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 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.

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

As humans, we have an ability that is so utterly unique in the natural world – a behavioral pattern that was so transformative, that it effectively changed the trajectory of our evolution. We can take an innovative thought and share it with another person by simply recombining sounds we learned to make as children.

Sure, almost all species communicate. But, only humans have devised this trick called language. Where did this unique trait come from? Why did it evolve? Why are we the only species that has it? While there are not satisfactory answers yet, suffice it to say that there is something peculiar and extraordinary about language that makes simple explanations suspect.

Evolutionary edge from language

According to evolutionary biology, only those traits and behaviors which provide evolutionary benefits survive. An evolutionary benefit is simply anything that helps survival. Example: Tall giraffes survived because they were able to eat from the tops of trees and also developed powerful long legs that can kick even a lion’s head off.

Why language survived is easier to explain than why it arose. Somewhere along the line, humans who had hitherto been “hunters” settled down to become “gatherers”, and formed “civilizations”. In this new construct, language became a “marker”, much like an “identification badge” that was useful in forming tribes. Tribe formation ensured mutual protection of people in the tribe, and so language came to provide an evolutionary edge. Ironically, language which played a useful role in aiding survival, eventually turned into the No. 1 leading killer in the history of humans. More wars have been fought and more lives lost over language than even religion, a sobering reflection on the passions that language can evoke, and perhaps a topic for another day.

English, the World’s Second Language

Once an insignificant language spoken by a handful of people on a tiny island in the North Sea, English has grown to be the global language of science, technology and trade. So much so that China is now the largest English speaking country in the world. And, it’s not just the Chinese. English is in so much demand around the world as the language of advancement that an Indian has built a temple to the goddess English, adding her to the 330 million deities of the Hindu pantheon. Now that English is a global language, with non-native speakers outnumbering native speakers, it has taken on a life of its own in non-English-speaking countries, and the question of correctness, of who owns English, is taking on a new spin.

10 English phrases that make perfect sense to Indians

Let no one misconstrue my attitude as mocking or critical. Far from the truth, as a matter of fact. In the peculiarities of Indian English, I see the boundless creativity of our nation, and its charismatic ability to take anything and put its own indelible stamp on it.

10. Convent educated

An excellent vestige from colonial British Raj. Today used to mean “studied in a Christian school“. Convent comes from the fact that back in those days when there were still nuns, nuns used to teach, and nuns lived in convents back in those days. Clear as crystal, right?

9. Issueless divorcee

Telling a thousand lies is a mere trifle if one has to perform a marriage, as we Indians like to believe. Matrimonial ads abound with prevarications of various kinds, and take full advantage of the foibles of Indian English.

“Rohit, so sorry to hear about your divorce. How are you holding up?”

“Oh that? No problem. It’s going swimmingly well. Other than having to give up my house and half my fortune to the ex, it’s been practically issueless”

Issueless divorcee means divorcee without children. Because, err, children have been known to cause issues.

8. Passing out

Translation: Completed or graduated from school or college or university. The term persists, thanks to the national obsession with tests and exams. Graduating college is the equivalent of passing the associated tests and exams.

“You studied at IIT Madras? When did you pass out?”

“Right after I saw the exam questions”

Or, it could be something as simple and straightforward as “All drinking water in this establishment has been personally passed by the manager”

7. Revert

Translation: Will get back or respond. Dictionary meaning is “regress” or “return to a previous state“. In physics, springs revert. In India, humans do.

“When do you expect to reverse the annual fees on my lifetime free credit card?”

“We will look into it, and revert back to you as soon as possible”

Evokes images of the call center individual rushing off to a therapist and undergoing past life regression to understand how he accumulated the karma and gunas in his past life that caused him to be answering my question on that day.

6. Only

There are several types of shenanigans possible with this simple four letter word.  “I am leaving now only”, “I am leaving only now” all the way to “I only am leaving now”. You probably caught the drift of what’s being attempted here already.

5. But

Used to express doubt, when even there is no reason for doubt. And like “only”, it can make unexpected appearances in any part of any sentence.

Lawyer: “You are lying. How are you sure that my client is the murderer?”

Witness: “I saw him stabbing the victim forty three times but”

A combination of “but” and “only” has been known to spook entire fleets of visiting American executives into thunderstruck silence during business meetings. Add “only” to the witness response above for maximum effect.

