The Trolley Problem

There’s a famous philosophical dilemma called the ‘trolley problem.’ In this hypothetical scenario, there’s an out of control train on a track that is being repaired by five workers. You’re given just a second or two to decide if you want to to flip a switch and divert the train onto a second track. The dilemma is that there is a worker on the second track who will be killed if you flip the switch.

The opposing philosophies which apply here are ‘utilitarian’ – overall good of many, and ‘thou shalt not harm’ – leave it to a higher authority, and don’t consciously kill another person.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of people opted to kill one worker to save five when presented with this dilemma. The studies were then repeated with a twist. Subjects now wore virtual reality gear which projected an avatar of the worker. Surprisingly, 90 percent of people still opted to flip the switch and kill the lone worker even though they could now see their ‘victim.’ There was no change in the results.

Here comes the interesting part. When subjects were told that they had to physically push the worker and kill him instead of flipping a switch to save the other five, only 50 percent opted to kill him. And here’s the kicker. When people were told that the worker on the second track was either their spouse, sibling or parent, only one-third opted to save the five workers.

What can we infer? That evolution has selected a majority of those who will make split second decisions to kill another? That we don’t like to get our hands dirty? That we’re selfish and will sacrifice others in order to save our own? That there are powerful evolutionary forces which propel us into horrific acts when it is a matter of survival?

Are we condemned to always play out our Darwinian impulses? Will our humanity always beat out the divinity in us? That’s not a cheerful picture, if true.

What’s your take?

Why I Don’t Watch Television News

I stopped watching news on TV more than five years ago. I’ve tuned in only on rare occasions, like during elections or recently when the India Gate protests raged. I can count the number of these occasions. By and large, I’d rather have root canal surgery than watch television news. Here’s why.

The media plays at least 3 roles in a democratic society.

1. To inform.

It’s the job of the media to keep us informed of the facts. To be perfectly honest, I don’t watch TV to find out what Rajdeep Sardesai’s or Barkha Dutt’s opinions are. I could definitely do without Arnab Goswami’s histrionics. None of these “anchors” have expert training in economics or public policy or defense or anything else for that matter. They are (I believe) trained journalists and were hired to play the role of skilled interviewers. I’d prefer if they kept their opinions to themselves. I’d like them to tell me the facts, please. Then, I’d like to hear what experts have to say on the matter. And by experts, I don’t mean mouthpieces of political parties or former editors of semi-porn magazines or activist Bollywood actors or self-styled marketing gurus. There are smart people out there who’ve invested their time and careers in analyzing social issues, running businesses and researching and implementing policy matters. Go find them. Bring them on air. Allow us to hear what they have to say, even if they conflict with your opinions.

News anchors should be good at what they are supposed to be good at. If you talk more than your panelists, it means you’re not a skilled interviewer. If your show turns into a free for all among the panelists within a few minutes into the show, it means that you are an embarrassment to your profession.

2. To investigate

Media organizations are the watchdogs of a democratic society. They are our conscience keepers. It’s their job to find where the fire is burning when they see smoke. It’s their job to separate fact from fiction and help us tell a real scam from a smear job. We live in a complex world with complex issues. We want someone to tell us what’s going on so we can make up our minds about it. We are looking for someone to trust. Not someone who makes us live in perpetual anxiety.

It’s not really important to me as to who broke the story. What’s important is that the truth does not get bent in the process. I find our media stunningly incompetent on two counts. 1. They are not the ones to break stories. Stories get handed to them on silver platters. 2. And when they are handed stories, they make no effort to uncover details. In fact, they go through great trouble to obfuscate matters.

The last time we saw high quality investigative journalism in India was in the late 1980’s when the Hindu broke the Bofors story.

3. To build consensus

The media plays a critical role in building public consensus on matters of national importance. It’s not an easy job to take on emotional issues and steer the public towards thinking objectively about them. It’s a lot of hard work to assemble facts about an issue and to paint a clear picture. Instead, we have television channels which take the lazy route by fanning flames and obscuring facts that they end up doing incalculable long term harm to the country. The cornerstone of a democracy is the ability to engage in public discourse. If we don’t get this right, our democracy will fail.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Unfortunately for us in India, we seem to have neither a functioning government nor media.

I’m pretty sure that by now you can understand why I don’t watch television news any more. I’m amazed that anyone watches it at all. Is a little competency and integrity too much to ask for?

India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up.

I think India’s approach to Pakistan is messed up. Here’s why.

Pakistan is not our equal.

Not economically. Not in population size. And certainly not in the way they conduct affairs of the state. Pakistan now stands teetering at the edge of a precipice. India, on the other hand, has a much brighter future notwithstanding our many flaws. They should not be treated as an equal. If you can believe me, I don’t mean this in a dismissive, contemptuous way. I mean it as a matter of fact. A junior minister of state in external affairs should be deputed to engage with their foreign minister. Our external affairs minister should engage directly with their President, and none less. Our Prime Minister and the Leader of Opposition should not comment publicly on or engage with anyone from that country.

I support the position of our Prime Minister when he recently remarked that the recent provocations from Pakistan deserve no more than a tactical response, that we should not indulge in jingoism, and that the matter of how we deter the Pakistani army is best left to professionals in the Indian Army. In contrast, I found Ms. Sushma Swaraj’s “Get me 10 heads for one” response deeply disturbing and alarming.

Never get into a fight with a country which has nothing to lose.

At times, it may be tempting to engage in one-up-man-ship. What we have to remember is that by doing so, we’re going out of our way to keep an irrelevant nation in the public eye and thus make it out to be more important than it really is. In other words, there’s no gain for us. It’s all upside for them. Don’t stoke a dying fire.

The opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference.

Pakistan works pretty hard to earn our anger. In return, we must offer our indifference. We must stop putting every act of theirs under the microscope and agonizing over it. We must stay focused on fixing our ownselves, and moving quickly ahead in this very competitive global economy. The best “revenge” – for those who tend to like this sort of a thing – is one that will be served someday when Pakistani people wake up and realize that we’ve left them miles behind in the race to prosperity. Those obsessed with things like “honor” and “izzat” should remember that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to get into one. Patriotism is not about having a misplaced sense of honor or a narrow view of the world or flag waving and chest thumping. It’s about being a committed citizen and taking the time to understand complex issues, how they intersect and doing what’s what’s best for the country and making your opinion heard in a constructive manner. In my opinion, Pakistan should cease to be a voting issue for Indians, and anyone who attempts to make it one should be discouraged.

There is no such thing as Pakistan.

There are the Pakistani people. There are the politicians. There is the Pakistani army. There is ISI. There are many niche centers of power, controlling narrow domains. None of them are in control. It’s impossible to negotiate when there is no decision maker on the other side of the table. We have to recognize this and understand the difficult job that our government has, when it comes to dealing with Pakistan.

They are people like us too.

Perhaps, a way forward might be one that involves building direct bridges to the Pakistani people and creating economic opportunities for them so they, over time, have something to lose by harming our interests. Pakistan is like this evil twin of India, separated at birth and adopted and raised by a gangster. In many ways, their people have suffered more than us. I refuse to believe that an average Pakistani wakes up in the morning and looks for ways to destroy us. I think the average Pakistani is like the average Indian. He/she just wants a good job, a hot meal and a peaceful life. An “economic version of Aman ki Asha,” which promotes free trade and collaboration – as much as it sounds like a fairy tale – might not be a bad way forward if we’re willing to be patient for at least a couple of decades.

Heck, we don’t have be nice to them, if we don’t want to. But we really ought to stop obsessing about them and move on.

What’s your take?

Also read: O Pakistan, Whither Goes Thou?

Why do rapes happen?

Unless we know why rapes happen, we cannot prevent them from happening. Rapes are prevalent in nearly all species of animals (especially primates). They happen in all cultures in every country in the world. And they have been happening for a very long time.

There is no country, as yet, that has managed to stop rapes from happening. Nothing has helped. Not even the death penalty has deterred rape.

Decades of research have brought us no closer to an answer that is fundamentally insightful enough to design prevention of rape. However, almost all research agrees on the following-

  1. That rape is not a sexual act. That it is an act of power. Of entitlement.
  2. That there may be other emotions involved, such as anger or mental depression.
  3. That the incidence of rape in a society or culture is a function of what’s commonly perceived to be a man’s ‘entitlement’ in that society and avenues it provides for discharge of the anger when such expectations are not met.

Which kind of leads me to the fact that women are physically weaker than men. That’s the way it’s always been. Why is that so?

I presume that at the beginning of the evolutionary cycle, there must have been females who were physically equal to or even stronger than males as well as females who were weaker than males. Now why did natural selection favor females who were weaker than males in almost all species that exist today? What was the evolutionary advantage of being a female who was physically weaker than a male?

Is it because weaker females were “preferred” in some way by males for reproduction? Are we humans a result of stronger, aggressive males systematically raping weaker females over millions of years? That’s a horrifying thought. Yet, that’s how far back in time we might need to travel in order to find where the demons lie hidden.

Is there such a thing as a ‘rapist’ gene? Do all males have it or is it just some? Can it be modified to change / eradicate this aggressive, entitlement behavior? Time will tell.

As scientists explore the “ultimate” reasons for rape from an evolutionary perspective, law makers and citizens must pay attention to the proximate causes for rape. In Indian cities and our society – there are many proximate causes, all of which are fairly obvious.

Imagine this. A group of young aggressive males, filled with an entitlement of superiority, encounter a single woman who’s more educated or successful than them. They feel emasculated. Rage erupts. One person suggests rape.  Group dynamics kick in. The others join in. And that may be how a gang rape results. This is not a justification. It’s an explanation. An explanation that does not provide solutions to preventing rape. But it provides some clues to women as to how they can safeguard themselves by spotting or avoiding signs of trouble.

The question is – why do men have a sense of entitlement? What do they feel entitled to? Can we medically or otherwise (mandatory therapy?) erase such notions from their minds? Research should hopefully shed some light on this.

As long as the law looks at crimes against women through the eyes of men, nothing will ever change.

An aam aadmi’s letter

To whomsoever it may concern.

They call me aam admi. For you babalog, that translates to “ordinary man.” Presumably women are included in there as well. That’s what they call me. I don’t know the first thing about supply side economics. I’ve never listened to Beethoven. I couldn’t tell an IIT from an ITI. There are many things I don’t know. But, I have a God given ability to detect bull shit. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a few things off my chest.

When we got our independence, I was ecstatic. I was one of the millions who lined up whenever the Mahatma gave us the word. Then, I heard that Pandit-ji had his reservations about me. He wasn’t sure if I would exercise the right to vote responsibly. Well, here’s the thing. Neither did I. Who knows what’s best for the country? Who do we trust? Pandit-ji and his friends came highly recommended by the Mahatma. They had studied at firangi universities, spoke English and rubbed shoulders with world leaders. Once again, I fell in line when the Mahatma asked me to support his protege. I had a job to find, a family to take care of and mouths to feed. I didn’t have time to think it through. So, without protest, I voted for Nehru, in the hope that he was our Messiah and that he would part the Red Sea and lead us to the Promised Land.

I shed tears when Chacha died. He was our Messiah. We hadn’t yet made it across the Red Sea. In fact, there was no sea. I found myself marooned on a desert with no friendly faces. Pandit-ji, in spite of his firangi degrees and polished accent, had blown it. The lone face that I recognized of Lal Bahadur was but a brief mirage. And that’s when the nightmares started.

They say that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. If that’s the case, I must fault Jawaharlal, the tree and not the fruit, Indira. But my gut tells me that that Jawaharlal was not the tree. He was just the guy who watered a tree called the Indian National Congress. This tree did not produce fruits. Rather, it sucked the life out of the ground it grew on, and gave shelter to reptiles and insects and rodents, which in turn preyed on me.

I wish I could write away the twenty years between 1970 and 1990 as a bad dream. Even now, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and anxious that the past may return to revive its hold on me. But trust me when I say that I have a short memory and am trying my best to move on.

The damage that Indira wrought was not to my stomach. It was to my psyche. She said, “Garibi Hatao.” I enthusiastically cheered, more in hope and despair simultaneously and not out of belief. As I said, my instincts told me that these were reptiles, rodents and insects. Hope turned to anger and slowly resignation. And then despair, when one of my own turned his back on us and assassinated our Prime Minister. I lost one more familiar face and that hurt me even though I didn’t trust Indira entirely. Her son was another fleeting mirage. I’m told that he did some good for the country, but am not entirely sure what he did for me.

They tell me that we were in a lot of trouble in 1991. And this man named Narasimha Rao bailed us out of this trouble. I didn’t know he was capable of this feat. I voted for him because he was part of this tree that I told you about. Turns out that he wasn’t entirely a reptile. Another fleeting vision as far as I’m concerned.

Things have been getting better in the last twenty years, I’ll happily admit. I’ve got a cell phone. I can see roads being laid. A lot of my friends have left for cities. I see shiny buildings when I visit them. But twenty years is a long time to wait when you have too little to show for it. There was a time I had resigned myself to my fate. Now, I am not being allowed to even do that. I’ve seen things that I now can’t put out of my mind. My aspirations are spinning out of control. My country has changed a lot. And it doesn’t stand by itself any more. The destinies of all countries are now inter linked, they say. I wouldn’t know too much about that. I have no idea what current account deficit means, and why we need foreign investment so we can have supermarkets and megastores. All I know is that there still aren’t enough jobs for my people and things need to get a lot better before we can afford to fritter time on ideological and political debates. I’ve been waiting for a long while. I wish these fellows would get on with the program so my children can have a better future.

What galls me is that, not only are they frittering away precious time but they are using that time to loot my house. There are thieves inside my house, emptying it as I speak and there are folks outside my house yelling “thief.” It’s like I’ve become invisible to both of them. Neither is helping me.

Anna Hazare, God bless him, says he wants to help me. But, I don’t have the time to make it to Jantar Mantar each time he asks. With due respect, he’s not the Mahatma. Those were different days. And they were different men back then. I trust Anna-ji. But he also wants to tie me to a tree and whip me if I try to drown my sorrows in cheap liquor. So I wonder if I should trust a guy who wants to whip me. Like I said, no one helps me anymore.

This chap, Kejriwal, seems to have his heart in the right place. But I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. I guess it’s hard to meet up when one of you feels the need to be in a city and on TV all the time. To Kejriwal, I tell you this. It’s not enough to start an Aam Aadmi party. It’s not even enough to be an Aam Aadmi yourself. You need to come out here and meet me. Don’t tell me about those reptiles. I know about them already. I’ve seen more than fifty years of reptiles. Help me. We’ve been waiting for a Messiah. We’re so jaded that we’ll give you too a chance. And we fear that you too will blow it.

You know what I don’t need? I don’t need sermonizing and moralizing. Don’t tell me things I know. Don’t tell me that I’m illiterate. I know that already. Don’t tell me that I suck because I vote for my religion and caste. I have good reasons for doing so. If anything, my religion and caste guys are the ones who’ve shown up in times of my need over thousands of years. I can’t abandon such instincts easily. Don’t tell me that we need a dictatorship because only dictators can control fools like me. I’m not the fool that I’m made out to be. In fact, quite the contrary. I’m the product of evolutionary intelligence that’s been gathering steam over millions of years. If I’ve come this far in the evolutionary game, I’m pretty sure that I can handle a few reptiles. So don’t tell me anything.  Just step aside and allow me to be. And help, if you can.

