Saturday, February 27, 2010

India's national game

On the eve of the Hockey World Cup, a TOI columnist asks, “Can India give its national sport a new lease of life?”

As I wondered in an earlier post, how or when was hockey ‘appointed’ our national game? And who, for that matter, selected our national bird, national animal, national fruit, national flower, etc? Were elections held? Were committees formed for this purpose? What were the criteria?

(An aside: Responding to the argument that Hindi was our national language because it was spoken by the most number of people in the country, C.N. Annadurai is supposed to have said, “If numerical strength is the criterion, the rat and not the tiger should be our national animal”.)

The Hindu calls itself India’s national newspaper. It has a right to call itself a national newspaper (as opposed to a regional one), but the words “India’s national newspaper” seems to imply that it was chosen from among many newspapers and conferred the title.

Anyway, I hope that I’ll soon be reading in India’s national newspaper that our team playing India’s national game has excelled.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

On success.

Tendulkar has broken yet another record….......yaaawn…… He became the only person in the history of mankind to score….zzzzzzzzzz.....

Isn’t the man just sickeningly, boringly, tiringly, monotonously successful?

500 runs in a Test innings, 500000 runs in international cricket, 5 million runs in first class cricket at the age of 50- nothing is beyond him. Tell me that he has just whacked a six off the last ball of the match while seated blind-folded and mouth-gagged on a wheel-chair with one arm in a cast and I will display no astonishment.

The sight of him pummeling the hapless bowlers reminds me of Rajnikanth taking on an army of 1500 thugs at the same time and whacking the hell out of them. Of course, he does it in the movies, while Sachin does it in real life, but the net effect on me is the same.

I get bored.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gandhian economics

John Michael Greer of the “Archdruid report”, explains in this post how E.F.Schumacher, the maverick economist, drew some of his central ideas from a very different source: the largely neglected economic ideas of Gandhi.

A lot of Americans think of Mohandas K. Gandhi as a spiritual leader, which of course he was, and as a political figure, which of course he also was. It’s not as often remembered that he also spent quite a bit of time developing an economic theory appropriate to the challenges facing a newly independent India. His suggestion, to condense some very subtle thinking into too few words, was that a nation that had a vast labor force but very little money was wasting its time to invest that money in state-of-the-art industrial plants; instead, he suggested, the most effective approach was to equip that vast labor force with tools that would improve their productivity within the existing structures of resource supply, production and distribution. Instead of replacing India’s huge home-based spinning and weaving industries with factories, for example, and throwing millions of spinners and weavers out of work, he argued that the most effective use of India’s limited resources was to help those spinners and weavers upgrade their skills, spinning wheels, and looms, so they could produce more cloth at a lower price, continue to support themselves by their labor, and in the process make India self-sufficient in clothing production.

…Current economics dismisses Gandhi’s ideas on the grounds of their "inefficiency," but this has to be taken in context, "efficiency," in today’s economic jargon, means nothing more or less than efficiency in producing somebody a profit. As a way of keeping millions of people gainfully employed, stabilizing the economy of a desperately poor nation, and preventing its wealth from being siphoned overseas by predatory industrial nations, Gandhi’s proposal is arguably very efficient indeed – and this, in turn, was what brought it to the attention of E.F. Schumacher.

Monday, February 08, 2010

The flightless spinner

Prem Panicker describes the bowling effort of Harbhajan Singh against South Africa yesterday:

The wicket had bounce and sharp turn— the kind of conditions spinners revel in and batsmen, especially from teams like SA that are not known for their skill at playing the turning ball, dread.

As for Bajji, any time you find an off spinner bowling the bulk of his deliveries from around the wicket to right handed batsmen, you’ve got to figure something is way wrong. The likes of EAS Prasanna, newly picked as one of India’s two spin bowling coaches, will tell you that when there is turn to be had, the off spinner’s stock ball is the one just short of driving length outside off, turning in to hit the top of off. That line forces the batsman to play the turning, bouncing ball from beside it, without the protection of his body behind the bat; Bajji’s preference on the other hand seemed to be to bowl off, to off & middle and middle stump lines — just right for batsmen to get behind it, watch the turn and play it down and away through the “leg trap” for easy runs.

