here and here.

I landed in Mumbai one day and waited patiently for that last piece of luggage to come out of the plane. And sure enough, it was a brown-coloured VIP suitcase. Except that it wasn’t mine.

I went across to the Jet Airlines counter and reported that my precious suitcase seemed to have dematerialised above the clouds, but one deceptively similar to mine was going teasingly around on the carousel with no claimants for it. The whole thing was quite surreal.

In a brilliant piece of detective work, the Jet person deduced that someone must have walked off with my suitcase, mistaking it for his. With the luggage tag, the ground staff managed to track down the passenger’s name and his mobile number. He was contacted immediately and asked to return to the airport to exchange his suitcase (or, rather, mine) for mine (or, rather, his).

He reached the airport after 30 minutes or so, apologised profusely for the mistake, and offered to drop me off at Nariman Point, which was where I was headed. I accepted the offer and ended up saving Rs 500 for my company.

So, even on the rare occasion when my luggage had not been the last to arrive, the God who presides over the destinies of travelling salesmen had made sure that I was the last to leave the airport, but in a compensating gesture had spared me the expense of a taxi ride.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Near miss

After publishing the previous post on missing baggage, I remembered another episode concerning a ‘near miss’.

My flight had taken off from Amsterdam for Mumbai. After we were airborne for a ‘few minutes’, we heard the captain announce that we needed to return to Amsterdam, as one of the passengers was seriously ill. But, he needed to jettison some fuel first as it was not advisable to land with an almost full tank. This jettisoning would take a ‘few minutes’.

We landed in Amsterdam; the sick passenger was wheeled off; we waited for the flight to take off in a ‘few minutes’.

Soon the captain informed us that he was awaiting further instructions from his “Operations’ wing in the US. He expected to have that in a ‘few minutes’.

After a ‘few minutes’ he again came on air and told us that the instructions had not come yet and he was hopeful that he would receive them in a ‘few minutes’. These announcements were repeated,with that exasperating American fetish for verbose communication, at a maddening frequency for a full two hours, after which, the captain was pleased to inform us that the “Operations’ dept had cleared the aircraft for take-off to Mumbai again, but US Air safety regulations required a change of crew, as the present crew, if it continued on, would log more than the statutory limit of 12 hours. The new crew, had been identified, and would be arriving at the airport in a ‘few minutes’.

All this while, security requirement did not permit the passengers to get off the plane or be served meals while on the ground.

The new crew eventually arrived in a few hours and the plane took off. The rest of the flight was rather uneventful and we landed in Mumbai more than 6 hours beyond the scheduled time.

Waiting for my luggage, I did not panic. Experience has taught me that mine is usually the last one to arrive, after it unselfishly ensures that every other piece of baggage has been safely evacuated from the aircraft. Suddenly, I heard someone announcing my name along with a few others. We were asked to contact the ground staff who broke the grim news, that due to some mistake, our luggage had been left behind in Amsterdam and would arrive the next day, and would we please fill out this form and come again the next night for clearing it past Customs?

Hell, I wanted to move on to Chennai the next day. I fretted and fumed and kicked and ranted, but it was useless, of course. I filled in the blasted form and walked towards the exit. It was at this point that I noticed my suitcase moving gracefully on the baggage carousel.

I picked it up, went back to the ground staff, let out steam for causing me needless tension and anxiety, warned them not to make this a habit and bade them goodbye. Not so fast, said they. They needed to check again with Amsterdam. My baggage tag was definitely on the list of luggage left behind there, and till they got the matter cleared, I could not leave. This process of checking would take a ‘few minutes’…….


Every traveling salesman (for that matter, every regular air traveler) can narrate a story or two about how he/she landed in one continent, while his/her luggage mysteriously found its way into another. Unfortunately, in several years of travel, this experience had been denied to me. My baggage always followed me wherever I went. So, much to my regret, my repertoire of stories has been rather incomplete.

I am happy to report that this situation was remedied last week.

I landed in a small town in Finland and was told that my luggage had not kept pace with my hectic travel. Finnair was pleased to provide me with a survival kit packed with essentials to last me for 24 hours. The ‘essentials’ were a toothpaste, shaving cream, a disposable razor, moisturizing lotion, something to remove eye liners and a small packet containing detergents.

A seasoned traveler knows just how much to pack. It’s a fine trade-off between convenience and comfort. Pack too many things and you will have hell while lugging them around, but once inside the hotel, you could have the comfort of choosing from many, Pack too little, it will be a joy while at the airport, but you would not make it to the list of ‘the best dressed persons in town”. In this instance, my suitcase, that had been kidnapped, had been packed with all kinds of things for every possible contingency and to cope with a temperature range of minus 20 degrees to plus 40 degrees. There were shirts meant for casual wear, formal wear, factory visits, fashion parades and so on.

But it was lying in some other part of the world. I had to make do with what I had, or buy new clothes that are hideously expensive in these parts. I decided on the former option.

Wearing the same shirt for two days is not all that difficult, I found. Many people, especially in India, get by with one shirt for days at a stretch. Life takes on an entirely new meaning and provides an entirely new perspective when you look at a shirt and realise that it is not merely a shirt, but the shirt. At least I could wash the shirt in the night with the detergent that Finnair had thoughtfully provided me with. So many Indians don’t even have that luxury.

At work during the day, seeing me in my jeans and casual shirt, my colleagues gave me sympathetic looks and even offered to lend me a shirt or two. After work, Finnish tradition requires one to spend time at the sauna, where the dress code simply reads. “Grin and bare it”. So, evening wear was not much of a problem.

The life-changing lesson I learned from this episode was that we don’t really need all that we have. We can and ought to make do with far less.

The luggage eventually arrived. That evening I decided to window-shop a bit. And my eyes spotted some shirts that were ‘on sale’ at an incredible price of 5 Euros each. I bought 4 of them. Never know when you might need them.