Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Copyrights, copylefts, copywrongs...

I recently got into a debate about copyrights with a favourite cousin. He, amazingly, had never heard of Bit Torrent (he lives in the US, could it be that the press there doesn't write about such things??) but when I tried to describe its brilliant concept, he assumed right away that this was merely a way to infringe copyrights and refused to listen. And he got worked up about musicians not being to earn a living because of music piracy. After all that, I thought I'd learn a little about music copyright from the internet.

I've often wondered about copyrights on recorded music, and one of the questions to which I've so far found no answer goes as follows. Let's say in 1975 I purchased an LP record of a Beatles album (this in fact did happen, many times over). Now suppose in 2009 I find myself unable to play the album because LP record players are difficult to access (I actually have a working one, but this is a hypothetical discussion). Having bought the album at one time, I believe I still have the right to personal use of the music and this right is distinct from ownership of the piece of plastic. Can I now legally implement my right by copying a CD from a friend (or enemy) onto my laptop? If someone has a clear answer (please no personal opinions or rants, just facts), they should let me know.

If you search for "music copyright" on Google, you first of all reach sites that advise you how to copyright your own compositions. Beyond those, you find several that purport to give you legal information about copyrights and their possible violation, but in practice end up warning you of dire consequences if you even dare to hum a song to your friends, forget copying anything onto your laptop. I assume many, if not all, these sites are sponsored in some way by the music industry. It takes more work to discover sites advocating modification of copyright laws and supporting some form of file-sharing. The website of the Swedish Pirate Party is one such and I'll come back to it below, but the first place I'd recommend the reader to go is The Economist's debate "Copyrights and Wrongs" from which I partially adapted the title of this post (under the doctrine of "fair use").

Here Harvard professor William Fisher argues for the proposition "This house believes that existing copyright laws do more harm than good." In brief his arguments can be summarised as follows: (i) copyrights last far too long to be justified by the authors' legitimate interests, e.g in the US several decades after the author's death, (ii) just about anything one writes/says/composes is automatically protected under copyright, (iii) it's hard to stop piracy in today's world, (iv) it's often impossible to trace the legitimate author and request permission under copyright, so free expression ends up being stifled.

Predictably Prof. Fisher was attacked on point (iii) for appearing to say that since violations are inevitable, the law is bad. His actual point appears to be that milder and fairer laws might elicit much better compliance.

The opposition view in this debate, in support of existing copyright laws, was provided by Prof. Justin Hughes of Cardozo Law College, New York. Going through his opening statement in response to Prof. Fisher's points, I was struck by how weak and disorganised it was. I won't bother to review it here but you can read it for yourself. Although I'm not particularly on his side, even I could have argued his case more convincingly.

Anyhow at the end, the Economist had a vote and Fisher's anti-copyright motion won hands down with 75 percent of the votes. One may question whether some of the votes were self-motivated ("if he's right then my illegal downloading becomes legal!"). But still, given that the Economist is hardly the Pirate Party and their readership is not quite Joe Six-Pack, it's quite striking that so many readers agree the laws need a change.

I personally feel that drastically reducing the duration of copyright as well as requiring authors who want copyright to explicitly register their work on a globally accessible database, are the very minimum changes called for in our times.

And what of the Pirate Party? The manifesto on their website "http://www.piratpartiet.se/international/english" says that they want to "fundamentally reform copyright law, get rid of the patent system, and ensure that citizens' rights to privacy are respected." I'll continue to quote from their website because they've stated their point of view quite eloquently, as well as economically: "The official aim of the copyright system has always been to find a balance in order to promote culture being created and spread. Today that balance has been completely lost, to a point where the copyright laws severely restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote. The Pirate Party wants to restore the balance in the copyright legislation." They go on to recommend that "A five years copyright term for commercial use is more than enough. Non-commercial use should be free from day one." Though this has not received much attention in India, the Pirate Party received 7% of the Swedish vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections and consequently has two Members of the European Parliament.

Although it's a completely distinct entity, the Pirate Party (as well as its name) originated from the website http://thepiratebay.org/ (go ahead and visit it, I don't think you can be drawn and quartered for doing that!) which claims to be the world's largest torrent server. On their "About" page you find the following rather defensively worded para: "Only torrent files are saved at the server. That means no copyrighted and/or illegal material are stored by us. It is therefore not possible to hold the people behind The Pirate Bay responsible for the material that is being spread using the tracker. Any complaints from copyright and/or lobby organizations will be ridiculed and published at the site." Undeterred, the Swedish police did indeed go after The Pirate Bay and in April 2009 its founders were held guilty in a Swedish court of assisting copyright infringement. They are presently in appeal.

