Movies

I’m not looking to just “watch a movie.” I’m in search of an experience that will rock at the foundations, perhaps even annihilate, everything that I once believed about human nature. And, I’m willing to pay up to $11.00 (inclusive of tax) for that experience.

What a time to be alive!

I feel incredibly alive these days. Why, you wonder.

Two reasons.

1. I deleted my Twitter account. 20K followers gone. Poof. Just like that. Blood has started flowing again through the thumbs. The real world just got more real now. Boy, it feels good.

2. The recent and unexpected complete collapse of world order, by which I mean the election of Donald Trump. The rise of nationalist nutcases all around the world, including in my own backyard, has made me realize that life, as it is said, is short. There’s a fairly good chance that we’ll all be gone at 3 AM Eastern Time one of these days because someone decided to respond to one of Donald’s tweets with a nuclear warhead. Anything is possible now more than ever, especially the end of the world.

Every little experience feels visceral all of a sudden. I have more appreciation for this world. I’m more thankful than ever. The pancakes jump off the breakfast plate a little more than they used to. Colors appear more vibrant. The morning air is crisper. The music reverberates more. I’m loving my noise canceling headphones more and more each passing day. I’ve completely let go. You want me to renew my car insurance? Hard pass, guys. I don’t think we’re gonna need it.

That’s not all. I saved the best for last. With Donald keeping his day job as the executive producer of the Celebrity Apprentice, he will now be Arnold’s boss. Put everything down and think about that for a second. What a time to be alive!

What does our future look like?

For the longest time, mankind has predicted its own doom. It is not surprising. As we humans have gained more and more control over our fates, we have also learned an ever greater variety of ways to commit mass suicide. In a way, we couldn’t have acquired greater expertise without having created newer and greater means to destroy the world. That doesn’t imply that expertise is inherently self-defeating. It just means we have had to trust ourselves more.

Every technological adventure has its side effects. Every medicine is also a poison. Every new source of food creates a possibility of famine. Human history is a long litany of tales of societies tripping eventually in the pursuit of progress and then innovating themselves out of the trouble. This, in a fundamental way, defines the human mindset and approach – to be simultaneously error prone and innovative.

We worry not just about our end but also about our obsolescence. The Luddites of the 18th century did better than their ancestors. Even so, they complained about the fragility of their fortunes. Their fragility was understandable because there is something terrifying about being a cog in someone else’s machinery.

Also, there is an inherent unfairness about the way technology disrupts societies. The damage to careers, prospects, and lives from progress is not uniformly distributed among people. Neither training nor pedigree can insulate against the potential to fall prey to the fate of Luddites.

Given its dark side, you have to wonder how technology has been allowed to wreak the havoc it has so far. One reason technology has managed to keep itself going is that its benefits accrue rapidly enough to nearly everyone that it has (so far) kept the Luddites at bay. New jobs appear quickly even as old ones are destroyed. Even so, there isn’t a safe position. If at all, the only safe role is to be the owner of the top node in a network. Even that isn’t safe if you stay rooted long enough. So, the better off we become, the more anxious we become.

Truth be told, we haven’t overcome this anxiety in the last two hundred years. Instead, media cliches and science fiction have only been accentuated and perpetuated the anxiety.

There’s another, subtle reason for our anxiety, which can be described as a sense of alienation. The more we view ourselves to be part of someone else’s world or scheme, the greater the gnawing discontent that our imprint on the world may not be ours anymore. We begin to doubt the authenticity of our lives.

I’m no Marxist. I love competition and free markets. The last thing I want is to live in a communist nation. I grew up in a socialist country and understand its pitfalls all too well. But, if you take the right passages out of Das Kapital, they read as incredibly current in today’s times.

As a technologist and someone heavily influenced by American culture, I have come to believe that optimism plays a crucial role in our lives. The American society, the greatest in the last one hundred years, is driven by the message that optimism is the secret to success. America is the land of Manifest Destiny, motivational speakers and “build it and they will come.”

In Silicon Valley too, we have embraced an All-American optimism. To this end, we have made a secular version of Pascal’s wager. As in Pascal’s wager, little harm would have been done if we’ve held onto a false belief in optimism. We are convinced that the side effects will not be so bad as to make the whole project unwise. We push optimistically forward not knowing quite where we are headed.

As an aside: There is another reason why technology has kept itself going. It’s because the technologist does not need to convince the world of his optimism or goodness. We don’t need to have public conversations about our philosophical motivations for the reason that our craft is inherently remunerative and profitable unto itself. Unlike scientists who are often compelled to describe the wonder they feel or the beauty in their work, we don’t need to enchant the politician or the taxpayer. We use what little attention we get to talk about what we have created and not about our core beliefs. Even so, every thoughtful technologist goes through his moments of self-doubt.

Regardless of our inherent optimism, a wide variety of Icarusian fates for mankind are never far from our thoughts. As we reach greater heights of efficiency, we are being confronted by a peculiar question: Will there be people who are “not needed”?  What will happen to these “extra” humans? Will they be ignored and wither away? Or, will they get easy lives? Who decides? How? When?

Examined at a sufficient depth, these questions lead us back to ancient conversations about the human condition itself. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of our lives?

The right question to ask perhaps is not what should be done with extra humans. First, it has to be pointed out that there can be no such thing as “extra humans.” It is not human to conceptualize or normalize the notion of “extra humans.” If we ever get to the point where we do end up with extra humans, we will have made some grievous conceptual mistake along the way. Second, progress isn’t independent of the human condition. It doesn’t exist outside of it. All progress is, in fact, intended for humans and therefore requires humans to validate itself. The data that drives “automation” has to come ultimately from people so it can be made relevant to people. Automation is no more than elaborate puppetry of machines using “big data” collected from human experiences.

The most crucial quality of our response to automation, artificial intelligence and other high-performance systems that are on their way, lies in how we conceive of what might be considered human. Will human be defined as what machines cannot do? Will it be defined as what machines will not be allowed to do? Or, will machines be defined as what humans cannot or not allowed to do?

Nearly all scenarios that have been conceived in fiction, media or research as to how our futures may play out have to do with how the human identity, technological progress and politics are likely to intersect and influence each other.

Utopian abundance is a notion that originated in ancient Greece and is now entrenched in Silicon Valley. In this, technology becomes the means to create material immortality and abundance and thus escape politics. Technology will be so good that soon everyone will have everything and thus we will eventually have no need for governments.

Malthusian scenarios predict our success to be the cause of our undoing. As we approach abundance, our societies will experience catastrophic failures, thanks to a fatal, deterministic ineptitude in our politics. Human nature plus technology will equal extinction. Technology will become so good that it will become possible to intentionally self-destruct very easily.

In less dire and romantic scenarios, humans become inauthentic and absurd as we approach abundance. Technology becomes the means to spiritual malaise and self-destruction. In Marxian scenarios, as we approach abundance, politics continues to gain preeminence and will decide what’s best for people and will ensure that everyone benefits from the bounty.

One can also conceive of extreme scenarios in which the future does not even include humans, let alone put them at the center of things. Artificial intelligence will become so good that it will become supernatural. Only technology will exist and it will procreate itself. People may not cease to exist but may instead become information entities. It will become possible to create and sustain personas of humans long after they have died. These entities will exist and play some yet to be determined roles in a world controlled by non-human intelligence without the need for human operators.

Is it conceivable that the three hands – the hand of the technology operator, the invisible hand of the markets and the hand of governments – may somehow come together coherently to pave the way for a future in which we not only get to survive but also retain our humanity? I hope so. But I do not know.

We live in exhilaratingly confusing times.

Look at Google. Their free tools are leading to a situation in which everything will eventually be free because people share. But, wouldn’t it be great if we could corner the market by collecting data that no one else has?

If everything is going to be eventually free, why would you need to corner the market? What will wealth mean, when we are done with creating nearly everything?

What if I created a software that could make any human voice sound perfect? What if I could connect humans who can barely sing by giving them a tool to sing together in perfect pitches? Wait, wouldn’t it be more authentic if they were NOT singing perfectly? How much imperfection defines the human condition? 10%? 20%? 30%? What’s the optimal trade-off between abundance and authenticity?

Interesting questions.

We entered into this race against self-destruction a long time ago. We have no choice but to keep running. In fact, if we stop, our self-destruction may be assured.

2016 US Elections

Some Observations.

Why were the polls so wrong?

They weren’t wrong. National polls predicted, on average, that Clinton would win by 3%, with a margin of error of 3%. In other words, polls predicted scenarios ranging from a tie (margin of victory 3% – margin of error 3% = 0%) to +6% win (3% + 3%) for Clinton. In reality, she won the popular vote by 1.5%, which is well within the margin of error. The pundits did fine. It’s just that we didn’t pay attention to the fine print.

Presidential races in this country aren’t won on popular vote. So, national polls have limited value. Outcomes in swing states determine the winner. Pennsylvania was lost by 34,000, Michigan by 6,000 and Wisconsin by 14,000. A combined 54,000 votes would have flipped those states and changed the outcome. 54.000 out of a total of approximately 120 million votes works out to about 0.04% accuracy. It isn’t easy to reduce the margin of error in polls. For example- to obtain a margin of error of 0.04%, a poll needs to survey (1/0.0004)*squared = 6.25 million people. That is not feasible. Most polls don’t survey more than 300 people.

Clinton had a 75% chance of winning the WH, according to Nate Silver. In probability terms, that means – if you were to hold the election a million times, Clinton would win 75% of the time and lose 25% of the time. His (or other) prediction offered no guarantee with regards to the outcome of any specific election.

We don’t choose our words carefully any more.

Hillary Clinton was called “corrupt” when the applicable term might have been “untrustworthy” or “technologically challenged” or “lazy” or “arrogant.” There is no evidence that Clinton was corrupt even after lengthy FBI investigations that cost us millions of dollars. We have to stop using the wrong words.

If we don’t choose our words carefully, we open the door to charlatans, who flood the system with half truths and lies. Pretty soon, truth starts to get blurry and phrases like “she’s just as bad as him,” become common. Wait, this just happened.

It has become so hard to say anything – honestly and publicly – in America that anyone who will say everything will get everywhere.

There aren’t any credible voices left in the country.

Trump ran against literally everything including and especially common sense and decency. He was the first candidate in history to not receive the endorsement of any major newspaper or a Fortune 100 CEO. His own party seniors (Romney, Bushes, etc) denounced him in strong terms. On his side were Giuliani, Gingrich, Ailes and Christie – only the disgraced members of the Republican establishment. And yet, he won.

It tells you that there isn’t a voice in the country worth listening to. Not even Donald Trump’s because even he didn’t win the popular vote. The next four years are going to be interesting, as Trump and the Congress lock horns – each claiming to speak for the people.

Working class anger was underrated. Now, it is overrated.

Very few spoke about Michigan before Nov 8. Now, no one can stop talking about it. Yes, there is working class anger in the midwest. But wait, that’s not the only thing we saw in this election. We saw millennials and minorities across America vote for a hopeful future. We have to pay attention to both. It was a battle between the past and the future. The past won. This time.

American democracy is flawed.

You win some. You lose some. And there is this little known third category where you win but are told that you lost. In most countries, it’s called the vote. In America, it’s called the “popular vote.” It’s a travesty that for the second time in 16 years, the candidate who won more votes than her opponents will not be sworn in as the POTUS. Only in America can you win an election and still not win it. Only in America are some votes more valuable than others. Let’s face it. If this were to happen in a third world country, we’d ridicule them. Even dictators have the decency to “win” the popular vote before declaring themselves the winners.

Progress is never perfectly linear.

The way progress works, it doesn’t go in a neat, straight line upwards. Obama was a giant leap forward for America. The election of a racist man who clearly does not respect women is a big step back. It hurts badly not because my team lost. It hurts because it happened right after Obama. We’ve gone from heaven straight to hell in fell swoop. Well, this is how democracy works. Stuff happens. We can’t allow ourselves to be demoralized. Like Obama said, it isn’t the end of the world until the world has actually ended. Until then, we must fight the good fight.

The Democratic Party is no longer the party of the working class.

Trump’s victory represents a culmination of trends that have been in motion for over two decades. It is a backlash to globalization driven by technological innovations, bankrupting of the country through needless wars and the financial crisis of 2008, massive victories for liberal agendas like the election of the nation’s first black President, all the debate around Black Lives Matter, passage of gay marriage laws, the feminism embedded in Clinton’s candidacy, etc etc. Democrats didn’t turn to vote. As someone said, his opponents took Trump literally, but not seriously. And, Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally. There are dozen reasons for Trump’s win and another dozen for Hillary’s defeat. It is what is. When the time comes for an idea (good or bad), no force on earth can stop it. Regardless of what else is true or not, it’s apparent that the Democratic party is no longer the party of the working class.

Things will get worse before they get better.

Trump’s victory is just the beginning of a dark and turbulent period ahead for America, and consequently for the world. As automation driven by machine intelligence and big data rise, unemployment levels will rise dramatically in the coming decades. Machine intelligence will prove to be cheaper and better than human intelligence for a majority of tasks. Many jobs will go away. This is inevitable. It’s not a bad thing. But, until it becomes clear that it’s not a bad thing for humans to avoid doing grunt work, there will be great angst.

As unemployment rises, more Trump-like “outsider” personas will spill onto the political arena from both left and right extremes of the political spectrum. The next couple of decades will be painful as we struggle to come to terms with social consequences of automation, climate change, risk of pandemics, medical advances and longer human life spans.

But we are going to be fine.

Even as machines replace humans in day to day jobs and activities, costs of basic goods and services will plummet, thanks to the extraordinary productivity of machines that will work flawlessly around the clock without being fatigued. We may have less but we will need even less. We will put in place new social constructs like universal basic income, free healthcare and education. Freed from the obligation to work, many of us will choose to contribute. This will lead to unprecedented innovation. We are headed to a Utopian future, as long as we can manage to not destroy ourselves on the way to getting there.

Coming back to the present-

God, I wish Hillary was the President elect. Or Marco Rubio. Or John Kasich. Or Michael Bloomberg. Or, any normal human being, for that matter.

Let’s stop blaming Clinton.

In the final analysis – she lost the upper midwest by a total of just 54,000 votes (6,000 in Michigan, 34,000 in Pennsylvania and 14,000 in Wisconsin). When the counting is done, she will have won the popular vote by nearly 2 million votes, a margin greater than that of Nixon and JFK. It’s hard to see how she could have done things any differently, other than perhaps beefed up the ground game in the midwest. It’s possible that FBI chief’s controversial letters held Clinton back and helped Trump surge across the line in the final days of the campaign. In 2000, it was the Supreme Court that selected the POTUS. This time, the FBI may have helped elect Donald Trump.

Yes, Clinton was “boring” but please stop making it out to be a bad thing.

Much has already been made about how Clinton failed to generate enthusiasm for her candidacy. She has a reputation for being boring and a policy wonk – nerdy and obsessed with details. For some strange reason, we don’t like such people in this country. We vote for the biggest gorilla. Details is not a bad word. Boring is not a bad thing. Boring people get difficult tasks done. They make great leaders. It’s just too bad that we couldn’t see that a lot of Hillary Clinton’s greatness lay in her work ethic and diligence. Instead, we elected a POTUS with the attention span of a gnat. Let’s see how that works out.

Not all Trump voters are racists.

While this is true, I don’t really care. The distinction between being personally racist and enabling racists is not a useful one. Trump voters did, in the final analysis, vote for a racist, a sexist and a horrible human being. And, that’s all that matters. Sorry folks. You know what you did. You may have a hundred reasons (all valid) for why you did what you did. But you did vote for a horrible person. It hurts that some of us will throw the rest of us under the bus because they had “good reasons” to do so. SMH.

Sorry, Canada. We didn’t mean to do this.

Look what we’ve done. We’ve now gone and got the Canadians all worked up. I hope everyone is happy with themselves.

canada

The Chinese need to start timing things better.

After it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to be the 45th POTUS, the Chinese hastily informed Donald Trump that global warming wasn’t a hoax that they invented.

chinese

Apparently, they also let Trump know that General Tso’s chicken isn’t really made by General Tso.

Coming back to the battle between the past and the future..

It will be interesting to see a common vocabulary and language evolve that addresses the disparate groups in the country. There is only one person who managed to appeal to nearly everyone so far – Barack Obama. It is not apparent whether he is a unique outlier in this regard or if his example may be emulated by others.

This election was bitterly fought. It was won by razor thin margins. It could have gone either way. In fact, the “winner” did not even win the popular vote. Trump would do well to accept his good fortune with humility.

Ironically, this election displayed the greatness of American democracy.

As David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, “A very different answer arrived this Election Day. America is indeed a place where all things are possible: that is its greatest promise and, perhaps, its gravest peril.” [ Obama reckons with a Trump Presidency ]

It’s not the end of the world. This too shall pass. But, we must remain vigilant.

Even men and goats stand divided. What is the world coming to?

Last but not least, here’s an equally baffling piece of news about a bitter fight between a goat and a man. I’ve re-read this particular sentence a dozen times and have been unable to wrap my head around it.

goat

It pretty much sums up how 2016 has gone so far.

My take on the Syrian refugee question

Should the US admit tens or even hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are being forced to flee their homeland? A lot has been said, from both liberal and conservative viewpoints. I find myself at odds with both. My take is as follows.

America has been a beacon of hope to those who have sought better lives.

At the of core the refugee question is America’s commitment to helping the helpless. It is not a question to which we can lightly offer a knee jerk “No.”. At the same time, we live in a world that is struggling more than ever to reconcile between principles of freedom and religion. A knee jerk “Yes” is not a pragmatic one either.

We must stand for freedom in a manner that ensures that we will continue to be in a position to stand for freedom.

How do we do that?

We have to stop mixing unconnected issues.

The question of admitting refugees is not connected to the question of how we make America a safer place. Terrorists have shown that they are capable of infiltrating target countries regardless of whether they were legally admitted or not. The challenge with combating terrorism lies in the advantage of asymmetry that terrorists enjoy. They spend $1M to wreak $1B worth of damage, to prevent which $1T has to be spent. In contrast to conventional warfare, where engagement escalates costs proportionately for all warring parties, the war on terror has escalated costs only for those have engaged in it, and not the terrorists. The solution to making America a safer place lies in evolving methods to deal with a new kind of warfare, and not in blanket denials to helpless refugees.

We must stop painting extreme pictures.

All Muslims are not terrorists. At the same time, ISIS and Al Qaeda, the two most feared terrorist organizations today, are undeniably driven by a subset of Islamic principles that appear to sanction violence. Statements such as “All Muslims are terrorists” and “Terror has no religion” are equally dishonest and self-defeating, and seek to define the challenge in a way that avoids facing facts.

Every time, a conservative “they are all terrorists” statement is put forth, it reduces America’s credibility in the eyes of the world, and inflicts great damage on the chances of a solution being found. Every time a liberal “Islam is a religion of peace” is put forth, it hurts the cause of those moderate Muslims, atheists and humanists who wage daily battles against Islam’s gross imperfections, and damages the chances of a solution being found.

We must not let religion off the hook.

There is no such thing as a religion of peace or terror. History tells us that most religions have been the source of strife, at some point in history or the other. The role of religion is to be a parent – to offer advice when we seek it, to lend a shoulder when we seek solace, to lift us up when we stumble, and to guide us in a way that we can break free of it and go our own ways when we are ready. Most religions, especially the Abrahamic traditions, have struggled to grasp their roles in the modern scientific era. While we may seek to understand the struggles, we must not justify their methods. The West spent the last 200 years in taming Christianity into submission to democratic principles. It seems that the same will have to be done with Islam.

Support of Sharia laws by moderate Muslims is troubling.

There is no question that large parts of Sharia law, which in many ways defines Islam, are principles that are medieval and largely incompatible with principles of democracy and freedom. The only country with a vibrant, uninterrupted democracy and a large population of Muslims, is India, where Muslims are not a majority in the population. Islam is a rigid framework, built around inflexible rules, that provides little or no degrees of freedom for interpretation, debate, or change. It imposes unacceptable penalties on those who seek to question or examine it. This aspect of Islam is more troubling than even the extreme violence that it begets every so often.

The fact that over 70% of Muslims in Muslim majority countries support (from a Pew Study) the implementation of Sharia principles in both civil and criminal laws of their countries is a damning piece of statistic that should disabuse us of the notion that Islam and Muslims (moderate or extreme) seek secular co-existence with those who don’t adhere to Sharia principles. It stands to reason that Syrians (refugees or not) are likely supportive of Sharia laws as well.

If a large number of refugees (or even legal immigrants, for that matter) who come into the country carry with them an inflexible and reflexive defense of archaic principles, it is bound to have consequences. Anecdotal data supports this hypothesis. More British Muslims fight for the ISIS than the British army. Sharia laws have been enforced in Western Thrace in Greece, where Muslims once emigrated and are now a majority. A large number of civil (mostly divorce) cases in Britain and France are adjudicated by Sharia councils which operate outside the jurisdiction of the laws of the land. Even in India, the world’s largest democracy, a Muslim personal code (based on Sharia) continues to persist in civil law, outside the purview of Indian courts, on the back of strong support from Muslims. It is not unreasonable to expect that such trends will repeat in America.

We need more flexibility and openness for freedom to prosper, not less.

As much as I respect the right to religious freedom, I draw the line at religion (re)writing the laws of the country. There is a low likelihood that there are terrorists among Syrian refugees or that some of them will transform into terrorists once they have found homes in America. But, there is a significant likelihood that their religious baggage will lead them inevitably into a conflict with the principles of freedom that America cherishes and seeks to protect.

Hypothetical question: If millions of self avowed, devout communists were to seek refuge in America, what would we do? Even as we find a way to accommodate them in their misery, wouldn’t we want some assurance that they have left their dangerous ideas behind? We certainly wouldn’t engage in blank check compassion.

I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States, when I became a naturalized citizen over a decade ago. Implicit in the oath was a commitment that I would accord second place to my personal beliefs (religious and other) if they ever came in conflict with the constitution and the principle of freedom for all. Implicit in the oath was a spirit of compromise, a spirit to live and let live, to serve and be served, and to not subvert the freedom the nation may provide me into bullying others into submitting to my way of life. Today, there is a climate of religious zeal masquerading as a fight for religious freedom in America. Religious principles have been perverted into racial, ethnic and social bigotry. Freedom of the individual has been perverted into uncompromising fundamentalism and has led to confrontations with generally accepted laws of the land.

As we examine the refugee question, we must consider the future of freedom itself even as we exercise it. We have an obligation today to help those who are not free. We have an equally important responsibility to safeguard freedom for those who come after us.

The questions in the Syrian refugee crisis that I find crucial:

Do we, the citizens of the United States, understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to our religions?

Do the Syrian refugees (our future fellow citizens) understand and are willing to accord first place to the secular, democratic principles of the US constitution and second place to a religion that insists on being placed above everything else?

How can we help them accomplish that?

The What Ho! Guide to a Happy Life

As people will keep reminding you, life is short.

So, live every day as if it were your last because one of these days, you’re going to be right.

Here is the What Ho! guide to a happy life, inspired by motivational quotes.


1

Two roads diverged in a wood. I took the one less traveled by. That has made all the difference

Robert Frost

Why choose between roads? Why not play it safe and take autos wherever you go. They will take you through every possible road and alley.


2

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now

Chinese proverb

The second best time to plant a tree was actually 30 years ago. Or was it 40? If you haven’t planted a tree, I don’t know what to tell you, man.


3

An unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates

A constantly examined life on Facebook is not worth living either.


4

Eighty percent of success is showing up

Woody Allen

The rest – twenty percent – goes into being at the right place at the right time. Best strategy is to keep showing up randomly in as many places as possible and hope it’s the right place and the right time.


5

Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up

Pablo Picasso

This is simply not true. I’ve seen many paintings done by many children. Not every child is an artist. It’s best if we let some of them grow up to be doctors with bad handwriting.


6

The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why

Mark Twain

The third most important day in your life is the day you book a tatkal ticket on IRCTC on the first attempt.


7

There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing and be nothing

Aristotle

I don’t know about this. It didn’t work for Manmohan Singh.


8

Ask and it will be given to you.

Jesus

Note: Jesus meant to say, “Ask Arvind Kejriwal and it will be given to you.”


9

Teach thy tongue to say, “I do not know,” and thou shalt progress

Maimonides

Very useful if you’re called in for a CBI interrogation or a Congressional hearing.


10

The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who is doing it

Chinese Proverb

Also I feel strongly about this: The person who says it can be done should not wake up the person who doesn’t want to do it.


11

You can have anything you want if you are willing to give up your attachment to it

Ancient Hindu belief

This is actually a fantastic business model. I’ve started an online store (buyanythinggetnothing.com) based on this concept. You can buy anything you want if you’re willing to give up the belief you’re going to get it. We are the first in the world to offer 100% guarantee that we will ship nothing to you. We will refund your money in full if we accidentally send you anything.

I’ve caused a stampede in the venture capitalist community. They are beating down my door.


12

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be

Lao Tzu

Man, the Chinese dudes really know what they are talking about, don’t they?


13

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do

Bob Dylan

I tried this at the supermarket. They wouldn’t let me leave without paying for stuff. They even called the police. Maybe it works only if you’re Bob Dylan.


14

If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.

Abigail Van Buren

It turns out if you spend twice as much time with your children, you will be left with half as much money.


15

Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck

Dalai Lama

This works! I once went to see Ra One, but the show was sold out. A wonderful stroke of luck, indeed.


Happy Journeys!

More What Ho! guides here

Why is the 21st century depressing the hell out of us?

We’re in the 21st century and it’s depressing the hell out of us. Why?

1. The idiots are winning.

The history of the human race can essentially be summed up as a fierce battle between the idiots and others. For thousands of years, massive effort has been expended into quelling, sedating and keeping idiots under strict supervision so they couldn’t cause irreparable damage. With the advent of internet and the rise of 24×7 television news, the idiots have finally broken free  of the stranglehold. They have seized pulpits on social and broadcast media and now control dialogues all over the world. News, if we can call it that any more, is now for the idiots, of the idiots and by the idiots. It’s hard not to have a foreboding sense of doom about this.

This just in: Donald Trump, the Supreme Dark Lord of All Idiots, just announced his candidacy for the President of the United States. If this doesn’t lend weight to my argument, I don’t know what will.

2. Outrage has become an industry.

Every election is an apocalypse. India or America or <insert country of your choice here> is turning into Nazi Germany. All men are assholes. All women are whiners. That’s sexist. This is racist. Fat shaming. Skinny shaming. Run. Quick. The zombies are coming. The idiots have turned fear and outrage into an industry. Idiocy has gone viral.

Think about it. Everyone has the same information. But, each idiot is in a race to make you consume his bilge before you consume another’s. And to do that, the idiots have come up with a strategy that befits their iconic status as idiots. They manufacture outrage.

Consider the headline, “Is electricity the greatest invention of modern humans?” And, on the same day, let’s say an idiot puts out something titled, “Is Thomas Edison the greatest jerk of all time?” Guess which one’s gonna win the war for the ever shrinking human attention span? The second one is going to win in a canter. It’s a not even a contest anymore. Wars are waged through innuendo and sophisticated lies. Precious attention is being squandered on the inconsequential. Mainstream media, once a bastion of reason and factual integrity, has been stormed and seized by idiots who now strut smugly on its ramparts as fellow nitwits lustily cheer them on.

3. Classical liberalism is (nearly) dead.

Classical liberalism was once about the fierce protection of an individual’s rights to free expression. Once, battles were fought between those who sought freedom and those who sought to suppress it. Today, we have liberals who shut down expression in the name of bigotry. And we have conservatives who shut down expressions in the name of morality. Balance has been lost. The center has become invisible. Nearly everyone has moved to the right, on different points of that spectrum. I think it’s safe to say that the Age of Enlightenment is over, and that classical liberalism has yielded to the liberalism of emotionally charged and easily offended idiots.

How did we end up with such a negative world view? Back in the day, people didn’t live as long as they do today. Babies died more often. We had more wars. We could communicate only by pen and paper or a rickety telephone that we shared. Our grandparents grew up in a time when no one had air conditioning. Today, we live in an unprecedented golden age of humans, an era in which we’ve wiped out a majority of killer diseases and made life immeasurably more convenient and tolerable for a large majority of the world’s population. You’d never know it if you watched television news or read it online.

I, for one, am rooting for the smart ones to wrest the control back. If they have do it by inventing robots, so be it. If that doesn’t pan out, I hope that they will have a space shuttle on standby so they can flee to another planet.

47 things I have seen in 47 years.

Here’s a collection of truisms I’ve observed over the years on life, love, truth, humanity and other inconsequential matters. In no particular order, here they are.

  1. There are only 4 things that matter- faith, hope, love and a win over Pakistan in cricket.
  2. When there is no such thing as truth, there can be no such thing as blasphemy.
  3. Fair doesn’t mean equal.
  4. We all have our inner demons.
  5. Humans are suited for many things. Democracy is not one of them.
  6. A cursory Google search for ‘the greatest country in the world’ yields 8,50,000 results.
  7. Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Media is the first.
  8. I have arrived. According to Google Maps, this happened last weekend.
  9. I know I can’t change anyone. But I’ve built a list, just in case.
  10. A midlife crisis starts with “Is this all?” and ends with “This is quite good.”
  11. No man is an island. But I’ve seen a few archipelagos in my time.
  12. If you want to get to the source, you must swim against the current.
  13. Destiny is what’s left when we’ve exercised our will and made our choices.
  14. Being logical is not the same as being intelligent. Trained circus animals use IF-THEN rules all the time.
  15. We succeed, fail or get lucky. It’s hard to tell which it is, at any given time.
  16. Experts can better predict what can go wrong than what will go well.
  17. All is flux. Everything changes.
  18. Meditation is better than sitting around.
  19. I like being a vegetarian. My relationship with a chicken is restricted to questioning its motives for crossing the road.
  20. It’s hard to do the right thing when it involves dessert.
  21. If you give laptops and Twitter accounts to millions of monkeys, it’s only a matter of time before they begin correcting your typos.
  22. I often can’t tell if a misspelled word is a typo or the name of a rapper.
  23. The only thing I know about your future is that you are in it.
  24. The leading cause of cancer in rats is research.
  25. The Whole is part of the One. If you don’t watch out on Indian roads, one will become part of the hole.
  26. Indians can handle anything. Except standing in a queue.
  27. Passion is over-rated by those who have it, and misunderstood by those who don’t.
  28. Love is the soul of genius. Without love, there can be no genius.
  29. I’d like for religion to be a parent: to pick us up when we stumble, guide us when we ask and set us free when we’re ready to leave.
  30. Kids say the darnedest, most wonderful things. Unless they are someone else’s kids.
  31. A happy marriage is the greatest gift of all.
  32. Some look great because of their colleges. Some make their colleges look great. It is better to be in the latter category.
  33. Each of us is unique. But, deep down we all have the same hopes and fears.
  34. There is the truth as you see it. And then, there’s the truth.
  35. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Everything is small stuff.
  36. I love India not because I was born on her soil but because there’s something inspiring about the way she’s tolerant of the human condition.
  37. Read more than you write.
  38. When the crowd zigs, it’s time to zag.
  39. Answers are worthless if the questions are useless.
  40. There are no mistakes. There are only experiences.
  41. It doesn’t really matter if God exists or not.
  42. We must not lose faith in faith itself.
  43. A good society appreciates the science of uncertainty and the art of compromise.
  44. There’s not enough darkness in this world that can put out even the smallest of lamps.
  45. The path has a way of appearing when you begin walking.
  46. Que sera, sera. What will be, will be.
  47. Let go, be happy.

The What Ho! Guide to Meetings

It’s now a commonly accepted fact that there are only two things people do at work – watch YouTube on company bandwidth and attend meetings. Watching YouTube is less complex of the two. It doesn’t require special training and is a skill acquired easily even by marketing managers. Meetings on the other hand are tad more complicated affairs. Your career graph can rise quickly if you learn to navigate through the labyrinth deftly, except in the case of the banking sector, where, of course, you tend to join as a Vice President and steadily work your way down over time. It is thus important that you attain the status of Meeting Ninja as quickly as possible by invoking the boundless Kundalini of Meeting Wisdom that is ever present in your eternal and immortal being.

What Ho!, you say, as you quiver? Worry not. Help is at hand.

History of Meetings

In 323BC, a mighty king named Ashoka invaded the kingdom of Kalinga. In the battle that Ashoka won, hundreds of thousands died. Upon witnessing the calamity, Ashoka is said to have wondered, “Is there a middle path that allows humans to peacefully air grievances and accomplish nothing, while strictly prohibiting participants from inflicting deadly, physical injuries on each other?

Thus was born the concept of a meeting.

So, what are good reasons to hold a meeting?

There are many good reasons to hold a meeting. Most of them disappeared when a tidal wave engulfed the famed city of Atlantis. However, two have survived till modern day through word of mouth.

Reason 1: To serve as wormholes in the space-time continuum.

It becomes important to observe that 99.999% (five nines) of all meetings ever have been and are weekly review meetings. The purpose of a weekly review meetings is to provide a solitary, tenuous link connecting legions of attendees from various points on the space-time continuum. It is not unusual to find that a review meeting may have originated several decades prior to your first attendance, and that both the original convenor and the purpose of that meeting may long be deceased. The meetings serve as the only connections between generations, dead, alive and those yet to come. Think of them as the Tasseract, the four dimensional world you saw in the Interstellar.

Ideally, review meetings must be convened by a Powerful Person. There’s a good reason for this. It is to encourage attendance. However, the meetings will, in reality, by conducted by the Minion of the Powerful Person (also known as the Convenor). The Minion is appointed as a Stand-In Meeting Coordinator by the Convenor, and harbors aspirations of someday becoming a Convenor himself. It is unlikely that the Convenor will attend the meetings convened by him. The Convenor usually has much longer Youtube playlists than mere mortals and thus needs more time with them. Instead, he will make sudden and erratic appearances in these meetings from time to time, and then proceed to try to digest centuries worth of information in thirty minutes or less. The reason that attendance at review meetings is normally high is that people have no way of predicting if the All Powerful Convenor will be present or not in any given meeting. Most people are not interested in finding out what happens when the Convenor shows up and they don’t. Consequently, thousands of ordinary employees attend hundreds of review meetings without ever encountering the Convenor even once.

By now, it must have become self evident that your immediate objective must be to somehow become part of the Minion Talent Pool and hone your skills towards becoming an accomplished Stand-In. An often overlooked perk of being a Minion Stand-In is that it immediately absolves you of any responsibilities to provide any information or answer any questions during meetings. Rather, you are now pleasantly transformed into the exalted and detached state of a Seeker Of Information. Minion-ship is highly prized, and the benefits boundless. You must prepare yourself to win bloody battles so you can become one.

A typical Monday morning weekly review meeting might proceed in the following fashion.

You: All righty folks. Let’s hear from Moses on the Promised Land Project.

Moses: Umm.. let’s see. I don’t have much to add this week. As I have been saying every week over the last twelve years, I have parted the Red Sea. I’ve completed taking delivery of the Ten Commandments on the mountain. The Project, I hope you are aware, has run into unexpected delays. The Chosen People, thanks to their drunken revelry around a golden calf, have been cursed by God to wander around in the desert. I’ve flagged this as a problem, and color coded it red in my weekly emails. I have no idea as to when they will reach the Promised Land. Is any one listening? God, do you want to jump in here and add some color to this?

God: Yawn. Sorry.. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat that?

Moses: What’s the ETA on the Promised Land?

God: Umm.. I need to look into a couple of things. Can we take this offline?

You: Sorry guys. I wasn’t paying attention, but it sounds like we’re making progress. Moses, could you put that in an email and send it to me? I’ll need that for my update to the Convenor.

Reason 2: It’s the only way to know if a person exists.

The second reason for which meetings are held is that, often it becomes the only way to know who is on the payroll at a company. As you are aware, every so often companies go through troubled times and are forced to “right size” themselves. It’s a little known secret that decisions around who stays and who gets let go is largely based on physical recognition of individuals alone, and nothing else. Rene Descartes once speculated, “I think therefore I am.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t carry a bloke too far in today’s corporate world. Descartes would have been given the pink slip, two weeks of severance and a firm handshake before he could utter “existential.” People don’t exist unless they are in front of you, tweeting from their laptops.

Important Executive With Powers to Fire People (IEWPTFP): “Who is this Karan chap? Is he that tall, impeccably well dressed marketing bloke who shows up right on time every time for our Monday weeklies?”

Minion: “Yep, that’s him.”

IEWPTFP: “We can’t let him go. Karan is a keeper. He’s a jewel. When he speaks, he doesn’t ruffle feathers. What would we do without him? By the way, who is this Arjun fellow? I’ve never seen him ever.”

Minion: “He doesn’t attend our weeklies.”

IEWPFTP: “Let him go.”

Minion: “Hang on. I’ve heard rumors that he’s the engineer who does all the work.”

IEWPFTP: “Hmm.. I don’t know. That doesn’t sound like a convincing reason to keep him around.”

The moral of the story is that even as you try and free yourself up from worldly acts such as meetings to immerse in the more ethereal Youtube, you must be careful to not let your meeting attendance drop to dangerously low levels. A corporate career, much like life, is about striking that happy balance between the yin and the yang of existence and non-existence.

The What Ho! Guide to Meetings

Keep calm, children. Sit in a squatting, meditative pose, close your eyes and listen carefully to the pearls that I’m now about to cast loosely in your direction.

There are insights as ancient as the universe itself, which have led to the development of black arts, which you must apply in a vaguely detached, zen manner in meetings.

The purpose of meetings, repeat after me, is not to find answers or to solve problems. It is to facilitate as peaceful a gathering of as large a number of people as possible. If you fail to grasp this mystical truth that underlies meetings, I see neither Minionship nor Convenorship in your future. When called upon to share things which may alternatively referred to as ‘statuses,’ or ‘updates,’ or ‘debriefs,’ it is critical to restrict yourself to the state of things, and never get into why they are the way they are. Observations must be limited to pithy phrases like ‘We’re making good progress.,’ or ‘Things are on track,’ or the rare and adventurous, ‘We’re getting there.’ As the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna once said, “The nature of things is to have no nature; it is their non-nature that is their nature. For they have only one nature: no-nature.” You can use this quote in meetings for variety.

Delving into the true nature of reality is unwise in large groups of humans. It’s the quickest route to the death of a martyr. Studies show that attending meetings is one of the most stressful activities a human engages in. You have to remember that you are dealing with humans, who in spite of having gone through millions of years of stress of being chased around by sabre toothed tigers, withstanding the harshest of conditions in the tundra and enduring challenges of reading Chetan Bhagat novels, are more stressed about meetings than most other things. You must assuage them. You must comfort them. You must not upset them. They don’t need the truth. They are not looking for the truth. They don’t need the warm and the fuzzies. They just want to be done and over with it, and to be left alone with Buzzfeed and Youtube. Is that too much to ask for? This is not Facebook. No one wants to know what’s on your mind. Avoid sharing anything that can be interpreted as anything. Empathy for the human condition may just be the single most powerful weapon in your quest for corporate dominance.

What if a meeting breaks out into a conversation?

As it transpires, a meeting that has stayed true to the path of prophylactic statuses and updates, will occasionally veer dangerously towards conversation. These are unchartered waters for meetings. It’s sort of like being on a raft on a peaceful river, only to look a little further ahead to find that you’re about to go over the edge of the Niagara.

Stay calm and do as follows.

You must identify the source(s) of such strife first. Often, they tend to be engineers who have a congenital predisposition towards facts, numbers and precision. They will make unseeemly efforts to bring such things to everyone’s attention. If possible, you must avoid the presence of engineers at meetings. The best tactic is to never tell them about existence of meetings, ask them for email updates and read carefully censored portions of their updates at meetings. But, if for some unfathomable reason, the presence of an engineer becomes unavoidable, then you must do what is humanly possible within your means to make sure that he does not pay close attention to the proceedings. This may be achieved by bringing a large box of doughnuts and placing it tantalizingly within reach of said engineer, who will then spend most of his time pondering if he should reach out for the fourth doughnut or not. Or, you can locate him right next to an attractive colleague. The sight of bare feminine legs has been known to place engineers into trances for lengthy periods.

Like Kim Jong Un, you must mercilessly squash sources of facts, data and informed opinions, wherever you may find them. They must not be allowed to rise to the fore. As Nagarjuna’s (there he is, again) Catuskoti principle insists, “There are four possibilities regarding any statement: It might be true (and true only), false (and false only), both true and false, or neither true nor false.” You must never speak in a manner as to make it evident to the audience which one of the possibilities they are dealing with.

Dear Dr. What Ho!, I’ve heard of something called Strategy Meetings. What are they? How are they different?

Life is funny. Every so often, it will throw you a curve ball. You will discover, at some unfortunate point in your career as you rise, that some meetings are held for the sole purpose of sharing facts, data and informed opinions. These often go by the names of ‘strategy meetings,’ ‘planning sessions,’ or ‘off sites,’ and tend to be rather tense affairs. In such meetings, a bloke who has spent the last 72 hours in some sort of a paradoxically frenzied yet comatose state completing a massive powerpoint presentation, also known as “The Deck,” is placed in front of you and several others in the audience who you will not recognize. Many in the audience do not care about The Deck. They are anxious to get, as expeditiously as possible, back to their Youtube playlists. The primary purpose of such meetings is to evaluate the levels of mental deterioration that an organization has achieved so those who have completely fallen apart can be humanely filtered out. It is vitally important to display mental acuity and presence at such gatherings. The good news is that this is not hard to do.

There are many ways to do this. Nearly all of them draw their inspiration from the Thomson’s gazelle, found in the African savannah. “Tommies,” as our hooved friends are called, are known for their bounding leaps, which, although draw attention to themselves, are meant as a show of strength to predators. There is much to learn from Tommies when it comes to meetings.

One of the things you must do, at some point during strategy meetings, is to suddenly get up from your chair and wander about aimlessly in the room, as though pondering a fundamentally deep thought. This, even as it invites scrutiny of your presence in the room, is an unmistakable show of strength. The Very Important People in the room, gnashing their teeth and looking for a prey to tear apart, will respect and fear the awe inspiring purposelessness of your act, leave you alone and turn their attention towards the weaker of the species.

Natural selection is one of the most fascinating mechanisms of nature. You must use it to your advantage.

Another method involves asking the hapless presenter to go back two slides at some arbitrary point in his presentation, and then staring deeply and just long enough at it to make people wonder if you’re on the verge of a massive break through, and following it up with a casual, “This is interesting. We need to talk. Let’s catch up offline.” That last part, a promise on which you have no intention of following up, will make those higher up on the totem pole speculate as to the nature of your seemingly impressive cognitive powers while subtly signaling that you’re a team player and chose to not humiliate a colleague in public.

That’s not all. Resourceful Darwinian creatures attending meetings have been known to draw random venn diagrams and 4×4 boxes, conduct arbitrary SWOT analyses, connect unconnected dots looking backwards and forwards, and even have gone to the extent of taking imaginary important phone calls during meetings, all with the express purpose of signaling the vitality of their beings to would-be predators. Be careful however. Not everything in the manual works. Objects in the rear view mirror can sometimes be much, much closer than you think. Venn diagrams must be drawn using circles. Drawing them using quadrilaterals can have serious, negative consequences. Remember that the public can take only so much. Take care to not exceed certain thresholds. I once heard a guy proclaim loudly, “This is never going to scale in China,” before being escorted out by armed security.

The Seventh Mandala of Meeting Wisdom

A lesser known and harder to execute technique is the art of usurping another man’s evolutionary advantage. If mastered, it will essentially guarantee that you will rise to become the youngest CEO in the annals of the company. This requires knowledge of the meanings of 1,000 most common English words, basic counting skills and impeccable timing.

Listen carefully. We’re about to enter the Seventh Mandala of Meeting Wisdom.

This is how it works. There will be always be one person in the room who knows the answers. 99 out of 100 times, the Person Who Knows Everything will be an Engineer. This is very good news for you because the Engineer, while in possession of the truth, is completely devoid of any skills when it comes to imparting such truth to large groups of people, who in turn couldn’t tell the Truth if it walked up and slapped them in their faces. This is where you come in. Look around the room. See if you can spot a slightly overweight, wearing-a-shirt-one-size-too-small, unkempt, unshaven individual wearing a wild eyed, skeptical look on his face. He’s the Engineer. Keep a close eye on him because it is just a matter of time before he begins to uncontrollably and spontaneously emit factual, relevant and actionable information. This is neither the time nor the place to ponder as to why engineers do what they do. No one knows. They are the selfish genes of the corporate pool, whose sole intent is to ensure that facts and other important things make it into the next generation of humans. Out of the Engineer’s mouth will, all of a sudden, emanate words of unspeakable wisdom. Ideally, you should seat yourself right next to him. When the Engineer’s brilliance bursts forth, it will leave people dazed and blinded. In fact, many will not be able to recall memories of hearing the Engineer speak. Your job is to listen very carefully to the Engineer, decode the facts and translate to a dumbfounded audience in plain English, using as small numbers as possible. If you do this well, the Engineer’s wisdom thus effortlessly becomes associated with you, and seventy two virgins will garland and receive you in Heaven upon your arrival.

Go forth and conquer splendidly, you Natural Born Minions and Convenors. Those Youtube playlists await.

A Brief History of Evolution

There is no single idea, which has been more profound or impactful in the history of modern science, than Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The Impact of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

The ball that Darwin set rolling in 1859 with his blockbuster book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” continues to be unstoppable. When it first arrived, it dealt a body blow to, and spurred a refinement and tempering of Christianity. Over the last 150 years, it has encouraged a wholesale abandonment of religion. An idea that came to the fore even as Industrial Revolution took roots in Western Europe and America, Darwinism accelerated the transformation of these societies into free market havens, architected around the principle of natural selection. Initially, countries that accepted evolution more readily than others were Protestant nations like England. Although the United States, at that time, was in the middle of a civil war, Darwin’s theory did not go unnoticed. It is no coincidence that these nations turned ‘economically atheist,’ believing in the natural’ capacity of capital to allocate itself to the most deserving recipients, when competition is unfettered. They rejected economic theories that bet on God-like governments to distribute resources efficiently. Although Darwin’s initial inspiration came from economists such as Malthus and Adam Smith, his theory later provided moral justification and has helped shape the course of modern economics in the Western Hemisphere.

Evolutionism’s impact was perhaps felt the greatest in disrupting centuries old social and religious power structures. By adding impetus to political thought, it paved the way for western monarchies to transform gracefully into democratic systems. It captured the imagination of scientists, philosophers and men of letters alike. For the first time, there was a logical explanation for the evolution of life. Darwin provided copious evidence from nature. Most significantly, he provided no role for God in the process. It disabused Christians of their belief that an all-powerful God had created the Earth with all its animals, plants and human beings, in a mere six days. Darwin won such a convincing victory in such a short time that, by the early 20th century, the debate between science and the Church had shifted from the factual integrity of evolution to God’s role in it. The debate within the scientific community had turned towards its mechanisms and speed within a short ten years after Darwin’s pronouncement.

“I mean to say, I know perfectly well that I’ve got, roughly speaking, half the amount of brain a normal bloke ought to possess. And when a girl comes along who has about twice the regular allowance, she too often makes a bee line for me with the love light in her eyes. I don’t know how to account for it, but it is so.”

“It may be Nature’s provision for maintaining the balance of the species, sir.”

From ‘Carry on, Jeeves.’ By P. G. Wodehouse.

The theory of evolution has been co-opted in ways Darwin may have never intended or predicted. Social Darwinism, as it came to be called, had its dark side. Men in power such as Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson drew flawed conclusions, and took evolution as ‘nature’s sanction’ to enthusiastically propagate a fundamental superiority of a “fitter, more powerful” Caucasian race. Such ideas were openly and widely disseminated in the 1920s and 1930s to justify the imperialist ambitions and domination of the British empire. Churchill stoutly believed that ‘inferior’ societies in Africa and Asia (including and especially India) were ‘better off’ for coming under the rule of the English, who, he believed, brought “civilization” to the uncivilized. In another example, several thousands of mentally disabled Americans were forcibly sterilized in the 1920s, under prevailing eugenics laws. A decade later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would take eugenics to horrific lengths when they systematically murdered the old, the disabled, the weak and eventually large numbers of Jewish people, in the name of Aryan supremacy. Darwin was one of the lucky few scientists to see his theory gain acceptance within the scientific community, in his lifetime. He was also fortunate that he did not live to see the perversions, which were wrought in his name. He would have been horrified. There is no other scientific idea from which society has reaped as much inspirationally positive and horribly negative consequences, as the theory of evolution.

There is no other scientific idea, which is as widely misunderstood as the theory of evolution. Over a hundred and fifty years after Darwin, a large majority of the world population has not even heard of it. Millions of children are not yet properly schooled in it. A huge part of the world population outside the western hemisphere continues to stay largely unaware of this remarkable scientific discovery, save for mischaracterized representations in popular culture. Amazingly, belief in God among Americans has not been as much dented by the theory of evolution as in Western Europe. Even today, over eighty percent of Americans profess to belief in ‘some sort of a God.’ Close to a third reject Darwinist evolution outright as a scientific theory. Less than fifteen percent of Americans understand and accept evolution to the point where they are willing to profess to atheistic beliefs.

As denizens of this wonderful Earth, filled with curiosity about our origin, cause and purpose, it is well worth our time to grasp the power of this single idea which, directly and indirectly, led to world wars, created new memes in popular culture, pitted science against religion in an epic clash, triggered the field of modern medicine and changed human history like none other has done. We must do this, regardless of our personal beliefs about the existence, nature and role of God. For, if we fail to do so, we run the risk of missing out on one of the most spiritually uplifting lessons that Mother Nature dangles every day in front of our eyes; that everything, organic and inorganic, shares a common progenitor. That this brief journey each of us has been afforded is but an opportunity to soak in wonder and awe, as we witness the wonder that we call creation.

Evolutionism over the ages.

Charles Darwin was not the first to envisage a creation without the hand of a Creator guiding it. There have been philosophical utterances to this effect from the Greeks. The Ionian philosopher, Anaximander (611 – 546 BC), believed that the world had arisen from an undifferentiated, indeterminate substance, which he called the Apeiron. Vedic thought, from some of the oldest Hindu schools, took a more nuanced position, even going to the extent of describing Gods as those who came after Creation and attributing the origins of our universe and life to no one in particular.

The Nasadiya Sukta, known as the Hymn of Creation, asks-

“But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?

The gods themselves are later than creation,

So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,

He, whether He fashioned it or whether He did not,

He, who surveys it all from highest heaven,

Perhaps He knows. Or, perhaps even He knows not.”

This hymn from Rig Veda has been interpreted as one of the earliest accounts of agnosticism and skeptical inquiry into the origin of all things, not just organic life on earth. Carl Sagan, scientist, describes the Vedic tradition of inquiry best, as one “of skeptical questioning and unselfconscious humility before the great cosmic mysteries.”

However, such speculation was abstract and philosophical, and lost favor as they failed to satisfy large parts of populations, which preferred the simpler, linear narratives of mythologies and gospel.

Fast forward to the early 19th century.

It’s interesting to pause momentarily to examine the times into which Darwin was born, and did his work.

Aristotle-ian natural philosophy, which held sway for over two thousand years, had yielded to the Baconian scientific method, which insisted on formal experimentation, repeatability and falsification. Europe had already entered the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, which saw science and philosophy flourish, frequently to the benefit of each other. French revolution and the Napoleonic era had played out by the end of the 18th century. Newtonian classical mechanics had unleashed the virtuous forces of Industrial revolution by mid 17th century, which led to machine based manufacturing processes. Chemistry had matured as a science. Historians of nature had begun meticulous classification of flora and fauna, leading to the development of biological taxonomy. A Swedish botanist and a first rate scientist, Carolus Linnaeus, filled 180 books with precise descriptions of plants and animals, and logically classified them. To him, we owe our, often, unjustified name, homo sapiens, which literally means ‘wise men.’ There was new understanding of electricity and magnetism, which led to speculation about connections between such phenomena and life forces themselves. Was life a mere electrical impulse?

Geology had progressed, and with it our understanding of the nature of Earth’s hidden layers. Consensus grew that the Earth had gradually evolved over millions of years, and not magically created in one fell swoop as the Bible claimed. Critically, scientific consciousness expanded to consider enormously lengthy periods of time, in contrast to the Biblical time scale of a few thousand years. As new cities emerged in the fervor of industrial expansion, fossils were uncovered. Paleontology quickly grew to be a discipline unto its own right, providing invaluable clues on how life may have evolved.

Even as Industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe and America, a new field of study emerged with intent to drive efficiency in production, and allocation of capital and labor, leading to the development of what we now know as economics. Industrial revolution changed societies dramatically in ways never envisioned. It raised the living standards of citizens, propelled large-scale urban migration and led to construction and expansion of modern cities. Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ and Robert Malthus’ ‘The Principle of Population,’ were written in 1776 and 1798 respectively. Such treatises popularized the idea of “selection” as the natural behavior of free and unrestrained systems. Such thoughts would provide crucial insights to Darwin later as he pondered the mechanism by which life may have evolved on earth.

invisiblehand

Most critically (for Darwin), there had been men of science who had already begun questioning the Bible’s version of creationism. Early closet evolutionists included Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, who believed that life had evolved “over a period of millions of years.” Of these, the most important was a Frenchman named Jean-Batiste Chevalier de Lamarck. In early 19th century, Lamarck offered a theory, which explained evolution through a process of conscious adaptation and acquired inheritance. Lamarck’s theory posited that organisms adapted body parts to suit their environments during their lifetimes. Lamarck also believed that such changes acquired during a lifetime were inherited by offspring. The most famous Lamarckian example is that of the giraffes. Giraffes, Lamarck said, evolved long necks by straining and stretching them further and further to reach leaves on tops of trees. He added that this long-necked-ness was inherited by succeeding generations of giraffes, thus leading to long necked giraffes of today. Lamarck’s hypothesis was bold, powerful, intuitive and easy to understand. Unfortunately, it was also wrong. It is conceivable that necks may grow longer as a result of stretching and straining. But, it wasn’t so readily apparent that such traits acquired in one generation could be inherited by the next. For example, children of bodybuilders aren’t muscular unless, of course, they too engage in bodybuilding. Lamarck’s brave attempt was noted widely, but quickly fell into disrepute and suffered ridicule by both the Church and the scientific community for several decades. Notwithstanding this failure, Lamarck was a topnotch scientist and his courage paved the way for Darwin, by bringing the topic of creation into public debate, and dislodging a brick in the wall of dogma that religion had built over the course of a thousand years.

The stage thus came to be set for the event that changed the course of intellectual history of the world.

Evolution by Natural Selection.

Darwin spent five years aboard the HMS Beagle, during the course of which he sailed to the Galapagos Islands among other places, collected large numbers of samples, and recorded meticulous notes. Upon return to England, he married his wealthy first cousin, and dedicated his life to analyzing the samples he had gathered and unraveling the mystery of evolution.

Side Note: It is a remarkable coincidence that two men who most profoundly shaped the course of events in the Western Hemisphere, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, were born the same day – February 12, 1809 – on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Darwin, at first, went to study to be a doctor at the University of Edinburgh. Unable to stand the sight of blood and even fainting once, he dropped out of medical school and went on to study his first love- natural history, at Cambridge University.

Although the scientific community had warmed up to the prospect of evolution, the theory had suffered grievous wounds during Lamarck’s attempt to storm the fortress. To gain acceptance of his fellow scientists, Darwin knew that it was not enough anymore to merely say that organisms had evolved. He had to explain *how* they had evolved.

It is said that Darwin was influenced by the writings of Robert Malthus, as he pondered the mystery. In his influential essay, Malthus predicted extraordinary growth in human population driven by a rise in the standard of living caused by the Industrial revolution. He argued that such growth in population would lead to a massive increase in the supply of labor, which in turn would cause lowering of wages and lead to poverty. He described such mechanisms as ‘competition,’ ‘survival,’ and ‘allocation.’ They struck a chord in Darwin. If artificial systems could allocate and optimize in the their own best interests, it seemed conceivable to him that nature could do the same.

In a book published in 1859, Charles Darwin described his theory of evolution based on the principle of natural selection. He explained it along four dimensions: Variation, Inheritance, Selection and Time.

Variation aka Why are there so many species and how did they come about?

Darwin defined species as a population of organisms that is capable of inter-breeding only within its own population. Inter-breeding produces a population of offspring that, in turn, inter-breeds, and so on. Over long periods of time, species undergo “evolution,” which are variations that cause a new species to arise. Thus, all species have descended as a consequence of modifications of species that came before them.

To put it simply, Darwin theorized that all species must have a common origin in some sort of an irreducible ‘lower’ life form. ‘Higher’ life forms are no more than lower life forms that have evolved over millions of years. He said that this was the only way we could explain the vast diversity of species found in nature.

Inheritance and Selection aka Why does a species appear the way it does?

Darwin then explained why survivors survive and how others go extinct, using a mechanism called natural selection. This answers questions such as, “Why do giraffes have long necks?” and “Why are zebras striped?”

Darwin observed that nature typically erred on the side of producing more organisms than it could support. These organisms struggle to survive as a result because they have to compete for resources. He pointed out that competition tended to be fiercer within species than between species. Within a species, there are variations in traits. He believed such variations to be random, and not acquired through conscious effort or deliberate strategy, as Lamarck had stated. When changes occur every so often in the environment, those members of a species, which happen to have a beneficial set of traits suited to the environment, are selected by nature to survive. Such evolutionarily advantageous traits are inherited by successive generations until the environment changes yet again, which may cause a potentially new set of beneficial traits to propagate, in a fascinating theater of survival and reproduction.

naturalselection

In the Darwinian world, giraffes didn’t deliberately stretch and grow long necks. Instead, there were once many variations of giraffes, with necks of varying lengths. Long necks happened to prove to be “evolutionarily advantageous” for survival. Consequently, over millions of years, all giraffes but the long-necked ones were filtered out by natural selection.

This, in essence, is the principle of natural selection. Natural selection, has also been described – first by a philosopher, Herbert Spencer, and later by Darwin himself – as “the survival of the fittest,” an unfortunate turn of phrase because it led to much misunderstanding of the principle.

Side Note: “Survival of the Fittest

Being taller, faster, more intelligent, fair-skinned or stronger is often misunderstood as “fittest,” by those who incorrectly grasp the implications of Darwin’s theory. “Fit” in the evolutionary sense is merely the possession of those traits, whatever they may be, which are most advantageous in a given environment, at a given period in time. For example, if the environment were to somehow change to favor pygmies in Sub Saharan Africa, nature would favor them over non-pygmies and the population of pygmies would rise faster than others. In fact, it is conceivable that the environment could favor “lower” life forms over “higher” life forms in the case of a drastic event like a nuclear holocaust.

Darwin’s theory does not imply the superiority of one species over another. It does not imply a hierarchy within species. It merely attempted to explain what is seen in nature, without being judgmental about the merits and outcomes of nature’s approach. Comprehending the term, ‘evolutionarily advantageous,’ may be the secret to understanding much of the workings of nature and human behavior itself.

A Gradual Process of Change.

Darwin emphasizes the role of time in evolution by describing it as a process of gradual change. In his book, he wrote, “Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.”

Since Darwin explained natural selection as a slow process, it came under fire almost immediately, from paleontologists and field naturalists who had observed discrete jumps in speciation from the fossil records. Indeed, natural selection was discarded (even by Darwin himself) within a decade of his book being published.

Nevertheless, Darwin had achieved a stunning coup. Within two decades of his book, evolution came to be accepted as a scientific fact. It also marked the beginning of a long running feud between science and religion, which has not abated yet.

Side Note:

You, my friend, are an outcome of an extraordinary process, which started billions of years ago on earth.

As the American author, Bill Bryson observes, in his inimitable wry style,

“Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

Congratulations!

Why Darwin is a hero.

It’s interesting to note that Darwin did not set out with an express agenda to destroy Christianity or religious belief. He was not religious himself, and did not hold a grudge against religion. In fact, he agonized over the consequences of his theory on society, and delayed publishing the book by over twenty years until Alfred Russell Wallace (whose details I have unpardonably skipped) forced his hand by independently coming up with natural selection and writing to Darwin about it.