4. OK

No one really knows how this term entered the English language. Indians use it to mean anything. Just about anything. Period. There is no known translation for its Indian usage. Folks are advised to make their own interpretations which can vary according to exigencies of situations.

3. Doing the needful

This is a delightful phrase, like avara kedavra, with magical powers. It means to ask someone to do something that neither party has any idea how to get done. Use it often and use it early. See below for example of perfect usage.

Boss’s email to employee: “I need one dragon tooth, two strands of unicorn hair and Harry Potter’s Elder Wand right away. Please do the needful”

2. Intimate

In India, there is a rather unusual usage of this word in the context of informing or notifying someone, which connotes common ancestry with “revert”. “Once I revert, I will intimate you” can be intimidating to handle, we imagine.

1. Felicitate

This word is delightful for the simple reason that no other English speaking country uses it. A bit of a tongue twister, it continues to survive in the written form, in Indian newspapers and government memos. No one else in the world felicitates. But, when you set foot in our lovely country, you will be awash and neck deep in felicitations.

The final word

I can understand the angst that some readers may have about the decline of “propah” English. As consumers, we all want dependable and high quality products. But, when we get too much of the same, we seek, nay, crave the unique, the outlier, the imperfection that makes life interesting. This is true for language as well. The way language works, we all get to go off-script from time to time.  Because we are like that only.

Write back and share your favorite Indianisms proudly. And, oh yeah, let the felicitations begin!

3 reasons Why Life Only Gets Better

Reason number one. You are not going to be 16 forever.

Contrary to what they tell you, the best years of your life are not when you are a kid. This is a myth built on bad memories of disgruntled forty somethings, who remember only the ‘Oh, I didn’t have to pay any bills’ part and have long forgotten the parts involving acne, random hormone explosions, homework, exams and ‘you have to be in bed by 10pm’.

Yes, there will come a time when you will be out on your own, discovering the joys of running up credit card bills, managing house-help and warding off pesky telemarketers. As you get out into the ‘real’ world, it will be pizza for breakfast, pies for lunch and brewskies for dinner. Until, of course, the spleen bursts, ulcers sprout, the midriff widens and you see that dreaded furrow on the doc’s brow after an annual health check.

You know what, kids, freedom is not such a bad thing. You get to live by your rules and you get to break your own rules. Freedom is a beautiful thing. It makes you grow. And, growing is a beautiful thing. Unless, your name is Benjamin Button.

Reason 2: Nothing lasts forever, not even money and time.

Money makes the world go around. As the world gets bigger, there will be more of it. You will get your piece of it. Do not read this to believe that all you have to do is sit back and wait for some money fairy to magically rain cash in your living room. You will have to work for it. The good news is that there is money out there to be made, if you have the time for that sort of thing.

Speaking of time, it is the great healer. The most outrageous slings of misfortune, the worst of insults and the heartrending losses – all fade into black or grey, with time. Even in the darkest of hours, remember the four golden words “this too shall pass.” Except in the cases of a CBI enquiry or a re-run of Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gam, when nimble footed escape may be more prudent.

Reason 3: Life is not as bad as it is cracked up to be.

Life is not what you see on the telly. When you grow up, your parents do their best to filter out the bad news. The television industry was invented to do exactly the opposite. They do what our parents do, except that they filter all the good stuff.  Why they do that is because bad news sells. Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense. Everything that happens can be explained by either of two human inventions – free markets and stupidity. Quite often, it is both, and the latter is by far more powerful and innovative.

Someday in life, you will encounter the phrase “free markets” and it will all magically start making sense

There will always be a truckload of bad news. Violence, disasters and wars will never go out of fashion. It will often make you wonder “why live in such a crappy a world?’’. But, bad news does not make the world bad. Remember – for every Voldemort, there is a Harry Potter, for every A. Raja there is a Subramaniam Swamy, and for every Osama there is an Obama. Bad news needs to be heard so folks who can fix these ridiculous situations step in. Every fight needs a few good soldiers.

Doing the right thing.