In September 2007, emails allegedly leaked from Media Defender (an anti-piracy organisation) suggested that it was planning hacker attacks on Pirate Bay at the behest of its clients. In a case of the litigation boot being on the other foot, Pirate Bay then filed charges in Sweden against the venerable clients of Media Defender: 20th Century Fox, Sony, Universal, EMI et al. However the Wikipedia entry on Pirate Bay lamely ends with "the charges were not pursued" which leaves me a little baffled.

In an intriguing sidelight, open-source movement guru Richard Stallman argues in this article that the Pirate Party's proposal to abolish or reduce copyright would negatively impact copyleft. (Copyleft is when an author of free software retains copyright solely to use it "to defend freedom for every user" in Stallman's words.) In his very nice article he suggests some intermediate solutions and/or patches to Pirate Party's manifesto.

But back to the debate in The Economist, which as I've pointed out before, is not exactly Pirate Party. In his Closing Statements, Prof. Fisher opines thus: "Digital versions of works of all sorts (music, films, television shows, books, etc) should be subject to a blanket licensing system. People should be free to upload, download, reproduce, watch and listen to an unlimited number of such recordings. The owners of the copyrights in those recordings should be compensated, not through direct payments from consumers, but by being paid shares (in amounts proportional to the relative popularity of their creations) out of a pot of revenue. The money necessary to fill the pot and administer the system could be raised in either of two ways. First, national governments could tax internet service subscriptions and devices commonly used to store or play recordings. Alternatively, internet service providers and groups of copyright owners could negotiate voluntary collective licensing arrangements, which would specify the magnitude of the monthly fees that would be paid by the ISPs on behalf of their customers."

I find this a fascinating thought.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Marathi moments

While the Thackerays and Azmis compete with each other to raise the dignity and stature of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, I had a remarkably Marathi weekend and would like to report on some of its charming moments.

It started with my watching the play Sapadlelya Aathavani (literally, "Found Memories"). This play was originally written in English by Girish Karnad, then adapted in Marathi by Amruta More and staged by Satyadev Dubey last Friday at TIFR. Both Karnad and Dubey were in the audience (actually Dubey was staging a play of his own outside, but I'll come back to that later). I quite enjoyed the play and found the Marathi fairly easy to follow - Dubey had earlier assured us it was in simple Bombay Marathi ("after all what other Marathi do I know?" he dramatically exclaimed). In fact much of the dialogue consisted of "Really ग!" and "What do you keep doing in that cyber cafe?" which, technically, are not pure Marathi phrases.

The play is nice, and modern, but not a masterpiece. Consider that its co-producer Girish Patke described it as "a trite story of flawed family relationships". But the sisters Vidula and Hema make for a believable duo and their humorous antics, which turn into histrionics towards the end, are most entertaining. The play had one thing in common with a lot of Marathi (and Hindi) dramas - once the emotional pitch goes up and the characters start shrieking and sobbing, there seems no turning back. After ten minutes of this stuff the cast all have sore throats and their shrieks sound more and more comical. But at least in this play the tension abates in the last scene and the characters, not having found any clear resolution to their problems, dance a jig all over the stage.

A number of Bengalis (I use "Bengali" in its TIFR sense of "non-Maharashtrian") left after the first ten minutes, understandably since the play is wordy and hard to follow if you don't know the language. But many others stayed on and formed bunches in the audience around anyone who knew the language. This resulted in an annoying buzz as each twist of the plot got explained in a sequence of Marathi-Chinese whispers, but at least people did try to follow -- which was nice.

As for Mr Dubey, he decided to guard the doors of the auditorium to prevent people entering after the play had started. As there had been no warning about this (and the announced timings had shifted back and forth a bit) there were apparently several latecomers. After trying to shoo them away without too much success, the venerable Mr Dubey lost it and started casting aspersions (in Hindi) on the relationships of various TIFR members to their mothers and sisters! My only regret is that this piece of experimental and participatory theatre did not get filmed.

So, on to my second Marathi moment. Emboldened by my comprehension of the play, on the following evening I dug out my VCD's of the movie Sant Tukaram (if you're interested, here is an astounding website about Tukaram, though not actually about the movie). Any hopes I had of following the dialogue were dashed by the fact that (i) the Marathi of 1937 is not Satyadev Dubey's Marathi (and still less his Hindi, thankfully!), (ii) the sound quality was good for 1937, but no more than that. Fortunately the VCD's were subtitled and I also had a Maharashtrian friend on hand.