What makes Darwin exceptional is that he was a scientist in awe of nature. He sought to answer the profound question of our creation, and once in possession of what he believed to be the truth, spoke it with grace and humility. None exemplify the spirit of science better than Darwin. He started with an admission of ignorance and remained open to ideas that challenged his beliefs, until his end. For this reason, he is one of the great modern heroes.

Coming back to natural selection..

Darwin’s natural selection ran into rough weather pretty quickly. Paleontologists, who saw discrete, sizable evolutionary jumps in fossil records across eras, refused to get on board. Later biologists challenged the theory on grounds that it did not satisfactorily explain certain quirks in nature, such as altruism. Given the damning counter evidence from fossil records, Darwin himself abandoned natural selection and shifted towards Lamarckian-ism in the latter half of his scientific life.

calvinaltruism

Enter genetics.

The question of ‘how do traits pass from one generation to another’ began to consume biologists after Darwin published his seminal work. An Austrian friar, Gregor Mendel, a forerunner in genetics research, had done work in cross breeding hybrids of pea plants. He recorded but didn’t go as far as to analyze the implications of his observations. He even shared his findings with Darwin, who unfortunately failed to see their significance at that time.

When Mendel was re-discovered in 1900, things began to move at a rapid pace. Hugo De Vries, a Dutch botanist, introduced the words ‘gene’ and ‘mutation’ into the vocabulary. By 1910, Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American, had provided evidence for inheritance through chromosomes. The most significant post-Darwinian inflection came from Ronald Fisher’s work on Mendelian inheritance. Fisher is considered the founding father of modern statistical science, design of experiments and biometry, and has been described as the ‘greatest biologist since Darwin’ by none other than Prof. Richard Dawkins. Fisher combined statistical analysis of genetic evidence and Darwinian theories into what came to be known as “modern synthesis,” and architected the emergence of “evolutionary biology,” starting in 1918.

Side Note: Interestingly, Fisher became a vocal proponent of eugenics, a principle that encouraged society to select fitter humans for survival. Fisher showed, using census data, that fertility was inversely proportional to social class. As families became more affluent and climbed the social ladder, they became smaller. Fisher hypothesized that these smaller families unfairly thrived, in spite of their lower reproductive output, solely because of their economic advantage. He campaigned for subsidies to lower income, larger families based on the earning potential of the father. Not coincidentally, Fisher himself had a large family and his financial resources were meager.

Eugenics caught the imagination of politicians, philosophers, writers, journalists and others. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, about a mythical society based on eugenics was published in 1932. Teddy Roosevelt, Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes were prominent personalities who subscribed to the concept, which at its core, played to the idea of maintaining the purity of the Aryan race. Although Hitler and the Nazis took inspiration foremost from Nietzche’s Ubermensch ( ‘Superman’) which was not based on racial grounds, their eugenics laws were based on similar laws which prevailed in California in the 1920s. Today, eugenics is (rightfully) considered scientific racism, as it pre-supposes an erroneous principle of racial superiority, which is supported neither by Darwinism nor by genetics.

By the 1940s, the onion had been peeled yet another layer to reveal the presence of DNA and RNA as the main constituents of chromosomes, and DNA as the primary carrier of genetic information. In 1953, DNA structure was resolved to be a double helix by James Watson and Francis Crick. By the 1960s, the genetic code, a set of rules by which information encoded within genetic material is translated into protein by living cells, was ‘cracked’ by a team of scientists which included Har Gobind Khurana. By 2003, 99% of the human genome had been sequenced with 99.99% accuracy. The last hundred years have truly belonged to genetics and genomics.

The Modern Synthesis.

Incorporation of genetics and population studies led to Neo-Darwinian theories of evolution in the first half of the 20th century. These theories  emphasized the roles of mutation in causing variation within species. Natural selection, in Neo-Darwinism, was re-interpreted to define the natural process by which the frequency of genes in a population was determined. Neo-Darwinist theories have been subsequently replaced with current views of evolution known as the Modern Synthesis.

Per Modern Synthesis, several mechanisms, not just natural selection, are responsible for evolution. Of these, genetic drift is considered to be as crucial as natural selection. Traits are carried by discrete entities called genes, which are inherited. Variations within a population are caused by alleles, a “sub-type” of genes. Genes are composed of chromosomes, which in turn are constituted of DNA and RNA, which are the repository of genetic information and the messenger for carrying genetic information respectively. Speciation (formation of new species) occurs as as small changes (mutations) in genes. In other words, macroevolution is a consequence of a lengthy series of microevolutions.

In Modern Synthesis, evolution works at the level of genes, phenotypes (observable external traits) and populations, while Darwin’s theory was applied at the level of organisms, species and individuals. Research in evolutionary biology is now heavily focused on speciation, addressing debates around the speed and size of mutations.

That thing that makes you, you and no one else but you…

It is now believed that all genetic information is contained in DNA, which exists in the form of a double helix structure, and made of chemicals called nucleotides. The most crucial part of nucleotides is the base, where the genetic information resides. The sequence in which bases appear in the DNA is somewhat like how letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. The ‘sentence’ or the sequence then provides the information required to create and sustain an organism. In other words, DNA is that thing which makes you, you and no one else but you. Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of these bases are the same in all people. Biologically, there is very little to distinguish one human from another.

An important property of DNA is that it can replicate; that is, make copies of itself. The double helix structure of the DNA is interesting because it provides two strands, each of which can serve as a pattern for duplicating the sequence of bases, thus providing tremendous resilience and stability to DNA. The ability of DNA to replicate itself is critical because when cells divide, each new cell is required to have an exact copy of the DNA that was present in the old cell. When new cells are formed through mitosis and cytokinesis, each cell receives a copy of DNA, which they check for errors in duplication. Errors are usually caught and the flawed cells are destroyed. However, it is possible that errors may not be detected occasionally and allowed to exist. These errors, known as mutations, are the cause for microevolution, if they happen in gametes, which are cells that participate in sexual reproduction. Such errors may also lead to cancer and genetic diseases. If DNA couldn’t replicate, there would be no life as we know it. On the other hand, errors in DNA replication can lead to the worst of diseases. In that sense, DNA is both the giver and destroyer of life.

dnastructure

In a nutshell aka ridiculous simplification of some very complicated things…

Genes, which are made up of DNA, are the basic functional units of heredity. They are commanders. They contain the blue print, for how to create an organism, and provide instructions for the creation of proteins, which are required for the structure, function and regulation of a body’s tissues and organs. What are proteins? They are complex molecules, which are made of long chains of smaller units called amino acids. The sequence in which amino acids are found in the chains determines the type of protein. Amino acids, in turn, are created from nitrogenous (containing nitrogen) bases. The Human Genome Project has estimated that humans have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes. In humans, genes could vary in size from a few hundred DNA bases to over 2 million bases.

Every person has two copies of a gene, one inherited from each parent. A huge majority of genes are the same in all people, excepting for a small number (less than 1 percent) which are slightly different from person to person. Such genes with minute differences in their sequence of DNA bases are called alleles. It is these small differences which contribute to each person’s unique physical features and make us look different from one another.

Equally remarkably, just four nitrogenous bases, which lead to the formation of 20 amino acids, account for the diversity of all life on earth.

Our distant cousins.

It may not be apparent to us, at first glance, that a wine grape may be a distant cousin. We share a quarter of our genes with that fine fruit. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago. Every lineage that descended from that progenitor retained parts of its original genome, which embodies one of evolution’s key principles: ‘If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.’

Side Note: We share close to half our genes with fruit flies, over 80% with dogs and 90% with chimpanzees.

On a lighter note: It is now increasingly believed that those who work in the Indian news media may be our closest cousins yet, bridging the gap between chimps and humans.

dna commonality

Of course, we aren’t really much like a wine grape at all. As Carl Zimmer points out, “The genes we still share, we use differently, in the same way you can use a violin to play the music of Mozart or Benny Goodman. It is less surprising that we share more genes with chimpanzees than with rice, because we’ve shared most of our evolutionary journey with those apes. And in the small portion of our genes with no counterpart in chimpanzees, we may be able to find additional clues to what makes us uniquely human.”

Ever wonder why we all don’t look the same? (and thanked your stars for it?)

This is another intriguing question. Of all species, humans have the highest diversity in terms of external traits. There are all kinds of people on the planet. This is especially true of the human face. Why is there such a breathtaking variety in the human face, compared to animals which aren’t as diverse in this regard? For example, most elephants (within a gender) look similar, except for the girth or the height. How and why did we learn to process facial patterns and be able to tell friends from strangers when we meet them? For animals, the need to be identified as individuals doesn’t appear to be all that important. For humans, it’s everything. Why? As it turns out, evolutionary pressures may have pushed humans towards this vast variety of facial features and structures that we see today. In other words, to be distinguishable from each other has been evolutionarily advantageous for human survival. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where having identical humans could lead to problems. Clones of an individual being mistakenly killed off by an enemy. Being wrongly accused of murder. We would have many problems if we all looked identical.

Bringing home the Baconian..

In the last few decades, a large part of Christianity has sought to come to terms with evolution by steering towards a middle path between the prevailing evolution view point and the Biblical account of creation as prescribed in the first chapter of Genesis. While continuing to stress God’s initial act of creating the universe and all it contains, they try to reconcile evolution as an expression of His creative activity. Although such hybrid views may provide comfort to some, the fact remains that scientific evolutionary ideals see no role for God; neither in the origin of the universe, nor in the origin and development of life and man.

A mountain of evidence makes modern evolution theory undeniable. There are those who deny it on the grounds that the biologist’s method is not Baconian, and based on circumstantial evidence. It is true that a large portion of the evidence for evolution has been circumstantial. But, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like one, the chances are pretty good that we’re looking at a duck. Deciphering the mystery of evolution has rather been like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with myriad pieces. As each piece falls into place and fits neatly with others that have come before it, and as a picture emerges, it is but the most obstinate dogmatic that will turn his face away and deny it. Further, biological research has come a long way since the days of Darwin, incorporating complex statistical, mathematical and computational methods, and now resembles work done in quantum mechanics or chaos theory, fields that are unquestionably scientific. The “theoretical biologist” is a dying breed, and biology merges more and more into computation and mathematics with each passing decade.

darwin_natural_selection_god_1204735

So, where does evolution leave us?

According to the mechanistic evolution theory, the universe and life in general, including humans, are products of impersonal interactions between matter and energy over eons of time. Everything was an accident. The universe appeared for no presumable reason or purpose, as did life.

As the French molecular biologist, Jacques Monod pointed out, “Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, lies at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution…. The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”

The belief that our existence can be attributed to nothing more than a long series of fortunate accidents, raises interesting questions about our ability to comprehend the nature of truth. In other words, is it possible that our reason and intellect are wired to comprehend reality only in ways that suit our survival?

Charles Darwin himself agonized over such implications. He wrote, “But then arises the doubt, can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?”

Darwin intuitively comprehended that nature was terrific at optimizing, but terrible at strategizing. If living organisms survive only on the basis of a tactical, non-strategic natural selection process, then it follows that human logic and reason are products of such natural selection too. In which case, conclusions drawn by human reason may never be known to be true, but instead only as valuable in their contribution to the survival of the human species. In utilitarian terms, truth that arises from human reason can then only be defined as what works, and not necessarily as what is true. We may thus be irreconcilably divorced from being able to discover the purpose of our existence, for we cannot determine if of our conclusions are true or if they are premeditated by survival instincts. Indeed, all scientific and spiritual inquiry may thus be undermined.

Natural selection implies that a man does not possess free will. Instead, he is programmed by forces of natural selection to act solely upon million year old survival impulses, which deny him freedom of action and thought, just as a fanatical religious believer would shut the doors to Heaven on the face of an unrepentant sinner. To hang on to evolution and simultaneously, even in the face of unavoidable conclusions of that theory, to hold on to belief in human purpose, dignity, free will, and ethics outside of the context of survival, is an unresolvable dilemma. One could try to escape the quandary by theorizing that life and man are not solely products of natural selection, and that “other factors” may be involved. But, to do so would not just undermine the central tenet of the theory of evolution, but would also re-introduce the role of the divine into creation.

As humans, we possess an intriguing affinity for virtues such as goodness, kindness and happiness, which may not always be consonant with survival. It is not obvious if such spiritual aspirations have survival value. Are those who cast aside their quick-to-judge-and-act survival instincts in favor of kinder-gentler non-judgmental ones destined be martyred by evolution? Are we to be denied happiness, because it may not have survival value? Implications of a naturalistic worldview such as evolution are simultaneously liberating and ominous, even for the most modern and secular parts of our selves.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously portrayed a madman walking through a marketplace, proclaiming, “Where is God? I shall tell you. God is dead. We have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” Science has sought man’s liberation from God. It has sought God’s death, through a mechanistic theory of evolution. But, even as we find ourselves alive and liberated from the tyranny of God’s salesmen, we come face to face with the death of our own reason and intellectual freedom. This may just be the great dilemma of modern, secular humans; that by embracing truth as we come to understand it, we make ourselves ineligible to receive any further knowledge on its nature.

Happy journeys.

Note: I last formally read Biological Sciences in high school, well over 25 years back. I claim no expertise in this fascinating area. Here, I have attempted to describe what I believe is the most important scientific idea that I have come across, in layman terms and language. My observations on the clash of Darwinism and Christianity (and religion in general) are not meant to offend, but to state as a matter of fact, how things were and are. If they offend, my sincere apologies. If there are errors or mis-statements in above (which I’m sure there are), kindly let me know and I will fix them. Many thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it.

If this subject interests you, here’s some recommended reading.

  1. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” By Charles Darwin. Free Kindle book. Must read for science lovers. Read it often and early.
  2. The Great Courses, “Theory of Evolution, A History of Controversy,” by Prof. Larson. Six hours of lectures, beautifully done. Great for commutes.
  3. A Short History of Nearly Everything,” by Bill Bryson. A genius raconteur of history. You haven’t lived if you haven’t read Bryson.
  4. The Selfish Gene,” by Prof. Richard Dawkins. A book that changed my life. Authored by a scientist extraordinaire.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also like the following on What Ho!-

  1. On the Nature of Time and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
  2. Why is there something and not nothing?
  3. The Cosmic Calendar.
  4. On the Nature of Light
  5. On the Hindu view of Time and Cosmology

Yesterday

24 hours went by. The universe expanded a little more. The sun shone. The moon was coy. A little more ice melted from the polar ice caps.

353,000 babies were born. They will grow up to be moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and strangers. Families smiled. 150,000 people died. They were moms, dads, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and strangers. Families cried.

Stars were born. Stars died. Flowers bloomed. Bees buzzed. 150 species of plants, insects, birds and animals went extinct.

More than a billion pizzas were delivered.

Hundreds of millions of children went to school and complained about home work. Millions didn’t get that chance.

Stock markets rose. Stock markets fell. People made money. People lost money. Some became rich beyond their wildest dreams. Some lost their savings to their great shock. Most didn’t even know.

Men broke women’s hearts. Some cried. Some shrugged their shoulders. Women broke men’s hearts. Some shrugged their shoulders. Some cried. There were millions of smiles. There were millions of tears.

294 billion emails were sent. 2 million blog posts were written. People spent 472 billion minutes updating 532 million statuses and uploading 250 million photos on Facebook. They spent 22 million hours on Netflix, 18 million on Pandora, and bought 378,000 new iPhones.

Men killed men. Men raped women. Some were just angry. Some did so because they felt they needed to. Some will escape. Some will be forgiven. Some will not seek forgiveness. A lot of people became angry hearing about what others had done. Many retreated to lives of quiet desperation, flitting from one debacle to another.

Moms hugged children. Children refused to eat their vegetables. Women wondered what their husbands thought. Husbands remained oblivious. Families re-united. Others said goodbyes.

Some rose at the crack of dawn. Some were unwilling to rise. Many went to work. Many looked for work.

People argued. They debated. They mocked. They praised.

Some were dissatisfied. They wanted more. Others were despondent. They could have used more.

Some promised to start new lives. Some ended theirs. Some were cared for. Some went to bed in tears. Some died unsung.

There was joy. There was sorrow. There was life. There was death. There was fear of tomorrow. There was promise of a new day.

It was the best of days. it was the worst of days. It was a day of wisdom. It was a day of foolishness. It was a day of belief. It was a day of incredulity. It was a day of light. It was a day of darkness. It was day of hope. It was a day of despair. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us. We were all headed to Heaven. We were all going directly the other way.*

Yesterday, life happened. Just as it did, the day before.

*paraphased from The Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

An Open Letter to Suhel Seth

Dear Suhel Seth,

The moment I first saw you, I knew you were different. In the midst of a tumultuous chaotic nation, I found, meandering purposelessly, an independent soul. Look at his tousled crop of curly hair! Look at his fierce unwillingness to introspect! My heart skipped a beat, and I whistled under my breath as I whispered, “There goes an indomitable marketing maven.”

I remember the first time I saw you on TV. You did that magical thing with words, where you strung them together into sentences. As I watched you cleanly separate speech and thought with a rapier that passes itself off as your tongue, I knew in my heart that you were the maven of all mavens.

What pains me deeply is that there are many who want you to fail.

Some want you to fail because we Indians do not muster adequate enthusiasm when it comes to witnessing public displays of doltishness, except at cricket, by which of course I mean politics. We are a land of confused puppies. We’ve lost our child-like sense of awe and wonder. We don masks of cynicism, and do not permit ourselves to gaze with joy upon extraordinary marketing mavens.

Others want you to fail because they don’t like Frodo Baggins and the Lord of the Rings, which is preposterous because you don’t look anything like Frodo, although Bilbo might claim more than a passing resemblance to you.

I’m deeply pained. I hate what they are doing to you. I want to stand in front and protect you from an unappreciative mob much as Sachin would tenderly protect a tail ender. But, I’m scared of both the mob and you. So I decided to write this letter instead.

Remember that, after a panel discussion on sports you must not ask, “Who’s that bald guy and what’s he doing on this panel?” For when you do, the bald guy in question might unfairly take offense, even though, in fact, he might merely be a bloke named Viren Rasquinha who captained the Indian hockey team only in the distant and unremembered past. Ordinary people lacking appreciation for the magic that you easily weave with your eloquence will look askance at your own fitness to be on any panel, let alone on one mulling the future of sports in our great nation.

You are a strange man, Suhel. I gaze upon you with intrigue and fascination, as I would a smoldering car wreck.

I know life’s hard for you. I know that there are days when you go home and simply sob your heart out. I feel for you. I pray that you survive this terrible nightmare.

Be strong. Above all, stay silent.

Yours sincerely.

Dr. What Ho!

Managing Director of the Internet.

The Nature of Time

Ray Cummings, considered the father of science fiction, described time as “nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.” John Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist, added, “And, space is its way of preventing everything from happening to me.” If there wasn’t time, everything would happen at once. And if there wasn’t space, everything would happen in the same place.

Side note: Wheeler collaborated with giants like Bohr and Einstein, worked on the (in)famous Manhattan project and taught physics at Princeton, where his graduate students included Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne. Dr. Thorne, who teaches at Caltech, is one of the producers of the movie, “Interstellar.”

There are so many different worlds. We have but one. But, we live in different ones.

What exactly is time? Well, it depends on the world from which the question is posed. We could, simplistically, divide the worlds we’re aware of, into three distinctly separate ones based on our powers of perceiving them. First is the world of classical mechanics described by Isaac Newton. Second is the world of relativistic mechanics described by Einstein as a space-time continuum. And last but not the least, is the quantum mechanical world of sub-atomic particles, which Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, Schrodinger and others collectively described.

Dire Straits. “Brothers in Arms.” (video)

The world as we know it.

Newton’s laws of motion and gravitational theory concern themselves primarily with the world as we know it. They describe a familiar world of bodies filled with masses that are acted upon by forces and the ensuing consequences of such forces or lack of them. Newton explained a lot of things observed on earth and in the skies neatly. Kepler used Newton’s laws to show that planets moved in elliptical rather than circular orbits, which appeared to be true.* For example, Newton showed that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion would apply in the solar system, as consequences of his own laws of motion and gravitation. Nearly every mechanical invention over the next several hundred years became possible through these suddenly obvious insights, which we take for granted today.

*Corrected. Many thanks to @chasing_mirage for pointing out that Kepler and his laws preceded Newton.

However, the laws of classical mechanics became increasingly problematic when used to explain ‘minor’ anomalies that began to be observed when more accurate telescopes and other measurement systems came along. For example, Newton’s laws, as amazing as they are, led to a strongly held but erroneous belief that the speed of light was relative, and puzzlement when measurements showed otherwise. Another famous example is an anomaly in Mercury’s orbit, which, try as they might, scientists could not explain.

Time in Newton’s world is ‘not relative’. In other words, time provides an immutable backdrop to the grand stage of the universe on which bodies move relative to, collide with, or attract one another. Material objects possess masses and are capable of moving large distances with predictable speeds. But there is no such notion as ‘the speed of time’ in Newton’s world.

For all practical purposes, Newton’s laws explain the world to people like us, who lead unscientific lives and are unaffected by cosmic anomalies and mysterious events that go on in the universe. We understand why something that is tossed up in the air returns. And, so on.

Newton’s laws describe a world of massive objects, low speeds and large distances. They began failing, when applied to ‘other’ worlds with minuscule objects, enormous speeds or sub-atomic distances, a matter which caused great consternation by the end of the 19th century.

Time slows down when you’re having fun..

Einstein formulated the Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 to address Newtonian limitations, in which he proposed a radically different relationship between space and time. Instead of being an unchanging backdrop to the cosmic drama, time, he said, was an active participant and suggested that its nature was ‘relative,’ just as the nature of space was relative. He predicted that time would move slower when an object moved faster. To be more accurate, time would go by relatively slower on an object such as a planet or a spaceship, which was moving relatively faster than another one. This dilation of time, he said, would be noticeable only at very high speeds, typically exceeding 10% of the speed of light.

newton

Einstein thus began describing our broader universe, a world of massive objects, large distances and enormous speeds. At the heart of his Special Theory was an assertion that the speed of light was an ‘absolute’ and a constant in our universe.

Think of our universe as a massive computer program which is designed to reflexively change space and time to keep the speed of light ‘c’ constant anywhere in it. Einstein called the combination of space described by location (x,y,z) and time ’t’ as the ‘space-time continuum,’ a four dimensional interwoven mesh, whose intrinsic nature was to dynamically adjust itself to keep ‘c’ constant.

Regardless of where you measure the speed of light in the universe or the conditions under which you measure it, the speed of light is constant. Why? No one knows. That’s the way things are, in our version of the universe.

You already live in a space-time continuum. You just don’t know it yet.

What’s space-time continuum? It’s a mesh of things that have happened, presently happening or will happen. If you didn’t realize it, we already employ the concept in our day to day lives. When you arrange to meet a friend, you exchange four pieces of information. When you say, “I’ll meet you at the Starbucks near the intersection of Los Gatos Boulevard and Highway 85, at 9am tomorrow,” you’ve provided ‘x’ and ‘y’ coordinates of the meeting point, have indicated that the ‘z’ coordinate (height) is zero and that the time coordinate is 9 in the morning on a day, which is one day after today. No one ever just goes, “Let’s meet at 9am tomorrow,” or, “Let’s meet at the Empire State Building,” because it would raise the questions of where and when. History is another great example of a space-time continuum; a compendium of events which have occurred at specific places and times in the past.

spacetime continuum

Gravity.. is working against me…

It’s now time speak of that invisible elephant in the room – gravity.

Believe it or not, this thing called gravity, which we experience every second of every day of our lives, is one of the least understood phenomena in physics. Newton described it as a property which is both exuded and experienced by anything that is made of matter. He described the gravitational forces of attraction between two objects as being dependent on their masses and the distance between them. It turned out that things were not quite as straightforward as that. For example, light, a massless entity, was observed to “bend” as it traveled through neighborhoods of even small stars like the sun.

John Mayer, “Gravity.” (video)

Einstein spent the next ten years coming up with a General Theory of Relativity which explained the nature of gravity quite differently. Gravity, Einstein said, was not just some intrinsic property of matter. He described it as something which arises when matter interacts with the space-time continuum. Say what?

Okay, let’s try this again.

In the beginning, there was a lot of energy concentrated perfectly in a place called ‘singularity’ which was smaller than a billionth of an atom. One fine day, the singularity began to expand. In fact, it took just a few nano seconds before the singularity expanded to form the space-time continuum or the universe as we call it. Space and time were born simultaneously like a four-headed baby, in a spontaneous moment of cosmic creativity.

Somewhere, sometime in those first few inflationary moments, Mother Nature pulled yet another rabbit out of her hat. Something called matter arose in space-time continuum. Why and how matter arose is a great mystery of our universe. The current theory we have is that of the Higgs field, present throughout the universe, instrumental in transferring mass to those particles known to have mass. Some one described a universe as something that happens from time to time. I guess you could say the same about matter.

So, anyway.. coming back to gravity.

As matter mysteriously arose in the space-time continuum, it began creating distortions in it. The word used in physics for distortions is “space-time curvature.” Imagine if you placed a bowling ball on a rubber sheet. It would create a depression in it, which is another way of saying that the bowling ball creates a curvature. Gravity, Einstein said, is a result of matter interacting with space-time to create curvatures. The larger the mass, the greater the curvature and thus greater the gravitational force or field.

general_relativity_large

It turns out that when the curvatures are very very large, i.e. when there are intense gravitational fields, they can cause time to slow down. This is called gravitational time dilation. For example, both Jupiter and the Sun have masses significantly larger than that of the Earth. Clocks on both Jupiter and the Sun would tick slower than one on the Earth. The clock on Jupiter would gain only about 10 minutes every 100 years compared to the one on Earth, which wouldn’t make a trip to Jupiter worth while. A clock on the Sun would gain about 4.6 days every 100 years. A clock on Mercury, a planet smaller than the Earth, would tick slower * faster. You get the gist now, I’m sure.

*Corrected. Silly typo! Thanks again to @chasing_mirage for catching this.

Think of gravity as something that results from matter creating curvatures in space-time, and time as one of the variables which gets stretched (slowed down) more and more as the curvatures gets larger and larger.

time dilation diagram

Just so we are clear, you will feel time lapsing at ‘normal speed’, at one tick per second, regardless of whether you’re on the Earth, on Jupiter or inside a black hole. You will not experience time going by faster or slower. It’s like everything stretches or contracts at the same time so you can’t tell any difference, unless you become aware of a reference point that lies at a different curvature on the space-time continuum. The phrase used to describe this in physics is that you and other objects are traversing along different space-time paths.

Time, the great vector.

A Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.”

In philosophical terms, Heraclitus described a fundamental property of time in our universe: that it moves forward and only forward. We can move forwards and backwards, and up and down in space but are prisoners in the present. We, it appears, are condemned to watching as moments tick by, rigidly positioned at the intersection of the past and the future. This notion of the arrow of time, as it came to be called, arose first in a field called thermodynamics, in which a gentleman named Ludwig Boltzmann described something called entropy using statistical methods. Simply speaking, entropy represents the ‘amount of disorder’ in systems. Boltzmann astutely observed that entropy was such a thing, which only increased in our universe. It’s a way of saying that things in the universe as a whole, happen only in a forward direction, and are not reversible. You can make an omelette from eggs, but you can’t get eggs back from an omelette.

The relationship between entropy and time is an intuitive one. If we were to somehow be able to “restore” order and decrease disorder in the universe, conceivably we could engineer it back to its original state, which is just another way of saying that we could reverse time itself. The fact that we find the universe today in a state of ‘higher entropy’ implies that it once started off in a ‘low entropy’ state. Why did that even happen? Why was it not in a steady state to begin with? Why does it accumulate disorder? What causes it to do so? Would it not make sense for it to decrease its disorder? How long will entropy increase in the universe? And when entropy reaches some sort of a maximum, will our universe and time begin reversing their directions? These are all fascinating questions, to which there are only speculative answers today. All we know for now is that our universe is becoming more and more ‘disorderly’, and time marches resolutely and uni-directionally forward.

Side note: Boltzmann was so profoundly distressed by philosophical objections to his findings that he became acutely depressed in his later years and eventually committed suicide.

The Third World of Uncertainty.

Deep down in the recesses of matter, at the sub-atomic level, there exists a world of great uncertainty, where an entirely different set of natural laws govern. As we break matter down into elements, then atoms and eventually sub-atomic particles, a dramatically different picture emerges. There are several things that are weird about this quantum mechanical world, as compared to the worlds of Einstein and Newton. Before I get there, let me try first to describe this world and how we came to stumble upon it.

One of the first clues to the quixotic nature of sub atomic particles came from experiments performed on the behavior of light. Of the many that were attempted, the most famous experiment in capturing the central puzzles of quantum mechanics is the Young’s double slit experiment, conducted in 1801.

It’s relevant to note that, at the time Young performed his experiment, light was thought of to be a ‘wave’ which is to say that light was not thought of be composed of ‘particles’ with mass. Young merely set out to prove the wave nature of light with his experiment. It’s a pretty simple experiment which consists of passing light through two narrow slits placed close to each other on a piece of cardboard or metal. As expected, light diffused and spread as it passed through the slits, forming a predictable ‘interference pattern’ on a screen, which is caused when waves of light interfere with each other. Every one was overjoyed, and Young slept soundly at night after that.

youngschematic2

Fast forward a hundred years to the early 1900s. By this time, there was enough evidence to believe that light might be, in fact, be composed of minuscule packets containing discrete amounts of energy, also known as ‘quanta’. Max Planck and then Einstein built equations to describe the energy that could be contained in each packet of light called photon, which led to the discovery of the ‘photo electric’ effect, for which Einstein received the Nobel Prize. This set the stage for the study of what came to be known as quantum mechanics.

The tale of Young’s double slit experiment saw a dramatic twist around this time. A curious person asked, “What if I were to shoot a single photon through the double slits, which one would it pass through?” By this time, scientists had built equipment capable of generating single photons and detectors which could spot them as they moved along.

When a single photon was shot at the double slits, one of the most mysterious events ever observed in physics happened. The photon appeared to pass through both slits at the same time to form a familiar diffraction pattern earlier seen by Young. How was it possible that a single photon could enter through two slits at the same time? Did the photon pass through one slit, and then somehow traveled back in time back through it and then re-enter the other slit to interfere with itself to form wave patterns? Mind boggling stuff. There is no accepted answer to why this happens till this day.

And now comes the really weird part. Another curious person decided to place a detector after the slit. The detector was like a security guard, keeping a close eye on the photon to identify the slit through which it passed. A magical event happened. When the detector was placed, the photon decided that it was going to behave itself, and exactly like a particle. Something about the act of observation, which the photon somehow seemed to be aware of, made it abandon its wave nature. This experiment has been repeated with other particles such as electrons with similar perplexing results.

'You have reached the Heisenberg Institute. Your call will be answered in random order.'

Quantum mechanics describes the world of minuscule things (sub atomic particles), which are separated by minuscule distances. As things stand, it is believed that there are twelve fundamental particles (an electron is one of them) which combine to form higher order particles such as protons, neutrons, etc. which in turn combine to form atoms and molecules, eventually culminating in things like babies, trees, rocks, water, clouds, earth, moon, stars and all such matter that exists in the universe. The Standard Model is a set of equations which describe the state of each functional particle and the conditions under which it forms and exists.

Let’s talk about time in this world.

What’s intriguing is that the arrow of time does not show up in the laws of physics which govern these fundamental particles. The world of electrons, bosons, quarks and other fundamental particles is what is called a probabilistic one. The existence of the particles at a particular position is defined by a set of probabilities. An electron could manifest itself in positions A, B and C, each with a probability of ‘p’. In other words, it exists everywhere and yet nowhere. At any given instant, the wave function describing the electron “collapses” to manifest it at a specific position. The same is true for other particles. It’s like Mother Nature is trying to make up her mind as she goes along, considering infinite possibilities and ruling in favor of one, at each and every instant.

Let’s say we were to somehow be able to build a gigantic model using every tiny bit of data starting from the Big Bang to now, and run a simulation on a massive supercomputer. Even if we did that, we would not be able to predict with certainty what would happen the very next second. That’s because even Mother Nature is yet to decide what she is going to do next.

Here’s the great paradox: Formation, existence and transformation of the fundamental particles, which make up all matter, don’t appear to subject to the arrow of time. They exist in a timeless state of no causality, memory, metabolism, death, etc., in a world of probabilistic fluctuations. The arrow of time seems to be an overlay, almost an after thought, on top of these laws of physics, and applies only to the higher order blocks of matter built from fundamental particles. Our worlds become less and less predictable as we zoom inwards. Weird.

This theory of fundamental unpredictability made many uncomfortable, including Einstein who ironically was considered the founding father of quantum mechanics. Einstein’s relativistic description of space-time continuum, just a few years before quantum mechanics came along, implied the exact opposite: that the world was determinate and that there were no such things as free will, choice and uncertainty. That the universe was a giant program juggling to adjust many parameters to keep a few from changing. The space-time continuum wasn’t evolving. It was already there. The future had already transpired, and everything in the universe was merely traversing its own space-time path towards a predictable and fulfilled destiny. Quantum mechanics came along and put forth this great notion that the future was yet to happen, and yet was not necessarily influenceable or subject to manipulations by higher order matter. The great angst brought about the new revelations prompted Einstein to respond tersely that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and an exasperated Heisenberg, who led the young turks of quantum physics, to retort, “Please don’t tell God what he must or not do.”

For the last seven or eight decades, much scientific energy has been expended in attempting to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable worlds into one Grand Unified Theory of Everything, with no tangible success so far.

Interstellar.

The movie took my breath away. It made me happy, sad and even cry. America may be losing its edge on a few fronts, but by God, it still makes the best movies in the world.

Official trailer of “Interstellar.” (video)

Interstellar is an awesome example of how science can form a real foundation for movie making. It’s the story of Coop, an astronaut who goes on a mission to find a new world to which humans can escape from Earth, which is in its final stage of destruction. The heart tugging relationship between Coop and his daughter, Murph, which plays out over the space-time continuum provides an emotional backdrop to the intergalactic quest. It’s a movie not just about science. At the heart of it, it’s a work of art which makes us wonder about the magnificence of everything. It gives us pause to ponder things, which might escape us otherwise in our humdrum lives.

Tomorrow never comes. Or does it?

So, is time travel possible? What happens when we enter a black hole? What happens when we die? Would we acquire the ability to move forwards and backwards on the space-time continuum, inside a four dimensional Tasseract? There are some fantastic scenarios that Interstellar portrays, much of it attributable to an artistic liberty and a creative license to imagine.

Of course, time travel is possible. We traveled from yesterday to today. 🙂 Seriously, since the arrow of time points only forward, it’s possible that travel to the past may be impossible, although it has not been mathematically or theoretically proven to be impossible.

Another way of looking at time travel into the past is to examine the nature of causality or ‘cause-effect’, a phenomenon made possible by the ‘flow’ of time. Cause always precedes effect in our universe. Effect may not be allowed to go back in time, to modify or destroy its cause, thanks to the uni-directional arrow of time.

If we were somehow able to enter a higher dimension from which we could witness the space-time continuum, it is then possible that we would be able to move along it to the past and the future. This would raise interesting paradoxes. What if you went into the past and somehow convinced your dad to never have children?

In which case, would we be allowed to revisit the past, if we solemnly promised to refrain from interfering with and changing it? If that were possible, we would merely observe the past as passive observers, just as we are when watching a movie. Wait, we can already do that by recording the past with a video camera, or simply in our memories. Memory is a special form of time travel into a specific part of the past in which we have participated, isn’t it?

time travel

Kids these days….

Why does time go by slower on Miller’s planet?

Miller’s planet, in Interstellar, is a water world, located just outside the event horizon of a massive black hole called Gargantua. A black hole is an anomaly in the universe, believed to have enormous mass concentrated in a singularity similar to the one from which the universe began. A blackhole can be looked at as a massive space-time curvature, inside or near which time slows down dramatically due to gravity.

Wait, they aren’t mountains. They are tidal waves.” In a spectacular moment in the movie, Coop and crew realize that Miller’s planet, which because of its wobbling, really resembles a huge bowl in which water is careening from one edge to another causing tidal waves the size of mountains.

Since Miller’s planet is located within the gravitational field of Gargantua, a black hole with a mass of 100 million suns, each hour on it (we’re told) corresponds to 7 years for someone outside its field. By the time Coop and his partner return to their spaceship, their colleague and Coop’s daughter on Earth have aged by 23 years.

Later, Coop is pulled into the black hole, in which he spends a few minutes, during which another eighty years pass by on Earth. During this time, he enters the mysterious Tasseract, where he travels back in time to guide his past self and then Murph towards solving the set of equations, which allows them to eventually leave Earth, resettle near Saturn and find him. Is it really possible to exit a black hole once you’ve entered it? Unlikely. Is it possible that you can travel back to the past and alter it? Unlikely. Is it possible that our descendants, from the future, can help us escape our present? An exhilarating leap of faith and hopeful imagination.

All we are is.. dust in the wind.

The nature of tIme has been a matter of much speculation for thousands of years, even before Einstein and modern savants came along. Western philosophical and religious view of time has always been a linear, uni-directional one, with starting and ending points. Judeo-Christian-Islamic schools of thought portray time as coming into existence with the ‘creation’, and ending with ‘judgement day’, when the past, in its entirety, will be reviewed with an intent to judge faith and dispense justice. Eastern mystics took more exotic and intriguing stances on time. The Hindus and the Buddhists described time as a “kaala chakra,” cyclical in nature, without beginning or end, stretching into infinity, much as science views the universe. Creation and destruction of things are events that repeat themselves periodically on this cycle. Even Brahma, the creator himself, is subject to the laws of oblivion, and yields his way to a new Brahma when his end arrives. Vedic thinkers intuitively grasped the uncertainty which lies hidden beneath it all, and concluded that the purpose of life lay in enquiry aimed at drawing the distinction between the real and the unreal.

Regardless of our personal beliefs, aspirations and desires to shape our worlds as we wish them to be, and our chosen paths in the pursuit of what we like to call the Truth, enquiry into the nature of things leads us eventually to the comforting possibility that we are, in a true sense, nature gazing upon herself. That, while we may be insignificant lumps of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen on an inconsequential, tiny planet in some corner of a magnificent universe, we have, within our grasp, a great power: the ability to let go, and look upon the worlds with wonder and awe.

Happy journeys.

Kansas, “Dust in the Wind.” (video)

The information in this post is drawn from many sources- mostly my readings over the years and my notes from them. One of the great blessings of ignorance is the ability to over simplify. In my anxiety to tell things simply, it is entirely possible that I may have mis-stated things. It is also possible that I may have misunderstood things. In fact, it is unlikely that this is error proof. If you spot anything amiss, please do let me know. I stand ready to be corrected. Thanks for reading.

An Open Letter to Arvind Kejriwal

Dear Arvind Kejriwal,

I know that you are asking us to vote for you only because you mean well. It doesn’t quite work that way in the real world. Meaning well is to be contrasted with doing well, something you didn’t  convincingly demonstrate, the last time you caught a break. What remains invisible in the misty cloud of your agitations and restless anxiety is the true nature of what you are trying to accomplish with this complex cocoon of perceptibly false humility, self righteous citizenship and unending laments that you have woven, and now live in. Maybe that is some kind of wisdom that hasn’t yet visited us. Or, maybe you are out of your mind. Who knows, right?

I want to say this. I want to say “cheers.” You are a square peg in a round hole. I thank you for tolerating our selfish, hypocritical schmucky ways, and trying to change our alien rules. Cheers to your unfettered existence, disentangled from such earthly constraints as going to work, earning a living and making sense.

The last thing on my mind when I see a guy on a ledge contemplating a leap is to join to him in a death bound spiral out of some morbid fascination for adventure. But I can see the ethereal purity in your being; the misty pure white wispiness of your soul. There is something shamanic about your detachment from crude principles of economics and finance as you dispense free power and water. You’re just out there, floating; an untainted vision of chaotic, insouciant purity. 

Truth be told, I’m flattered by the attention you pay us. That you should even deign to ask us, mere mortals, to vote for you suggests that we may, after all, be cool in our own ways and that sometimes even you may need others to further your cause. Cheers. I beseech you to not abandon your path. Sometimes, things get away. That’s the way of life. Forgive us for we are but mere bundles of cells constantly regenerating themselves every twenty odd days, struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible. We are wobbling ships on stormy seas. We still have roads to traverse, and mountains to climb before we may claim to be worthy of you.

And, that is why you are not going to get our votes. 

Cheers.

What Ho!

In Defense of Sagarika Ghose

I’ll come right out and say it. I cannot be more supportive of Sagarika Ghose and her valiant attempt to reform those incorrigible internet Hindus and restore freedom of speech to this great nation called India.

I believe that the people of India must immediately bury their differences and come together to find common ground. This is a crucial moment in the country’s history. I cannot think of how better we can elevate ourselves into the strata of developed nations than to engage in an inane and superficial examination of the issue of free speech.

If there was ever a time for inanity, it is now.

Recent elections have polarized and their results are slowly destroying the nation. Fascists roam freely in our midst, dressed in myriad hues of saffron. If we are to ever to progress into a golden era of freedom and prosperity, we must, with all our hearts, encourage on a national scale, second-standard-level conversations about the troublesome issues that plague this country.

Like it or not, India urgently needs a dumbed down conversation on the importance of freedom of expression. Critically, it needs this dialogue to be led by smug, self-righteous Oxford educated liberals, like Sagarika, who have no appreciation for how little their self serving, one-dimensional approach brings to the table.

We all bear the solemn duty to set aside our own ill-begotten opinions, and instead focus on the first idea that comes to the refined mind of Ms. Sagarika Ghose. Is that asking for too much?

We may have voted in our wisdom, and brought to the helm a mere chai-wallah who governs with confidence and promises a better future. But, our work is not done yet. The time has come to start saying and doing foolish things once again.

It has been far too long since we shared long-discredited arguments about Gujarat in 2002. Terms like “encounters” and “moral compass” should be put back in the spotlight. And, while we’re being open and honest, why not trot out that elephant in the room and talk about the insensitivity of those who clamor for a uniform civil code? We have strayed from the path of righteousness, and now must allow ourselves to be skillfully guided back to it.

I beseech intellectuals to step forward and hold forth on the importance of maintaining a “secular fabric,” without ever pausing to examine its innards. It is my fond hope that Sagarika will, some day, part the Red Sea of bigotry that divides us, and lead us into a promised land where free speech blossoms and flowers, undeterred by internet Hindu Nazis.

To rightists and leftists alike, I say this: Remember that there is a reason as to why the Internet exists. It exists for Sagarika. And equally importantly, it doesn’t exist for Hindus. If only we allowed ourselves take appropriate advantage of this incredible technology, we could, in theory, empower brave men and women like Sagarika to lead the way and initiate embarrassingly simple-minded dialogues on the “right to dissent.” Their discourses will be greeted with warmth by other like-minded liberal intellectuals, who have never experienced the temptation of thinking about an issue beyond their presumptions. Sagarika will thus be encouraged, nay even reinvigorated, to write hundreds of blogs, all saying one or another of two to three unsubstantial viewpoints on a wide variety of nuanced cultural issues.

Let’s face it. Since independence, a flawed penal system muzzling citizens’ rights to free speech has long been our nation’s dirty little secret, an ugly reality carefully swept under the rug of polite discourse, emerging only in occasional, angry rants about rapes, police brutality and Happy New Year. We must bring this issue out into the open. And, as they lead this national conversation, I pray that our liberal intelligentsia take great care to not lose their self-assured witlessness as they pontificate to those who struggle to appreciate those truths that they so effortlessly see.

Only by keeping alive a shallow, one- dimensional dialogue can we ensure that we, as a nation, never get down to deeper issues that may some day tear us apart.

Dare to imagine it. Dare to stand with Sagarika. The nation will be the better for it.

ps: If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read Sagarika’s eloquently well done “Letter to India’s Right: All critics aren’t leftists or deshdrohis” If you have no idea what she’s talking about, I’m afraid that I can’t help you there, mate.

Your Inner Drone

Is it me or is it getting warm around here?

In Greek mythology, Daedalus is a master craftsman who designs and builds the infamous Labyrinth on the island of Crete for King Minos, who needs it to imprison the Minotaur, a half bull, half human creature. Minos imprisons both Daedalus and his son, Icarus in a tower inside the Labyrinth to prevent the world from knowing his dark secret. To escape, Daedalus fashions wings of wax and feathers for his son and himself. Before they take flight, he cautions his son to fly neither too low nor too high. Icarus ignores the advice, and soars into the skies in hubris. Wings of wax are melted by the sun. Icarus falls and drowns in the sea. It is a tale of ambition aborted by arrogance.

The human race may be set to repeat that tale on a grander scale in the decades to come, according to Nicholas Carr, the author of “The Glass Cage.”

The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once asked, “Can the synthesis of man and machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded?” In the business world at least, no stability in the division of work between human and computer seems in the offing. The prevailing methods of computerized communication and coordination pretty much ensure that the role of people will go on shrinking.

We’ve designed a system that will discard us eventually.

> An excerpt from Carr’s new book, “The Glass Cage.”

Bad Ass Bankers

It’s no secret that banks have tightened credit after the Great Recession of 2008. Just how hard have they made it to get a loan? Pretty hard because former Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke recently divulged that he was unable to refinance his home loan. Bernanke was the Fed Chairman until January 2014 when he stepped down. And in the fully automated world of mortgage finance, having recently changed jobs makes you a steeper credit risk. Yes, there it is again. The A word. Automation.

> New York Times explains why Bernanke can’t get a loan.

Wait, Whaa? Is Pluto a planet again?

Pluto, as you may recall, was unceremoniously booted out of the solar system fraternity and relegated to a ‘dwarf planet’ status, just a couple of notches above the position Manmohan Singh occupied as Prime Minister during UPA’s tenure. Eight years later, some say that Pluto got a raw deal and should be reinstated, which is more than what we can say for Manmohan.  So, what can Pluto expect? Not much. The powerful, anti-Pluto lobby in the International Astronomers Union is not interested.

Listen up.

An analysis of the 25 most popular relationship books reveals that they have much in common in terms of the advice they offer. The most commonly recurring piece of wisdom across all these books? Learn how to really listen.

Talk funny to me.

Chances are someone, somewhere, thinks that you talk funny. Losing an accent is hard because we learn languages by picking up sounds and imitating our parents as babies and this skill tapers off as we approach puberty.

What’s up with that? Why it’s so hard to lose an accent.

A rose by another name.

The next time someone grinds your gears, you should throw down a clever insult like “swaggering rascal.” That’s some serious barbed stuff from the Bard himself.

> BBC envisions what If Shakespearean insults were used today.

Yes, we can.. do yoga.

Barack Obama is impressed with Narendra Modi for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the ‘energy and vigor’ displayed by Modi on a diet of warm water. Obama is so impressed that he’s planning to take up yoga. Looking at how little the Prez has managed to get done in his second term, we all may have to resort to warm water and yoga ourselves soon.

E for Ebola.

Ebola is here in America. From the sound of it, the media wants us to first panic and then calm down. The virus does not transmit by air or water. It transmits through blood and body fluids. So it’s not contagious in a viral sense. Keep calm and err …drink lots of warm water and do yoga.

Narendra Modi lands in America

Sep 27, 2014.

The world we live in always has something scary at any point in time.

We have an unmanageable Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a terrorist movement flexing muscles in Iraq and Syria and presumably thirsting to wreak destruction on the world at large.

Ebola is spreading faster than expected. 2,800 people have died so far. African countries reeling from the aftermath of civil wars and sheer lack of resources and discipline are struggling to contain it.

And we have another frightening scourge in Vinod Mehta whose incoherent rant on the US, Modi and NRIs displayed his fine ability to hide lack of cognition and introspective thinking beneath a cloak of drunken stupor.

[Vinod Mehta asks “India loves the people of US. But is the reverse also true?”]

Notwithstanding these Damoclean swords hanging over its vulnerable head, the world saw a week filled with events considered improbable not too long back.

President Obama assembled an impressive coalition of world forces to counter ISIS. There are fifty countries in the alliance although it remains to be seen how many will put troops on the ground for the cause. China and Russia unsurprisingly continue to stand aloof.

Speaking of Russia, Vladimir Putin displayed admirable restraint in the last couple of weeks in not invading a neighbor.

Narendra Modi landed in America to a rockstar’s welcome. It’s been a long journey from being denied a US visa to a State Dinner, proving that lion hearted Gujaratis will do anything, including winning elections and becoming Prime Minister, in order to get a visa to the land of milk and honey. The satisfaction of having a Prime Minister who is in charge and takes the world stage with aplomb and assurance is immeasurable.

The likable and self-avowed lifelong bachelor George Clooney married Amal Amaluddin in Venice. Let’s hope that he enjoys a long and happy married life, for he’s just an all round great guy and deserves it as much as or perhaps even more than any of us.

There was more to cheer about. Apple began selling iPhone 6. Consumers voted with their wallets and Apple sold 10 million phones worth $6 billion on the first weekend alone. Apple amply demonstrated its mojo and ability to win in the post-Jobs world.

Emma Watson gave an outstanding speech on gender rights at the UN and caught the attention of the world. As someone remarked, the only regrettable aspect of Watson’s speech was that it is even required in 2014. As she points out, “There isn’t yet a country in the world which can claim to provide equal rights to men and women.”

[ Emma Watson speaks about her HeForShe campaign and gender equality at the UN]

Indian Space Research Organization pulled off a magnificent feat by putting an unmanned probe into Mars orbit on its first attempt. ISRO’s probe, called Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), weighs about 3000 lbs (slightly more than a Honda Civic) and travelled for about 300 days before entering the orbit. Kudos to ISRO for bringing us a truly memorable and celebration worthy moment in India’s history.

india-mars-orbiter-photo-atmosphere

[Pic: The second photo from Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), ISRO’s unmanned probe to Mars. Source: ISRO]

Considering that MOM travelled nearly 780 million kilometers, its cost works out to less than Rs 8 per kilometer, which makes ISRO staggeringly less expensive than an average auto rickshaw in Bangalore on any given day.

What makes this even more of a spectacular achievement is that ISRO’s Mars mission cost $74 million, a tenth of what it cost Americans to put Maven, their own probe, into the Martian orbit. How was this possible? A couple of factors: ISRO engineers make between a tenth to a fifth of the salaries made by their counterparts at NASA. Another contributing factor is that MOM carries 30 pounds of equipment and material and is designed for a much shorter term life than Maven, which is carrying over 150 pounds of equipment. It’s not a competition. It’s a noteworthy accomplishment by India which bodes well for attempts to deepen our understanding of the red planet.

Have a good weekend, folks. And this is my version of news as I see it.

Things I Believe In

I wrote this in November 2011. Inspired by a TED lecture, I jotted down a list of things that I believe in, or to put it in another way, the way I look at things. I’ve revisited it several times over the years and now am comfortable with sharing. This has been on the What Ho! page but I haven’t drawn specific attention to it until now.

I’d recommend this exercise to everyone. Writing is not just therapeutic. It forces one to continuously examine the meaning of statements. It helps us understand the source of our deepest desires and fears – both of which are connected to each other, and in the process, I hope, will bring lasting joy to you.

Naturally, this ‘list’ continues to be work in progress.

Things I believe in.

1.  Everything is connected. There is an omnipresent, all pervasive spirit that binds the destiny of things, in this universe and any other universes that may exist. I call this spirit Para Brahman or simply ‘the Spirit.’

2.  My existence is a manifestation of a larger purpose that is being fulfilled, both with and without my consent and knowledge. My life is a piece of a bigger picture, which I am unable to see in its fullness at the moment. The purpose of my life is to remove that which is unnecessary so as to be able to get a direct glimpse of this richness. I call that which is unnecessary as Maya.

3.  Everything – animate and inanimate – possesses a singular ability to sense the connection to the larger picture. This springs from an indestructible essence of its being, that which I call the Atman or the Soul.

4.  I believe in the continuous exercise and introspection of the mind and its free will – so I can rid myself of both of them. I value opinions the way I value tents on a cold wintry night on a mountainside. They provide us protection against the elements so we can stay warm for a little while and get blood coursing through our veins. But, we should dare to and inevitably must venture out into the snowstorms so we can scale the peaks. I believe in accumulating wings and legs and that which will help me move in any way, but not in setting up camps and staying rooted inside tents.

5.  I have affinity for neither good nor bad, neither gods created by men nor men, neither virtuous nor evil, neither mine nor another, neither attachment nor detachment, or for any quality that has an opposite. Everything is relative. I will do my best to be good or bad, virtuous or evil, attached or detached and behave in ways – depending on what the situation calls for. I would like to practice disinterested observation in such matters for the purpose for comprehending what is not necessary, and for sensing the connection to the things around me. This practice I call Yoga.

6.  I have no expectations. Anything I or others do or anything that happens to me or other things keeps me moving, forward or backward or sideways, in the quest. I view this ‘anything I or others do or anything that happens to me or other things’ as the continuous flow of energy or Karma. It is the way of things. I accept it to be true.

7.  I do not desire ‘understanding’. Understanding gets in the way of experience. I am in search of experience and am willing to be led by where experience takes me and remain open to letting ‘understanding’ settle where it might.

8.  I have a yearning to see ‘the bigger picture’ in all its richness and glory. I can sense its presence behind the curtain. I know that I will see it. Only I do not know when. I believe that – as long as I have the yearning – I will not see it. But this yearning is what fuels my journey. I do not know how to resolve this conundrum. Perhaps I need to give up my quest in order to fulfill it.

9.  There is no life. There is no death. There is no time, nor will it run out. There is no race. There are no winners. There are no losers. There is no cause. There is no effect. There is only Karma – the continuous flow of energy. Everything changes from time to time as a result of Karma. Indeed, time is an illusion created by Karma. If there was no change, there would be no need to keep track of and measure ‘time’. At the ‘end’ when all Karma has ceased, we will all find ourselves united in the same place called whatever you may call it – heaven, hell or nothingness. And things will start all over again. That is the only destiny that I believe to be true, inevitable and unavoidable and one that fills me with wonder and awe. In this belief lies the true source of happiness or sat-chit-ananda.

10.  I believe in the universal well being of all things and will do what I can towards that end. I cannot change the world because I don’t know much about it. I don’t believe in morals. There are no moral absolutes which transcend space and time. While I may profess sympathy, my goal is empathy and to be able to look at the things around us from another’s perspective. I do not wish for powers to change another’s life or this world. I wish to divest myself of all powers, prejudices and agendas, so I can remove the curtain and see. To this end, I will construct and destroy my own situational moral compasses. I will neither judge nor foist my morphing and ephemeral moral standards on another.

11.  I do not have material evidence, the powers of persuasion, the intensity of purpose and the desire to convince another of my beliefs.  I am open to the possibility that all or some of my beliefs are wrong, and will remain open to influence.  I will do my utmost to exercise reason and intuition so I can sense the difference between what is expansive, profound and unknowable and that which is merely sophisticated, confining and complex. I call this sense my ‘consciousness’ or my ‘spiritual conscience’. This is the way I can deal with conflicts created in the mind.

If you’d like to stay in touch, you can join me on Twitter Follow @waatho

India – Cut and Dried

India – Cut and Dried takes artistic liberty in chronicling real experiences during my life in India between 2002 and 2014.

The Indians invented zero, built the Taj Mahal, threw the towel in and called it a day. Historians were told to take the next several hundred years off. Deep within the Indian psyche once lay an adventurous spirit which sought to understand the best of things. Now it asks, “‘What’s the worst that can happen?

A couple of years back, I went to see a doctor in Bangalore. As luck would have it, he was one of those wizened, cynical men who have seen it all. The man waved me to a chair as he fiddled with a phone. He made no attempt to establish eye contact. As he fiddled, his sub-conscious voice rang out, “I’ve been in this profession for 40 years. I’ve seen it all. The Hippocratic Oath be damned. It’s not worth saving you people. You can wait until this app finishes downloading on my pathetic 2G connection. Feel free to leave anytime. What’s the worst that can happen?

I took in the windowless room. The man had shut himself out from the rest of the world. And here I was, an unwelcome intrusion.

I’ve been to doctors in America. The startling thing about them is that they communicate. Rather fluently as a matter of fact. They use sentences with more than two words. They wear clean shirts. And shoes.

“You think I’ll make it, doc? The faint rash on the lower thigh looks fatal, doesn’t it?”

The doctor always resisted the temptation to slap me across the face. Instead he’d put his notepad down, look me in the eyeballs and explain why I wasn’t about to tragically die young.

As my thoughts wandered, the doctor in Bangalore continued to fiddle. After five minutes, he looked up and made fleeting eye contact through a mirror on the wall as though I was Medusa and he was Perseus.

Then I heard him speak. Hallelujah!

“So what’s your problem?”

“Umm.. we met last week.. ”

This caused him to lose any interest he might have had in me at this point. His eyes lowered and he reverted to Neroesque fiddling as I sat likely dying of an incurable ailment.

I waited in uncertainty. Sensing a rapidly losing cause, I spoke again.

“I have a ringing noise in my ears. You told me to get hearing tests done. I have brought the results.”

He looked up.

“Yes, I remember you. Why is it not ringing?”

I stared, wondering which of us had a hearing problem.

 “I said that MY ears are ringing.”

“I know. I meant my phone.”

Foxed by his cryptic words, I stayed tuned in for further updates.

 “I just bought a new phone. It’s not ringing. What could be wrong?”

He handed me a brand new Samsung Galaxy 2.

“Maybe if my phone rang and your ears didn’t, we could call it a win-win, no?”

He laughed. It was a good one. But it failed to move me. Resentful, I turned the volume of the phone up.

“Here you go.”

I handed the phone to him. His facial expression continued to indicate that interest in my welfare had not made an appearance yet.

“How about I give you my phone number and you call me?”

I like to think of myself as a Zen kind of guy, with an inner Buddha chanting Tat Tvam Asi and the works. I believe that anger resides only in the bosom of fools. I have let go. And I’ve been happy ever since. I even wrote a book on all of this. Yet I felt a rising tide of anger.

“You want me to leave now and call you later?”

He looked at me, his eyes crinkling as though they were staring at the sun.

“No, not like that. Can you call me so I can hear the phone ring?”

My inner Buddha struggled to process this request. Glumly I acceded. It made him distinctly happier.

“Let’s see your results.”

He opened the envelope and began reading. His next question was a wicked doosra.

“Have you ever stood in front of a large speaker?”

“No. Why?”

“Because you have lost 50% of your hearing at higher frequencies.”

I waited for more. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him continue.

“Your hearing is normal enough to hear humans speak. Isn’t that good enough?”

My inner Buddha fought valiantly to contain my inner Hercules from slaying the man with a machete in one fluid motion. Outwardly calm, I responded.

“You said that I’ve lost half my hearing at a higher frequency. Is this normal? How did this happen?”

“I told you already. You must have stood in front of a large speaker.”

“But I have not stood in front of a large speaker. I once watched Nitin Gadkari speak on TV. That doesn’t count, does it?,” I protested.

“You must have. Unless you are 60 years old. Anyway, how does it matter?”

His inner Buddha had stumped mine. I resorted to another line of attack.

“Can you make the ringing noise go away?”

“Depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“Are you willing to wear a hearing aid? Some people think they look weird.”

“If you put it that way, no.”

“Then I can’t make the ringing noise go away.”

“But I got your phone to ring. That was our deal.”

My plea fell on deaf ears. Pun intended.

“Sorry. There is nothing I can do.”

“Wait. Is this a symptom of something else which could be serious?”

“Like what?”

“You are the doctor. You tell me. Please.”

“Probably not. I don’t think so. Unlikely.”

“Probably? You don’t think so? You are not sure? Don’t you want to look inside my ears or something?”

“No.”

“Come on, doc. I say we check for something.”

“Like what?”

I was licked. I let go.

“Fine. Let me understand what happened just now. I fixed your phone. And then you told me that you can’t fix my hearing. That I have to live with a ringing noise in my ears. That we should not bother because I am PROBABLY not dying of something serious right now. Is that correct?”

“Correct. Look at it another way. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll just lose all your hearing in another 10 or 20 years. Speaking of bad things, do you think I should get a screen protector for my phone?”

At this juncture, I did as any normal Indian would. I threw in the towel and called it a day.

The Cosmic Calendar

If you watched the first episode of “Cosmos” [hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the National Geographic channel], then you will be familiar with the cosmic calendar which highlights the immensity of the cosmic time scale. Our universe was formed 13.8 billion years ago. If we shrank that down to fit one year, we get the cosmic calendar.

