Sunday, March 31, 2013


“We want justice’ say the relatives of victims of a terror attack or murder. “The perpetrators must be arrested and hanged. “

Those lines appear regularly in media reports and stories.

When Kasab was hanged, there were celebrations. Only after Afzal Guru was hanged did the kin of the victims of the attack on Parliament accept the bravery medals that were awarded to the security personnel who had died. Justice had been done, at last.

Do people seek ‘justice’ or ‘revenge”? While they will claim they are seeking justice, they are actually screaming for revenge. Does putting Kasab to death bring back the lives of the victims? Can the past be undone? Can the gruesomeness of the event be removed? What satisfaction can the families of the victims derive? Aren’t they displaying a tribal instinct for revenge and  therefore being uncivilised?

In an essay titled “The case for revenge”, Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and professor of law at Fordham University, explains that ‘justice’ and ‘revenge’ are indistinguishable and a call for the former is always a cry for the latter.

But the distinction between justice and vengeance is false. A call for justice is always a cry for revenge. By placing their faith in the law, those who justifiably wish to see wrongdoers punished are not disavowing vengeance. If anything, they are seeking to be avenged by the law. No matter what they say, victims aren't choosing justice over vengeance; they are merely capitulating to a cultural taboo, knowing that the protocol in polite society is to repudiate revenge. But make no mistake: When it comes to the visceral experience of being a victim, revenge and justice are one and the same.

And everyone should feel similarly. After all, there is no justice unless victims feel avenged, when they believe that a wrong has been righted and honor restored. And revenge is never just if it is disproportionately delivered—if the retaliation exceeds what is justly deserved, measure for measure. Indeed, vengeance is not irrational (the common knock on revenge)—it's healthy and entirely human. Insisting that justice will suffice when revenge is what victims really want is both intellectually dishonest and factually untrue. Besides, in modern societies where vigilantism is disallowed, we all on some level reasonably believe that it is only by leveraging the law—and having the legal system serve as our proxy—that vengeance can be actually achieved.
The crux and tone of his argument is that we need not view the quest for revenge as irrational or uncivilised. It is a natural, even primal human response. So long as they don’t inflict the revenge on their own, Bollywood movie style, but let the law take its course, then it’s fine.

Stop all celebrations.

“Amitabh Bachchan appeals for dry Holi as Maharashtra grapples with drought” says this NDTV story. No doubt, by virtue of having led a frugal, Gandhian lifestyle all these decades, he has attained moral superiority over others to pontificate on the need to conserve resources.

The leader of the opposition in Maharashtra’s Legislative Council, Mr Vinod Tawde has lamented that IPL matches are allowed to happen in Mumbai and Pine when there is a drought in other parts of the state, as the cricket ground sucks up 60000 litres a day. (source)

Let’s give both these gentlemen a round of applause. Or two rounds, one for each.

Now, if they’ll explain to us how a waterless Holi in Mumbai or stopping an IPL match in Pune would help the drought in some other corner of the state, I’m prepared to give them some more brownie points. It is a symbolic gesture and an expression of solidarity, they’d probably reply. This is complete nonsense..

These are all card-carrying members of the “P.Sainath School” which holds that no form of celebration or expression of joy should be allowed in the rest of the world, when farmers are committing suicide in Vidarbha.

As I argued in an earlier post,

Those who take such a grim view of the situation and recommend universal mourning till every single person is relieved of his suffering are appealing to your sense of guilt. How can you indulge in such joyous celebrations and festivities when elsewhere your own countrymen are wallowing in such misery? Implicit in their admonition is the presumption that happiness is a zero sum game. If I am happy, it must be at the cost of someone else in the world, which makes my state of happiness morally repugnant and unacceptable.

This argument does have some basis. In cases where farmers are deprived of their ancestral land to benefit or enrich an industry, or when rural India is denied basic facility while urban India gets disproportionate attention, they are victims of a zero-sum equation, which needs to be corrected. After all, the total funds available for development are finite, and there should be an equitable distribution.

But, even if and when such equity is established, we have to reckon with variation in human responses.