So about the movie itself -- now here was a masterpiece. The first thing I noticed was the truly outstanding quality of the music. Everyone sings, and sings brilliantly - Tukaram himself, the evil Salomalo, the vamp what's-her-name who tries to seduce Tuka but becomes his devotee. Maharashtrians understand and feel Indian music in a way that I find remarkable. Somewhat to my friend's astonishment, I sang along with the movie for two solid hours.

The acting too was brilliant in its own way. Vishnupant Paganis as Tukaram manages to stay on the right side of the fine line that separates an expression of devotional ecstasy from the goofy grin of a pot smoker. The good-vs-evil battle plays out with a constant increase of tension but (thankfully) no shrieking or sore throats. My only complaint about the movie is, did they have to make Mrs Tuka such a thick-head? I mean, living with him all those years she must surely have figured out that possessions are BAD and saintly behaviour is GOOD, no? But right until the bitter end when Tukaram flies up to heaven sitting astride a fluffy eagle toy, she just does NOT get it. Anyhow, the acting is wonderfully spontaneous and the directing very sure-footed and innovative, so the movie fully deserves its "Special Recognition" award at the Venice film festival.

To slightly elaborate on a theme above, I'm amazed at how Maharashtrians trump just about all of India when it comes to Hindustani music. After all, the major gharanas like Kirana, Gwalior, Jaipur and Agra are all from North India (eek!! Sena alert!!!), leaving only the infelicitously named Bhendi Bazaar gharana for Maharashtra (and that anyway is an offshoot of Agra as far as I know). But just about anyone who was anyone in Hindustani music, at least in the second half of the 20th century, either was Maharashtrian or lived in Maharashtra or both. And Marathi stage songs (natya sangeet), devotional music (abhang) and folk songs (bhaavgeet) are all steeped in this culture.

My Marathi moments weekend concluded with a morning concert on Sunday by Shruti Sadolikar-Katkar and Satyasheel Deshpande. No prizes for guessing which state they belong to! Not a Marathi word was actually spoken that day, but the music was totally Marathi in spirit and totally wonderful.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cell phones and dry fruits

The recent ban on prepaid cell phone services in Jammu and Kashmir has rightly annoyed people there. An Army spokesman has argued that ‘‘The terrorists are using prepaid phones to stay in touch with their handlers as it gives them easy ISD access’’. I'm sure that's true enough. But then, it's also true that during the 26/11 attacks in Bombay the terrorists needed a stock of dry fruits to sustain them in their rampage. So how come we don't hear about banning dry fruits?

Maybe that was flippant but it's also the point. Terrorists use a lot of modern facilities: cell phones, the internet, electricity... And it's quite true that banning all of these would greatly restrict their actions. Unfortunately it would also restrict normal life as we know it. This would be an unacceptable loss of quality of life, which is why none of these things is banned in, say, Bombay. A concrete example is the wireless router. This device is highly capable of being misused if not configured properly, and attempts and laws have been made to ensure routers are properly secured, but no one in their right minds would suggest Bombay should entirely do without wireless routers.

So finally, it's only people in outlying areas for whom the government considers such bans acceptable. In other words there's a "mainstream" India where normal life, business, personal freedom, entertainment and all that come first, and then a "border" India where instead the citizens are supposed to accept bans and inconveniences "for the sake of" this mainstream India. As a recipe to alienate everyone on our borders, it's truly inspired.

And that's only about cell phones. The disgraceful Armed Forces Special Powers Act allows the army the right to, among other things, shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to "maintain the public order". For more details please read this article. This law is applicable in Assam, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland. Interestingly the residents of these states don't find it exciting to sacrifice their fundamental rights for the rest of us. I see their point.

Monday, October 19, 2009

You must look at our hotels

Something I've always found interesting since my teenage years is the way the Indian upper/middle classes react to the poverty in their midst. I realise this is a serious topic that influences our economic system and there are people more qualified than me to discuss it. But here I only want to address a relatively superficial aspect, namely the discomfort of the middle-class person when the existence of poverty is forcefully brought to their attention. After all most of us, whatever we know intellectually, exist in a state of blissful denial at the emotional level otherwise it would be hard to live with our consciences at all.

