Sunday, August 29, 2010

On our indolence and timidity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Good news is no news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 14, 2010

"I hate the system, not the British"

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

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

148, Russal Road,


26th July 1925.

My dear young Friend,

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

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

(Signed, 'MKGandhi')

The man’s clarity of thought was amazing.

Three score and three years ago.....

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 13, 2010

Take that, you @#$%^& customer

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

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

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

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

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

A shining star of the sales fraternity.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Copied from 'original'

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

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

He adds:

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

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

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

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Indian river

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It opens with this paragraph:

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

And ends with this paragraph:

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

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

Idol worship

A news item in the New York Times:

New Delhi : The girls gathered in a school auditorium here on a recent Saturday were beaming with pride and nervous with anticipation. They would soon have a chance to meet the star of their dreams: Viswanathan Anand.

Mr. Anand is no Bollywood heartthrob or pop singer. The idol the girls were swooning over was an unassuming, bespectacled, 40-year-old world chess champion.

The reporter makes it apparent that had the ‘swooning’ happened over a Bollywood star, it would have been perfectly normal. But the admiration for a mere world-chess champion was something not usually seen.

He is right, of course.

But why should it be so?

When you meet a sportsman like Tendulkar or Anand or Schumacher, you see the same person who had, in real life, done something incredible. You see, in front of you, the same, real hands/feet/brains that had been put to use to achieve that. (Ok, you don’t see the brains, but you get my point). So, seeing the real person, live, in front of you can bring out some gasps of admiration.

But, when you see a movie star in person, what you see is the actor who played out some characters that appealed to you. When you watched the movie on-screen, you were taken in by the character; the actor was incidental. In fact, what the character on screen is supposed to be doing (all that daredevilry) is nothing but deception. In a matter of few frames, the director can delude you into believing that the hero has jumped 200 feet into the air and back. So, not even the on-screen character played by the movie star is real. So, what causes the ‘swooning’ when you bump into the movie star in person at the airport, well outside the entertainment arena?

His/her stunning looks, you say. These people became stars in the first place because of their good looks, and it is the same good looks that bring out the admiring gasps when they step into the real world.

Nonsense. Have you seen Rajnikanth in person? He is a simple person and looks anything but a movie star. Yet, he is mobbed by his fans. Clearly they ignore his real-life persona and see only the characters he has played.

Or, perhaps we admire the actor for his/her histrionic skills and ability to play different roles and characters? No, this is unlikely to cause us to go overboard.

So, what’s the explanation?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The trigonometric tables of the Brahmins

One of my favourite pastimes is to dip into Google Books and scan through books concerning India and published 250-300 years back by the British when they were slowly and steadily gaining control over the vast territory. The area was relatively new to them and they were in an exploratory mode. Their penchant for meticulously recording their observations resulted in many, many books which, thanks to Google, we can access easily now.

This is my 37th post under the label, “Britindia” and I find that, even given the general poor readership of this blog, the series has attracted the least attention. To my dismay, my wife told me yesterday that if she finds the tag “Britindia’, she gives that post a miss.

Be that as it may, I shall carry on bravely…..

In an earlier post, I had linked to a report on the mathematical discoveries of the school of Madhava and their knowledge of the infinite series. In another post, I had linked to a book published in the year 1799 that had provided proof that the Hindus were aware of the binomial theorem.

To add to above, the “Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh” published in the year 1798, contains on page 83,  a chapter titled, “Observations on the trigonometric tables of the Brahmins”. The author provides evidence of the existence of well laid-down trigonometric principles in India, 2000 years before the Europeans arrived at the same conclusions.

In the second volume of the Asiatic Researches, an extract is given from the Surya Siddhanta, the ancient book which has been long, though obscurely pointed out as the source of the astronomical knowledge of the Brahmins. The Surya Siddhanta is in the Sanscrit language: It is one of the Sastras, or inspired writings of the Hindoos, and is called the Jyotifh, or Astronomical, Sastra. It professes, to be a revelation from heaven, communicated to Meya, a man of great sanctity, about four millions of years ago, toward the close of the Satya Jug, or of the Golden Age of the Indian mythologists ; a period at which man is said to have been incomparably better than he is at present ; when his stature exceeded twenty-one cubits, and his life extended to ten thousand years.

Interwoven, however, with all these extravagant fictions, this singular book contains a very sober and rational system of astronomical calculation ; and even the principles and rules of trigonometry, a science of all others the most remote from fable, and the least susceptible of poetical decoration.