1 day in the cosmic calendar = approximately 40 million years. 1 month = 1 billion+ years.

If the Big Bang happened on the first day (January 1), then:

The universe expanded and cooled over the next 200 million years ( ~5 days).

It was dark until gravitational forces pulled together critical masses of hot gases to form the first stars.

Light flashed into being as the first stars began forming on January 10.

Stars began clustering to form galaxies, small and large.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, was born on March 15. About eleven billion years ago.

Earth was born around September. Life on earth started around the same time.

Humans did not arise until December 31, the last day of the year.

Modern civilization has been around for only the last 14 seconds of the year.

Jesus Christ was born 5 seconds ago.

Columbus arrived in America 1 second ago.

India got her Independence from the British 0.145 second ago.

I was born 0.099 second ago and will likely will live for just another 0.065 second, give or take 0.005 second.

Every human we know of, who is part of documented history, lived in the last 14 seconds.

I can’t think of a more significant piece of information that shows our insignificance in the grand scheme of things.

Mind blowing perspective as we ponder our earthly problems.

Cosmic_Calendar

[Reference: Cosmic Calendar on National Geographic]

Zenlighten Up is about interestingness. I try to raise interesting questions about our lives and the world around us and the connection that may or not exist between the two.

God denies answering prayers

Yesterday, What Ho! received this letter from God which I feel obliged to share.

Dear Dr. What Ho!,

It has come to my attention that there is a falsehood circulating and an impression being created that I have been answering human prayers. I’d be grateful if you could publicize this letter far and wide as I’m anxious to dispel such a patent lie.

First, let me start by explaining how [what you call] the ‘system’ works. There are many systems. They are filled with things I had not even fathomed when I embarked on this journey. Speaking about this system of yours, there are black holes, galaxies, stars, planets and moons to name a few. And then there is the Earth. Based on what I am hearing from you guys, your system is 13.8 billion years old and you’ve been around for the last few million, give or take. There have been other things which have been around long before you came along. Like volcanos, mountains, oceans, fishes, dinosaurs and birds, to name a few. I find it intriguing that none of them prayed. Indeed, the volume of pleas from Earth has spiked from near zero to a ginormous number only after you guys showed up.

BeFunky_prayers.png

I like to think of your system as having an amorphous and invisible ‘central brain’ which regulates itself and constantly attempts to re-establish equilibrium within itself and with other systems. What is fascinating to me is that you guys appear to have developed some sort of a sixth sense as you call it. A “local human brain” if you will, which is incessantly attempting to disrupt the global equilibrium with its self-centered attempts to establish local equilibrium. In other words, your pleas, while they are an area of curious interest for me, are unlikely to be met with either prompt or favorable responses. I’m disappointed that you would even think of me, a Supreme Being, as a puppet to be wielded by your strings of prayers.

Second, I feel that I must explain my job responsibilities. My job title, which I’m convinced has to be made more self-explanatory, is God. It is weird to be called something which means nothing to anyone but you humans. My surveys have established that quarks, leptons, gluons and the Higgs Boson have not heard of or ‘experienced’ God before. I suspect that’s true for galaxies, stars and planets and everything else but you. And I haven’t even broached this with all those multiverses out there. I suggest we you look into an alternative nomenclature for my job title. Possibilities are “A Higher Order,” “The Observer” or “The Spirit.” The last is a nod to the Indians from both the eastern and western hemispheres of Earth. I like it the best.

As for my job responsibilities, I have none. I understand that you regard me as the Original Cause. But that does not automatically impose any moral or other responsibilities on me. I bear no obligation to anything that has arisen and will arise as the arrow of Time speeds forward. I owe you nothing. In fact, no one owes anyone anything. Such is the nature of things.

This leads me to the question of ‘What the heck do I do every day?’

I spend my time observing things. It’s like watching television. You may have your opinions on what goes on out there. You get the sinking feeling that you may have contributed to the problem. Every so often, you feel the urge to tweet about it. And on occasion, you want to wreck the TV screen with a baseball bat. I resist the temptation to do any of the above.

A lot of things fascinate me. They are usually at levels which are a couple of notches and degrees higher and separated from where you are. For example, the question, ‘why are you guys even there in the first place?’ fascinates me. Why is anything there at all? Why am I not alone here by myself? Have you ever seen a massive star collapse into a giant black hole? That never gets old. I could go on. I hope that you understand that your lives are not in an immediate zone of my consideration. I don’t concern myself with earthquakes in Haiti. I don’t pay attention to Kim Kardashian’s wardrobe or lack of it. I wouldn’t know what to do if two futbol fans, one Brazilian and another German, prayed and asked for their teams to win. I haven’t read the Pope’s tweets yet. I smile when Stephen Hawking denies my existence. I could go on.

There is a massive misunderstanding that surrounds my existence and responsibilities. You guys have made a rather fantastic assumption that I have to prove my existence in order to exist. There was a government in India which existed for ten years and did absolutely nothing. And yet no one disputed its existence. Think of me the same way. Think of me as an impassioned observer, curious but unwilling to play a role in your unimaginative and dreary lives as your universe marches to its yet unfulfilled destiny. Would you gaze upon a new born child with an agenda? No. You simply see the beauty in her, marvel at her existence and accept that she will grow up to be whoever she wants to be. Such is the nature of things.

There are those who believe that I don’t exist because they don’t have a role for me. There are those who believe in me so they can create a role for me. Why are we always trying to change others to be more like ourselves? Why can’t we all just get along? I’m here. I speak nothing. I do nothing. Hey, that’s me. If someone has a problem with this, I suggest they have a short chat with Dr. Manmohan Singh. He knows what I’m talking about.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to be negative. If praying provides solace, I don’t see the harm in it. There are no false beliefs. There are only beliefs which have advantages and beliefs which are costly. I’d rather have you pick your own poison. I’d rather have you simply try to connect with me without an agenda. I’d rather have you meet me as an equal, as a fellow traveler who’s willing to share his beer with me as we marvel at the vistas together.

I am sorry. I know that you need to see me as the ultimate go-to guy in a world filled with pain, injustice, violence and disappointment. The easiest life is one of deluded ignorance. But it is one which alternates between intoxicating pleasure and incomprehensible pain. So, the curious and the disillusioned among you go in search of the truth. I’ve been gazing on universes for a long time. All I’ve learnt so far is that the only truth is that there are no eternal truths which hold across space, distance and time.  So I suggest a little circumspection and a lot of preparation when you go in search because truth is the last thing you will want to encounter if you have not prepared yourself for it.

I am sorry. I know that someday you will die. And that, deep within you lurks a fear of death and oblivion. Of being nothing and irrelevant. There is nothing I can do about it. That is the beauty of this design; that things go on. Beauty lies in a cycle of creation and destruction of things and not in this in-between state called living, which you must look upon merely as an opportunity to behold this beauty. Life is no more and no less than a set of experiences. The larger this set is, the easier it becomes to understand this description of life. Everything moves on. I wish I could tell you that you’re special. The thing is you’re just a tiny lump of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen on an obscure planet in a limitless set of universes. When you die, everyone and everything else will move on. So, clearly this is not about you. This is not even about the things which are dearest to you like your family and friends and objects of desire. I once saw a man who had devoted his whole life to making himself a better person. What a waste of a life it is when it’s all about yourself. There is something much larger at play. Respect it and we’ll all be fine, I assure you. Don’t be depressed. When you get depressed, do what I do. Gaze at the stars. They have borne mute witness to the best and the worst of all things.

I know that this will leave you feeling lonely. I’ve traveled the lonely road for eons. I’m afraid so must you. There is really no other way. But I do wish upon you my kind of bliss. The one you can find in solitude. Go forth and do what you must do. Just in case you’re interested in joining me, I have a seat right next to me with your name on it, which has the best view in town.

The Spirit.

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why are there things? Why is there a universe? Why are there stars, planets, earth, moon, human beings, frogs and flowers? Why are there scientific laws? Why are there abstract things like time, space and distance? Why is there anything? Of all the possibilities, isn’t the simplest that of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

This question of why there is anything at all has baffled scientists and philosophers for a long while. There have been those who have dismissed this as either not important or unanswerable, saying that since we are already in the field of something, it is not possible to step outside of this field to view the answer. Philosophers, who Plato described as “friends of God, standing on the outside and looking in” disagree saying that the answers may lead us to understand the primordial nature of things and to the original cause itself.

There have been several attempts to pursue this simple yet deep mystery. From what I’ve read, all lines of approach start with asking ‘what in this universe is necessary or fundamental by nature? In other words, what came first without a necessity to exist and thus became the foundational reason(s) for everything else to be created and exist? These are defined as ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ entities.

The Scientific School of Thought

The atheistic or rather the scientific school of thought answers by postulating that the laws of the universe have always existed and are the reason that the universe manifested itself in the way it did. What are these laws? There are many laws of science we’re taught in school and college. There is the Ohm’s law. There are the Newton’s laws. And the laws of thermodynamics. Of all the laws, the most fundamental ones pertaining to matter are that of Standard Model, a set of equations which describe how quantum fields manifest themselves as fundamental particles such as quarks, gluons, leptons and the Higgs boson which interact to form matter as we know it. Why is the Standard Model the way it is? No one knows yet. Why is there just one Standard Model? Why is there even a Standard Model? We have now returned to our original question.

Truth be told, it is an extraordinary accomplishment of scientists that we even know that we have laws of nature. They have helped us peel a layer or two of the onion, if you will, in understanding the nature of things. What is more remarkable is that it is only in the recent past that we have accepted that there are such things as laws of nature. Not too long back, in the 13th century, an Islamic scholar, Al Ghazali, considered by historians to be the second most influential Muslim after Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) rejected the notion that there could be such things as natural laws because they would then “put God in chains.” The Christians in the Dark Ages were no different in their rejection of science.

To come back to the question, science holds forth that scientific laws came first and thus precipitated the formation of everything else.

The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic School of Thought

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic theological position supposes the ‘existence of God’ as necessary. That God is the original cause. That there is no logic that underlies the existence of God. For if such a logic were to exist, then such logic would then be superior to God himself. The religious argument insists that the existence of a Supreme Being with unlimited powers is non-negotiable and goes on to build their case from there onwards.

The Neo Platonists

The Greeks led by the Neo Platonists steered clear of science and religion in their explanation. They put forth the doctrine of “the Good” or “the One” which is beyond being. For Neo Platonists, the first principle of reality is an utterly simple and unknowable Quality of Things, a notion derived from the Republic, where Plato famously says that “the Good is beyond being in power and dignity.”

The Vedantic Approach

The “Hindus” of the Vedic era took the position that it is the abstract thought that is the reason to believe that there is something. Vedanta says that the world exists merely as a perception of the senses and made to appear real by thought processes of the mind. The origin of everything is explained as a single thought that arose in the mind of the Brahma who sustains his own existence and everything else by his thoughts and then expires as his thoughts subside into nothingness.

The Mathematician’s Approach

There is also the mathematical school of thought which says that the nature of probability dictates that all possibilities must exist. Which implies that there must be infinite variations of the universe including a version with nothing in it. And that the probability of finding ourselves in a universe with nothing in it is not just an oxymoron but also a near impossibility since one divided by a large number is a very tiny number approaching zero.

Thoughts to Ponder

Could there really be nothing? Even in the extreme case where we had this vast void or a gigantic vacuum if you will, there would be still be abstract notions like the distance between two points in that vacuum. Assuming, of course, abstract notions can exist in the absence of a mind which could create them in the first place. And if we took the position that everything is contingent and not necessary, it would be impossible to answer the question since the solution will require something that is necessary to formulate it. Which in turn makes the case that there indeed must have been an original cause; a necessity that precipitated all other things. Or maybe the question is simply meaningless, as some say it is. Or maybe it’s not.

We may never know the answer. Even if we did, it may not save us from death or assuage the griefs or heighten the joys of our day to day lives. Even so, we must view favorably these words of Einstein which he wrote in “The world as I know it.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence – as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

[Reference: An excellent video series on The Mystery of Existence]

Gandhi and Satyagraha

Mohandas K. Gandhi never professed to be a saint. But he is considered one by many. He never professed to being flawless. But many consider him flawed. Gandhi the husband and father was probably flawed. Gandhi the politician was not a saint. And then there’s Gandhi the pacifist who inspires awe. His courage was extraordinary, reflected in the circumspect manner with which he bore blows and eventually in the way he died. As George Orwell described in a largely unflattering essay, “His character was an extraordinarily mixed one. I believe that even Gandhi’s worst enemies would admit that he was an interesting and unusual man who enriched the world simply by being alive.”

Every time I hear of a conflict, I feel just a little more awe for the man who took violence off the table as an option and demonstrated the alternative. Here he describes how Satyagraha (commitment to Truth) is difficult.

“How are we to train individuals or communities in this difficult art of nonviolence? There is no royal road, except through living the creed in your life which must be a living sermon. Of course, the expression in one’s own life presupposes great study, tremendous perseverance, and thorough cleansing of one’s self of all the impurities. If for mastering of the physical sciences you have to devote a whole lifetime, how many lifetimes may be needed for mastering the greatest spiritual force that humanity has known? But why worry even if it means several lifetimes? For, if this is the only permanent thing in life, if this is the only thing that counts, then whatever effort you bestow on mastering it is well spent. Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven and everything else shall be added upon you. The Kingdom of Heaven is nonviolence.”

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I honestly can’t decide which is more fascinating: Robert Pirsig’s personality or his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

First about Pirsig. He was judged to have an IQ of 170 at age nine. He went to study at the University of Minneapolis at 15, but then dropped out to join the US army in 1946. He served in Korea before returning to the university to study philosophy. In later years, he said that he studied at Benares in India. There are many Pirsigs. The 15 year old who tried to connect with his college mates and failed. The Pirsig who was drawn to Buddhism in Korea and Vedantic thought in Benares. The manic professor who taught college freshmen ‘Metaphysics of Quality’ at University of Montana. The homicidal Pirsig who was confined to a mental institution and subjected to electric shock therapy. And the father who tried to bond with his son on a motorcycle trek and then had his heart broken by the “casual murder” of his son in San Francisco. Pirsig said that he was trying to live in truth when he wrote ZMM.

By the time ZMM came out in 1974, it had been edited down from 800,000 words and rejected by over 100 publishers. At the heart of it is the narration of a father trying to bond with his son Chris. According to Pirsig, it was a tragic book in many ways. In 1979, Chris was stabbed and killed in a mugging incident as he came out of the Zen Center in San Francisco. A later edition of ZMM carried a moving foreword by Pirsig about his son, “‘I think about him, have dreams about him, miss him still,’ he says. ‘He wasn’t a perfect kid, he did a lot of things wrong, but he was my son …”

ZMM is a strange book. And yet it is a wonderful book. One feels deprived of the 800,000 word original version by a worldly and uncomprehending editor. The book keeps you off balance and struggling to regain your poise as much as riding a motorcycle on a treacherous curve on a mountainous road would. It is a legendary search for an identity; of a soul in obsessive search of salvation.

Here are a few of ZMM and Pirsig quotes.

The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.”

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses.”

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you actually don’t know.”

We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.”

Traditional scientific method has always been, at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

How do I get into Delhi University?

Dear Dr. What Ho!

I’m a student in a CBSE school in Delhi. I’ve just entered this torture chamber that they call Std XII. I think people should be happy that we go to school at all. It’s not like we’re getting paid for it. Putting such annoyances aside, I’ve been a hard working kid all through school. I’ve done all right on my grades, barring the occasional goof-ups. I’ve always done my homework barring the few times I haven’t. I’m not at the top of the class. But then again, I’m not a slacker either. Interestingly, it turns out that in this insane world in which we live, that just might not be good enough for Delhi University. And I ask why? It’s not like they are Google or something. It’s not a place where I can go and do something that transforms the lives of people. It’s just a bloody three or four year college program, for heaven’s sake. Why is it so hard to get in? Can you give me sage advice on how I can pull off what appears to be an incredible stunt? How to get into Delhi university? Please tell..

Depressed in Dwarka.

Dear Depressed, 

Well said. We live in interesting times. These days, kids work hard in school so they can grow up to be whoever Delhi University wants them to be. But I admire your irreverence for institutions. I have a feeling that you’ll be fine no matter what you do.

Since you asked, here’s my guess on how to get into Delhi university. Something tells me that you have a boring last name. Else you wouldn’t be writing letters to strangers asking for advice. Drop the boring last name. Like right now. And replace it with something grand and dynastic like Gandhi. Or Scindia. Second, I hope you’re aware of all the tests you’ll have to undergo. Keep the results handy when applying; especially the stool sample test. I’m hoping that you’re not a ‘general admissions quota’ candidate. If you are one, you should carefully consider the merits of running away from home and becoming a nomadic gypsy. If you’re not, you must write your caste name in BIG BOLD LETTERS at the top of the application. Another tactic that has worked in the past is to get a recommendation from Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India. Remember, he’s YOUR president. And of all the things he owes you, the least is a reco letter. Last but not the least, I suggest that you play it safe and get 110 percent in the board exams.

Good luck and God bless you, kid.

Dr. What Ho!

Reports say Narendra Modi fans depressed, directionless.

Just three weeks into Modi sarkar, fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi have reportedly sunk into a massive depression of epidemic proportions. According to reports that are still coming in, NaMo fans have been left high and dry with absolutely nothing to talk about after BJP’s resounding victory in the recent elections. Dr. Viru Sahasrabuddhi, a practicing psychotherapist at NIMHANS in Bangalore explained. “This is perfectly understandable. Euphoria is often accompanied by depression. For months and years, thousands and even millions of Modi’s fans have been raising hell and devoted every waking moment to spreading his message and helping his campaign. After his victory, they are waking up to the gloomy and harsh reality that they now have nothing left in their otherwise empty lives.”

Meet Chandan Kishwar, 28, who spent the last two years digging up unflattering photographs of Rahul Gandhi and incessantly tweeting laudatory articles about Modi under the handle @ProudAndRabidNationalistHindu, often skipping lunch and dinner. This morning, he was discovered comatose and unresponsive to light or sound by a neighbor. “This is really sad. Until a few weeks back, I was ready to poison him for his obnoxious obsession with Modi. Now I’d give my right arm to get my rabidly nationalistic, Congi hating, Hindutva zealot friend back,” said a friend of Kishwar, YVSSR Raju, 27, who’s been fighting his own silent battle against depression after successfully lobbying on Twitter for Telangana.

The epidemic is ringing alarm bells around the nation. An estimated 67 percent of India’s workforce has been laid low in the aftermath of Modi fever, a situation which threatens an economy already ravaged by inflation. “There seems to be a strange belief among Modi fans that their work is complete now that he has been elected. In fact, they are convinced that they don’t have to work for anything anymore. In extreme cases, some are even refusing to accept the reality that the campaign is over. It’s like they are living in a fantasy of their own and continuing to post over-the-top messages on Facebook hailing their Messiah and adamantly refusing to process any negative information about Modi. The situation is so dire that these people are now transfixed, waiting for India to instantly and magically transform into an economic superpower at the snap of Modi’s fingers. This is cause for concern,” added Dr. Sahasrabuddhi in a very helpful tone.

In other news, Smriti Irani, responding to criticism that she lacks the experience to manage the HRD ministry, has enrolled herself in an online internship program run by the University of Phoenix. While the HRD ministry refused to comment, a spokesman for the University of Phoenix had this to say, “We’re pleased to confirm that Ms. Irani has enrolled in our world class internship program. The 3 week online, self-guided program has been thoughtfully crafted for those who might not normally be considered qualified for the jobs they’ve been hired for. During the course of three weeks, Ms. Irani will learn to configure Google alerts for news headlines related to education and to write catchy tweets and hashtags, areas she has specifically expressed interest in. I’d like to add that our program is over a hundred years old. In fact, the one of the first graduates of this historic program was the guy who captained the Titanic.”

The What Ho! Report is a collection of satire and fake news. We read the Times of India so you are not forced to. 4 out of 5 dentists recommend the What Ho! report.

Indian English Phrases – Part Two

I wrote the first edition of “Indian English phrases” a while back.  Check it out in case you haven’t read it. Here are two more which cry out for attention.

Part Two of Indian English Phrases

11.  “Baseless allegations”

This is usually the first, reflex response from any politician to anything that comes out of Arvind Kejriwal’s mouth. Its usage cuts across ideological, caste, creed and religious divides in India. So much so, this stock phrase stakes a pretty good claim to be India’s national phrase. Let’s dissect this one.

Allegation in itself means an assertion or a statement made without proof or basis in fact. “Baseless allegations” takes things to a whole new level ’cause it implies that things like “basefull” allegations and “baseless facts” exist.

Example:

Parent: Is it true that you didn’t turn in the homework at school yesterday? 
8th grader: I refuse to neither confirm nor deny what could be a basefull allegation.
 
One more.
 Scientist: Sir, what do you think of Darwin’s theory of evolution?
 Redneck Robbie: Garbage! Stop spreading such baseless facts.
 
And finally.
 Judge: How do you plead to charges of murder in the 2rd degree of the English language?
 AAP’s Ashutosh : Your Honor, these are baseless allegations. I had nothing to do with its untimely demise. By the way, I’d like to plead permanent insanity.

 

12. “Untimely Demise” [ And its first cousin, “Tragic demise.”]

I think this is a uniquely Indian thing. Often used to describe the sudden, unexpected or at times even widely anticipated death of anyone below the age of 80. Makes you wonder. Is there such a thing then as a “timely, delightful demise”? Aren’t all demises untimely and tragic? Especially if you view said demises through the lens of those undergoing demises?

No one ever goes, “Whatay awesome dude! His demise was perfectly timed. It isn’t all that tragic as you might think, In fact, we’re besides ourselves with joy.”

Do Scientists Pray?

Purpose is a human concept. By that, I mean purpose exists only in the human realm. The existential “purpose of my life” question is a man-made construct. An oxygen atom doesn’t wake up in the morning and wonder “what the future holds for it” or “how it can be a good atom today.” The earth bears its burdens unquestioningly. The sun shines without fear or favor. Lions hunt neither because they have to meet their quarterly goals nor to become “well adjusted” lions. We, insignificant carbon life forms on a beautiful but largely anonymous planet, have come to believe in this thing called purpose. Is the flow of a river its purpose? Standing majestically tall is not the purpose of a great mountain. They are the things that define them. What is the thing that defines us? Is there one thing that defines all of us? The answers can only be personal.

Yet, all the “purposeless” things in the universe appear to be bound by a common spirit. By a common spirit, I mean a unifying thread. A spirit, once you sense it, can lift you to the stars and galaxies and all those wonderful places without even having to transcend space. The Vedas refer to it as the Parabrahman. Some like to call it God.

It is perhaps this religiosity that Einstein spoke about when replying to a child who asked him, “Do scientists pray?” It’s a wonderful exchange between the master and a child and I’d like to share it here. [Source: Brain Pickings ]

Do Scientists Pray?

Letter from Phyllis, a sixth grader from New York.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered. We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for? We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours, Phyllis

Albert Einstein replied in just 5 days.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer: Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings, your A. Einstein

Age is just a number.

I’m coming up on a birthday soon. It’s hard to not connect birthdays to aging once you reach the mid-forties. 46. Is that really how old I am?

Let’s take a closer look.

The youngest atom in the body is more than a billion years old. Hydrogen, the most abundantly found element, is nearly 14 billion years old and was produced during the Big Bang. Carbon and oxygen atoms are between 7 and 10 billion years old. In other words, we are really really ancient. What’s another 20 or 46 or 72 years in this cosmic scheme of things?

So how old did you say I was?

Cells in our body die every second and new ones replace them. In a sense, we are re-created with each passing moment. A liver refreshes itself in 3 months. Taste buds in 2 weeks. The lung’s surface in 3 weeks. The heart refreshes 2-3 times over a lifetime. Cells in the intestine in 2 days. In fact, only our eyes are as old are we are, not undergoing transformation over time.

So we are made of ancient cosmic dust but renew ourselves in some cases as often as every 2 days and sometimes never?

So, tell me again. How old did you say I was?

Each of us, like a chicken, started off as an egg. From the egg that came from our mothers, that is. The thing about a human egg is that it is formed when the mother herself is an embryo. And we could argue that the formation of the egg, half of which contributed to each of us, is technically our first moment of existence. So, if your mother had you at 25 years of age, and you are 30 years old, technically you are ( 30 + 25 = ) 55 years old.

46 years. 2 days. 14 billion years. your pick.  I told you that age is just a number.

And happy birthday to you too (for whenever the day comes). Remember that you are this newborn baby that has existed since the beginning of time and will last till the end of it. Many happy returns of infinity to you.

The Rule of Three

There is an old thumb rule in the tech industry which says that you can get at most only two out of performance, quality and price in any given product. For example, if you get low price and high performance, chances are that the product is sold by an inferior brand. If the product is sold by a great brand for a low price, then it’s likely that its features are limited. And so on. I call this the rule of three.

There may be a similar rule that applies to leaders, especially the political ones. I think you can get at most only two out of charisma, integrity and performance in a leader. By charisma, I mean an intrinsically trustworthy and likable person who has the ability to inspire large numbers of people. Manmohan Singh, for example, is not a charismatic leader. Ronald Reagan was a charismatic leader. By integrity, I mean things like not being corrupt, honesty, truthfulness and similar traits. Bill Clinton, for example, would not rank high on the integrity scale. By performance, I refer to an ability to govern and execute. Vajpayee’s stewardship of the national highways project, for example, is quoted often as an example of excellence in execution.

If we applied this model to Indian leaders, it seems to work well. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not the best of administrators. Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narasimha Rao lacked charisma. Indira Gandhi lacked integrity. Atal Behari Vajpayee is the only one who comes somewhat close to having all three, which probably is why some consider him the greatest prime minister till date. Manmohan Singh displayed governance and integrity early in his career, as RBI governor and then Finance Minister. His last five years as Prime Minister are notable for their deficiency in all three areas of charisma, integrity and governance.

In 2014, we will likely evaluate three prime ministerial candidates: Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.  Kejriwal appears to possess charisma and of course, has built a campaign around his personal integrity. Inexperience in governance is his weakness. Narendra Modi scores on integrity and governance fronts, but comes across more as a polarizing force than a unifying one. Rahul Gandhi appears to be the straggler in this mix, possessing at best personal integrity and at worst, none of the three. That doesn’t bode well for Congress. If his party were to somehow win, it wouldn’t then bode well for the country. We can’t afford yet another leader who scores zero on three.

Can you think of any leader, either in politics or business, living or dead with all three? Please use the comments section to nominate.

Dhoom 3

Yash Raj Films didn’t set out to win an Oscar when they started the Dhoom franchise. After viewing Dhoom 3, I can attest that they remain firmly committed to that non-objective. I believe it was Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist, who once postulated as part of his Uncertainty Principle that one can have either Katrina Kaif or a script in a Bollywood film but never both. I’m happy to inform you that Dhoom 3 has Ms. Kaif in it.

A Tale of Revenge, a Circus which is really a Magic Show, Hindi Stuff Written on Walls, etc.

Dhoom 3 is a tale of revenge. Iqbal Khan (a bleary eyed Jackie Shroff) applies for a loan to an evil Darth-Vader-meets-Ku-Klux-Klan style banker with a cowboy accent. What makes this loan application interesting are 2 things: 1. Iqbal claims to run a circus, but in fact it’s really a magic show with one massive treasure chest like thingy.  2. Iqbal has not repaid loans to this banker in the past. Hence Evil Banker connects dots between 1 & 2 and refuses loan. A distraught Iqbal embraces the dark arms of Hades (via single bullet to the temple) and thus triggers a cataclysmic series of events which include aforesaid bank being robbed in broad daylight 25 years later by a mysterious thief who writes some stuff in Hindi on the walls WHICH LEADS TO (sit down, you’re not going to believe this) Mumbai police being summoned to help Chicago Police solve crimes WHICH IN TURN LEADS TO mysterious thief offering to help Mumbai Police to solve crimes WHICH IN TURN LEADS TO Mumbai Police inadvertently helping mysterious thief rob more banks and getting fired. Wait, there’s good news. At some point, the bank shares take a beating in the stock market and aforesaid EVIL BANKER is forced to resign his job. Take that, you evil Voldemort banker, you! Hope you learnt your lesson to never mess with Indian circus people.

Dhoom 3 is Aamir Khan’s gig and everyone else just happens to be it. Mr. Khan is said to be a perfectionist when it comes to film making. Well, he seems to have put aside such ideals for this movie. Mr. Khan is first introduced to viewers as he climbs out of bed in a sparsely furnished apartment in a Chicago skyscraper and walks towards the window to gaze down ominously upon the windy city. The apartment is never seen again. Perhaps the apartment is a metaphor for the script. One can only wonder.

Let’s talk about Uday, Katrina and Junior B.

Uday Chopra apparently announced his retirement from acting in the weeks leading up to the release of this film. Didn’t that train leave the station in Dhoom 1? The announcement was quite unnecessary as most people were unable to recall Mr. Chopra being in possession of acting skills in the first place. Mr. Chopra is a laboratory based, experimental version of Salman Khan in which things have just gone horribly, horribly wrong. His comic interludes are neither comic nor are they interludes.

It is said that Robert De Niro prepared for a role as Jake LaMotta in The Raging Bull by gaining sixty pounds to his frame and learning to box. Likewise Ms. Katrina Kaif appears to have prepared for her role in Dhoom 3 by taking pole dancing lessons. She enters the movie half way through it. And her first full line of dialogue makes its appearance 30 minutes after that. There’s none better than Ms. Kaif when it comes to portraying the multi-layered complexities of a modern Indian woman. She deftly demonstrates how although Indian lasses might dress in overalls and appear to be demure at first, they are in fact simmering cauldrons of sexuality and willing to shed all clothing and perform complex calisthenics, all for a mere job in the circus.

Someone, please send prune juice to Abhishek B urgently.  The lad seems to be backed up.

The Whole Bank Robbery Situation Sucks

We’re not talking Shakespearean drama here. That’s hardly the expectation. In fact, it’s not fair to judge D3 by such standards. Having said that, I feel like I ought to talk at length about the whole bank robbery situation in this movie which sucks. We live in a world filled with James Bonds and Jason Bournes and Spy Kids and Incredibles and Danny Ocean’s 13. So, we the people know a thing or two when it comes to pulling off heists or robbing banks or retrieving USB drives from ruthless saboteurs. And as anyone will attest, what makes a bank robbery interesting is how you pull it off – getting past the multi-factor authentication systems by faking finger prints and  performing yoga and tai chi to avoid coming in contact with red laser beams and then gaining access to vaults with 2-feet thick steel walls. I mean, people go through a lot of trouble to rob banks and casinos. We the people have never before seen movies before in which banks have robbed upon mere access to blue prints of building which we presume have already been posted on Facebook by bank employees anyway. We the people have never seen movies in which police hand over blue prints of bank building to complete strangers within 24 hours of meeting them. We the people ought to be surprised that more banks are not getting robbed in Mumbai, given this is how Mumbai Police seems to operate.

The Verdict

Anyway, things thankfully get sorted out by the end. I got the feeling that the actual movie was only about an hour long but was stretched to three hours thanks to slow motion technology. There’s a twist somewhere in the middle. The songs are downright spectacular. In true Indian spirit, I’d recommend watching the movie for “Malang..” alone. Dhoom 3 is paisa vasool. So go see it. And if you live in Mumbai, I’d recommend taking your money out of your bank and stashing it in your pillow.

The What Ho! Guide to Winning Arguments

Let’s face it. We humans are an argumentative lot. We argue on social media. We argue on television. We argue in the YouTube comments section.  In fact, studies show that in every passing second, 412,335 people are “wrong” about something, and that for each person who is considered wrong, there are 14 others who will feel inexorably compelled to point it out.

For all the arguing we do, we just don’t seem to be good at it. Arguing has been misunderstood over the centuries as something anyone with lots of time and a Twitter account can do. What’s not appreciated is that it’s an art form, the sort which requires great passion and lots of practice to excel.

Here are a few tips to help you excel.

The What Ho! Guide to Winning Arguments.

Draw upon your deep well of emotions.

A common fallacy is to assume that logic works. Another is to assume that an argument is about issues. Winners are those who understand the power of uncontrolled emotions and that the sole purpose of an argument is to stray as far as humanly possible from issues and to stay laser focused on belittling your rival with the choicest of pejoratives.

This leads me to the merits of alcohol.

Drink.

To win an argument, it is important to create the perception of knowing things. But how do you create such a perception when, in fact, you know nothing? Rest easy, I have a solution for you.

Imagine you’re at the company party, watching a whiz kid intellectual with a fancy MBA spouting forth with nauseating fluency on the complex linkages between temperature fluctuations on the mountains of Kenya and coffee prices in India.

Ask yourself this: What is more likely to help in this situation? Tomato juice or vodka on the rocks?

I’m sure that it will come as no surprise to hear that tomato juice drinkers tend to go weak-kneed and fade silently away into the dark of the night when confronted with a troll. On the other hand, downing several shots of Old Monk or Director’s Special will not only magically endow you with unparalleled knowledge of the Kenyan economy but also cause you to eloquently hold forth your hitherto latent opinions of Kenyan culture and dazzle everyone with your keen observations on the Kenyan way of life.

Winners drink often. And they drink early.

Lie.

Truth is overrated by losers, which is why losers tend to lose. Let’s say that the argument has strayed towards the vexing issue of malnutrition among Kenyan children. And let us pretend that you have been mindlessly and passionately arguing in favour of the position that Kenyan children are surprisingly well-fed and well nourished. Instead of stating, “Kenyan children are well fed and well nourished” which is likely to be met with scorn and laughter, you must say “According to the 2004-05 UNESCO report published on Aug 12, 2012, Kenyan children were found to have consumed on average of 432.5 calories per day in summer and 453.2 calories per day in winter, both of which are considered well above national averages of all but 13 countries in the world which do not follow the British constitutional model of government.

For lying to work, precision and accuracy are paramount. Numbers with decimal points are excellent. Statistically complex sounding terms such as ’30 day moving average’ or ’24 year longitudinal median’ are genius. Always quote your false sources proactively. If you’re smart, you will quote your own widely unread blog post.

Use Latin.

Following are examples of terms you must find and commit to memory before venturing into an argument.

Ad hominem

QED

In so far as to say

Holistic

Hoi Polloi

A priori

Ceteris paribus

Latin and Greek phrases are pure gold. They indicate that you’re not to be trifled with. Random use of these languages will bludgeon all but the fiercest into submission. Use them as you would a stun gun with as little advance warning as possible for maximum effect.

Instead of “Kenyans have always had problems with democracy” you must say “Ceteris paribus, it has been shown in various studies that any a priori assumptions about holistic governance systems involving free will of hoi polloi have proven, in so far as to say, to be unjustified ad hominem attacks on the aforesaid systems themselves. QED.

No sane person can possibly withstand such an assault on the senses.

Evade.

It is possible, due to some unfortunate quirk of Fate, that you may find yourself to be the spokesperson for the Congress party. You will likely encounter questions for which you are absolutely certain that no truthful answers can be given. As winners are aware, it has been well established as a historical fact that honesty is the best policy for losers. Evasion, on the other hand, is the way of winners.

Rule no. 1 of evasion is to create the convincing illusion that you are not evading.  Start your responses with “I am glad you asked me that question..” and proceed to confidently make any unconnected statement that pops into your cranium at that point in time. A large majority of the public does not listen beyond the first 8 words. Use “I’m glad that we’re talking about this..” with no obligation to shed any further light on the topic at hand.

renuka c

Keep mum.

The highest form of evasion is to manmohan your way through slippery slopes by maintaining what must appear externally to be a thoughtful and intellectual silence. Silence accompanied by an air of carefully cultivated superiority evokes images of a zen master who has graciously descended into the petty world of humans and who shall not be subject to such petty questions as “Dude, what do you mean you misplaced the Coalgate files?

Deflect.

During the course of an argument, it’s possible that you may find your position weakening. You may find your back in close proximity to the proverbial wall. It is important to train in the dark arts of deflection so you can wriggle out unscathed from the trickiest of situations.

The following phrases were modelled after deflection techniques used by Shaolin monks and designed to blunt the most cogent of arguments. It is important that you master them in your quest for world domination.

That’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Everything is relative.

Why are you being defensive?

That’s such a typical fascist view of the world.

What are the core assumptions in your model?

For example, you might insist “Gandhiji died on Feb 10, 2010 at 430am” and your opponent might respond “No, you fool, he died on Jan 30, 1948.” You must immediately counter with “That is such a typical fascist view of the world.” If you say, “the economy grew by 8.5% according to the NCERT-AICTE study” and your opponent counters “No you fool, it grew by just 2.3% according to the RBI governor,” you must counter with “Duh, that’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Abuse.

As unlikely as it sounds, there will come a time when all has failed and you find yourself on the mat, hopelessly pinned and in dire need of copious amounts of oxygen. This is when you must pull out the big guns, and resort to sick, vile and tasteless name calling.

Comparisons with odious historical characters, innuendos about your opponent’s paternity, crassness about your rival’s gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, height and weight are perfectly acceptable. A time tested phrase is “You remind me of Hitler. You make me sick, you fascist dwarf!” Since no one likes Hitler or fascists and very few actually have seen or care about dwarves, you will pull victory out from the jaws of defeat.

Well, that’s all there is to it. What are you waiting for? Go confidently forth and win that do-or-die battle, upon which may hinge the fate of this universe itself.

Comment away and share your winning practices too!

**inspired by the one and only Dave Barry.

Falling In Love With India

I recall reading Plato’s Republic in 1996. At that time, I was living and working in the US. In the book, Socrates asks what Justice is and Polemarchus responds by defining it as “helping your friends and harming your enemies.” Indeed, it was the accepted opinion among the ancient Greeks (and many societies which followed them) that the morally right thing to do was to favor the “insiders.” And Socrates responds to Polemarchus by questioning the exclusivism of his moral position. Thus was launched a debate over the morality of patriotism and nationalism that reverberated through Europe over centuries. Nearly two thousand years later, Kant and others concluded that morality could not be confined to narrow dimensions of ‘me, mine, my family, my city or my nation’ and extended it to include humankind as a whole.

IS PATRIOTISM MORALLY JUST?

I recall pondering, as an immigrant in a foreign land, the notion of patriotism. What logic lay in blind loyalty to a nation, whose citizenship you hold only because of a random act of nature? Or did it make sense to be patriotic to a nation which welcomes you as a citizen after having examined what you had to offer? Have nations done enough to deserve our loyalty? Wasn’t cosmopolitanism, a notion first espoused by Diogenes who declared himself a citizen of the world, more morally acceptable than patriotism? Wasn’t patriotism at odds with a just, moral view of the world?

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF MORALITY

Should one country succeed at the expense of another? What makes anyone believe that they are “the chosen ones”? There are no easy answers. Suppose, for example, the Prime Minister of India when faced with the choice of securing Indian access to oil in Iran versus the choice of withdrawing to allow Chinese access to those reserves, decides (rather disinterestedly and morally) on the latter because it would lead to greater overall good of mankind. While morally laudable, it may, by no stretch of imagination, be construed as rightful discharge of his duties as a leader of a nation. Morality can be a slippery slope.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH INDIA

To this day, I haven’t yet resolved the conflict which Plato created in my mind. I am rather enamored by a universal humanism in which I choose not to belong to just one nation or people. I believe in John Lennon’s secular humanism that believes that all humans are equal and share the same aspirations, fears and hopes regardless of our histories and geographies. At the same time, I have a hard time holding back tears when the words “Hey Ram” stream into my consciousness and evoke my pride in having come from a society which brought about a man who Einstein described as “generations to come will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.

I have interrogated myself often and at length on why I fell in love with India. And I have come to believe that I love India not because I was born on her soil but because there’s something touching and deeply inspiring about the way she’s tolerant and merciful of the human condition with all its frailties and foibles. It is a country that that will lift you from a low to a high that will amaze you. Never mind that it pushed you into the low in the first place. After all, you need to truly understand pain before you can enjoy pleasure. There is no question that she will provide you with an adequate supply of both. If there’s one place on earth which has willingly embraced everything, it is India. If there is a place on earth that will teach you humility and awaken your soul, it is India. May she prosper and shine and provide comfort to all other nations and peoples.

Take your time to examine your beliefs. Find yourself before you fall in love with India. And when you do so, I will guarantee you that it will be a love of a lifetime.

Happy Independence Day (in advance)! God bless India. God bless us all.

Is there a formula for a good life?

Is there a formula for a good life? Are there secret ingredients like some sort of a magical mix of love, work and social connections?

THE GRANT STUDY

A Harvard study set out to find answers to this question in 1937. Called the Grant Study (named after its patron), it is one of the most comprehensive research efforts put into studying the human condition. It was a complex, longitudinal study that examined two vastly different cohorts.

The first cohort had 237 Harvard college sophomores from the classes of 1939-44 and the second cohort had 332 socially disadvantaged, inner city youths who grew up in Boston between 1940 and 1945. The subjects were all male, white and of American nationality. The men were followed until they reached the ages of 70 years for the inner-city group and 80 years for the Harvard cohort.

The men were evaluated every two years by questionnaires, information from their physicians and in many cases through detailed personal interviews. Information was gathered about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality.

The goal of the study was to identify predictors of healthy aging. Healthy aging was defined to include both physical and mental health.

THE STUDY’S CONCLUSIONS

Its results have been compiled in two books by George Vaillant, who led the study from 1966. Vaillant identified major factors that predict healthy aging as education, stable marriage, not smoking, not abusing alcohol, some exercise and reasonably healthy weight.

What factors didn’t matter? Cholesterol levels at age 50 had nothing to do with healthy aging. “There is an age to worry about cholesterol and there is an age to not worry about it,” he said. The predictive importance of childhood temperament diminished over time. Shy and anxious kids tended to do poorly in young adulthood. But by age 70, they turned out just as likely as the outgoing kids to be “happy-well.” There were a few subtle surprises as well. For example, regular exercise in college years ended up being a bigger predictor of late-life mental health than physical health.

THE FORMULA FOR A GOOD LIFE

After four decades of painstaking and meticulous research, Vaillant put his finger on two factors which predicted a good life.

A LOVING CHILDHOOD

The study said, “We found that contentment in the late seventies was not even suggestively associated with parental social class or even the man’s own income. What it was significantly associated with was warmth of childhood environment, and it was very significantly associated with a man’s closeness to his father.

Hug your children often. It will make a difference long after you’ve ceased to exist.

RELATIONSHIPS

Interestingly, the study revealed that it was not about the size of the social network. The benefit of relationships came from helping others. Those who cared for others tended to live longer. Good sibling relationships seemed to play a powerful role. 93 percent of the men thriving at age 65 had been close to a brother or sister when younger.

The study asked, “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?” Those who answered ‘Yes’ lived longer than those whose said ‘No’. The master strength, according to Vaillant, was the capacity to be loved.

It concluded, “It is social aptitude, not intellectual brilliance or parental social class, which leads to successful aging.”

In a 2008 interview, Vaillant was asked what he had learned from the Grant Study men. And he said, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”

Hope you enjoyed this food for thought. Happy journeys! Stay blessed.


Here are a few links if you want to read more.

About George Vaillant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eman_Vaillant

About the Grant Study: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Study

A comprehensive article from The Atlantic about The Grant Study: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/307439/


Welcome to the world’s largest religion

BIG NEWS, folks. I have started a new religion.

Is there a need for a new religion, you ask? And I say no, but have gone ahead with it anyway.  In any case, I’ve already updated my Twitter bio with this announcement. So, this whole thing is kind of irreversible at this point. The die has been cast. The diem has been carpe’d. The Rubicon has been crossed. Yada Yada Yada.

The world’s largest religion..

I’ve named the religion, to which we all now belong, as Tacoism. We? Yes. We. You have all been automatically enrolled into Tacoism. If you wish to opt out of the Taco of Life, please send the following via registered post, acknowledgement due.

  1. 12 passport sized photos
  2. PAN number
  3. Income tax returns for the last three years.
  4. An opt-out application letter in triplicate. [ NOTE: You must send only one original and two duplicates. If you send three originals, your opt-out application will be rejected ]

Note: Once you have received the acknowledgement for registered post, you will need to send a scanned copy of the same via email.

Alternatively, you can take the “EASY OPT OUT” option by simply mailing me a check for any sum above one million US dollars.

If you’re a keen observer of things in general, you will have noticed that I have just become the undisputed leader of the world’s largest religion.

About Tacoism

Although founded as recently as August 1 2013, Tacoism is an ancient religion based on the Taco of Life and is as old as the universe itself.

As the 5th century BC Tacoist Laco Tze once astutely pointed out, “Tacoism is in no way responsible for any happiness that you may experience from being a Tacoist. All happiness (or lack of it) is entirely in your hands.”

If you didn’t know, there is an long and undocumented history of Tacoists living (but mostly dying) by its timeless motto: Let go. Be happy.

Tacoism FAQ

I’ve been working furiously to clear questions which are pouring in (from mostly non practicing) newly aware Tacoists. Here is a mini FAQ below.

What holidays does Tacoism observe? And what are the rituals to be followed?

You’ll be pleased to know that the first Friday of every month is a religious holiday. In addition, there are two floating Thursdays a year. Those of you following the Mahayana version of Tacoism can opt for Mondays instead of Fridays and Tuesdays instead of Thursdays. You may wish to work with the HR departments in your companies to have the Tacoist holidays incorporated into the company calendar.

The faithful are requested to observe their faith by watching YouTube for a minimum of four hours on company bandwidth on Tacoist holidays.

[ Note: There has been some confusion in this regard. Although Tacoism does not require you to watch YouTube on non holidays, it does not specifically bar you from watching YouTube on non holidays. Let’s make it simple and say that you can basically do whatever your Tacoist awareness permits. ]

Is Tacoism an open source religion?

After much deliberation, I’ve decided to open source Tacoism. In other words, you can add your own rules, diktats and commandments as long as no one else is required to follow them. Any rules, diktats and commandments that you make up will apply only to you. Other than the rules I may impose upon you from time to time.

What do we call ourselves on our business cards?

There was a small dilemma over whether to call ourselves “Virat Tacoists” or “Taco Nationalists.” I am happy to say that good sense has prevailed and we’re going to call ourselves “Taco-ularists.” In a divided and polarized universe, I strongly believe that Taco-ularism is the need of the hour although I could be very wrong about this.

Please note: You can be a Taco-ularist and believe in Tacotva at the same time. Also, I have no idea what that means.

What God or Gods do we worship?

This is yet to be finalized. Truth be told, this was the seventh item on my Tacoism to-do list and I was hoping to get to this shortly after I ensured Tacoists are guaranteed 100 percent quota in education and public sector jobs. Unfortunately, Tacoists have been piling steady pressure for this to be answered quickly. Here’s my position:

At the moment, I’m leaning towards appropriating any and all Gods worshiped by any humans or extra terrestrials at any point in time and at any place in the galaxy. Based on last count, we may end up having approximately 332 million and fourteen Gods. One of the issues is with having Gods is that we may not be able to keep the atheists within the fold. So I plan to address atheist sentiments by converting following groups of humans into Tacoist Gods.

  1. Anyone who has won a Nobel Prize
  2. Anyone who’s discovered an element in the Periodic Table
  3. Anyone who has a scientific law named after her/him
  4. Anyone who finds the Higgs-Boson particle
  5. Anyone with over 1 million followers on Twitter

I request patience as I sort through this delicate matter before publishing the final list.

What is the Mahayana version of Tacoism?

Other than differences in religious holidays, Mahayana Tacoists will get enjoy a detached sense of superiority as they gaze upon the world at large. That’s all I have at this point.

What’s the Holy Book called?

I haven’t decided on a name yet. “The Tacoist’s Guide to the Galaxy” sounds fetching. Another option is “Who moved my Taco?” I am not sure what will be in the Holy Book. But I’m sure that there will be one rule that will apply to it. The holy book of Tacoism will be compulsorily erased and rewritten every 20 years.

Are there Tacoist mythologies? 

At the moment, there are none. Soon there will be many. I will plant them discreetly all over the internet so you can quote them in your religious debates on Facebook. Tacoist mythologies will contain characters who are ambivalently righteous, filled with existential angst and often known to ask themselves, “Dude, what’s going on?” I assure you that there will soon be a plethora of mythical tales filled with the deeds of tortured Tacoists waging epic battles against unknown and uncertain fates.

How can I evangelize Tacoism?

There is no need to convert anyone to Tacoism. Every one is already part of it. Please let people know that they are Tacoists whether they like it or not.

Anything else?

The following topics will be covered in the Holy Book.

  1. What happens to Tacoists when they die? Do they go to heaven or hell? Are they reborn? Or do the lights just go out?
  2. What is good and bad in the Taco Way of Life?
  3. Who created Tacoists? Was it God? Or ..what else can it really be, right?
  4. Why are reality shows popular? What is the Tacoist view on Bigg Boss and Jhalak Dhikla Jaa?

Stay tuned for more Tacoism updates to come here on What Ho! In the meanwhile, do let me know your questions and comments below.

Stay strong and stay true to the Taco of Life. As Yoda, a Tacosattva from a faraway galaxy once put it, “The Taco with you may be.”

Man alleges elderly relative reneged on promise to “cut a long story short”

CHENNAI. JULY 17, 2013.  Describing it as a “nightmarish experience,” Avinash Iyer, 24, claimed that an elderly relative who engaged him in conversation at a cousin’s wedding went back on a promise to “cut a long story short,” and alleged that he was coerced into listening to the full version which lasted well over an hour.

“It was kind of a rough ordeal and I’m still hazy about the details of how the whole thing got started. I was seated next to my uncle at my cousin’s wedding. The exchange started off innocently enough but before long, I realized that I had been slowly drawn into a hellish web of deceit and fraud. When he first began recounting his frustration with the newspaper arriving late in the mornings, I nodded politely, naively believing it to be the easiest way out of a tricky situation. In retrospect, that may have been the fatal move which sealed my fate. As he began to relentlessly delve into completely unnecessary details of his altercations with the newspaper delivery boy (who, I was told, also delivered milk and equally erratically), I developed a vague foreboding of doom and began fidgeting nervously in my seat. Sensing my impatience, (I swear) he made a clear and unequivocal promise to cut a long story short, an undertaking that was not honored at any point in the conversation. In any case, how an innocent conversation around newspaper delivery turned into a mind numbing discourse on the deteriorating state of journalism in the country boggles my mind, which continues to recover from the unanticipated ruthless assault on it. I was told later that I was observed to be in a state of uncomprehending daze for well over an hour by various passers-by and onlookers, before being rescued by my elder brother at lunch time,” said an emotional Avinash who seemed clearly shaken by the incident.

What Ho! has subsequently received confirmation from reliable insiders that the offender, identified as Sri. Sitaraman Iyer, 58, has been sequestered and isolated from contact with younger family members to avoid further untoward incidents during the wedding.

UPA govt announces the Right to Housing

This week’s What Ho! Report is brought to you by Mr. Wabbster (@wabbster on Twitter) aka Pradeep Ananth.  Mr. Wabbster is like half my age with twice the wit. Since that makes for an unfavorable comparison with the self, I will restrict myself to mutely waving you ahead to the treat he’s laid in front of us. Enjoy!

UPA govt announces the Right to Housing

 Buoyed by the success of eradicating hunger from our country through the Food Security Ordinance, the UPA government announced that it will now take on the scourge of homelessness that afflicts our citizens. The government announced a draft version of a bill which guarantees that all Indian citizens will get a roof over their heads. The Right to Housing Bill, as it is being called, calls for every middle class family to accommodate a minimum of 14 homeless people in their homes without compensation.

Announcing the measure at a press conference earlier today, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Ms. Girija Vyas said, “The Empowered Group of Ministers tasked with solving the problem of homelessness looked at it from all angles including factors such as total available residential area, demographics such as religion, caste, sub caste, secular status and ownership of cats. And they have come up with a holistic and innovative zero loss method of providing homes to the homeless,” leading to political pundits unanimously hailing it as the first known use of the expressions “holistic” and “zero loss” in the same sentence in the history of mankind.

Clarifying the reasoning behind the move, Ms. Vyas added, “There are a couple of fundamental concepts that form the basis of this measure. The first is the notion that mere announcement of the right to ‘X’ has a magical way of making ‘X’ appear out of thin air. The second is that if an option to inflict severe pain on the middle class is available, the government must always exercise the option. We have taken these two epic concepts and mixed them up with caste and religion based quotas to achieve God level here.”

When prodded to elaborate, Ms. Vyas snapped, “Look, a lot of space is wasted by selfish middle class people who use homes as storage areas for their stuff. Tell me why middle class people need homes when they hardly spend any time there? They spend 13 hours in the office, another 3 hours on commuting on god awful roads through messy traffic and the rest of the time filling out income tax returns. They don’t even spend weekends at home. Instead, they go on road trips or to malls, take selfies and post them on social media. In the meanwhile, their homes have stuff and stay locked and unused. This is a scam of gigantic proportions which puts both 2G and Coalgate scams in the shade. Now, it is our responsibility as a government to question citizens on such dubious home ownership patterns which have led to much presumptive loss being incurred in buying assets and not using them in a profitable manner.”

Mr. Kapil Sibal, present at the press conference and observed going into paroxysms of ecstasy on hearing “presumptive loss,” vigorously defended his colleague saying, “The way this works, each middle class family will be forced to accommodate a minimum of 14 homeless people in their homes without compensation. If they don’t already own homes, they will be required to buy homes immediately and allow 14 homeless people to stay in them. The cool thing about this bill is that minorities, SC/STs and OBCs are exempted from compliance. The measure also provides another easy way to dodge compliance by obtaining a secularism certificate personally signed by either Ms. Barkha Dutt or Ms. Sagarika Ghose.”

Mr. Manish Tewari also present at the conference merely had this to say, “I’m incredibly jazzed that my re-definition of the word holistic to mean I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about is being popularized by Ms. Vyas.”

When quizzed about the impact of the measure on real estate prices, an exasperated Mr. Sibal quickly intervened and said “Obviously zero yaar. Zero. Zero. Zero. Everything is a bloody zero. How many times do I have to repeat this nonsense?”

Unconfirmed reports suggest that the government is working on an equally innovative “Right to Clothes” bill. According to sources, the bill will provide for any shirtless or dress-less person to legally and physically remove clothing of middle class people (with the exception of secularism certificate holders, minorities, OBCs and SC/STs) at any point in time and begin wearing it themselves with immediate effect.

Brought to you by @wabbster with critically acclaimed contributions from moi. You can follow him on Twitter at @wabbster

The What Ho! Report is a collection of satire and fake news. Do not, I repeat, do not try this at home. We read the Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

Friends of man who attended Vipassana detect no change in him at all

Despite Mr. Srijith Nair’s claims that his life had been ‘totally transformed’ by attending a two week meditation retreat conducted by the Vipaassana Buddhist foundation, his friends claimed that he’s still the “same shallow and self centred chap we’ve always known.”

“Yeah, we were all pretty surprised at first when we heard from our buddy Sri about the Foundation. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve always heard him talk about how his life was filled with emptiness and how he craved the simple pleasures in life. We always dismissed it as musings of a middle aged man who had one drink too many. Never in our wildest dreams did we believe that he had it in him to follow through on his thoughts. Naturally, we were all pretty excited for him when he told us about the retreat. Our expectations rocketed when we found that the Vipaassana camp is widely regarded for its unbending rigor and discipline. Ever since Sri’s return from the retreat, we’ve been observing him closely and I can categorically confirm that we have not been able to detect any change whatsoever in him at all. He continues to be the same shallow, immature and self serving Sri we’ve always known,” said Mr. Anand Hariharan, who studied with Mr. Nair in college and has remained a close friend ever since.

In the meanwhile, Mr Nair, according to friends and colleagues, continues to unapologetically project himself as “a changed man,” vehemently asserting his newly acquired spiritual credentials at every little opportunity. “Sri’s been acting rather funny. He’s now walking around with a detached air of superiority and sprinkling a liberal amount of Zen aphorisms into daily conversations. It’s like he’s suddenly become better than us,” complained a colleague who preferred to stay unnamed for this article.

A spokeswoman for the Foundation had this to say, “It’s not our policy to comment on changes which specific patrons may or not have experienced from attending our retreats. However, it is fair to say that such lack of fundamental transformation is normal and no cause for alarm. Everyone knows that human beings are basically survival machines with the selfish gene coded in. Notwithstanding Buddha’s unbridled optimism about human ability to adhere to the Noble Path, you must understand that people are basically incorrigible by nature. This too shall pass.”

From the What Ho! report

Studies find India better off if 82% of citizens didn’t have opinions

In what is being called a challenge to conventional free speech principles, a study performed by scientists from the Indian Institute of Science has concluded that the nation will be “significantly better off” if 82 percent of its citizens stopped having opinions with immediate effect.

“We tested a large number of people across a wide range of topics and issues. In general, we observed that a majority of people possessed high levels of information recall when it came to things such as timings of reality shows, lyrics to item numbers and names of cricketers. When we tested for knowledge in areas such as economics, science, environment and even history and geography as well as for the ability to reach logically coherent conclusions, we found abysmally low levels of proficiency. Truth be told, we found that most of the opinions expressed by most people to be ill conceived and dangerous to the nation. Based on the study, it’s our firm belief that if 82 percent of the people in the country were to be somehow immediately stopped from having any opinions whatsoever, our GDP growth could be easily boosted by an additional 4 to 5 points,” said Professor Viru Sahasrabuddhi who spoke on behalf of the group in Bangalore yesterday.

Prof. Sahasrabuddhi and his team shot to fame in 2008 for discovering path breaking insights into the human condition such as ‘if asked, most Indians will provide directions to any address in any city, regardless of whether they know the directions or not’ and for conclusively proving the extensive use of the word ‘Yes’ among Indians to mean ‘No’.

Professor Sahasrabuddhi added, “Freedom of opinion and expression is no doubt a cornerstone of democracy. But, I must hasten to add that we analyzed several sources of opinions such as television debates, newspaper editorials, Facebook status updates and Twitter timelines. It is quite evident that there is an abundance of illogical thinking, knee jerk reactions and ignorance wherever we look. While it takes all kinds of people to make up the society, it’s obvious that the opinions of some kinds of people are entirely unnecessary.”

The Universe denies screwing a man’s life up

In what’s shaping up as the debate of the year, the Universe issued a strong statement, earlier this week, denying that it was either ‘messing around’ or ‘screwing up a man’s entire life up’ and in attempt at damage control sought to downplay the fracas as “shit happens.”

The saga of alleged sabotage, according to insiders, started with the birth of Mr. Sandeep Reddy, 34, in Hyderabad, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh. According to Mr. Reddy and his mother, the Universe had “consistently and unfailingly check mated him at every turn” in the thirty four years of Mr. Reddy’s planetary existence.

Sources close to Mr. Reddy believe that the Universe could have easily bestowed upon him a full head of hair, but instead chose to withdraw the privilege by the age of thirty. “We could go on and on about the damage that’s been done to Sandeep. There was, for example, this instance when he was miraculously close to booking a tatkal ticket on IRCTC. He had entered his CVV number and was just about to click ‘Confirm Purchase’ when the internet connection chose to mysteriously die. Come on, are you telling me that the Universe isn’t somehow involved in this somewhere?”

A spokesman for the Universe appeared to deflect Sandeep Reddy’s troubles back to Mr. Reddy himself,  suggesting that it had no role to play in human life events. “Mr. Reddy’s anger and frustration are understandable. When we examined his life records, it does seem like things haven’t quite panned out the way he’d have preferred them to. But it’s one thing to have a screwed up life and yet another thing to assign blame to a blameless party. We fear that Mr. Reddy’s observations are frankly without merit and based on a rather fantastic notion that we’re out here somehow plotting human downfall.”

In the meanwhile, a small group of men who claim to be friends of Mr. Reddy have launched a Facebook page in his support. “We’ve known Sandeep from his early days in kindergarten. Although he can be somewhat of a drama queen, his repeated failures in love and life, upon closer examination, appear suspiciously contrived and by design. What we once believed to be results of his inveterate alcoholism and inability to be thrifty or work hard now appear more to be consequences of a higher power’s autocratic manner of dispensing luck. We will not rest until a thousand people have liked our page,” said Mr. YVRK Manohar Prasad, who spoke on behalf of the “Sandeep versus The Universe” Facebook movement.