I’ve always dreamed of this Messiah in shining armor, who’ll swoop down from the skies and carry us all away into this land where there is freedom and dignity in life. And you know what? I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I’ve come around to believing that I, and only I, have my fate in my hands. For that, I need to be responsible. I need to change my habits. And I need to stop making excuses and think things through. I know all of this. But it’s going to be a while before I get there. I wonder if we have the time for me to get there. I don’t think there’s another choice. Let’s see how this one plays out.

Until then, although you may call me an Aam Aadmi, keep in mind that I’m anything but ordinary.

Best regards.

Mango (wo)man.

A Brief Overview of Hindu Cosmology

Time is possibly the most fascinating construct devised by humans. You may say that all organic entities have a ‘biological clock’ and act accordingly. And you might ask, what’s so special about time. It’s true that animals and plants seem to operate to built-in clocks. But humans are unique in the way that we have consciously embraced the notion of time and in the way we let our perception of time dictate how we lead our lives. A while back, I had written about ‘The Secret Powers of Time and Regret.’ You might want to check this out either before or after reading further.

What is time?

Time, at its core, is an artificial and abstract concept. In practice, it’s about keeping track of change and the patterns by which change manifests itself. Time is about keeping track of changes in ourselves and in the world around us. And this has become deeply embedded into our psyches, and into our religions and philosophies. The early human, for instance, must have noticed the regularity with which dawn broke and the sun set, and subliminally internalized the notion of time while deriving benefits of recognizing such patterns. One thing must have led to another, and eventually resulted in Egyptian and Greek sun dials, Indian hour glasses, Swiss clocks , Julian calendars and other inventions which helped in accurate measurement of and tracking time.

If there was no change or observable patterns either in ourselves or in the world around us, we would have simply ignored the passage of time. In other words, our mortal existences are so absurdly short that we have come to believe that there is a necessity to keep track of and measure time. There is no other entity (that we know of) in the universe which consciously does this and allows the concept of time to dictate its behavior.

Thought experiment

Imagine if each of us were to live for a few million years before dying. During the course of our lives, we would observe hills being formed, rivers changing courses and weather patterns changing so gradually that it’s possible that we might not value the notion of time or the practice of measuring it at all. I wonder how the absence of the notion of time would influence the way we live our lives.  Let’s take this to one logical extreme: Suppose we were all to be immortal, wouldn’t  we simply discard time since it would cease to have any value? So, could the converse be true? If we ceased to value time, would that be our ticket to immortality? Interestingly enough, that’s what eastern wisdom tells us – to stay in the now and discard all perceptions of time such as the past and the future. I told you that this was fascinating stuff.

Measuring time

There’s a lot to write on this. I’ll stick to what enthralls me about the way we and our religions have looked at time.

Abra’amaic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – take a linear view of time. They agree that the world started with the creation of the universe by God, who also created the first man and woman roughly five thousand years back. They have neatly compartmentalized time into the beginning – when God created man and woman, now – while we are alive, and the everafter, the future that comes after death when we shall receive Judgment and live in eternal bliss or torment depending on the way we led our lives. The simplicity of this compartmentalization is attractive. It provides a sense of purpose, which is to conduct our affairs now in a manner that we shall be one of God’s chosen ones in the future. It provides a basis in the past – which is that God created man five thousand years back.

Time is accorded a great deal of importance in these religious schools, which borrowed the Greek notion of time being finite and running out . This life that we have now is our only chance of getting it right. Once we die, our time ends, and so do our chances of correcting the errors of our ways. Seize the day and the life you have been given, they say. This simplicity is so powerfully compelling and so easy to grasp that it has taken roots in the way we’ve divided our history timeline – in terms of what happened before the birth of Jesus Christ (Before Christ – B.C.) and that which is happening in the year of our Lord (Anno Domini – A.D.).

Eastern schools are, in contrast, vexingly vague about time.  They insist that time is illusory and hence without value, and all that matters is this mysterious thing called “now.” They candidly confess that they don’t know when and where it all began, and who started this whole thing called the universe. They tell us that we’re trapped in a web of illusion called maya, and that time is merely one of the  illusory constructs which perpetuates maya. They ask – if nothing exists and everything is an illusion, then how can the concept of time be relevant? They tell us that if we can manage to find and stay in the moment, then time itself will cease to exist, and the past, present and future will merge into one and we will be able to see them simultaneously. Indeed, the Sakyamuni was believed to possess the powers of rising above time and view all his past lives, the stories of which came to be known as the Hitopadesha.

This is all confusing and perplexing, and intoxicating and exhilarating at the same time. We listen in fascination each time, and then go away, shaking our heads, back into our worlds in which time only moves forward linearly. We don’t know what to make of such theories, or what to do about them. The eastern concept of timelessness applies temporary balm on our wounded souls and scarred pysches, and provides us with some indescribable comfort. It soothes us to hear that time does not run out and that we will have more chances to get things right, and that God and this universe may not be as harsh and unforgiving as they are made out to be.

A look at Hindu cosmology, calendars and time scales

Carl Sagan describes the Big Bang and the creation of the universe in his television series “Cosmos,” which first aired when I was in school. In this, he talks about how it all began according to science, and how the universe formed within the first new nano seconds of the Big Bang. In the world of science, creation is synonymous with the formation of matter and the creation of space and time.

In “Cosmos,” Sagan makes an interesting observation about how Hinduism has looked at time. He says, ” <snip> a wonderful aspect of Hindu cosmology is that it is consonant with that of modern scientific cosmology. We know that the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and the cosmos, or at least its present incarnation, is something like 10 or 20 billion years old. The Hindu tradition has a day and night of Brahma in this range, somewhere in the region of 8.4 billion years. As far as I know. It is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.

Precisely for its uncanny resemblance to modern scientific cosmological time scales, I figured it would be interesting to share my understanding of the Hindu view of the age of the universe. These details are partly from my notes from reading Srimad Bhaagavatam and heavily borrowed from more erudite persons (my sisters), all of which can, I am sure, be found on Wikipedia.

Note: I’m not writing this to prove the superiority of the Hindu view vis-a-vis other religious views. I have no interest in such matters. Each religion brings forth its own compelling insight. That is the raison d’etre of each religion. To bring forth new insights and comfort. In the matter of cosmology and universal time scales, the Hindus have put forth a grand idea, and whether true or not, it does make the pulse quicken. My belief is that it would benefit all to take notice of this.

How old is the universe per Hindu cosmology?

The Hindu cosmic cycle is divided into Yugas, Chatur or Maha Yugas and Kalpas.

A ‘basic’ cycle is called a ‘Yuga‘ or an ‘age’. There are four such Yugas, each for a different tenure. These Yugas are Krita or Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. Their durations are (in human years):

Krita Yuga: 1,728,000 years. Treta Yuga: 1,296,000 years. Dwapara Yuga: 864,000 years. Kali Yuga: 432,000 years.

Note: At the end of each Yuga, the earth is overwhelmed by elements and humans are wiped out. Each Yuga is followed by an interlude of still and nothingness and life begins anew in the next Yuga. 

Each quartet, a set of 4 Yugas, is called a Maha Yuga or a Chatur Yuga.

 1 Maha Yuga = One quartet of 4 Yugas = sum of (Krita + Treta + Dwapara + Kali + all interludes between them) = 4,320,000 years = 4.32 million years.

1 Kalpa = 1,000 Maha Yugas = One half of a day of Brahma, the creator = 4.32 billion years.

Side notes

1. Each Kalpa is successively ruled by 14 Manus. Each reigning period of a Manu, the giver of Dharma, is 71.42 Maha Yugas. So, Manus come and go during the tenure of a Brahma.

2. Brahma is the creator of the universe, filled with its stars, planets and moons and Manus who reign periodically over it. Brahma is considered to be a manifestation of the (Para) Brahman, the or spirit underlying the universe which binds all things and is the fundamental energy that makes the cosmic dance possible. Even Brahma, the creator, cedes his place and “dies,” at the end of his tenure of a 100 years. And a new Brahma is manifested by the Para Brahman, and the cycle goes on. Such is the nature of the universe, according to the Hindus, one in which permanence is assured to none.

So, what do we get?

When we put the time lines together, we get –

A “full day” ie “day” + “night” of a Brahma works out to ( 2 x half-day of Brahma or 2 x Kalpa) = 2 x 4.32 billion = 8.64 billion years.

This number is interesting because cosmologists now believe that the Big Bang happened roughly 13 billion years back (revised significantly since Sagan did Cosmos twenty five years back). This number of 13 billion years is of the same magnitude (proportionally) to what the Hindus postulated many moons ago. This aspect of Rig Veda is nothing short of spellbinding. How could have they come up with such a grand scale – in billions of years – for the cosmological age of the universe? What kind of minds and awareness did they possess to get into the same ballpark timeline wise, when it has taken us billions of dollars worth of equipment and painstaking scientific research to get into the same ball park? Was it a lucky guess or is there more to this than meets the eye? Incredible.

What’s even more incredible is that the Hindus didn’t restrict themselves to the current universe. The Rig Veda tells us that the life of the cosmos stretches endlessly before the Big Bang and will stretch endlessly well after the current version of the universe ends. The life of a Brahma, we’re told, is 100 years of 360 days each, where each day = 8.64 billion years. Simple math (100 x 360 x 8.64 billion) gives us the life time of Brahma, which is the life of the cosmos. This number is a staggering 311 trillion years. And after 311 trillion years, the ‘old’ Brahma ‘dies’, and a ‘new’ Brahma is ‘born’. And the cycle of 311 trillion years repeats itself with a new Brahma, endlessly into time. Mind boggling!

The significance of the Sankalpa mantra

If you’re Hindu or if you’ve observed Hindu rituals, you may have heard a set of mantras called the Sankalpa mantra which precedes Hindu rituals. The Sankalpa mantra is meant to keep track of where we are, and the time it is now in this version of the cosmos that we exist, at the time of performing the said ritual.

A brief context first to the Sankalpa mantra

It is said that we are presently in the Sveta-Varaha kalpa in the reigning period of Vaivaswatha – the 7th Manu. In this Manvantara we are in the 28th Maha Yuga. As per Hindu cosmology, Brahma is supposed to have completed 50 Brahma years and is now in his 51st year. For this reason, he is called “Parardha-dvaya-jivin” ie he now lives in the second half of his life. The word ‘parardha’ means half. So Brahma is called this as he has completed one half of his life. This might help you make better sense when you hear or read about the Sankalpa. On a lighter note, we live in a time when our Brahma has reached middle age, and one can only hope that he doesn’t go through a mid-life crisis 🙂

As for the Sankalpa mantra, it goes roughly as follows-

…. dvi-teeya parardhe: In the second half of Brahma’s life

Sveta-varaha kalpe: in the kalpa of Sveta-Varaha

Vaivaswatha manvantare – in the reigning period of the Vaivaswatha Manu

Ashta Vimsati tame:  In the 28th Maha Yuga of the current Manvantara

Kaliyuge: in this Kali Yuga

Prathame Padhe: In the first quarter of this Kali Yuga. Note: Kali Yuga is said to have started in 3102 BC according to Aryabhatta.

Jamboodveepe: This denotes the place where the ritual is being performed. Note: India was once believed to have been an island called Jambudveepa.

Bhaarata Varshe, Bharata Kande: in this land called Bhaarata.

Sakhabde Mero, Dakshine Parsve: to the South of the Meru mountain. Note: Mount Meru is repeatedly referenced in Hindu purana, and is believed to have existed when India was once an island. 

Asmin Varthamane Vyavaharike: in the current period now reigning

Prabhavadi Shasti Samvatsaranam Madya: which is in the middle of a cycle of 60 years starting from the year Prabhava. Note: Hindu calendar was divided into sixty calendar years, each with a name to itself, the first of which is called Prabhava.

< insert name of year > Nama Samvatsare:  the name of the present year in the 60 year Hindu calendar. Note: The present year is called Nandana.

<fill in> ayane: Dakshin-ayane (when the sun travels south) or Uttar-ayane (when the sun travels north). Note: Uttarayana is the period between the winter and the summer solstices (roughly Dec 22 to June 21) and Dakshinayana is the other half of the year.

<fill in> ritou: Ritou denotes the six seasons or Ritus, who are Vasantha, Greeshma, Varsha, Sharadh, Hemantha and Shishira

<fill in> Maase: One of the 12 Tamil months when performed in Tamil tradition.

<fill in> Pakshe: Either Shukla Paksham (day after Amavasya to and including Pournami) or Krishna Paksham (day after Pournami to and including Amavasya)

<fill in> Subha Thithou: Name of the day of the month, which is one of the 15 days between Pournami and Amavasya. These are Prathama, Dvithiya, Trithiya, Chaturthi, Panchami, Shasti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, Dasami, Ekadasi, Dwadashi, Trayodasi, Chaturdasi, Pournami and Amavasya.

<fill in>Vaasara Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the day of the week, one of Bhanu, Soma, Bhowma, Soumya, Guru, Brugu and Sthira

<fill in> Nakshatra Yuktaa-yaam: Name of the Nakshatra or star prevalent on the day.

Upon reciting all of the above, the name of the ritual is said. According to HH Sri Paramacharya of Kanchi Kamakoti, the Sankalpam is a record of the ritual one performs with exact details going down to the day and location of the ritual. Presumably, this was an effective technique of keeping records and track of time in a tradition that relied more on word of mouth than writing things down.

There is another unusual feature of the Hindu calendar. Each year is labeled by the number of years elapsed since the epoch. As of 2012, 5114 years have elapsed in the Hindu calendar. The present epoch (Kali Yuga) is believed to have started on February 18, 3102 BC (though there are debates around this).

What boggles my mind is the ‘how did these guys keep track of everything?’ question. If the earth and the universe are being destroyed and rebuilt every so often, how do the Hindus confidently state that we are in the 51st year of Brahma? How did the information about the previous epochs get transferred across the epochs? The Hindu calendar is so precisely documented that they have every Manu in every epoch documented going all the way back to the beginning of the life of Brahma himself. How is this even possible? Should we dismiss this as carefully planned deception and bunkum? If it is deception, why would anyone go to such trouble to plan such elaborate deception when easier routes are available?

There is something inspiring about the way we humans have looked at time, especially those in the Vedic tradition. The next time you observe or perform a ritual, hopefully I have made it a more interesting exercise for us. Hopefully, it will make you wonder about the grand scale of this amazing universe and its life time, our own insignificance in the scheme of things that are destined till the end of time and the transcendent beauty of the nature of enquiry itself.

Let me wind up for now, with another quote from Carl Sagan on Hindu cosmology:

“The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond, to those of modern scientific cosmology. Its cycles run from our ordinary day and night to a day and night of Brahma, 8.64 billion years long. Longer than the age of the Earth or the Sun and about half the time since the Big Bang. And there are much longer time scales still.”

Happy journeys!

PS: For a topic as complex as this, I’d be surprised if there were no errors in the way I’ve understood things. I stand by, ready to correct errors and mis-statements. Do write and let me know if you see anything amiss. Thanks.

On Creativity

Earlier this week, I happened to read an outstanding interview of Doug Casey, an investment guru of some sorts, in which he is scathingly critical of the school system that we have today. This prompted me to go back and re-watch the ” target=”_blank”>famous video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about “how education is killing creativity.” This made me wonder as to the nature of creativity, and how it happens. So, I found ” target=”_blank”>another video by Steven Johnson, in which he talks about how creativity happens. All of this in turn led to thoughts such as, “If creativity is such an amazing thing, why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that creativity and pain are inseparable? Why do artists lead tortured existences and can creativity arise only out of pain?”