The person who brings inconvenient facts to our attention is frequently a foreigner. Being extraneous to the system, foreigners can expose our hypocrisies quite easily. Moreover, people from continental Europe have been schooled on "liberty equality fraternity" and naturally find our social contrasts shocking. (This is not to deny they have their own underclass and their own hypocrisy, not to mention their murderous histories... the key point is that it's always easier to spot injustice when you're an outsider to the system). I remember an Italian friend and collaborator who visited me here in the 1980's remarking on the way labourers were made to pull handcarts, like beasts of burden. Till that moment I had never quite seen it that way, and afterwards I was unable to see it any other way.

Another recollection, this time from the 1970's, highlights the reaction of upper-class Indians. My mother was then working for an NGO that had sponsored the visits to India of a few teenagers from London. So she called them home for tea. This was an era when far less information had diffused globally than today, so these teenagers were naturally a little baffled by their experience of India. I don't remember anything specific they said, but their reaction evidently annoyed a lady friend of my mother's who happened to be over. This gentlewoman then gave them a lecture which in summary reduced to the following: "We have very fine hotels in India. You must look at our hotels. Go see the Taj. It's a very fine hotel. Appreciate the decor, the furniture. We have fine hotels." I realised then that she felt ashamed and repulsed by the squalor of her own city and was seeking solace in the make-believe world of the hotel which was everything (for her) that the street outside was not.

Which brings me to my point, not that there's a very precise one. Yesterday I watched an episode of "Paul Merton in India" on TV. I imagine it's the kind of show that this lady would have hated (except that she's now passed on to the great Taj Hotel in the sky). By now a few zillion travel programmes about India have already been made, so clearly Merton, a British comedian, was looking for something different. He must have figured out that if you come to India and hang out with "people like us" you will only get an extremely slanted and limited take on the country. So he looked for things that working-class and rural people do that urban upper-middle-class people would never do. This took him to the rat-worshipping Karni Mata temple in Bikaner and the Shivratri celebrations in Girnar, complete with naked sadhus and ganja.

But the strangest segment of this show is when Merton visits a private home in Delhi with a genuine (but non-functional) wide-body Airbus parked in the backyard. Here people who could never afford to fly pay a small fee to board a disused airplane, be strapped in their seats and enjoy an imaginary flight (supposedly those too poor to pay are taken on board for free). After it "takes off" the passengers are served snacks in packed boxes (Merton points out that the "airline food" is unfortunately all too realistic!). Soon thereafter, with poorly feigned panic in her voice, the "stewardess" announces that the plane is about to ditch in the sea whereupon the passengers, laughing and joking, cheerfully jump out the emergency exits and slide down chutes back to the reality of a Delhi backyard. Merton's cameraman beautifully captures the joy and elation of the crowd.

More fun than looking at furniture in the Taj Hotel, for sure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Backslash backlash

An article in the Times of India mentioned that Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World-Wide Web, has apologised for the unnecessary // required at the beginning of a URL. What baffled me was that the TOI article (and apparently Berners-Lee himself) referred to the / symbol as a "backslash". Surely it's a forward slash? A backslash would be \ (and if anyone has to apologise for that one, it would be Donald Knuth, the inventor of TeX).

The report widely quoted in Indian newspapers is from Asian News International (ANI) and starts: "Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world-wide-web, has finally accepted that he could have created the web without the two backslashes, //, that Internet users often grumbled about."

However in the London Times article about the same statement, one finds: "What is the point of the two forward slashes that sit directly infront of the “www” in every internet website address?". Nice that someone tried to get it right. This doesn't exonerate Sir Tim though, for the article continues as follows: " “Boy, now people on the radio are calling it ‘backslash backslash’,” Sir Tim told his audience, even though he knows they are, in fact, forward slashes." Oh well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

War and Peace

Yesterday we had a film screening of the anti-nuclear documentary film "War and Peace" at TIFR. Its director Anand Patwardhan was present and spoke about the film before and after the screening. He last came to TIFR many years ago to screen "Ram ke Naam", his documentary about the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the subsequent demolition of the Babri Masjid.

On this occasion as on the previous one, I was struck by a number of things. Patwardhan is by his own admission a "dissident" and an activist who speaks for the poor and the marginalised and against ethnic, religious and political divisions. He is one of the most eloquent of his kind and unlike a lot of dissident activists, I found him persuasive and was moved by his empathy and concern for humanity. He isn't content with the sort of government-bashing and industry-bashing that regretfully provides pre-fabricated speeches for a lot of other activists.