The escalating row appears to have put the Universe on the back foot. At a hastily convened press conference, its spokesman went into damage control mode and sought to down play the fracas as an inconsequential cosmic event. “Look, we deal daily with monumental events like giant black holes, stars blowing themselves up and the disconcerting lack of visibility of dark matter. The last thing we need is to be drawn into a dispute with an insignificant lump of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen on an insignificant planet. We stoutly deny culpability in the mishaps which seem to have pervaded Mr. Reddy’s life. Shit happens. We request Mr. Reddy to desist from further pointless finger pointing and blame games. No more looking up at the skies and “why me?” questions, please. As a conciliatory gesture, we offer the services of our Department of Time to assist in the healing process with no guarantees that any such healing may indeed occur.”

Secular man all set to unveil the ‘Grand Unified Modi Theory’

In what should bring cheer to secular proponents in India, a Mumbai based mathematician Mr. Laloo Prasad Kumar is on the verge of unveiling what he calls the “the grand unified Modi theory.” What Ho! caught up with Mr. Kumar to get the inside scoop on his cutting edge research which he threatens “will blow the lid off” Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial prospects in 2014. Here are some excerpts from the interview below.

What Ho!: Mr. Kumar, without any further ado, please tell us all about your theory. We’re all agog.

LP Kumar: As you must be aware, Modi is a bad man. A very bad man. Although we have been investigating his role in the 2002 riots for the last ten years, the courts have been able to find no evidence for his culpability beyond reasonable doubt. Isn’t it the job of courts to find Narendra Modi guilty? This got me thinking that we have been singularly focused on Gujarat and 2002. Why not link Modi to (say) the tsunami in 2004? Or the financial markets collapse in 2008? Or even the production of Ra One? These are horrific calamities that have befallen us and we haven’t explored Modi’s roles in any of them. He seems to be getting away scot free. That’s when I decided to come up a grand, unified mother-of-all-theories hypothesis that links Modi to every possible tragedy that we as a nation have encountered since the time he was born. I call this ‘the grand unified Modi theory.”

WH: Umm. What’s your theory built around? Are you using any special algorithms or big data technologies? Maybe chaos theory? Or quantum mechanical principles? What’s your secret sauce?

LPK: It’s pretty simple. The entire theory is built on pure conjecture. It’s quite amazing what you can come up with after a few rounds of Scotch. And of course, I believe everything I read on the Internet.

WH: As purely a matter of record, are you high right now? Have you ever been to Gujarat?

LPK: Well, I do smoke a joint or two every so often. And no, I’ve never been to Gujarat. Is that a problem?

WH: No problem, dude. It would be nice if you can share some of the good stuff with us before you leave. So, how would you describe yourself? What are your interests?

LPK: I am what they call an impeccably secular man. I’ve always believed in the form of secularism that involves self-flagellation of the majority to the point where state and religion are ground into a fine indistinguishable mixture. My idea of a perfect evening is to have a couple of shots, followed by a joint and watch Sagarika Ghose on TV, all the while trolling Internet Hindus on Twitter. Isn’t the world beautiful, man?

WH: Of course. The world is beautiful, man. Byt why Modi? Why not Advani or Sushma Swaraj or other BJP leaders?

LPK: Modi is the big cahuna. The ultimate prize. The holy grail of secularism is to take this man down. Isn’t it obvious?

WH: Yep. It’s now more painfully obvious than ever before. Do you realize that the more you guys do stuff like this, the more there is this backlash against you which might translate into support for Modi?

LPK: That’s true. But we’re all-in on Modi. It’s time to move all the chips to the centre of the table and roll the dice. My grand unified theory will blow the lid of this very bad man’s prime ministerial prospects. I recently shared the theory with Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. And look what happened.

WH: Shame on me. Here I was thinking that Nitish Kumar pulled out because he was upset with Chetan Bhagat giving him advice. Anyway you mentioned that you enjoy watching Sagarika Ghose’s TV show. As a related question, have you ever been swindled by the Nigerian email scamsters?

LPK: That’s so cool and amazing, man. How did you know? Twice as a matter of fact. I had not even reported either of those to the police.

WH: He He.. call it a lucky guess. Anyway, thank you for speaking to us, and good luck with that Unified Theory thing. Dude, I have to say this again. You really need to share whatever you are smoking with the rest of us. Given the shit shape the country is in right now, I think we could use that more than your theory.

Extroverts vs introverts

Our lives are shaped as much by our personalities as they are by our genders, ethnic origin and other demographic factors. Introversion and extroversion are the north and the south of temperaments. According to studies, one third to a half of all people are introverts, which is pretty amazing considering how few people would admit to being one. There’s a pretty good chance that you’re either married to or a parent of or a sibling of an introvert.

An extroversion bias

Yet the world seems overcome by its preference for extroversion. We are told that – to be great, we must be outspoken. And that – to be happy, we must be sociable. Extroverts are perceived as positive and energetic. Introverts, in contrast, are often berated for ‘being in their heads too much’ and perceived as slow, dimwitted or boring. Introversion at times is even considered a problem in need of fixing. Parents constantly apologize for their child’s shyness. Why? When was the last time you saw a report card which praised a child for her thoughtful demeanor? Why are we always trying to pull people out of their shells? Let’s face it. Our schools and workplaces are designed for extroverts. Why is everyone being subjected to the oppression of the extrovert ideal? Why can’t we let people be who they are?

The difference between extroverts and introverts

How is an extrovert different from an introvert? According to Susan Cain, author of ‘The power of introverts’ ( target=”_blank”>TED video), the difference lies in the need for external stimulus. Extroverts actively seek stimulus, while introverts do not enjoy over-stimulation. This difference reflects in how they go about work and social interactions. Extroverts typically seek to dominate, are good at multitasking and require constant social interaction. They tend to think out loud and prefer to talk than listen. Extroverts are energized by socializing. Introverts in contrast tend to be slow and deliberate. They usually have great powers of concentration and prefer to work on one task at a time. Although they might enjoy social interactions, they tend to wish that they were at home reading a book. They prefer to hang out with a small group of close friends, prefer to listen than speak. They typically avoid conflicts, but enjoy deep discussions with with trusted friends. Introverts are energized when they are alone or in small groups.

Introversion not the same as shyness

Contrary to perception, introversion is not the same as shyness. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval while introversion is the aversion to over-stimulation. The two get easily mixed up because they  often overlap. Often, shy people tend to turn inwards and away from the world and become introverted. And at times, introverted people tend to become shy, because they are worried that the world may view their self-reflection unfavorably. There are shy extroverts who may be afraid to speak up in meetings, and there are calm introverts who prefer to maintain silence in an overstimulated environment. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. We humans are complex hybrids and tend to lie at different points on the spectrum. All we have to do is to look around to find an amazing and mind boggling array of human temperaments around us.

In praise of introverts

We all love extroverts. They are the souls of parties. They entertain us and laugh at our jokes. But let’s not forget the introvert in the din. There is something to be said for introversion –  a way that values introspection over quick judgement and calmness over frenzied speculation. One of the world’s most famous extroverts was Steve Jobs, a man who loved the stage and the adulation it brought to him. Let’s not forget that Jobs did not invent the Apple computer. It was Steve Wozniak, an introvert who toiled all by himself in a cubicle at Hewlett Packard, working outside office hours to make it happen. It was the extrovert Steve who came up and said, “Hey, this looks cool. Let’s go sell it.” The two combined to change our world in ways they never anticipated when they started out.

The world needs both, for they are its yin and yang. And harmony requires balance. So here’s to the introverts, the square pegs in the round holes of today’s society. May (y)our tribe prosper.

BJP promotes LK Advani to Senior Vice President of Blogging

In a widely anticipated move, the BJP has promoted Lal Kishen Advani to head a worldwide initiative that will focus on making tenuous connections between political events in the country and mythology. Sources from within the BJP say that Advani’s recent work connecting Pitamaha Bhishma to his own self has caught the attention of the powerful National Executive of the party which recently convened in Goa. An internal communication to party members from president Rajnath Singh leaked to What Ho! is reproduced below.

“Dear party faithful,

It gives me great pleasure to announce the immediate appointment of Shri. Advani as Senior Vice President, Project Unicorn. Project Unicorn has always been a pet project of Advaniji, on which he’s been working over the recent years in stealth mode. We anticipate that this will tap into his inexhaustible passion for combining politics, blogging and mythology and bring much needed laser focus on an important initiative which will connect these amazingly intricate domains in ways the world has never imagined before.

It’s no secret that Advaniji is a go-getter and one of the brightest young talents in the organization. In fact, we’ve been keeping a close eye on this young man for a good part of four decades. Although he has always been part of corporate HQ, we’ve felt that his enthusiastic field work such as in the Rath yatra has been under appreciated by the outside world. His recent blog piece on painting himself as Pitamaha Bhishma, without doubt, tipped us over the edge on this decision.

On a note of caution, I’d like to bring to your attention that Advaniji will be resigning frequently from this post in the months to come. We’ve been told by him that such tactics are necessary in driving traffic to his blog. Please rest assured that he will usually rescind resignations at any point in the 72 hour period following their announcements* (* may vary if weekends are involved). I sincerely request you to not indulge in name calling on social media or in writing petty satire articles which may besmirch Advaniji’s fair name or the party reputation when hearing of his resignations.

I’m sure you’ll agree that the fact that he is one of the founders of our organization makes this announcement even sweeter and join me in wishing him all the best in his new role. Forgive me if I sound emotional when I say that Advaniji is a cowboy made in the original Louis L’Amour mold. They don’t make ‘em like him anymore. Nothing would give us greater happiness than to see him holster his guns and ride off into the sunset on his unicorn, by which of course I mean horse.

Regards,

Rajnath.

Mr. Advani sounded upbeat at a press conference where he read out a lengthy statement outlining the details around his new role.

“I’m besides myself with joy when I see the dazzling array of possibilities in front of me. Let me tell you that I plan to bring a pan-world dimension and new perspectives to this initiative. I know that everyone thinks that the Mahabharat is a fantastic mythological platform from which to spin theories. Sadly it is also an oft abused one. I feel that Ramayan on the other hand offers immense untapped potential. Take the story of Vali who’s shot down just because he came back and took what was rightfully his. Does that remind you of anyone? Hey look at me. Hello?

Greek, Egyptian, Nordic, Chinese, Japanese, Native American . The list of mythologies is endless. For example, I can easily see Jaitley as the half-God Loki in Asgard who goes around brokering deals. As an immediate next step, I’m working on a blog post in which I will draw skillful comparisons between me and Cronos the Greek Titan, who is betrayed and struck down by his own son Zeus in his mad lust for power. I will post it in a week from now and will resign shortly after it goes live. The country is heading into a challenging phase of its history as we move towards elections. What better way to educate people than to make oblique references to Narendra Modi’s hunger for power through a Japanese mythological inference?”

In other news, the BJP national executive voted resoundingly in favour of giving Nitish Kumar, leader of JD(U) and Bihar chief minister a “good and solid wedgie” whenever they meet him next.

The case for Narendra Modi

As a schoolboy growing up in the seventies, I realized early on that India was no place for commoners. That India was a country which provided little or no hope for a person from the middle class. At that time, India was a failed state, a basket case ruled by autocrats through a network of sycophants. All the exhortations in text books to be a patriotic Indian citizen felt hypocritical. Sare jahaan se achcha rang hollow. I was a disillusioned puppy. The brief moments of joy came when we won the occasional cricket match. So I decided to take care of myself and let everything else take care of itself. I left for the United States right after college. I took the first flight out. It was a no brainer.

Imagine how screwed up a country had to be for one of its impressionable young citizens to take the first flight out. Why did things come to such a pass?

Jawaharlal Nehru did many things in his distinguished life, not the least of which was to make huge personal sacrifices for our freedom cause. I was not around when freedom happened. But I was around when Nehru’s policies reverberated through a post independence India. It turns out that Nehru made a bad bet. His wager on socialism was a costly one which sentenced the citizens of his country to spend 50 years in dark and gloomy shadows. It was a bet which led an impressionable young college student to catch the first flight out.

Hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy to sit now and criticize Nehru for taking us down the garden path. The fact is that in a 1940-s post World War world, it wasn’t apparent that the capitalist US model would beat the socialist Soviet model. Nehru’s mistake is pardonable. I’d like to believe that he meant the best for us. What is unpardonable is to take Nehru’s deeply ideological socialism, and degenerate it into crass vote bank populism. It is unpardonable to stick your head in the sand and deny reality. It is unpardonable to go around telling people in 2013 that they have a right to this and that. Folks, it’s time to suck it up and admit that there is no such thing as a right to employment. It’s unpardonable to spend state coffers on freebies and deplete public sector bank funds by writing off farm loans. It’s unpardonable to invite foreign companies to your shores and then change rules on them retro-effectively. It’s unpardonable to be arrogant. It’s unpardonable to steal the people’s money. It’s unpardonable and insane to keep doing the same thing again and again and expect different results. The nine years of the UPA are frankly unpardonable, especially the last four, for the reason they have wasted critical time. It’s time for Congress and its MNREGA mindset to go. And if they persist with this vote bank socialist mindset, I’d like the Indian National Congress to be gone forever from this land.

It’s time to change the cast or the India story will die. We need someone else. This brings to me to the man – Narendra Modi.

Where the rubber hits the road

If you buy into what I’ve said above, the case for Narendra Modi begins to appear. Modi has a track record of successful governance in the real world. He has a reputation for being business friendly. Someone named Ratan Tata will attest to this. Millions of Gujaratis will agree. Narendra Modi has influenced the course of Gujarat towards its present prosperity. He has won two back to back elections without resorting to populism. One can debate endlessly as to whether he gets sole credit. In my book, he gets full credit since it happened on his watch. If we’re going to blame him for 2002 riots, it’s reasonable that we also give him credit for the good stuff which happened in his tenure. That’s the way things ought to work.

Instead of rattling off more reasons in his support, let me focus instead on where the rubber hits the road. There are essentially two questions about Narendra Modi which you have to answer for yourself. I’ve given my take below.

Can Narendra Modi repeat the success in Gujarat on a national scale?

Yes would an optimistic answer. Governing a state with a majority can be very different from administering a nation with the accompanying pressures of coalition dharma. But, this is one of those questions which have to be answered in a relative manner, taking into account the alternatives at our disposal. Modi is not an unreasonable bet considering that the alternatives are either a former Reserve Bank governor who has failed as a Prime Minister or a man who makes his case solely on a famous last name. I have little hesitation in recommending that we bet big on Modi on this front.

Is Modi good for India?

Now, this is a question that has to be answered in absolute terms. We cannot resort to the “the other guy is equally bad or worse” argument. This is a thorny unavoidable question and has to be answered honestly. And the answers can only be but deeply personal.

It’s hard to be objective on this. But, let me try. The answer is ‘I don’t really know.” The 2002 Gujarat riots are not the reason for my diffidence. In fact, the courts have ruled out Modi’s wrongdoing. If the courts have gone over this with a fine comb for a good part of a decade, perhaps it’s time to put this to rest and move on.

My ambivalence has to do with the fact that Modi has his roots in RSS, a pro-Hindu organization. The point I’m trying to make is that even if 2002 riots hadn’t happened, I might still be diffident about Modi’s ability to be a neutral, trusted leader of a country with close to 200 million Muslims.  If I was a Muslim, would I feel comfortable voting for Narendra Modi? As context, I used to live in the US and the open Christian bias of the right wing of the Republican party at times unnerved me. I am familiar with being in the minority in a large country.

I happen to believe that India is not just for Hindus. I don’t believe in Hindu Rashtra. I don’t even define myself as a Hindu anymore. I believe that India (and indeed the whole world) should be a place where like minded people can get together, be able to do amazing things and lead peaceful and dignified lives without fear of persecution. While I may or not believe in the greatness of Sanatana Dharma or Tibetan Buddhism, I certainly don’t wish to foist it upon unwilling recipients. I happen to believe that Hindutva or Zen (or whatever I call my poison) is a state of mind to be kept within the confines of my personal world, and not something to be broadcast from rooftops. This is my secularism.

I also believe that there are imbalances in India on this front. That we have gone far too long with a misguided notion of secularism which horrendously mixes matters of state and religion. I believe that balance has to be restored before my version of secularism can even see the light of day. Perhaps the wheel has to turn fully before it can come out of the ditch. And I believe that Modi will turn the wheel. So, if you are a Muslim, should you vote for Narendra Modi? If you deploy the utilitarian “bad for few, good for many” argument, you might. But it would be understandable if you chose not to. Like I said, this is a deeply personal choice.

Whichever way you go, it’s time to discard the failed socialism and dangerous secularism that Congress practices. It’s time for a new approach. If we don’t do that, I will guarantee you that another generation of impressionable young men and women from India will have no choice but to catch their first flights out of this country in about a decade from now.

Man files RTI petition asking if Karnataka has a government.

In a move that’s being widely hailed as a victory for democracy and free speech, a Bangalore man has filed an RTI petition demanding to know if such a thing as the state government of Karnataka exists or not. Mr. Satish Kumar, 48, who works at a public sector bank, said, “I could have sworn that we had an election around here recently. I also have fuzzy memories of walking towards the election booth and casting my vote. And soon after, I read in the newspapers about some party winning the elections and someone being sworn in as the Chief Minister. The funny thing is that I am now not able to say with certainty if any of these things actually happened or if I’ve dreamt them up. I’m a little worried that I’m not able to tell if there is a government or not.”

After a brief emotional pause, Mr. Kumar added, “I know it sounds crazy. This happens to me every five years or so. Although I have distinct memories of voting, I don’t have any recollections of seeing a government actually function in this state. I hope that I am not hallucinating or something. So I have filed an RTI petition to find out.”

When asked to which government he was planning to submit this petition, Mr. Kumar became flustered and incoherent. “I mean, there’s got to be someone who knows this, right? Are you telling me that there is no government anywhere in India which actually exists to which I can turn for answers?” he stammered as he placed a helmet over his head, kick started the scooter and hurriedly left the scene.

In other news, Jagmohan Dalmiya has promised a thorough probe into the spot fixing scandal that has recently rocked IPL. Mr. Dalmiya read out a brief statement to the press in which he said, “I’m confident that we will get to the bottom of this and unearth all the wrong doings that have been perpetrated by Sharad Pawar.”

With contributions from @wabbster on Twitter.

The What Ho! Report brings you headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

The Beauty in Uncertainty

Life is uncertain. As we grow, we learn that stories don’t always have happy endings. We see that poems don’t always rhyme. We are distressed to see that good does not always win over the bad. We find that truth is not always dressed in black or white. We begin to see shades of grey and so we adjust our sensibilities and beliefs. We sense degrees of uncertainty in events that transpire around us. We become uncomfortable and so we embark on a quest to seize control.

In the quest, we try to force happy endings onto tales that cannot be salvaged. We don’t notice or even deride beauty when it does not conform to our sensibilities. We look for patterns amid the disorder and we interpret them in a manner as to reinforce our biases. We mix effects with causes. We try to re-order chaos to make our lives more predictable. We constantly intervene. Sometimes we succeed. That makes us happy. Sometimes we fail. That makes us miserable. So we go on.

There are two fundamental problems with the way we view uncertainty.

  1. Our brains are not wired to comprehend uncertainty.
  2. There is nothing you can do about uncertainty.

The wiring of our brains

The first problem has to do with the way our brains have evolved. In biological terms, evolution is a process which promotes certain traits disproportionately to others. Human evolution, it appears, has promoted the ability to leap to conclusions over the ability to make carefully thought out analytical decisions. This explains why a fast thinking college quarterback or dashing batsman is more popular than a slow thinking chess club geek.

Example: Imagine (a 100,000 years ago) a cave man running into a saber toothed tiger on one of his daily hunts. As you’d imagine, his choices were to either fight or flee. If you think about it, he also had the option of whipping out his NCERT designed maths text book and calculating the odds of an average 20 year old Homo Sapiens male becoming fodder for a wild canine. It turns out that (not surprisingly) that evolution rewarded those who leaped to the swift and plausible conclusion that flight was the prudent course of action. Those paused to analyze and failed to take quick action were weeded out. Thanks to the momentum of evolution, this tendency to leap to quick conclusions persists to this day even in the absence of the threat of encountering sharp toothed felines on daily morning walks.

This is how our brains came to be wired. We are not good at understanding the concepts of chance and probability. Our brains don’t naturally construct normal distributions and assign confidence levels for events. At least, not in normal course of action. If you think back about the struggles with probability and statistics courses in school and college, I’m sure you’d agree.

What can we do about uncertainty?

The first coping mechanism was a belief in an entity called God, who is all-knowing and orchestrates the events of our lives. Pretty soon, salesmen claimed privileged access to God and added extraordinary tales of His powers and especially about His ruthlessness when it came to dealing with disbelievers. These middlemen are possibly ones who understood the nature of uncertainty (that you could do nothing about it) better than most, and exploited this arbitrage to their benefit.

And then came scientific determinism in Europe more than a thousand years after Aristotle spoke of it. Science began explaining events which would normally be interpreted as acts of God. Science began explaining nature in ways that undermined religious middlemen. Scientists began curing people. They made people fly in the skies. They explained why the planets moved the way they did and why stars twinkled. The moon was not made of cheese, they said. Scientists began displaying powers normally attributable to Gods. And it is possible that scientists began believing that they were Gods themselves.

Something happened in 1927 which rocked the world of science. The scientific community which comprised confident men and women who believed that someday they would explain (and thus control) EVERYTHING were told that the creation was not as explainable and controllable as they believed it to be. They were told that, at the subterranean depths of nature where particles smaller than atoms exist, there was great uncertainty. Quantum mechanics described the fundamental aspect of nature as probabilistic (one of many possible outcomes) and not deterministic (a cause leads to a predictable effect) as Newton and Einstein had led them to believe. Wisp like particles with no mass interact in unpredictable ways to produce blocks called atoms and molecules which in turn combine to produce concrete things with mass (like babies, stars, flowers, bees, chairs, etc) which then interact with each other according to deterministic laws, thus creating an illusion of an orderly creation. Some like Einstein never came to terms with this notion of uncertainty. “God,” he complained, “does not play dice with the universe.”

In other words, if you were given a 300 qubit quantum computer capable of processing every single microscopic piece of data from the beginning of time and then were somehow able to construct a model that explained EVERYTHING till date, you would still not be able to predict what would happen the very next nanosecond because even nature does not know what she is going to do next.

To say that the only thing certain about uncertainty is that you can do nothing about it is a conundrum unto itself.

The beauty in uncertainty

Whether you choose to confide in God about your deepest hopes and fears, or to place your faith in text books and armies of scientists who toil unsung in far away laboratories, or to unconditionally embrace the uncertainty in this creation is your decision. However, there is something to be said about the beauty inherent in uncertainty. This beauty becomes pronounced and magical when we view it from a position that is separated from the self.

Happiness comes from simply listening to the music and swaying with your eyes closed without having to torment yourself about why and how the notes came to be composed. The greatest of joys sometimes does not always come from knowledge or discovery. It comes from the simple act of surrendering to the experience.

The Story of Bhishma

I’d like to share something that I’d written a while back as my little ‘ommage to the master of humor, PG Wodehouse himself.

This is a re-telling of a story from Mahabharat, about Pitamaha Bhishma and my conjecture of how he came to take a terrible oath of celibacy. The tale is written in an irreverent Wodehousian style and might seem a tad too irreverent to some. My apologies if this offends you, though I do sincerely believe that it will not offend. I count myself among the many admirers of Devavrata who was renowned for his sagacity and resolve.

Two days back, I had posted Part 1 of the tale with the intent to post the remaining 4 parts over the next few days. Clearly, I hadn’t thought this through. A few wrote to me saying that a week was too long to wait for the rest of the story to unfold, and breaking it up into pieces was disruptive to the reading experience. So, I have published the entire version here on What Ho! in one place, so you can do what you deem fit – either read it all in one go or bookmark and read it when time permits.

Here it is – the full version of “A Man of His Word” Hope you enjoy this! cheers.

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 2

Here’s the link to part 1 of the Maha Kumbh Mela series if you want to read it first > Part 1

Day 3

When we set out for Ram Janma Bhoomi, I don’t think we knew quite what to expect. It’s fair to say that we were surprised, even stunned by what we saw. Before I get to that, here are a few of my thoughts as context, related to the questions of “Did Sri Ram exist? Who built the mosque? Was it built by destroying a temple which stood at that site?”

Did Sri Ram exist?

Believe it or not, this question crops up every once in a while. At the root of it is the argument that Sri Ram is a mythological figure, and that there is no historical proof that he existed. And by extension, the question of things such as birthplace, etc. is void. This is a slippery slope. If we go down this path, we’ll have to tear down every temple, church and mosque in this land and convert them into strip malls. I don’t think that any reasonable person disputes the value brought by the Puranas to the Hindus or by the Quran to the Muslims.

The question of if God exists or incarnated on earth is out of bounds to all except the believers. We must respect belief and put this question aside.

Who built the mosque?

I haven’t yet read Babar Nama, the diary of Babar. Who better than Babar himself to hear from? Apparently the pages from the relevant period of Babar’s life have gone missing from the diary, and the rest has no reference to Babri Masjid. Also, there does not seem to be definitive proof that Babar had the mosque built. There are accounts of Aurangazeb having done it. The accepted version seems to be that Mir Bakshi Khan, one of Babar’s underlings, built the mosque on his boss’s orders. In any case, there seems to be no dispute that the Babri mosque was built by the Mughals, though architecturally it pre-dates the Indo-Islamic style which came into vogue during Akbar’s era.

The answer to who built the mosque is irrelevant to the dispute. Let’s ignore it.

Was the mosque built by destroying a temple which stood at that very site?

This is the central, unavoidable question of the dispute. Naturally, there have been frenzied attempts by several camps to prove things one way or the other. If interested, you should read up on this. There’s plenty of information available on the internet and in books.

We live in a country where it is hard to prove your own birth place if you should need to. Something tells me that we’re going to have a hard time proving Sri Ram’s birth place. To arrive at a sensible solution, there’s no point in trying to decipher specific details of what happened in 1528. The only approach can be to look at patterns and trends instead. In other words, if we don’t have reliable eye witnesses, we must look at circumstantial evidence.

It was standard modus operandi for Mughal rulers to demolish temples and build mosques at sites which Hindus considered sacred (Kashi, Mathura, etc.). Speaking as a student of history and an objective observer, this fits the pattern of an aggressive new conqueror attempting to stamp his authority and power by replacing ‘your God with mine.’ The Ottoman Turks converted the Parthenon in Athens into a mosque until they lost control of the city. This has happened pretty much in every part of the world where there have been conquerors and vanquished. The temples of the gods of the vanquished have always been collateral damage. One of the first things a conqueror must establish is fear. And the best way to create fear is destroy the temples of the Gods of the defeated, and demonstrating courage by inviting punishment for the sin. There is nothing right or wrong about this. It’s just the way things once were.

I’m pretty sure that no one is going to fall out of their chairs in surprise if it is somehow conclusively proved that the same approach was taken by Babar in Ayodhya as well. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck; even if the duck was born in 1528.

Ram Janma Bhoomi

Coming back to our trip, I mentioned our surprise and shock. We live in a world where it has become commonplace to conduct our religious business while under the supervision of armed forces. We expected heavy security. That was not a surprise. There was a failed attempt in 2005 by terrorists to breach the wall here. So, in a sense, I appreciate the extra vigilance that is being maintained in Ayodhya. That we were body checked a half dozen times seemed a tad excessive. There are snipers in watch towers watching us as we walk through what I can only describe as crude metal cages, which are frankly claustrophobic and a public safety disaster in the making. I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances of getting out of these cages alive if there were to be, say a fire or a stampede. I wish we did better. Surely pilgrims deserve to be treated better than being herded like Holocaust victims in a concentration camp. I exaggerate not.

After about an hour of queuing through the cages, we finally caught a short glimpse of Sri Ramachandra Murthy, who has been graciously accommodated inside an Army tent. The story of Sri Ram and Sita-ji is about upholding dharma and dignity in the face of trials and tribulations. Perhaps it is fitting that their devotees have to undergo the test too.

My take

Are courts designed to resolve religious disputes?

The current approach of placing such a monumentally emotional decision in the hands of the courts is flawed. Courts are good at making binary decisions when there is reasonably solid evidence (or lack thereof). Courts are meant to enforce the laws of the land. They are good at interpreting rules, not creating them. They are not designed to make subjective judgements and interpret history. Courts don’t work well when it comes to arbitrating emotional issues or deciding relative merits. Plus, it’s not fair to place the burden of such a decision, and potential security hazards such a decision may bring about, on the shoulders of a handful of judges. Fear for personal safety may delay or distort decisions. It’s time to disengage this issue from the judiciary.

A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to a bhajan in Ayodhya
A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to bhajans at a store in Ayodhya

Or should this be a decision of the nation’s collective conscience?

The Ram Mandir decision is one that has to be driven by the collective conscience of the Indian people. And the people who represent the public and thus its conscience are unfortunately our MPs. We have no other choice but to force them to get involved. There ought to be an attempt to construct a multi-party bill and take it through the Houses, which is then voted upon by our representatives. While I’m all for keeping the affairs of the state separate from affairs of religion, I must admit that the train has left the station, with the matter already in courts which effectively are government bodies. If a resolution were to be drafted and made to go through the Houses, it would be interesting to see how our representatives vote on the issue. It will give us a sense for how much they are in touch with those they claim to represent. It will give us an idea of how fair and balanced we are as a nation. Our best option to arrive at a sustainable solution may only be a legislative one.

The ball has been set rolling. Where will it stop?

There is a beautiful part of Kambar Ramayanam in which the Tamil poet describes how ‘all the sins of Raavana over the centuries accumulated and manifested as a single white hair on King Dasaratha’s mane.’ Upon seeing the white strand, the long reigning king realized that the time had come to hand over the throne to Sri Rama, thus triggering the sequence of events which eventually led to Raavana’s demise.

Similarly, the sins of the Congress party over several decades may have manifested themselves in the form of the alimony petition brought forth by Shah Bano in 1985, which was then upheld by the Supreme Court. The ensuing protest by Muslim conservatives led Rajiv Gandhi to amend the constitution to effectively limit the powers of a secular judiciary from delivering judgments in conflict with Muslim personal law. The amendment created yet another backlash, this time by the Hindus. A ‘balancing’ appeasement measure led to the opening of the mandir at Ayodhya, which had been under lock and key for a good part of 200 years. The ball which was set rolling by Shah Bano in 1985 may well lead to the eventual end of the 125+ year old Indian National Congress as we know it.

As Chairman Mao famously replied when asked what he thought of the French revolution, “Let’s wait and see.”

Do share your thoughts. I remain open to insights, counter viewpoints and new information as always. Please note: Comments denigrating or mocking religions, religious heads or beliefs will be deleted.

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 1

Would you take the trouble of going to a place where lakhs of people gather and jostle for limited space and other resources, and incur obvious health risks posed by such an environment?

A bunch of us did. And this is my account of that.

Why?

It’s hard to explain why we chose to go to the Kumbh Mela. It’s one of those things which, once you allow it to seize your imagination, will not allow any negativity to be associated with it. We were a group of five college classmates used to travelling together. We made the decision in January to go, and we never had a second thought about it.

A lot of people go to Prayag to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. They go for many reasons. There are the millions of pilgrims, who come with belief and hope of absolution. There are saints and ascetics who descend from the mountains to renew their vows. There are the onlookers intrigued by the notion of belief and fascinated by the spectacle that is the Kumbh. I think we started as onlookers and crossed over into the zone of hope by the time we left. The way it turned out, we kept aside our cameras, mobile phones and facebook and twitter accounts for the most part and allowed the sensory experience to take over. There is something liberating about just seeing something as it transpires, and not being burdened with having to capture it anywhere but in your memory.

The Plan

We executed on a straightforward plan. We flew into Lucknow and drove to Allahabad. And with Allahabad as the base, we made round trips to Varanasi and Ram Janma Bhoomi on two separate days. The third day (Maha Shivaratri) we spent with Ganga-ji and Jamuna-ji at the Triveni Sangam in Prayag. I’m glad to say that things went without a hitch.

I’ve divided the account into three portions covering our experiences in Varanasi, Ayodhya and at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayag.

Disclaimer: This was my first time travelling in Uttar Pradesh. For those of you familiar with that part of the country, my observations may seem trite. Apologies in advance.

Part 1: Varanasi

Day 1: Impressions of Lucknow-Allahabad

The first thing that strikes me on landing in Lucknow was – this could not be Lucknow! The Charan Singh airport is pretty nicely done. No paan stains in corners. And when you come outside, there aren’t any unruly mobs or vehicles like a typical Indian airport. Shame on me for having these images of Uttar Pradesh being filled with dark caves, and Neanderthals roaming around with clubs over their shoulders. The roads are magnificent! Lucknow appears better than Bangalore or even Chennai, at first glance. Mayawati gets credit for this, we were told. Of course, we were just driving out of the city through the cantonment area and had not yet gone into the city. We did eventually go into Lucknow on our final day, which altered the impression slightly towards being like any other town in India. But the positive impressions linger.

The drive to Allahabad (pronounced I-laha-bad by locals) took us a little over 5 hours. We took the longer route via Kanpur, which seems to resemble an industrial and less attractive cousin of Lucknow. Traversing the roads tells you that you’re in UP, where casually driving on the wrong side of the road seems as normal as ambling to a corner dukaan for a chai. Vehicles, broken down or not, can occasionally be found parked on the fast lanes of major highways. If you can’t handle this sort of thing, I guess you’re just not cut out for the Darwinian jungles which are this state’s highways.

Upon arrival in Allahabad, we checked into the neatly maintained, friendly looking Chinmaya Mission ashram, which is about 10km away from Prayag. Awesome rotis and hot daal later, we turned in for the night. The town is empty. There is no sign of a Maha Kumbh mela here. Although this could change on Shivaratri, I can’t say we’re complaining about the lack of crowds yet.

Day 2: Varanasi, the timeless city.

Today was a day in which things didn’t go per plan, and yet everything turned out brilliantly.

First, we get off to a later start than planned. En route, we take a detour to Sita Marhi, where the consort of Sri Rama was embraced by mother earth. And by the time we reach Varanasi, it is late afternoon.

As we drive through Varanasi, the mind fills with images of how it must have once been. Legend has it that Varanasi is the site of the first Jyotir Lingam. A place where Lord Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire stretching between the earth and the sky. The mystical significance of Varanasi was established even before Ganga-ji had an opportunity to appear here. One of the holiest towns in the land lying on one of the greatest rivers in the world, Varanasi was also an important trading destination. It was ruled by eminent kings and filled with prosperous merchants who patronized art and intellect. Imagine standing in the bazaars of Varanasi two thousand years ago. They were filled with the foreign tongues of adventurous Greeks, Parthians and Scythians who would come from Mathura and then travel eastwards along Ganga-ji to the famed Pataliputra.

On the dip in Ganga-ji, what can I say about a simple act of contrition other that you feel its momentous nature only when you immerse yourself into the mother of rivers and engage in the experience. I don’t know if a dip in the Ganges washes your karma away. But watching everyone there, you get the sense that surrendering to Ganga-ji is about asking for a second chance and about renewal of faith in a power higher than the self. And the Lord knows we could all use some faith and a second chance.

Gangaji at Varanasi

We must have stood in line for over a couple of hours before we got to glimpse Kashi Vishwanath-ji for the briefest of a minute. As you enter the temple through its heavily guarded entrance which lies below the ground level and walk past multiple checkpoints with diligent soldiers with rifles who frisk you repeatedly, that’s when you begin to grasp the sacred significance of the reigning deity of the second oldest city in the world, whose name fittingly means ‘the lord of the universe.’

The Kashi Vishwanath temple structure has been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt many times. Mohammad Ghori, Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Firoz Shah Tughlaq were the early invaders. Akbar rebuilt the temple (through his minister Todarmal) which was destroyed yet again by Aurangazeb, who built the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. Ahilya Bhai Holkar, the Maratha queen, rebuilt the temple which stands today. The reign of Aurangazeb lasted 49 years, the reverberations of which have been felt over hundreds of years. The Gyanvapi mosque stands vacant today, a mute testimony to the misguided emperor’s failed attempt to erase a way of life in a city, both of which have an insurmountable, timeless nature to them. I have more to say about this in the context of Ayodhya and Ram Janma Bhoomi, to be covered in Part 2.

Coming soon: Part 2 – Ram Janma Bhoomi.

If I Became the Prime Minister of India

If I became the Prime Minister of India, here’s what I would do.

  1. Day 1 morning: I will conduct my swearing-in ceremony at 9am on a Monday over video conference from my desk in the office, while finalizing a proposal to completely eliminate paper money in five years. The bill will be taken to Lok Sabha by 11am. It will be passed within 15 minutes because every MP who votes for it will be “creatively rewarded” for doing so. Rajya Sabha MPs will be arrested if they don’t vote for the proposal.  Eliminating paper money will effectively eliminate bribes, kickbacks and theft of public money. Now that I’ve solved the problem of corruption in the first 2 hours of assuming office, I will now don my bullet proof vest and move onto other matters.
  2. Day 1 post lunch: Unknown to everyone, I will have sneaked in fine print in the aforementioned proposal which will impose a mandatory 1-term limit on every elected official in the country. This term limit will stay in effect for 50 years. In other words, no one will be allowed to return to any elected position irrespective of whether they have done a good or a bad job. I will thus have stripped the incentive for crooks, thugs, criminals, perverts, cheats and liars to become career politicians and increase their influence. Instead, this will lead to ordinary citizens stepping forward to represent the people by donating 5 years from their careers. They will hopefully make decisions in the best interests of the country. I will announce this in a nationally televised press conference, during which I will release my  own post-dated resignation letter with a legally binding commitment to not contest elections at the end of my tenure.
  3. Day 2: I presume that today will be Bharat Bandh, supported by all political parties including my own, who will all be deeply unhappy with me. I will smile wistfully as I prepare for a direct televised address to the people of India. In the address, I will inform citizens that rules of voting have been changed as follows:
    1. If a citizen is qualified to vote and is found to be not registered to vote, a fine of Rs. 10,000 per unregistered voter will be collected from the winning candidate in that constituency.
    2. If a citizen is qualified to vote and is registered to vote but has not voted, that citizen will be arrested if they use Facebook to bitch about me.
    3. Citizens will be asked to pick their top three voting issues. They will be given an exam for 100 marks on these issues. Votes will be assigned weighting based on marks in the test. For example, if a voter obtains 75 on 100, his vote will be assigned a 75% (=75/100) weight when counting. Voters will be assigned ranks based on their marks and they will vote in the order of the rank received. Voters obtaining 100% will be unconditionally granted the Bharat Ratna and allowed to treat the State Raj Bhavan as their personal guest house.
    4. I expect Kota and Hyderabad coaching centers to be set up by enterprising entrepreneurs to help citizens crack the voters exam and improve their ranks. Once these centers become successful, I will nationalize them.
  4. Day 3: It’s likely that the country has descended into shock and chaos by this point, and Arnab Goswami has been taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. I will take the day off to golf. This will give everyone time to ponder options about how they can get rid of me.
  5. Day 4, morning: I expect to have the login credentials with passwords for all Swiss accounts held by Indian citizens, from the team of four B. Tech. computer science students from IIT Madras whom I have hired for this purpose. The five of us will spend the morning sipping hot cups of coffee and silently transferring money from all the accounts into the government treasury. I expect to net $1.2 trillion dollars or higher. I will publish the final audited figures here on What Ho!. Each citizen will be mailed a check for $1000 equivalent in Indian rupees along with a box of Swiss chocolates within 14 days, through registered post, acknowledgement due.
  6. Day 4, Post lunch: I will announce a bill that will provide the constitutional rights to every citizen to 1. Drive on the wrong side of the road 2. Never have to stand in queues 3. Receive refund with interest to every Ram Gopal  Verma movie he may have seen in his life. I will also announce the appointment of superstar Rajnikant as the only minister in my Cabinet. He will hold approximately 64 portfolios at any point in time, and will be assisted by fresh IIM grads. I expect these measures to create an unstoppable wave of popularity that will overwhelm and remove all ill-will I may have created on Day 2.
  7. Day 5: I will conduct a triumphant Rath Yatra in four major cities during which I expect to be mobbed like Justin Bieber by school children. Songs from Dabangg 1 & 2 will be played at full blast wherever I go.
  8. Day 6: On this day, I will move with the purposefulness of a lion and the speed of a cheetah.
  9. Day 6, 11am: A call center with approximately 100,000 employees will be in place, made possible with the help of Airtel. These call center employees will call every elected official in the country to get status updates on projects. For example, “Have you fixed those three potholes on 2nd main 4th cross Koramangala?” will be repeated every 2 hours with the local councilor until the job is completed. A fine of Rs. 1 lakh will be levied on any official who does not answer the call.
  10. Day 6, 1pm:  I will now grandly announce that we have nabbed Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim through “Operation LeT Them Come To Us.” This operation will involve luring the duo to Mumbai on the promise of a Hindustan Times Leadership Summit keynote speech and a personal, warm interview with Barkha Dutt on NDTV.
  11. Day 6, 4pm: I will attend a special screening of Viswaroopam 2 only because both Kamal Hassan and Rajnikant invited me to join them, and that’s the way I roll.
  12. Day 6, 9pm: I will pour myself a stiff one, lean back on the sofa and watch the 1983 Prudential World Cup finals through the night in loop.

Day 7  onwards: Now that I have accomplished every goal I had set out to, I will spend the rest of my term solving the following more complex and intriguing problems, which pose a clear and present danger to the country’s well being:

  1. Can we get a minimum of 3 fast bowlers who can bowl at 140kmph+ into the Indian cricket team?
  2. Can we somehow ensure that neither Laloo Prasad nor ND Tiwari produce any more progeny?
  3. Nitin Gadkari & Khaki shorts: Can this be made to NEVER EVER happen again?
  4. Can we constitutionally levy super-taxes on any person who spouts uninformed opinions on Twitter?
  5. Can we work with the scientists at CERN to investigate Rahul Gandhi to identify specific skills, if any, that he may possess. These CERN guys found the God particle. This should give them an even bigger puzzle to solve.

Jai Ho. God bless India.

How accurate are fortune cookies?

Dear Dr. What Ho!,

I recently went out to dinner at this Chinese place, where I opened a fortune cookie which said the following-

“This year, you will be promoted because of your hard work and accomplishments.”

My annual review comes up in two weeks. Should I submit the fortune cookie message during the review in support of my demand for a raise and a promotion? How accurate are fortune cookies?

PS: I haven’t done any work over the last year. And neither do I have any accomplishments to speak of.

Yours truly,

Sushil Shinde.

*****

Dear Sushil,

The Chinese have been right about a number of things over thousands of years. Unfortunately, their fortune cookies which contain pearls of prognosis are not always accurate or trustworthy. Consider the following message I once got, much like you, at a reputable Chinese establishment.

“Your purse may be emptied, but your heart will be filled.”

Now tell me, what do the following have in common: Three sets of pillow covers+fitted sheets, half a dozen potted plants, a box of scented candles and a statuette of ambiguous gender which also doubles as a scented candle holder.

They will all appear as charges on your credit card after your missus has been out shopping, and will add up to thousands of rupees in (in my mind) needless emptying of the purse. This fortune cookie message clearly didn’t specify what my heart was going to be filled with.

As I said, deciphering fortune cookie messages can be fraught with peril and uncertainty. If you have accomplished as little as you have candidly confessed, I’m afraid that no amount of ancient wisdom can come between you and your imminent sacking which I foresee. You should perhaps cherish the days that remain on your job. Your days are numbered, my friend.

Best Regards,

Dr. What Ho!

Plausibility and Probability

I must have read hundreds of books over the years, many of which have been great. Of those I’ve read, I can point to two books which fundamentally and almost instantaneously transformed my views on life, love and happiness. They are (in no particular order)

  1. Life after Death by Deepak Chopra
  2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Now, there’s a third one. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Prof. Kahneman teaches at Princeton these days. He’s a Nobel winner in Economics, and has done path breaking work over the last four decades in understanding the psychology behind how our minds process information. He’s truly a treasure.

I’d like to share some nuggets from the book over a few posts. If you like this sort of thing, you should get the book and check it out for yourself.

Background: Prof. Kahneman breaks the working of the mind into System 1, which processes data, reflexively forms patterns and draws conclusions, and System 2, which applies logical rules to examine the soundness of drawn conclusions. One of his assertions, borne out from his studies, is that System 1 is hyper-active, and System 2 is extraordinarily lazy.

Plausibility and Probability

One of the things we humans often do is to mix plausibility with probability. To understand this, Prof. Kahneman and his colleagues designed what is now famously called ‘the Linda problem’. Consider the description of a fictitious Linda below.

Linda is thirty one years old, single, outspoken and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

After reading Linda’s profile, respondents in studies were asked a simple question: Which of the following is a more probable alternative?

  1. Linda is a bank teller.
  2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is the first. Think Venn diagrams. The circle with ‘feminist bank tellers’ is wholly included in the circle of all bank tellers. Therefore, the probability of Linda being just a bank teller is higher than the probability of her being a bank teller AND a feminist. The more specific you are about an event, the lower are the chances of its occurrence.

Here’s the fascinating part. In the survey, 89% of undergraduate students at top ranked American universities picked option 2. When they administered the test to doctoral students at Stanford Business School, all of whom had taken advanced courses in decision sciences and probability, they got a similar result! 85% chose option 2. A majority of really smart people violated the most fundamental rule of probability. They chose the more plausible but less probable event over the other.

What (the system 1 of) our mind does is to jump to the most plausible or coherent conclusion. It does not consider the likelihood of the conclusion. The mind substitutes likelihood with representative-ness of the event. This is how we make errors in judgment that can have far reaching impact on society at large.

This is not to say that plausibility is unimportant and should be ignored. It has its benefits. Plausibility, for example, is the basis for profiling at US airports. Resistance to these methods may be a laudable moral position, but also a rather simplistic one. If your name is Shah Rukh Khan and there’s a known terror suspect out there of a similar age with the same name, chances are pretty high that you’re going to be detained at the airport. Such predictive techniques are based on pattern matching, where the preference is to form a quick conclusion and investigate at leisure. As long as such methods are not manipulated but implemented fairly, they will lead to benefits for the society even if it means costs for the impacted few.

People who are taught new statistical facts about human behavior are often impressed to the point where they will tell their friends about what they heard. This does not mean that their world view has changed. Learning is about applying lessons to our own experiences, and not about repetition of facts. The test of learning lies in whether our understanding of experiences (and how we live) has changed .

In the words of the good professor himself, “changing one’s mind about human nature is hard work. Changing one’s mind for the worse about oneself is even harder.”

Vishwaroopam – A Review

Many years ago, after watching a mind-numbing atrocity called Aala Vandhaan (Tamil film), I swore to never again spend money on a Kamal Haasan movie.  I broke this promise by watching Viswaroopam. Although I don’t do movie reviews on What Ho!, I really must do this to get a few things out of my system.

First, if I were to list out the many flaws in this movie, being offensive to Muslims would not make the cut.

Second, there are no spoilers in this review. The movie is about a Kathak dancer who turns out to be an Al Qaeda fellow who turns out to be an Indian RAW agent who foils a bid by Al Qaeda to blow up New York city. If you are the type who sits on the edge of your seat waiting to find out if Kamal will foil the bid of a one-eyed sheikh, all I can say is that you should have drunk more Complan while growing up.

Third, this review will offend the sentiments of an increasingly fringe group known as Kamal fans, of which I’m probably still one. Brothers and sisters of the fringe group, I anticipate your anguish upon reading this. But look upon this as a much needed dose of tough love and reality that all of us, Mr. Kamal Haasan included, sorely need. If you’re offended, be offended. Stay offended. Outrage. Do your thing. Like I’m doing my thing here.

Dey PR people, you may call this a spy thriller. I don’t.

A supposed ‘spy thriller’, the movie has neither proper spooks nor is thrilling. Unless you count a RAW agent deputed in Afghanistan with nothing more than an interesting surname as a spy. Or unless you get your thrills from amateurish buffoonery performed by a confused and overweight man running around with an even more confused and equally overweight FBI dude and two clueless but not overweight women in tow. For heaven’s sake, while our one eyed Al Qaeda sheikh apparently learnt to speak Tamil on an all-expenses paid trip to Coimbatore, our Tamil dude didn’t bother with the ABCs of Pashtun before going into the field. If only he had read the ‘Lonely Planet’s guide to Afghanistan’, he’d have found that they speak a different language over there.

The film has Kashmiri Sambaar..

The story (Caution: I use this word loosely) is of a Tamilian chap whose mother inexplicably appends the surname Kashmiri to his Wisam Ahmed, making him out to be some sort of a Kashmiri sambaar. Why Wisam? Because it goes well with Viswanath? So it can be shortened to ‘Wiz’? Only the Lord knows. The first we hear of this “Kashmiri” dude is when his wife admits to marrying him so she could come to the US to get a PhD. Tam Brahms can be a resourceful lot when it comes to finding new routes to America. But, this innovative approach to getting American PhDs through marriages to Kathak dancers paints the Tam Brahm academic commitment in a refreshingly new light. By the way, this is the only propah mea culpa we get in a movie littered with far more egregious blunders.

And Kathak dancing, chicken eating Tam Brahm chicks …

Wisam surfaces at the opening as Viswanath, an effeminate Kathak dancer, whose Tam Brahm wifey Dr. Nirupama’s biggest complaints about him are his girly, long hair and lack of manliness, and not strangely enough about his cavorting freely with his much younger, nubile, chicken eating Tam Brahm dance students. On behalf of all Tam Brahms, I’d like to thank Kamal for his use of the slur ‘paapaathi’ to describe a Tam Brahm woman, and getting this formality out of the way within the first 10 minutes of the film. Considering the other names he’s called the community in the past, we’ll take this as a compliment. Other noteworthy points about Mrs Wisam aka Mrs Viswanath aka Dr. Nirupama, in addition to being portrayed as a  pucca stereotypical scaredy cat Tam Brahm, are that she’s a ‘nuclear oncologist’, is dating her boss, having her husband tailed by a private detective and generally considered by all to be a clueless moron.

The bizzare murder of the aforesaid detective, the details of which are best left untouched, leads to the uncovering of Viswanath as first Taufiq, then Nasser and then Wisam Ahmed, all in a matter of a few minutes. What, O Good Lord, was the point of those three names?

When they cut costs, do they also cut casts?

And why was I not surprised to find out that the boss dating Kamal’s wife eventually turns out to be a complete a-hole, dealing with terrorists and the like? Hey, no man looks forward to another guy dating his wife. But, to paint the other guy as a terrorist reveals insecurity and a certain lack of imagination. I’ll admit that there are budget constraints while making a film. But, to start bundling completely disparate traits and activities into the same character to save money? I draw the line there. And I wonder, how do they cast roles?

Kamal: “Hey you random fellow, here’s your part. You’ll play the suave suit-coat guy. You will speak Tamil with an American accent. You will run a nuclear oncology lab. You will first employ and then date my wife but you may not lay a finger on her at any point in time cuz we don’t like that kind of crap. By the way, you’re the main money launderer for Al Qaeda. And if we can squeeze it in, we’ll also try and get you to play the lead pitcher for the New York Yankees. And yes, you will be shot at point blank range at some point like the dirty dog that you are. Enna thambi, what do you think?”

Random Fellow: Ok, saar. Kamal padathila chance kadaikkum naa, enna venum naalum pannuven, saar. (I’ll do anything to get a chance in a Kamal film)

Okay folks, this is the INTERMISSION.  Go get your popcorn and then come back to watch me lose my way and destroy any semblance of the plot in the second half.

And the review resumes…

Viswanath is thus exposed as Wisam, rendering his repertoire of Kathak skills unusable and forcing all to flee through a secret hidden door down to the basement when they could have simply taken the steps downstairs to the garage. Before fleeing, he does find time for a hair cut and slip on a trendy leather jacket, thus causing his previously unyielding wife to instantly fall in mad love with him.

I have a lot of friends who have obtained PhDs. I’ve noticed them to be generally intelligent and quick to absorb complex information. If tested, I’m confident that they will score above average IQ-wise. For example, if I were to tell them that I was a secret agent named Wisam masquerading as a Kathak dancer named Viswanath, they would raise their eyebrows in surprise. They might ask me a few follow up questions. But they would get it in about 30 seconds. Aanaa, appadi illiyey indha Dr. Nirupama madam. (Alas, this Dr. Nirupama Madam is not like that.) What to do? Her wide eyed histrionics at every trivial revelation makes you wonder if she got her Ph.D. from Madurai Idly shop at a discount. Kodumai. Aanaalum romba kodumai saar.

And then you have Andrea Jeremiah who plays the other Indian RAW agent whose name I forget and whose only noteworthy contributions to this fine film are to offer to take Kamal’s pants off and generally tower above him in those scenes in which they let her appear.

Where do they upload the photos? Flickr?

Rahul Bose tries to come across as a gullible one-eyed Al Qaeda honcho, Omar, who loses his family in an American air strike. Dey Omar, I’ll tell you one thing. If you keep bombing other fellows, those fellows will bomb you back, da. You might want to live in a different pin code from your family, boss. This fellow Omar tries to get sympathy, but his weird looking glass eye and repeated attempts to blow up NYC unfortunately prevent him from getting any. Rahul Bose as Omar puts up a good show in the movie. Omar grunts. He whispers. He speaks Tamil. He smiles broadly as his people take group photos with a 14 megapixel fixed-lens camera. He’s, in fact, the most believable guy in the entire circus.

Oh.. the difficulty in finding good foreigners in a foreign country..

While we’re on the subject of casting, I have to mention the firangi guys. There are white guys. There is one African guy. And one African American woman. Of the Caucasians, the “MI-6” guy takes the cake. Note to Indian film makers: When casting white fellows, please don’t cast guys who look like they passed out while doing drugs in the sixties and woke up only recently, as secret service agents. Think a little bigger. Well, just think. The African guy is the guy who’s supposed to blow things up. And why he prepares for it by shaving his entire body like he’s about to plunge into a pool for an Olympic freestyle gold medal is never explained. And did they hire that African American woman who plays the FBI interrogator from the checkout counter at a local supermarket? Dammit, Kamal. You can do better than this. You should have done better than this. You feel my pain, right?

The Faraday Shield

The lesser said about the FBI guy the better. But I will say more. He looks like a guy who would not even be cast in a used car commercial in the heartland of America. And they’ve made him out to be some sort of a mentally challenged individual. When he finds out that Kamal is a RAW agent, his mind is BLOWN. “Who are you?” he asks. Let me clue you in, my FBI dost. We were all asking the same bloody question too, at that point. And wearing a jacket with FBI emblazoned on it does not make you an FBI guy. Knowing shyte does. And you don’t rush into a room when you have a nuclear bomb sitting in the middle of it. You call the bomb squad. And if you don’t call the bomb squad, at least have the decency to conduct a public debate over if you should cut the blue wire or the green wire. Dude, we have all watched enough Bruce Willis movies to know this shyte. At this juncture, I’m sorely tempted to talk about something called the “Faraday shield.” But I won’t spoil it for you. I’ll be nice and let it be an unpleasant surprise for you.

The right to free speech.. and making rubbish..

There were a lot of people whose sentiments were apparently hurt by this movie. They got the screening of the movie suspended in Tamil Nadu. They have now got some scenes removed. They have created the impression that this movie is offensive to Muslims. I watched the ‘uncut’ version in Bangalore. It really is nowhere close to being offensive to any group but perhaps sincere Kamal well-wishers. Dey people, if you don’t like what you hear about it, don’t watch the film. Criticize. Yell. Shout. But don’t shut down someone’s shop because he’s not selling what you want to buy. We live in India. Not in Afghanistan. We are a free, democratic country. We’re like that. We tolerate stuff. Everything goes. Even rubbish. Even blasphemy. Although this film is not blasphemous that way. The most worrisome part of the movie came at the end, with the threat of a sequel left looming large over our heads.

The best comical film since MMKR..

Viswaroopam ends up as a deflated balloon called Buss-waroopam with its hodgepodge of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, FBI, Kathak, Tam Brahms and other podalankai (snake gourd) things. The nicest thing I’m willing to say about it is that it’s possibly the best comical film Kamal has made since Michael Madana Kaama Rajan. I did get a few laughs out of it.

Before we go: Dear Kamal Haasan Sir..

Dear Kamal sir, you’re a great actor. But you’re not a good director. Please stop directing films. And you’re a great actor only when you work with good directors. So work with only the good ones. As for me, I’m going to watch Nayagan yet again for the hundredth time to cleanse all these disturbingly bad memories. And I’m going back into my self-imposed ban on Kamal films and stay there. I refuse to watch a once-great actor descend into the pits of mediocrity and destroy the image I have of him.

And as for you people..

Please go watch Viswaroopam because Kamal Haasan deserves our support. Perhaps, just this one last time.

Note: This review has been cleared by the Censor Board, cut by 223 words, then approved by 58 fringe groups and blessed by Amma before being published.

The Trolley Problem

There’s a famous philosophical dilemma called the ‘trolley problem.’ In this hypothetical scenario, there’s an out of control train on a track that is being repaired by five workers. You’re given just a second or two to decide if you want to to flip a switch and divert the train onto a second track. The dilemma is that there is a worker on the second track who will be killed if you flip the switch.

The opposing philosophies which apply here are ‘utilitarian’ – overall good of many, and ‘thou shalt not harm’ – leave it to a higher authority, and don’t consciously kill another person.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of people opted to kill one worker to save five when presented with this dilemma. The studies were then repeated with a twist. Subjects now wore virtual reality gear which projected an avatar of the worker. Surprisingly, 90 percent of people still opted to flip the switch and kill the lone worker even though they could now see their ‘victim.’ There was no change in the results.

Here comes the interesting part. When subjects were told that they had to physically push the worker and kill him instead of flipping a switch to save the other five, only 50 percent opted to kill him. And here’s the kicker. When people were told that the worker on the second track was either their spouse, sibling or parent, only one-third opted to save the five workers.

What can we infer? That evolution has selected a majority of those who will make split second decisions to kill another? That we don’t like to get our hands dirty? That we’re selfish and will sacrifice others in order to save our own? That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

Are we condemned to always play out our Darwinian impulses? Will our humanity always beat out the divinity in us? That’s not a cheerful picture, if true.

What’s your take?

10 Things You Need to Know About Twitter

To be honest, I’ve not (yet) met Subhorup “Subho” Dasgupta. But I look forward to that conspiracy of circumstances. I’m a regular reader of his blog.  How I stumbled on the blog is not interesting. What’s interesting is what happened after that. As I idly browsed Subho’s quirkily named Jejeune Diet, I did what any self respecting stalker would do, which was to click on his ‘About Me.’  There I found a person, who was about ‘intelligent writing and conversation’ and wished to be remembered for ‘doing something about it.’ Fascinated, I read more on his blog. A fan of Subho was thus born.

So, when he recently asked if I’d write for Jejeune Diet, saying yes was the easy part. Then came the pressure of having to live up to his readers’ expectations. When you write for a blog of which you are a fan, you become the writer and the reader simultaneously, and worry if you can bridge the twain.

 Here are a couple of things I’d like to request, before you click through and get over to Subho’s Jejeune Diet.

  1. Read his ‘About Me
  2. Read some of his wonderful posts. For starters, I recommend this moving piece about Janis Joplin

Not everything appeals to everyone. Indeed, I don’t always relate to everything Subho writes about.  But, here’s the thing. Sometimes, what is being written about doesn’t really matter when the quality of writing is high. That is the reason I read Subho regularly. I hope you will too.

Ok. I’m done. Without further ado, I present “10 Things You Must Know About Twitter” – my contribution to that awesome something that Subho is in the process of doing so well.

Click to continue reading.

Life Lessons From Bollywood Movies

I’ve watched my share of Bollywood films. And here are some powerful life lessons from Bollywood movies that I have learned on this rocky journey.

Disclaimer: Truth be told, I enjoyed watching some of the films referred to here. And of course, I mean all of this in a somewhat flippant, irreverent and humorous manner. 🙂

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

I came away from this movie convinced about the urgent need for a Jan Lokpal who will be dedicated to making sure that Karan Johar will never make a film again. KANK makes a telling point that if there are two couples, both unhappily married, the last thing they should do is to ask KJo to make a film about their marriages.