Here’s a synopsis of what I learnt, and my accompanying thoughts.

On why our schools are killing creativity (by Sir Ken Robinson)

What is creativity? There are many ways to describe it. I rather like the one which describes creativity as divergence in thought – an ability to consider infinite possibilities in the place of one or few. We are all born with it. Tragically, it dies within most of us by the time we cross the age of ten. Studies have demonstrated this. Conformity is the enemy of creativity, which likes to run unfettered and unshackled. The way we are schooled is much like the factory model, regimented and structured, and meant to enforce standards and conformity. This was borne out of the elitist notion during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe that most humans needed “schooling,” and out of the necessity created by the Industrial Revolution for a trained workforce. For a couple of centuries, the concept of “education through schooling” gained momentum on the back of the premise that “if you worked hard and went to college, you would find a job and become prosperous.” This worked for a minority of students who performed well on “standardized tests” and went on to obtain fine jobs and fat paychecks. For a large majority, it meant being relegated to the ranks of the “average” or “poor,” unfairly so because the schooling system did not value creativity that each of them possessed to begin with. The system continues till date, and hasn’t changed significantly over the last 100 years.

How does creativity happen? Where do good ideas come from? (by Steven Johnson)

Steven Johnson argues that creative breakthroughs don’t come through accidental moments of epiphany. Rather, they are the slow buildup of several related hunches (some which are ours, and some from others) which collide in our sub-conscious to produce what appear to be spontaneous bursts of inspiration. Great ideas require time to incubate before they hatch. He also makes the point that we live in an increasingly connected world of Facebook and mobile phones, which, although distracting, help connect us with others who may provide the missing hunches so we can assemble the whole picture for ourselves.

Why aren’t more of us creating things? Why is there a notion that great art comes only out of pain?

All of us love to create. We like to do things that we can get better at. Yet, we suppress these instincts for most of, if not all our lives. And, when leisure visits in our retirement years, we are at a loss as to how to fill our time. Why do we suppress our creative instincts and not let them flower? There are a couple of obvious reasons and one that is not so obvious.

First is the fear of punishment. In spite of all that is said, most workplaces do not reward creativity. So, we try to excel in our vocations through conformance rather than disruption. In most professions, except in a handful, predictability and stability are more valued than the inherently unstable process of creativity. Thus, we become slaves to standards and processes, and creativity dies a slow, painful death over time.

The second reason for loss in creativity is not so obvious. This is the ‘expert complex’ that we develop over time. Interestingly, research shows that the higher the intelligence, the lesser the creativity. Those with scores of 120 and higher on IQ tests have tended to perform poorly on creative fronts. These are ‘smart’ people, ‘who get it’ instantaneously and impatiently turn their minds away from considering other possibilities. As we get better at doing things, we become experts. Once we become experts, we spend our time defending the mountains we’ve built, rather than exploring new terrain. And thus, we turn ourselves away from creative pursuits.

The third reason is the fear of failure. As much as we enjoy creative pursuits, we carry with us a deep-seated fear of “not being good enough” at it. Since rewards from creativity are given only to those who scale its summits, we prefer to play it safe and pursue the mundane where even mediocrity is tolerated and compensated.

Even great, successful artists carry a fear of failure. Barbra Streisand, the singer who’s sold millions of records, once confessed to stage fright and shies away from live performances. In fact, success seems to bring with it an even greater fear of failure. The fear that somehow the artist does not possess what it takes to top the previous astounding accomplishment. This weirdly inexplicable fear drives a successful artist into drinking gin at ten in the morning, and drags him through a tortured existence to an early grave. Why is it so?

Is it the individual or the genius which creates?

Ancient notions of creativity described the individual as too insignificant, even incapable of creation by himself. Creativity was the divine spirit that ‘passed’ through him when it chose to visit him. They maintained a “distance” between the individual and his creation by attributing credit to the ‘genius’ who came to visit the artist and transported her to the realms of the divine.

In the Hindu tradition, to create is to dance with the Lord. An indelible image of Lord Shiva is that of Lord Nataraja, “the Lord of the Dance,” of the great temple of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The Ananda Thaandava of Lord Shiva represents his five activities – shrishti (creation), sthiti (preservation), samhara (destruction), tirobhava (illusion), and anugraha (emancipation), through which he maintains the harmony of the universe. To witness the dance of the divine spirit is to see the world truly as it is – an endless moment of cosmic creativity in which birth, life and death come and go to every entity in this universe.

The ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the creative process similarly.  The Greeks had a word for the spirits whose possess our bodies during inspirational moments of creativity. They called these spirits ‘daemons.’ The Romans called this divine helper a ‘genius.’

It was only during the period of Renaissance that the notion of the individual himself being considered a genius and not separate from it, came about, and has stuck on since. One can speculate that this dissociation of the individual from the creative spirit may have led to extreme egotism and narcissism among artists and resulted in their tortured existences over the last five centuries.

When we regard ourselves as not responsible for creation, and merely as instruments of the divine spirit – there can be no room for pain.

We were born to create.

Great art may come out of great pain. But, the greatest of art comes from the greatest of bliss. To create is to let go of the few, and to embrace the infinite. It is to surrender to and dissolve oneself into the genius when it comes to possess, and draw it forth into expressions of exquisite beauty. To create is to dance with the divine spirit, with Nataraja himself.

This is the work we were born to do. Happy journeys.

Capital Punishment in India

The argument against capital punishment: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Hanging a murderer is to seek retribution and to not attempt his reformation. Death penalty is not ethical since none of us have the right to demand or take another’s life. Death penalty is not an intelligent option as it simply erases the offender and leaves the root cause of the offence untouched. No matter how heinous the crime, it is the society who created the criminal. Hanging the convicted is to cop out of society’s responsibility to rehabilitate the criminal. It is to play an unforgiving God and exercising only the powers of destruction and protection and not the ones of creation. It is a step back in our evolutionary process by perpetuating a destructive ‘tit for tat’ cycle.

The argument for it: “To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable.” 

Premeditated murder is unpardonable. It reflects an incorrigible condition which neither time nor hardship can cure. When a human plans in cold blood to seek the extermination of fellow humans, he loses the right to society’s compassion. Not erasing the convicted offender would be to run the risk of repeat offences. Rehabilitating the offender costs money and effort which are better spent on higher priorities with better return on investment. To punish is to deter. To deter is to prevent. To not punish is to sanction the un-sanctionable and violates the trust of citizens. It is to create an environment where everything is viewed through the prism of self-flagellating tolerance.

Adding a new breed of criminal to the mix: The terrorist

The capital punishment debate is complicated as it is. Now add a new breed of criminal to the mix. The terrorist.

The terrorist is an individual who, for various reasons, has chosen to commit premeditated murder. What the terrorist does is definitely not an impersonal war. It is very personal. The terrorist provides no advance warning of the targets, location or time of attack. Several months of planning often go into an attack. It is hardly credible to view terrorists as passionate individuals who lost their heads over some petty provocation and indulged in an impulsive act, and thus ones to regret their actions later and reform. Terrorists represent the fringes of society where the possibility of rehabilitation is the faintest. They are the closest to a lost cause as we can find. Stopping the growth of terrorism is not a lost cause. Reforming terrorists might be. They combine the passion of a temporarily deranged murderer with the cold blooded-ness of a serial killer and the intelligence of an army. If not destroyed, they will destroy. It is us or them. As dramatic as it sounds, that’s the way it looks from the view point of an ordinary citizen.

The Dilemma: Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri?

The Supreme Court today upheld death sentence to Ajmal Kasab, who participated in the murder of innocent people during the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Should we hang Kasab in our lust for revenge? Or should the President pardon him? Will pardoning terrorists encourage more terrorism or will it stem the flow by winning their hearts and minds?

To pardon a terrorist is to break the inviolable social contract that we the citizens have made with our governments to serve the society and to be protected in return. To extinguish the life of a terrorist is to uphold Dharma on which depends the survival of our society as we know it. A Gandhian style of “blank check” tolerance, as history tells us, can make martyrs out of the tolerant. On the flip side, to forgive Kasab is to take the high road and demonstrate the divinity in us.

If you had the choice: would you choose the power to destroy an enemy? Or, would you choose the power to change his mind? Dharmic justice or Gandhigiri? This is a tough call in a country which has taught us both.

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.

The Minority Report

I’m writing about something that happened a long time back. In fact, it was so long back that I was in 8th standard in school. My school was run by the Church of South India. The class was an eclectic mix of rich and not-so-rich, mostly Tamil, Malayali and Telugu speaking, Christian, Muslim and Hindu kids. The common ‘profiles’, as I recall, were the good old fashioned Tamil Brahmin kids, Malayali Christian kids, Tamil speaking Telugu kids who grew up in Chennai as well as those Tamil kids from other parts of Tamil Nadu like Salem, Madurai and Trichi. The last mentioned group of kids came from affluent families who owned vast areas of agrarian real estate and which had made their fortunes on the backs of farmers who tilled their ill gotten land, and now wanted their wards to enjoy a good ‘city’ education.

Needless to say, it made interesting conversation when Sushil Koshi Babukutten, Sanjay Rao (a Telugu kid from Chennai), Saravanan (Tamil Gounder kid from Madurai), Abdul Kader and moi sat down for our afternoon lunch. The conversation mostly centered around the various unflattering attributes of our teachers as usual. The collective innocence of our group was such that none of us had any idea of the schisms that existed between our communities. Yes, I had vaguely overheard conversations in family gatherings about ‘anti-brahmin’ activities in our state. Not having encountered any first hand evidence on this front, I paid little attention to such things. I was more interested in cricket, football, marks and getting homework done on time. And, I suspect, that was the case with the others too.

We were the distinguished denizens of the last row in the class. As to why we had been banished to the last row – there were many theories. I attributed it to my height. Unfortunately, the rest of the group did not have the ability to make such claims. We all suspected that we had been identified as ‘trouble makers’ and segregated in the last row where we could make the least possible trouble. And I also suspect that we all agreed with this assessment.

Abdul Kader was a classic trouble maker. Every school has a don. Abdul was ours. He was flamboyant. He was ruthless. And he set new standards in academic non-performance. His crowning accomplishment came in a quarterly exam when his total of 32 in all subjects failed to cross the passing grade of 35 for one subject. This achievement did not go unnoticed by Mr. Jayaraman, our maths teacher, who’d seen many Abduls come and go in his time. While handing out Abdul’s answer sheet he remarked, “You’ve attempted 3 out of 20 questions. To say that you’ve attempted them is going a bit too far given that you’ve got zero on 100.” Abdul smiled. Mr. Jayaraman was not a man to let such things so very easily. He was well aware of Abdul’s reputation as our don. Such things were mere trifle to him when it came to discussing competency in the Pythagorean method. “Abdul, tell me why you come to school. You’ve spent 2 years in each standard. At this rate, you’ll still be here when your friends have finished college.”  Abdul nonchalantly replied, “Sir, in that case, I’ll skip college and join my friends.” Keenly aware of his inability to influence Abdul, Mr. Jayaraman let go, knowing that he needed to hand out answer sheets to other kids who were by now on tenterhooks waiting for the verdict. He let go, and moved on. Abdul raised both hands in a winning pose like a boxer, and smiled again.

Abdul may have been our don. But, he was the don with the heart of gold. Once he came up to me and said, “You are a “padikarra payyan” (studious kid). If anyone gives you trouble, let me know. I’ll handle it.” Abdul’s reputation was legendary. For starters, he was well connected. His elder brother was the Don of 10th grade. Senior ‘goons’ from that grade would seek Abdul’s counsel. He was always accompanied by his posse wherever he went. He rode a motorbike to school, and generally his arrival or departure from a room or building was a much heralded event. There were also rumors of his ruthless ability to ‘straighten out’ those who did not adhere to his ‘laws’. He would bring us juicy tales of fights with bus conductors, roadside vendors and auto rickshaw drivers. The tales would always end with how he vanquished his enemies. The message was pretty simple and clear. “Don’t mess with me.”

Sushil’s parents lived in ‘the Gulf’. For the longest time, I had no idea what the ‘gulf’ was. I thought it was a town in Kerala. Occasionally, he’d tell us that his parents were coming down to Chennai. After every one of these visits, he’d always come back loaded with something ‘cool’ and ‘mysterious’. I remember that he once brought a Sony Walkman to class, which had headphones and we listened to the Beatles on it. He always dressed smartly, and set new fashion trends in school. He was always smiling. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing him upset or angry at anything. He would make light of the worst of predicaments and counseled us to do the same. In each group, you always have a kid who assumes the ‘elder brother’ role. Sushil was our elder brother. He was wise beyond his years, and always lent a willing ear to our problems. As the elder brother, he also felt obliged to be our group’s financier. He had chockfull of cash, and spent it liberally on ground nuts, grape juice or an occasional Gold Spot for his friends. In return for Sushil’s solutions to life’s problems, I coached him in mathematics. He had one of the worst phobias of numbers I’ve ever seen. Confronted with a simple and straightforward problem, he would freeze with furrowed brows and glazed eyes. After a few minutes, he’d look up and say, “I have no idea what to do.” It amazed me that such a wise man could not comprehend that ‘a*(b+c) =a*b +a*c’. My attempts to tune him into the magic world of numbers proved futile, as time would tell.

Sushil was our hero. He was smart, well dressed and articulate. We all jostled to be seen with him in public. He always had a few kids around him at any point, hanging on to his stories of foreign jaunts. Sushil had a ‘VCR’ at home, and he would come to school every day and tell us the tale of the movie he had watched the previous evening. He stayed with his indulgent grand parents, and made the most of it. He had covered major ground in travel and film watching at the ripe age of 12, and this added to his reputation of wisdom and maturity. Sushil’s most endearing quality was that he treated his friends well. He never had an unkind or sarcastic word for us. He would save us from embarrassment and take it upon himself. He was truly our elder brother who watched out for us. I cared for him so much that I nursed a deep concern about his deficiencies in the field of mathematical sciences. He usually dismissed such concerns with a sweeping “I’ll join my dad’s business in the gulf once this is over. All you need to do is to help me pass.” I swore that I’d do what was humanly possible to get that done.

Saravanan was a typical Tamil speaking Gounder kid, who resisted all attempts to speak to him in any language other than Tamil. His stoic silence to questions posed in other languages masked his lack of comprehension of them. He was medium height, dark with a longish face, and applied liberal amounts of oily substances to his hair. His hair was always neatly combed, with a curl down his forehead, which he guarded vigilantly. He was a boy of very few words. He spoke rarely, and on very few subjects. He was affiliated with another group of kids, who were commonly referred to as ‘hostel kids’. They were his fellow inmates of the school’s hostel, and his hostel network was far and wide. Saravanan was not the first ranker in class. But he was not known to do shabbily either. His consistency in staying in the middle ranks was admired by those in the lower ranks. Nothing perturbed him. No one perturbed him. He was a cactus, who survived on very little water, in the unfamiliar desert of a Chennai school. He was not the most sociable character. Occasionally, all one would get out him by way of response was a grunt. And that was generally well received when it happened.