However he can be harsh (and who am I to complain about that?). In the question period, one of my colleagues challenged his claim that today wind energy generates more electricity in India than nuclear energy. But another colleague confirmed that the claim was correct and the first person quickly retracted. Now Patwardhan had caught his prey. His exact words to the challenger, as I recall them, were: "If I'm right about this, and you're a scientist, shouldn't you have known?". Ooooooo.... And yet, a valid point.

Now about the film. Patwardhan is a very talented documentary film-maker, truly outstanding in fact. His camera angles, editing, choice of subjects are superb. He has the unique and powerful ability to trash a person by pointing his camera at them, asking a simple question (or sometimes saying nothing) and letting them make bigger and bigger fools of themselves. My opinion of L.K. Advani was formed by seeing Ram ke Naam in the 90's. Using only his own words, the film made clear that he was a deeply divisive person who would willingly harm the nation for his own political agenda.

Advani doesn't feature in War and Peace but various other people manage to put their foot firmly in their mouths while Patwardhan's cameras are rolling. Pramod Mahajan speaking at an election rally, Pakistani and Indian fundamentalists addressing people or just talking to the camera, and a bunch of people including former Atomic Energy chiefs and also former President Abdul Kalam, all manage to come off as too obsessed with either sectarian agendas or delusions of grandeur to care about the common man and woman. All this was counterposed with moving impressions of villages and peasants affected by the Pokharan tests or by radiation from mines. While the big guns gave a poor impression, the peasants interviewed spoke wisely, thoughtfully and eloquently about their fate. The movie disturbed me deeply and I'm grateful for that.

One of the observations I found most convincing in the film (this is something I've always believed) is that to get people to fall into line with a political agenda, myths and stories have to be created and cultures have to be glorified on one side and defamed on the other. We are all familiar with the myth of the good, honest, God-fearing United States of America innocently working for its own betterment in a world full of deceitful, hostile countries that are jealous of its success or just wish to harm it for unknown reasons. I would guess most educated Indians have laughed at this sort of claim, but only when it comes to the USA. Patwardhan provides persuasive reasons to believe that exactly the same view of ourselves is being formed in middle-class India, and he calls it "nuclear nationalism".

I'm constantly horrified by how many young people fall for this sort of myth-making. Not less than three of them asked Patwardhan essentially the same question: nukes may be bad but, surrounded as we are by evil Pakistan and murderous China, what can poor innocent India possibly do but defend itself?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The best of times

Today's newspaper reports that the Congress-NCP plans to start "Marathi language conservation fortnights" and the BJP-SS combine plans to have the best world literature translated into Marathi.

In a previous posting, I had suggested that:

"It might still be possible to do something that would charm and attract people to learn Marathi and appreciate its depth and beauty, its literature, its poetry..."

and I'm happy to find that all major parties have finally listened to me!

Of course the BJP-SS could not resist adding the demand for a law requiring celebration of Marathi Week each year. I don't find compulsion very pleasant but I'm gratified that they want to use legal compulsion rather than their knuckles. Other local parties aren't being so reticent and their threats to make us love Marathi or lose our teeth will make their supporters (and occasional fellow-travellers [link deleted]) happy.

Now one does hope that the translations planned by the BJP-SS combine are done by genuine litterateurs (there are plenty of them in this state) rather than party hacks. Otherwise we might end up with "ईट वास बेस्ट ऑफ टाईम्स..."।

P.S. I know people think I exaggerate, but please come to Colaba and take a look at the wonderfully named बेस्ट टी कोल्ड्रींक आणि स्नेक बार (BEST tea coldreenk aani snack bar) at the bus station outside the Museum! The only Marathi word in this title is "aani" meaning "and". Are there no words in Marathi for tea and snacks?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

You have the right to your opinion as long as you agree with us

Two recent articles in the Guardian, this one and this one, confirm what we always knew about censorship in the Land Of The Free.

I find the following quote striking: "Almost 4,000 attempts to ban books have been recorded over the past eight years, though the ALA [American Library Association] believes the figure is a gross understatement. All cases are voluntarily reported, and many more are likely to go unrecorded, sometimes because librarians have been threatened with dismissal if they sound the alarm. Most would-be censors are parents concerned about their children's reading or members of religious groups."

On the other hand, the would-be censors don't tend to have much success in bringing about an official ban. That means the US at least ranks better than Gujarat in this domain.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Freude, freude!