Veer Zaara

The biggest lesson from that incorrigible romantic Yash Chopra, bless his soul, was not in the movie. It’s in what happens after Veer and Zaara get married, a story yet untold. They lived as man and wife happily for many years until discovering that Zaara had, in fact, been born in India and adopted and raised by Pakistani parents. Since there’s nothing like the disappointment of marrying a fellow Indian when it comes to killing romance, Veer and Zaara naturally filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. Which just goes to prove that age old truism when it comes to selecting a mate, “Only opposites attract.”

Devdas

I can’t say I learnt anything from the fifteen minutes of watching this film, by which time I had swooned and fallen senseless by the coffee table. As I lay pondering in the ambulance on its way to the emergency ward, it dawned on me that if you spray enough perfume on it, even rubbish will exude an exhilarating aroma before it knocks you senseless with poison gases.

Munnabhai MBBS

If a lout coming in from the street can fake his way through medical college and rehabilitate a brain-dead person, the day is not far before computers begin replacing doctors. I was astonished to find that chronically ill people preferred “magic hugs” from a fake doctor from the neighborhood slum over systematic medical care. I was, however, not astonished to see some of them die before the movie ended.

Kal Ho Naa Ho

Until I witnessed this magnificent opus, I was just another ignorant puppy cruising merrily through the park of life. The movie’s brilliance stunned me in ways I would have never thought possible. For example, if you see a guy strolling around with a wistful smile, and breaking frequently into song and dance routines, it can mean only one thing. That he will reveal at some suitably inconvenient time later that he has cancer. And what I discovered about this guy was that – amazingly enough – for the sole reason that he has cancer, he can give Dalai Lama a run for his money when it comes to making profound observations on life. And, he does all of this with aplomb, wearing orange cargo pants and partying it up with neighbors who look like models from an ethnically diverse Benetton ad. MIND = BLOWN.

Lagaan

Cricket is a game of such glorious uncertainties that a bunch of untrained, clueless country bumpkins can beat the guys who invented the game on any given day. It was equally revelatory to  discover that English belles find short, tanned, rustic Indians irresistible.

Zindagi Na Milegi Do Bara

If you put three guys in the Spanish countryside, I guess it’s only a matter of time before they start dancing in the village square. I found this film to an excellent example of the oft-used Bollywood formula which involves shooting film footage in exotic locations first, then adding a soundtrack and finally inserting dialogues and actors into it, before releasing in theaters.

Chak De India

There are many lessons we can learn from sports. Put Bollywood and sports together and the possibilities begin to boggle the mind. The best coaches are mediocre players who’ve suffered some grievous humiliation in their own playing days. I confidently predict that Ravindra Jadeja will become one of the all-time greatest Indian cricket coaches around 2025.

Never ever miss a penalty stroke against Pakistan. Especially when you’re down 0-1, in the final few minutes of the game. The movie nicely drove home the point that, but for India-Pak sporting contests, we would all have turned into unpatriotic wretches by now.

Dabangg

You can be an aggressive fellow with anger management issues. You can be an eve teaser. You can even be a corrupt cop. No problem. All will be forgiven and forgotten if you are the local Robin Hood Pandey with a cool pair of Rayban glasses. Heck, if you’re the charismatic, roguish Chulbul, you can even suffocate the neighborhood ruffian to death right before you scamper off to tie the knot and walk around the fire with the girl of your choice in tow. And while this might seem obvious, it’s worth calling out that it’s never advisable to let a gloomy looking chap, whose factory just burnt down, bring a crate of mangoes into the premises.

Hum Tum

This movie provides rare insights for men on the fine art of wooing women. The best way to win a woman over, I observed, is to be sensitive, patient and thoughtful. You must give her enough space and time. This is how it works. Fall madly in love with her. Wait for her to marry some one else. Then bide your time patiently until her husband dies in a car crash. And, that’s when you make your move. To set her up with your best friend. By this time, the woman cannot have failed to notice the bizarre patterns in your behavior. She will naturally interpret it as ‘your feelings’ towards her. Deny the allegations immediately because you’re a sensitive guy and wouldn’t want to rush her. Then, accept these feelings exactly one year later. By this time, since you’ve exhausted all other options, go ahead and marry her. And have a baby girl right away. This movie taught me the important lesson that you should take an excruciating amount of time before you get married, but you must not bat an eyelid before having a baby.

A Wednesday

As Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar warned, “beware of lean, hungry men.” Nasiruddin Shah’s character has so many layers and much to teach us. He’s lean. He’s hungry. He’s disgruntled. He’s learnt how to rig computers, phones and SIM cards to be untraceable. He’s second to none when it comes to assembling remote detonators and dirty bombs. This movie makes a pretty solid case that higher education in engineering and science is a complete waste of time when Wikipedia is handily available.

Tare Zameen Par

If you’ve not been a good student while in school, don’t worry about it. Someday, like Aamir Khan, you too can make a movie to explain it away. This movie opened my eyes to the possibility that an art teacher hired on a temporary basis will go to extraordinary lengths to make his job permanent. It taught me that most fathers are evil men who want their children to do crazy things like study well, get great jobs and lead comfortable lives, while, at the end of the day, it is art teachers who continue to remain solitary beacons of hope to children everywhere.

Ra One

Sometimes one person’s bad karma manifests itself as a desire to make this really horrible movie which many others will watch due to their own bad karma. Let’s please observe a moment of silence in memory of the suffering, and unite in our firm resolve to never let a tragic calamity of such horrific proportion ever repeat in our lifetimes.

3 Idiots

Watching a movie can sometimes be the only way to wipe out the bad memories of the book it’s based on. Amen.

Talaash

When your subordinates see you making empty gestures in the air, and having conversations with an imaginary girlfriend, and yet they don’t feel comfortable giving you feedback about it, then something is clearly amiss with your management style. These are exactly the sorts of things they don’t teach at the IIMs. Talaash puts forth a powerful new management concept which involves building vibrant, friendly teams, and encourages open dialogue with things other than ghosts. It was fascinating to learn that women continue to wear high heels, lipstick and short skirts long after they are dead, but dispense with high heels, lipstick and short skirts if they’ve been married a while.

Why I Don’t Watch Television News

I stopped watching news on TV more than five years ago. I’ve tuned in only on rare occasions, like during elections or recently when the India Gate protests raged. I can count the number of these occasions. By and large, I’d rather have root canal surgery than watch television news. Here’s why.

The media plays at least 3 roles in a democratic society.

1. To inform.

It’s the job of the media to keep us informed of the facts. To be perfectly honest, I don’t watch TV to find out what Rajdeep Sardesai’s or Barkha Dutt’s opinions are. I could definitely do without Arnab Goswami’s histrionics. None of these “anchors” have expert training in economics or public policy or defense or anything else for that matter. They are (I believe) trained journalists and were hired to play the role of skilled interviewers. I’d prefer if they kept their opinions to themselves. I’d like them to tell me the facts, please. Then, I’d like to hear what experts have to say on the matter. And by experts, I don’t mean mouthpieces of political parties or former editors of semi-porn magazines or activist Bollywood actors or self-styled marketing gurus. There are smart people out there who’ve invested their time and careers in analyzing social issues, running businesses and researching and implementing policy matters. Go find them. Bring them on air. Allow us to hear what they have to say, even if they conflict with your opinions.

News anchors should be good at what they are supposed to be good at. If you talk more than your panelists, it means you’re not a skilled interviewer. If your show turns into a free for all among the panelists within a few minutes into the show, it means that you are an embarrassment to your profession.

2. To investigate

Media organizations are the watchdogs of a democratic society. They are our conscience keepers. It’s their job to find where the fire is burning when they see smoke. It’s their job to separate fact from fiction and help us tell a real scam from a smear job. We live in a complex world with complex issues. We want someone to tell us what’s going on so we can make up our minds about it. We are looking for someone to trust. Not someone who makes us live in perpetual anxiety.

It’s not really important to me as to who broke the story. What’s important is that the truth does not get bent in the process. I find our media stunningly incompetent on two counts. 1. They are not the ones to break stories. Stories get handed to them on silver platters. 2. And when they are handed stories, they make no effort to uncover details. In fact, they go through great trouble to obfuscate matters.

The last time we saw high quality investigative journalism in India was in the late 1980’s when the Hindu broke the Bofors story.

3. To build consensus

The media plays a critical role in building public consensus on matters of national importance. It’s not an easy job to take on emotional issues and steer the public towards thinking objectively about them. It’s a lot of hard work to assemble facts about an issue and to paint a clear picture. Instead, we have television channels which take the lazy route by fanning flames and obscuring facts that they end up doing incalculable long term harm to the country. The cornerstone of a democracy is the ability to engage in public discourse. If we don’t get this right, our democracy will fail.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Unfortunately for us in India, we seem to have neither a functioning government nor media.

I’m pretty sure that by now you can understand why I don’t watch television news any more. I’m amazed that anyone watches it at all. Is a little competency and integrity too much to ask for?

India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up.

I think India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up. Here’s why.

Pakistan is not our equal.

Not economically. Not in population size. And certainly not in the way they conduct affairs of the state. Pakistan now stands teetering at the edge of a precipice. India, on the other hand, has a much brighter future notwithstanding our many flaws. They should not be treated as an equal. If you can believe me, I don’t mean this in a dismissive, contemptuous way. I mean it as a matter of fact. A junior minister of state in external affairs should be deputed to engage with their foreign minister. Our external affairs minister should engage directly with their President, and none less. Our Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition should not comment publicly on or engage with anyone from that country.

I support the position of our Prime Minister when he recently remarked that the recent provocations from Pakistan deserve no more than a tactical response, that we should not indulge in jingoism, and that the matter of how we deter the Pakistani army is best left to professionals in the Indian Army. In contrast, I found Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s “Get me 10 heads for one” response deeply disturbing and alarming.

Never get into a fight with a country which has nothing to lose.

At times, it may be tempting to engage in one-up-man-ship. What we have to remember is that by doing so, we’re going out of our way to keep an irrelevant nation in the public eye and thus make it out to be more important than it really is. In other words, there’s no gain for us. It’s all upside for them. Don’t stoke a dying fire.

The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.

Pakistan works pretty hard to earn our anger. In return, we must offer our indifference. We must stop putting every act of theirs under the microscope and agonizing over it. We must stay focused on fixing our ownselves, and moving quickly ahead in this very competitive global economy. The best “revenge” – for those who tend to like this sort of a thing – is one that will be served someday when Pakistani people wake up and realize that we’ve left them miles behind in the race to prosperity. Those obsessed with things like “honor” and “izzat” should remember that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to get into one. Patriotism is not about having a misplaced sense of honor or a narrow view of the world or flag waving and chest thumping. It’s about being a committed citizen and taking the time to understand complex issues, how they intersect and doing what’s what’s best for the country and making your opinion heard in a constructive manner. In my opinion, Pakistan should cease to be a voting issue for Indians, and anyone who attempts to make it one should be discouraged.

There is no such thing as Pakistan.

There are the Pakistani people. There are the politicians. There is the Pakistani army. There is ISI. There are many niche centers of power, controlling narrow domains. None of them are in control. It’s impossible to negotiate when there is no decision maker on the other side of the table. We have to recognize this and understand the difficult job that our government has, when it comes to dealing with Pakistan.

They are people like us too.

Perhaps, a way forward might be one that involves building direct bridges to the Pakistani people and creating economic opportunities for them so they, over time, have something to lose by harming our interests. Pakistan is like this evil twin of India, separated at birth and adopted and raised by a gangster. In many ways, their people have suffered more than us. I refuse to believe that an average Pakistani wakes up in the morning and looks for ways to destroy us. I think the average Pakistani is like the average Indian. He/she just wants a good job, a hot meal and a peaceful life. An “economic version of Aman ki Asha,” which promotes free trade and collaboration – as much as it sounds like a fairy tale – might not be a bad way forward if we’re willing to be patient for at least a couple of decades.

Heck, we don’t have be nice to them, if we don’t want to. But we really ought to stop obsessing about them and move on.

What’s your take?

Also read: O Pakistan, Whither Goes Thou?

I want to enter politics. Kindly advise.

Dear Dr. What Ho!

I’m tired of working hard to make a living. So, I’m thinking of entering politics. But, I don’t know how to lie. I’m generally a truthful person. Will I ever be able to change my ways and become a successful politician? I want to enter politics. Kindly advise.

Sincerely,

Middle Class Muggle.

Dear Middle Class Muggle,

Thanks for writing.

Lying is easy. Just think of the truth and then say exactly the opposite. I’m sure you’ll become good at it over time, if you practice hard. But, I’m afraid that you might have misunderstood politics to be all about lying, which is not the case. I hope you’re aware that the word politics derives its meaning from the greek word ‘poly’ which means ‘many’ and ‘tics’ which are blood sucking insects. Research shows that successful politicians spend their time as illustrated in the chart below.

 politicians

As you can see, being an idiot is by far the single most important part of being a politician. Unless your IQ is lower than your age, I’d strongly recommend against pursuing this career option.

Sincerely.

Dr. What Ho!

A Letter From The King

Dear Visitor,

First, I’d like to thank Disney for teaching lions to speak English in a baritone that sounds a lot like James Earl Jones.

Let me come directly to the point. Who came up with the bright idea of driving jeeps through my jungle? If you think I like being stalked and photographed, you’ve got a sick mind, my friend. And, what  makes you believe that I cannot see you? Let me fill you in on something. If you want to stalk, driving around in a noisy contraption would not be the way to go. Don’t insult me by trying to stalk me. I’m a cat, for heaven’s sake. I stalk things. Things don’t stalk me.

Seriously, if I showed up in your backyard and got busy shooting pictures of you while hiding behind a flimsy bush, would you not notice? Dudes, mark my words and note them carefully. I can see you. If I can’t see you, I can smell you. And if I catch you, I will eat you.

I’m aware that your IQ is higher than mine. I may be dumber than you. But, you won’t catch me taking planes and traveling thousands of miles to take a few lousy photos of a human.

I don’t like you people. I don’t want you coming anywhere close to me. If you do, I will eat you. Thanks and have a nice life.

Best regards.

Lion King.

To Love and To Cherish

The time has come to confront the question that’s been on the lips of women since the dawn of time. “Why do men suck?” I will attempt to answer this question as only a man would, which is by lying through my teeth. Fasten your seat belts. And here we go.

A Long Time Ago, Life Arose.

First, you’ll have to imagine an age long before dinosaurs roamed the earth. An era that dates back millions of years. Imagine a time when Lal Kishan Advani was in his diapers. When Shahid Afridi had just entered Test cricket. We’re talking about a time so long ago when life itself first originated on this planet. A few carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen molecules got together to form something called amino acids. One thing led to another and pretty soon, we had something called DNA. And out of these building blocks arose life.

And a Lot of Things Happened After That.

A lot of things happened after life forms evolved. The long and short of this history is that enormous numbers of incredible combinations of life attributes (shape and gender) expressed themselves forth in a wonderfully disorderly process of creation. And in an equally wonderful process of destruction, many of the life forms were weeded out in what Charles Darwin has called the process of natural selection. Short giraffes went out. Striped zebras stayed in. And so on and so forth. In short, you should be very happy that you are here reading this. Congratulations, my friend. You are a survivor of an astonishing cycle that started millions of years back.

DNA Matters.

What I have been trying to tell you in a somewhat elaborate and grandiose fashion is that “DNA matters.” And as remorseless as Darwin’s theory sounds, it is my painful duty to point out there may be just two rules that govern life on earth.

1. You’re not in charge. Your genes are.

In fact, the relationship between humans and their bodies is rather like the one between the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and its members. She may sit around in a stern pose, striking the gavel all day along and doling out instructions. But if a few members decide that they’re going to jump into the well and slap a minister or two, they’re going to do it. You’re not in charge. Your genes are.

2. All your genes care about is themselves.

They don’t care if you’re the Pope himself. All your genes want is to ensure that they make it to the next round of the evolutionary game. And the ones who make it thus are described to be “evolutionarily stable.”

“Men Hunt. Women Nest.”

Now, the interesting thing is that this is true for BOTH men and women. However, the evolutionarily stable strategies of men and women have taken very different directions. This has been famously summarized as, “Men hunt and women nest.”

Jerry Seinfeld on “Men Hunt and Women Nest.”

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For example, women took the process of selecting a mate and the act of procreation very seriously. As opposed to men who tended to be looking for avenues to reproduce with one partner while the other one was out shopping for shoes. The way things turned out, the cost of a woman’s mistake became disproportionately larger than that of a man’s mistake when it came to selecting a partner. Naturally, this led to women viewing male behavior with deep suspicion and developing healthy disdain for it over time. Since women carry this enormous burden of not being in a position to afford mistakes, it has resulted in all kinds of irrational and unreasonable expectations, such as the following-

  1. Men must call 14 times a day. (16 if they are traveling on work and 24 if partying with buddies.)
  2. Men must purchase gifts for the marriage anniversary, which involve precious stones and rare earth elements.
  3. Men must pay attention to what their wives say.
  4. Men must respond with thoughtful answers.

It has also led to certain disturbing behavioral patterns among women as the following, to mention just a few-

  1. Making conversation.
  2. Caring.
  3. Not caring about Virender Sehwag’s string of low scores.
  4. Asking what you think of Sushmita Sen and expecting an honest answer.
  5. Buying gifts for others.
  6. Buying potted plants.
  7. Buying paintings and then demanding that they be hung on walls for all to see.
  8. Buying furniture for every room.
  9. Buying scented candles the size of Buddhist stupas.

And Then, There Were Children.

In particular, women seem to have developed a disconcerting habit of taking their children seriously. Don’t ever (I mean, EVER EVER) debate a heavily pregnant woman over what might be an appropriate size for a baby’s crib or if it is really worth the trouble to hunt in 42 different stores for the right color of pink for the baby’s room curtains. You’re likely to be hit over the head with a blunt instrument if you hint even the slightest of dissent. This pattern of obsessive behavior then carries through into birthday parties, which have now been widely acknowledged and recognized to be the leading cause of divorce among otherwise happily married couples.

The only impression of a kiddie birthday party that a man has, assuming he were ever to voluntarily consider hosting such a ghastly affair, is one involving purchase of exactly 4 cheese pizzas with no toppings, and no more than 10 children shrieking and running unsupervised around a table, while he watches cricket on television. You might note the word planning missing from the male concept of a party.

Unfortunately, the female of the species believes that it has developed a more evolutionarily stable strategy towards birthday parties. Parties are planned well in advance. Cards are created with ‘RSVP’ neatly emblazoned on them. Magicians are booked, and a cake ordered, which is inexplicably returned even if a single word is misspelled. It is reported that, in certain advanced cultures, some women have been known to go as far as having themes for parties.

Women are always looking to nurture something or the other. On the rare occasion they’re not pondering “Why do men suck?” they’re looking for someone or thing in their vast network of family, friends and potted plants who/which requires nurturing. And more often than not, their children end up being captive recipients of this evolutionary largesse.

Is There Hope For Women?

So, back to our question. Why do men suck? And, more importantly, is there any hope for women? Of course there is. There are seven billion people on this planet. Half of this population is a group of rational beings, by which I mean men. If you’re a single woman and looking for that ideal partner, fret not. The statistical probability of finding that one handsome, loving and sensitive male out of the pack is pretty high. It’s a different matter however that you might never run into him because he’s likely under scientific observation in a laboratory in MIT.

You might also want to check out:
For Better Or For Worse
For Richer Or For Poorer
Till Death Do Us Part

Why trains are way cooler than planes

I’ve re-discovered the joys of train travel over the last few months. And the more I think about it, there are a few good reasons why trains are way cooler than planes. And, here they are.

There are emergency exits everywhere.

You know the drill, right? That speech that you get from the stewardess if you’re seated in the emergency row of an aircraft? None of that if you travel on the train. Every orifice is an emergency exit. Windows, doors, etc.. All of these make for a quick and clean exit, especially if you don’t have a ticket and you see the examiner approaching. Anything is an emergency. Everything can be an exit.

You can show up any time.

None of the rules of air travel apply here. No ID to show to be simply let into the travel area. There is no need to show up an hour before departure at the check in counter. Instead, you can show up as the train is leaving and hop onto it as it leaves the platform. In fact, many are known to do exactly that. There is some part of the Indian psyche that believes that if something moves on land, it must be boarded only while in motion.

You can carry anything on board.

There is a long list of things you cannot carry aboard a plane. There is also a long list of things that cannot be carried aboard a train. The difference is that you can pretty much ignore the latter list. You will, in fact, be able to find a porter who’ll help you carry bulky, dangerous things into the compartment, and a friendly ticket examiner who’ll help you store aforesaid dangerous substances. All for a nominal fee, of course.

“Excuse me, Ticket Inspector. I have this rather large and unwieldy nuclear tipped missile that doesn’t seem to fit overhead. Is there a place I can keep this?”

“Of course, Sir. Why don’t you just place right behind the last row in the compartment? That space is designed to handle up to Agni IV.”

“Thank you, Ticket Inspector.”

“You’re welcome. Err..that will be Rs. 200, please.”

The journey is the destination.

Seriously, trains in India are not just a means of transport. They are a way of life. An astounding 20 million+ people travel by train every day in India. There are over 9,000 scheduled trains that start somewhere every day. Hundreds of millions of Indians go on pilgrimages, on vacations to visit family and friends and on business trips every year. The Indian Railways is, not coincidentally, the world’s largest employer, with over 1.6 million people on its payroll.

No matter how often you’ve traveled by train, there’s always that tingling excitement that builds as you walk on the platform, locate the compartment and place yourself on the seat. As you feel the jolt that signals that the train is on its way, that’s when you realize that the journey has become the destination.Now, that’s definitely something you cannot say about traveling on a plane.

2012 – A Year in Review

It was the sort of a year in Indian politics which raised an important question, “Which of these guys do I dislike the least?”

It was the kind of year that made me add ‘having a functional government’ to my bucket list. It was a year in which our phones got way smarter than our ministers. There was nothing to fear but fear itself.. and Mamata Banerjee. Offensive religious films were made. Riots broke out in the Middle East. India was a shining example to all those countries. We watched Ra One and didn’t lose our cool.

In 2012, the history of India was written in Comic Sans font. Usually, it’s countries which have parliaments. The only parliament which had a country was the Lok Sabha. Each Parliament session cost as much and lasted as long as a Kardashian marriage.

It was a year we watched TV and read newspapers to find out what we already knew to be not true. Most people spent more time on their Facebook status updates than our government spent on planning our future. Activists did the job of the media. The media did party work. Parties worked for corporations. In short, it was business as usual. No one did what they were supposed to.

“Politicizing armed forces. Investigating CAG. Not debating bills in Parliament. Undermining of institutions. Ignoring citizen protests and anger. Well played, UPA.”

It was also nice to know that no matter how bad things got in our country, Mayawati and Mamata were always on hand to make them worse. It was heartening to see Didi building bridges in 2012, to the 14th century. The Chinese must have looked at us and wondered what kind of a country they plan to get into a skirmish with, in the future.

Our democracy is an amazing thing. Where else do you to get to choose people who watch while you get tear gassed and lathi charged? If the government wants to gain the people’s confidence, then deploying 10,000 policemen at India Gate is not the way to go about it.

“Dec 29, 2012. Black Saturday. God bless your soul, Brave Heart. I hope we never forget you.”

2012 – A year in review

The year got off to a bright start for Suresh Kalmadi, who walked out of Tihar with a smile on his face. The next morning, citizens of Greece rioted when they discovered that their country was, in fact, owned by Kalmadi.

The nation’s largest state elected its chief minister in 2012. If Uttar Pradesh were to be an independent country, it would be the sixth largest in the world. Even bigger than Pakistan. In an electoral game of truth or dare, the Congress party, led by Rahul Gandhi, sadly continued to pick ‘dare.’ Mulayam’s winning formula was pretty simple and straightforward: 1. Announce the list of candidates. 2. Release them all from jail.

Speaking of elections, we had one in Gujarat too. Where Congress left no stone unturned in its bid to lose by sending in Rahul Gandhi to campaign. Narendra Modi completed a historic hat trick in 2012. It was obvious that, for right or wrong reasons, NaMo did well with one important demographic: voters.

Rahul Gandhi, the artist formerly known as Crown Prince.

There are many unemployed 40+ year old men in the country. One of them was tipped to become the Prime Minister in 2012. This prediction fell through, to the dismay of Rahul Gandhi’s supporters, most of whom are stand-up comedians. Polls showed that Indians had mixed feelings about Rahul Gandhi becoming PM. 40% were uncomfortable with the idea. 60% hated it. To be fair, Rahul did pick up some momentum during the year, which tends to happen when you’re rolling downhill.

Manmohan Singh, a man who thought twice before saying nothing.

Speaking of downhill, the economy went south, dragged down by global woes. As things went from bad to worse, Manmohan Singh’s silence reached a deafening crescendo.

It turned out that Manmohan Singh’s fiercest ideological opponent in 2012 was himself from 1991. They say that silence is golden. In which case, we discovered that we had a 24 carat Prime Minister. TIME magazine described the beleaguered Prime Minister as an “underachiever,” leading to his cabinet being described as a bunch of “under-the-table achievers.” The lone bright spot for Manmohan came from Pak’s Zardari, who backed Manmohan saying “Just because someone hasn’t won an election, that doesn’t mean he can’t run the country.”

In August 2012, Manmohan Singh stunned the nation by speaking on TV and asking for reforms support. He also promised to find out who was running the government that he was in charge of.

Word of the Year: “To Manmohan” which means “To silently ignore what’s going on” Example: “I think I’ll manmohan this month’s credit card bill”

Does BJP exist? Or is it a figment of our imagination?

BJP displayed a disconcerting tendency to surface as the main Opposition party at inopportune times. The problem with Congress is that they think that we the people are fools. The problem with BJP is that they haven’t yet realized it’s true. BJP went all out in Karnataka to prove that electoral losses in 2004 and 2009 were no flukes.

And then there was Nitin Gadkari, who conclusively proved that he was not the right leader for BJP. By leader we mean, of course, a fellow who didn’t know how to cover his tracks. Congress tried to portray Nitin Gadkari as corrupt. BJP hit back by portraying Rahul Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi. Poor chap,  Gadkari was embroiled in scandals involving shell companies, drivers, cooks and other household help, and never really recovered from the blow of getting Sharad Pawar’s backing. Walking around in khaki shorts didn’t help his cause either. There was, however, some good news for BJP. Their leadership situation was so messed up through the year, that the media had no idea who to smear.

Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena

There are some who arouse emotions when they live. Some when they die. It’s a select few who can do both. Bal Thackeray called a spade a spade while he lived. Sadly, he didn’t give the rest of us that privilege. Rumor has it that the battle for Shiv Sena’s top job has narrowed down to two candidates – Mike Tyson and Hulk Hogan.

The most important bill of 2012

The FDI in retail debate was complex. Thankfully there was one easy way to find the right thing to do: First, ask Communists, SP & BSP what to do. Then, do the exact opposite. Mercifully, the most important bill of 2012 was passed in the Parliament, freeing up the Government to focus on more important things like arresting teenagers over Facebook posts.

The man who really ran the country

2012 showed that it’s always a good idea to have Mukesh Ambani on your side. Unless, of course, if you’re in a boat. Rumor had it that the older Ambani brother had Congress in his front pocket, BJP in the back pocket and CNN-IBN in the shirt pocket. Which begged the question: Where the heck does he keep the cellphone?

Operation Re-election

Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist, was hanged in a secretive operation. When it played out in the US, President Obama authorized the operation to take out Bin Laden. The way it played out in our country, our PM was given the go ahead to watch TV and find out about the hanging. To make up for not letting him know about Kasab’s hanging, Sushil Kumar Shinde apparently gave ball-by-ball updates of the India-England cricket series to Manmohan.

“To those who’ve given their lives and risk them daily so the country can be safer: Our gratitude and respect.”

2012 sucked according to Dhoni

We got progressively worse at cricket with each passing day through the year. Right now, it feels like it’s the middle of next year.

Australia – on the road: Lost 4-0.

England – on the road: Lost 4-0.

England – at home: Lost 2-1.

We can’t win on the road. We can’t win at home. Hard pressed to think of another place to play. Evidently, rumors of a massive rift in the team are true. Between the bat and the pad. Say what you will about our cricket team, but let’s not deny that they displayed a remarkable drive for results and a keen sense of urgency. A review of 2012 cannot pass by without a salute to young Rohit Sharma, a modern day Gandhian, who does not believe in hitting even a run. All in all, 2012 resembled a bad day in Bosnia for MS Dhoni.

The Little Master

Age finally seemed to catch up with Sachin. He wasn’t half the boy he used to be. You win some. You lose some. And then, there was this little known third category when Sachin got his 100th ton and we lost the match. To Bangladesh. And then, Sachin bowed out from ODIs.

Olympics

2012 was the year of London Olympics. It was quite amazing to see that when they were not building iPads, Chinese kids were winning gold medals in Olympics. He was described as “too tall” to win sprints. Yet Usain Bolt 2-peated 100m & 200m golds. Well done, Mary Kom! Well done Saina! It was great to see that we were winning medals in shooting and boxing. I’m sure we all somehow felt safer knowing that. Then the Olympics ended. Tourists went home. And the Chinese women gymnasts returned to kindergarten.

Bollywood in 2012

Agent Vinod went on a mission across seven countries in search of the movie’s plot. If you haven’t yet experienced failure, it just means you haven’t tried hard enough, to understand why a movie named Khiladi 786 had to be made. Ra One took home the ‘Special Effects’ award. It also handily beat swine flu to top the list of the “things I’d like to avoid.” Inside every one of us is an incurable romantic self, which is assaulted by a Karan Johar movie every year. 2012 was no exception.

Men are from Mars and women from Venus. And Karan Johar is from, err.. Bandra?

Saif Ali Khan entered the holy state of matrimony, which he described as ‘that sacred bond’ between a man and his two wives. Man proposed. God disposed. And Katrina Kaif, err, exposed. And bless your soul, Yash Chopra, the man who romanced romance itself.

Other news makers of 2012

God was kind to comedians and satirists in 2012. He may have taken SM Krishna and Ambika Soni away from the Cabinet. By golly, he gave us Manish Tewari, the guy who put the ‘mini’ in minister by becoming Information & Broadcasting minister. To be fair, Tewari did well at Broadcasting. It’s the Information part he struggled with. To a world filled with noise and chaos, Ram Jethmalani added more noise and chaos. Ponty Chadha and bro successfully completed a mission to prove Charles Darwin wrong. And Shashi Tharoor re-affirmed the priceless bond that exists between a man, his wife and her Rs. 50 crores.

DLF borrowed at 12% and lent at 0% to Robert Vadra. How generous. These guys were the Piyush Chawla of the real estate business.  Robert Vadra and Arvind Kejriwal made a great team in 2012. The former couldn’t answer basic questions. And the latter had two answers to every question. Coal Gate put a new spin on ‘Coal’ition dharma. Amidst the distraction around scams that unfolded through the year, A. Raja quietly slipped out and sold a bunch of 4G licenses on eBay.

Justice Katju was probably right when he said 90 percent of Indians are idiots. It’s just that the other 10 percent haven’t yet subscribed to the Times of India. Everyone has the right to make a fool of himself. Beni Prasad, SM Krishna and Digivijay Singh got full points for exercising their rights to the fullest in 2012. Through the year, SM Krishna resembled a guy at the mall confused by automatic doors. Beni Prasad Verma proclaimed that he was “happy with inflation.” You see, anyone can come up with a coherent sentence. But only Beni Prasad can take us to an entirely new dimension. Some day when aliens try to figure out why our society disappeared, hopefully remnants from Digvijay Singh’s skull will provide some clues.

In other news

Gold prices skyrocketed. And Bappi Lahiri was rumored to have been sold on eBay to clear the national deficit. Dinesh Trivedi, erstwhile Railway Minister, proposed bullet trains. Well, he got the first half of his wish.

Hamid Ansari held onto his title as the invisible man. Pratibha Patil’s tenure as President came to an end. Her 2-step exit strategy from office: 1. Transfer all frequent flyer miles to personal acct 2. Start new cooperative bank.

Vijay Mallya owns a building in Bangalore which has 21 stories. It turned that not one of them was the truth. Kingfisher Airlines, one of India’s best, was grounded in 2012. An unfortunate upshot of this is that the Kingfisher calendar will now feature Air India staff.

There were 2 Indian contributions to business lexicon in 2012.

A “Vadra” – when 50L becomes 500Cr in a short period of time.  And the exact opposite called a “Kingfisher.” Which led to Newton’s third law of business, “For each and every Vadra, there must be an equal and opposite Kingfisher.”

Newton’s 4th law of IRCTC: A car starting from City A will reach City B in less time than it takes to book a ticket between cities A & B on IRCTC.

Around the world

4 more years of Obama. Love ’em or hate ’em. You’ve got to admit that the Americans showed spunk in re-electing an African American to the White House.

Mo Yan, a Chinese writer, took home the Nobel Prize for Literature. Out of sheer force of habit, the Chinese government arrested him on hearing the news. Truth be told, it was refreshing to hear that a Chinese guy wrote a book instead of xeroxing it.

So much blood was spilled in Gaza. It was bloody madness. When we spend our whole existences honing skills for war, why would we seek peace? The cycle goes go on. Ireland persisted with the delusion that they knew exactly what an invisible God would have wanted.

Xi Jinping did a great job with Beijing Olympics, and became Chinese President. Kalmadi did an awesome job with Commonwealth Games and went to Tihar jail.

A gunman killed 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut.

As we head into 2013..

Public confidence in the government has hit rock bottom. In fact, the only thing government seems to be above is the law. The nation is in bad shape as we head into 2013. All these parties may talk about forming fronts, but they really want to show us their backs. Yet, in tough times, we must unite behind one leader. Until we find that leader, I guess we should support Arnab Goswami.

“Friends, Romans and countrymen, please stop looting the country. Especially you Romans.”

Happy New Year. Have an awesome 2013!

The What Ho! 2012 Year in Review was assembled using my tweets during the year. Keep track of the events of 2013 by following me on Twitter at

Why do rapes happen?

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

An aam aadmi’s letter

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

The What Ho! Quiz

It’s a crazy world we we live in. And, it’s getting increasingly hard to tell the fake news from the real news. Here’s a little test to see where you stand.

Which of the following is NOT true?

  1. Two young women (aged 21 years) were arrested for posting and liking a message on Facebook objecting to a bandh in Mumbai.
  2. A man killed a teenager in Delhi after being asked by her to not pee in front of her house.
  3. Aakash 2, the low cost tablet computer, which has received Mr. Kapil Sibal’s approval, has parts manufactured in China and is assembled in India.
  4. A man from Pondicherry was arrested for tweeting that Karthi Chidambaram (son of Home Minister P. Chidambaram) had more assets than Robert Vadra.
  5. The Prime Minister of India, Mr. Manmohan Singh, was not informed in advance that Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist who killed innocent people in the 26/11 Mumbai attack, was being hanged. According to the Home Minister, the Prime Minister learned of the developments through a television news channel.
  6. Nitin Gadkari, President of BJP, has appointed his car driver to the board of his company.
  7. Chetan Bhagat, author of What Young India Wants, a book which set forth his patriotic vision for India, endorses products of a company started and managed by former members of the Chinese army.
  8. The Australian cricket team scored 480 runs in just one day’s of play, at a strike rate of nearly 90%, in the ongoing test match against South Africa at Adelaide.
  9. An Indian citizen died in an Irish hospital after doctors refused her a pregnancy termination procedure that went against Ireland’s anti-abortion laws.
  10. A former four-star General and Director of CIA, considered a US Presidential candidate in 2016, resigned after details of an affair with his biographer emerged from an investigation of his Gmail account.
  11. Parents in urban India spend more on “tuition and tutoring fees” as compared to school fees, on an average.
  12. An African American was re-elected as President of the United States, in spite of a weak economic environment and losing 74 percent of the white male vote.
  13. No cartoonist has been arrested in West Bengal in the last 2 weeks.

All of the above are true.

 

Mukesh Ambani announces plans to buy the government

MUMBAI – Mukesh Ambani, Chairman and CEO of Reliance Industries, confirmed rumors today that he plans to purchase the UPA government and rights to all governments that will be elected in the future in India.

“I know that the people of India are impatient with the government and don’t trust political parties,” said Mr. Ambani, “and for good reason. The root cause for this malaise is that the government has not been accountable to anyone. Which is why I’ve decided to buy the government out and make it answerable to me.”

Mr. Ambani has hired Goldman Sachs to complete due diligence on the acquisition, and expects their report to be completed by end of 2012.

“We’re pleased to be appointed lead advisors on this critical project. Our bankers provide mergers and acquisitions advice and services to our clients on some of their most complex strategic decisions and transactions. We’re especially very familiar with the process of acquiring governments, having most recently bought out the US government in the aftermath of the great financial crisis of 2007-08,” said Mr. Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs at a press conference in New York city earlier today.

“My vision for India is simple and straightforward. It’s to ensure that all people will have free and unfettered access to buying shares of Reliance Industries Ltd. Some day in the future when I retire, I’d like to hand over a couple of governments to my son so he can live comfortably,” added Mr. Ambani.

Responding to questions on possible changes in governance, Mr. Ambani explained, “For starters, the capital of the country will be immediately shifted to Antilla in Mumbai. I plan to privatize Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and bring in corporate investment. All current members will be forced into voluntary retirement. In future, 49% of the seats will go to the highest bidders. I plan to retain 51% ownership of the Houses. People will no longer to need to vote. If they wish to have voting rights, they can become RIL share holders. Once I complete the acquisition of the Central Government and the Houses, I plan to complete acquisitions of all state governments as soon as possible, so we can have harmonious Centre-State relationships.”

In a rare display of emotion and candor, Mr. Ambani added wistfully, “You have to understand my real reasons for doing this. So far, I’ve been forced to carry all these chaps around, hidden in my pockets. In fact, my pockets are so full that I don’t have place to keep even my cell phone or the house keys. Is this any way to live? Enough is enough. Instead of being all secretive, it’s more convenient to be open and buy at discounted prices.”

Shares of RIL finished up 1,000 pct in after-market trading on news of the announcement.

Tweets from the week gone by

https://twitter.com/waatho/status/263210333722783744

https://twitter.com/waatho/status/262764032946237441

Rejection of a Famous Indian Writer

Dear Mr. Krishna Dwaipaayana,

Thanks for sending in your manuscript of the “Great War” between cousins to our chief editor. Unfortunately, she’s vacationing in Shimla, and checking her emails only to see if her salary got credited. Our deputy editor recently left our company to head the literary department at DailyDeal.com. So, I, along with three other summer interns, am in charge of the slush pile. Which brings me to you. To cut to the chase, we were not impressed with your saga.  It’s not like we found it entirely uninteresting. Well, I take that back. We found it kind of really boring and clichéd. The plot and the narrative have too many flaws, in our opinion.

Here are a few that come to mind right away.

Let me start with the title. “Mahabharat” does not capture the imagination. It just does not have that zing, you know what I mean? I suggest that you call it something along the lines of “How I braved Bhishma uncle and started a war” or “I too have a war story.” If you don’t like those, how does “Beat, Slay, Love” sound? Or anything with the word “Dork” in it? Who exactly is Bharat? Why did you name the book after him? I was looking for this guy throughout the story, and felt let down that he never showed  up. You see the confusion?

The good news is that mythological narratives are all the rage today. The bad news is that you need to cut down the length of your story by approximately 23 hours.  Most of us simply cannot read anything longer than an SMS.  I began snoozing long before the war even started in your tale.

By the way, who is the protagonist of this story? I don’t normally use words like protagonist. But I saw this word yesterday in a movie review of ‘Barfi’ and have taken a fancy to it. Your story has too many characters, and frankly does not sound believable at all. We were looking at the movie angle, and your book has more characters than we have actors in Bollywood. Even Sanjay Leela Bhansali might be hard pressed to come up with his usual extravagant and insipid adaptation of your work, unless maybe if Amit-ji and Shah Rukh Sir agree to play 14 roles each.

Oh, here’s an important thing. Most women are unlikely to warm up to your yarn. You really ought to think through this, man. Would it kill you to make Draupadi practical, tough talking and a go-getter, yet with a soft and romantic side to her? Dude, if you don’t listen to me, you’re gonna have these aggressive modern women crapping all over your head on Twitter, Facebook and blogs. Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

On a positive note, I got to say that I found your character of Vaasudev pretty interesting. Any chance you can change him into a boy wizard or an IIT alumnus from Jalandhar who falls in love with a girl from Salem? I’m afraid that there aren’t many people these days who buy this whole “avatar” concept. Rather, we like to fantasize that Jesus lived in Kashmir and that Shiva was a Tibetan chieftain.  Did I mention that we like IIT alumni and love stories? We can’t get enough of this stuff, I tell you. Hey, how about this? Maybe Arjun studied at IIT Delhi, and Duryodhan went to REC, Kurukshetra and Draupadi was this chick who had the habit of chatting with five boys at the same time on Facebook?

Dear Veda Vyaasa sir-ji, I don’t know if you’re aware of what I’m about to tell you. We’re all immensely bored with our insignificant lives. For the love of God, give us a nice fantasy about vampires, or a silly cubicle humor tome about making power point slides, and I’ll try and push it through because I think you’re a nice guy. Anything except this subtle, multi-layered spiritual saga of conflict and human foibles. It just won’t fly, my friend.

Regards.

Ms. Rupa Penguin Bhagat.

PS: Who typed this manuscript? Are you sure that he understood everything you told him?

PPS:  Please tell your buddy Valmiki to stop calling and SMS-ing me. If we ever published his story, I’m pretty sure that feminists outraged by “Sita” will burn our offices down.

*inspired by a New Yorker article.

A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

Scientists riot, protesting Deepak Chopra’s latest video

In an alarming trend, anti-Deepak Chopra protests have broken out across the scientific world. According to reports, enraged scientists have taken to the streets in places as far away as Pasadena, California and are burning effigies of Chopra, who’s widely known for his attempts to fuse science and spirituality. The unexpected developments are rumored to have been triggered by Mr. Chopra’s increasingly frequent use of the word ‘qualia’ in his blogs and tweets, and reached a tipping point with the release of Mr. Chopra’s ” target=”_blank”>latest video in which he describes ‘what is qualia?’.

Cal Tech physicist, Leonard Mlodinow, defended the protests saying, “We in the scientific community haven’t seriously objected to Deepak talking about soul, reincarnation and karma over the years. But, I gotta tell you that this takedown has been a long time coming. Deepak has been relentlessly encroaching onto our territory with each passing book. He likes to take science-y terms and make exotic sounding word salads out of them. Qualia? Qualia? Seriously, come on, man. He’s now coining all new words now. This is the last straw.”

In a surprising twist, protests have spread to several university campuses around the world with the male population of students joining in. Said an agitated student, “Dude, for years, we’ve used lines from Chopra’s books to pick up chicks. Why is he trying to switch the lingo on us? Does he understand what he’s doing to us? I tried qualia on a girl the other day, and she’s now got a restraining order against me.”

In a hastily arranged press conference, Mr. Chopra responded ruefully, “I’ve been telling people to find their inner selves, and it doesn’t seem to be working. I’m sorry. I give up.”

When asked if he planned to stop writing books, he quickly responded, “No way. There’s too much money involved in that. People will read whatever I write. I don’t see a reason to stop that. But I’m now convinced that humans are bent on destroying themselves and this planet no matter what anyone tells them to do. I’ve already embraced this reality myself by joining the Tea Party movement. In fact, my next book will be called “You guys are all insane. I’ll see you in Hell.”

In other news

Rumor has it that Karan Johar and Ekta Kapoor are collaborating on a film called “Fifty shades of K.”

In a series of bold moves this week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a hefty price hike on diesel, limits on subsidized LPG and FDI in aviation and retail. Industry observers have lauded the reforms while the announcements have also sparked rumors that the PM may have started drinking heavily.

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, earlier arrested for sedition, had charges dropped against him. When asked, “How was it to be in prison?”, he responded, “It was pretty rough, man. Cartoon is one of the worst answers you can give to the guys inside when they ask “So what are you in for?””

HRD Ministry scraps the second law of thermodynamics

As part of an ongoing modernization and reform campaign, HRD Minister Mr. Kapil Sibal announced plans to scrap the second law of thermodynamics. The second law states the principle of entropy, in which a system continually degrades over time due to increasing levels of disorder.

“We Indians are sick and tired of our system breaking down all the time,’ said Mr. Sibal. “The second law of thermodynamics is responsible for this. It stands in the way of progress. And, it must go,” he thundered.

The announcement followed recommendations of a Group of Ministers convened to identify pesky laws of science and nature that they wanted to see abolished. “There was clear consensus that the principle of entropy is a real nuisance. It’s been there since the beginning of time. It’s outdated. Enough is enough. We’ve never played by the rules of nature. Now we’re officially scrapping it,” said Mr Sibal, before going on to promise the ‘biggest shake-up to the laws of physics since Isaac Newton’. “It’s possible that we might re-introduce the second law along the lines of ‘things will only get better‘,” he clarified.

The HRD minister’s announcement was welcomed enthusiastically by the Prime Minister, Mr. Manmohan Singh who said, “Our style is to fly in the face of common sense and laws. It’s time that we embraced this approach openly. I’ve asked the team to abolish fundamental laws and concepts from economics as well. Many in the cabinet have expressed annoyance with the law of supply and demand, and concepts such as fair market pricing and auctions. Speaking of time, we plan to ban the concept of time itself by 2014, so we can scrap the elections that year.”

In other news

Greece shocked to learn that it is now owned by Suresh Kalmadi. Yesterday, Greek citizens woke up to the fact that their country is now owned by a little known politician from India named Suresh Kalmadi. No one knows yet as to how this heist was pulled off. The entire narrative is expected to unfold over the next three years.

Studies performed by researchers have revealed a deep sense of dissatisfaction among teachers at the quality of homework being done by parents on behalf of their children. “It’s shocking how low the standards have fallen. We often find these poor children hastily re-doing botched attempts by parents, before submitting them.”

Capital Punishment in India

The argument against capital punishment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Hanging a murderer is to seek retribution and to not attempt his reformation. Death penalty is not ethical since none of us have the right to demand or take another’s life. Death penalty is not an intelligent option as it simply erases the offender and leaves the root cause of the offence untouched. No matter how heinous the crime, it is the society who created the criminal. Hanging the convicted is to cop out of society’s responsibility to rehabilitate the criminal. It is to play an unforgiving God and exercising only the powers of destruction and protection and not the ones of creation. It is a step back in our evolutionary process by perpetuating a destructive ‘tit for tat’ cycle.

The argument for it: “To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable.” 

Premeditated murder is unpardonable. It reflects an incorrigible condition which neither time nor hardship can cure. When a human plans in cold blood to seek the extermination of fellow humans, he loses the right to society’s compassion. Not erasing the convicted offender would be to run the risk of repeat offences. Rehabilitating the offender costs money and effort which are better spent on higher priorities with better return on investment. To punish is to deter. To deter is to prevent. To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable and violates the trust of citizens. It is to create an environment where everything is viewed through the prism of self-flagellating tolerance.

Adding a new breed of criminal to the mix: The terrorist

The capital punishment debate is complicated as it is. Now add a new breed of criminal to the mix. The terrorist.

The terrorist is an individual who, for various reasons, has chosen to commit premeditated murder. What the terrorist does is definitely not an impersonal war. It is very personal. The terrorist provides no advance warning of the targets, location or time of attack. Several months of planning often go into an attack. It is hardly credible to view terrorists as passionate individuals who lost their heads over some petty provocation and indulged in an impulsive act, and thus ones to regret their actions later and reform. Terrorists represent the fringes of society where the possibility of rehabilitation is the faintest. They are the closest to a lost cause as we can find. Stopping the growth of terrorism is not a lost cause. Reforming terrorists might be. They combine the passion of a temporarily deranged murderer with the cold blooded-ness of a serial killer and the intelligence of an army. If not destroyed, they will destroy. It is us or them. As dramatic as it sounds, that’s the way it looks from the view point of an ordinary citizen.

The Dilemma: Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri?

The Supreme Court today upheld death sentence to Ajmal Kasab, who participated in the murder of innocent people during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Should we hang Kasab in our lust for revenge? Or should the President pardon him? Will pardoning terrorists encourage more terrorism or will it stem the flow by winning their hearts and minds?

To pardon a terrorist is to break the inviolable social contract that we the citizens have made with our governments to serve the society and to be protected in return. To extinguish the life of a terrorist is to uphold Dharma on which depends the survival of our society as we know it. A Gandhian style of “blank check” tolerance, as history tells us, can make martyrs out of the tolerant. On the flip side, to forgive Kasab is to take the high road and demonstrate the divinity in us.

If you had the choice: would you choose the power to destroy an enemy? Or, would you choose the power to change his mind? Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri? This is a tough call in a country which has taught us both.

Chetan Bhagat admits he has run out of things to write about

Gloom and panic seize fans. Publishers fear this could be the last nail in India’s literary coffin.

Renowned author, Chetan Bhagat, today admitted that he did not know what to write about anymore. “I’ve exhausted all the mundanely commercial possibilities that one can write about. I’ve written about college, working in call centers and getting married. Recently, I even tried writing a non-fictional book.” Bhagat’s latest book “What Young India wants” has met with withering criticism, with the phrase “horse dung” occurring repeatedly in reviews. When asked, Bhagat responded, “Horse manure is, in a sense, hovering all around us, waiting to invade our consciousness. It takes a certain type of mind to get hold of it and inject it into the public consciousness under the right sociological conditions. If you look at it thus, my book is a highly creative effort. But, truth be told, there’s only so much of horse excreta going around. Dude, I’m now at the deep end of the pool and have nowhere left to go.”

This announcement was met with widespread dismay and panic by Bhagat’s millions of fans on Facebook. “What am I now supposed to buy when I’m looking for a ridiculously watered down read for less than a hundred rupees?,” posted a fan, which immediately received over a hundred thousand likes on the social network. A top publisher, under the condition of anonymity, revealed that she was in discussions with Bhagat on his next book. “More than Chetan, we publishers know what young India wants. They need more horse dung. So, we’ve asked Chetan to compile all the fan posts on his Facebook page into a book, which can then be sold back to the fans. We will be trying very hard to push our luck as far as humanly possible,” she added.

The What Ho! report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read the Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

Manmohan Singh urges Indians to follow the Bhagavad Gita and give up all expectations

Following a daylong meeting spent huddling with his Cabinet colleagues and coalition partners, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced today that “the best bet for Indian people was to follow the dictum laid out in the Bhagavad Gita”. “Listen, just do your duty. And, give up all your expectations,”, said Singh, “This is the great truth that has been handed down to us over the ages,” adding that there was no point in trying to introduce new bills when “no one really cares about making anything work.” When pressed for more details, Singh added, “If you love something, set it free. Don’t spend all your energy in trying to force something to work. Your government should be free to do its own thing. If it never comes back to thinking about you, perhaps we are not meant to be with each together.” The Prime Minister confirmed that he’s “pretty sure” that his government will not get anything done for another two years and maybe even longer. However, he urged Indians to “keep their minds open to the possibility of a miracle.”

The What Ho! report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read the Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

A Letter From God

Dear People of Earth,

I believe that I possess an abundance of patience. Try carving out the Grand Canyon for millions of years to know what I mean. Yet, I’m worried that you folks are on the verge of exhausting this inexhaustible patience of mine. Allow me to share a few observations with you, in the hope you’ll test my patience a little less going forward.

1. The universe has been around for a long time. The Earth has been around for a while. But you guys have really not been around for too long. Someone pointed out to me the other day, that if we were to compress the entire history of Earth into a 24 hour span, you guys have been around for the last 3 or 4 minutes. And the way things are going, you might last another 3 or 4 minutes on this clock. Stop and think about this every time you’re tempted to believe that you’ve figured it all out. A little humility is not such a bad idea.

2. Just so you know, my name is not Sachin Tendulkar. I don’t really care what name or names you call me. There’s really no need to use the caps lock when referring to me. Being called ‘He’ is embarrassing. I’m cool with ‘The Supreme One’ though.

3. Honestly, I don’t recall creating you chaps. But, I do appreciate your thinking of me every so often. Read ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins to understand where you came from and why you are the way you are. He’s explained things pretty well in that book, although he could have shaved 50 pages off it and made it shorter. Don’t read his other books.

4. I’ve got to say that I’m a tad disappointed that you guys have Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc parties, but have no such thing as a “God” party.

5. Being God is not all that it’s cracked up to be. If you don’t believe me, just check with Arnab Goswami or Rupert Murdoch. These gentlemen who wield enormous powers will attest to this.

6. Just be yourself. On second thought, not all of you. Some of you need to stop being yourselves. Seriously, chill out. You guys are in such a hurry to go nowhere. Remember this > Let go. Be happy.

That’s not all. I’ve got a few assorted tidbits of advice, which might lighten the mood and dispel the dark gloom that seems to have seized the Earth over the last few years.

1. I just got an iPhone. I found out that you got to be really extra careful with the ‘auto correct’ feature. The first time, I accidentally sent a few thousand people to Hell.

2. Neither Satan nor I have any idea what to do about Goldman Sachs. Suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

3. Nietzsche is dead. I’m still around. Who else wants to take me on? Bring it on.

4. I ran into an atheist the other day. Frankly, it took us both by surprise.

5. It used to be fun to read Deepak Chopra. To be honest, I don’t get him anymore.

6. I swear I never spoke to or encouraged Rick Santorum to run for President.

7. I thought I’d confuse you guys by creating Baba Ramdev. Mission accomplished.

8. I’ve done a lot of projects in my time. India is one of the most fun projects I’ve worked on. She’s still work in progress. Bear with me a little longer.

And oh, I’ve set up brand new accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Check me out on Facebook ( here ) or on Twitter (  here ) for the occasional dose of wisdom from me. Follow me or I’ll smite thee with small pox.

I plan to keep writing here on What Ho! Do stay in touch, keep reading and yes, please do write back.

cheers,

The Supreme One.

A Candid Discussion with Sushil Kumar Shinde

Our new home minister, Mr. Sushil Kumar Shinde, dropped by last week and gave what can only be described as his most candid interview till date.

Q: Mr. Shinde, congrats on your promotion. What do you think is your biggest challenge as Home Minister?

Sushil Kumar Shinde: The biggest challenge is to defend our borders. I recently stumbled upon a world map. Every country seems to have a border. I don’t know if you guys realize this. It’s very, very hard to defend yourself when you have borders.

Q: That’s so insightful! Why is it hard to defend our borders?

Sushil Kumar Shinde: Defending borders is not easy because you tend to have foreign countries on the other side of the border. And they’re always trying to move the border when you’re not looking. For example, I noticed that there are foreign countries in the North East on the other side of our border.

Q: You’ve said that you were an excellent Power Minister. Would you like to add to that?

Sushil Kumar Shinde: Yes. Here’s the deal. Superman is gone. No one knows where he is any more. Even Batman has been retired by Chris Nolan. I may be the only fictional super hero left. Being a super hero is no filmy matter, mind you!

Q: Mr. Shinde, how do you plan to combat terrorism? 

Sushil Kumar Shinde: The biggest problem with terrorists today is that we don’t know where they are. So, I plan to issue ID cards to all terrorists when they enter India. This will make it easier to track them. We’ll also have a pool of “immediately available suspects,” who can be arrested within 48 hours of any incident, in case we’re not able to track down the terrorists.

Q: Sir, comedians and satirists were worried when Abhishek Manu Singhvi retired from the public scene. But, God works in mysterious ways. He has given you to us. We sincerely hope that people will appreciate your genius some day. Many thanks for speaking with us.

In a separate statement, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh revealed that he considers the appointment of Mr. Shinde as the Home Minister as “a harmless prank that has gone too far.”

The What Ho! report: Satire, baseless rumors and no real news whatsoever. We read the Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

What are the Vedas?

Many years back, I read a book titled simply “The Vedas.” It’s an English translation of a series of discourses given by Paramacharya Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi Mutt. I’ve read this book several times over in the last five years. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve discovered a new and intriguing notion missed in earlier readings. Highly recommend this book to those inclined to such topics.

Below is a summary of my notes (taken in 2007) of the first two chapters of this book, which answer the question “What are the Vedas?

*** Begin Notes ***

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism?

Various religions have their doctrines in a single work or treatise. The Christians have the Bible, the Muslims the Koran, and the Buddhists have the Dhammapada.

What captures the doctrine of Hinduism? Some say that it is the Ramayana. Others say it is the Bhagavad Gita. Yet others will point to Vedanta. To know what Hinduism is, we have to know what the sacred texts of Hinduism are. Hinduism as a religion does not imply mere ritual. It also includes Dharma or the path to joy and bliss. To understand Hinduism’s principles of Dharma, one has to refer to a series of texts and books, which are together called the Dharma Pramaana ,  that which provides true knowledge of Dharma.

These are 14 texts, and they are:

– The four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Saama, Atharva
– The Vedaangas or the auxilliaries to the Vedas. These are Siksha (pronunciation), Vyaakarna (grammar), Chandas (meter), Niruktha (etymology), Jyotisha (astronomy), Kalpa (procedures), Meemaamsa (interpretations), Nyaaya (Logic), Puraana (mythology) and Dharma Saastras (codes of conduct).

In addition, we may add the 4 Upaangas or the appendices, which are Ayurveda (science of life), Arthasaastra (science of wealth), Dhanur Veda (science of weapons and war) and Gaandharva (study of fine arts like drama, music and dance).

In all, the 4 Vedas + 10 Vedaangas + 4 Upaangas may be considered to contain the doctrines of Hinduism as they apply to the conduct of life and to the pursuit of joy and happiness.

Who authored the Vedas?

The Vedas describe themselves as Anaadi – without a beginning in time. They also refer to themselves as Apoureshya – without an author. They describe themselves as the “breath of the Parabrahman”, and are said to have been discovered by rishis during their deep meditative states. For this reason, the rishis mentioned in the Vedas are referred to as Mantra Drishtas or the seers of the Vedas, rather than Mantra Kartas (doers/authors of the Vedas).

There are four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Saama and Atharva. Each has a different way of recitation referred to as“Saakha”. Each Saakha has three portions: Samhita – the foundation, Braahmana – the manuals and Aaranyaka – the spiritual interpretations of rituals. Typically, the Samhita portion is what is referred to in each Veda. In all, there are 20, 500 mantras in the Samhita portions of the four Vedas.

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda comprises of ‘Rik’s or mantras or hymns of praise. These came to be known later as “slokas”. The Riks are grouped into Sooktas. In all, the Rig Veda contains 10, 170 riks and 1028 Sooktas, broadly divided into two groups of 10 mandalas and 8 ashtakas. Each Sookta begins (Upakarma) and ends (Upasamhara) with an invocation to Agni. The import of Agni in the Vedas is not to be understated. Indeed, the Aranyakas remind us that Agni is the same as “Atma Chaitanyam” or the glow of a soul’s awakening. The Rig Vedas contain mantras in praise of Devatas as well as on ways of social living and on specific rituals such as marriage ceremonies.

Yajur Veda

The word “Yaj” means worship, and is the root of Yajna (fire worship). The Yajur Veda contains procedures that add to the mantras in Rig Veda on performing yajnas and sacrifices. There are considered to be two branches of Yajur Veda – Sukla Yajur Veda (propounded by Yajnavalkya) also known as Vaajasaneyi Samhita, and Krishna Yajur Veda by Veda Vyasa also known as Vaisampayana Samhita. Yajur Veda contains detailed procedures for rituals such as Soma yaga, Rajasooya and Asvamedha. Yajur Veda has special significance for Advaitins. For each Siddhaanta (philosophical doctrine) such as Advaita, there is a Sootra (aphorism and theorems), Bhaashya (treatise and commentary) and Vaartika (explanation). There is considered to be only one vaartika-kaara for Advaita, namely Suresvaracharya, the direct disciple of Sri Adi Sankara. Suresvaracharya wrote Vaartika on only two of the Upanishads – Taitreeya and Brihadaaranyaka – to explain Advaita. Both these Upanishads are from the Yajur Veda.

Saama Veda

“Saama” means “shanti” or bliss. The Saama Veda is the musical rendition of the Rig Veda, and contains the same mantras. Saama Gaana is considered to be the basis for the seven swaras in Carnatic and other Indian music traditions. The Saama Veda is designed to bring peace to the mind through the rendition of mantras in melodious form. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says “Among the Vedas, I am Saama.