It is not a little singular, that we should find a table of versed sines in the Surya Siddhanta; for neither the Greek nor the Arabian mathematicians, had any such, nor had we, in modern Europe, till after the time of Petiscus, who wrote about the end of the century just mentioned. I think it might fairly be concluded, even if we had had no knowledge of the antiquity of the Surya Siddhanta, that the trigonometry contained in it is not borrowed from Greece or Arabia, as its fundamental rule was unknown to the geometers of both those countries, and is greatly preferable to that which they employed.

If we were not already acquainted with the high antiquity of the astronomy of Indostan, nothing could appear more singular, than to find a system of trigonometry, so perfect in its principles, in a book so ancient as the Surya Siddhanta. The antiquity of that book, the oldest of the Sastras, can scarce be accounted less than 2000 years before our era, even if we follow the very moderate system of Indian chronology laid down by Sir William Jones. It is remarkable that the Hindoos should have been thus led, at so early a period, to put in practice a method which has been but lately suggested in Europe as an important improvement in trigonometrical calculation.

If these are claims made by Indians, I would discount them immediately, prone as we are to making exaggerated assertions on our glorious past. But, these conclusions were arrived at by British scholars after a fairly rigourous and impartial analysis, and so carries more credibility.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Capturing the high ground

Scott Adams explains the art of “High Ground Maneuver”.

The move involves taking an argument up to a level where you can say something that is absolutely true while changing the context at the same time. Once the move has been executed, the other participants will fear appearing small-minded if they drag the argument back to the detail level. It's an instant game changer.

For example, if a military drone accidentally kills civilians, and there is a public outcry, it would be a mistake for the military to spend too much time talking about what went wrong with that particular mission. The High Ground Maneuver would go something like this: "War is messy. No one wants civilians to die. We will study this situation to see how we can better avoid it in the future."

Notice that the response is succinct, indisputably true, and that the context has been taken to a higher level, about war in general.

Pakistan has indulged in this ‘high ground maneuver’ time and again and has adeptly neutralized India’s charges against it. For example, if we accuse it of exporting terrorism, it comes up with a statement, “Terrorism is a great threat to the world, and all countries must join hands in fighting this menace”. This changes the context and elevates the argument to a higher level. If we try to counter this with more evidence, we come across as perpetual whiners caught up in small detail. The wind gets removed from our sail and the carpet pulled from under our feet, if I can combine two metaphors.

I think the only way to counter this is by sneaking in our expert sermonisers ( examples of Sri Ravishankar and Abdul Kalam spring to the mind) into Pakistan and subjecting their citizens to some long lectures on morality, philosophy, neighbourly spirit, etc. When Pakistan protests to Hillary Clinton that India is indulging in export of tiresome talkers, we should solemnly shake our heads and say” Yes, garrulousness is to be condemned by all right-thinking people. It Is a serious threat to our sanity and to the well-being of people across the world. We should fight this hazard collectively.” 

This, I am afraid,  is the closest we can come to a "High ground maneuver."

On biscuit bandits

A recent news item in The Hindu carried a report on an initiative taken by the Railway Police to warn passengers against ‘biscuit bandits’ and to refrain from accepting food and drink from strangers.

Times have changed, we muse. Confidence tricksters come up with new tricks every day. We have to be constantly vigilant. The days where we could trust and hobnob freely with fellow passengers are gone, we tell ourselves.

But, if you thought that ‘biscuit banditry’ was a fairly recent phenomenon , you would be mistaken.

An account presented, to the Secretary of State for India in Council on Railways in India for the year 1859, by the Secretary, Railway Department, India Office, (equivalent of our modern-day Railway Budget), has this short report, in page 9:

In the report of Captain Portman, Superintendent of Police for the Bombay, Police cases. Baroda, and Central India Railway, illustrations are given of the various offences committed on railways in India. Two cases of dacoity are mentioned, consistingof night attacks upon stations for the sake of plunder. There is a case of robbery by a female, who administered to a fellow passenger a powerful narcotic, which she described as a " pussad," or sacred sweet, and was taken as such by her victim. She was found asleep in the carriage, deprived of her ornaments and money. Thefts and embezzlement under false declaration of goods are sometimes practised. Bags of gunpowder are despatched as groceries, and opium is smuggled in oil jars, the drug being packed between narrow receptacles for oil one passing through the middle of the jar and another just inside the covering. Opium is also sent in bags, described as containing gum, glue, &c.

So, the trick is, at least, 150 years old. The only difference is that in 1859, prasadams were used to administer drugs, while the modern-day robbers use biscuits. But, it is amazing that we still need to be warned against this modus operandi, as though this is a newly-invented trick.