Sanjay was the kid with whom I related more than others, though he came from a more affluent background than mine. He came from a higher-than-middle class, but not-quite-rich family. His dad was a teacher in our school, and made a fortune from teaching mathematics ‘tuition’ to the rich 12th standard students in our school. Sanjay was seen speaking Telugu to some kids, and Tamil to us, which I found very impressive at that impressionable age. Sanjay tried very hard to create his own niche in the school, but struggled till the end to find that spot in the sun. Otherwise, he was well regarded by his peers, and was known to be Sushil’s right-hand man and confidante.

The year was 1980. We had just returned from summer vacation to start eighth grade. And, that’s when things changed. For starters, our seating arrangements had been re-shuffled to our nasty surprise. Instead of Sushil and Sanjay, I had Saravanan and another kid on my sides. I took it in my stride, although I knew that neither of my neighbors could be placed in the eloquently social category. To my surprise, Saravanan appeared more talkative than usual. He doled out tales of family gatherings during the summer, trips to far flung villages and attendance at what appeared to be political meetings. Slowly, I gathered that Saravanan’s father enjoyed the company of politicians, and made liberal donations to such causes. He mentioned prominent names, and would casually slip out details of their having had ‘tiffen’ or tea at his house. All this was fine but boring. Patiently, I nodded my head way through his ramblings. To me, Anbazhagan’s appearance in Saravanan’s house was not very exciting stuff. And then, one fine day, Saravanan mentioned Periyaar.

It’s probably pertinent to pause here and examine what I knew about Periyaar at that point. Amidst my indifference to politics and political talk, I had, by then, ingested some details on Periyaar. I knew that he was part of some movement which didn’t relish the sight of Brahmins in the state. I’d also heard stories about how Periyaar didn’t believe in God, and how he had once garlanded a deity in a temple with footwear. These stories didn’t endear Periyaar to me. I was also aware of the fact that I was brahmin. So, I made the simple inference that if Periyaar hated Brahmins and if I was a brahmin, then Periyaar and I would not get along well. That I wouldn’t get along with Periyaar didn’t bother me. I had more on my mind in those days, and did not ponder this issue deeply. In essence, I knew who Periyaar was, and where he stood in my book.

So, when Saravanan mentioned Periyaar, I listened. He talked about what his dad had told him about Periyaar. He talked about the things Periyaar had done for the people. At this point, Saravanan made an important mistake. He loudly proclaimed (so loud that others could hear clearly) that Periyaar had once said, “If you see a snake and a Brahmin, kill the Brahmin first,” and he laughed. By now, the rest of the class had heard this and there was pin drop silence in the room. Even our class teacher who was grading papers stopped and looked up when he heard the silence. He, however, had not heard what Saravanan had said. I could feel fifty pairs of eyes on me. I could see Saravanan’s mocking smile looking back at me to sense my reaction. Slowly he drawled, “So, what do you think about Periyaar and what I said?” I was livid, not at Periyaar but at Saravanan. And I knew I looked livid. “Why don’t you try saying it one more time and I’ll tell you what I think,” the threat was obvious in my voice and I stood up.

By this time, our class teacher, Mr. Rufus Jeyakumar, got up from his chair and had started walking towards us. Saravanan stood up and repeated the statement about snakes and Brahmins. He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The next thing I remember was throwing a punch straight into his mouth, and blood trickling from it. Saravanan swung his arm back, and I was ready by now. I had him pinned under my armpit, and we both collapsed on the table with books and pencils and paper flying around. Mr. Rufus just stood by and watched, as I was told later. That afternoon, Saravanan got the beating of his life. When it was over and I got up, Mr. Rufus looked at me calmly and said, “Are you done? He asked for it. And, you gave it to him. If it happens again, I’ll give it to both of you.” And he walked away.

I’ve remembered this incident all these days, because this was my first direct encounter with bigotry and communal hatred. I didn’t know enough to comprehend why it was there. Nor was I wise enough then to walk away in dignity. But, I learnt that the bigotry was there. I could see it in Saravanan’s eyes. I found it confusing that, only a few months back, the hatred was not there and we’d been just a couple of kids horsing around. In many ways, that was the beginning of the end of our innocence.

This was originally written by me in June 2006. Reproduced in-toto in 2012. If you’re a Madras Christian College school alum who remembers those days, do get in touch. 

God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – A Review

“God Delusion” is a bestseller non fiction book, written by Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford.

The primary purpose of the book is to debunk the Judeo-Christian notion of God as a “superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us,” which Dawkins calls the “God Hypothesis.” His argument against this hypothesis is that a God with such abilities has to be more complex than what it has created, and hence improbable. He then raises the reductio ad absurdum question of who created God. In fact, this elaboration on the “Mommy, who created God?” question is the central argument of the book.

Dawkins’ argues that science and religion are mutually incompatible for the reason that science is all about evidence, while religion is about believing without evidence. He makes the point “morality needs no religion,” which, frankly, has been said before. He stands on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell when he says this.

My observations from reading the book

Dawkins treats “believers” with little respect. e.g. calling them ‘faith heads’ to make unwarranted, implied comparisons with ‘crack heads’. This is not necessary. On the other hand, religion has become accustomed to getting respect. So, maybe a little disrespect is not a bad tactic to get attention. Agree with his real point that there is no reason why religion should be immune to criticism or get any special treatment.

Dawkins blames religion disproportionately. Reading the book – one would be tempted to believe that if religion were to be somehow obliterated, all the world’s wars would cease. Rather dramatic and flawed since things like language and good old megalomaniacal tendencies have contributed more to wars than religion. I get the sense that Dawkins is hung up more on labels rather than religion or God itself, and is stretching to make the linkages. his point really is that religion is a ‘marker’ much like tribal membership, language, skin color etc except that we’re giving it way more (undeserved) respect than the other markers. This is a fair point but not a very useful one.

Dawkins recommends impractical and absurd measures like “children should not be given the religious labels of their parents”. Again, he unfairly picks on religion, since non-religious beliefs of parents play possibly an even more important role in deciding children’s future development. Further, children tend to grow out of their parents’ belief systems as they have experiences of their own

Dawkins makes no distinction between ‘liberals’, ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ in religions. This may not be a minor point. Just like – not all atheists are pacifists (eg Stalin, Mao), not all theists are pacifist. So why, again, isolate religion as a sole culprit?

He is unable to pin down what he really feels is wrong with or does not makes sense about religion from an evolutionary perspective. Dawkins would be the first to admit that religion has a “utility” value in evolution, although he would qualify this by saying “even false beliefs have utility value.” False belief or not, religion’s utility appears to be there. So, what’s the problem with this? Why the hysteria against religion? This is especially disappointing given his strengths in this area.

The Verdict

Dawkins brings a great deal of passion to the book, but reading it can feel like watching a Michael Moore movie. His tone is smug, logic sloppy at times and the book occasionally includes crass phrases like “sucking up to God”. When it comes to his own specialty, evolutionary biology, there is none better. But the purpose of this book is not to explain science. It is rather, as he tells us, “to raise consciousness,” which is quite another thing. The book ends up being a unscientific polemic, in which an evolutionary biologist stretches into areas like socio-economics, politics, history, philosophy, theosophy, theology etc. where he has no core expertise. For a person who does not believe in God, he appears more obsessed with Him than the believers.

Dawkins puts forth that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” aspiration. On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is certainty that God exists and 7 is certainty that God does not exist, Dawkins rates himself a 6. “I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there,” he says. An assumption, not coincidentally that has fetched him millions of dollars.

If you’re looking for a “good atheist” book, this one’s not it.

What is the Higgs Boson?

Today (July 4, 2012), scientists from CERN in Europe announced that they may have found clear signs of a particle which is thought to be the Higgs boson, popularly known as the God particle. The hardworking scientists aren’t getting ahead of themselves, and are not quite confirming the existence of the Higgs boson outright. They’ve stopped at saying that they have evidence for a new particle, which “must be a boson” and that “there is a high probability that this could be the Higgs boson.”

What is the Higgs boson? Why is it called the God particle?

Is there a simple way to describe this without doing gross injustice to the years of work and thought that has gone into it? Not really, but what ho! plunge into it we shall, in any case.

All matter is composed of fundamental particles. In fact, scientists have uncovered twelve particles that can be described as building blocks of matter. There may be more yet to be found. As of now, there are twelve. Out of these twelve, three (electron, up/down quarks) are considered even more fundamental for the reason that everything else can be constructed using a combination of these three. In other words, a few basic particles combine in various possible ways to create higher level particles. Higher level particles get together in other possible manners and shapes to form chairs, cats, people and plants, which have perceptible mass. I think we should leave this at that, for fear that if we go any further, our brains will begin to tie themselves into knots.

Long story short, there are a small number of sub-atomic, “massless” particles which combine mysteriously to form matter. Mysteriously? How do an electron and an up quark decide to form a neutron? What is it that triggers these combinations causing matter to be formed?

This is where the Higgs boson comes in. Peter Higgs, a British physicist, came up with the theory that there *had* be this even more inscrutably mysterious particle that catalyzed interactions between the fundamental particles, which results in matter being formed. He and later scientists have envisioned this “thing” as sort of a massless wave that exists everywhere. When other particles interact with this energy field, if you will, they combine and begin transformation into matter. Whew! Hope that made sense. This theoretical particle was named the Higgs boson, in honor of its postulator, and the popular media began dubbing it the “God particle” due to the powers of creation ascribed to it.

How do you prove something called the God particle exists?

For a good part of four decades, the Higgs boson has remained a theory in search of proof. Speaking of proof, how exactly do you go about proving a thing like the God particle? Well, here’s how it roughly works. You have two models. One which says, “Yes, there’s a Higgs boson”. And another that says, “No, there isn’t.” You let each model to make predictions on effects that can be observed. An example of an observable effect is what happens when two particles are smashed into each other, otherwise known as a “particle collision.” So, scientist conduct collisions and record the data from the collisions. And then they check to see if there are observable differences between predictions of the two models. In this particular case of the Higgs boson, the difference predicted between the models is incredibly tiny. Since this difference is so small, bajillions of data are needed before you can come to a statistically significant conclusion. All of this also means you need apparatus that can generate enormous amounts of energy required to conduct particle collision experiments.

This is where the CERN labs in Europe came in. They spent billions of dollars in building the Large Hadron Collider, designed to go in search of the God particle. And, they have been running 40 million collisions a second, all day for the entire year during the last two years.  And, it looks like they have finally found something that looks like the God particle. Amazing stuff.

So, what does this all mean?

First, it is a reflection on this day and age that we have to hold a press conference to cautiously announce that we may have discovered the God particle. There is something indefinably amusing and ironic about this act. That we who have been created by the God particle are not yet sure if our creator exists! This drama appears filled with even more irony when you consider that a large majority of people on this planet are unlikely to even notice this announcement regarding their creator.

Cartoon on reactions to God particle announcement

Having said that, the quest for figuring out how it all got started just got a whole lot interesting. We’ve all heard that the universe started from nothingness and exploded into what we know as the universe with a big bang. The one thing that has mystified scientists about this theory is the question, “How and why did matter form after the big bang?” The Higgs boson, if proved, gives them something to stand and build on.

The day is not too far when CERN scientists will be able to confidently confirm that the God particle does exist. And then will come the question, “Who created the God particle? And where did it come from?”

Picture, my friend, abhi bakhi hai. Get some popcorn, sit back on the couch, make yourself comfortable and have fun watching! Cheers.

An Inconvenient Truth

There are inconsiderate human beings that occupy this planet in every village, town, city and country. Even so, I wouldn’t be straying far from the truth when I say that we Indians occupy a special place in the pantheon of insensitivity. We are a nation of uncaring, indifferent boors, whose lives are only occasionally punctuated by those (increasingly rare) Satyameva Jayate moments, when we sit down and pretend to care about our fellow citizens.

The Inconsiderate Indian

Our indifference manifests in countless exotic ways. It could take the form of spit impelled out of a window of a moving bus or car. It showcases itself in how we drive on the other side of the road, passing those who wait patiently for the light to turn green. Our selfishness blossoms when presented with a long line in front of a small counter with a harassed clerk, and plots clever ways to cut through and get around the indignity of waiting. Mindless road/traffic planners, rude hospital staff, robotically insensitive school principals, gossiping colleagues, uncaring airport staff.. The list goes on. So, it should come as no surprise when our leaders display the same inconsideration that we have so carefully cultivated amongst ourselves. Yet, it surprises us when we hear that our ministers have been pilfering from us, promoting their sons and daughters and circumventing the laws of the land to suit their purposes.

There is one potentially redeeming aspect of the Inconsiderate Indian, which suggests that this condition might not, in fact, be incorrigible. Our strain of inconsideration largely stems from indifference and mindlessness, and is less insidious than its cousin variety that breeds on malice and ill-will. We’re not a malicious people, by and large. But, we, surely, are dim witted. Mindlessness and indifference are progeny of foolishness. In fact, that may be the best piece of information we have at our disposal. That we are mere fools and not evil monsters like what the chinese system has perpetrated. Of course, the worry remains that our behavior is not really borne of our idiocy and it reflects our true selves. In any case, idiocy, in my book, is a far lesser crime compared to malice and leaves room for hope that we may yet overcome this failing someday.

Why are we a nation of dimwitted fools?

Never mind Viswanathan Anand. Never mind that Silicon Valley genius engineer, who invented that clever thing that lets us search the internet. Never mind Homi Bhabha. Never mind J.C. Bose and C. V. Raman. Never mind that ours is the land of Buddha and the Vedas. Never mind the nostalgia from having invented zero. Make no mistake about it. We are a nation of fools. There’s no dearth of evidence or fools, to support this hypothesis, in our otherwise lovely nation.

So, what’s the solution?

This is the tricky part. There are two reasons why this is tricky.

The first part of the trickiness has to do with the possibility that there may exist no solution. There is no magic wand to wave or potion you could force down throats that could rid us of our insufferable mindlessness. I like to think that if there was one, we, in spite of our stupidity, would have found it by now. These sort of things, especially those that involve senselessness, take time to work through. The process of working through stuff is called evolution. Unfortunately, the way evolution seems to be working at the moment, it appears to be favoring the fools. One hopes that this trend will correct itself. If not, we will extinguish ourselves and the problem will solve itself.

Second, I cannot, in good conscience, issue a clarion call to corrective action to you, my reader. For, it would somehow imply that you, the reader, are part of this clan of fools, a notion which seems at odds with the fact that you are a What Ho! reader. What Ho! readers may be misguided. But, they are erudite. They like the finer things in life like What Ho!. They may be many things. But, they are no fools. I say this with sincerest respect and in the fondest hope of retaining your patronage.

Seriously, why are we a nation of fools?

Even a tiny North African country with 10 million people and nothing more than sandy deserts, has found a way to build roads, run hospitals, operate shiny airports and promote civility. I think, the truth is that we, at some fundamental level, seem to revel in our foolishness. We call it jugaad. We call it ‘street smarts’. Our brains work overtime to figure out detours. We are a nation of arrogant, self-centered people which believes that its brand of perverted intelligence is somehow superior because it helps beat the odds. We are a society of fools that celebrates the most ‘jugaadi’ fools. I, for one, take no pride in our jugaad. To me, jugaad is a symptom of how low we have fallen. It is a sign that evolution is favoring the energetic fools amongst us.

The smart thing is to take the straight roads and drive faster. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this inconvenient truth. How about more sense and less jugaad?

A Bliss Mantra

From my notes from 2009. Here below is a “bliss mantra” from the Taitriya Upanishad in the Vedas, along with my interpretation.

