Friday, October 29, 2010

Leave him alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s leave him alone, shall we?.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I, Drill bit.

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

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

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

The WSJ article concludes:

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

Morals without God

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

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


Friday, October 15, 2010

12000, 13000, 14000.....

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 01, 2010

Can faith trump logic?

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

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

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

He is entitled to his views, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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