Heave ho

With my roots in Thanjavur district of Tamilnadu, I have heard several stories about the Brihadeeswara Temple and the grand effort put in by Raja Raja Chola to build it. A fascinating documentary produced by the Discovery Channel explains how the construction could have taken place in the 10th century, how large granite stones were mined in quarries 200 km away, how they were pulled the entire distance using logs and elephants and how the 80 ton stone for the ‘kalash’ was hauled up to the top of the tower on a slope which started at a point 6 km  from the base of the tower.

While on a trip to Beijing this week, I visited the Forbidden City and saw what is referred to as the Large Stone Carving. Made of a single stone and containing figures of dragons, this served as a ramp for carrying the Emperors in their sedans. Being 17m long, 3m wide and 1.7m thick, the stone weighs 200 tons. Compared to this, the stone on top of the BrihadeeswaraTemple will qualify only for the ‘lightweight’ category.

So, how did the Chinese bring the ‘heavyweight’ stone from the mine to the Forbidden City? An explanation provided on a board next to the Large Stone Carving is that the stone was quarried from the Fangshang mountains some distance from Beijing and heaved to the City in winter using logs and by pouring water on to the snow, till the resulting ‘ice’ made it easier to slide the huge block forward. This happened in the 15th century.

So, the same challenge of transporting a large stone was overcome with two different engineering solutions in two different places using different resources. We had the elephants, the Chinese had the snow.

To Honourable Sir, from Obedient Servant.

“The gentleman who wrote the journal from which the following pages are chiefly drawn, went out to India in the beginning of 1805, and returned in 1819. …The impressions made upon his mind by the scenes which he beheld in India, are now, with deference, offered to the public.”

The book provides fascinating insights into various aspects of life in India in those times. Many parts of the book will not be palatable to our ‘patriots’ (of the chest-thumping variety) but it certainly is an honest account -  even if presented from the viewpoint of an Englishman.

Here is an extract ( page 161-3) where the author writes about the propensity of native Indians to use flowery or even bombastic language. While several anecdotes exist on the subject (remember the one where a passenger left behind on the platform by a departing train sends off a rant to the station master?), this must rank as one of the oldest recorded.

It is wonderful how accurately a Hindoo can copy English, without knowing a word of what he is writing. We find how difficult it is to transcribe Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or French, without being able to read those languages; but many crannies will write in our character, which is as different from their own as Hebrew is from English, and copy proceedings in council, correspondence of government, and papers containing intricate researches in science, without knowing the meaning of one word in the whole, or how to spell a syllable. Some of their attempts at fine English, when they advance so far as to become conceited, are truly ludicrous. A volume of malaprop letters might be produced; but one specimen, from Captain Williamson's East India Vade Mecum, may suffice.

The cranny who composed it was left by his master in charge of his bungalow for a few days : during that time a high wind arose, and blew down one of the window shutters. He determined upon apprizing him of this, and inwardly rejoiced at the opportunity afforded him of showing his proficiency in English. Let the reader conceive an office-desk with a cranny seated at it; a dictionary placed before him, with a slate and pencil, and self-exultation in his countenance. He turns over the leaves with a finger and thumb, and an earnestness of countenance that would have done honour to Dr. Sangrado, upon the occasion of feeling the canon's pulse. He shakes his head—rubs the globe of memory, erases the word he had written as fit for his purpose, and chooses another of more learned and fulminating sound. Then he takes his pen and paper, and dispatches to his master what he thinks will truly surprise him:—

"Honourable Sir, "

Yesterday vesper arrive great hurricane, valve of little apperture not fasten; first make great trepidation and palpitation, then precipitate into precinct. God grant master more long life and more great post.

" I remain, honourable Sir,

" In all token of respect,

" Master's writer,


" P. S. No tranquillity in house since valve adjourn ; I send for carpenter to make re-unite."

Yet some of the sircars make a very considerable advance towards an accurate knowledge of the grammatical construction of English, and learn to speak and write it well enough for business. The following is an actual letter from a native house of agency, and a specimen of middling composition :—

" Sir,

"We have pleasure acknowledge yours, 18th instant. Have sent goods cording you order, and hope you find all first quality. We madam supply with money whenever she send us. Your remittance last month received in course, and placed your account. Have looked all place here for white cloth, such you want — none can find — soon as we get shall send next supplies with, " Remain, Sir,

" With prayers for health,

" Your obedient humble Servants,

" Huhrumbo, Dass, Sons, & Co."

But some of the letters received from natives are written in perfectly grammatical language; yet the above is about the standard of general correspondence with Europeans in every part of India where the Hindoos, Mahomedans, and Parsees conduct their business in our language

A fine example of Indian style Business English -  that emerged 200 years back.