Category Archives: The World As I See It

Extroverts vs introverts

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

An extroversion bias

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

The difference between extroverts and introverts

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

Introversion not the same as shyness

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

In praise of introverts

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

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

Advertisements

The case for Narendra Modi

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

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

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

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

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

Where the rubber hits the road

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

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

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

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

Is Modi good for India?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 2

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

Day 3

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

Did Sri Ram exist?

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

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

Who built the mosque?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ram Janma Bhoomi

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

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

My take

Are courts designed to resolve religious disputes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maha Kumbh Mela: Part 1

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

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

Why?

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

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

The Plan

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

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

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

Part 1: Varanasi

Day 1: Impressions of Lucknow-Allahabad

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

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

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

Day 2: Varanasi, the timeless city.

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

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

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

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

Gangaji at Varanasi

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

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

Coming soon: Part 2 – Ram Janma Bhoomi.

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. 

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?

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.