<In Sanskrit>

Om saha naa vavatu saha nau bhunaktu
saha viryam kara vaavahai
tejaswinaa vadhItamastu maa vid vishavahai
Om shanti shanti shanti-hi

There are two interpretations. The first is as addressed to a friend or a partner

Let us enjoy life together, Let us experience life together
Let us engage ourselves together and share our energies to meet adversities
Pray we do not do or say anything that can divide us
Let there be bliss in our lives

The second is as addressed to the Universal Spirit (Parabrahman) which resides within all of us –

Let us be united, let our energies be united in overcoming adversities
Let our wisdom shine, Let us not be led astray by intellectual conquests
Let us be together in eternity, Let there be no division between us
Let there be bliss

Let there be bliss in your weekend.

This beautiful thing called empathy

Last Sunday, I watched a a fascinating conversation between His Holiness Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, titled “Neuroscience and the emerging mind,”. The dialogue revolved around the questions of “what triggers empathy?” and “can we be trained to be empathetic?”. I spent an hour watching the scientists and the monk in rapt attention. Here’s a gist.

Empathy is the ability to view the world from another’s perspective. Of all emotions, it’s empathy that makes us human. Some would even say it’s empathy that makes us divine. So how exactly does empathy work from a neurological perspective? Prof. V. Ramachandran at University of California, San Diego explains it nicely. Not a surprise since he’s been researching this topic for over two decades. Here’s my understanding of what he’s found.

The brain, at its core, is a mushy mass of gooey tissue filled with a massive number of neurons. The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain, and contains 10-13 billion neurons. What are neurons? They’re cells that excitable. When they’re excited, they transmit information through electric signals. When you lean forward to pick up a cup, there’s a neuron in your brain that fires and coordinates the motor movement of the arm stretching, fingers clasping the handle and the hand picking it up.

What made things more intriguing was the discovery of what Prof. Ramachandran calls “mirror neurons”, found in the cortex. Mirror neurons fire when *someone else* performs an action that you’re familiar with. In other words, a mirror neuron fires in my brain when *you* lean forward to pick up a cup. And soon after its firing, my hand signals back to the brain saying “It’s not you picking up the cup. It’s the other person”. All of this happens reflexively in the background. Amazing stuff.

Mirror neurons are the agents of empathy in the brain. When you see another person being pricked with a pin, you flinch reflexively because of them. Your finger quickly sends a message back saying “safe” and that’s how you realize that it’s not you being pricked. In experiments performed on folks with prosthetic arms, subjects actually experienced pain when watching another person being pricked. That’s because their arms lacked cells to transmit “safe” back to the brain! Suddenly, the question of – can we be “trained” to be empathetic? – doesn’t appear out of bounds!

All this talk did leave me a tad uncomfortable. It’s as though we’re trespassing noisily into a sanctum where one must tread with respect. The strength of science lies in its irreverence, which keeps it moving forward and from settling in a comfort zone. That just might be its Achilles heel as well. Science seeks to discover so it can manipulate and control. Any quest based on the notion of “how can I control what’s going on”, I believe, will fail ultimately. Action-without-agenda has far higher staying power, resilience and chances of achieving its goals than action-with-agenda. This is what eastern wisdom tells us. And that’s what His Holiness Dalai Lama subtly conveyed to the professors in the room.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. It holds the key to happiness. Forcing it upon another violates the idea of empathy itself.

ps: This was a great way to spend an hour on a Sunday morning. Check out the video when you get a chance. cheers.

Istanbul

Notes from a recent trip to Turkey 

A world historian in mid 16th century could not have been faulted for confidently predicting the dominance of Asia and Islam in world affairs for times to come. The dominant empires of the world at that time were the Mughal Empire in Hindustan and the Ottoman empire in Middle East Asia and Europe.

Mohammad Jalal-ud-din Akbar had just firmly established the Mughal empire in Hindustan, having seized Delhi back from Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya (Hemu), following it up by annexing Kandahar from the Persians. Shahenshah Akbar-e-Azam was just getting into his stride on the way to becoming the greatest ruler of the Mughal empire.

At that precise moment in history, the Ottoman empire was at its zenith, led by Kanuni Sultan Suleiman, known in the East as Suleiman “the Law Giver” and in the West as Suleiman “the Magnificent” – with Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Hungary and Rhodes as well as entire Middle East Asia and large swathes of North Africa in its sway. Their Christian rivals – the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary – were kept in check if not subjugated. The Holy City of Jerusalem came to fall into the hands of the Empire. And the Shia Safavid dynasty in Persia had just surrendered to the dominance of the Sultan who marched triumphantly into Baghdad.

Incidentally, around the exact same time, a gentleman by the name of Ivan IV “the Terrible” had not so quietly crowned himself the “Tsar”, laying the seeds for the famous Tsarist empire that grew over time to dominate Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What heady times it must have been for the historian! Between the Mughal and Ottoman empires, they controlled nearly 1 of 5 people on the planet and produced close to half the world’s GDP. Although Akbar the Great ruled over a greater size of population and was more progressive in his governance, it is Suleiman who understandably captured the attention of the western world at that time. And, Constantinople, overlooking the Bosphorus, was justifiably described the “center of the world”.

Yet, history has a way of making something big happen every hundred years or so. And so the fortunes swung towards the Europeans in the 17th and the 18th centuries as the British, Spaniards and the Portuguese came to pre-eminence and supplanted the Islamic empires around the world. The crowning achievement of these later centuries, of course, was the systematic establishment and dominance of India as a western colony, which sealed the British empire’s status as the new world power by the time the 19th century rolled around.

Flash forward to the early 20th century – when a sniper’s bullet felled the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, triggering what came to be known as the Great War or the First World War. The four major empires – the Hapsburgs (from Austria-Hungary), the Ottomans, the Russian Tsarist empire and the British empire – with their historical rivalries in the background, clashed in this major world conflict, one which resulted in a victory for the Allies (England, France, Russia) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary). Ironically, the Ottoman empire chose to throw in its lot on the side of its once bitter rival – Austria-Hungary – and ended up on the losing side.

Notwithstanding its success in the war, the Tsarist empire in Russia was overthrown in the Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin and comrades. The Austrian-Hungarian empire was whittled down to a shell of its former self. The British empire’s dependence on American military technology was established, which eventually led to the forced withdrawal of England from its colonies by the end of the Second World War by the Americans. The Ottoman empire, already described as the “sick man of Europe” was dismembered and distributed among the Allied Forces after the First World War in a stunning and humiliating reversal for the Turks who had held court in most of Europe and Middle East Asia for a good part of six centuries. Indeed, post Second World War, no less than 39 new countries were formed, which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus all four empires perished and were either dismantled or transformed, sooner or later, in the aftermath of the war, thus paving the way for the United States to emerge as the new power in the 20th century.

It was against this backdrop that a group of rebel ‘nationalists’ led by Mustafa Kemal (who later took the title ‘Ataturk’), a Turkish officer in the Ottoman army, defeated the Allied forces in Anatolia (Central Turkey) with tacit support from the Russian Bolsheviks and forced the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which led the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and the return of Constantinople to Turkey after a brief period of Allied occupation.

If Rome is the eternal city, Istanbul – as Constantinople was renamed by Kemal Ataturk – has to be the timeless city, having endured centuries of struggle and change. Once the bastion of Christianity in the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire, and then the capital of the Islamic Ottoman Turks, Istanbul is now a modern, secular and vibrant metropolis which yearns to be admitted into the European fold, of which it was once the capital city.

An admission letter from the Indian Institute of Technology

This year, as is the case each year, there will be crazed competition among teenagers, in which they will fight each other to the finish for a grand prize. Yes, I’m talking about the Hunger Games, also known as the Indian Institute of Technology Joint Entrance Exam (IIT JEE) – in which hundreds of thousands of contestants from all over the country will take each other on, in a riveting drama and spectacle watched by the population at large – for the privilege of entering the hallowed portals of learning at the dozen IIT campuses in the country. Last year, less than 1% of aspirants were admitted, making this easily the most competitive race in the world. Compare with Harvard which accepted 7% of applicants last year.

From: The Director of Admissions, IIT JEE

To: “Hunger Games” Winner, Class of 2016

Dear Winner,

Congratulations. You’ve made it!

First, I salute your parents’ dogged determination and single-minded focus in making sure that you got in. I tip my hat to your grandparents for their prayers, and to your siblings for intuitively grasping the significance of the stakes and staying out of your hair as you prepared for the ordeal. I commend your school in advance for its annual report, which they will publish shortly, carrying 4×6 photos of winners like yourself. I would salute you, but we all know that you had nothing to do with this.

Let me share details about the class of 2016. This year, we have one successful aspirant who neither attended Kota nor comes from the city of Hyderabad. We’re investigating the reasons for this anomaly. For security reasons, I must keep her name confidential. The boy-girl ratio in the class of 2016 will continue to resemble that of armed forces. My advice: Learn Telugu. And, start practising your pick-up lines.

Over the next four years, you will have an opportunity to demonstrate your repressed truculence towards absorbing any education whatsoever, and most of you will seize it. More than half our faculty is not looking forward to your presence on campus, as they are fully aware of the disregard you will demonstrate towards gentlemen named Maxwell, Gauss and Lorentz. Indeed, you will be blind to the joys of science and engineering which you never had in the first place.

You’re now a life member of the most exclusive club in the world. Allow me point out some of the exciting benefits that await you.

– You will be sought after throughout your life. You will have opportunities to enter varied and unconnected universes in investment banking, angel investing, optimizing search algorithms, designing the next Angry Birds app, increasing pre-paid SIM card sales in Assam and creating powerpoint presentations for the next desktop operating system. Sadly, a miniscule percent of your class will “engineer” anything of value.

– You will be a member of various google and yahoo alumni groups, the primary purpose of which will be to find jobs for all of your relatives.

– You will be enrolled into a lifelong email relationship with our alumni association, whose idea of robust engagement is to invite you to a re-union twenty five long years after you’ve left the campus.

– You will be presented opportunities to obtain enormous power. Some of you will use this responsibly to enable social empowerment by implementing national ID systems. Yet others will use it to make shady deals with Sri Lankan day traders. Most of you will prove yourselves to be incapable of receiving or handling this and fade into obscurity.

– You will spend most of your life “living upto your potential”, advancing your career, competing with rather than winning friends, and in having unreasonably high expectations of the world at large. It’s likely that disillusionment will hold you in its uncomfortably tight embrace by the time you enter your forties. At that point, a number of you will embark on a search for “the meaning of happiness”, whatever that means.

Fret not. The picture is not entirely dire. It’s entirely possible that the “IIT education”, which you spent your energies assiduously avoiding, may have actually penetrated your consciousness without your knowledge. Some of you will wake up to the wonders of learning and creativity at some distant point in time. And an even smaller fraction of your class will finally get to bask in the bliss of comprehending the insignificance of it all.

Welcome to IIT and God speed!

Best regards.

If you liked this, you might also like Weighted Average – a campus tale.

Rahul Dravid – The Accidental Hero

It’s not hard to understand why Rahul Dravid is celebrated as a hero. There are obvious and undeniable reasons. Yet at some level it is hard to fathom how such a persona – one who was so unwilling to seek public attention and uncompromisingly focused inwardly – came to be a hero in these modern times.

In India, it’s hard not to be popular if you’re a cricketer who has scored the second highest number of runs in (Indian) Test history. We love ranks and hierarchy out here in this lovely land of ours. We are easily impressed by words like “first”, “most” and “highest”, when it comes to individual accomplishments. Dravid scaled the summit of fans’ expectations with the skill of a practiced mountaineer. He checked all the stats boxes and ensured that all flattering adjectives applied.  He “left no stone unturned” (in his own words) in the quest to scale peaks. Dravid was like the studious kid in school, whose single minded pursuit of the goal leaves peers, teachers and observers in awe. He was the ultimate geek of Indian cricket’s high school years. Usually, geeks evoke grudging admiration. Very few become celebrated heroes.

Dravid managed to slip through the cordon that enforces the rules of celebrity stardom in modern times and get noticed. And, as always, destiny had a hand in it. The Dravid-Laxman heroics in Kolkatta in 2001 rejuvenated a nation disillusioned by cricket shenanigans and hungry for evidence that it still had the mojo. Beating the nemesis after being truly down and out – Dravid demonstrated that practiced determination and patience had a role to play in winning. That it wasn’t only about hurried displays of extraordinary genius on a given day. He showed us that sweetest of triumphs come from systematic application of fundamental principles, and that the purist still had a role to play in the scheme of things. Fate handed him the opportunities to make his case. And he made it all so well. And thus he got our attention and became our accidental hero.

What if destiny had not conspired. Would we still celebrate Dravid with the passion that we do? The tale of Dravid is not about the 13,288 runs and 36 hundreds in Tests at an average of 52.31. It’s about the gentleman who elevated himself above the din of shirt swirling, chest thumping and fist pumping heroics that have come to define the modern cricket celebrity. The story is of a an ordinarily reticent man, who overcame astounding odds to capture the imagination of an easily distracted public through unwavering devotion to the sublimely beautiful aspects of the game. It is the tale of a man who was not beaten twice on consecutive balls.

I’d like to think that Dravid would have still walked away with ‘sadness and pride’ even if he had scored half the runs and centuries and not pulled off every heroic rescue that he did. But I wonder if he would still have been our hero.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

There’s a storm brewing in this country, in the form of the alleged 2G scam, which has the potential to unseat the government. Given the complexity of this case, and our own lack of time to comprehend what’s being reported, not to mention who to believe about what, I figured I’d put together a simple dossary of facts and observations on this. Here’s everything you’ve always wanted to know about the 2G scam but were too afraid to ask.

The What Ho! Guide to the 2G Scam

Pertinent Facts 

1. 2G is a technology used to provide voice and data services by operators such as Vodafone, Airtel, BSNL, etc

2. Offering voice and data services requires something called spectrum – a band of frequency specifically allocated for this purpose – which is allocated to qualified operators.

3. Spectrum is scarce because it is limited to a specific band of frequencies.

4. To the seller, spectrum is free. There is no cost to creating spectrum since it’s simply the right to use air waves. This complicates things when you try to price it. If something cost Rs. 100, you could add a profit and arrive at a price for it. When a good does not have any intrinsic cost, pricing is subjective and purely driven by demand.

5. In countries all over the world including India, spectrum is treated as a national asset very much like land owned by the government, and sold by governments to buyers in the form of licenses.

6. To the buyer, spectrum is not free since there are limits to availability, and further because governments would like to derive income from the sale, just as they would if they sold a public sector company to private sector

7. The price paid for spectrum by operators affects the tariffs offered by them. As the price goes higher, so will the tariffs since operators have to recover their costs and make profits on the services offered

8. If the prices offered by operators are too high, the common man may not able to afford the services. So, it is not surprising that a government could deliberately set a low price for licenses so as to enable telecom services to reach the masses.

9. If the government deliberately under-prices spectrum, it need not necessarily be misconstrued as “losses to the exchequer”. In any case, any and all “losses” are notional since the government is not losing money out of its pocket. They are “lost” revenue (what could have been).

