Tag Archives: opinion

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