Last night I attended a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by the Symphony Orchestra of India at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre in Bombay (it's notable that both brothers, Homi and Jamshed, have theatres named after them). Frankly I had not expected the performance would be great - but it was awesome. On this occasion the SOI (including all the extra members recruited for this demanding piece) came to 170 members, the large majority of whom are from Kazakhstan. I read somewhere that only 17 members are from India! That's globalisation for you.

The performance gave me goosebumps (and tears, I'm embarrassed to admit, during the intensely lyrical Adagio). The first movement was powerful and dramatic as expected, but not a complete triumph - the wind instruments were too subdued, for one thing. But in the second movement (the Scherzo) the winds got their wind back and the rendition was brilliant - by turns humorous, lyrical and just plain rock-'n-rolling! And the final "choral" movement was a life-changing experience even though I'd previously always winced at people shouting "Freude, freude" in public.

I don't know what it is about choral singing, it's always reminded me of my school in a depressing way. As of last night I think I'm over that. Better late than never!

I've recently befriended the SOI conductor Zane Dalal, who'll be conducting the Bhabha Centenary Symposium concert at TIFR in early December - of course, for us it will be a smaller SOI and a somewhat "lighter" concert. Yesterday he didn't conduct, that was done by a guest conductor (from, surprise surprise, Kazakhstan), but he did deliver an excellent and informative intro to the piece, talking over the din of people who couldn't find their seats or perhaps just enjoyed arguing with ushers.

Zane stressed the breaking of barriers that was a hallmark of the composition and of the period in which it was written. Schiller's "Ode to Joy", which is the text for the choral movement, stresses the universal nature of joy and the right of each individual to have it - an enlightening and at the time probably a revolutionary idea. To illustrate his point, Zane recited the following lines:

Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.

which means

Pleasure was to the worm given,
And the cherub stands before God.

My take is that if worms have a right to be happy, I too can go around yelling "Freude, Freude" on Colaba Causeway if I get the urge, and one day this may really happen.

P.S. The most incredible recording of Beethoven's Ninth I've heard is the one conducted by Ferenc Fricsay in 1958. It was the first ever stereo recording of the piece. The clarity of sound is superb and the performance... dazzling.

Friday, September 4, 2009


My friend Vivek sent me this YouTube link to an amazing 8-minute documentary on Bombay. The film is notable as much for what it ignores (everything in between the very rich and the very poor) as for what it features. Also the patronising tone of the commentator is quite infuriating. Still, if you hang on till the end you get to see a nice panorama of Chowpatty from Malabar Hill. I remember enjoying a fairly similar view from Naaz cafe in the early 1960's.

Bad areas and bad boys

Two stray conversations in recent times made me reflect yet again on the relentless and illogical nature of prejudice.

One of these conversations was about swine flu, which - a few weeks ago - was causing panic in my institute, as everywhere else in Bombay. When the topic of avoiding crowded areas came up, a senior administrator observed that this was particularly important in a certain "bad area" of town. His words "bad area" were code for "working-class area". I felt constrained to point out that swine flu had come to India through upper-class people returning from the US, and had begun to spread here through elite schools. So from the point of view of this particular epidemic, a "bad area" might be Malabar Hill rather than the rundown suburb to which he was referring.

The other conversation was with an acquaintance who had recently moved to the US. On my asking what life was like in the city where he lived, he said "there are some unsafe areas", then wrinkled his nose and added "black people", as if this barely needed saying.

Then today on the Guardian website I read this particularly stomach-turning story of how two brothers aged 12 and 10 sadistically tortured a pair of boys of a similar age nearly to death, in South Yorkshire, England. The identities of the torturers are being concealed by law, but I strongly suspect they were white (when it's otherwise, some "hint" is usually provided).

I also couldn't help but notice a link on that Guardian page to an article which starts "A Nazi sympathiser and paedophile who made nail bombs to attack black, Asian and Jewish people was jailed today for 16 years." and another to the murder of two-year-old James Bulger. In each case the criminals are white as can be.

My point is of course not to say that white people are generically evil or violent. I just wonder how incidents like the above make no dent on their spotless reputation, while the violent nature of black people is treated almost as a theorem. Just as swine flu gets blamed on Wadala rather than Malabar Hill.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jaswant sings but book not to be banned!

I'm basically an innocent when it comes to politics, innocence being defined as "I can't figure out why L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh would both annoy their own party at different times by praising Jinnah." Still less do I understand why being pro-Jinnah does not seem to have created a bond between them and they remain enemies.