10. Hence it is the responsibility of governments to devise a proper mechanism so A. operators have a free and fair shot at winning spectrum bids. This creates a conducive business environment and promotes competition in the country which in turn benefits the customer. B. ultimately the needs of common people (consumers) are met, in the form of reasonable tariffs at adequate quality

11. There are several methods to selling a national asset. A couple are 1. Auctions – there are many types of auctions. Highest bid auction is the most well known. 2. First Come First Served (FCFS) – typically used to sell a distressed asset for which there are few takers

12. For something like 2G licenses which are in great demand and have high value and counterbalanced by the need to promote telecom services to the masses, selecting the procurement method is not simple and straightforward.

What happened

1. The NDA govt mooted the idea of First Come First Served. It was never made into policy or ratified by the PMO/Cabinet at that time.

2. The UPA govt which followed continued the FCFS line of thinking and converted it into policy. This was led by Dayanidhi Maran first and executed by A. Raja who followed him. Apparently, the PMO had objections, although I’m not sure exactly what and how forcefully they made them. Net of the story is that FCFS came to be the policy

3. The Telecom Minister A. Raja led the process of procurement – in which it is alleged that favoritism was exhibited in the FCFS process. In other words, some companies were prevented from coming in first, others were favored and another lot of them decided to stay out of the fray not fancying their chances.

4. A number of winners came out of this process – a good number of which turned out to be companies unconnected to Telecom. Some of them were clearly real estate companies and entered the fray for the sole purpose of not creating a telecom business but to re-sell their licenses to an operator for a profit. Think of them as touts and blackmarketeers who buy movie tickets in bulk in advance and sell to movie watchers for a profit. However, there is nothing illegal about a real estate company buying a telecom license, especially if the govt considered them “qualified buyers” when they bought them.

5.  Some of the companies who ended up as “winners” of 2G licenses, promptly turned around and sold their licenses to foreign operators for a hefty profit. The questions that this raises are: A. Did the govt have the right policy in place? B. Did they implement the policy fairly? C. Was the process of bidding subverted in favor of a few, friendly buyers? D. Couldn’t the profit made by these fly-by-night operators (adds upto to Rs. 20K crores+) have been made by the govt instead? E. Were there any individuals or companies who benefited illegally from this? In short, this looked and smelled like a scam when these details came out four years back.

A landmark Supreme Court judgement earlier this week

Earlier in the week, SC quashed 122 licenses granted by the government and asked for these licenses to be re-bid. The court did not place culpability or guilt on any specific person. Instead, it commented on the inherent unfairness of the FCFS buying policy as it pertained to sale of 2G licenses and also on the shoddy way it was implemented by the govt.

It also asked a Trial Court to decide if there should be a probe into the role of Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, who was Finance Minister during the period the licenses were awarded.

Observations

To even the most naive and under-informed observer, it is clear that there’s something rotten in Denmark. This smells like a scam. The reluctance of the govt to act/correct for four long years adds fuel to the speculative fire. This has gone on long enough. Our Prime Minister needs to speak up.

The UPA govt and the Congress party are trying to put lipstick on a pig when they blame the NDA govt. Blaming the NDA govt for FCFS is like Dhoni blaming Sourav Ganguly for losing in Australia. They are barking up the wrong tree. The Govt should stop patronizing the people of India and come right out and admit if there were mistakes, and penalize those who committed them. Their reluctance makes one wonder how deep this rot goes.

The BJP has done a poor job of holding people’s attention to pertinent details of this scam. The usual cry of the BJP to call for the resignation of the PM or Chidambaram is likely to fall on deaf ears as the party has 1. done nothing to expose the corruption 2. done nothing to merit their status as an opposition party. In fact, every statement made by BJP may actually weaken the case against the govt. Nothing works worse than a bad argument for a good cause.

Does the SC judgement mean that our cell phone tariffs are going to go up? Well, the telecom companies whose licenses are cancelled cover only 5% of the subscribers. It’s unlikely that prices will go up because of this judgement. The prices may go up for other reasons like  prices have gone far too low for operators to make profits in this market.

Update: The trial court has dismissed the petition from Subramanian Swamy to initiate a probe against P. Chidambaram. Subramanian Swamy has the option to appeal this judgement in the High Court and then the Supreme Court. Interestingly, Swamy’s petition to quash licenses was first rejected by the High Court before the Supreme Court upheld it. This legal battle is far from over.

There are some details which I’ve skipped to keep this readable. Do write back with your observations.

The Secret Powers of Time and Regret

We live in an incredibly fascinating world. I found more evidence of this in the last couple of weeks while reading a couple of different but related articles.

The first insight came from a video by Professor Philip Zimbardo on the “The Secret Powers of Time“. The good professor posits that we, humans, tend to live in one of six ‘time zones’ – 2 of which focus on the past, 2 on the present, and 2 on the future. Of those who live in the past, there are those who are ‘past positive‘ who focus on the ‘good’ memories (birthdays, weddings, past glory, etc.). And there are those who are ‘past negative‘ and wallow in regrets and failures. Those who live in the present can be divided into hedonistic “seeking knowledge, pleasure and living for now” and those who view life as fated “my life is destined to be thus and no amount of planning will help”.

Most of us are ‘future oriented’, mainly because evolutionary forces have favored this approach. That’s the reason we are here and carry this genetic predisposition. According to Prof. Zimbardo, there are two ways of living in the future – One is to be disciplined, learn to work than play, to avoid temptation of the present and postpone gratification. There is another way to be future oriented, which depending on your religious views, starts with the premise that life begins after the death of the mortal body, and one has to earn the rewards for what happens in the after life, in this life.

For example, Protestant nations tend to be very future oriented and consistently outperform others in every economic measure thanks in big part to the Protestant ethic of ‘trusting the future, working hard and earning the right to be called God’s chosen people’. Interestingly, countries that lie along the equator, where weather patterns are uniform and things don’t often change, tend to be more present oriented. Catholic nations such as Spain or Italy tend to be more past oriented. In fact, incredibly so much so that there are cultures (in Southern Italy) which do not have words for ‘plan’ or denoting the future tense.

How about the quality of life in the time zones? Countries which tend to be present oriented tend to have the longest life expectancy. And cities like New York City and London which lie at the furthest end of the future planning spectrum have been observed to have the highest rates of coronary heart disease.

So, the “time culture” of the people makes a profound impact on the personality for a nation and on the personal outcomes for its inhabitants. Fascinating! Another way of internalizing this might be to say – you are likely to be happiest when living in a country/city/neighborhood or working for a company which matches your own personal “time culture”, assuming we have the luxury of being to able to make that choice.  As much as some of us might complain about how slowly things happen in India, there are those of us who believe it to be one of its charms and the secret of its endurance.

The second insight came from an article from Psyblog, which describes the “amazing power of regret to shape our future“. The key observation made by the author is that – regret is not just a backward looking emotion. It is also forward looking. Which is to say that we have the power to anticipate regret and we try to avoid it. This is truly a powerful insight into the workings of our minds.

The article also provides a very cool example of how anticipation of regret works, and sometimes in very irrational ways!

Swapping Lottery Tickets – An example of how we anticipate regret:  In a study, people were asked to first choose lottery tickets. Once they had chosen, they were asked if they’d be willing to exchange their ticket with another person. Those willing to exchange were offered a chocolate truffle as incentive. Surprisingly, less than 50% agreed. Why surprising? Because all lottery tickets have an equal chance of winning, and there is nothing better or worse about any ticket. So, it would make sense to take the chocolate truffle and exchange your ticket every single time.

So, why did more than 50% of the people act irrationally?

This is where anticipation of regret kicks in. We tend to project into the future when making decisions and imagine consequences. Though this is usually the right thing to do, sometimes it works against us. What if we exchanged our ticket and it ends up being the winning one? It is this anticipation of regret that at times stops us from acting rationally and taking the no-brainer chances that come our way. By the way, the only species of organic life observed to be immune to anticipatory regret are auto drivers in Chennai who would rather turn down a handsome offer and wait it out in the auto stand for more. Again, this is one of those things we might have always known instinctively. But, it’s worth a pause to reflect on how anticipatory regret shapes the decisions we make in our lives.

On this note, I leave you with a few questions, the answers to which could improve the quality of the lives we lead.

Which cultural time zone do you belong to? Are you past positive, hedonistic or future oriented? Do you believe in after-life? Does the company you work for or the neighborhood, city, country you live in – reflect your time zone preferences?

I’ve heard a few people claim that they don’t have any regrets. The more useful question to ask is – Do you have any anticipated regrets?

You can watch Prof. Zimbardo’s video on YouTube. And, you can read the Psyblog article here.

pip pip and toodles.

Till Death Do Us Part: The wisdom in love and marriage

Groucho Marx said, “I refuse to become a member of any club that’s willing to admit me”. This clever absurdism reveals the innate human tendency to desire something and yet feel unworthy of it at the same time.

It’s been such a long held, gloomy Western tradition to view marriage through a Marxist lens, that one wonders how marriage happens at all in those societies. Imagine the odds of two strangers coming into contact with each other and upon examination, incredulously find themselves so mutually compatible as to finally overcome the Marxist objection and then proceeding to subject themselves to an oscillation between the Marxist extremes of yearning to be with their loved one and longing to be rid of them. Eroding western self esteem, especially among women when it comes to marriage, has spawned chick flicks, flit lit and whole genres of beauty products and talk shows around “why you’re worth it”.

The Indian male lies at the polar opposite end of the spectrum across from the western female, and is often barges into clubs uninvited and without membership. Look no further than the typical matrimonial advertisement to find proof of complete absence of any Marxist tendency on his part. The matrimonial preferences of the Great Indian Male have evolved steadily from “caste and age” in the ‘60s and ‘70s to physical attributes “extremely fair and beautiful” in the ‘80s to ‘the physically perfect working woman’ in the ‘90s and this decade. The males themselves have been subject to lesser standards, with the “teetotaller, non smoker and broad minded” staples ruling the roost uninterrupted over the decades. Yes, serial killer you can be, but thou shalt not smoke.

Times, they are a changin’, for the Indian male. The male/female ratio in Indiahas steadily dropped over the decades. More women work now in 21st century India already compared to the entire 20th century. Still, the pool of ‘eligible women’ is so much smaller than ‘demand’ that women now call the shots in matters of matrimony. The Indian male is in dire straits and it’s not clear if he understands that.

 But, I digress. This is not about the Indian male. It’s about the wisdom of love and marriage.

Wisdom is that which arrives when we realize that we were not born with the skills to live, and embark on the journey to acquire them. The dawning of wisdom brings with it a desire to aim for tranquillity and peace and live a life devoid of anxiety and fear. It tells us to avoid the excessive enthusiasms and the pains of bitter disappointments, and that frogs don’t always turn into princes. Above all, wisdom helps us control our fears and arrests our flights from imagined shadows on the walls. It tells us that we should not fear death but we should fear fear itself.

So, what does wisdom say about matters of what the poets have called the ‘heart’? Is love like smoking which gives you pleasure but to be given up entirely? Is it like exercise to be practised with predictable regularity because it is healthy? Or is it chocolate and wine to be indulged in, when occasion calls for it? Is the contemplative worship of the divine extolled by the Vedas or the brotherly love taught by Jesus superior to the rash love of a Romeo and the crazed acts of an Othello?

The romantics will insist that love is uplifting much like music, and with enough therapy and counselling, pain and disappointment can be averted. Romeo could have met someone more suitable through cupid.com. Othello just needed to work out his aggression on a therapist’s couch. And, all Devdas needed was a stage IV intervention.

The stoics, on the other hand, will quietly aver that love is a losing game in which the players chase chimeras, and will advocate abdication of the emotion. In a rare moment of anger, they will rise up and tell us that we are destined to love only that which we don’t possess and that the acquisition of the object of desire sounds the death knell for love. They will tell us to ignore the unavoidable reality that humans were born to love. They will point out that for a man and a woman to live together day in and day out for a lifetime is one miracle that Vatican may have overlooked.

Perhaps it is wiser to view love through different lenses, and not the Marxist, romantic or stoic ones. Maybe it is simpler to view love as ‘mature’ and ‘immature’. Immature love subjects itself to the wild swings of idealization and disappointment, and finally meets its end with death or distance or both. Mature love resists idealization, and proactively appreciates the good and the bad within us and pushes for temperance. Death does not do mature love part. As veterans of marriage will put it, marriage is the process of continuously getting used to things you didn’t expect. In fact, creative arguing may just be the secret of a happy marriage. Many a young couple embarks on the journey not knowing how to argue and find their way through trial and error. But, immature love brooks no argument or compromise. And, when we refuse to argue or compromise, we put ourselves on the road to some kind of a cataclysm.

We just might begin to appreciate love when we resort neither to dogmatic optimism or a philosophy built on fear. For it is love that teaches the analytic mind an inescapable life lesson that it is analysis, and not love, that is flawed.

Wasn’t it Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who said, “Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go into the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius”

Also, check out the infinitely funnier “For Better or For Worse”  from the Laughing Gas collection.

“Why do I have to learn this?”

If I had a dime for everytime I got this question from my younger one (in fifth grade), I’d have assets so disproportionate to my income that would put the local MLA to shame.

“Why do I have to learn this?” Caught off guard the first few times, I drew a blank. Quickly, I learnt to come up with more rehearsed spiels on how “learning is good” or diversionary tactics like “hang on, my pants are on fire”. Over time, I’ve learnt one thing, and also came face to face with a numbing realization.

I’ve learnt that she’s not sold on the “learning is good” bit. Not even close. Learning’s a tough sell when you’re competing with iPads, Taylor Swift and X-boxes. And yeah, I’ve come face to face with that gigantic woolly mammoth in the room. That there’s really no earthly reason to learn 99pct of the stuff taught in schools. It’s a ghastly truth that I’ve truly internalized only as a parent. So, we’ve struck an uneasy truce. Hindi and Social Sciences have been bartered away for the cause of A’s in Math and Sciences. 10 year olds drive hard bargains these days.

The ramifications of this knowledge are so serious and dangerous that our children can never find out about it. If the kids of the world were to somehow become wise to the fact that they didn’t have to learn anything at all, then they’d spend all their time in fun and frolic, making friends and building bonds, and growing up to be socially well adjusted adults without self esteem issues. We can’t have that, now, can we?

O Pakistan Whither Goest Thou?

Everyone’s talking about Pakistan. You can’t run for office, nay even step out of the kitchen these days without knowing your Waziris from your Mehsuds and your Lashkars from your Jaishes. Not everyone knows what they are talking about. After all, there are lots of guys over there doing some incredibly bizarre stuff, that it’s not always clear as to ‘who’s doing what to whom’. Here’s my attempt to clarify the picture.

In the spirit of fair disclosure, I must admit that I’ve never visited Pakistan, let alone lived there. It might sound surprising considering that I live about a 2-3 hour flight away from the country. Let’s face it. A weekend in Abbotabad is not high on a list of bliss filled, weekend getaways. Not to mention that faintest traces of a Pakistani visa stamp on the passport is likely to get you water boarded in Guantanamo. Instead, I’ve relied on conversations with Pakistanis (had while studying in the US), articles in the Economist (inexplicably committed to memory over the years), and healthy levels of stereotyping (that just springs spontaneously). Read carefully, memorize every detail, and prepare for a lucrative career as an ‘expert’ on the lecture circuit.