As the unit becomes larger- from families to neighbourhoods to towns to states to nations- the diversity among human beings increases. There would be a variety of moods and sentiments at any time arising out of unique developments in one’s vicinity, and unless it is a disaster of a large scale (war, earthquakes, and terror attacks) it is impossible to get all people emotionally aligned. On the continuum scale ranging from celebrations on one end to mourning on the other, different people in different locations will find themselves at different points at different times.
And people need to celebrate festivals in the manner they’ve traditionally been doing, unless it violates some law or a human right angle. Festivals break the monotony of life and give people some milestones to look forward to. We shouldn’t let hypocritical killjoys mar the spirit of the occasion.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The erratic geniuses.

In a brilliant article, Osman Samiuddin tries to provide an explanation for Pakistani cricketers’ propensity to pull off amazing victories from the brink of defeat. The match would be slowly slipping away from their hands…till something magical happens.

What we know about what happens, roughly, is this. Pakistan are in the field (almost exclusively so), drifting, amiably and contentedly, to defeat over five days, or one. They are comatose flat. Bowlers, uninspired, are on autopilot, the fielders heavy and ponderous. If there is a target, it’s down to, say, 45 off the last 10 with seven wickets in hand. If it’s a Test, the target being chased is a small one, under 200, or if it is the first innings, the opposition are 200 for 2. Coasting.

Sometimes, but not always, it takes an unusual dismissal to turn on the light – a run-out, an electric catch, a part-timer taking a wicket. And then there is total frenzy, so overwhelming and real you can almost hold it in your hands. Such is its force that it can be deeply moving even through the sensory dilution and sanitisation of TV, even on ball-by-ball commentary online. But to let it get right inside your head and start rearranging your brain – like acid but a lighter, less paranoid burn – you have to be there as it happens.

There is music, not heard but felt, a beat somewhere in the background, rising, unrelenting. Up front is the dissonance of a reality that is proceeding swiftly but with an impact that is unveiled languorously. Wickets begin to fall in heaps, twice, thrice in an over and each one seems the only logical conclusion to that particular spell of play. There is an appeal almost every ball, most justifiable. Fielders start hitting the stumps and taking catches which, in other situations, we can easily imagine them dropping.
How do the Pakistani cricketers manage to transform themselves from an erratic and listless lot to an inspired team, seemingly in one magical moment?

It’s a combination of three major national characteristics – laziness, impatience, and latent brilliance. Since we’re lazy, we don’t get engaged until we sense an opportunity. But once we do get engaged, our impatience drives us to get the job done quickly, and our latent capacity for brilliance makes it all happen. Seen another way, we are an enormously gifted team that’s too lazy to apply itself. But when the circumstances are right and an opening appears, our natural gifts take over, with our innate impatience ensuring a speedy resolution
Osman offers an interesting metaphor. The Qawwali. And the state of ‘haal’ it tries to achieve.

To the uninitiated, a Qawwali can sometimes feel like a living, breathing but random collection of voice and sound until, suddenly at one moment, it surges together. And then transformed, it becomes momentarily a single, powerful force. Take also, the alaap, that sudden vocal burst in a Qawwali. Is that not exactly like a riff of wickets by one bowler from out of nowhere, at odds with everything that has gone before?)

The literal meaning of haal is state, as in a state of being, and it can refer to a number of different states. But it has come to be interpreted, more often than not, as one ultimate state of ecstasy, much sought after but rarely achieved, in man’s journey to get closer to God. “In the ecstatic state,” explains Idries Shah in his book Oriental Magic, “Sufis are believed to be able to overcome all barriers of time, space and thought. They are able to cause apparently impossible things to happen merely because they are no longer confined by the barriers which exist for more ordinary people.”

One of the primary objectives of Qawwali is to attempt to bring the performer as well as the listener to haal.
Is it similar to the ‘zone’ that sports psychologists talk about, as when a player is said  to "enter  the zone”?