“Life gets better” does not mean that you are going to swoop in, just in the nick of time to cut the blue wire on a dirty bomb to save a planeload of people. It means that you will be given a chance to do a right thing here, and a right thing there. And, if you keep at it, the chances are that it will add up to heroic proportions. And, chances are that no one will notice. Chances are that you will be an unsung hero.

It’s hard to fathom a cheerful world while in the throes of existential angst. Angst smothers you blind, chokes off the oxygen and stops from you seeing that sunrise on the horizon. It takes time and work to get out from under that pillow of anguish and see things for what they are. That, my friend, is how life gets better if you are willing to give it time.

How to make it in the after-life

What happens when we die?  What we believe in this regard, interestingly, likely plays a role in the way we live our lives. For the longest time. after-life has been a source of mystery, intrigue and anxiety for humans. Every religion has its hypothesis on what happens after death. The Judaeo-Christian-Islamic versions speak of a “transfer” to a waiting place, about which not much is known other than that you wait there till judgement day. You kind of have to hang around until the picture is clarified for better or worse.

Hindu/Buddhist versions involve being re-born with net sums of karmic bondage re-calculated after each  cycle. The ancient Greeks spoke of the dead being ferried across the Styx to Hades where they stay until eternity. The blessed and the virtuous went to the Elysian Fields with perpetual spring and shady green groves. The rare few were invited by Zeus to become minor gods on Olympus. And, the really bad apples were meted out bizarre punishment along the lines of rolling stones up hills, eagles gnawing at their livers or watching endless re-runs of Hrithik Roshan movies.

In most religions, death is not the end. The trail continues either into some limbo waiting for Judgement or towards the start of a new trail through re-birth.

The only ones who take the categorical position – “Death is The End. Once you die, it is all over. There is nothing more to talk about”  – are the atheists.This scenario is as likely as any other and must be considered. So, how do you stack the odds of making it in the after life? Well, depends.

1. Theories involving rebirth ie beginning of new trails – are both intriguing and baffling. Even if these were to be somehow conclusively proved to be true, it is not entirely obvious as to what we can or should be doing in this life about the next. For example, it is not clear as to why one cannot keep increasing the karmic balance endlessly, given that the cycles are endless and there is no doomsday or a punitive God awaiting. Why worry about the next life when there is enough cause for worry about this one. If you like ambiguity and flexibility, this one’s for you.

2. The versions that involve placing the chips on God A or God B and then waiting for Judgement Day are troublesome and tricky. The bets in this life, we are told, are irreversible after death, thus leaving no room to hedge. What if you bet on God A, and it turns out that God B is the one doling out rewards and retributions? Even worse, what if you end up at a un-named, un-marked waiting place and it is not revealed if God A or B is ruling the roost? The suspense till Judgement day would be enough to kill except we would be already dead. If you like order and structure, and an inveterate gambler, consider this your best option. Pick a horse and ride it all the way to the fiery finish!

3. The atheist scenario of “Death is THE END. Once the lights go out, it is dark forever”” is the easiest one to deal with, as there is nothing to deal with. Provides ultimate flexibility and the world is your playground, and you can run riot all over it. “Are you really sure this is the end? Hmm, ok, I see. Just wanted to make sure, that’s all. Do you have any beer?” is an easy and painless conversation to have.

Lovely people like Stephen Hawking like this model. The problem is that you are betting against the concept of God itself. In fact, being atheist is the riskiest strategy and defies logic. Basically, an atheist has zero probability of making it to heaven, if there ends up being a God. And, if there ends up being no God, all an atheist wins is the satisfaction of knowing that he was right! The upside is abysmally small, and the downside huge! If you insist on being atheist, you might as well carpe the diem by its tail and enjoying to the fullest while you are alive, because there’s a pretty good chance that things could get ugly once you have embraced the dark arms of Hades. This model highly recommended if logic is not your strength.

The best strategy might be one of “no affiliation” i.e. no religion, not atheist, no nothing. Sort of a ‘go with the flow, ambiguously agnostic karma yogi’ approach. Don’t place bets, take no positions and stay on the sidelines. Imagine waiting without the agony of suspense in the post-mortem lounge in the here-after. And, when Judgement Day arrives, and they start queuing people towards Heaven and Hell – the after-death queue management personnel will have no idea what to do with you. It is possible that – to avoid controversy – they may just quietly send you to Heaven!