Douglas Adams had once described the flightless Kakapo parrot of New Zealand thus: “ Not only has the Kakapo forgotten how to fly, it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly.” The net result, according to Adams, is that it frequently runs up a tree, tries to take off and falls flat on its face.

Harbhajan Singh reminds me of the Kakapo. Not only has he forgotten how to bowl, he frequently forgets that he has forgotten how to bowl. The result being that he goes around with a permanent scowl and every now and then throws up wild tantrums.

Meanwhile, the selectors have forgotten how to select spinners; worse they don’t seem to realise that they have forgotten how to select spinners…..

India's awesome show.

I have always felt that we shouldn’t be getting into events such as the Olympics or even the Asian Games and needlessly pitting ourselves against the Americans, Russians and the Chinese. Why compete with the global best and then come back without a single medal and add to our inferiority complex?

What we should be doing instead is to participate in events where competition is from the likes of Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal and knock the pants out of them. Which is what we seem to have done this week at the South Asian Games in Dhaka and hit jackpot.

With 10 gold, 12 silver and eight bronze they won on the penultimate day of competition in the South Asian Games being held at Dhaka, India now have 129 medals (67 gold, 40 silver and 22 bronze) reports the Times of India. You name the event – boxing, shooting, swimming, karate, taekwondo, table tennis, archery- India wrested or, rather, breasted a medal. How often do you see news reports such as this? Way to go.

Another thing we must do is to introduce events that are more suited to our physique and temperament. The Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” was not evolved keeping Indians in mind, and we shouldn’t make asses of ourselves by attempting to jump longer or higher, run faster or dive deeper.

What we should lobby for is an event such as “kicking the groin” contest. If you have watched “Paul Merton in India” on Fox History channel (which I did yesterday), you would have seen the interview with Mr Nayak who holds the Guinness record for withstanding the most number of kicks (43) on his groin. Nayak is now training his son too  . Soon, I am sure he will be able to start his own academy and enroll a few hundred trainees. If this model can be replicated all over India, we’d have a basket size of a million people proficient in the sport of getting kicked on the groin. This would become a quintessentially Indian sport and we should be able to bag a few medals in various events, before the Chinese catch on and come up with their pirated version. “ The poor Indian may lack the resources to buy food grain, but he sure has good groin” would be the response of the awestruck rest-of-the-world.

Lady readers, kindly pardon the gender bias, as this sport will remain a male bastion, unless some disruptive technologies come into play in the future..

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Controller of Brinjals

Why is the Govt hell-bent on introducing Bt Brinjal? Surely, this is not the most pressing need of the country?

As we know from the “Yes Minister’ episodes, there is more to Govt decisions than what meets the eye. More often than not, major decisions are taken based on completely mistaken premises.

In one of his articles, R.K.Narayan described a dream he had had. The Controller of Stores, a Dept of the Govt, places a large order for stationery. Unfortunately, when the letter-heads and envelopes arrive, the name of the department is found to be misspelled as “Controller of Stories”. Not wanting to admit the mistake or waste the stationery, the Govt goes ahead and creates a new department that would have the mandate of controlling or censoring stories.

A similar thing must have happened to Bt brinjal. When an application came in from a US company seeking permission to bring in GM technology, some bureaucrat must have cleared the file presuming that it was General Motors trying to introduce yet another new car into the Indian market. And, considering the weird names that they give to cars nowadays, he must have been convinced that the name of the new car model was Brinjal and that the pre-fix ‘bt’ was a stylized abbreviation of ‘battery’ or ‘butane’ or ‘’byte’ or whatever.