Where haal deviates from the zone is in the idea that the latter can be sought, that through a series of steps or rigorous preparation and practice it can be achieved. Many sports psychologists – but not all – believe that using different techniques of visualisation, goal-setting and self-motivation can help athletes to achieve and stay in the zone. Pakistan employs no such techniques and never has done. Just as Abu Mohammad says that Qawwali rehearsed and recorded in a studio is the imprisonment of the form, so it is with Pakistan. Net practice and training – the rehearsed recordings of sport – are generally imprisonment for Pakistani players. That is not where they shine. For them, as with Qawwali, it happens live and it happens unprepared. 
Enlightenment, goes one saying of Zen, is an accident, as it could be in haal and as it is in Pakistan cricket.
Do read the full article.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Forgive and forget

Isn’t it a mockery of the legal process that there should even be a debate on granting amnesty to actor Sanjay Dutt? He has been convicted by the highest court of the country after a due process during which he had every opportunity to defend himself and present his side of the story. The charges on which he has been convicted are quite serious and there was enough evidence to show that he had committed the crime, not in an impulsive moment of foolishness, but with a conscious knowledge of what he was doing.

Yet, there is such an outpouring of sympathy. Why?

Santosh Desai has a possible explanation in an article titled “ The disinterest in punishment” in his book, “ Mother Pious Lady. Making sense of Everyday India”.

At a certain level, there is an intriguing indifference to the idea of punishment that underpins the Indian reaction. ..We are not really driven to seek retribution beyond a point. That’s why Charles Sobhraj became a minor celebrity before his re-arrest. Following the cricket scandal, Azharuddin has received full rehabilitation and Jadeja is a respected commentator. Phoolan Devi became a Member of Parliament. ...And Sanjay Dutt bears no stigma for his involvement in the Mumbai riots.
Why this disinterest in carrying out the full force of the punishment?

It is possible that the Indian response comes in part from the absence of a pronounced heaven/hell narrative in Hinduism. We do not really have a Day of Judgement to reckon with; we do not think of justice in binary terms. We do not arrogate to ourselves the right to determine absolute right and wrong and hence live in a world of moral ambivalence. Even Ravana had his reasons; so who is to say what is finally good or bad? ....We are therefore good at forgiving and even better at forgetting
As always, when it comes to explaining any facet of Indian behaviour, religion provides the answer. 

A question of ethics

Some months back I came across an article that talked about the Chinese practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners. I don’t have the link to that, but here’s another article which talks about the same thing.

About a million Chinese need organ transplants and there is a huge shortage. Part of this shortage is met by death row inmates, without their consent or that of their families.

This despicable practice militates, of course, against basic principles of human right. The very thought is abhorrent to a civilised mind.

But look at in another way.

The prisoners whose bodies were stripped of organs were hard-core criminals and convicted for such serious crimes as rape, murder, treason, etc. Whereas the recipients could be assumed to be good, law-abiding citizens. If the lives of the latter group could be saved by using the organs of the convicts who are condemned to death anyway, isn’t that a right thing to do?

Whether one feel it is right or wrong depends on which school of ethics one subscribes to. Julian Baggini explains in an article titled “Do the ends justify the means?”, (in his book, Ethics : The big questions) that there are two approaches to ethics : consequentialist and deontological. He explains that “consequentialism maintains that the rights and wrongs of actions are to be judged solely in terms of the consequences that follow from them. If there are two possible actions, you should choose the one that has the better outcome. Better could mean more happiness, less overall suffering, etc. Deontological duty, on the other hand, maintains that morality is about fulfilling duties and obligations irrespective of the consequences. The right and the bad are independent. “

So, if one is a consequentialist, one can argue that the harvesting of organs from dead convicts is ethical as there is a better outcome of lives of good people being saved in the process. If one is a deontologist, the argument would be that it is morally wrong to violate the human right principle of harvesting organs without consent. If the consequence of this stand is that other lives won’t be saved, so be it.

Which school do you belong to?

We just need 10,000 Kumbh Melas.

T.T.Rammohan quotes from an article which marvels at the successful organisation of the Kumbh Mela festival.

On the sandbanks of the river Ganges at Allahabad, bureaucrats and workers from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, took less than three months to build a tent city for 2m residents complete with hard roads, toilets, running water, electricity, food shops, garbage collection and well-manned police stations.....

.....Devesh Chaturvedi, a senior official who is divisional commissioner of Allahabad, is proud of the “huge task” that he and perhaps 100,000 workers have completed in organising this year’s festival.

He mentions 165km of roads on the sand made of steel plates, 18 pontoon bridges, 560km of water supply lines, 670km of electricity lines, 22,500 street lights and 200,000 electricity connections, as well as 275 food shops for essential supplies such as flour, rice, milk and cooking gas.
 If we can pull this off so well, wonders Rammohan, why don’t we simply replicate (and multiply) the efforts in all the villages and towns all over India and build much-needed infrastructure?