A Short History of Nearly Everything Pakistani

Did you know that the name Pakistan is an acronym? For P(unjab), A(fghan) province aka North Western Frontier, K(ashmir), S(indh) and ‘stan‘ from Baluchistan. It also happens to mean the “Land of the Pure” in Persian, a great example of those fortuitous coincidences in history when English acronyms and Persian words magically align to make sense. In this nugget lies the answer to a question that has nagged Indians over the decades. Why does Pakistan adamantly hold on its Kashmir fantasy? The answer is pretty obvious. Giving up Kashmir would mean removing ‘K’ from Pakistan, thus rendering it “Paistan”, which sounds like a place in Mangalore.

To cut a long history short, I’d pick two events which conspired to change its trajectory. The first was a Mongol warrior named Babur deciding to swing by through the Khyber pass in 1526 AD, which resulted in the Islamization of the region. The second was the culmination of that destiny through the declaration of an Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 23 March 1956. The Mughal secular doctrine, from which the Turks learnt a few tricks, was forgotten in the din, and it is a irony of history that Turkey now stands a shining example to its erstwhile teacher.

Lots of things have happened since August 14, 1947. Unfortunately, most of it had to do with losing expensive wars, leading to a paranoid-delusional fixation with India, and a self-destructive one-dimensional escalation of its Islamic identity in rebellion against a world which has consistently failed to acknowledge or even remember that Pakistan was once part of an original act – as one of the cradles of civilization itself. Hell clearly hath no fury like a mutinous 3,000 year old.

From an Indian perspective, Pakistan has always represented a failure of imagination. How can one build a theocratic republic in the 20th century? And from the Pakistani perspective, India has presumably stood for a failure of principle. How does one build an identity without an anchor in dogma? Sixty four years later, the Indian identity has not been forged and still is hard to fathom or describe. On the flip side, the Pakistani identity that has emerged has been more disturbing than inspiring. There have been failures on both sides. At this moment in time, Pakistan’s miss clearly appears the more egregious one.

Don’t Leave Home Without Your Lashkar

There is a bewildering cast of characters on the loose today in Pakistan. The only thing they have in common is that they are all fighting. What’s with all these lashkars and jaishes, you may ask and quite rightly so. Say you are a small time tribal chieftain in North Waziristan, which has a reputation for being a badass neighborhood. You start to think about assembling an entourage for protection. That’s when you assemble your own personal lashkar, a word which means ‘tribal posse’. No jihadi group worth its salt would be caught dead or attempting a suicide bombing without a Lashkar or Jaish prefix. There’s Lashkar-e-Toiba, which fights Indians in Kashmir. There’s Lashkar-e-Janghvi which specializes in bombing Shiites in Quetta.  There are many lesser known lashkars fighting the Taliban in FATA. And, then there’s Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is just about game for just about anything on just about any given day.

Let’s talk about the Taliban. These chaps started out fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan alongside the US and General Zia. Al Qaeda are their foreign guests. After the Soviets left, the Taliban ran amok in Afghanistan, pursuing their twin passions of opium trafficking and locking up women. Post 9/11, the Taliban and their guests were decimated by the Americans and fled to their havens in FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). What bears mention is that FATA is not the same as the North Western Frontier Province, which, as the name suggests, is a province and governed by laws drafted in Islamabad. FATA, on the other hand, is governed by ‘agents’ who report directly to the President. The other thing to keep in mind is the distinction between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Taliban. What’s good? And, what’s bad? Well, the answer depends on whether you are asking the question in Karachi, Mumbai or Washington DC.

What’s Good, Phaedrus, and What’s Bad? Need We Ask Anyone to Know These Things?

Confused? What ho, let me explain. Take the example of a delightfully militant chap called Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan. He’s a Taliban leader from the Waziri clan, who’s interested in knocking the stuffing out of *only* the following people – Americans, Afghans and NATO. He’s the darling of Pakistani military types and is what’s called the good Taliban. On the other hand, Baitullah Mehsud, who comes from the rival Mehsud clan and accused of assassinating Benazir Bhutto, doesn’t get invited to parties and movie premieres in Islamabad because he is a bad Taliban. However, all Taliban, good and bad, share common proclivity towards toting Kalshnikovs, random caning, misogyny, facial hair, a bad attitude and an abhorrence of anything involving fun and frolic.

An Army which has a Country

Where’s the ISI in all of this? Before we answer that, let’s complicate things more. ISI is the intelligence wing of the military. The Army has its own intelligence wing called the MI. Since there was consensus that there was not enough intelligence going around, the Interior Ministry formed its own captive intelligence wing called the Special Branch. As for the military, you have the (in)famous Pakistani army, the sixth largest in the world. It is said that countries have armies. The only army in the world to have a country is the Pakistani one.

On any given day, no one really knows who’s fighting what. Case in point is the recent international incident in which American and Pakistani armed forces chased a group of (bad) Talibanis across the Durand line (Af-Pak border) only to be met with fire from the Frontier Corps. Are these guys the fundamentalist goons that they are made out to be? Well, the armed forces and the agencies are run by the non-bearded Oxford elite who are likely more fond of Johnny Walker than of Sharia.

Waziris, Afridis, Mehsuds, ISI, MI, Special Branch, the Army, Frontier Corps, good and bad Taliban, Al Qaeda. It’s a wonder that Somali pirates haven’t appeared on the scene yet. Naturally you may enquire (again, rightfully so) – what if I was a tourist wandering around the beatific Swat country side and bump into one of these chaps. How do I tell one from another? My friend, these trifling details won’t matter because you’ll be too busy getting beheaded to notice.

Bottom Line

Pakistan is not just a failing state. It’s a dying, once proud civilization, that held court to profound discourse in places like Taxila, and one which now stands teetering at the edge of the precipice. At some level, we all share the burden of resurrecting it. But, the solution at a fundamental level lies in the hands of its people alone. There is a third date worth mentioning. The day – Nov 1, 2011 – on which Imran Khan led an anti government rally attended by 100,000+ youth, surprising himself and his opponents alike. Is this a harbinger of a turnaround? Perhaps a date that might be cited 20 years hence as yet another inflection point in the country’s tortured existence? Can the former captain can get a spot of reverse swing going?

Imran Khan at a rally

Inshallah, I only wish. An implosion of Pakistan would mean the death of something that was once profound and sublime.

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”

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Once in a while, you have a force that arises in this universe which grows its strength only through changing the very conditions from which it arose.

Gandhi. Einstein. Jobs. Yes, he belongs on that list of people we find hard to describe with words, and can appreciate only by the impact they had on our consciousness.

So long and thanks for all the fish, Steve. We will miss you.

Can neutrinos travel faster than light?

Scientists in Europe claim that they have observed neutrinos traveling faster than light. What are neutrinos? Why is it surprising that they can travel faster than light? What’s the big deal?

Neutrinos

What are neutrinos? They are sub-atomic particles – little wisps of almost nothing, with no electrical charge. Being neutral, they are found nearly everywhere and can pass through matter unabsorbed. If you hold your hand toward the sunlight for one second, about a billion neutrinos from the sun will pass through it.

These “ghost particles”, as they’re often called, are part of the universe’s essential ingredients, and play a critical role in helping scientists understand some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and in crafting a picture of how our universe formed and evolved.

“Whence this creation has arisen. Perhaps, it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The one who looks down on it in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he knows not” – A hymn from the Rig Veda

A group of scientists working at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) – among other things – have been attempting to measure the velocity (or speed) of neutrinos, by shooting these particles through an “accelerator” (sort of a long tunnel built underground). In their experiments, the group found that neutrinos were arriving at their destinations earlier than expected. Startlingly, they appear to be traveling faster than light itself. No definitive conclusions have been drawn yet. The results will have to be examined by a wider group of scientists before they can be confirmed or deemed wrong.

Speed of Light

If we were to view the exquisitely intricate design of the universe as a “program” with some of the parameters as “fixed, constant and coded in” and everything else as “variable, relative, dynamic and subject to change”, the only constant (that we know of) is the speed of light (‘c’). Why is the speed of light constant? It just is. We don’t really know why. And light travels at slightly more than 186,000 miles per second. All we know or can say in this regard, is that our measurements till date have not disproved that assertion. It’s the way things work in this particular version of the universe that we find ourselves in, to the best of our knowledge. That light never slows down or comes to a rest and is always moving at a constant speed. This assertion forms a critical basis for Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity

The simplest way to explain this is to say that “nothing is absolute” or “everything is relative”. So, immediate answers to any question posed are “it depends” and “compared to what?” For example, a train said to be moving at 60 kmph is relative to a stationary observer on a platform, and not relative to another observer on another train moving in (say) the opposite direction at 70kmph. Everything in the universe is in motion or at rest, *relative to something*. Galaxies with their stars are racing, planets and moons are revolving and rotating and indeed the universe itself is expanding. Grossly simplified, the theory of general relativity is a framework that explains everything as relative and subject to a frame of reference with the notable exception of two things – the speed of light and the laws of physics themselves – which hold steadfast no matter whether you are in San Francisco or in some dark, uninhabited corner of the universe.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity is magnificent for many reasons. In particular, it is awe inspiring for the reason that it tells us that “time itself is relative”. Time itself moves faster or slower depending on the velocity of motion, a mind boggling notion. Clocks slow down when you move faster. Of course, this is not noticeable at speeds we humans move around at normally. The “time dilation” effect kicks in only when we can get to speeds resembling that of light.

Why the fuss about the CERN finding?

It’s tough being a sub-atomic particle these days with scientists constantly tracking your every movement and accusing you of some misdemeanor or the other. If it turns out to be true that neutrinos have been caught breaking the “speed limit of the universe”, the implications are profound at a fundamental level. No, it will not change the way we live in any way. The sun will still rise in the east. Our lives will weave their ways inexorably through to whatever lies ahead. We will continue to fight our daily battles, wage our petty wars and live our lives ordinarily as we did yesterday and the day before. It won’t tell us if there is a God who designed it all. It won’t tell us otherwise either. Yet, everything would have changed. Einstein once said “Time is just a mechanism that ensures that everything doesn’t happen all at once”. The future is nothing more than where light has not reached as yet, or in other words a past that is yet to happen. If something is found to travel faster than light, then notions of past, present, future, time, cause, effect, etc. become mysteriously murkier than ever.

But, it will add a smidgeon of hope and joy that we would have inched forward in the quest for knowing. It will tell us that there is more afoot, more thrill to be had in this pursuit, and simultaneously give us pause to examine this wonder that we call life.

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.

3 things everyone can do about corruption

Why is corruption such a big deal? India’s GDP is growing at 7-9% per annum, and presumably will continue to blaze along for some time. So, why fret about corruption when things are looking rosy? What are we complaining about? Don’t we have more important things to do than (Jan) Lokpal bill? We’ve been mired in corruption for 50 out of 65 years. What’s another few years? Is it even possible to fix it? Can this Pavlovian reflex that causes the reaching out of hands under tables and behind closed doors into another man’s pocket be cured?

Beyond the moral aspect, there are tangible and economic reasons as to why corruption belongs at the top of the list of issues India has to confront now.

The Numbers

India’s GDP (est) in 2010

  • Based on real exchange rate: $1.5 Trillion (Rank 12th in the world)
  • Based on purchasing power parity: $4 Trillion and change (Rank 5th in the world)
  • Growth rate: 8.3% (Rank: 7th in the world)

According to these key metrics, we’ve done well. In fact, outstandingly well.  So, why bother?

Why we should care

In the world of economics, capitalism and free markets, the past only evokes admiration and an occasional eulogy. The future is everything. The question that will be in front of us over the coming decade: How long can we keep this up? The answer lies in how we fix our problems. And if we do not fix the fixable, the future will be easy to predict. And, it won’t look pretty.

There are some good reasons to care about corruption:

1. It’s a tax and it destroys morale. Corruption introduces enormous inefficiencies. It raises the cost of living for all except the corrupt. It’s demoralizes the talented and hardworking amongst us.

2. Will growth slow corruption or corruption slow growth? The answer is yes to both. If we don’t kill corruption, we won’t be able to grow. If we don’t grow, we won’t be able to kill corruption.

3. Perception is bigger than reality: We are no longer a sheltered economy living in our own shadows. We are on the global stage. We have to assure our potential partners that we are serious and that they will be treated fairly. It is a mark of leadership. A corrupt nation cannot be a world leader.

3 things everyone can do on this journey

  1. Take a side: It doesn’t really matter which side. If you don’t like Anna, go find someone else who’s worthy of your support. Whatever you do, you cannot stay silent. Dialogue is the life blood of a democracy. As good citizens of this country, we owe it our voices.
  2. Say No to incompetency:  It is said that power corrupts. It‘s perhaps important to realize that incompetency too corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while incompetency corrupts the many. Those unwilling to subject themselves to the tough realities of merit and hard work, resort to corruption. Insist on a job well done, especially if you’ve had to pay them for it!
  3. Try the “rupee for rupee matching contribution” experiment:  Indira Gandhi once supposedly remarked, “Corruption is a global phenomenon” as a way to explain corruption away. We’ve glorified such leaders. These chickens have been roosting for decades, and it will take effort and time to root them out.  While you fight the good fight, how can you tell if your efforts are paying off? Try this: For every rupee you pay as “bribe”, pay yourself a matching rupee. Consider this your corruption provident fund. The size of this fund over time will give you an idea if we’re winning or losing. It’s easy to do. Worst case, you’ll have money to buy a few drinks and drown your sorrows if things take a little longer.

Which Side Are You On?

We are witnessing a remarkable period in the history of the world’s largest democracy. In just a few months, we’ve seen the Prime Minister’s Office censured by the Supreme Court (a first), a Union Cabinet Minister sent to jail (a first) for alleged involvement in the largest scam in our history, and now the spontaneous eruption of public support for Anna Hazare and the movement against corruption

There are polarized viewpoints on Anna’s agitation. There are those who worry if this is anarchy at its finest. They fret over an un-elected, self appointed ‘civil rights society’ holding an elected government hostage. And there are those who feel that enough is enough, and the time has come for voices to be heard and action to be had – in the crusade against corruption. They are coming out in the streets, on Facebook and in the media, anxious to press forward with the momentum and the spring to the step that Anna has brought to it. In effect, they have transplanted their trust (which should have been ideally with their elected representatives) to Anna and friends.

Is this the beginning of the end of an organized way of governing the nation? Or, is it the beginning of the end of old and corrupt ways of doing business? One hopes it is the latter. But, time will tell.

If Anna and friends deserve our support, it has to be for the sole reason that they are our best bets in a nation, in which unstained reputations and selfless leaders are scarcer than tickets for a Rajnikanth blockbuster on opening day. Their methods may not always appear reasonable, and not all of their points of view acceptable verbatim. Change has always been wrought by unreasonable men. Let’s hope they succeed at least in part.

No matter which side we are on, we have to celebrate the fact that we are witnessing a public dialogue of this magnitude in India for the first time. Dialogue is a life force of democracy. The day you take away a person’s right to free speech, you drive a dagger through its heart and mortally wound it.

As Voltaire once said famously “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”

No matter which side we are on, we have the responsibility to defend the life forces of democracy. Any government that fails to honor these forces deserves our firmest opposition, and to be shown the door.

No matter which side we are on, we have to agree that there is only one side. The side that wants to rid this country of the cancer that is surely consuming it. We have an obligation to take the time to find those we trust and give them our support. Whoever they may be. And discard the rest.

India is the world’s largest democracy.  It’s about time we proved it.

In Defence of America

There is a lot of hand wringing about the recent downgrade of the US debt, an unprecedented event, which some say, is the beginning of the end of the amazing run of the United States of America. What Ho! puts the American phenomenon, predictions about its decline and fall and other world sentiments about the land of the brave and the home of the free in perspective in this month’s Op-Ed.