Not having read the books or heard the speeches of either of these worthies (other than Advani's inflammatory speeches during the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation which I've seen repeatedly on TV and video) I can't comment on their views. But what startled me today was an article in The Hindu titled "No ban on Jaswant’s book for now" informing us that Karnataka CM Yeddyurappa has magnanimously decided not to ban the book. "We have taken this decision" (of not banning the book) he is supposed to have said.

Since when was not banning a book a "decision"? And how low have we sunk that we countenance such talk over a minor intra-party fracas? Even knowing Mr N. Ram's fondness for censorship when it's convenient, I'm still appalled by the apologetic tone of The Hindu article -- they make it sound as if the Karnataka CM's non-censorship decision exemplifies his kind and generous nature!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Swine flu over the cuckoo's nest

Swine flu suddenly grabs headlines in Bombay around 10 days ago. Schools are closed for several days, partly it seems due to a movement by a local political party (whose members understandably resent anyone being given an education). People start wearing masks on the street, even dirty handkerchiefs. I wonder how they continue to spit despite the masks (maybe there's a hole in the middle for that?), but India's oldest habit continues unabated. Antiviral drugs are stockpiled. Anyone who dares to sneeze is sent home (unlike in China where they are locked up instead).

And then comes the reversal. Suddenly we look around and notice that pretty much no one is dead. The papers tell us most of those who died of swine flu had other complications. We realise that people die of other kinds of flu, as well as malaria and other treatable diseases, on a regular basis. We now begin to hear that Tamiflu has side effects and its indiscriminate use may help the virus develop resistance. So it's not recommended other than for serious cases. What is recommended if you get a flu that might be swine flu? Umm, Crocin and bed rest.

When stupidity reigns, one clutches at the hope that someone somewhere is in command of the situation. But cuckoo behaviour about swine flu has been quite similar across countries and continents. In the UK, here is what Oxford University researchers had to say:

"... antivirals are not a "magic bullet" against flu, and ... resistance to the drug could develop, making it useless to fight any future and potentially more serious pandemic flu strain."

However, The Guardian informs us that:

"...ministers pressed ahead with a policy of mass prescription, fearing the public would not tolerate being told that the millions of doses of Tamiflu held by the state could not be used during a pandemic..."

In other words, we must give the masses something now, even if it will damage their long-term health prospects, because it's not politically expedient to do otherwise.

I can understand why politicians (in democracies) need to take this approach. It's a survival tactic. But one wishes the general public, guided by wise opinion-makers from the medical as well as journalistic professions, would learn not to trade long-term health for a short-term -- and illusory -- sense of security.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Goodbye to Gangubai

The legendary Indian Classical singer Gangubai Hangal passed away this morning at the age of 96. Her passing is one more sorrowful step towards the end of an era which I was fortunate to experience in its final decades. This was an era where the grand art and tradition of Indian Classical ("Hindustani") music was practised by people of a certain calibre, dedication and - how else to say it - solidity. These were people for whom fame and money were by-products. Gangubai also pursued her career defying the prevailing prejudice against a woman pursuing a musical career (she may have been helped by the fact that her mother was herself a vocalist).

(The image above is a link to http://www.cs.washington.edu/homes/mausam/artistpics/gangubai.jpg.)

I had the good fortune to attend several of her concerts during the 1980's and 90's. Two of them were at my alma mater St Xavier's College in Bombay. They have an open-air music festival in January which, on the final day, would continue through the night (I think this feature has recently been discontinued). I remember once hearing her sing Raga Chandrakauns under a brilliant moon around midnight. A magical experience. Another time, or perhaps on the same occasion, my friend Vishwanath and I were chatting at the side of the stage after her concert when she passed us on her way out. She sent a truly charming smile in our general direction, leaving each one of us convinced we had been the recipient.

Gangubai trained under the legendary Kirana Gharana musician Sawai Gandharva and was therefore the "guru-behen" of Bhimsen Joshi and Firoz Dastur among many others. She had a rather masculine voice which was instantly identifiable. Gangubai's daughter Krishna Hangal was also an excellent musician, with a more feminine voice that resonated like silver. Born when her mother was just 16, Krishna - who died five years ago at the age of 75 - was her constant companion at concerts and they came across more like sisters than like a mother-daughter duo.