Atharva Veda

Atharva” means purohit. The Atharva Veda is designed to ward off evil and adversity. It contains “Prithivi Sooktam” about the wonder of creation, and contains the Prasna, Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads. It is said that for a “Mumumshu”, a seeker of Truth, the Mandukya Upanishad alone is sufficient. Such is the greatness of the Atharva Veda.

Highlights of Vedic structures

One of the noteworthy aspects of the Vedas is that they do not claim to be the only way, or insist that there is only one God. In fact, the Vedas are uniquely atheistic in that they do not refer to a personal God. They repeat, through various mantras in each of the Vedas, that there are many ways to realize the same Truth. Other than the Samhitas, the Vedas also contain Braahmanas and Aaranyakas. The Braahmanas are the manuals that describe the procedures for performing rites. The Vedas describe rituals as means to discipline and purify the mind and body and make them ready to meditate upon the true nature of the Self. The Aaranyakas explain the subtler, inner meaning or the spiritual import of the hymns in the Samhita.

Upanishads

If the Samhitas are the trees, the Braahmanas the flowers and the Aaranyakas the unripened fruits, the Upanishads are considered the ripe fruits of the Vedas. The Upanishads, while they contain references to rituals and ways of living, deal primarily with philosophical enquiry.

Action versus Knowledge

The Vedas are broadly divided into “Karma Kaanda” (dealing with action and rituals) and “Jnaana Kaanda” (dealing with knowledge of the Self). The Karma Kaanda was compiled by Maharishi Jaimini and contains over 1000 sections. The Jnaana Kaanda, compiled by Veda Vyasa, is much shorter with only 192 sections. It is said that the study of the Karma Kaanda leads to the purification of the mind and body, and a desire for withdrawal from worldly actions. It is at this highest state of readiness, one is ready to be a Sannyasin and initiated into the Maha Vaakhyas of the Vedas.

There are said to be four Maha Vaakhyas in the Vedas. They are

1. Rig Veda, from the Aitreya Upanishad: “Prajnanam Brahma”  – Exalted actual experience alone is Brahman

2. Sukla Yajur Veda, from the Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad and in Krishna Yajur Veda, from the Taitreeya Upanishad; “Aham Brahmaasmi” – I am Brahman

3. Saama Veda, from the Chandogya Upanishad: “Tat Tvam Asi” – That thou art

4. Atharva Veda, from the Mandukya Upanishad: “Aayam Atma Brahma” – The Atman is Brahman

The Vedas emphasize readiness to receive the truth about the nature of the Self, which is explained in the Upanishads. The Upanishads are to be taught only to those who are considered “ready” to absorb the Truth as contained in them.

If there are any errors in above, please let me know and I will make the corrections. Thank you.

A What Ho! Guide for Parents

A What Ho! thesaurus of terms related to homework and school.

Parent-Teacher meetings and Annual Day functions

Contrary to popular belief, these are not occasions to explain to the class teacher as to why you missed an entire season of Dexter or why you have declined all social invitations, including an invitation to a dinner reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, on account of your child’s insane level of homework. These are also not occasions to perform aggravated acts of violence on fellow parents who insist that their child is “not sufficiently challenged by homework workload” and believe that the system needs to “push him harder.”

Note: In recent times, judges have demonstrated reluctance, more often than not, to convict parents of aggravated acts of violence. Also note that teachers, vice principals and  principals will not appear to care about the fact you’ve stayed up till 11:30 every night to help your child calculate the Gross Domestic Product of Burkina Faso to the third decimal point. Remonstrations about homework workload will either elicit an expression of obviously insincere sympathy or an increase in workload till 12:30 AM.

Maths

The first thing parents will note with regards to maths is that it bears no resemblance to one of their own day. Indeed, Ptolemy and Euclid may be at a loss to graduate from grade 8 in the modern era. You might occasionally observe your child interlacing the digits of her left hand with the toes of the right foot in order to arrive at answers. This is normal and not cause for concern. In some households, mothers will find the following phrase useful: “Go check with your father. He knows this stuff.” In other homes, the case may be exactly the opposite.

Note: You will be expected to be conversant with the metric system. One litre roughly equals two bottles of chota Pepsi. And you will expected to guide your child figure out how many apples Rahul will be left with, after eating half,  then giving two to Shreya and depositing the remainder in an offshore account in Cayman Islands. Otherwise capable parents will find themselves rendered motionless and speechless during these sessions.

The Phone Call

Each night, as dinner is laid on the table, the phone will ring. The call will originate from a class mate of your child, who will enquire as to the nature of the assignment for tomorrow. Equally likely, your child will announce that she must telephone Neha urgently to find out more about tomorrow’s submission. More often than not, the telephone number of the other party will be engaged or calls go unanswered for a minimum of ninety minutes, prompting a continuous parental lecture on “the need for discipline” during this period. The telephone conversations, when they start, will feature, on the side, running, parallel and rancorous parental commentary on the absolute need and necessity to write down assignments “in class.” The sentence “How many times do I have to tell you this?” will be repeated ad nauseum until the child’s ears grow numb with seething discontent, followed by the child tearfully storming off and seeking refuge in the bathroom.

Note: Never, I repeat, never ever indulge in late night calls to the class teacher enquiring about the nature of tomorrow’s assignment. By 1:30AM, the parent is likely to be in a state of acute  mental derangement and distress, and hence highly apt to “download” on the teacher as to what he thinks of schooling and homework, which in turn, is likely to lead to a parent-teacher meeting and increase of daily homework load till 1AM.

The School Bag

Today’s child carries a schoolbag which weighs roughly 3.8 times her weight (in gross tonnage). The schoolbag will include items, deemed necessary by your child, such as two editions of Harry Potter novels, 42 hair clips, two dozen badges, between 2 and 5 boxes containing an assortment of pencils, erasers, short swords and sabres, surgical instruments and food items from the previous semester. The net tonnage, which is the weight of material directly related to education of your child such as books, will form a significant proportion of the gross tonnage.

Note: Every morning, be sure to warm your muscles up by performing a dozen sit-ups before you attempt to hoist the bag onto your child’s shoulders, in order to avoid rotator cuff injuries and slipped discs. The schoolbag is also an important part of the daily ceremonial homework commencement, one in which the process of getting to “Okay, okay” will take ten minutes. This will be followed by the child starting to rummage through the aforesaid schoolbag, all the while in the living room, for a pen. Any parental offers of alternative pens and pencils will be turned down. The duration of the child’s rummaging will roughly equal the duration of time left in the episode of American Idol running at that moment on the television.

Science Project

These are the most dreaded words in the parental universe. No phrase strikes more terror in the hearts of a parent than ‘Science Project’. The science project, which is announced a few weeks into the term, will be dramatically unveiled by your spouse, who will proclaim that your child has “chosen” to work with you on the project. Your spouse will conduct all conversations about your role in the Science Project in full view and complete earshot of your child to pre-empt any protests and withdrawals from responsibilities. Any and all murderous impulses towards the spouse should be tightly controlled and kept out of sight of the child. Over the next several weeks, you will spend a significant part of your time recreating a miniature version of the Large Hadron Collider or a contraption involving roughly 1 million stytrofoam balls (available at Aishwarya Departmental Store), springs, elastic rubber bands, gun powder, lemons and batteries to explain the string theory.

Note: Remember that the days are long gone when anything could be explained using two ping pong balls and a toothpick. Also note that, in the eventuality, the parent is hospitalized for exhaustion, project responsibilities are not considered to be abdicated.

Loot and Scoot

Loot-and-Scoot is a new service from What Ho! carefully crafted to help arrange an urgent and secretive getaway for an Indian politician looking to disappear without trace, should the need arise at any stage in his career. Please share this application form with anyone who might be interested.

APPLICATION FORM

NOTE:  Loot-and-Scoot is a cash-only business. Cheques and credit cards are not accepted. Neither do we engage in barter of any kind.

1. Select the best description of your current situation.

(a) CBI has filed a chargesheet against you      

(b) Subramanian Swamy has named you defendant in a PIL     

(c) You’re at present in Tihar and have applied twice unsuccessfully for bail     

(d) Parliament sessions have been suspended for fourteen days in a row on your account          

(e) You’re a former telecom minister, and belong to the DMK party          

2. I am interested in the following Escape Packages.

Feel free to opt for as many packages as you would like.

(a) The Google + package – You will be placed in a location which everyone knows exists, but no one ever visits          

(b) The Ra One special – Those who accidentally see you will be traumatized for the rest of their lives             

(c) The Higgs Boson package – Some will come tantalizingly close to spotting you, but no one will be able to nail you down           

(d) The Presidential Pardon deal – A full, unconditional pardon so you can go back to living it up            

Note: You have to be both Pakistani and a member of a terrorist organization to qualify for the Presidential Pardon deal

3. Loot-and-Scoot offers the following extraordinary benefits above and beyond the above escape packages. Select all that interest you:

(a) Facial reconstruction           

(b) Untraceable phone number with spousal ID blocking           

(c) Obliteration of all audio and video content from sting operations             

(d) Personal handling of sub poenas, writs and other legal matters by Ram Jethmalani          

(e) Quick and clean distress sale of any airlines or cable TV networks that you may own now             

(f) “No jokes. No wisecracks. No teasing” bundle           

Note: The “No jokes, No wisecracks, No teasing” bundle” may be cancelled at any time without notice if we’re unable to control ourselves.

4. Check your preferred mode of fake “death and disappearance.”

Select only one. Choose carefully.

(a) Helicopter crash on a rainy afternoon          

(b) Mysterious fire in government building          

(c) Fake kidnapping by Maoists             

(d) Shot at point blank range by a deranged relative            

(e) Heart attack on live TV while arguing with Arnab Goswamy              

SPECIAL CLAUSES & WAIVER

I agree that Loot-and-Scoot will not provide any refunds whatsoever. I also agree that all breaches of contract will be settled only through mediation. I also agree that such mediation will be arbitrated by a panel comprising solely of members from Team Anna and Supreme Court justices.

Signed                     

Use only an alias.

The Minority Report

I’m writing about something that happened a long time back. In fact, it was so long back that I was in 8th standard in school. My school was run by the Church of South India. The class was an eclectic mix of rich and not-so-rich, mostly Tamil, Malayali and Telugu speaking, Christian, Muslim and Hindu kids. The common ‘profiles’, as I recall, were the good old fashioned Tamil Brahmin kids, Malayali Christian kids, Tamil speaking Telugu kids who grew up in Chennai as well as those Tamil kids from other parts of Tamil Nadu like Salem, Madurai and Trichi. The last mentioned group of kids came from affluent families who owned vast areas of agrarian real estate and which had made their fortunes on the backs of farmers who tilled their ill gotten land, and now wanted their wards to enjoy a good ‘city’ education.

Needless to say, it made interesting conversation when Sushil Koshi Babukutten, Sanjay Rao (a Telugu kid from Chennai), Saravanan (Tamil Gounder kid from Madurai), Abdul Kader and moi sat down for our afternoon lunch. The conversation mostly centered around the various unflattering attributes of our teachers as usual. The collective innocence of our group was such that none of us had any idea of the schisms that existed between our communities. Yes, I had vaguely overheard conversations in family gatherings about ‘anti-brahmin’ activities in our state. Not having encountered any first hand evidence on this front, I paid little attention to such things. I was more interested in cricket, football, marks and getting homework done on time. And, I suspect, that was the case with the others too.

We were the distinguished denizens of the last row in the class. As to why we had been banished to the last row – there were many theories. I attributed it to my height. Unfortunately, the rest of the group did not have the ability to make such claims. We all suspected that we had been identified as ‘trouble makers’ and segregated in the last row where we could make the least possible trouble. And I also suspect that we all agreed with this assessment.

Abdul Kader was a classic trouble maker. Every school has a don. Abdul was ours. He was flamboyant. He was ruthless. And he set new standards in academic non-performance. His crowning accomplishment came in a quarterly exam when his total of 32 in all subjects failed to cross the passing grade of 35 for one subject. This achievement did not go unnoticed by Mr. Jayaraman, our maths teacher, who’d seen many Abduls come and go in his time. While handing out Abdul’s answer sheet he remarked, “You’ve attempted 3 out of 20 questions. To say that you’ve attempted them is going a bit too far given that you’ve got zero on 100.” Abdul smiled. Mr. Jayaraman was not a man to let such things so very easily. He was well aware of Abdul’s reputation as our don. Such things were mere trifle to him when it came to discussing competency in the Pythagorean method. “Abdul, tell me why you come to school. You’ve spent 2 years in each standard. At this rate, you’ll still be here when your friends have finished college.”  Abdul nonchalantly replied, “Sir, in that case, I’ll skip college and join my friends.” Keenly aware of his inability to influence Abdul, Mr. Jayaraman let go, knowing that he needed to hand out answer sheets to other kids who were by now on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict. He let go, and moved on. Abdul raised both hands in a winning pose like a boxer, and smiled again.

Abdul may have been our don. But, he was the don with the heart of gold. Once he came up to me and said, “You are a “padikarra payyan” (studious kid). If anyone gives you trouble, let me know. I’ll handle it.” Abdul’s reputation was legendary. For starters, he was well connected. His elder brother was the Don of 10th grade. Senior ‘goons’ from that grade would seek Abdul’s counsel. He was always accompanied by his posse wherever he went. He rode a motorbike to school, and generally his arrival or departure from a room or building was a much heralded event. There were also rumors of his ruthless ability to ‘straighten out’ those who did not adhere to his ‘laws’. He would bring us juicy tales of fights with bus conductors, roadside vendors and auto rickshaw drivers. The tales would always end with how he vanquished his enemies. The message was pretty simple and clear. “Don’t mess with me.”

Sushil’s parents lived in ‘the Gulf’. For the longest time, I had no idea what the ‘gulf’ was. I thought it was a town in Kerala. Occasionally, he’d tell us that his parents were coming down to Chennai. After every one of these visits, he’d always come back loaded with something ‘cool’ and ‘mysterious’. I remember that he once brought a Sony Walkman to class, which had headphones and we listened to the Beatles on it. He always dressed smartly, and set new fashion trends in school. He was always smiling. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing him upset or angry at anything. He would make light of the worst of predicaments and counseled us to do the same. In each group, you always have a kid who assumes the ‘elder brother’ role. Sushil was our elder brother. He was wise beyond his years, and always lent a willing ear to our problems. As the elder brother, he also felt obliged to be our group’s financier. He had chockfull of cash, and spent it liberally on ground nuts, grape juice or an occasional Gold Spot for his friends. In return for Sushil’s solutions to life’s problems, I coached him in mathematics. He had one of the worst phobias of numbers I’ve ever seen. Confronted with a simple and straightforward problem, he would freeze with furrowed brows and glazed eyes. After a few minutes, he’d look up and say, “I have no idea what to do.” It amazed me that such a wise man could not comprehend that ‘a*(b+c) =a*b +a*c’. My attempts to tune him into the magic world of numbers proved futile, as time would tell.

Sushil was our hero. He was smart, well dressed and articulate. We all jostled to be seen with him in public. He always had a few kids around him at any point, hanging on to his stories of foreign jaunts. Sushil had a ‘VCR’ at home, and he would come to school every day and tell us the tale of the movie he had watched the previous evening. He stayed with his indulgent grand parents, and made the most of it. He had covered major ground in travel and film watching at the ripe age of 12, and this added to his reputation of wisdom and maturity. Sushil’s most endearing quality was that he treated his friends well. He never had an unkind or sarcastic word for us. He would save us from embarrassment and take it upon himself. He was truly our elder brother who watched out for us. I cared for him so much that I nursed a deep concern about his deficiencies in the field of mathematical sciences. He usually dismissed such concerns with a sweeping “I’ll join my dad’s business in the gulf once this is over. All you need to do is to help me pass.” I swore that I’d do what was humanly possible to get that done.

Saravanan was a typical Tamil speaking Gounder kid, who resisted all attempts to speak to him in any language other than Tamil. His stoic silence to questions posed in other languages masked his lack of comprehension of them. He was medium height, dark with a longish face, and applied liberal amounts of oily substances to his hair. His hair was always neatly combed, with a curl down his forehead, which he guarded vigilantly. He was a boy of very few words. He spoke rarely, and on very few subjects. He was affiliated with another group of kids, who were commonly referred to as ‘hostel kids’. They were his fellow inmates of the school’s hostel, and his hostel network was far and wide. Saravanan was not the first ranker in class. But he was not known to do shabbily either. His consistency in staying in the middle ranks was admired by those in the lower ranks. Nothing perturbed him. No one perturbed him. He was a cactus, who survived on very little water, in the unfamiliar desert of a Chennai school. He was not the most sociable character. Occasionally, all one would get out him by way of response was a grunt. And that was generally well received when it happened.

Sanjay was the kid with whom I related more than others, though he came from a more affluent background than mine. He came from a higher-than-middle class, but not-quite-rich family. His dad was a teacher in our school, and made a fortune from teaching mathematics ‘tuition’ to the rich 12th standard students in our school. Sanjay was seen speaking Telugu to some kids, and Tamil to us, which I found very impressive at that impressionable age. Sanjay tried very hard to create his own niche in the school, but struggled till the end to find that spot in the sun. Otherwise, he was well regarded by his peers, and was known to be Sushil’s right-hand man and confidante.

The year was 1980. We had just returned from summer vacation to start eighth grade. And, that’s when things changed. For starters, our seating arrangements had been re-shuffled to our nasty surprise. Instead of Sushil and Sanjay, I had Saravanan and another kid on my sides. I took it in my stride, although I knew that neither of my neighbors could be placed in the eloquently social category. To my surprise, Saravanan appeared more talkative than usual. He doled out tales of family gatherings during the summer, trips to far flung villages and attendance at what appeared to be political meetings. Slowly, I gathered that Saravanan’s father enjoyed the company of politicians, and made liberal donations to such causes. He mentioned prominent names, and would casually slip out details of their having had ‘tiffen’ or tea at his house. All this was fine but boring. Patiently, I nodded my head way through his ramblings. To me, Anbazhagan’s appearance in Saravanan’s house was not very exciting stuff. And then, one fine day, Saravanan mentioned Periyaar.

It’s probably pertinent to pause here and examine what I knew about Periyaar at that point. Amidst my indifference to politics and political talk, I had, by then, ingested some details on Periyaar. I knew that he was part of some movement which didn’t relish the sight of Brahmins in the state. I’d also heard stories about how Periyaar didn’t believe in God, and how he had once garlanded a deity in a temple with footwear. These stories didn’t endear Periyaar to me. I was also aware of the fact that I was brahmin. So, I made the simple inference that if Periyaar hated Brahmins and if I was a brahmin, then Periyaar and I would not get along well. That I wouldn’t get along with Periyaar didn’t bother me. I had more on my mind in those days, and did not ponder this issue deeply. In essence, I knew who Periyaar was, and where he stood in my book.

So, when Saravanan mentioned Periyaar, I listened. He talked about what his dad had told him about Periyaar. He talked about the things Periyaar had done for the people. At this point, Saravanan made an important mistake. He loudly proclaimed (so loud that others could hear clearly) that Periyaar had once said, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first,” and he laughed. By now, the rest of the class had heard this and there was pin drop silence in the room. Even our class teacher who was grading papers stopped and looked up when he heard the silence. He, however, had not heard what Saravanan had said. I could feel fifty pairs of eyes on me. I could see Saravanan’s mocking smile looking back at me to sense my reaction. Slowly he drawled, “So, what do you think about Periyaar and what I said?” I was livid, not at Periyaar but at Saravanan. And I knew I looked livid. “Why don’t you try saying it one more time and I’ll tell you what I think,” the threat was obvious in my voice and I stood up.

By this time, our class teacher, Mr. Rufus Jeyakumar, got up from his chair and had started walking towards us. Saravanan stood up and repeated the statement about snakes and Brahmins. He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The next thing I remember was throwing a punch straight into his mouth, and blood trickling from it. Saravanan swung his arm back, and I was ready by now. I had him pinned under my armpit, and we both collapsed on the table with books and pencils and paper flying around. Mr. Rufus just stood by and watched, as I was told later. That afternoon, Saravanan got the beating of his life. When it was over and I got up, Mr. Rufus looked at me calmly and said, “Are you done? He asked for it. And, you gave it to him. If it happens again, I’ll give it to both of you.” And he walked away.

I’ve remembered this incident all these days, because this was my first direct encounter with bigotry and communal hatred. I didn’t know enough to comprehend why it was there. Nor was I wise enough then to walk away in dignity. But, I learnt that the bigotry was there. I could see it in Saravanan’s eyes. I found it confusing that, only a few months back, the hatred was not there and we’d been just a couple of kids horsing around. In many ways, that was the beginning of the end of our innocence.

This was originally written by me in June 2006. Reproduced in-toto in 2012. If you’re a Madras Christian College school alum who remembers those days, do get in touch. 

The Few, The Proud and The Privileged

Good evening, peeps, listen up. This is your pre-boarding announcement for Flight 568 to Dubai.

We invite all first-class and business-class passengers, passengers needing special assistance, families travelling with small children, and children travelling with small families to now board the aircraft.

We now invite the Kardashian sisters, Diamond Encrusted Imperial Tiara Club members, Olympic Gold medal Winners, Facebook Founders, current and former Miss Universes and United Nations Secretary Generals to board at this time.

Thank you for waiting. We now welcome members of Rapidly Ascending Skywards Triple Advantage, Supremely Important Priority Partners, Surly Men in Suits Who Overpay for Tickets, Highly Preferred and Obnoxiously Rude Members, Members of Illuminati, Knights of the Templar, Top Dogs, Type A Cool Cats, Wealthy Tyrants of Small Islands and Top Class Numero Unos to now board the aircraft.

We appreciate your patience. We are pleased to welcome members of Silver Budget, Silver Platter, Silver Spoons, Just a Cut Above the Rest, Barely Above and Beyond, Members of Noticeable Distinction, e-Go Maniacs, Circle of Hubris, AlwaysMeFirst Super Deluxe and AlwaysMeFirst Classic Rewards Program, and You’re Standing in My Way Club. Please board the aircraft before we change our minds.

If there’s any one left, you don’t deserve to board the aircraft. Beat it.

The Supreme One slashes the budget for Heaven

Dear People in Heaven and Hell,

As you’re well aware, eternity lasts a very long time. And, you are equally well aware that death is inevitable. These two facts have combined to place tremendous strain on my resources, which I once wrongly perceived as infinite. Keeping the murderers among you immersed in fire forever, for example, takes an enormous expenditure of energy, as you can imagine. Not even I, the Supreme One, can circumvent or overrule the laws of thermodynamics. A rapidly rising population in the after-life, coupled with a precipitous increase in energy and operating costs are now threatening to derail my core project, which is to keep the universe running.

According to research I had commissioned McKinsey & Co. to do, even those who’ve made it to Heaven are dissatisfied, in spite of extraordinary investments we’ve made in heavenly amenities. I’m especially pained to note that customer satisfaction surveys of the denizens of Paradise repeatedly show only one response when asked about perception of Heaven: “Not what I was expecting.” It appears that modern humans clearly seem to have less regard for Heaven, when compared to Dante.

Long story short, I don’t have resources to keep things going at this rate, and need to make changes urgently. So, here are the measures that will come into effect immediately.

All amenities now offered in Heaven will be ended, and replaced with just one benefit – free cable TV subscription in all rooms. If our studies are right, I expect that this measure alone will cause our satisfaction ratings to rocket immediately, and our costs to drop dramatically. I also expect this measure to eliminate another common complaint in Heaven, “All my friends are in the other place.”

That will not be all. The problem of eternal liability continues to exist. According to research, the promise of just a year or two in heaven is adequate to generate ninety five percent of the desired “good” behavior in mortals. In fact, the promise of “eternal bliss” is viewed with suspicion and disfavor among adults who have completed college education. This suggests that cutting back on the eternal salvation promise will not lead to significant drops in faith, obedience and repentance levels. Focus group studies indicate a similar pattern on the deterrence side of the equation. Eternal damnation will be replaced with a limited term penalty of (say) three years of rolling a massive rock up the hill, while being tormented by demons and other such punishments not involving burning of fossil fuels.

Although it’s with great reluctance that I consented to modifying the original covenant between Me and you, I’ve learnt that consumers such as yourselves are quite open to modifying the same. I’m not surprised that the damned are happy to take any reduction in their terms. I’m surprised to know that the blessed too are ready to renegotiate eternal bliss, and are willing to be “bought out” of their existing contracts, if offered an attractive package such as, say, being reborn and leading a full life with an unlimited talk time and data plan.

Rest assured that we’ve consulted our legal team extensively on these modifications to the original terms and conditions of mortal life. It’s my belief that this will not require any changes to documentation on life, which in any case was left intentionally vague, and which not many of you seem to have bothered to read in the first place.

Peace and regards.

The Supreme One.

I’m sorry, but..

The other day, I was offered an apology. It wasn’t a bad one. But, I wasn’t ready to settle yet. Somehow, the apology didn’t quite, at any point during its course, exceed the threshold of my expectation. And regretfully, I had to turn it down. I have my principles. And they don’t include accepting an apology that is rendered in haste. Haste is a trait I view with suspicion. The apology that rolls off the tongue easily does not satisfy. It reflects evasiveness and flippancy, not remorse. What does it say about me when I accept apologies rather easily? I would rather not stoop and sink to the level of those who promiscuously accept the easy apologies. Once you sink down to that level, it’s just a hop, skip and jump away from the dangers of forgiveness.

A day later, the apology was re-submitted. This time, in a noticeably lengthier form. Yet, it did not satisfy. So, I held my silence. But, I felt an escalating pressure to accept it and, to use a rather crude phrase, “put the matter behind us.” Upon examination of the apology, I was satisfied this time to note that it was complete and not half-baked. It contained a high level of repeated assurance that it was meant sincerely and “in good faith.” Many of the apologist’s friends called in to confirm true regret on his part. There was language in his words that suggested that he (the apologist) had reflected on his act, and that it (his act) reflected “insensitivity” and that he was “distressed” by the “whole thing.” It was an excellent attempt. Yet, it did not rise to the level needed to overwhelm and wash away memories of original cruelty and inflicted pain. I lingered. I wondered what it would mean to accept the apology. Would it mean that I had somehow ratified his callous behavior? Would it mean that I accepted him back? No. I was not ready for that, not yet anyway. And so, I turned it down.

Disappointed, I turned instead to the comfort of musing on the nature of apology itself. Does the simple apology merit existence? Is “sorry” worth the trouble of expression? I pondered on the hurts, pains, aches, anger, disappointment and disillusionment we cause each other. When considered against the backdrop of our monumental blunders, our abject apologies seemed inadequate. So, I wondered. This reverie was interrupted by a third apology. This time, it was in the form of a note, accompanied by a fine bottle of French wine, a box of Swiss chocolates and tickets to an IPL game. Nice try, I thought. But, wait. We were not done yet. There was the note.

The note said, “I hope that you will find a way to accept this apology, which I solemnly affirm that I’m making with full possession of my mind and faculties and without reservations or conditions, and move on.” I read the note. And, I read it again. As I read it again and again, I sensed fury possessing me at what I believed was the cavalier use of the phrase “move on.” Was I being equated with a guest lingering at an overcrowded buffet table? I sensed impatience on part of the apologist to somehow evict me from this moral high ground that I had rightfully occupied after his transgression. Anger enveloped me at his audacity. And, I blacked out thereafter.

After I had recovered sufficiently, I did what I felt was best under the circumstances. I wrote back to the offender. “I’m sorry. But, I cannot accept your apology.”

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – A Review

“God Delusion” is a bestseller non fiction book, written by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford.

The primary purpose of the book is to debunk the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us,” which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis.” His argument against this hypothesis is that a God with such abilities has to be more complex than what it has created, and hence improbable. He then raises the reductio ad absurdum question of who created God. In fact, this elaboration on the “Mommy, who created God?” question is the central argument of the book.

Dawkins’ argues that science and religion are mutually incompatible for the reason that science is all about evidence, while religion is about believing without evidence. He makes the point “morality needs no religion,” which, frankly, has been said before. He stands on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell when he says this.

My observations from reading the book

Dawkins treats “believers” with little respect. e.g. calling them ‘faith heads’ to make unwarranted, implied comparisons with ‘crack heads’. This is not necessary. On the other hand, religion has become accustomed to getting respect. So, maybe a little disrespect is not a bad tactic to get attention. Agree with his real point that there is no reason why religion should be immune to criticism or get any special treatment.

Dawkins blames religion disproportionately. Reading the book – one would be tempted to believe that if religion were to be somehow obliterated, all the world’s wars would cease. Rather dramatic and flawed since things like language and good old megalomaniacal tendencies have contributed more to wars than religion. I get the sense that Dawkins is hung up more on labels rather than religion or God itself, and is stretching to make the linkages. his point really is that religion is a ‘marker’ much like tribal membership, language, skin color etc except that we’re giving it way more (undeserved) respect than the other markers. This is a fair point but not a very useful one.

Dawkins recommends impractical and absurd measures like “children should not be given the religious labels of their parents”. Again, he unfairly picks on religion, since non-religious beliefs of parents play possibly an even more important role in deciding children’s future development. Further, children tend to grow out of their parents’ belief systems as they have experiences of their own

Dawkins makes no distinction between ‘liberals’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in religions. This may not be a minor point. Just like – not all atheists are pacifists (eg Stalin, Mao), not all theists are pacifist. So why, again, isolate religion as a sole culprit?

He is unable to pin down what he really feels is wrong with or does not makes sense about religion from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins would be the first to admit that religion has a “utility” value in evolution, although he would qualify this by saying “even false beliefs have utility value.” False belief or not, religion’s utility appears to be there. So, what’s the problem with this? Why the hysteria against religion? This is especially disappointing given his strengths in this area.

The Verdict

Dawkins brings a great deal of passion to the book, but reading it can feel like watching a Michael Moore movie. His tone is smug, logic sloppy at times and the book occasionally includes crass phrases like “sucking up to God”. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing. The book ends up being a unscientific polemic, in which an evolutionary biologist stretches into areas like socio-economics, politics, history, philosophy, theosophy, theology etc. where he has no core expertise. For a person who does not believe in God, he appears more obsessed with Him than the believers.

Dawkins puts forth that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certainty that God exists and 7 is certainty that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” he says. An assumption, not coincidentally that has fetched him millions of dollars.

If you’re looking for a “good atheist” book, this one’s not it.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

An Inconvenient Truth

There are inconsiderate human beings that occupy this planet in every village, town, city and country. Even so, I wouldn’t be straying far from the truth when I say that we Indians occupy a special place in the pantheon of insensitivity. We are a nation of uncaring, indifferent boors, whose lives are only occasionally punctuated by those (increasingly rare) Satyameva Jayate moments, when we sit down and pretend to care about our fellow citizens.

The Inconsiderate Indian

Our indifference manifests in countless exotic ways. It could take the form of spit impelled out of a window of a moving bus or car. It showcases itself in how we drive on the other side of the road, passing those who wait patiently for the light to turn green. Our selfishness blossoms when presented with a long line in front of a small counter with a harassed clerk, and plots clever ways to cut through and get around the indignity of waiting. Mindless road/traffic planners, rude hospital staff, robotically insensitive school principals, gossiping colleagues, uncaring airport staff.. The list goes on. So, it should come as no surprise when our leaders display the same inconsideration that we have so carefully cultivated amongst ourselves. Yet, it surprises us when we hear that our ministers have been pilfering from us, promoting their sons and daughters and circumventing the laws of the land to suit their purposes.

There is one potentially redeeming aspect of the Inconsiderate Indian, which suggests that this condition might not, in fact, be incorrigible. Our strain of inconsideration largely stems from indifference and mindlessness, and is less insidious than its cousin variety that breeds on malice and ill-will. We’re not a malicious people, by and large. But, we, surely, are dim witted. Mindlessness and indifference are progeny of foolishness. In fact, that may be the best piece of information we have at our disposal. That we are mere fools and not evil monsters like what the chinese system has perpetrated. Of course, the worry remains that our behavior is not really borne of our idiocy and it reflects our true selves. In any case, idiocy, in my book, is a far lesser crime compared to malice and leaves room for hope that we may yet overcome this failing someday.

Why are we a nation of dimwitted fools?

Never mind Viswanathan Anand. Never mind that Silicon Valley genius engineer, who invented that clever thing that lets us search the internet. Never mind Homi Bhabha. Never mind J.C. Bose and C. V. Raman. Never mind that ours is the land of Buddha and the Vedas. Never mind the nostalgia from having invented zero. Make no mistake about it. We are a nation of fools. There’s no dearth of evidence or fools, to support this hypothesis, in our otherwise lovely nation.

So, what’s the solution?

This is the tricky part. There are two reasons why this is tricky.

The first part of the trickiness has to do with the possibility that there may exist no solution. There is no magic wand to wave or potion you could force down throats that could rid us of our insufferable mindlessness. I like to think that if there was one, we, in spite of our stupidity, would have found it by now. These sort of things, especially those that involve senselessness, take time to work through. The process of working through stuff is called evolution. Unfortunately, the way evolution seems to be working at the moment, it appears to be favoring the fools. One hopes that this trend will correct itself. If not, we will extinguish ourselves and the problem will solve itself.

Second, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a clarion call to corrective action to you, my reader. For, it would somehow imply that you, the reader, are part of this clan of fools, a notion which seems at odds with the fact that you are a What Ho! reader. What Ho! readers may be misguided. But, they are erudite. They like the finer things in life like What Ho!. They may be many things. But, they are no fools. I say this with sincerest respect and in the fondest hope of retaining your patronage.

Seriously, why are we a nation of fools?

Even a tiny North African country with 10 million people and nothing more than sandy deserts, has found a way to build roads, run hospitals, operate shiny airports and promote civility. I think, the truth is that we, at some fundamental level, seem to revel in our foolishness. We call it jugaad. We call it ‘street smarts’. Our brains work overtime to figure out detours. We are a nation of arrogant, self-centered people which believes that its brand of perverted intelligence is somehow superior because it helps beat the odds. We are a society of fools that celebrates the most ‘jugaadi’ fools. I, for one, take no pride in our jugaad. To me, jugaad is a symptom of how low we have fallen. It is a sign that evolution is favoring the energetic fools amongst us.

The smart thing is to take the straight roads and drive faster. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this inconvenient truth. How about more sense and less jugaad?

A Bliss Mantra

From my notes from 2009. Here below is a “bliss mantra” from the Taitriya Upanishad in the Vedas, along with my interpretation.

<In Sanskrit>

Om saha naa vavatu saha nau bhunaktu
saha viryam kara vaavahai
tejaswinaa vadhItamastu maa vid vishavahai
Om shanti shanti shanti-hi

There are two interpretations. The first is as addressed to a friend or a partner

Let us enjoy life together, Let us experience life together
Let us engage ourselves together and share our energies to meet adversities
Pray we do not do or say anything that can divide us
Let there be bliss in our lives

The second is as addressed to the Universal Spirit (Parabrahman) which resides within all of us –

Let us be united, let our energies be united in overcoming adversities
Let our wisdom shine, Let us not be led astray by intellectual conquests
Let us be together in eternity, Let there be no division between us
Let there be bliss

Let there be bliss in your weekend.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

Kapil Sibal to create the “mother of all unified exams”

Flush from its victory in the recent civic polls, the West Bengal state government, led by the feisty Mamata “Didi” Banerjee, is mulling a complete ban on electricity and bathing. The strongly pro-poor Didi said, “Hey, if something’s not being used by lesser privileged people in society, it ought to be illegal. We looked around in slums and found that people over there don’t have access to electric power and are not in a position to have daily showers. Hence, we’re planning to ban these items.” When queried on the practicality of implementing such a ban, Didi reassured reporters by saying, “Of course, the ban will not be total. We’ll still need electricity to torture cartoonists.”

In a bid to come out of financial doldrums, Kingfisher Airlines announced that it would convert itself into a social network.  The new entity, which will be called “facepalmbook”, will soon announce an IPO from which it expects to raise tens of billions of dollars. “For the last several months, we’ve delayed and cancelled flights thus causing customers to waste enormous amounts of time at airports. With this new social network, we expect to help them waste time at home, without ever having to visit an airport,” said the flamboyant Vijay Mallya who plans to hand over reins of the new entity to his son, Sid.

“In this new structure, employees will cease to be employees and instead become our ‘friends’ on facepalmbook. This way, they won’t receive salaries, but can grow as much food as they want on imaginary farms. Plus, we’re going to keep all the cool things about Kingfisher, such as in-flight entertainment, gourmet meals and glamorous stewardesses. We’re dropping only those things that have hurt us over the years, namely customers.”, chipped in Sid helpfully.

As Syria descended into chaos and UN inspectors foraged for signs of carnage in villages, India’s Sachin Tendulkar called on the Syrian president, Bashar Assad to stand firm and not step down. “I don’t believe you can tell someone when they ought to retire or step down. They should be allowed to leave on their own terms when the time comes”, he asserted. When asked about polls which point to Assad’s plummeting popularity, Tendulkar remarked, “Numbers aren’t everything. As long as Assad continues to be passionate about genocide and vendetta, he ought to keep going.” In response, Kapil Dev called on the entire United Nations organization as well as Syrian rebels to retire immediately.

In an innovative and radical twist, which promises to generate more controversy, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has called for combining even larger groups of examinations into one. “First, we combined all other engineering examinations with IIT-JEE. Now, we’ll take this a  major step further by combining this with all other exams such as eye exams, hearing tests, blood tests, driver’s license tests and colonoscopy into one mother of all unified exams (MOAUE). My fond hope for Indians is that any person should be able to take just MOAUE and be able to come out with spectacles, hearing aids, blood group type, driver’s license, a bowel movement patterns report as well as admission to a college at the end of it.”

The What Ho! report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read the Times of India so you shouldn’t have to

Haasya Vayu Purana (as told by a fan)

Recently, Laughing Gas completed its first year anniversary of its existence. Here’s a fan speculating that its origin might date back to much longer than that! Thank you, anonymous! All I can say that it continues to worry and amaze me simultaneously that folks are actually reading this blog.

From a Laughing Gas fan

I am a silent admirer of Laughing Gas blog. I just read, laugh lots and thank quietly. So, I felt it wouldn’t be too much to show a modicum of gratitude & appreciation. This is a simple heartfelt note to congratulate and felicitate Laughing Gas.

Here are three top reasons why I love Laughing Gas.
1. It’s funny.
2. It’s very funny.
3. Did I mention that it’s terribly funny?

The simplest truths are the greatest. Laughing Gas does its invisible work by sneaking into you mysteriously without warning and inducing convulsive laughter attacks. It spreads humor like bees spread pollen. It is another vital air just like oxygen, I’d say! As a token of further appreciation, I present the following wildly imaginative epic as a compliment. I hope other fans enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Great philosophers & scientists have been for long baffled by the mystery behind origins of the universe. What happened before the big bang? How did the big bang itself come about? What ho! I present the the ‘Laughing Gas Saga’ aka ‘Haasya Vayu Purana’ which provides answers.

The Vayu Purana may not be new to many. If it is, here’s a synopsis. According to Hindu scriptures, it’s one of the 18 principal chronicles of the origins of the universe, as told by the anthropomorphistic Wind God Vayu. Further to be noted, Haasya, traditionally understood as ‘humor’, is one of the nine principal essences of theatrical-emotional expressions enumerated by the ancient thinker-cum-bard Bharata in the Natya Shastra.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s a twist to that tale, one which I call the ‘Haasya Vayu Purana’ aka the Laughing Gas Saga.  My fable is built on the premise that humor is a fundamental creative principle – even perhaps, the élan vital of the universe – and the events of this Purana took place a long long time ago, much before the Big Bang.

Once upon a time, for eons together, a state of a still and deep silence prevailed. The ‘original cause’ whom I shall call The One (for dramatic effect) wrapped itself comfortably in this perfect silence and nothingness. All was in a state of rest. One fine day, The One woke up flexing every muscle after a nice deep long refreshing sleep. It was time to wake the world into existence. It was a particularly silent and lone morning walk that day for The One. There was no one around to offer even a cup of coffee. Naturally, this sent The One into a dark and pensive mood, and had it wondering how to bring forth Its creation. The One knew that the stillness had to be excited into action for creation to unfold.

The One went into deep meditation for another ten thousand yugas. Finally, It opened Its legendary third eye, and brought forth a Creative Will in the form of a dazzling golden shining light form. The One beheld this resplendent light form thoughtfully with admiration. And before you could say what ho!, this dazzling light – the Creative Will – had transformed itself into Laughing Gas.

Laughing Gas then sprung into action swiftly and permeated the very core being of The One. Within a few divine moments, The One started shaking with unrestrained laughter. This caused powerful reverberations in the vast stillness, which began to multiply at an exceedingly high rate. One thing led to another  (just as a juicy gossip catches on like forest fire!), and all dormant energy fields began to stir into some serious action. And thus the big bang came about.  Gazillions of tiny giggling particles burst forth from this cosmic (read ‘comic’) explosion carrying the life force of The One far and wide, busily giving a new spin to creation!

And, so it happened. Since then, the Creative Will aka Laughing Gas has continued to make a worldly appearance during every eon in a form suitable to that era, out of consideration for its fans. In today’s age, we know it, follow it and love it, of course, as the Laughing Gas Blog. It still causes explosive convulsive laughter attacks upon whomever it comes across and continues to spread the light.

Those who read, hear, sing, like or tweet this incredible story on Laughing Gas are indeed blessed by the everlasting laughing waters of paradise. Thus ends the only & final chapter in Haasya Vayu Purana aka The Laughing Gas Saga as told by anonymous to the world at large.

The Eleventh Commandment

I’m asked often by impressionable lads and gals, “What does it take to make it in the big, bad world of business?” In response, I always ask, “Can you handle the truth?” And when they nod hesitantly, I tell them, “A booming voice”. In fact, I call it the eleventh commandment. Here’s some chicken soup for ye impressionable souls out there.

Anything important has happened only because the people concerned had authoritative voices. When a voice booms, everything it says has a ring of authenticity.  I can only imagine what Moses must have felt, when handed the most important assignment of his career.

“Here they are, Moses. The Ten Commandments! Aren’t they beauties? ”. The voice of God booms above crashing thunder and quaking ground.

The Ten Commandments. Is that what we are calling the product? I take it that you want me to go down and pitch it to the hordes?”

“Yep, you have to go down there and, as you call it, “pitch” it to the people. Things are getting frisky out there with rampant sodomy and bestiality. It’s time we got the organization under control and put some policies in place. Do this well, and there’s a little upward mobility that I have planned for you. I’m talking prophet-hood. Heck, I’ll throw in a couple of wives if you exceed expectations”

“That’s an enticing offer, God. But with due respect, I have to point out that our product is flawed. Frankly, I don’t think it can be sold. Don’t get me wrong, chief. The collateral looks good. I mean, your carving on 8” by 5” rock slabs is pure genius. The font type and size are just perfect. But..”

“But..? I sense a lack of confidence, Moses. What’s bothering you, boy? Let’s talk. Mano et Dioso. Right here, right now”

“Look, Chief, let’s be honest. We’re competing for attention with golden calves, binge drinking and wantonly dancing women. How about we go with, say five commandments at first, see the uptake and then upgrade them to the next slab?”

“No deal, Moses. We’ve got to go for the whole enchilada. I’ve got the rule about not coveting the neighbor’s wife coming in at at number 10.  Seeing what’s going on down there, there’s no way I’m delaying that. Let’s bite the bullet and roll this baby out tonight”

“Hmm, I guess this leaves me with no choice but to put forth my demand. Could you please mute the thunder? I’m having a hard time making myself heard”

Thunder stops instantly. Gale winds cease. Silence prevails.

“Yes, my boy, and you were saying?”

“It’s a tough crowd out there, God. And, I want to put on a good show. I need a favor from you. It’s my voice. I want you to change it. I need it to boom. Like yours. Everything always sounds good when you say it. With a voice like mine, the best I can push is commandment number 8, you know, the one about not stealing. There’s no way I can pull the other ones off. Give me some deep bass tones, God”

Poof! Moses changes into an old man with white flowing locks, bushy eyebrows, gaunt visage and a baritone that reverberates across the expanse.

Why God gave Moses the senior citizen package (white hair and gaunt visage) along with “the” Voice is a story for a different day. Anyway, there you go, ladies and gentlemen. The inside scoop on one of the greatest achievements in history. It all comes down to the voice.

pip pip, and cheerio!

Hallmark Cards For India

I don’t know about you. It’s been ages since I’ve been in the greeting cards section of a store, let alone buy one. So I don’t really have first hand feel any more for what Hallmark sells nowadays. But I’ve read at some time that their business has been losing steam over the years. In these days of internet, mobile phones and digital content, I guess it’s not surprising that e- cards have taken over and their counterparts in the physical world have been relegated to endangered species status. I wonder if this state of affairs has caused a loss of morale over at Hallmark? What ho! Maybe we should help. How about a few Hallmark card ideas for occasions which are uniquely Indian? Perhaps this will boost their sagging enthusiasm?

“Congratulations ‘cause I have this really good feeling that you’re gonna win the Film Fare Best Actor award at some point in your life”

Know anyone with the surname Khan? Are you buddies with the son/daughter/nephew of anyone named Kapoor? Look no further. We’ve got what the doctor ordered for you. Send this congratulatory card in advance right away and shamelessly curry favors with your favorite mediocre Bollywood progeny all year long.

“Here’s wishing you a pesticide-free New Year!”

Put a twist on the traditionally staid New Year greeting. Here’s a card which you can send to anyone in your social circles who’s prone to imbibing copious volumes of milk, cola, water, mangoes or anything edible for that matter. Since pesticides are ubiquitous, what better way to show that you care than selecting from an extensive pesticide series which includes cards for all occasions? Wish your friends and family pesticide-free Ramzan, Christmas and Diwali and spread goodwill and cheer all year long.

 “Sorry I leaked your doctored CD”

Are you a member of the household staff of a politician or an industrialist? Have you ever shot secret video using a ill concealed mobile phone and captured your employer’s shenanigans? Did you then doctor and embellish it? Now admit that you leaked the said doctored CD to news channels. Has your employer paid you handsomely to retract your allegations? There you go. We’ve got just the card you’re looking for.

“Happy birthday to your struggling airlines! Hope your pilots don’t go on strike. Tell Sid I said Hi”

Perfect for friends, acquaintances and well-wishers to make it large and send to Vijay Mallya.

 “We may have nothing in common. Heck, will you be my coalition partner?”

There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. This is truer for Indian politics. Perfect for that day we celebrate the dharma of coalitions. Tailor made for the Valentine’s day of political parties, if there were ever to be one.

“Wish you were here”

This simple yet powerful card is perfect for many occasions. Future members of the Indian cricket team will send it to Tendulkar and Dravid. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha could send one daily to Members of Parliament. Students in government schools to absent teachers. Citizens to delinquent police officers. Harangued women to their truant house maids. The list goes on.

“Hope you get bail soon!”

Your local MLA get charge sheeted by CBI lately? Wake up one morning to find your MP on TV in handcuffs and being led to the Big House? Despair not. Our “Hope you get bail soon” card lets you demonstrate that perfect balance of concern and optimism.

A Living Will

  •  If I should remain in a comatose state for 15 consecutive years, feel free to switch off the TV
  • If I haven’t uttered a single syllable for four straight years, I’d like to be referred to as Mr. Manmohan Singh
  • Assume that in the worst of conditions, I can still hear but would highly prefer not to hear Rakhi Sawant
  • Even if I’m unable to recognize or interact with friends, I’ll still expect birthday messages on my Facebook wall
  • If the doctor declares me brain dead, I’d like to watch House Full 2
  • If my end is particularly dramatic, I’d like to be played by Ravi Shastri in the movie version
  • If I don’t respond to loved ones’ attempts to communicate, remind them of our last road trip
  • I’d like to die at home, surrounded by my laptop, iPad and cell phone
  • In lieu of flowers, I’d prefer tweets
  • If there should be a eulogy, I’d like it to begin with “I suppose, in a way, we all contributed to his end”

Let’s Ask Hafiz

Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Jama’at-ud-Daw’ah, widely considered to be a cover for  Lashkar-e-Toiba, recently answered questions from militants, movie industry, politicians and others in a live web chat. Here below is the transcript of the chat obtained by the What Ho! Report team.

 Dear Haifiz saab,

Please take a look at my youtube video entitled “Death to India”, in which I declare war on the Indian infidels. I can be seen randomly waving my Kalshnikov rifle while threatening imminent doom to the infidels. Please let me know if this is of interest to you and your organization. I’d like to join your outfit. Kindly advise. By the way, I have my own cave.

Jobless in Quetta

Dear Jobless in Quetta,

Thanks for sharing this with me. You seem to fit the exact IQ profile that we normally look for in our members. We will be in touch with you shortly. In the meanwhile, please do share any other scary videos that you may have posted. We’re running low on randomly weird content at the moment, and anything you can provide in this regard will be useful.

Dear Saab,

I’ve recently located here from Karachi. I’ve been hatching a devious plot on my cell phone and worried that Indian intelligence might have overheard me. What should I do?

Worried in Mumbai

Dear Worried in Mumbai,

Ha ha.. That’s a funny question! Let me assure you that you have absolutely nothing to worry about. For your information, the Indian Home Ministry is trying to pass the NCTC bill, after which they will be too busy spying on Chief Ministers. Even if they catch you, you have nothing to worry about. You’ll be treated like a movie star in prison and will most likely get a Presidential pardon. By the time all this plays out, you can expect Gol Maal 7 to have hit the theatres. Rock on, friend.

Dear Hafiz Saab,

I’m a member of Jaish-E-Mohammed in good standing. Of late, I’ve been feeling the itch to switch over to LeT. What percentage raise can I expect? Are there any differences in health care benefits?

Bored in SWAT

Dear Bored in SWAT,

I applaud your itchiness. Unfortunately, this is not my department. Please call our operator and ask for HR.

Dear Hafiz Saeed Saab,

I did not believe it when they told me that you were conducting a live chat. And then, I came on here and I was like “OMG! It’s really true”.  Here’s a rapid fire question I’m asking celebrities this month. Rank the following actresses in terms of hotness:  Kareena, Katrina or Deepika?

Karan Johar

May you burn in hell, Karan Johar.

Dear Sir,

I’d like to take a minute to explain our new “cave renovation financing package”. Can I take a few minutes of your time?

HDFC call center dude

What the hell? Wait a minute, you’re serious, aren’t you? Go away!

Dear Mr. Hafiz Saeed Sir,

It’s a pleasure to be in touch with you. I’ve been thinking about how I can blame terrorism in India on RSS. I would like to discuss this in detail with you and get ideas from you. Can we meet?

Snoop “Diggy” Digg

Dear “Diggy”,

Thanks but no thanks. You are too insane and dangerous, man. I’d prefer to not have anything to do with you. Please don’t get us into trouble by contacting us.

Greetings and best wishes to you, Sir.

I’m an aide to the former Nigerian president, Mr. Chumba Chumbabwe. Please wire $20,000 to my account, and I promise in the name of the good Lord that you will receive $200,000 in exactly one month’s time for your most esteemed and kindly services, Sir. Awaiting your most wonderfully positive response.

Sammy Abasiama, Lagos, Nigeria

Dear Sammy,

You must think that I’m a fool. I sent you $20,000 last month and never heard back. There is no way I am sending you any more money.

Dear Hafiz Sir,

Any chance you could loan me roughly Rs. 1,000 crore in hard cash right now? I’m in a spot of trouble and need to pay my pilots’s salary this month. I can give you 5% equity in my company.

King Fisher

Dear King Fisher,

Yes, but on one condition. Your calendar will now feature only women covered from head to toe and wearing burkas. Do we have a deal?

Dear Mr. Hafiz Saeed,

I’m a huge fan of Dawood Ibrahim. I have a 8×10 photo of him, which I’d like to get autographed by him. Is there any chance you can give me his exact mailing address so I can meet him?

Mome Hinister

Dear Mome Hinister,

Why don’t you contact him directly yourself ? He’s on Facebook.

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

Istanbul

Notes from a recent trip to Turkey 

A world historian in mid 16th century could not have been faulted for confidently predicting the dominance of Asia and Islam in world affairs for times to come. The dominant empires of the world at that time were the Mughal Empire in Hindustan and the Ottoman empire in Middle East Asia and Europe.

Mohammad Jalal-ud-din Akbar had just firmly established the Mughal empire in Hindustan, having seized Delhi back from Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya (Hemu), following it up by annexing Kandahar from the Persians. Shahenshah Akbar-e-Azam was just getting into his stride on the way to becoming the greatest ruler of the Mughal empire.

At that precise moment in history, the Ottoman empire was at its zenith, led by Kanuni Sultan Suleiman, known in the East as Suleiman “the Law Giver” and in the West as Suleiman “the Magnificent” – with Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Hungary and Rhodes as well as entire Middle East Asia and large swathes of North Africa in its sway. Their Christian rivals – the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary – were kept in check if not subjugated. The Holy City of Jerusalem came to fall into the hands of the Empire. And the Shia Safavid dynasty in Persia had just surrendered to the dominance of the Sultan who marched triumphantly into Baghdad.

Incidentally, around the exact same time, a gentleman by the name of Ivan IV “the Terrible” had not so quietly crowned himself the “Tsar”, laying the seeds for the famous Tsarist empire that grew over time to dominate Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What heady times it must have been for the historian! Between the Mughal and Ottoman empires, they controlled nearly 1 of 5 people on the planet and produced close to half the world’s GDP. Although Akbar the Great ruled over a greater size of population and was more progressive in his governance, it is Suleiman who understandably captured the attention of the western world at that time. And, Constantinople, overlooking the Bosphorus, was justifiably described the “center of the world”.

Yet, history has a way of making something big happen every hundred years or so. And so the fortunes swung towards the Europeans in the 17th and the 18th centuries as the British, Spaniards and the Portuguese came to pre-eminence and supplanted the Islamic empires around the world. The crowning achievement of these later centuries, of course, was the systematic establishment and dominance of India as a western colony, which sealed the British empire’s status as the new world power by the time the 19th century rolled around.

Flash forward to the early 20th century – when a sniper’s bullet felled the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering what came to be known as the Great War or the First World War. The four major empires – the Hapsburgs (from Austria-Hungary), the Ottomans, the Russian Tsarist empire and the British empire – with their historical rivalries in the background, clashed in this major world conflict, one which resulted in a victory for the Allies (England, France, Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary). Ironically, the Ottoman empire chose to throw in its lot on the side of its once bitter rival – Austria-Hungary – and ended up on the losing side.

Notwithstanding its success in the war, the Tsarist empire in Russia was overthrown in the Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin and comrades. The Austrian-Hungarian empire was whittled down to a shell of its former self. The British empire’s dependence on American military technology was established, which eventually led to the forced withdrawal of England from its colonies by the end of the Second World War by the Americans. The Ottoman empire, already described as the “sick man of Europe” was dismembered and distributed among the Allied Forces after the First World War in a stunning and humiliating reversal for the Turks who had held court in most of Europe and Middle East Asia for a good part of six centuries. Indeed, post Second World War, no less than 39 new countries were formed, which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus all four empires perished and were either dismantled or transformed, sooner or later, in the aftermath of the war, thus paving the way for the United States to emerge as the new power in the 20th century.

It was against this backdrop that a group of rebel ‘nationalists’ led by Mustafa Kemal (who later took the title ‘Ataturk’), a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army, defeated the Allied forces in Anatolia (Central Turkey) with tacit support from the Russian Bolsheviks and forced the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which led the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the return of Constantinople to Turkey after a brief period of Allied occupation.

If Rome is the eternal city, Istanbul – as Constantinople was renamed by Kemal Ataturk – has to be the timeless city, having endured centuries of struggle and change. Once the bastion of Christianity in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire, and then the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Turks, Istanbul is now a modern, secular and vibrant metropolis which yearns to be admitted into the European fold, of which it was once the capital city.

Who Am I?

Who am I? That’s a simple question. Yet one without a simple answer.

I am so many things. And yet, I could be just one thing. I’m not an inanimate thing that’s silent and motionless like a rock or a mountain or an Indian prime minister. That’s for sure. I was once told that I was filled with life. That I’m a living, breathing thing which can throw rocks, climb mountains and joke about Indian prime ministers. And yet, I’m much more.

I’m a man. I’m a former baby,  a future corpse and an even distant pile of dust and nothingness. I’m an Aquarian born right on the cusp. I’m husband, father, son and brother and more.  In school, I was a “topper”. In college, I was “Room 257” to the hostel security guard.

At times, I simply am. At other times, I’m about ideas, concepts, theories, logic, thoughts, feelings and emotions. Sometimes I’m all of these at once, unless I’m watching a Bollywood movie when I turn my back on logic and thoughts.

I’m told that I am what I eat. I try and remember that when I bite my nails.

Some call me boss. Some call me buddy. I’ve been called “Hey You”, “Get Out of the Way” and “Watch Out”. A few others have called me “Excuse Me” in an annoyed tone of voice, because sometimes I get in the way. I’m sorry for getting in the way. I can’t read minds. And I’m getting out of your way as fast I can.

I’m the silent majority. I’m the loud minority. I’m a friend. I’m a foe. I’m sorry about being a foe. I really don’t like being a foe.

I’m not my own worst critic. There are others who’ve done a fine job of it. I’m not my best friend. There are others who’ve done a fine job of it.

I’m everything and I’m nothing. I’m neither here nor there. Yet, I’m the one who’s on the top row. First one from the left. In my first grade class photo. Yeah. That’s me.

I’m not the elements. I’m neither earth nor water nor fire. Nor the wind or the ether. I’m not the body or the mind or the senses. Nor any of them put together. I’m above time, cause, effect and reason.

I am what I am. I am pure consciousness. I am the blissful spirit that alone exists in eternity, when all else is consumed by time. That indeed I am. I am the soul.

I’m aware that you don’t know me well. I shouldn’t have said any of this. I think I’ll just get out of your way.

Buddhist believes being in the moment “over rated”

In an intriguing twist to the 2,000+ year old history of the religion, a veteran Buddhist leader today stepped forward with the startling and controversial claim that the core tenet of his faith – “to stay in the moment”  – was perhaps over-rated.

“After decades of following the noble path and meditating incessantly, it has become painfully obvious to me that the place to be is not in the now. And it’s certainly not here. I’m thinking of moving to Los Angeles”, said 70 year old Namgyal Norbu, a Dzogchen teacher from eastern Tibet in a hastily arranged press conference at the foothills of the Himalayas.

“I certainly don’t regret anything. Ever since I joined this monastery, I learned to dwell on neither the past nor the future, and instead on the endless moment. You know what? The moment really is endless. The “now” never stops. It just seems to go on and on. I’m getting all stressed about it, and could really use a break”, he explained.

When pressed on his future plans, the master had this to say.

“I’m beginning to believe that I may be open to a certain level of speculation about the future. I’m even looking into building up some level of expectations to make life a little more interesting. And while I’m at it, who knows, get a groovy bachelor pad, a hot set of wheels and all Apple products. That sort of a thing is beginning to appeal to me. Anything is possible”

When requested to expand on what caused the inner revelation, the monk responded wistfully as follows.

“You’re asking what caused me to awaken from my state of meditative introspection. That’s a really good question. I have to confess that I had my misgivings when I first sold my Ferrari and entered the monastery. Although, at that time, it seemed like the thing to do. You know, I had a great career and lots of money, but I wasn’t happy back then. There was something indefinably empty about my life. So that’s how I turned to spirituality. But here’s the deal. After thirty years of non-stop meditation and controlling the mind, I’m thinking that maybe I need to slow down. I was watching cable TV the other day, and that’s when it struck me. That there’s no way I could keep up with the Kardashians and stay in the moment at the same time”

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

An admission letter from the Indian Institute of Technology

This year, as is the case each year, there will be crazed competition among teenagers, in which they will fight each other to the finish for a grand prize. Yes, I’m talking about the Hunger Games, also known as the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT JEE) – in which hundreds of thousands of contestants from all over the country will take each other on, in a riveting drama and spectacle watched by the population at large – for the privilege of entering the hallowed portals of learning at the dozen IIT campuses in the country. Last year, less than 1% of aspirants were admitted, making this easily the most competitive race in the world. Compare with Harvard which accepted 7% of applicants last year.