Apparently, the organisers of the Kumbh Mela and the workers are imbued with a deep sense of mission. They feel it is a service to God, through service to pilgrims. That casts a spell over them and induces them to take on formidable challenges.

Perhaps that’s the reason our ancestors managed to build thousands of temples in far-flung places often in inhospitable terrain. Just imagine the logistics of carrying stones up a mountain, through dense forests, and with no trail. It required some motivation and religious belief provided that. Maybe our brains are hardwired to respond to only a religious calling.

To build modern-day temples such as dams, bridges, airports, roads, expeditiously should we invest each activity with a religious meaning, complete with rewards and punishment? It might just work.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Social life in Madras, 1810

Extract from the diary of Lady Maria Callcott visiting different parts of India from 1809-1811. Here, she describes the typical social life of a British lady in Madras.

I was two evenings ago at a public ball in the Pantheon, which contains, besides a ball-room, a very pretty theatre, card-rooms, and virandas.

During the cold season there are monthly assemblies, with occasional balls all the year, which are very well conducted. The Pantheon is a handsome building; it is used as a free-masons lodge of modern masons, among whom almost every man in the army and navy who visits Madrass enrols himself.

The only other public place at Madras is the Mount Road, leading from Fort-George to St Thomas's Mount. It is smooth as a bowling-green, and planted on each side with banian and yellow tulip trees. About five miles from the fort, on this road, stands a cenotaph to the memory of Lord Cornwallis. It has cost an immense sum of money, but is not remarkable for good taste; however, I love to see public monuments in any shape to great men.

It is the fashion for all the gentlemen and ladies of Madras to repair, in their gayest equipages, to the Mount Road, and after driving furiously along, they loiter round and round the cenotaph for an hour, partly for exercise, and partly for the opportunity of flirting and displaying their fine clothes, after which they go home, to meet again every day in the year.

But the greatest lounge at Madras is during the visiting hours, from nine o'clock till eleven, when the young men go from house to house to retail the news, ask commissions to town for the ladies, bring a bauble that has been newly set, or one which the lady has obliquely hinted, at a shopping party the day before, she would willingly purchase, but that her husband does not like her to spend so much, and which she thus obtains from some young man, one quarter of whose monthly salary is probably sacrificed to his gallantry.

When all the visitors who have any business are gone to their offices, another troop of idlers appears, still more frivolous than the former, and remains till tiffin, at two o'clock, when the real dinner is eaten, and wines and strong beer from England are freely drank. The ladies then retire, and for the most part undress, and lie down with a novel in their hands, over which they generally sleep.

About five o'clock the master of the family returns from his office; the lady dresses herself for the Mount Road; returns, dresses, dines, and goes from table to bed, unless there be a ball, when she dresses again, and dances all night; and this, 1 assure you, is a fair, very fair account of the usual life of a Madras lady.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Rock'em harder

The “thooLi’ as it is called in Tamil is still used by some mothers to rock their babies to sleep. As this old blogpost explains, “The thooLi is a traditional baby-rocker; it's an old, soft saree or veshti (dhoti) tied to a rafter beam, or a hook in the ceiling. Sometimes it comes with a cross-bar, sometimes not. It provides a snug bed for the baby, which the mother can rock, too; and it's simple and inexpensive”. The post carries some pictures of an ‘engineered’ thooLi.

What is striking about these thooLis is the extensive and almost violent rocking that is done by mothers. The faster the movement, the quicker the baby is subdued and made to sleep.

I was reminded of the thooLi when I was reading a book called “ How Eskimos keep their babies warm” by Mei-Ling Hopgood. In one of the chapters she quotes a child specialist who stresses the role of vestibular stimulation.

Deep in the inner ear, nestled next to the cochlea (the small shell-shaped organthat enables us to hear) there is an intricate maze of canals and ducts called the vestibular system. This crucial network contributes to our ability to balance ourselves, maintain our posture, fix our gaze and move in a coordinated way. Stimulation of this system – through rocking, spinning and other movements- has been shown to have a significant positive influence upon arousal level, visual alertness and tracking behaviour, motor development and reflex development. Some research suggests that vestibular stimulation improves cognitive skills and mother-infant attachment.