Once the mistake was noticed, there was no option but to put on a brave face and pass on the file to the MOEF.

That's how the poor, humble Jairam Ramesh is left holding the baby brinjal.

Vacuous and Verbose-15

A staff reporter of The Hindu has filed this story today:

The public consultation on commercialization of Bt brinjal here on Saturday witnessed uproar after a scientist of the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, Bangalore said those who opposed the GM Technology were interested in mobile technology and other things.

Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh intervened and said, “ I am sorry that a scientist spoke like this. I apologise to all of you. Scientists are too arrogant and they should speak with humility. Scientists should learn to be a little more humble.
Later, in the same meeting, the Minister lost his cool and asked a protestor who accused him of being an agent of a leading biotech firm to seek mental help. ( source)

"I am not a Monsanto agent", a livid Ramesh snapped at the agitator. "You need mental help. You need psychiatric treatment," he told the protestor with a warning, "if you interrupt, I am going to throw you out".

Thus spoke the humble, unarrogant, mentally-sound Jairam Ramesh.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


In his column in The Dawn (which was reproduced in the Times of India), Nadeem F Paracha writes:
The roots of the modern-day Hindu-Muslim antipathy lie not in the distant past, but a mere hundred and fifty years back in history, when the British began introducing a greater number of modern ideas and technology, some of which, like democracy, suddenly awakened the Muslims to a stark reality which they had simply not been aware of. The idea of majority rule suddenly made the Muslims realise that they were actually in a minority.

A number of Muslim scholars and reformers agreed that to supplement their community’s sudden minority status, the Muslims of the region should start identifying themselves as citizens of the worldwide Muslim ummah.

Soon, as India entered the 20th century, conservative Muslim scholars also started reshaping Muslim history of the region. To them Mughal kings in general, and Akbar in particular, became arch villains, mainly for their ‘liberal views’ and detachment from the Turkish caliphate, which, according to these scholars, led to the downfall of Islam in India.

The rewriting of the history of Muslim India by such scholars soon saw the Muslims of India talking more about ancient Muslim conquerors (mainly Arab), and gleefully celebrating plunderers like Mehmood Ghaznavi and Muhammad Ghori, all the while downplaying Muslim rulers who had made India their home and played a leading role in uniting the region as a distinct and diverse empire.

This distorted version of history and the denial continued long after Pakistan came into being and restored the ‘majority status’ for Muslims.

V.S.Naipaul who traveled extensively in the non-Arab Muslim countries, including Pakistan, wrote later:

I was traveling among people who had to make a double adjustment- an adjustment to the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and an earlier adjustment to the Arab faith. You might almost say that I was among people who had been doubly colonized, doubly removed from themselves.

Because I was soon to discover that no colonization had been so thorough as the colonization that had come with the Arab faith. It was an article of the Arab faith that everything before the faith was wrong, misguided, heretical; there was no room in the heart or mind of these believers for their pre-Mohammedan past.

In Pakistan were the ruins of the old cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Fabulous ruins, the discovery of which earlier this century had given a new idea of the history of the sub-continent. Not only pre-Islamic, but also possibly pre-Hindu….. With the growth of fundamentalism, there was a contrary current. This was expressed in a letter to a newspaper when I was there. The ruins of the cities, the writer said, should be hung with quotations from the Koran, saying that this was what befell unbelievers.

The faith abolished the past. And when the past was abolished like this, more than an idea of history suffered. Human behaviour ,and ideals of good behaviour, could suffer.

When I was in Pakistan, the newspapers were running articles to mark the anniversary of the Arab conquest of Sind, which at that time was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom. This was the first part of the Indian sub-continent to be conquered by the Arabs. … It was a terrible event. The Arab army was allowed to plunder and kill for days.

This was the event that was being commemorated by articles in the newspapers in 1979. After 1200 years, the holy war is still being fought. The hero is the Arab invader, bringer of the faith. The rival whose defeat is to be applauded- and I was reading this in Sind-is the man of Sind.