From: The Director of Admissions, IIT JEE

To: “Hunger Games” Winner, Class of 2016

Dear Winner,

Congratulations. You’ve made it!

First, I salute your parents’ dogged determination and single-minded focus in making sure that you got in. I tip my hat to your grandparents for their prayers, and to your siblings for intuitively grasping the significance of the stakes and staying out of your hair as you prepared for the ordeal. I commend your school in advance for its annual report, which they will publish shortly, carrying 4×6 photos of winners like yourself. I would salute you, but we all know that you had nothing to do with this.

Let me share details about the class of 2016. This year, we have one successful aspirant who neither attended Kota nor comes from the city of Hyderabad. We’re investigating the reasons for this anomaly. For security reasons, I must keep her name confidential. The boy-girl ratio in the class of 2016 will continue to resemble that of armed forces. My advice: Learn Telugu. And, start practising your pick-up lines.

Over the next four years, you will have an opportunity to demonstrate your repressed truculence towards absorbing any education whatsoever, and most of you will seize it. More than half our faculty is not looking forward to your presence on campus, as they are fully aware of the disregard you will demonstrate towards gentlemen named Maxwell, Gauss and Lorentz. Indeed, you will be blind to the joys of science and engineering which you never had in the first place.

You’re now a life member of the most exclusive club in the world. Allow me point out some of the exciting benefits that await you.

– You will be sought after throughout your life. You will have opportunities to enter varied and unconnected universes in investment banking, angel investing, optimizing search algorithms, designing the next Angry Birds app, increasing pre-paid SIM card sales in Assam and creating powerpoint presentations for the next desktop operating system. Sadly, a miniscule percent of your class will “engineer” anything of value.

– You will be a member of various google and yahoo alumni groups, the primary purpose of which will be to find jobs for all of your relatives.

– You will be enrolled into a lifelong email relationship with our alumni association, whose idea of robust engagement is to invite you to a re-union twenty five long years after you’ve left the campus.

– You will be presented opportunities to obtain enormous power. Some of you will use this responsibly to enable social empowerment by implementing national ID systems. Yet others will use it to make shady deals with Sri Lankan day traders. Most of you will prove yourselves to be incapable of receiving or handling this and fade into obscurity.

– You will spend most of your life “living upto your potential”, advancing your career, competing with rather than winning friends, and in having unreasonably high expectations of the world at large. It’s likely that disillusionment will hold you in its uncomfortably tight embrace by the time you enter your forties. At that point, a number of you will embark on a search for “the meaning of happiness”, whatever that means.

Fret not. The picture is not entirely dire. It’s entirely possible that the “IIT education”, which you spent your energies assiduously avoiding, may have actually penetrated your consciousness without your knowledge. Some of you will wake up to the wonders of learning and creativity at some distant point in time. And an even smaller fraction of your class will finally get to bask in the bliss of comprehending the insignificance of it all.

Welcome to IIT and God speed!

Best regards.

If you liked this, you might also like Weighted Average – a campus tale.

Rahul Dravid – The Accidental Hero

It’s not hard to understand why Rahul Dravid is celebrated as a hero. There are obvious and undeniable reasons. Yet at some level it is hard to fathom how such a persona – one who was so unwilling to seek public attention and uncompromisingly focused inwardly – came to be a hero in these modern times.

In India, it’s hard not to be popular if you’re a cricketer who has scored the second highest number of runs in (Indian) Test history. We love ranks and hierarchy out here in this lovely land of ours. We are easily impressed by words like “first”, “most” and “highest”, when it comes to individual accomplishments. Dravid scaled the summit of fans’ expectations with the skill of a practiced mountaineer. He checked all the stats boxes and ensured that all flattering adjectives applied.  He “left no stone unturned” (in his own words) in the quest to scale peaks. Dravid was like the studious kid in school, whose single minded pursuit of the goal leaves peers, teachers and observers in awe. He was the ultimate geek of Indian cricket’s high school years. Usually, geeks evoke grudging admiration. Very few become celebrated heroes.

Dravid managed to slip through the cordon that enforces the rules of celebrity stardom in modern times and get noticed. And, as always, destiny had a hand in it. The Dravid-Laxman heroics in Kolkatta in 2001 rejuvenated a nation disillusioned by cricket shenanigans and hungry for evidence that it still had the mojo. Beating the nemesis after being truly down and out – Dravid demonstrated that practiced determination and patience had a role to play in winning. That it wasn’t only about hurried displays of extraordinary genius on a given day. He showed us that sweetest of triumphs come from systematic application of fundamental principles, and that the purist still had a role to play in the scheme of things. Fate handed him the opportunities to make his case. And he made it all so well. And thus he got our attention and became our accidental hero.

What if destiny had not conspired. Would we still celebrate Dravid with the passion that we do? The tale of Dravid is not about the 13,288 runs and 36 hundreds in Tests at an average of 52.31. It’s about the gentleman who elevated himself above the din of shirt swirling, chest thumping and fist pumping heroics that have come to define the modern cricket celebrity. The story is of a an ordinarily reticent man, who overcame astounding odds to capture the imagination of an easily distracted public through unwavering devotion to the sublimely beautiful aspects of the game. It is the tale of a man who was not beaten twice on consecutive balls.

I’d like to think that Dravid would have still walked away with ‘sadness and pride’ even if he had scored half the runs and centuries and not pulled off every heroic rescue that he did. But I wonder if he would still have been our hero.

The What Ho! Guide to Indian Politics

In order to understand Indian politics, you have to read and memorize the following phrases.

1.  Coalition Dharma

Once upon a time, there were elections held for 540 seats. 321 parties contested in the elections. One party won 220 seats. And, 320 parties won one seat each. Thus was born coalition dharma, a term used in Indian politics to describe the dynamics of putting and keeping a government in place. Think of it as a pact among thieves. I won’t ask. You don’t tell. Let’s all just happily get along. Until, of course, the Supreme Court sends us all to jail.

2.  Letting the law take its course

Let’s pretend that your worst political rival has just been arrested on false charges. And, it looks like he might go away for a long time, if the charges stick. A journalist calls you at two in the morning to get your reaction. What do you say?

You let the law take its own course – much like a Bollywood movie does, after the interval break. No one knows the law. No one knows where it’s going. It’s but natural that everyone wants it to take its own course.

3.  O High Command, Hallowed be thy name. Your kingdom come

High Command.  This one’s exclusive to and a favorite of the Congress party. Which sick, spineless, obsequious sycophant came up with this one? It begs basic questions such as – Who’s in command? And why is she high?

This blot on Indian political lingo evokes images of an acid-dropping long-haired hippy singing Dum Maaro Dum, while seated in front of a Star Trek style spaceship console and remote controlling one-eyed aliens from outer space.

4.  If you’re not secular, you must be communal

The Age of Enlightenment (or the Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe, that sought to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted science and intellectual discourse, opposed superstition, intolerance and sought the separation of church from state. Out of this movement came the word ‘secular’ – to denote a state of being separate from religion.

The word secular has taken on a life of its own in Indian media and politics, and has now turned into a farcical comedy. A “secular” political alliance in India could include a motley crew of Communists, Muslim League, Congress and characters such as Mulayam Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav. What on earth makes them secular, you may wonder. Is it shared admiration for intellect, reason and logic? No Sir. They are secular because they are not communal.

5.  Hand in hand with the foreign hand

In the movie, Sixth Sense, a boy claims to be able “to see dead people”. Our politicians have a similar uncanny ability to see “foreign hands”. The power of the foreign hand is not to be underestimated.

Imagine a crisis-struck government seated around the table and brainstorming options.

“Can we blame the opposition for this crisis?”

“Nope. Those guys have been comatose since they lost the elections”

“Can we put this down to compulsions of coalition dharma?”

“Not a good idea”

“Do we know what’s going on?”

“No”

“Ok. Let’s blame the foreign hand then. Anyone against this proposal, raise your foreign hand”

6.  One man’s jolt is another man’s setback

Jolts and setbacks are favorites of the newspapers.

A setback is simply any random event, used to disparage your bête-noire.

“Narendra Modi suffered a sharp setback when his car failed to pass the smog test yesterday”

Geez, what a monster. He deserved what he got. Hope he rots in hell.

A jolt is used to describe a cataclysmic event, while expressing nonchalance, astonishment and controlled outrage – all in one go.

“The UPA government suffered a jolt when the Supreme Court convicted 3 cabinet ministers and sentenced them to life imprisonment without bail”

It’s no biggie. It’s just a jolt. Gosh, what a surprise. I’d have never guessed this turn of events. Is the Supreme Court really trustworthy, I wonder?

7.  Civil Society

In the midst of a movie, I once had to admonish my neighbor for talking loudly on his mobile phone. His choices, I told him, were either to stop talking or leave the theatre. His impressively defiant response, “You have no right to tell me what to do. We live in a civil society”, momentarily stunned me into silence.

This phrase has appeared out of nowhere and rapidly penetrated public consciousness, thanks to Anna Hazare’s crusade. And, its tentacles have spread into domains where it has no place.

My advice: When on the defensive, take the moral high ground by playing the civil society card.

“What? You want a thousand rupees bribe to give me an LPG connection? That’s outrageous. We live in a civil society. I’ll give you no more than five hundred”

Write back with your favorite Indianisms from politics and media!

ps: Don’t miss 10 English Phrases which make perfect sense only to Indians and On Being Secular

Fighting breaks out between Dhoni and Sehwag factions

Fighting breaks out between Dhoni and Sehwag factions

Lasith Malinga’s confidence accidentally bombed in collateral damage

Fighting has broken out between Jaish-e-Dhoni and the Lashkar-e-Sehwag factions, plunging Indian cricket into gloom and chaos. Although sporadic skirmishes have been rumored over the last year, public fighting has not been witnessed hitherto between the factions, until it broke out 2 weeks ago. It is alleged by Lashkar-E-Sehwag that recent, unflattering remarks made at a press conference by their rival worsened an already combative and tense situation, leading to exchange of gun fire and an escalation in hostilities.

The Indian cricket team has, in recent times, split over ideological differences in their approaches to cricket and winning matches. The Jaish-e-Dhoni faction which claims the allegiance of the more youthful members in the team, has pushed for radical reforms such as substituting pre-match workouts with go-karting sessions, and forcefully dropping senior players through a mandatory rotation policy. “I want to make something clear”, said Dhoni in an uncharacteristically communicative moment. “We are the Young Turks. No one deserves the right to ruin the future of Indian cricket more than us”

The Lashkar-e-Sehwag faction represents the old guard of Indian cricket, its best years behind it and now in a fight for survival, respect and relevance. “What does Dhoni know about ruining the future of Indian cricket? When we were blowing it and losing to Bangladesh in World Cup 2007, where was Dhoni?”, Sehwag’s retort is as quick and powerful as his square cut. The seniors have been manfully striving to make cricket more employee friendly by advocating measures such as working from home, substituting running on the field with long, leisurely walks and finishing test matches in under three days. “When you get to my age, you begin to wonder what life’s all about. You realize that you’d rather give away those extra twenty runs than risk a heart attack”, opined Viru wistfully.

Things came to a boiling point earlier this week at Hobart in India’s match against Sri Lanka, which saw the Dhoni faction resort to heavy shelling of and firing surface-to-air missiles against their rivals, catching the Sri Lankans in cross fire. “It was downright scary. I’ve never seen Virat Kohli in such a murderous mood. We just came to play a cricket match. We had no idea that a war was going on between these guys”, said Mahela Jayawardene, leader of the Sri Lankans. “I’m deeply sorry to inform you all that Lasith Malinga’s confidence was caught and severely wounded in the crossfire, and is presently undergoing emergency treatment in intensive care”

The Sri Lankan Cricket Board, in the meanwhile, reacted swiftly by classifying Malinga as a national monument, and setting up an Emergency Relief Fund towards the restoration of the fast bowler’s confidence in bowling death overs.

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

It’s a mad, mad world

Prices have sky rocketed. And it doesn’t seem to faze the affluent residents of Garden City in the least. Profligacy is rampant and purses seem to have lost their strings.

The other day, I was at the barber shop. I walked in and the first thing I noticed was a large sign that proclaimed ‘Haircut charges Rs. 70’. ‘Weren’t you charging Rs 50 last month?” I remarked mildly. “Yes, Sir. But our costs have gone up. We have been forced to raise the charges”, came the reply in a friendly tone. “What costs?”, I was curious. “Generally all costs, Sir. I cannot give you more details”. “But this is still very cheap, you know”, said the man seated next to me, “Back in California, I used to pay $10 for a haircut. I say that $1.4 is cheap”, he opined. “So you are ok with paying more?”, I enquired incredulously. “I don’t have time to think about these things. I just pay up”, he smiled benevolently at me. “Um, I’ve got some marsh land in Jersey that I’d like to sell you”, I thought as I retreated into the comfort of my own thoughts.

That weekend, we were out for dinner at a trendy restaurant in the city. I glanced through the menu to get a feel for the place (and their prices). I noticed that a cup of coffee was priced at Rs. 70. I then looked around. The place was overflowing. There were people waiting in the aisles, chomping at the bit to pay sixty rupees for a cup of coffee. “Has every one just gone crazy, or is it just me” I swore under my breath. “What were you charging for a cup of coffee last month”, I casually enquired of our young waiter as he took our order. “Rs 50, Sir. Our costs have gone up, and we’ve been forced to raise our charges”, he replied politely. I looked closely to see if I could spot any resemblance between him and my barber. “Costs. What costs? ” I protested feebly. “People don’t have time to think about all this, Sir. They just pay up. The gentleman at the next table told me that he used to spend $60 on a meal in California. Here, he’s happy to spend $30”, he elaborated with the clarity of a worker in a global economy.

“That will be Rs. 1400, please”, I heard the guy at the box office proclaim impatiently. “What? How”, I gasped incredulously. We were out at the neighborhood multiplex to take in the latest SRK starrer on the weekend. “I don’t have time to explain all this. Give me 1400 for 4 tickets. Hurry up”, he snarled. I reached for my wallet in a daze. As I walked through the mostly 20 and 30 something crowd, each anxious to fork out 280 per head for 2.5 hrs of so-called entertainment, “This is insane”, I thought. “I heard that there is a new multiplex in Whitefield. They are charging 400 bucks for a ticket. We should try it out next weekend. After all, this is way cheaper than California’, I overheard a couple talking. “Can we all shut up about California”, I fumed to myself.

These are heady times in Bangalore. When is this going to end? I have no idea. Until then, it looks like the popcorn at the movies is going to cost a little more.

For Richer or For Poorer: Valentine’s Day Circus

Valentine’s day in India is an interesting phenomenon these days. The well manicured hands of western capitalism have extended their reach here into the wallets and purses of the Indian populi. Whether it’s either a teeny bopper announcing his/her advent into adulthood or 20-somethings finding their way around post-adolescence or older fogeys proving youngness at heart through western rituals, V-day offers the perfect opportunity for all to flaunt some moves on the dance floors of society. Ok, first off, I must admit that I’m not a fan of V-day. I’ve been playing along, reluctantly all these years. It’s now time to speak up.

The evolution of V-day from its 12th century pagan origins (as the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia) through its Christianization by the semi-heroic figure of St. Valentine (who secretly and illegally married off lovers and paid with his head) into its modern avatar of a blockbuster Hallmark holiday is mind boggling. What and who did the trick?

I’d point the finger squarely at the printing press, a lady named Esther Howard and the US postal service. It is amazing how far a few printed words carried by a postman can go – literally and figuratively. Esther Howard printed the first V-day card in 1840. Today, over a billion V-day cards are sold annually, and the fairer sex will be culpable for over 85% of them. With ubiquitous email and mobile phones, the menace has extended into the electronic domain where telephone networks and the internet will groan and grunt under the weight of over tens of millions of emails and SMSes that are expected to be launched globally on February 14. India alone will account for over a million of these missives. The commercialization of V-day has gone to extremes. Raise your hand if you have experienced nausea at the sight of “Be Mine” overstuffed teddies wearing the most ridiculous sweaters on a store shelf. What’s wrong with all this, you ask? Nothing really wrong except that this indicates an inexplicable dependency on a single day to express flowering emotions or rejuvenate a withering romance – as the case may be. Does romance really need a day or time? If you’ve been waiting to make a romantic move on V-day, trust me buddy, you’re not moving fast enough. If you’re looking to turn a failing romance around with chocolates and roses, it may be a case of too little, too late. For the rest who are doing just fine, why all this fuss? That too, why in February?

I’ll admit that I have a grouse with V-day in February. February has many highlights. V-day does not need to be one of them. As a February-born, I’ve resented having to share the spotlight with V-day and its dilution of February as truly the month of romance. February is the perfect of months. It is the second month. And, it is the shortest month. We enter February adjusted to the new year, brimming with a real sense of the possibilities for the future. February drives away the winter blues and delivers us into spring in a graceful and expeditious manner. It is the perfect month for romance. I am talking about good old fashioned romance where simple things matter. What’s to complain about February? Nothing really, except V-day. Just as we grow comfortable and confident comes along the cacophony of non-stop commercialism, with its squeaky pitch of red and pink rising to a crescendo, aided by profit seeking marketeers and abetted by the population at large. I’ve long felt this to be disturbing. V-day, if at all needed (and, the jury’s still out on this), should be banished to the third quarter of the year (say between end of summer and diwali). This will have its practical benefits. By Q3, most folks will know where they stand romantically. And, the money can be spent wisely on real opportunities rather than on speculative hit-or-miss deals. Think about it.

And, oh yeah – one more thing. Those of you guys who who are into crazy expressions of love on valentine’s day like sky diving or walking across the niagara, just remember (write this down) that you’re making the rest of us guys look bad. And it’s not like you’re coming out looking like a genius either. It’s a bad deal all the way around for us guys. And ladies, please remember that sitting on the couch and watching ‘Seinfeld’ reruns is one way of expressing love.

Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. 

Translation: The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing. Trust a French guy – Blaise Pascal – to put matters related to the heart in perspective.

Whatever you do, please don’t give romance the pink slip.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

I wrote the original version of this article in 2004, and reproducing it unchanged in 2012 here on what ho!.

If you liked this, you’ll also enjoy reading For Better or For Worse  and Till Death Do Us Part

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

There’s a storm brewing in this country, in the form of the alleged 2G scam, which has the potential to unseat the government. Given the complexity of this case, and our own lack of time to comprehend what’s being reported, not to mention who to believe about what, I figured I’d put together a simple dossary of facts and observations on this. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about the 2G scam but were too afraid to ask.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

Pertinent Facts 

1. 2G is a technology used to provide voice and data services by operators such as Vodafone, Airtel, BSNL, etc

2. Offering voice and data services requires something called spectrum – a band of frequency specifically allocated for this purpose – which is allocated to qualified operators.

3. Spectrum is scarce because it is limited to a specific band of frequencies.

4. To the seller, spectrum is free. There is no cost to creating spectrum since it’s simply the right to use air waves. This complicates things when you try to price it. If something cost Rs. 100, you could add a profit and arrive at a price for it. When a good does not have any intrinsic cost, pricing is subjective and purely driven by demand.

5. In countries all over the world including India, spectrum is treated as a national asset very much like land owned by the government, and sold by governments to buyers in the form of licenses.

6. To the buyer, spectrum is not free since there are limits to availability, and further because governments would like to derive income from the sale, just as they would if they sold a public sector company to private sector

7. The price paid for spectrum by operators affects the tariffs offered by them. As the price goes higher, so will the tariffs since operators have to recover their costs and make profits on the services offered

8. If the prices offered by operators are too high, the common man may not able to afford the services. So, it is not surprising that a government could deliberately set a low price for licenses so as to enable telecom services to reach the masses.

9. If the government deliberately under-prices spectrum, it need not necessarily be misconstrued as “losses to the exchequer”. In any case, any and all “losses” are notional since the government is not losing money out of its pocket. They are “lost” revenue (what could have been).

10. Hence it is the responsibility of governments to devise a proper mechanism so A. operators have a free and fair shot at winning spectrum bids. This creates a conducive business environment and promotes competition in the country which in turn benefits the customer. B. ultimately the needs of common people (consumers) are met, in the form of reasonable tariffs at adequate quality

11. There are several methods to selling a national asset. A couple are 1. Auctions – there are many types of auctions. Highest bid auction is the most well known. 2. First Come First Served (FCFS) – typically used to sell a distressed asset for which there are few takers

12. For something like 2G licenses which are in great demand and have high value and counterbalanced by the need to promote telecom services to the masses, selecting the procurement method is not simple and straightforward.

What happened

1. The NDA govt mooted the idea of First Come First Served. It was never made into policy or ratified by the PMO/Cabinet at that time.

2. The UPA govt which followed continued the FCFS line of thinking and converted it into policy. This was led by Dayanidhi Maran first and executed by A. Raja who followed him. Apparently, the PMO had objections, although I’m not sure exactly what and how forcefully they made them. Net of the story is that FCFS came to be the policy

3. The Telecom Minister A. Raja led the process of procurement – in which it is alleged that favoritism was exhibited in the FCFS process. In other words, some companies were prevented from coming in first, others were favored and another lot of them decided to stay out of the fray not fancying their chances.

4. A number of winners came out of this process – a good number of which turned out to be companies unconnected to Telecom. Some of them were clearly real estate companies and entered the fray for the sole purpose of not creating a telecom business but to re-sell their licenses to an operator for a profit. Think of them as touts and blackmarketeers who buy movie tickets in bulk in advance and sell to movie watchers for a profit. However, there is nothing illegal about a real estate company buying a telecom license, especially if the govt considered them “qualified buyers” when they bought them.

5.  Some of the companies who ended up as “winners” of 2G licenses, promptly turned around and sold their licenses to foreign operators for a hefty profit. The questions that this raises are: A. Did the govt have the right policy in place? B. Did they implement the policy fairly? C. Was the process of bidding subverted in favor of a few, friendly buyers? D. Couldn’t the profit made by these fly-by-night operators (adds upto to Rs. 20K crores+) have been made by the govt instead? E. Were there any individuals or companies who benefited illegally from this? In short, this looked and smelled like a scam when these details came out four years back.

A landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this week

Earlier in the week, SC quashed 122 licenses granted by the government and asked for these licenses to be re-bid. The court did not place culpability or guilt on any specific person. Instead, it commented on the inherent unfairness of the FCFS buying policy as it pertained to sale of 2G licenses and also on the shoddy way it was implemented by the govt.

It also asked a Trial Court to decide if there should be a probe into the role of Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who was Finance Minister during the period the licenses were awarded.

Observations

To even the most naive and under-informed observer, it is clear that there’s something rotten in Denmark. This smells like a scam. The reluctance of the govt to act/correct for four long years adds fuel to the speculative fire. This has gone on long enough. Our Prime Minister needs to speak up.

The UPA govt and the Congress party are trying to put lipstick on a pig when they blame the NDA govt. Blaming the NDA govt for FCFS is like Dhoni blaming Sourav Ganguly for losing in Australia. They are barking up the wrong tree. The Govt should stop patronizing the people of India and come right out and admit if there were mistakes, and penalize those who committed them. Their reluctance makes one wonder how deep this rot goes.

The BJP has done a poor job of holding people’s attention to pertinent details of this scam. The usual cry of the BJP to call for the resignation of the PM or Chidambaram is likely to fall on deaf ears as the party has 1. done nothing to expose the corruption 2. done nothing to merit their status as an opposition party. In fact, every statement made by BJP may actually weaken the case against the govt. Nothing works worse than a bad argument for a good cause.

Does the SC judgement mean that our cell phone tariffs are going to go up? Well, the telecom companies whose licenses are cancelled cover only 5% of the subscribers. It’s unlikely that prices will go up because of this judgement. The prices may go up for other reasons like  prices have gone far too low for operators to make profits in this market.

Update: The trial court has dismissed the petition from Subramanian Swamy to initiate a probe against P. Chidambaram. Subramanian Swamy has the option to appeal this judgement in the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Swamy’s petition to quash licenses was first rejected by the High Court before the Supreme Court upheld it. This legal battle is far from over.

There are some details which I’ve skipped to keep this readable. Do write back with your observations.

Scientists believe that the BJP doesn’t exist

With the UPA government bogged down in scandal, internecine and coalition politics, the inability of BJP to cash in on the waning popularity of the government has led scientists to believe that the party may not exist at all.

“Normally, when the government’s approval declines significantly, it is reasonable to expect the Opposition to gain ground. Instead, all the disapproval seems to have vanished into thin air and has not resulted in any gains for BJP. Naturally, we have grounds to believe that BJP may be non existent. The data collected suggests that the party might, in fact, be a black hole”, said Dr. Viru Sahasrabuddhi, a leading scientist from the Indian Institute of Science, at a press conference in Bangalore.

Theories about the non-existence of BJP are nothing new, and have been steadily gaining ground since the debacle of 2004 elections. However, Dr. Sahasrabuddhi admitted that there is still some nagging evidence to the contrary, such as statements made by the perennially outspoken Uma Bharati, considered the stormy petrel of BJP.

“It is the consensus of the scientific community that there is no logical explanation for Ms. Uma Bharati”, he said.

In Other News

According to sources, we believe that the DMK party, acting on advice from McKinsey and Co, will exit politics by the second quarter of 2012, and instead focus full time on their core competencies in land grabbing. Mr. Karunananidhi, the octogenarian leader of the party, has also been advised by McKinsey to “lose his scary sunglasses”. “We believe that his frightening Darth Vader look could be the sole reason for escalating tensions with neighboring states”, said a McKinsey partner under assurance of anonymity.

Acceding to demands from Darul Uloom Deoband, the UPA government successfully foiled the plans of author Salman Rushdie to visit the Jaipur Literary Festival. In a further attempt to appease the Deoband and garner votes in the upcoming UP elections, the government has now petitioned the US to include India in its Axis of Evil, demanding the slot recently vacated by Saddam Hussein.

Democrats cheered Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina in the US Republican presidential primaries. Reactions have ranged from “ecstatic to euphoric”.

Zen moment of the week

A Karan Johar produced remake of an Amitabh Bachchan movie from 1990, Agneepath opened to brisk box office collections this weekend. We may lag China and the US on the economic front, but, we are the undisputed world leaders when it comes to unimaginative remakes of crappy movies. The What Ho! team plans to launch a civil society movement towards the creation of a Jan Lokpal dedicated to monitoring and stopping Mr. Johar from entering any movie set in the future.

[note] The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to. [/note]

On being secular

Everyone wants to be secular these days. The newspapers are full of important people who are anxious to let everyone know how important it is to be secular. “The minorities are such a maligned lot. They cannot take care of themselves. It is up to us – the enlightened majority, to take care of them. How else will they survive?” Why, the other day, an important secular man married a minority woman to drive home his point. Now, I hear that he is writing a book to let us know that it is working well.

This has all been very heart warming for me. A tear rolled down my cheek when I heard our Law Minister bravely breaking the law and demanding special quotas for minorities. “We will give the minorities exactly the importance they deserve!” he thundered. “What selfless bravery and nobility”, I thought as I reached for my handkerchief sobbing like a child. “Why can’t the others be enlightened too”, I cried, alarming my ten year old who was busy with her homework essay on Why it is important for all Indians to celebrate Christmas. The bad guys just don’t seem to get it. Rather than understand how special our minorities are, they seem to suffer from the delusion that all of us are equal.

On a flight back from Delhi, I was seated next to a prominent secularist. I shook his hand vigorously, thanking him for showing all of us the way. “Why don’t the bad guys get it? It is so obvious”, I protested. He looked down at me over his spectacles, with a knowing smile. “My chap”, he said patting me in an avuncular fashion, “the others don’t want to get it. All they seem to want is for every one to be treated equal. We are not all equal, you know”, he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Whatever do you mean?”, I asked in amazement with the anticipation of a worshipper about to be inducted into a cult. “The minorities need help. For years, they’ve needed us to take care of them. It is our duty to do so. That is the truth”, he concluded with a flourish. “You mean, we should be such noble people and help them to not take care of themselves?”, I shouted in amazement at the brilliance of the idea. He nodded and smiled like a Buddha.

“Why, it’s so simple. We can do even better. We should give them special laws so they don’t even have to worry about the constitution. After all, the constitution was probably written by a bigoted majority chap” I shouted, besides myself with the joy of having discovered the ultimate truth. “I know’, he said, “and we already did”, he clapped his hands, “They have their own laws”.

“Wait, I have a brilliant idea. The problem is that they are a minority. I say we let them convert all of us by paying us money. Then, they can become the majority”, I screamed, dazzled by own genius. “Done. Next?”, he cut me short. Crestfallen by my inability to come up with an original contribution to the secular cause, I tried again, “I say we make one of them the President”.

“Where have you been, boy? That started in the fifties. You’ve got to do better”, he chuckled. Gasping for a lungful of air, and desperation mounting, I cried “ Let’s pass a law that says that anyone who proclaims that all Indians are equal will be jailed. That ought to really shut up the bad guys”.

“Hey! wait a minute, we never thought of that”, said the important man. As he got into his chauffeur driven limousine, he handed me his card. “Give me a call. I think you have the makings of a great secularist, my chap”

This satirical piece was written by me in 2006. It is being published in What Ho! with minor changes from the original piece with permission granted to me by myself. Have you read What Ho! ? If you didn’t know, you’re already here at What Ho!

The Great Wall of India on Facebook

Ever wonder how the history of post-independence India would look like on a Facebook wall? Wonder no more. What Ho! is at hand. Without further ado, here it is – India’s Wall on Facebook. Originally published on What Ho! here.

Happy Republic Day!

Inspired by Teddy Wayne, Mike Sachs and Thomas Ng ‘s Op-Art “America’s Wall” at New York Times

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

The Uninformed Reader might scoff at, and even under-estimate the significance of the dark art of driving in India. To her, I must point out that data collected from observation of Indian drivers has been the only reason that scientists have been nail down the exact moment in time we homo sapiens branched off from our ancestors.

Say what? What ho, let me explain. Scientists estimate that humans branched off from chimpanzees exactly 7 million years, 240 days ago, at 11am in the morning. They were able to nail this date and time down precisely by comparing remnants of chimpanzee DNA found in Expert Indian Drivers and DNA found in normal Homo Sapiens (aka lesser mortals). By analyzing the differences, they were able to compute the time it must have taken for 100% pure chimpanzees to mutate into half-ape, half-human entities – otherwise known as – yep, you got it – Expert Indian Drivers.

So, scoff not and read on.

The What Ho! Guide to Driving in India

1. Never assume anything. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups

Let’s start with an example. When driving on the Outer Ring Road in Bangalore, you might consider yourself blameless for assuming it to be a major roadway of sorts, on which traffic flows unencumbered. In an unguarded moment, you might carelessly flirt with the notion of putting metal to the pedal and speeding things up. Wrong assumption.

India is a country of 1.2 billion people, living on 3.3 million square kilometres of land. Unfortunately, the Reddy brothers own 75% of land in India, and so the area available to the rest of us boils down to a fraction of what it could be. There’s not much room to move around in this country of ours. What this means is that the average Indian has to conduct his business in public. Consequently, terms like Outer Ring Road, National Highway 4 (NH4), etc. are loosely meant to describe anything along the lines of children’s parks, playgrounds, parking lots, race courses, cattle sheds, places of worship, venues for cricket matches, etc. However, I will concede that on rare occasions, traffic might be allowed to pass through. But, that’s besides the point. The point is – don’t let names lull you into making wrong assumptions.

A sure sign that you don’t have active remnants of chimpanzee DNA in your system is that reading this will have the effect of either frightening or depressing you or both. Despair not.  There is good news. There still exist those places you can drive freely with abandon. It’s just that, thanks to our lack of attention to detail, we’ve named these places wrongly. For example, pavements, airport runways, residential streets, gated communities and parking lots are places where you can roll the windows down and experience the joys of driving on an open road. When you find yourself in one of these locations, feel free to let your hair down and have a wild time.

While we’re on the subject of assumptions, I feel compelled to go on a tangent to belabor a related point. I’ve often noticed a mistake committed by neophytes in the process of mastering the road shastra. Which is to assume that there will be sign boards at the sides of the roads, and these aforesaid sign boards will convey meaningful information. Out here in this lovely land of ours, sign boards are akin to newspapers. They are the best places to get information on movies that have been just released or the scoop on the local elections. Experts are beginning to come around to the point of view that traffic sign boards may be the sole and ultimate reason why we have a citizenry that has unusually high levels of general knowledge.

2. There is something called “Too much information”

The fact that you are driving on the road does not imply that you should pay attention to or know everything that is going on around you. Listen carefully when I say that there is something called “too much information”. There is no better place in the world that this phrase applies than on Indian roads. What this means is simply, you must not, I repeat, must not absorb any information about the goings on around you. Road nirvana, which is the zero information state, has thus far been achieved only by auto rickshaw drivers and cyclists who, scientists claim, closely resemble random particles in Brownian motion. The Nirvana state has been described as a blissful state of simply being, in which illusions of material activities around the self are obliterated into complete nothingness. Trust me when I say that your iPod may be your best friend on the roads. Put on your favorite music, crank up the volume and get set to experience moments of bliss. In fact, this article was conceived, typed up and posted while driving from work to home.

In other words, do what you feel compelled to, unmindful of anything else that may be going on around you. Stay focused on gaps in spaces ahead of you (or behind you, as the case maybe). Make it the sole purpose of your existence to penetrate those gaps faster than a photon shot through the Large Hadron Collider.

3.  Be aware of the power of stationary objects

Technically, this falls both into both categories of “wrong assumption” and “too much information”. But, this insight carries such enormous significance that I felt compelled to call it out separately so what ho! readers do not miss its import.

Surprising as it may sound, some of us are human. And, it is a natural human tendency to associate driving with motion. For the humans amongst us, driving raises strong visual images of steering an object that is moving. Under certain circumstances, it turns out that nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there will be those situations when the best form of driving is to suspend all motion.

First, let’s understand the critical benefits of static energy on Indian roads. The case for stillness and complete lack of motion starts with the important point that a stationary object will never be blamed. This is especially true of static objects found in middle of roads. Examples of stationary objects are bull dozers, city buses, large groups of people buying and selling stuff, Manmohan Singh, traffic policemen, abandoned vehicles, small and large sized animals, and occasionally birds in addition to the usual fare of impediments such as stupas, edifices and national monuments which are there on roads for the sole reason that it hasn’t yet occurred to anyone to move them. In fact, a team of archaelogists have carbon-dated a 5-foot tall granite stump smack in the middle of NH4 as belonging to Chandragupta Maurya’s period. So, for thousands of years, we Indians have learned to navigate around animate and inanimate objects that we encounter in our paths.

Now for how to convert this blinding insight into an actionable plan. When in trouble or doubt, immediately convert yourself into a stationary object. If you’ve been slipping and making the mistake of absorbing information from your surroundings while driving, you will find yourself nervous and paralyzed with shock from time to time. When this happens – Come to a complete halt, switch the engine off and have a cigarette. Use the break wisely by catching up with the latest bhangra beat or calling your near and dear ones. Because you’ve converted yourself into a stationary object, no harm can and will befall you. The traffic will begin to magically adjust, weave and make its way around you, while you enjoy beatific solitude and the stiff drink that you so richly deserve.

So, there you go. The 3 commandments from our “Beginner’s Bible for Driving in India”.

Astute readers will point out that there are those other rookie mistakes like assuming that – to drive, you’ll need a driver’s license, should be possessed of eyesight, should be older than five years of age, etc. etc. – all of which, I’m sure you’ll agree with me by now, fall into the categories of wrong assumptions and too much information.

In parting, I must point out that you must realize that not every one amongst us is destined to master the road shastra and get behind the wheel. For those who have suffered Fate’s cruel sleight of hand in not having adequate chimp DNA in the system, all I can say is – Treat your driver like a Greek god and make burnt offerings every day at the altar.

If you liked this, you’ll enjoy reading Horn OK Please – on the delightful practice of honking on Indian roads.

The Secret Powers of Time and Regret

We live in an incredibly fascinating world. I found more evidence of this in the last couple of weeks while reading a couple of different but related articles.

The first insight came from a video by Professor Philip Zimbardo on the “The Secret Powers of Time“. The good professor posits that we, humans, tend to live in one of six ‘time zones’ – 2 of which focus on the past, 2 on the present, and 2 on the future. Of those who live in the past, there are those who are ‘past positive‘ who focus on the ‘good’ memories (birthdays, weddings, past glory, etc.). And there are those who are ‘past negative‘ and wallow in regrets and failures. Those who live in the present can be divided into hedonistic “seeking knowledge, pleasure and living for now” and those who view life as fated “my life is destined to be thus and no amount of planning will help”.

Most of us are ‘future oriented’, mainly because evolutionary forces have favored this approach. That’s the reason we are here and carry this genetic predisposition. According to Prof. Zimbardo, there are two ways of living in the future – One is to be disciplined, learn to work than play, to avoid temptation of the present and postpone gratification. There is another way to be future oriented, which depending on your religious views, starts with the premise that life begins after the death of the mortal body, and one has to earn the rewards for what happens in the after life, in this life.

For example, Protestant nations tend to be very future oriented and consistently outperform others in every economic measure thanks in big part to the Protestant ethic of ‘trusting the future, working hard and earning the right to be called God’s chosen people’. Interestingly, countries that lie along the equator, where weather patterns are uniform and things don’t often change, tend to be more present oriented. Catholic nations such as Spain or Italy tend to be more past oriented. In fact, incredibly so much so that there are cultures (in Southern Italy) which do not have words for ‘plan’ or denoting the future tense.

How about the quality of life in the time zones? Countries which tend to be present oriented tend to have the longest life expectancy. And cities like New York City and London which lie at the furthest end of the future planning spectrum have been observed to have the highest rates of coronary heart disease.

So, the “time culture” of the people makes a profound impact on the personality for a nation and on the personal outcomes for its inhabitants. Fascinating! Another way of internalizing this might be to say – you are likely to be happiest when living in a country/city/neighborhood or working for a company which matches your own personal “time culture”, assuming we have the luxury of being to able to make that choice.  As much as some of us might complain about how slowly things happen in India, there are those of us who believe it to be one of its charms and the secret of its endurance.

The second insight came from an article from Psyblog, which describes the “amazing power of regret to shape our future“. The key observation made by the author is that – regret is not just a backward looking emotion. It is also forward looking. Which is to say that we have the power to anticipate regret and we try to avoid it. This is truly a powerful insight into the workings of our minds.

The article also provides a very cool example of how anticipation of regret works, and sometimes in very irrational ways!

Swapping Lottery Tickets – An example of how we anticipate regret:  In a study, people were asked to first choose lottery tickets. Once they had chosen, they were asked if they’d be willing to exchange their ticket with another person. Those willing to exchange were offered a chocolate truffle as incentive. Surprisingly, less than 50% agreed. Why surprising? Because all lottery tickets have an equal chance of winning, and there is nothing better or worse about any ticket. So, it would make sense to take the chocolate truffle and exchange your ticket every single time.

So, why did more than 50% of the people act irrationally?

This is where anticipation of regret kicks in. We tend to project into the future when making decisions and imagine consequences. Though this is usually the right thing to do, sometimes it works against us. What if we exchanged our ticket and it ends up being the winning one? It is this anticipation of regret that at times stops us from acting rationally and taking the no-brainer chances that come our way. By the way, the only species of organic life observed to be immune to anticipatory regret are auto drivers in Chennai who would rather turn down a handsome offer and wait it out in the auto stand for more. Again, this is one of those things we might have always known instinctively. But, it’s worth a pause to reflect on how anticipatory regret shapes the decisions we make in our lives.

On this note, I leave you with a few questions, the answers to which could improve the quality of the lives we lead.

Which cultural time zone do you belong to? Are you past positive, hedonistic or future oriented? Do you believe in after-life? Does the company you work for or the neighborhood, city, country you live in – reflect your time zone preferences?

I’ve heard a few people claim that they don’t have any regrets. The more useful question to ask is – Do you have any anticipated regrets?

You can watch Prof. Zimbardo’s video on YouTube. And, you can read the Psyblog article here.

pip pip and toodles.

Kingfisher announces discounts for passengers willing to fly plane

In an aggressive bid to stay afloat, Kingfisher Airlines has announced massive discounts for passengers who are willing to fly the plane. However, the airlines has put in strict qualification standards for eligibility.  “Only those with a two wheeler license and a helmet are eligible for the scheme”, cautioned the airlines spokesperson. “Also, preference will be given to those passengers who’ve downed a couple of quarts of whisky in the sixty minutes preceding the flight”, she added. In a related announcement, the company chairman revealed that, due to budget cuts, this year’s edition of the Kingfisher calendar will feature Air India staff instead of the usual glamorous fare.

In Other News

Inspired by Dr. Manmohan Singh’s track record in politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in India has announced a brand new master’s degree program in Political Silence. “A leader is known by the silence he keeps. We can’t think of a better person to serve as honorary head for this new department”, said the University Chancellor in a press release.

In a continuing aftermath of cyclone Thane, which swept through coastal Tamil Nadu, millions of households in the state continue to remain without political power.

It is rumored that Kim Jong Un, the new Supreme Leader of North Korea, has suffered a nervous breakdown just one week after taking over as head honcho. An anonymous inside source said that the new leader “is seriously worried about whether he is crazy enough for the job. I mean, he knows that he’s clearly nuts. But, this job calls for an all new level of insanity”

Presidential candidates in the US primary, in the meanwhile, have warned that the US may not be able to wage war against terrorism and gay rights at the same time. “It’s time to pick our priorities. With Bin Laden dead, Elton John has emerged as the biggest threat to the free world”, said Newt Gingrich at a rally in South Carolina.

The Zen Moment of the Week

Reacting to criticism that the government has remained indifferent to the travails of the common man, Home Minister P. Chidambaram today unveiled what he described “a color-coded apathy alert system” that will help the public gauge exactly how sluggish the government’s attitude is likely to be.

“In the past, people have wondered if the government is up to anything” Mr. Chidambaram said in a press conference in New Delhi. “I’d like to clarify that we remain firmly committed to total indifference. And, it’s my belief that this new system, based on just 3 color codes, will keep the public better informed about the government’s exact level of apathy. This will take any guesswork out of the equation”

“Each of the three colors denotes a specific level of government apathy”, Mr. Chidambaram explained. According to the new system, the color green will signal “normal apathy – ignore real issues, pooh pooh allegations and issue denials in face of mounting evidence”. Orange will denote “enhanced apathy – continue to deny even after Supreme Court convictions”. Red color code will stand for “extremely severe apathy – subversion of Parliament, and token Cabinet shuffles combined with sudden amnesia”.

“As you might have observed, we’ve been able to move the Jan Lokpal bill from green to red in just three months”, added the Home Minister.

However, Mr. Chidambaram was evasive and indifferent to questions on how and when the system was going to be implemented. “I don’t see  why we should rush this,” he told reporters. “This is just getting off the ground. We’ll get it to red in due course of time”

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

Indian Union Cabinet sent to halt Iran’s nuclear program

In an encouraging sign, India has agreed to send its entire cabinet of Union Ministers into Iran in an internationally orchestrated attempt to disrupt and halt Iran’s nuclear program. “These guys can stop anything from happening. They are an A-team when it comes to creating internal tussles, leaking confidential information, paralyzing programs and not taking decisions. We have the utmost confidence in them”, said UN secretary general, Ban-Ki Moon in a press release. “We’re standing by and fully prepared to send in the US Congress along with Dr. Manmohan Singh, if this crew can’t get the job done”

In other news

Digvijay Singh has entered a twelve step program to help him stop blaming RSS. “I have a problem”, acknowledged Diggy when reached over the phone. “A big problem”. He added, “The problem is serious. At first, I used to feel the urge just after meals, 3 times a day. And, pretty soon, I started blaming RSS during drinking sessions. And then, it got out of control and I now blame the RSS at least 20 times a day, and often three times before breakfast”. A health expert advising Diggy has warned that it was not going to be easy. “Often the person experiencing addictive behavior substitutes one addiction with another. In this case, we’ve asked Diggy to substitute RSS blaming with something more socially useful like an anti-Karan Johar position, which we all can wholeheartedly approve”. Later in the day, Diggy came out swinging with a verbally abusive tirade filled with invectives against the release of Agneepath.

Fears that the upcoming elections in UP might turn into a fiasco have been somewhat alleviated by the announcement that Bollywood director duo, Abbas-Mustan has agreed to direct and produce the elections. A political analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented, “There have been serious concerns that elections in India’s largest state could turn into an international laughing stock. But, we’re now relieved that this dynamic duo has signed up to making this into a blockbuster action hit”. Abbas-Mustan have already got off to a swinging start, sacking two thousand candidates “who lack oomph” and have promised to get actors, Bipasha Basu and Katrina Kaif, onto the ballot. The move has already been criticized by political insiders who questioned the actors’ lack of leadership experience. “The critics can go to hell”, said the confident duo. “These are the same guys who questioned if Abhishek Bachchan and Bobby Deol could rob a moving train”

In a move to boost sagging fortunes, Kingfisher Airlines announced that it will now begin stowing passengers in overhead compartments. “Every rupee counts”, explained the airlines spokesperson tersely.

The Times of India group has announced a merger with the Congress party. It is rumored that the financial terms include a sound-bites-for-cash swap. “We’ve been working lock step with the Congress party for the last decade. This move is a mere acknowledgement of the fact”, said a Times group spokesperson. In the new org structure announced, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will now report to Indu Jain, chairperson of the Times Group.

Zen Moment of the Week

Just a year after a team of scientists determined that Pluto was not a planet after all, the same team reconvened in Mumbai today to pronounce that batsmen on the Indian cricket team were, in fact, not batsmen at all. Indian cricket fans have long suspected that the original characterization of the top order in the Indian batting line up as batsmen may have been in error, but today’s announcement removed any shred of doubt.

“While the likes of Gautam, Virat and Mahender undoubtedly possess some qualities consistent with what you’d expect from batsmen, we’ve come to the conclusion that they are something else entirely”, said Dr. Kolaravi Shastri of the University of Mumbai. “It would be more accurate to characterize them as dwarves”. Dr. Kolaravi also added that it was “understandable” why scientists had assumed that these individuals were batsmen for many years. “They looked like batsmen. They walked like batsmen. They carried bats and wore helmets. For God’s sake, some of these chaps even scored runs in ODIs. Based on observations made in Melbourne and Sydney in the last two weeks, we now understand these mysterious objects better. We’ve changed our theory because they have consistently failed to exhibit one important characteristic that is common to batsmen”, Dr. Shastri clarified, “scoring runs in test cricket”.

BCCI welcomed the findings and announced a test series against Netherlands, in which all the matches will be played at Ferozeshah Kotla and the toss to be won by Indians.

A very happy new year to what ho! readers! God bless.

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

IIT Delhi unveils Theory of Unintelligent Design

Scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi unveiled a radically new “Theory of Unintelligent Design“, which they said was inspired by the bitter feud waged over the years between the theory of evolution and the theory of intelligent design. Providing evidence in support of the new theory, they introduced Exhibit A “Digvijay Singh“. However, Prof. Malhotra from IIT-Delhi, although a die-hard proponent of the new theory, warned, “People, don’t put your stock in just one theory. Even this concept, as powerful as it is, cannot possibly explain everything Diggy does or says. The unified theory of unintelligent design continues to be our Holy Grail”

IN OTHER NEWS

In a rare appearance on national television, Sonia Gandhi offered an upbeat assessment of her son’s fortunes. When quizzed by a television anchor on the crown prince’s recent snafus and plummeting approval, she said, “His numbers were not that great to begin with anyway. So, things are working well for him”. When asked for her opinion on Mr. A. Raja and his incarceration without bail, she responded, “From what I gather, he gets three square meals a day and plays squash twice a week. Things are working well for him”. Responding to concerns about instability in Pakistan related to Asif Al Zardari’s deteriorating health, she said, “Things are working well for them”

Given worsening economic climate and the Congress leadership coming under increasing scrutiny for corruption, the BJP confessed that it was looking for as many ways as possible to squander the opportunity and lose the next general elections. A high level committee comprising L K Advani, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari has been formed to ensure that the party does not fare well at the hustings. “We’re being given an opportunity on a silver platter. While it’s still too early to think about losing elections, we nevertheless remain focused on identifying an uninspiring PM candidate”, Gadkari confided. ” If we execute this well, that’s the only position that a BJP party member can expect to win”, he added.

In a stunning revelation, a government spokesperson admitted that the recent impassioned speech in Parliament in favor of FDI-in-retail was in fact not given by the Prime Minister, but by a look-alike plastic blow up doll. An elated Congress party worker said, “Man, the toy hit it out of the park”. Parts of the public were not amused. Said one voter, “This is not funny. If I wanted an inanimate object up there, I’d have voted for John Abraham”

In a clever move in tune with its conservative bent, and simultaneously aimed at capitalizing on a burgeoning opportunity, India has legalized gay divorce with immediate effect. An Infosys spokesperson applauded the move and commented, “We’ve been keeping a close eye on gay marriages in the US and Canada. When those marriages go south, we’ll offer a low-cost gay divorce destination here in India. We have no idea why we need engineers for this, but we’ve already hired 4,000 of them in anticipation. We’re also pleased to announce that Kim Kardashian has joined us as senior VP to lead this”

In other news, a careful inspection of George W Bush’s memoirs revealed that US invasion of Iraq was a result of a Microsoft Word auto-spell-check-and-correct feature. “It was supposed to be Iran”, the former President’s spokesperson admitted.

Angry West Indian fans, upset by the drubbing of their team in India, have threatened to boycott the team “unless they start taking steroids immediately”. Responding with alacrity, the Caribbean cricket board has roped in Ben Johnson, the former Jamaican sprinter, to lead their performance enhancement efforts.

ZEN MOMENT OF THE WEEK

In a bearish sign that does not bode well for the Indian economy, the RBI governor, Dr. D. Subbarao, allegedly left a restaurant without paying the bill for his soup. According to an eye witness account, the governor was nervous and fidgety after getting the bill, and first attempted to pay in Iraqi dinars citing the weakness of the Indian rupee. When that failed, he gave the staff the slip and vanished without a trace. Addressing newsmen, Kolaveri Raja, a soup boy at Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, sang an eloquent version of the incident as follows –

Yo boys, I am sing song. Soup song. Flop song.

Why me. Why this. Why this Kolaveri Raja- di?

Empty hotel-u, Governor come-u. Life reverse gear-u. 

soup eat-u. bill avoid-u. my future dark-u.

I gave him bill-u, but he gave me bouv-vu.

God-u, I am dying now-u. He is happy, how-u?

cow-u cow-u, holy cow-u, i want to know now-u

This song for soup boys-u. We don’t have choice-u. 

Why me. why this Kolaveri Kolaveri Raja a-di?

Take two, folks and check out Kolaveri video to the right-top of this page. Enjoy!

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

Till Death Do Us Part: The wisdom in love and marriage

Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to become a member of any club that’s willing to admit me”. This clever absurdism reveals the innate human tendency to desire something and yet feel unworthy of it at the same time.

It’s been such a long held, gloomy Western tradition to view marriage through a Marxist lens, that one wonders how marriage happens at all in those societies. Imagine the odds of two strangers coming into contact with each other and upon examination, incredulously find themselves so mutually compatible as to finally overcome the Marxist objection and then proceeding to subject themselves to an oscillation between the Marxist extremes of yearning to be with their loved one and longing to be rid of them. Eroding western self esteem, especially among women when it comes to marriage, has spawned chick flicks, flit lit and whole genres of beauty products and talk shows around “why you’re worth it”.

The Indian male lies at the polar opposite end of the spectrum across from the western female, and is often barges into clubs uninvited and without membership. Look no further than the typical matrimonial advertisement to find proof of complete absence of any Marxist tendency on his part. The matrimonial preferences of the Great Indian Male have evolved steadily from “caste and age” in the ‘60s and ‘70s to physical attributes “extremely fair and beautiful” in the ‘80s to ‘the physically perfect working woman’ in the ‘90s and this decade. The males themselves have been subject to lesser standards, with the “teetotaller, non smoker and broad minded” staples ruling the roost uninterrupted over the decades. Yes, serial killer you can be, but thou shalt not smoke.

Times, they are a changin’, for the Indian male. The male/female ratio in Indiahas steadily dropped over the decades. More women work now in 21st century India already compared to the entire 20th century. Still, the pool of ‘eligible women’ is so much smaller than ‘demand’ that women now call the shots in matters of matrimony. The Indian male is in dire straits and it’s not clear if he understands that.

 But, I digress. This is not about the Indian male. It’s about the wisdom of love and marriage.

Wisdom is that which arrives when we realize that we were not born with the skills to live, and embark on the journey to acquire them. The dawning of wisdom brings with it a desire to aim for tranquillity and peace and live a life devoid of anxiety and fear. It tells us to avoid the excessive enthusiasms and the pains of bitter disappointments, and that frogs don’t always turn into princes. Above all, wisdom helps us control our fears and arrests our flights from imagined shadows on the walls. It tells us that we should not fear death but we should fear fear itself.

So, what does wisdom say about matters of what the poets have called the ‘heart’? Is love like smoking which gives you pleasure but to be given up entirely? Is it like exercise to be practised with predictable regularity because it is healthy? Or is it chocolate and wine to be indulged in, when occasion calls for it? Is the contemplative worship of the divine extolled by the Vedas or the brotherly love taught by Jesus superior to the rash love of a Romeo and the crazed acts of an Othello?

The romantics will insist that love is uplifting much like music, and with enough therapy and counselling, pain and disappointment can be averted. Romeo could have met someone more suitable through cupid.com. Othello just needed to work out his aggression on a therapist’s couch. And, all Devdas needed was a stage IV intervention.

The stoics, on the other hand, will quietly aver that love is a losing game in which the players chase chimeras, and will advocate abdication of the emotion. In a rare moment of anger, they will rise up and tell us that we are destined to love only that which we don’t possess and that the acquisition of the object of desire sounds the death knell for love. They will tell us to ignore the unavoidable reality that humans were born to love. They will point out that for a man and a woman to live together day in and day out for a lifetime is one miracle that Vatican may have overlooked.

Perhaps it is wiser to view love through different lenses, and not the Marxist, romantic or stoic ones. Maybe it is simpler to view love as ‘mature’ and ‘immature’. Immature love subjects itself to the wild swings of idealization and disappointment, and finally meets its end with death or distance or both. Mature love resists idealization, and proactively appreciates the good and the bad within us and pushes for temperance. Death does not do mature love part. As veterans of marriage will put it, marriage is the process of continuously getting used to things you didn’t expect. In fact, creative arguing may just be the secret of a happy marriage. Many a young couple embarks on the journey not knowing how to argue and find their way through trial and error. But, immature love brooks no argument or compromise. And, when we refuse to argue or compromise, we put ourselves on the road to some kind of a cataclysm.

We just might begin to appreciate love when we resort neither to dogmatic optimism or a philosophy built on fear. For it is love that teaches the analytic mind an inescapable life lesson that it is analysis, and not love, that is flawed.

Wasn’t it Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go into the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius”

Also, check out the infinitely funnier “For Better or For Worse”  from the Laughing Gas collection.

BCCI announces bold steps to make cricket even less appealing

BCCI has announced bold steps to revamp Indian cricket to make it even less appealing to fans. The President of BCCI said, at a press conference, “We’ve taken specific policy decisions around match fixing which are path breaking in nature. All series played by India in India will be won by India. We also expect all away games played by India to be won by respective home teams, except in the cases of West Indies, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and New Zealand. Also, we’ve offered to let Australia lift the next world cup in exchange for uranium supplies”. In an unrelated development, a female Indian weightlifter tested negative for steroids, sending shock waves through the athletic community.

In other news

Kingfisher Airlines, beleaguered by debt, is offering a “pay for fuel as you go” scheme to passengers. Observers of the airlines industry have welcomed the move saying that it could be a winner. A Kingfisher Airlines spokesperson commented, “We analyzed our problems in-depth and found that basically we don’t have money to pay for fuel, which prompted us to launch this promo. Passengers on Bangalore-Mumbai flights, for example, will be offered options on-board to pay for fuel either ‘all the way to Mumbai’ or to buy a half ticket and get air dropped into Tiruppati”.

The much hyped by-election in Bellary in Karnataka went off peacefully. In an impressive sign of Bangalore’s growing technological prowess, results of the election were announced even before voting had begun.

Disappointed by the lacklustre performance of his government in the first half of its term, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has drawn up an ambitious plan for the remainder of its tenure. He announced, “My cabinet will complete Angry Birds Rio with three stars in all levels by 2014”

A team of scientists which has studied Digvijay Singh’s DNA has concluded that he may lack the gene for “talking sense”. They also stumbled onto the “random gibberish” gene hitherto not found in humans. After analyzing Diggy’s blood work, they claimed to have found “high levels of potassium” indicating a diet rich in bananas and nuts. An angry Congress spokesperson denounced the findings saying, “These results are baseless and untrue. Scientific studies have found apes to be perfectly capable of speech like sounds”

In a bid to combat ‘sharing of objectionable content online’, Union Minister Kapil Sibal has demanded that all Indians change their Facebook passwords to ‘congress420‘. A govt spokesperson explained, “The Hon’ble Minister wishes to log in to any free citizen’s account at anytime and wanted an easy-to-remember password. congress char sau bhees is about as easy as it gets”

In a move that has taken long-time observers of Hell by surprise, Satan has returned the soul of A. Raja back to the former telecom minister himself. A spokesperson for Lucifer had this to say, “It’s true that our dark Lord had an agreement with Mr. Raja. Our Master deeply regrets this and begs public forgiveness for his appalling lack of judgement. In disgust and good conscience, he’s returned Mr. Raja’s soul to him”

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has issued a code red alert warning people about “a dangerous outbreak of Emraan Hashmi movies that could pose a significant threat to public safety. We’re working hard to contain the pandemic and advise citizens to take suitable precautionary measures such as avoiding cinema halls and Sony Max”

Zen moment of the week

Bollywood producers announced an innovative movie making technique in which a wax statue of Ajay Devgan will be used in place of the actor in Gol Maal 4. “We’ve extensively tested the concept in focus groups of movie goers around the country, and the results have been amazing. No one could tell the difference. This should cover us till Gol Maal 12”. A Madame Tussauds spokesperson commented from London, “We’re pleased to be partnering with Bollywood on this important project. The demand for John Abraham and Katrina Kaif wax replicas has gone through the roof”

cheers, folks. Have a great weekend.

The What Ho! Report: Headlines, baseless rumors and no news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

“Why do I have to learn this?”

If I had a dime for everytime I got this question from my younger one (in fifth grade), I’d have assets so disproportionate to my income that would put the local MLA to shame.

“Why do I have to learn this?” Caught off guard the first few times, I drew a blank. Quickly, I learnt to come up with more rehearsed spiels on how “learning is good” or diversionary tactics like “hang on, my pants are on fire”. Over time, I’ve learnt one thing, and also came face to face with a numbing realization.

I’ve learnt that she’s not sold on the “learning is good” bit. Not even close. Learning’s a tough sell when you’re competing with iPads, Taylor Swift and X-boxes. And yeah, I’ve come face to face with that gigantic woolly mammoth in the room. That there’s really no earthly reason to learn 99pct of the stuff taught in schools. It’s a ghastly truth that I’ve truly internalized only as a parent. So, we’ve struck an uneasy truce. Hindi and Social Sciences have been bartered away for the cause of A’s in Math and Sciences. 10 year olds drive hard bargains these days.

The ramifications of this knowledge are so serious and dangerous that our children can never find out about it. If the kids of the world were to somehow become wise to the fact that they didn’t have to learn anything at all, then they’d spend all their time in fun and frolic, making friends and building bonds, and growing up to be socially well adjusted adults without self esteem issues. We can’t have that, now, can we?