A child who is being carried, rocked or played with vigorously, or even carried in a sling, moving with his mother or father as they go about their daily business, gets more vestibular stimulation.

The baby’s head is being tipped right and left as the mother working in a plantation moves, for example, as she leans over to put seed into the ground. The baby is getting a lot of vestibular stimulation – a lot more than it would get if it were in a pushchair or pram, which tend to travel straight, more so because people don’t want to tip them as the child might fall out”.
So, bring those thooLis back. And abandon those strollers. In the interest of vestibular stimulation.

New application for iPhone

The original story:

A soldier leaving for battle was given a copy of the New Testament by his mother. She asked him to keep it with him always and that it would protect him. He did as told. One day, the entire platoon was ambushed and gunned down by the enemy. Only the Bible-carrying soldier survived. The bullet had been miraculousy stopped by the Bible in his pocket.

Years ago, my mother gave me a bullet...a bullet, and I put it in my breast pocket. Two years after that, I was walking down the street, when a berserk evangelist heaved a Gideon bible out a hotel room window, hitting me in the chest. Bible would have gone through my heart if it wasn't for the bullet.
Modern, electronic version 
Soldier, Joel Stubleski, was returning from a mission in Afghanistan when he was shot in the thigh. He thought he was gone. After helicopters picked him up, medics inspected his injuries. They cut off his clothes and went through his pockets. There, they found his iPhone -- with a bullet hole through it. " Yes, the iPhone had saved his life


The excellent blog, “Futility Closet” has this interesting story:

The Treaty of Berlin was drafted in secrecy, so its framers were astonished to find it published in the London Times.. Journalist Henri de Blowitz at first refused to reveal his source, but at last relented near the end of his life. Well before the congress started he had attached a confederate to the clerical staff, but the man felt he was being watched, so the two could not dare to meet or talk. Finally de Blowitz noticed that they wore hats of the same type and color, and he hit on a plan of “childish simplicity.”

De Blowitz was staying at the Kaiserhof. Each day his confederate went there for lunch and dinner. The two never acknowledged one another, but they hung their hats on neighboring pegs. At the end of the meal the confederate departed with de Blowitz’s hat, and de Blowitz innocently took the confederate’s. The communications were hidden in the hat’s lining.

“Only twice were we forced to put off the communication till the following day,” de Blowitz wrote in his 1904 memoir. “Once, however, we had a scare.”

“One of my English colleagues, on leaving the dining-room, made a mistake and took my friend’s hat. Without looking at each other we felt, as he wrote me next day, that we turned pale. If the colleague in question had kept the hat, he might have discovered the third article of the treaty, which had been adopted at the previous day’s sitting, and also a hint of the difficulties that had arisen between Russia and England on the question of the boundaries of Bulgaria, and very disagreeable consequences for my friend might have been the result. Fortunately, on reaching the door, the Englishman put on the hat, which dropped over on his nose. He laughingly took it off and replaced it on its peg. I had risen to take the hat from him, but sat down again. I breathed freely, and my friend must have done the same.”

This immediately reminded me of P.G.Wodehouse’s short story “Amazing Hat Mystery”. The story has been well summarised in this article:

“Two gentlemen — one tall with a massive head, the other short with a little head — buy hats from London’s premier hat-maker; this is the king’s own hat-provider, we’re given to understand. The hats are delivered a short time later. There is a mix-up, with the small hat going to the big man and the big hat to the small. The gentlemen each head out to woo their respective love interests: the tall man is in love with the short woman, the short man with the tall. The respective ladies tell their respective gentlemen that their respective hats are vastly mis-sized: the one looks like a thimble atop the massive man’s head, while the other comes down to the small man’s knees. Both gentlemen take great umbrage at the shot that’s been fired across the bow of London’s premier hat-maker. Both assert the impossibility of a mis-sized hat. Both storm out of their partners’ company, declaring the end of each love affair. They retire to the same public house to drown their sorrows. They hang up their hats on the hat rack. As they leave, they each pick up the right hat. On the street, the tall man runs into the tall woman, the short man into the short woman. Each woman compliments each man on the perfection of his hat. Each man and each woman finds his or her proper mate. No one ever figures out why the hats initially failed to do the trick. The end.”

Do you see the connection too?