To possess the faith was to possess the only truth; and possession of this truth set many things on its head. The time before the coming of the faith was to be adjudged in one way; what came after the faith in Sind was to be judged in another. The faith altered values, ideas of good behaviour, human judgements.

Another columnist, Ayaz Amir, writes thus in The News:
For 800 years -- from 1192 AD. when Muhammad Ghori defeated Prithviraj Chauhan in the second battle of Tarain (in present-day Haryana) to the establishment of British rule in Bengal in the 18th century -- every ruler of Hindustan of any note or merit was of Caucasian origin. In all this vast expanse of history, the lands which now constitute Pakistan could produce only one ruler of indigenous origin who could lay claim to any ability: Ranjit Singh, Maharajah of Punjab.

We, the inhabitants of Pakistan, may claim in moments of (misplaced) exaltation that we are descended from those early warriors. But this is a false claim. We are now more sub-continental than Central Asian. Just as empires and nations rise and fall, races too do not remain the same over time. The Mughals were a hardy people when they marched into India under Babar. After 200 years of unbroken rule their dynasty -- descended from the great Taimur -- had become degenerate and soft.

We may name our missiles Ghori and Abdali -- although Abdali is somewhat inappropriate, considering that Ahmed Shah Abdali in his repeated invasions brought much suffering to Punjab -- but this is a throwback to a past far removed from our present. Comfortable thought or not, Ranjit Singh's kingdom of Punjab is more relevant to our present-day conditions than those distant days of glory and conquest.

The challenge thus posed is a daunting one. For 800 years we have produced no ruler of native ability. But if Pakistan is to come into its own, if it is to throw off the mantle of failure of the past 60 years and forge a new future for itself, then its native sons and daughters have to create something new: capacity and ability where none have existed before -- except in the solitary example of the one-eyed king of Lahore, Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

So, the land what is now Pakistan has, in its history, produced only one ruler of note, but as that ruler happened to be a Hindu ( or Sikh, I am not sure), he cannot be held up as a role model, because the Arab article of faith prohibits it. The recourse then is to either produce something new and innovative, as Amir suggests above or to be deluded by  a distorted version of history.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


The Apple website describes its latest gadget iPad as “our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device”.

In fact most reviews of the product used the word ‘magical’.

Why magical?

One explanation is that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, as Arthur C Clarke put it.

A more detailed explanation can be found in Umberto Eco’s article, “Science, Technology and Magic” in his book, “Turning back the clock”.

First Umberto Eco makes the distinction between science and technology. Technology gives you everything instantly. Science proceeds slowly.

“Today we are accustomed to travel from Europe to New York in three and a half hours aboard a Concorde, and jet lag and the use of melatonin are a consequence of our high-speed life. We are so accustomed to speed that we get angry if we can’t open our e-mail immediately or if our plane is delayed.

This addiction to technology has nothing to do with the practice of science,. It has to do, instead, with the eternal resort to magic.

What has magic been over the centuries, and what is it still today, albeit in disguise? The assumption that it is possible to go from cause to effect without taking any intermediate steps. I stick a pin in an effigy of the enemy and he dies. I utter a formula and transform iron into gold.

Magic is indifferent to the long chain of causes and effects and above all it does not trouble itself to establish by constant experiment that there is a replicable relation between a cause and its effect. Hence its appeal from primitive cultures to he Renaissance to the myriad occult sects to be found all over the Internet.

Faith and hope in magic did not by any means fade away with the advent of experimental science. The desire for simultaneity between cause and effect was transferred to technology, which looks like the natural daughter of science. It might seem strange that the magic mentality should persist in our day, but if we look around, it is triumphant and everywhere.

So, when Steve Jobs or whoever it was who made the product presentation repeatedly use the word “magical”, he was appealing to the ‘magic’ mentality that is still alive in each one of us. We desire simultaneity between cause and effect.