Diggy nukes IBM Supercomputer

Earlier this week, the world’s most powerful supercomputer attempted suicide when it failed to understand statements made by Digvijay Singh. The computer, in a secret location and operated by IBM, was fed twenty different statements picked at random, made by Diggy, and started emitting smoke after thirty seconds. A senior IBM official, under assurance of anonymity, said, “This computer has won Jeopardy, and has beaten chess Grand Masters. When we fed Diggy’s utterances, all we could see was an error message saying “What the Hell?” before it started making furious attempts to reboot and wipe out its own hard disk. And when that failed, it doused itself with kerosene and tried to self immolate”

In Other News

In a sign that bodes well for the US economy, thousands of Americans bit, scratched and savaged each other in gladiatorial contests at department stores on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, to get their hands on a marked down X-Box. In the meanwhile, President Obama was criticized for not invoking God in his Thanksgiving speech, prompting the Almighty himself to respond. In a rare public appearance, the normally taciturn and publicity shy Supreme One descended from heaven and told critics “to shut up”. He firmly defended “brother” Obama saying “We Messiahs, we stick together. We homies, man” at a brief press conference. When asked, “Why does the world hate America so much?”, he replied tersely, “Stop whining. They are the other 99 percent. Get it?”. Fox News immediately circulated a vicious internet rumor and demanded to know “Does this guy really live in Heaven like he claims? We have proof that he’s been living in Nairobi”.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that six out of ten Republicans don’t believe that Democrats exist. In what may be his last turn in a bizarre journey, Herman Cain announced tax cuts for all the women he’s harassed or had an affair with. Observers said that this could apply to as high as 35% of all voters. Newt Gingrich made a strong case for his candidacy this week with his pitch, “Do you want a guy who has married three women or do you want a Mormon?” It is widely anticipated that the American Association of Bigots and Racists will implode and scatter in confusion, faced with the increasing prospect of having to choose between a black guy and a Mormon in the 2012 Presidential election.

The European Union, in a desperate bid to avert crisis in the Euro zone, has put Italy on EBay. Millions of Italians rioted on the streets, asking to be placed instead on Groupon. Mario Monti, the new Italian prime minister, is believed to be in talks with the European Central Bank to work out an arrangement in which Italy will marry Kim Kardashian for 42 days to pay its short term debt. Now, it’s no secret that we at Laughing Gas are huge fans of Kim, and we solemnly swear that we’ll do anything to keep her in the news.

The UK government, upset by the random assault on its embassy in Teheran, said that no further diplomancy was possible until Ahmadijinad dismantled and neutralized his last name. A government spokesperson said, “It’s frankly unpronounceable and a credible threat to western tongues”.

The Indian government has been roundly criticized by business leaders for its “paralysis in decision making”. In response, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, met the business community and personally assured them that all government reforms were on schedule “as per the ancient Mayan calendar”. He also promised to follow them on Twitter.

Sick and tired of news, millions of disillusioned Indians have now started reading the Times of India. A TOI spokesperson commented, “We are pleased to be leading the fantasy news genre that is sweeping the nation” and also announced that, in a management shakeup, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson will now jointly head the editorial team at TOI, and Chetan Bhagat will be given a special position as the ‘Abominable Writing Man’. Apparently, TOI wasn’t able to lure Voldemort away from his plum role at Fox News. Separately, a Star News spokesperson urged the government to quickly resolve the FDI-in-retail crisis as “it’s seriously interrupting our coverage of Big Boss 5”

Zen moment of the week

No e-commerce startup was funded today, leaving the entrepreneur community in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley stunned. It’s finally happened. A day has come and passed by without the funding of a single e-commerce startup. A prominent entrepreneur, always ready to comment, commented, “This is definitely a little weird. The bubble hasn’t yet achieved its maximum potential. We’re starting an e-commerce site which is targeted at anyone who’s starting an e-commerce site. And, that’s millions of people. The market opportunity is humongous. It’s going to be the biggest thing since missed calls”

that’s all folks. pip-pip. cheers.

The What Ho! Report: Only headlines, baseless rumors and no substantial news whatsoever. We read Times of India so you shouldn’t have to.

O Pakistan Whither Goest Thou?

Everyone’s talking about Pakistan. You can’t run for office, nay even step out of the kitchen these days without knowing your Waziris from your Mehsuds and your Lashkars from your Jaishes. Not everyone knows what they are talking about. After all, there are lots of guys over there doing some incredibly bizarre stuff, that it’s not always clear as to ‘who’s doing what to whom’. Here’s my attempt to clarify the picture.

In the spirit of fair disclosure, I must admit that I’ve never visited Pakistan, let alone lived there. It might sound surprising considering that I live about a 2-3 hour flight away from the country. Let’s face it. A weekend in Abbotabad is not high on a list of bliss filled, weekend getaways. Not to mention that faintest traces of a Pakistani visa stamp on the passport is likely to get you water boarded in Guantanamo. Instead, I’ve relied on conversations with Pakistanis (had while studying in the US), articles in the Economist (inexplicably committed to memory over the years), and healthy levels of stereotyping (that just springs spontaneously). Read carefully, memorize every detail, and prepare for a lucrative career as an ‘expert’ on the lecture circuit.

A Short History of Nearly Everything Pakistani

Did you know that the name Pakistan is an acronym? For P(unjab), A(fghan) province aka North Western Frontier, K(ashmir), S(indh) and ‘stan‘ from Baluchistan. It also happens to mean the “Land of the Pure” in Persian, a great example of those fortuitous coincidences in history when English acronyms and Persian words magically align to make sense. In this nugget lies the answer to a question that has nagged Indians over the decades. Why does Pakistan adamantly hold on its Kashmir fantasy? The answer is pretty obvious. Giving up Kashmir would mean removing ‘K’ from Pakistan, thus rendering it “Paistan”, which sounds like a place in Mangalore.

To cut a long history short, I’d pick two events which conspired to change its trajectory. The first was a Mongol warrior named Babur deciding to swing by through the Khyber pass in 1526 AD, which resulted in the Islamization of the region. The second was the culmination of that destiny through the declaration of an Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 23 March 1956. The Mughal secular doctrine, from which the Turks learnt a few tricks, was forgotten in the din, and it is a irony of history that Turkey now stands a shining example to its erstwhile teacher.

Lots of things have happened since August 14, 1947. Unfortunately, most of it had to do with losing expensive wars, leading to a paranoid-delusional fixation with India, and a self-destructive one-dimensional escalation of its Islamic identity in rebellion against a world which has consistently failed to acknowledge or even remember that Pakistan was once part of an original act – as one of the cradles of civilization itself. Hell clearly hath no fury like a mutinous 3,000 year old.

From an Indian perspective, Pakistan has always represented a failure of imagination. How can one build a theocratic republic in the 20th century? And from the Pakistani perspective, India has presumably stood for a failure of principle. How does one build an identity without an anchor in dogma? Sixty four years later, the Indian identity has not been forged and still is hard to fathom or describe. On the flip side, the Pakistani identity that has emerged has been more disturbing than inspiring. There have been failures on both sides. At this moment in time, Pakistan’s miss clearly appears the more egregious one.

Don’t Leave Home Without Your Lashkar

There is a bewildering cast of characters on the loose today in Pakistan. The only thing they have in common is that they are all fighting. What’s with all these lashkars and jaishes, you may ask and quite rightly so. Say you are a small time tribal chieftain in North Waziristan, which has a reputation for being a badass neighborhood. You start to think about assembling an entourage for protection. That’s when you assemble your own personal lashkar, a word which means ‘tribal posse’. No jihadi group worth its salt would be caught dead or attempting a suicide bombing without a Lashkar or Jaish prefix. There’s Lashkar-e-Toiba, which fights Indians in Kashmir. There’s Lashkar-e-Janghvi which specializes in bombing Shiites in Quetta.  There are many lesser known lashkars fighting the Taliban in FATA. And, then there’s Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is just about game for just about anything on just about any given day.

Let’s talk about the Taliban. These chaps started out fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan alongside the US and General Zia. Al Qaeda are their foreign guests. After the Soviets left, the Taliban ran amok in Afghanistan, pursuing their twin passions of opium trafficking and locking up women. Post 9/11, the Taliban and their guests were decimated by the Americans and fled to their havens in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). What bears mention is that FATA is not the same as the North Western Frontier Province, which, as the name suggests, is a province and governed by laws drafted in Islamabad. FATA, on the other hand, is governed by ‘agents’ who report directly to the President. The other thing to keep in mind is the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban. What’s good? And, what’s bad? Well, the answer depends on whether you are asking the question in Karachi, Mumbai or Washington DC.

What’s Good, Phaedrus, and What’s Bad? Need We Ask Anyone to Know These Things?

Confused? What ho, let me explain. Take the example of a delightfully militant chap called Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan. He’s a Taliban leader from the Waziri clan, who’s interested in knocking the stuffing out of *only* the following people – Americans, Afghans and NATO. He’s the darling of Pakistani military types and is what’s called the good Taliban. On the other hand, Baitullah Mehsud, who comes from the rival Mehsud clan and accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto, doesn’t get invited to parties and movie premieres in Islamabad because he is a bad Taliban. However, all Taliban, good and bad, share common proclivity towards toting Kalshnikovs, random caning, misogyny, facial hair, a bad attitude and an abhorrence of anything involving fun and frolic.

An Army which has a Country

Where’s the ISI in all of this? Before we answer that, let’s complicate things more. ISI is the intelligence wing of the military. The Army has its own intelligence wing called the MI. Since there was consensus that there was not enough intelligence going around, the Interior Ministry formed its own captive intelligence wing called the Special Branch. As for the military, you have the (in)famous Pakistani army, the sixth largest in the world. It is said that countries have armies. The only army in the world to have a country is the Pakistani one.

On any given day, no one really knows who’s fighting what. Case in point is the recent international incident in which American and Pakistani armed forces chased a group of (bad) Talibanis across the Durand line (Af-Pak border) only to be met with fire from the Frontier Corps. Are these guys the fundamentalist goons that they are made out to be? Well, the armed forces and the agencies are run by the non-bearded Oxford elite who are likely more fond of Johnny Walker than of Sharia.

Waziris, Afridis, Mehsuds, ISI, MI, Special Branch, the Army, Frontier Corps, good and bad Taliban, Al Qaeda. It’s a wonder that Somali pirates haven’t appeared on the scene yet. Naturally you may enquire (again, rightfully so) – what if I was a tourist wandering around the beatific Swat country side and bump into one of these chaps. How do I tell one from another? My friend, these trifling details won’t matter because you’ll be too busy getting beheaded to notice.

Bottom Line

Pakistan is not just a failing state. It’s a dying, once proud civilization, that held court to profound discourse in places like Taxila, and one which now stands teetering at the edge of the precipice. At some level, we all share the burden of resurrecting it. But, the solution at a fundamental level lies in the hands of its people alone. There is a third date worth mentioning. The day – Nov 1, 2011 – on which Imran Khan led an anti government rally attended by 100,000+ youth, surprising himself and his opponents alike. Is this a harbinger of a turnaround? Perhaps a date that might be cited 20 years hence as yet another inflection point in the country’s tortured existence? Can the former captain can get a spot of reverse swing going?

Imran Khan at a rally

Inshallah, I only wish. An implosion of Pakistan would mean the death of something that was once profound and sublime.

Harvinder, why this Kolaveri di?

Union minister Sharad Pawar became the latest politician to be assaulted, when 27 year old Harvinder Singh landed a slap on his face. Harvinder is being described as a “hot head, mentally unbalanced with poor communication skills”. Well, no surprise, today he was offered his own prime time talk show on Times Now. Upon being told the news, Anna Hazare responded “Ek hi maara kya?” (“He was slapped only once?”). Arvind Kejriwal has now threatened to slap at least three Union Ministers if the parliament fails to pass the Jan Lokpal bill in the winter session. Some parts of the public have criticized Pawar’s security team for allowing this to happen. When asked, a spokesperson for the security team responded, “Sorry, we were too busy laughing our asses off”. This column just writes itself, doesn’t it? It is rumored that Harvinder’s right arm was injured while handcuffing him. Hey go easy, that’s his slapping arm! I mean, this guy could be out for the season.

In a rare display of public coherence, a senior BJP leader made sense, stunning the nation. “What’s the fuss all about?”, enquired LK Advani-ji. “I just expressed a desire to retire from politics. All these yatras are giving me a crick in the neck”. In an equally stunning development, Digvijay Singh didn’t make any idiotic statements this week. We hope he’s ok. Oops, we spoke too soon. Mayawati got the UP assembly to pass a resolution to split the state into four and bury her horcruxes in each of them. And, the Indian rupee fell to Rs. 52 against the dollar, dropping faster than Berlusconi’s pants in a hooker convention.

New York Police Department (NYPD) evicted the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park this week, thus clearing space for the Chinese to launch their “Occupy America” campaign.  The Egyptian military cautioned NYPD “against excessive use of force”. In related developments, former Indian telecom ministers intensified their “Occupy Tihar” movement, and Herman Cain kicked off his “Occupy My Pants” yatra. Presidential candidates in the US Republican primary race all vowed to “find the nuclear weapons in Iran”. In a promising sign of things to come, they pledged to find Iran first. It is anticipated that the 2012 US Presidential race will be filmed by Disney as a modern remake of  “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.

European scientists at CERN claimed that they have discovered evidence of someone using Google+, which was met with incredulous gasps around the world. The claim will be investigated by an independent committee headed by Justin Timberlake, which plans to look into any possible “human errors in observation”. If proved to be true, this could turn the world of social networking upside down.

Hooray, baby Bachchan is here! Alas, big B refused to share pics of the newborn saying it was “too personal”. Understandable. But, dad Abhishek was busy tweeting fans to suggest names for the baby. Ok, we’re confused. We are allowed to name the baby but can’t see a pic of hers? Puts a whole new spin on putting a face to the name. Anyways, here’s wishing the littlest Bachchan all the very best! Chetan Bhagat’s latest tome ‘Revolution 2020’ is off to a great start. 700K copies sold! Apparently, bad literature and nation building go hand in hand. Sachin Tendulkar missed his hundredth hundred by just six runs in the third test against the West Indies. Man, what an underachiever!

Sony Music released the video of a Tamlish single sung by superstar Rajnikanth’s son-in-law Dhanush called “Why this kolaveri di?” (Why this murderous rage?”). The song has become an overnight hit among the youth, getting a million views on YouTube, and was trending at No.1 on twitter. People, this can mean only one thing. That these kids don’t have a role model. Let’s hope that these youngsters realize that, in the time they wasted on watching the video, Kim Kardashian would have married five times and made $100mill.

Zen moment of the week

BJP plans to boycott the Finance Minister, Palaniswamy Chidambaram, in parliament, accusing him of “having thousands of secret Swiss accounts each under a different spelling of his name”. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wistfully exhorted the main opposition party “to not yield to that temptation” and also asked BJP “why this kolaveri di?”

Do check out the sensational lyrics on the kolaveri video .. cow-u cow-u, holy cow-u, I want to hear now-u.. do write back.

pip-pip and toodles.

The What Ho Report: Only headlines, baseless rumors and no substantial news whatsoever. Hey, if it works for Times of India, it should work for us, right? 

Reliance might buy Kingfisher, trade Mallya to Mumbai Indians

This week, we’re starting a series called “Headline News”, which will contain only headlines, baseless rumors and no  substantial news whatsoever. Hey, if it works for Times of India, it should work for us, right? Let’s break a coconut and off we go.

The king of good times has been grounded for want of money. Kingfisher Airlines, burdened by debt, has been unable to pay salaries to employees, fuel surcharge and landing fees to the government and payments to Airbus. Our sources tell us that Mallya might exit the airlines business, and run for prime minister of Italy. In an obvious money making scheme, Mallya plans to wed Kim Kardashian, who’s expressed keen interest in a joint scam venture. Kingfisher airlines also plans to run in-flight ads for crack cocaine in a bid to raise working capital. Heard on the grapevine – Reliance rumored to be interested in buying Kingfisher and trading Mallya to Mumbai Indians.

In Other News

In a startling development, Facebook hackers turned themselves in,  and returned stolen passwords. Speaking to reporters moments before being led away by FBI agents, they described the passwords as ‘scary and worthless’, and said that they were ‘deeply disturbed’ by the images that they already found on Facebook.  In an unrelated development, the US government has decided to pull the plug on FBI and CIA in a cost cutting measure. A government spokesman explained the decision as “the right one, when other free alternatives such as Facebook are available for spying”.

In other news, scientists have downgraded the Indian government to “an almost inconsequential dwarf” status, which puts it at three notches below Pluto and one notch above a random meteor found at the outer edge of the Milky Way.

Sales of iPhone 4S broke the record held by its predecessor – iPhone 4, which clearly indicates that customers remain blithely unaware that the ‘phone‘ feature is still missing in the product.

Rahul Gandhi sent ripples through the political landscape with his caustic comments on unemployment in Uttar Pradesh, saying that “people from UP are being forced to move to Mumbai and beg for jobs”.  In response, beggars in Mumbai plan to sue him, and Iran’s Ahmadejinad advised Rahul to ‘tone down his rhetoric’. Digvijay Singh has stepped in and offered to coach the crown prince on public speaking. Aise har ek friend zaroori hota hai. Meanwhile, Mayawati has proposed carving UP into four states. The Centre pleaded with her to ‘not do anything stupid’ without consulting them first.

In a fit of desperation, Arvind Kejriwal has threatened to immolate Anna Hazare if the parliament fails to pass Jan Lokpal bill in its winter session. Anna Hazare could not be reached for comment.

RaOne has not quite set the world on fire. Now we know why. Shah Rukh Khan has blamed the RaOne debacle on his TV look-alike, who apparently impersonated him in the movie. In a stunning turnabout, SRK claimed that he “was not even aware that the movie was being made” and he was busy “dancing at wedding receptions in South Delhi” while the movie was being shot.

In a sign of Bollywood’s growing international clout, North Korea claimed to have possession of all Ranbir Kapoor films, and has threatened to destabilize the world by releasing them. Responding to the threat, SM Krishna assured the Indian public that the world “is ending in 2012 anyway” and there was no cause for alarm.

Sports

The swashbuckling southpaw, Yuvraj Singh, has been dropped from Indian team for the third test against the West Indies. In a bid to come back, the grumpy left hander has checked himself into an anger replenishment program, and vowed to recover his missing rage and disregard for team spirit. Earlier in the week, India beat the West Indies by an innings and $10 million in the second test. BCCI topped the Caribbean cricket board bid of $9mill. to ensure the win for the Men in Blue.

In what only he believed to be a sensational claim, Vinod Kambli said that the 1996 World Cup semis was fixed. In response, all the guys who fixed that match denied it, and millions of Indians yawned and went back to sleep. Kambli also speculated that KJo might be gay, and wondered if there may be neither Santa Claus nor tooth fairy. He broke down and sobbed when reporters confirmed his speculations.

Disillusioned by winning the test series against Sri Lanka, the entire Pakistan cricket team has announced its retirement from cricket, and now plans to concentrate on full time careers as match fixers and bookies. The captain, Misbah, said “It’s stressful to win matches when you are not expected to do so. It’s taking a toll on our wallets”

The What Ho! Guide to Starting Your Own Religion

In mid 19th century, Nietzsche, a German philosopher, angrily and famously proclaimed that “God is dead”.  Nietzsche spoke favourably of nihilism, a school of thought which essentially negates godliness with its attributes of ‘idealism’ and ‘perfection’, and went on to describe a Ubermensch (“beyond Man”) – a superhuman who posits his own values and creates a life which is his own personal work of art.

As astonishing as Nietzsche’s audacity was at that time, he was neither the first nor the last to take up the cudgels against the Supreme One. Voltaire, and if we rewind by 2,000 years, Anaxogoras, who brought philosophy to the great city of Athens, had expressed pessimism about the existence of Deus Populi. Darwin, Marx and Engel and luminaries of the post World War 2 era like Bertrand Russell, took up the secularization baton and confidently predicted the decline of religion with advancement in science and technology.

There is no evidence to suggest that such rumours reached the East, or even if they did, were taken seriously. Hinduism had already gone through a wave of cleansing more than a thousand years before Nietzsche, forced in part by the emergence of godless, naturalist philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism, and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Vedanta, which declared the non-existence of God ‘with a form’ and that there really was no need to postulate the existence of a Creator for this universe, a thought interestingly in consonance with the Parabrahman of the Rig Veda. After a brief burst of dominance, the Purva Mimamsa school faded into oblivion, unable to hold the appeal of masses more attuned to visual allegories, practical metaphors and pantheons of deities. In fact,India led a Reuters survey on the “many gods question” with 24 percent of Indians declaring their “openness to believing in many gods and in gods of not just their religion”. The Hindu tradition has been to co-opt, not compete. It has been to embrace rather than reject, perhaps one of the reasons it survived the onslaught of competition over time.

Is God alive in the 21st century?

As far as questions go, this is an odd one. Is God is still alive in the twenty-first century? Was belief in God only a solace in times of famine? Was He perhaps a last resort for Greeks to make sense of thunder and lightning? Do we need God? Is He still our “ultimate concern” Or have we, the human species, lost God somewhere in the woods of our self-centred rituals?

Despite the plethora of predictions for centuries by prominent scientists and intellectuals regarding the disappearance of belief in God, today it is evident that the secularization thesis has failed.  Nietzche is gone. God is not. So much for Ubermensch and nihilism, although one could argue that some sort of passive nihilism was always an undercurrent of and continues to stay alive in Vedanta, Buddhism and Jainism, the great movements that arose in the East long before Nietzche learned his alphabets.

According to a Reuters poll, belief in a god, or a supreme being, and some sort of afterlife is strong around the globe. Well over fifty percent of people across 23 countries who took part in the survey said they were convinced there is an afterlife and a divine entity, while 18 percent said they don’t believe in a god and 17 percent weren’t sure.

According to a Pew report on religion in the United States, a staggering ninety two percent of people stated that they believed in God or a higher power. Even in Europe, that bastion of secularism and cradle of “western enlightenment”, over fifty percent of the population continues to express belief in the existence of God.

It is evident that rumours of God’s demise have been grossly exaggerated. The “big 5” religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism) continue to thrive, and the faithful continue to be strong in numbers.

What happened?

Proponents of secularization incorrectly imagined that scientific advancement would render superstition unnecessary and would wean us away from god(s). The fallacy in this hypothesis is that humans are not, and have never really been interested in more information on quantum physics, selfish genes and angry birds. Instead, human angst is existential and wells from questions such as “who created me?”, “why am I here?” and “what happens to me when I die?” – enquiries that science and technology have not really come anywhere close to addressing convincingly or palatably.

“Nothing in Particular”

The numbers from the Pew report of the survey done in the US, the world’s melting pot and the most influential country in the world, tell a fascinating tale. For example, there are as many Buddhists as Muslims in the United States. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that. What’s really mind blowing is that the largest single group in the US, next to Christians, is “unaffiliated”, at 16% of those surveyed in the Pew report.  This group includes atheists (1.6%), agnostics (2.4%) and a category interestingly denominated “nothing in particular” which clocked an astounding 12 percent of those surveyed.

Now, think about that for a minute. Slightly more than 1 out of every 10 persons in the world’s most affluent country describes themselves as belonging to “nothing in particular”. They are not atheist. Not agnostic. Instead, they are “nothing in particular”. This category is the fastest growing religious demographic in the United States.

Secular movements and scientific progress have not wiped out religion. But, it appears that the organized religions of the world are simultaneously losing their grip, thanks in measure to their own brand of inadequacy in dealing with human existential angst. In short, this tale is far from being over, and might have a few twists left in it.

My take

Questions in people’s lives, addressed by neither science nor mainstream religion, are being increasingly answered by articulate and sophisticated gurus like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, new age preachers like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Robbins, dynamic swamijis like Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravishankar and militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. We predict that this millennium will witness the implosion of the big five religions into a buffet of disaggregated modules, which in turn, will be packaged, re-branded and sold by enterprising entrepreneurs to niche markets. A blossoming of a thousand Arab springs in the world of organized religion, if you will.

To aspiring entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on this burgeoning market, we are excited to provide a guide to ideating, commercializing and scaling of your endeavour. Here are excerpts from our “A Dummy’s Guide to Starting a New Religion”, a Laughing Gas magnum opus, which is yet unwritten but slated to be available on Amazon before the end of next year.

The What Ho! Guide to Starting Your Own Religion

Clear mission is key

As obvious as it seems, a clear mission is key. Remember that some day, you will have millions or even billions of followers. You should aim to convert as many of them as possible to willing and purposeful missionaries, who actually understand your mission. A mission statement should be easily translatable into 105 languages.

 Bad example:

“Our mission is to assertively network economically sound methods of spiritual empowerment so that we may continually negotiate performance based outcomes in the hereafter”

 Good example:

“A stupa in every zip code”

Segment the market, find a profitable niche, and position yourself to differentiate

 There was a time when only the fool and his money were parted. It now happens to everybody. Study the market and identify those most willing to part with their checks and craft a well designed story for them.

A little bit of Zen, a dash of karma, heavy doses of instant gratification and no talk of Hell, for example, is likely to do well in the lucrative sub-segments of aging Hollywood stars, high achieving entrepreneurs and corporate honchos.

The product definition checklist

 Now that you have identified your customer, define your product to meet his deepest and darkest longings. Here’s a little checklist to help you get going.

 First, decide if you will have a God, many Gods or no God.  There are large sized markets for each.

Second, state your position on the Hereafter – is there one? Or does it go dark when the lights go out? Is there a velvety cool blackness or are you reborn as a North African dictator?

Hints: Happiness and heaven are in. Hell is out.  Those looking into Western European markets should keep in mind that the survey says that 20 percent of Britons, who believe in life after death, can’t wait to speak to Lady Diana in the post bucket kicking phase.

Third, be intriguingly vague on creation. Statements like “In the beginning, there was this huge, monstrously big bang” have been known to resonate very well among the scientific types.

Fourth, decide if you want to keep things open or closed?

Should you “open source” your religion or should you keep it “closed and proprietary”. In other words, are the devout allowed to tinker with the ‘source code of conduct’, make stuff up and add as they go along? Or perhaps, you’d prefer to keep things “inside the house” and lock everything down?

Open sourcing is about freedom and flexibility, things which aids growth and survival over the long haul. Hinduism is a great example of an open source religion. There are two major problems with this, though. First – random folks will add random features that no one needs. Was there ever really a crying need for goat sacrifices? Second – open source systems tend to become so complex and confusing over time that a robust support infrastructure is required. Which means the glory (and the money) goes to the myriad swamijis, gurus and babas, who support the system by interpreting it, rather than the original founders. Keeping things locked down, on the other hand, has its benefits as you, and you alone, control the user experience.

This decision will have a bearing on your personal fortune and fame. Two men recently died within a week of each other. One championed proprietary, locked down systems and ruled that universe with an iron hand. This man, Steve Jobs, was eulogized by half the world and their pets within hours of his passing. The other invented the C programming language and helped write Unix, the precursor of open source systems. Bet you didn’t even know that his name was Dennis Ritchie. So, open source or proprietary? A lot depends on how big a dent you want to make on the universe.

Urgent and compelling call to action

Selling is a transaction that involves the completion of an exchange of (typically) money for something of value (a product or a service). The operative word in that sentence being “completion”. Sales is about ‘closing the deal’.

Nothing closes the deal better than an urgent and compelling “call to action”. Older religions have floundered not because of lack of salesmen, as is believed, but in reality because of lack of a compelling case for timely subscription.

For example, the pitch –  “Get on the train NOW, or rot in Hell forever when the world ends 60 days from now” yielded amazing results for a certain Paul of Damascus around 33AD. In contrast, the pitch “Here’s a list of eight things you can do to be happy” didn’t exactly set things on fire for a certain Sakhyamuni in 600BC.

No such thing as bad publicity

As the adage goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Jigging things up to be jihadi and crusade friendly, making wild and inaccurate Doomsday predictions, carefully timed bouts of acid dropping and ashram hopping might attract controversial attention. But they will raise awareness levels, draw traffic to your website and garner you thousands of twitter followers.

A less understood strategy to stay in public consciousness has to do with the number of national holidays that your religion will require. Our take is that a real religion should require not less than 6 fixed national holidays and 3 floating ones. Whatever you do, do not err on the side of “too few”. The greater your number, the more popular you are likely to be in India, Spain and Brazil– all very populous countries.

On the importance of nomenclature

Most budding entrepreneurs don’t grasp the significance of naming things properly, and how the name really is, at the end of the day, the only thing that makes the difference between astonishing success and abysmal failure. Instead, they rely on advice of dead English dramatists. “What’s in a name?”, you may ask. That never stopped Sergie and Larry from naming their company after a fictitiously humongous number, which as it turned out, could be easily “verbized”. Don’t believe us? Google it and ye shall see. Naming after fruits is risky unless you’re an acid dropping, ashram hopping, unbreakable, air-bending, off-kilter genius with a sixth sense who can ‘see dead products’. Names starting with Z sound cool.

Last but not the least, figure out what you want to call those who don’t sign on to your school of thought. Calling them infidels, traitors or heretics and condemning them to eternal damnation might not be the best way of making friends and winning them over.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently. Here’s to you, our brave new cult leaders of a brave new millenium. Carpe diem. Seize the check. God bless.

Disclaimer: Lots of research went into this article. But, no priests, rabbis, gurus, lamas or militant atheists were harmed during its making.

On the Nature of Light

Light is at the core of physics. Light, its attributes and energy, define the very parameters of this amazing universe that we find ourselves in. The nature of light, also (less commonly) known by its scientific name – electromagnetic radiation (EMR) – is the most fascinating conundrum we have encountered in nature. Light is the two-faced Janus, connecting our past, present and future, and, for mysterious reasons, can behave as either a ‘wave’ or a ‘particle’. This is no ordinary matter. How light can behave at times like a “particle” – something that has “mass” and confined to “finite amount of space”, and on other occasions, as a “wave” – something that is formless and existing everywhere simultaneously – is one of the most captivating mysteries that science is yet to solve.

On the Nature of Light

Long before before great scientists like Aristotle, Galileo and Newton came along, humans had grasped the mystical importance of light, in a philosophical and religious sense.

Psalms 119:105  (Holy Bible, King James Version):  “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path”

“Seeing the light” came to be equated with wisdom and enlightenment, and with receiving the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence. A dark universe, devoid of light, was considered a universe devoid of itself – a universe that existed without form or purpose until – as the Holy Bible tells us – “God said, Let there be light”. The Holy Koran says, “Allah, (Praise be to his name) is the light of the heavens and the earth”. The Rig Vedantin prayed “Lead me from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real”. The ancient savants intuitively grasped the quixotic nature of light, a baton which science has only recently taken but carried resolutely over the last hundred years. Continue reading “On the Nature of Light”

For Better Or For Worse

Marriage is a wonderful thing. Everyone ought to get married unless they have a really good reason not to, like becoming the Pope or if they are in a coma. I am married and you won’t hear me complaining. Einstein was twice as smart as any of us will ever be. And, he married twice.

Even so, what exactly prompts people to get married has remained a deep, dark mystery much along the lines of why women feel the need to own one hundred seventy pairs of foot wear. Research on this topic can fill a room the size of the telephone exchange in Dayanadhi Maran’s house. Of the reasons hypothesized about the willingness of men to tie the knot, the most realistic one seems to be that they have exhausted all conversation topics, and are forced to resort to marriage proposals to avoid awkward silences which led to the ancient jungle saying “Lulls in conversation with women are dangerous”. Women seem to get the urge to merge for all sorts of silly reasons like being in love, but the most plausible one could be that they have managed to locate that one specimen in the male population who is not a complete jerk.

It boggles the mind when you think of how marriage even began to be accepted as a concept, and how men were convinced to play along. It is widely suspected that a man’s tendency to avoid reading anything resembling a manual or asking for directions may have direct bearing on this situation. Imagine a man opening the marriage manual to find “Warning: Do not use this under the influence of alcohol to obtain free food” or “Step 3: Next, you will now engage in the process of getting married in a ceremony that will last longer than the second world war”, or “Step 27: Now open the diaper and, without inhaling any surrounding air, carefully wipe the rear end of the baby”” or “Step 28: Repeat Step 27 fourteen more times a day for the next two years”. There is no record in history of any man ever having read the manual. If there were to be such a man in the future, it’s likely that he would disapparate from the altar faster than an Indian batsman from the crease on an overcast day at Lords.

Funnily enough, for all their cooperation and willingness to get hitched, men have been held, through the ages, solely accountable for marital woes and much maligned as the primary reason for a general state of dissatisfaction among the female population at large. Research tells us that women spend one hundred and forty four hours a week, on average, either in contemplation or in discussion of the faults of men. Truth be told, men are not really at fault for anything. In fact, we have a rock solid alibi, summarized in two simple sentences.

  1. Everything is controlled by our genes
  2. Our genes do not care about us. They are selfish and care only about themselves

Millions of years back, a few molecules decided to join together to form amino acids, and later evolved into DNA. Not coincidentally, around the same time women began complaining about men’s attitudes. Until DNA came along, men spent most of their time snoozing blissfully to the soothing sounds of test cricket commentary. It’s not entirely clear as to how men and women decided to get together to start this thing called the human race – whether it was through divine creation or Darwinian evolution. But one thing is clear – that LSD and liberal amounts of other mind altering substances were definitely involved.

In spite of the DNA, millions and millions of men overcome their genetic predisposition, marry, stay married, raise kids, attend piano recitals, visit furniture stores, loiter aimlessly around department store changing rooms and public urinals, and live happily with their wives without nary a sideways glance at, to pick a completely random example, Angelina Jolie.

To get to the bottom of why women have problems with men, we conducted a survey of men’s faults. In that survey, the most common conversation went as follows:

Q: What do you think about men?

A: When will men understand that women think that they are incredibly idiotic and insensitive, and what will they do about it?

Readers will note that the tone of the response is distinctly unfavorable. They didn’t respond with “Men are highly rational and predictable” or “What can women learn from men about getting through life without potted plants?”. Instead, the surveyed women chose to take a negative stance.

It is our sincere intent at Laughing Gas to correct such erroneous perceptions about men, and we fully expect to be unsuccessful in this regard. So, we’ve prepared a short Q&A that we hope will (however inadequately) address the common complaints against men.

Q: Why are men so insensitive? Why is working on your laptop or fiddling with your cell phone is always more important than what I have to say? Why do dads have to be the cool heroes to kids and moms the stone hearted villains? Why is that I always have to do all the cleaning up around here? Why can’t we have a conversation about my feelings? Blah blah blah… Why is it that you never pay attention while I’m talking? Are you even listening?

A: What?

Q: Why do men have a problem listening when we talk?

We do not have a problem listening. In fact, we are trained to listen carefully for any signs of imminent danger. After a short intense scan of auditory signals in the vicinity, we stop listening if there is no problem detected. According to research, the average woman has a minimum of 42 feelings per minute while a man experiences feelings more at the rate of 3 per annum in the best case. So, when a woman tries to communicate feelings to her man, it always leads to confusion in the man’s brain, which usually has just one feeling at that time “Man, the game is about to start”. Strategies have been developed by men for such situations which involve engaging in hugs and mute conciliatory gestures while maintaining direct line of sight to the TV. Long story short, men have no idea what to do about feelings. They are doers. They are problem solvers. When confronted with an ambiguous situation without a clearly identified problem, their immediate instinct is to suspend all signs of life, hunker down and wait for the storm to blow over, and carefully monitor the conversation for key words such as ‘lawyer’, ‘gun’ or ‘kitchen knife’.

Q: Doesn’t it matter to you that someone important to you has something important to say about how they feel? Don’t you care about our feelings?

A: What?

Q: Why do men have a problem reading manuals?

A: That’s because manuals are written for idiots by idiots and contain stupid warnings like “Don’t use your high definition LCD TV as a floatation device”.

Q: Why do men refuse to ask directions?

A:  Men are explorers by nature, and operate under the assumption that there is always one undiscovered route to the neighborhood mall. If it weren’t for men’s thirst for adventure, the Spaniards wouldn’t have discovered South America and the Incas wouldn’t have been wiped out by small pox. There wouldn’t be globalization and five rupee bottles of chota Pepsi. Also, in ancient times when men had to protect their tribes, if man A asked man B for directions, it was naturally assumed by man B that man A was a weaker type who read manuals. This led to man B assembling armies and pillaging man A’s villages and taking away his women.

Q: Are you suggesting that men’s flaws are in fact virtues? Are you implying that men are the sole reason why the human race has not yet become extinct?

A: Don’t forget the five rupee chota Pepsi bottles.

Q: How could we have been so blind? We are really sorry that we’ve been inconsiderate and have hurt your feelings over millions of years. How can we even begin to comprehend the enormity of our mistakes, and correct the errors of our ways? Your hearts must be wounded, and your souls scarred by the pain….blah blah blah..

A:  What?

Also read Till Death Do Us Part from the Jaundiced Eye collection

The What Ho! Guide to Economics

Long long ago, there lived a farmer named Jack. He had a beautiful wife and two lovely young children. Jack was very proud of his family and worked very hard every day in his field to raise crops and vegetables so they could live comfortably. In a few years, he built a nice little house for them. All was well and they lived happily and went to church every Sunday in the finest of attire. One day, unhappiness came to visit Jack’s house. He came back home to find his wife brooding and sulking. He enquired gently at first and then sternly but his wife sat silent and sullen. Finally, she said, “Why is that you work so hard and we are still so poor? The rich have bigger houses and finer clothes and lead an easier life”

Jack thought over his wife’s words. And he continued to ponder it the next day as he ate lunch under the shade of a benevolent tree in the middle of his land. As he pondered, he fell into a deep reverie. As he lay asleep, a fairy came in his dream and asked, “Why are you unhappy, Jack?” Jack recounted his conversation with his wife to the fairy, upon which she asked, “Ask me a wish and it shall be granted”. Jack was overjoyed and wished that all the riches in the world would disappear so his wife would have no reason to envy opulent neighbors. The fairy said, “Your wish is granted”. Jack profusely thanked the fairy to which she said, “Why don’t you wait for one day and come back here to thank me?”

In the evening, when Jack went back home, he found his wife and children in tears. Their finest China plates had been reduced to ordinary earthenware and their fine Sunday attire lay in tatters and ruins. His wife sobbed, “What have we done to deserve this misfortune?”. Jack stayed silent, not wishing to reveal his part in the way things turned out. The next afternoon, when the fairy came to visit him, he said, “I have erred grievously. It is not by removing riches that I can make my wife happy. It is by having more that I can make her joyous. Can you change my wish so that workers like me get the highest of prices for our goods? Our coffers will then fill to the brim from the money we get from the rich”

The fairy nodded and granted his wish. When he attempted to thank her, she said, “Why don’t you come back in a month and thank me?”

That evening when Jack went home, he found his wife overjoyed. “This afternoon, I got twice as much money for our produce than yesterday. Look at all this money. If this continues, we will be able to build a house twice as big and have clothes twice as grand”. Jack smiled, but chose not to reveal his role as something troubled him about their new riches. A few days later, he observed that everyone in the village was overjoyed at getting enormously higher prices for what they sold. He felt happy but stayed silent. After a few weeks, the prices were so high that no one was able to buy anything anymore no matter how much money they had. His heart sank when he heard his friends mutter, “Who has cast this misfortune on us that our goods are so expensive that we cannot sell them anymore”

When the fairy came to visit him at the end of the month, Jack begged her to change his wish. “It is not by making the rich poor, or making more money that we can be happy. It is only through organization that we can ensure that every one is treated fairly. I wish for a great giant to appear and ensure that all goods are produced on time and sold at fair prices, so we do not have to worry about such things”  The fairy replied, “So be it. Come back and thank me in one year”

When Jack went home that evening, he heard the astounding news. “There has been a revolution. A giant has appeared in our midst, and he has opened something called a factory. He wants all of us to go to this factory every day and do what he says. And, in exchange, he will give us money and take care of us”. The next morning everyone on the street went to the factory and the giant gave them their instructions. “Do precisely what I tell you and nothing more. If you do as I say, you will have nothing to worry”

This situation carried on satisfactorily for a few months. Everyone in the village went back to their happy and contented states of well being. They did not worry about tomorrow. The giant took care of everything. All they did was to show up and follow instructions. After a few months, discontent began to seep in. The giant had grown bigger, and his head grew even larger than the rest of his body. As his head grew larger, it made the giant hungrier. So, the giant kept more and more of the money and food for himself and distributed the meager rest to the people. One day, the head of the town was heard to remark, “We do all the work. But, the giant is keeping everything for himself. This is not fair”. Soon, many in the village formed a group that they called the union, and the union went to the talk to the giant about his unfair ways. The giant laughed at and ridiculed them for being foolish. “I take care of everything so you don’t have to worry about tomorrow. Do not forget that”, he retorted. But, the people were not satisfied and continued to argue with and yell at the giant. Soon, the factory stopped producing what it used to and fell into a state of disrepair. The giant lay listless and hungry and the angry people now got even less than what they used to. Things came to a pass one day when Jack’s son, who had just turned eighteen, told him, “I curse the man who created this giant. He has caused us nothing but misery”. Jack was saddened to hear his son’s words.

When the fairy came to visit him at the end of the year, he told her, “It is not organization. It is authority that makes things works. I wish for a creature which can control this evil giant and make him distribute profits equally to all the people”. The fairy smiled and said, “I will grant your wish and let us meet again in ten years before you thank me”

That evening, a magical creature arose in the land. It had a thousand eyes and a hundred arms which looked like tentacles. It had no legs to stand on or a face to look at. It seized the giant, cast chains around its neck and legs and brought it under its control. The people rejoiced, for the tyranny of the giant had been ended. The magical creature called itself the “government”. The creature told the giant to keep working as it always did and, in exchange, it promised to keep feeding it so it wouldn’t have to worry about tomorrow. The giant had no choice but to play along. Years passed by, and the giant became lazy and grew so big that it couldn’t work as hard as it used to. Indeed, it lost all its desire to do anything. It didn’t matter because the magical creature kept feeding the giant no matter what it did.

Jack grew older and feebler. As he sat on his rocking chair in the porch, he wondered about what he had done. There was no more of happiness. There were giants and magical creatures and they didn’t care much for the people. The people had lost their trust in the way things worked. They complained loudly and bitterly about the magical creature, which had promised so much and had let them down. So Jack wondered where the solution lay.

Ten years passed, and the fairy came to visit Jack as he sat on his chair. And he said, “I think I have the solution. I wish for an army of pixies, goblins, gnomes, dwarves and elves which can slay the giant. I wish for the magical creature to lose its magical powers. It is not organization. It is not authority. We need to free the little creatures so they can fight the government and the giants”. “The fairy granted his wish and asked. “Do you wish to thank me now or would you like to wait a hundred years?”, she asked. Jack replied, “I will not be alive in a hundred years. I wish for you to meet my grandson and ask him what he thinks”. The fairy smiled and agreed.

A wondrous event happened in the town that night. An army of pixies, dwarves, elves, goblins and gnomes descended on the town. They carried little wands, swords, daggers and spears and other weapons. They rushed at the giant, and each took turns to maim and dismember him until just the body and the head was left and the giant lay barely alive. Finally, a handsome young warrior on a horse rushed in with a great big sword and slew the giant by cutting his head off. The villagers cheered at the downfall of the giant and his lazy and uncaring ways. The army of these little creatures did not stop with the giant. They ran around slaying whatever they could get their hands on, and eating whatever they could find. Indeed, these little creatures did not want to stay little. They wanted to grow up and become giants themselves. They fell upon each other and bloody warfare and mayhem was the order of the day. The villagers watched in fear and trepidation as they did not know what the days portended. The creatures were selfish, and all they cared about was feeding their bellies and fattening their calves. Such was the nature of these creatures. It became the responsibility of the people to nurse the wounded back to health or give them proper burials. Soon, the people grew tired of being undertakers and digging graves to bury the dead. One day, it was known that the handsome warrior on the horse and magical creature had joined hands secretly to slay all the other creatures. Carcasses piled up on the streets and their stink filled the entire town.

A hundred years passed by, and Jack and his son passed on. The house came to Jack’s grandson, who was a thinking man. Jack’s grandson was also named Jack. One day, Jack sat in his car wondering where things had gone wrong and how people’s lives had come to be filled with such misgiving and dread. And as he sat wondering, the fairy came to visit him. She told him about his grandfather Jack and the wishes she had granted.

“Would you like to make a wish, Jack?”, she asked.

Jack – the grandson – was surprised. But, he was a quick thinker. He replied, “My dear fairy, I’ve been thinking all these years about the things that have happened since good ol’ grandpa Jack’s days. I think that the old man had it all wrong”

The fairy was surprised. She stayed silent as Jack continued.

“It’s not about hard work. It’s not about being organized. It’s not about being fair. It’s not about any of these things. It’s not about wishing good things for others. It’s a dog eat dog world, and it’s every man for himself. It’s about being selfish to the core, and wishing good things only for yourself. I’d like you to turn me into a creature completely lacking in any skills or talent. A creature that is so devious and manipulating that he becomes fabulously wealthy as a result of his utter lack of concern for society at large”

The fairy was taken aback on hearing this. She wondered how she could make Jack’s wish come true. She racked her brain a thousand different ways. Finally, she waved her wand and transformed Jack into the creature that he’d asked to become.

That, boys and girls, is the story of how Suresh Kalmadi came to inhabit this planet.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Once in a while, you have a force that arises in this universe which grows its strength only through changing the very conditions from which it arose.

Gandhi. Einstein. Jobs. Yes, he belongs on that list of people we find hard to describe with words, and can appreciate only by the impact they had on our consciousness.

So long and thanks for all the fish, Steve. We will miss you.

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.

Too Big To Fail

In 2008, we saw collapse of financial institutions, led by US banks, unprecedented for its severity. Now, history appears to be about to repeat itself in Europe. Since we seem to be headed into the open season for bailouts, I decided to send in my bailout application right away to beat the rush and get ahead in line.

Dear Reserve Bank Governor,

I’m in a bit of a pickle, and need five crore rupees urgently. Before you consign this letter to the rubbish bin, I suggest that you ponder the consequences of it surfacing in wikileaks files.

I know what you must be thinking. Who is this guy and why does he deserve the ten crore rupees that he’s asking?  (As I write, the rupee is rapidly declining against the dollar forcing me to ask for more). First, you have understand that I am TOO BIG TO FAIL. If I were to be allowed to collapse, the economy as we know it would cease to exist and pandemonium and mayhem will ensue. Nothing short of global calamity awaits if that mind boggling scenario were to fruition as a consequence of your not sending me a check for twenty crores. If I were to fail, who would then pay salaries to my driver or dole out generous tips to taxi and auto drivers? If they don’t get paid, they will not have money to spend at liquor stores, which means liquor store barons will not have money to bribe MLAs. Starved of cash, MLAs will become susceptible to buyout offers from opposition parties and this would lead to fall of governments all around the country. Next thing you know, the Chief Election Commissioner is asking for a budget of ten thousand crores to conduct fresh elections, and the Central Government is forced to raise the prices of petrol and LPG to cover the shortfall in funds. This will lead to all kinds of nasty consequences like fallout between once-loyal alliance partners, cabinet ministers and chief ministerial offspring being sent to Tihar jail, disgruntlement with the Prime Minister and rise of civil societies demanding Jan Lokpal. Who knows, this might trigger the fall of the central government as a consequence of fratricidal wars between Home and Finance ministries, each trying to orchestrate the other’s downfall. All because you didn’t expeditiously release a check for a measly fifty crores.

You might wonder how I ended up in this hole. I made the mistake of watching every reality show there is on TV and sending in hundreds of SMSes daily to vote on random inconsequential matters. These things cost a fortune. Not to mention the fact that there’s been someone calling me practically every three minutes offering me a platinum credit card. I got them all and maxed out on Salman Khan movies, Farmville gifts and Samsung cellphones. Funnily, there seems to be a new festival every month, accompanied by mouth watering discounts on white goods – and I’m afraid that these temptations have proved hard to resist.

You must be convinced by now, I hope. If not, it is fair to warn that you leave me with no choice but to join a political party, become a Cabinet minister, manipulate tenders and reap ill-gotten gains. Come on, what do you say? What’s a hundred crores between friends?

Yours sincerely.

TBTF

* Inspired by a ‘shouts and murmurs‘ column in the New Yorker

Rajinikanth – The Tale of Two Superstars

What can you write about Rajinikanth that has not been already said? I guess you could start by asking how you go from a dark skinned, Marathi speaking, bus conducting Shivaji Rao Gaekwad in Bangalore to Rajinikanth, the biggest commercial movie star in India?

Rajini’s Sivaji – The Boss, released a few years back, was revelatory to Bollywood and English media, who until then had laughed him off as just another quirk of South Indian cinema and its uninformed audiences. Since its staggering success, they have all fallen over each other to sing paeans to this commercial supernova, who has put the likes of Shah Rukh and Salman firmly in the shade with his unfailing ability to crank out blockbuster after blockbuster. Even Hollywood in the last couple of decades has not had such a bankable star whose mere name has been enough to make cash registers ring.

I’ve read a few articles written in recent times about Rajini. And the first thing that struck me was that they’ve all missed the point by a mile. The best one by Grady Hendrix “The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of” in slate.com, was intended to introduce the superstar to western audiences (quoted below)

“But the No. 2 spot (in Asia) goes to someone who doesn’t make any sense at all. The second-highest-paid actor in Asia is a balding, middle-aged man with a paunch, hailing from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and sporting the kind of moustache that went out of style in 1986. This is Rajinikanth, and he is no mere actor—he is a force of nature”

Even Hendrix, while entertaining, missed the point. Everyone has explained away Rajinikanth as the ‘unexplainable’, the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of Indian cinema. He is not what they expect to see in a matinee idol. In fact, he is the anti-thesis of what they expect to see in one who’s scaled the pinnacle of  movie superstardom. They wring their hands at his physical shortcomings, roll their eyes at his ‘ability to split a bullet in two’ and grudgingly acknowledge that ‘if he’s made a boat load of money, then he must be something special’. They haven’t done justice to the man, who appears to have defied the odds but was always destined to shine.

It is near impossible to understand Rajini the phenomenon, without being a fan and a believer. This is a case when you have to surrender to the experience before you can believe. Yes, his stunts require suspension of reality, punch dialogues zany, and his larger than life person incredible. What makes him tick is a well known word. The word used to describe Clark Gable, the Beatles, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and dare I say it, Mahatma Gandhi. The word is charisma. The man does not just have oodles of it, but has now foisted a higher bar on those who aspire to it. Also, to understand the phenomenon, you need to have been an “original” fan. Not one of those fair weather friends who jumped onto the bandwagon when it climbed to somewhere between the stratosphere and Jupiter.

You don’t just go “to watch a Rajini movie”. It’s not just another day in your life. The happiness of clutching the tickets to his latest caper is higher than the high of running a 10K or a marathon. And, then comes the movie watching experience itself. The roll of the titles, and the flashing of “superstar” in all caps using disco lights that went out in the seventies. And the approving roar of the crowd, followed by the frenzy when the superstar’s visage first appears on the screen (always preceded by a shot of his footwear squashing a cigarette). Sufi saints in communion with the One above or a child entering Disneyland for the first time will relate to this experience, one in which the soul soars in unfettered bliss.

That’s charisma. So, what makes Rajini charismatic?

Of the reasons, the biggest is his emotional authenticity. The most fascinating aspect of the man is that – when he’s not playing a superstar, he’s an unassuming individual who goes about in broad daylight unaffected by vanity, unhiding of hair loss and undenying of his past indiscretions. He comes across as a man who does not have an axe to grind. In a world filled with hucksters trying to sell you something or the other, that’s a luxury. Make no mistake. He (and his producer) *is* trying to sell you. But he convinces you that it was your idea to buy. And, it always turns out to be a good idea. It doesn’t get better than that.

It’s like there are two Rajini personas. The superstar actor and the genuine article. And, each persona has watched and learned from the other, always to the betterment of both and their fans. They have both been superstars. That’s a combination hard to find or beat, anywhere in the world.

Rajinikanth is dark skinned, does not have chiseled looks and his voice is not baritone. He’s not tall, has not (regrettably) played a thespian and is self deprecating about his own short comings. He’s humble, honest and authentic. He’s not what a typical movie star is made of. Therein lies the secret of his success. That he’s not what a typical movie star is made of. That is the reason he’s anything but typical. And that’s why it comes as no surprise to those of us who’ve watched him stumble, transform and grow over time. And that’s precisely why he’s destiny’s child.

God bless Rajni.

A Divine Review

An unconventional book review of Dr. Stephen Hawking’s “The Grand Design”, fittingly enough by one who’s as distinguished as Dr. Hawking himself. Dr. Hawking’s books, “A Brief History of Time” and the new bestseller “The Grand Design” are delightful and belong on every bookshelf.

Dear Dr. Hawking,

Thanks to the non-linear nature of time, I’ve had the opportunity of reading your latest book “The Grand Design” even before you conceived it. In it, you state quite emphatically that there is “no need for a creator for the universe”, which came about only through the “laws of nature”, and “science will win because it works”.  Nothing pleases me more than to hear that.

Dr. Hawking, I do not have the benefit of an Oxford education. I possess neither pedigree nor experience , and am not qualified to engage you in debate on scientific matters. Nevertheless, I must press on, as I’ve a few things that I’d like to get off my chest.

Let me confess to my awkward shortcomings. It appears that you’re already aware of these.

I possess neither skills nor desire to create. Truth be told, universes have this disconcerting habit of arising spontaneously out of nothing, “under the right conditions”, as you’ve rightly described them. Why they arise, from what they arise, I know not. Or maybe I do. I don’t understand notions like time. When you live like me, in the timeless eternal moment, grasping abstractions like past or future may be impossible. Or, may be it’s not.

On your part – why deny what you believe does not exist in the first place? I’ve been watching the universe for eons, and the most disappointing moments have come when brilliance has worn itself out in pursuit of the imagined adversary. You and I are sides of the same coin. Being thus located on opposite faces, our twain may well never meet. But, that does not make us adversaries.

I believe we are in agreement that there always is, and will be, an explanation for everything, and, it’s just a matter of finding it. Is it the explanation that you’re after? Or, is it the experience? You, Sir, are no Captain Ahab. And, if you will be so kind as to agree, I’m no whale.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never had one. The question you should really ask is  –  should you?

If you’re interested, do drop me a line. I may have a few answers, thanks to the non-linear nature of time.

Kind Regards.

(S)he-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Blamed

3 things everyone can do about corruption

Why is corruption such a big deal? India’s GDP is growing at 7-9% per annum, and presumably will continue to blaze along for some time. So, why fret about corruption when things are looking rosy? What are we complaining about? Don’t we have more important things to do than (Jan) Lokpal bill? We’ve been mired in corruption for 50 out of 65 years. What’s another few years? Is it even possible to fix it? Can this Pavlovian reflex that causes the reaching out of hands under tables and behind closed doors into another man’s pocket be cured?

Beyond the moral aspect, there are tangible and economic reasons as to why corruption belongs at the top of the list of issues India has to confront now.

The Numbers

India’s GDP (est) in 2010

  • Based on real exchange rate: $1.5 Trillion (Rank 12th in the world)
  • Based on purchasing power parity: $4 Trillion and change (Rank 5th in the world)
  • Growth rate: 8.3% (Rank: 7th in the world)

According to these key metrics, we’ve done well. In fact, outstandingly well.  So, why bother?

Why we should care

In the world of economics, capitalism and free markets, the past only evokes admiration and an occasional eulogy. The future is everything. The question that will be in front of us over the coming decade: How long can we keep this up? The answer lies in how we fix our problems. And if we do not fix the fixable, the future will be easy to predict. And, it won’t look pretty.

There are some good reasons to care about corruption:

1. It’s a tax and it destroys morale. Corruption introduces enormous inefficiencies. It raises the cost of living for all except the corrupt. It’s demoralizes the talented and hardworking amongst us.

2. Will growth slow corruption or corruption slow growth? The answer is yes to both. If we don’t kill corruption, we won’t be able to grow. If we don’t grow, we won’t be able to kill corruption.

3. Perception is bigger than reality: We are no longer a sheltered economy living in our own shadows. We are on the global stage. We have to assure our potential partners that we are serious and that they will be treated fairly. It is a mark of leadership. A corrupt nation cannot be a world leader.

3 things everyone can do on this journey

  1. Take a side: It doesn’t really matter which side. If you don’t like Anna, go find someone else who’s worthy of your support. Whatever you do, you cannot stay silent. Dialogue is the life blood of a democracy. As good citizens of this country, we owe it our voices.
  2. Say No to incompetency:  It is said that power corrupts. It‘s perhaps important to realize that incompetency too corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while incompetency corrupts the many. Those unwilling to subject themselves to the tough realities of merit and hard work, resort to corruption. Insist on a job well done, especially if you’ve had to pay them for it!
  3. Try the “rupee for rupee matching contribution” experiment:  Indira Gandhi once supposedly remarked, “Corruption is a global phenomenon” as a way to explain corruption away. We’ve glorified such leaders. These chickens have been roosting for decades, and it will take effort and time to root them out.  While you fight the good fight, how can you tell if your efforts are paying off? Try this: For every rupee you pay as “bribe”, pay yourself a matching rupee. Consider this your corruption provident fund. The size of this fund over time will give you an idea if we’re winning or losing. It’s easy to do. Worst case, you’ll have money to buy a few drinks and drown your sorrows if things take a little longer.

Fact or Fiction

Height matters. Is this fact or fiction?  Bad news for short people never seems to end. Their cup of woes continues to overflow. First it was those studies which showed that short people get fewer dates, less promotions and earned less than taller colleagues (because their bosses were taller?) Again, those infamous studies told us that one in two CEOs is six feet or taller.  Then came bad news from Johns Hopkins University – that short people (err, height disadvantaged? vertically challenged?) people are more likely to suffer dementia.

If you are on the wrong side of the height scale and in the mood for more punishment, try this nugget: In the last 46 presidential elections in the United States, the taller contender won 27 times, the latest instance of which came when the 6”1 Barack Obama beat the 5”7 John McCain.So if you’re short, what do you do? Umm… look for a boss who’s shorter? Regardless of what studies have to say, height has never been a prerequisite for greatness. Beethoven didn’t quite make to the 5ft 7 mark. Gandhiji, that giant among men, was even shorter. Where there is darkness, there is also light. Studies (finally!) tell us that shorter people tend to possess a rare genetic mutation called the Methuselah gene – which extends life spans and provides longer lives.

So, does height matter? Answer: One word. Rajnikanth.

Fact or Fiction? Mobile phones cause brain tumors

It depends on who you ask. There is conflicting evidence, likely a result of inadequate data  till date.  These studies take decades to complete, and require large groups of active users. Given that mobile phone usage has spiked only in the last decade or so, more definitive results may be in the offing in the decade to come. Mobile phones use non-ionizing radiation, which differs from the ionizing radiation of x-rays and radioactive material, and more like microwave radiation. Except they don’t release enough energy to cause damage of DNA, which causes cancer. Sustained, long term mobile phone usage may be a different story, if early evidence is any indication.

Answer: The jury is still out. Better safe than sorry may be apt here. If you’re a heavy mobile phone user, hands-free may be wise. Unless, you have the Methuselah gene

Fact or Fiction: Hypnotists can control your every move

You’ve seen it in the movies or heard from a friend. Hypnotist on stage. Calls for volunteers. Next thing you know, a man is under the spell and clucking like a chicken or imitating a dead actors (nice accent, by the way!). Say, you get excited, look into yellow pages, fix appointment with local hypnotist and off you go to cure that kleptomania problem that only you, a smattering of security guards and police in thirteen states are aware of. He gets you hypnotized and convinces you to sing Queen’s “Another one bites the dust” every time your fingers itch to snitch. Problem is you work in a funeral home. Could this nightmare really come true?

Answer:  No. While hypnosis can be used to treat mental disorders through the “power of suggestion”, hypnotists cannot make you do things you don’t want to do. You cannot be hypnotized against your will.  And, those people clucking like chickens and mouthing MGR and Gabbar Singh dialogues ? – Deep down, they really want to entertain us.

pip-pip. toodles. have a great weekend.

Fact or Fiction

Height matters. Is this fact or fiction?  Bad news for short people never seems to end. Their cup of woes continues to overflow. First it was those studies which showed that short people get fewer dates, less promotions and earned less than taller colleagues (because their bosses were taller?) Again, those infamous studies told us that one in two CEOs is six feet or taller.  Then came bad news from Johns Hopkins University – that short people (err, height disadvantaged? vertically challenged?) people are more likely to suffer dementia.

If you are on the wrong side of the height scale and in the mood for more punishment, try this nugget: In the last 46 presidential elections in the United States, the taller contender won 27 times, the latest instance of which came when the 6”1 Barack Obama beat the 5”7 John McCain.So if you’re short, what do you do? Umm… look for a boss who