Of the man-made phenomena in the last two hundred plus years, one that has to bubble towards the top of a ranking order has to be the rise of the American state. Built on principles of individual liberty and exercise of free will, America has shown the way and led a graceful transition of the Western hemisphere out of an old world ruled by kings, queens, despots and dictators. Along the way, it proved that an economic system built around free markets, merely another form of free will, can be world beating. The free flow of people, thoughts and money in and out of America has led to a renaissance in science, technology, economics and art, which has benefited the entire world.

The extraordinary founding fathers who designed this extraordinary system set out to simply give full expression to the positive and energizing aspects of human existence, a luxury they were not afforded by the masters they escaped from. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” may appear simple and obvious today to those of us who have seen or experienced it. Obvious and simple – it was not, two hundred years ago. The birth and rise of America is an unquestionable  triumph of the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence. Something the entire world should marvel and take pride in. After all, mistakes of entire generations past precipitated the necessity for an America to emerge. The American phenomenon truly belongs to the entire world.

Peoples around the world have little comprehension of the historical struggles of America and the demons it has cast out, in its rise to eminence. America has battled corruption, slavery, racism, sexism, phobias in its relatively young existence and emerged stronger after each tussle, giving rise to hope and optimism in that process. It is an undeniable fact that America was built by and made up of Christians, who have worked comfortably with their beliefs and not let these stand in the way of their guiding principles. It is more a testament to the triumph of reason, good judgement and principles and less to the Christian beliefs themselves. It is difficult to understand a system, its evolution and its struggles. It is easier to cast aspersions by filtered viewing of the demons that are yet to be cast out. Unsurprisingly, most people take the easy route.

Today, the view of America is tinged with many emotions – a little admiration, largely envious resentment and and even some outright hatred. While hundreds of thousands of people are busy emigrating their way to a hopeful life in America, thousands others are busy giving vent to their hatred and planning acts of violence against it. Millions others are busy simply observing and opining, some more animatedly than others. America’s recent economic troubles have provided plenty of fodder for all. There has been anger and resentment against America for a good part of the last five decades. Historically, this resentment was fueled by socialist and communist idealogues, whose discomfort with the brash, freewheeling, individualistic American system stemmed from their reluctance and inability to understand its success. Ostriches with heads buried in the sand, they resisted until they were no more.

Today’s anger and resentment against America no longer feeds off a conflict in ideology. It is shifting to something more personal and capricious. Even peoples in economies like India or Mexico or Brazil, which continue to benefit from borrowing American principles of free will and free markets, are surprisingly resentful. Why? This is surprising because one would expect these peoples to become increasingly familiar with and thus more understanding of American strengths and foibles, as they try to emulate it. Resentment of America seems to derive its energy from several perceptions-

1. Americans are arrogant. They wage unjustified wars for personal gain. They operate with no regard for the rest of the world. They take sides and are not fair.

2. Americans are lazy and stupid. They know little about the rest of the world. They live off the work of immigrants.Their elections are flawed and so are their leaders

3. Americans are materialistic. They place mammon above all, have no culture or soul. They are a bad influence on the rest of us

As with perceptions, there is a little truth, some misunderstanding and large amounts of bias in all of the above. For every bad apple in the American basket, there are several others that  restore the balance. Let us not pretend that America does not have its foibles. Rather, let us learn by observing how it corrects itself. Therein lies the strength and secret of endurance of the system. Unfortunate perceptions have prompted reactions to America’s recent misfortunes (9/11, sub-prime debacle, recession, etc.) ranging from schadenfreude ridden “chickens coming to roost, this is comeuppance, and the end of arrogant America” to well meaning “hope they get their act together”. It is said that you know you are down when the least qualified stop by to give you unsolicited advice. If that’s true, America is truly well and down.

Evolution is a series of mis-steps, punctuated by a-ha moments. The Americans, like anyone else, are evolving and discovering. The last decade has been a period of mis-steps and discovery for America. Election of George Bush, in hindsight, appears to have done more damage than good. If  9/11 had not happened, his presidency could well have been uneventful, even provided some comic respite and shorter by 4 years. it is pointless to speculate how the wheels within the wheels could have turned. Good news is that we all learnt some lessons. Bad news is that we cannot get that time back and some mistakes have to be undone. Yet others cannot be undone. Most important point is that America demonstrated a remarkable will to go down the learning and correcting path by electing Obama. Again, reason and good judgement triumphed over ideology, giving rise to hope and optimism.

The world will have find a way to let go of George Bush, Iraq and the rest of the baggage that America itself is anxious to dispose. If there is anything to be learnt from the last ten years, it is that the best can make mistakes, and often they do not seek or need others’ permission to make mistakes. In front of us, is an emerging world order with China, India and Brazil rising to the fore and making their presence felt. America may lead this new world order or maybe not. Everything that rises eventually fades. The time for America to fade away will come inevitably and surely. Let us hope that the sublime and beautiful aspects of human existence are respected and protected by the new leaders when they come. That’s the kind of world, I hope, our children and theirs will make their own mis-steps and discoveries.

The Funniest Indian Blog wins an Award

Why would anyone want to give us an award? A few days back, we received a congratulatory message from the young folks (let’s pretend that they are young) at indiantopblogs.blogspot.com. Suspicious that the contents of the message might contain inflammatory materials or worse, substances of the exploding kind, we called in the SWAT team – which crouched around the aforementioned message and gently prised it open – all the while on the lookout for blue wires, powdery substances, digital clocks and other tell tale signs of imminent detonation. To our relief, our fears were well founded. The message contained a bombshell of an announcement. It said that Laughing Gas had been ranked in their Directory of Best Indian Blogs in 2011.

Such proclamations when they come out of thin air, without adequate warning can cause the gravest of alarms. Alarm? Why alarm? Isn’t this cause for celebration, you may ask. Time to open the bubbly perhaps and spread the cheer around? Instead, why did it cause us to leap six inches in the air like a startled gazelle stalked by an invisible predator?

What ho. We shall explain. The first and spontaneous cause for alarm was that someone was actually reading Laughing Gas. Till date, we have perspired blissfully under the notion that other than blood relatives and friends who owed us money, none else was aware of our presence or was under compulsion to examine its innards. The illusion of being a better kept secret than the Knights Templar before Da Vinci Code was shattered. And understandably, we pressed the big red button on the table. The emergency response system kicked into high gear.

Disaster recovery and mitigation was sought. We had been discovered. It was time to let our agents in the field know that their cover had been blown.

No sooner than the first round of dust settlement came the next round of dust. We wondered what on earth would make anyone rank Laughing Gas anywhere in anything? We are a mere stripling blog, recently born, all of sixty days old and just began to take baby steps. Our brows furrowed and our eyes narrowed to slits as we pondered the unponderable that had just occurred. We imagined the condition of Indian blogscape if *we* made it to the Directory of Best Indian Blogs. What ho, we whispered in a low conspiratorial tone. The picture we imagined did not look pretty.

The passage of seventy two hours have injected some calm into the proceedings at Laughing Gas HQ. We have come to our senses. For, we have finally seen the light. For, we have understood that there is no way this could have happened but for Laughing Gas fans. Those of you who stood in long lines at ration shops to get your weekly quota of the funniest Indian blog, we salute you. And, those of you who walked ten miles in pouring rain to the nearest keyboard to type in those magical letters http://whatho.in, we tip our hats. For it is you that made this happen. Thank you, Laughing Gas fans!

And, yes, thank you indiantopblogs.blogspot.com! Keep up the good work.

What ho, indeed!

Google+ versus Facebook

Google+ is out. In limited trials. So is it a facebook killer?  If you are not familiar with limited trials in the tech world, think of it as letting a select few people watch a movie premiere, so you can change the ending (if that’s possible) and also drum up publicity in advance of releasing to hoi polloi.

Since we move  around in the mysterious cognoscenti circles of the tech world (ahem), we received an invite  to check out the new social network from Google. Here are some first impressions.

The worlds don’t collide on Google+

Your family, friends, neighbors, the guy you met yesterday, the gal you have never met ever and your pet are all treated as equals on Facebook.  Let’s face it. Each of us has different worlds that we’ve created. From the world of family to relatives through acquaintances to people we simply transact with. Having them all in one network has never made sense. (But, that never stopped Facebook from acquiring 750million users, of which 200M+ login every day!) The worlds don’t collide in Google+. It lets you create umpteen number of “Circles” and create different worlds in which you can drop family, friends, acquaintances and relative strangers of various hues. This means that you can share certain things with only family and none others, and so on. This is how the real world networks work. This is definitely a plus.

Score: +1 point

Google+ is a one stop shop

It combines Facebook, Twitter, Email, Groups and a sophisticated private Chat room with video called “Hangout” in one place. None of this is radically new. With Google+, you can do it all in one place, and enjoy the convenience of having all your contacts in one place. In the tech world, they call this a ‘one stop shop’. Now, let’s think about it. Do we really want a one stop shop for fun things like social networking? Do you really like to eat at the same restaurant every time you go out? And, would you want to order Alu Paratha and Paneer Butter Masala from a guy named Madurai Murugan?

Score: -1 point

Google+ vs Facebook: Post office versus Disneyland

Google’s user interface has always been simple and minimal. Which makes it perfect for transactions like email and search. Not for fun activities like checking out your nephew’s first birthday pictures and idle gossip twittering among friends. The difference between Google+ and Facebook/Twitter experiences is the one between going to a post office and an outing in Disneyland.

Score: -1 point

Verdict

Final Score: -1 out of 3.  Time will tell if the world really needs another social network, that too from Google. In the battle between convenience and coolness, the latter often wins. Especially when teenagers and 20-somethings are involved.  This is a winner takes all game. There is no room for a number 2 in social networks. Zuckerberg can rest easy because he may have already won the game. If anyone has cause for mild worry, it’s probably Twitter at the moment.

If you are on Google+ or have been reading about it, do write and let us know what you think in the comments section.

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.

We have a new home!

Laughing Gas is now What Ho! at http://whatho.in. We are in the middle of unpacking the boxes, applying for gas and phone connections, figuring out where to put the TV and hanging pictures on the wall. Welcome to our new home!  Do stay and look around, and let us know what you think. Thanks for visiting!

 

June 25, 1983 – A day in history

For us fogeys at Laughing Gas, there is unlikely to be a moment rivaling the euphoria on this day in 1983, when Kapil’s Devils won the Prudential World Cup, in one of the greatest team efforts in Indian sports history. Scorecard: India won by 43 runs. India: 183 (54.4 overs). West Indies: 140 (52 overs). Man of the Match: Mohinder Amarnath. Chak de India!

The Slumdog and the Millionaire

Having lived on both sides of the pond for a good many years, I can understand both reluctance and enthusiasm on part of of Indian diaspora when it comes to returning “back” to India “for good”. I’ve known better than to be in the middle of these debates, but have gleaned enough to know the usual litany of pros and cons contained in them. What’s always striking about these discussions is that each party secretly believes itself to be the millionaire and pities the other as the slumdog.

The naysayers arsenal includes surface-to-air missiles such as “Too polluted”, “work environments suck”, “school systems not great”, “can’t find enough East European piano teachers” etc. etc. The optimists fire back with biochemical weapons a-la “Feel more connected”, “have a sense of belonging”, “india is where it’s all happening”, “don’t need to do my laundry and ironing” etc. Seriously, when did the prospect of someone else doing your laundry become a reason to rush and pack your bags for a 10,000 mile journey? Ever wonder if Magellan set out to circumnavigate the world in the hope he could outsource dirty underwear processing?

All these debates miss the point by the margin Columbus missed India. To wallow in such trivia is to miss the Sunderbans for its mangroves. Once you confront the deeper questions, the rest are mere details.

If you are one of those – pondering a move but forever vacillating on its merits – luck is at hand. I present the Laughing Gas pop quiz specially designed for “perennially unsure wannabe returnees”. It is anticipated that taking the quiz three times a day after meals will purge the system of any lingering malaise around effecting changes in longitude.

What is your notion of “time”?

Is time a logical construct with practical utility or an abstract notion with philosophical connotations? The correct answer, boys and girls, is “Time is an illusion”. If you harbor thoughts to the contrary, am afraid that you might want to give that one-way ticket a miss.

Consider the sentence: “I’ll call you back in 10 minutes”. All it implies is notional and not to be interpreted as anything more than polite conversation between one human and another. If you can comprehend that varying degrees of truth and complex assumptions are embedded in that spontaneous statement and are willing to annihilate any expectations that may arise reflexively within you – you might not be entirely without hope.

Do you go into involuntary spasms when a flight is delayed? Do you pack your bags 4 weeks prior to departure? Mate, you need help.

Have you ever missed a flight? After buying the ticket in the airport? Skip the rest of this exercise and proceed directly to “Go”. You are 24 carat India material, my friend!

What is your “data sensitivity quotient”?

How sensitive are you to the accuracy of information provided? What skills do you possess in handling ambiguity?

Say I presented the problem: 123 x 456 = ? And, you came up with 56088. Congratulations, you awesome math cat, you! But, sorry pal, consider yourself on the “no fly” list. Successful transplants will content themselves with vague terms such as the answer might end in ‘8’, may have more than four digits, etc. Virtuosos will provide convincing impressions of not having heard the question at all.

If you are possessed of romantic and harmful notions about the need for precision and clarity – consider taking out that second home equity loan, making the most of Saturday night potluck dinner parties and beefing up junior’s spelling bee skills.

Are you a genius?

Ok, this one’s a little wacky. Let me explain this. Genius is the ability to hold polar, conflicting beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. So, let me ask again. Are you a genius?

When informed – “Go straight ahead and turn right” – if you can consider the equally likely possibility of having to “make a U-turn followed by a left”, then you reside in what I can only describe as the peaceful nothingness that exists between the right and left parts of your brain. On the other hand, if you prefer to hold doggedly onto prized skills in logic and inductive methods of reasoning, I see hair loss, ulcers and antacids in your future.

The one good reason to move to India.

Humor aside – there is always one good reason to move. You just have to find out what yours might be. And, there is only one way to find out. Or not. Sab chalta hai. Wherever you are, and whatever you do – may you always have fair winds. Keep smiling. Jai ho.

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!

I’m lovin’ it!

Live from McDonalds, in HSR Layout in Bangalore. Folks, the super-sizing of India is well under way. It’s about 1 pm, as we enter the newly opened (well, 3 months back)McDonalds, walking past a mute and vaguely disturbing figurine of Ronald McDonald at the door.

Once inside, we are greeted instantly by a bedlam of loud conversations, juvenile shrieks and employees taking orders. Adding to the decibel levels is a raucous Sunidhi Chauhan bhangra beat over the speakers. Amazingly, the place is chock full. McDonalds – a lunch destination choice? You could have knocked me down with a McAloo tikki. What’s next? Wedding receptions at McDonalds?

It’s my daughter’s birthday treat for a few of her classmates. As they find themselves a separate table, avoiding parental proximity, I wander over to the other side. The place is a veritable zoo. As people fall over each other to order Maharajah McChickens and paneer salsa wraps, it occurs to me that the super-sizing of the Indian version of homo sapiens is well under way. Families, bachelors, school girls and grand parents – they are all here, helping themselves to happy meals and large cokes.

India is chugging at 10% GDP growth and also getting fries with that. Are you lovin’ it yet?