The hallmark of Kirana singing is the purity of the note, and here I feel Gangubai excelled over all her peers. Strangely enough her concerts, and even studio recordings, tended to start on a meandering and very unpromising note. Her first "saa" (enunciation of the tonic of the scale) would be anything but precise, in fact it would wobble like a boat about to sink and one would wonder how things were going to go. But after a minute or so of this wobbling, the boat would slowly gather a bit of speed and steady itself. Her recital of the composition would bring out the words very affectionately (one of my favourites, in Raga Bhimpalasi, is the Sadarang composition "Garava harava daarungi main"). And now the steamship would gather more speed and start to really slice through the waves. Here the Kirana ambition would come to the fore and every "taan" would end on a high note with the sharpness of a titanium knife-edge.

Before hitting one of these notes Gangubai would, in a characteristic gesture, cup her left ear. Perhaps it helped her experience the resonance better. And now a particular event comes to mind. In the 1980's I had gone with Vishwanath and another friend, Aravinda, to Birla Matushri Sabhaghar, near Chowpatty, where Gangubai sang Raga Shuddh Kalyan. I recall we had dropped in on the concert spontaneously and without any advance planning. And once she really got going and started hitting the pure notes, the event happened. One palm over her left ear, she hit a note with such force that she surprised herself! Then she gave a sweet, childlike smile as if to say "did I really do that?". All three of us noticed it independently.

Now the wonderful smile is gone and another pure spirit lost to the world. Fortunately we are left with a number of her recordings, as well as this 79-minute youtube video (an error in the link has now been corrected).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

God's unchanging word

The following letter was supposedly written to right-wing talk show host Laura Schlessinger in the US some years ago and has apparently been circulating on the net ever since. It's reappeared in India in recent times thanks to the Section 377 ruling and the ensuing religious backlash. The letter is thought-provoking and plain hilarious. Its authorship is apparently unknown.

Before people get on my case, I'll grant that I seem to be giving Christianity a disproportionately hard time on this issue compared to other religions. All I can say in my defence is - what does one do when brilliant literature like the letter below is available...

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. (After all, all things in the bible should be taken and followed as the literal law)

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them.

a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

d) Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

e) I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

g) Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev.19:27. How should they die?

i) I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev.24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging. Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bigots vs the Constitution of India

I've always watched with amusement and exasperation when inter-religious conflicts play out in India. From my distant outpost, all religions are pretty loony about some issues. Then again, all are sources of comfort, guidance and even inspiration to their followers (here I'll include my ultra-rationalist, atheist self: Buddhist philosophy has been an important influence for me through most of my adult life, and I've also on occasion appreciated the "spiritual feeling" at places of worship of every religion).

The claim that religious practice is timeless (and comes down from God) is of course nonsensical. All religions have undergone significant - sometimes very major - shifts in their attitude and presentation over the ages. However, if one thing rarely changes with time, it's the inability of various religions to get along with each other. In a world where increasing numbers of young people are bound less to religion and more to Facebook and Twitter (these could turn into new religions given enough time!) one might expect existing religions to find common ground and seek to retain followers in their own self-interest. But that rarely happens.

Like the angry opponents of Martin Gardner's famous book "Fads and fallacies in the name of science", each of whom felt his own fad was fine but all the others were nonsense, each religious group will agree with prevailing criticisms of all other groups besides itself. I remember reading a letter in the Hindustan Times wherein a Christian lady from Bombay fulminated against Muslims for very generic practices (being "dirty", "fundamentalist", "uncooperative" etc). It was precisely at this time that poor Christian tribals in Orissa's Kandhamal district were being slaughtered in riots. That the Christian minority in India could be (and was being) accused of very similar things did not occur to this kind lady.

But, just as all nations, communities and religions will stand together if the earth is attacked by aliens, it's also true that religions can work out a temporary understanding when faced with a threat to their "values". Just consider the following quotes about feminism that I got off the net:

"...scripture declares that in the matters of authority and leadership men and women are not equal. God is the head of Christ, Christ is the head of man, and man is the head of woman..."


"Suggesting that egalitarianism can be Islamic ignores genetic differences in within gender. By challenging Islamic understanding from the Prophet Muhammad and the companions, it cannot be plausible to state Feminism can be Islamic,..."

Neither of these quotes are necessarily representative, but it's amusing how similar they are to each other. It may be that Muslim, Christian and other religious communities around the world have in the past actually banded together to oppose feminism, or even just equal gender rights, though this is not known to me in any detail and I would be interested to hear from readers about it. But there is a more recent example in India that is illuminating because it deals with a more focused issue.

This is the Delhi High Court's decision, last week, to strike down a line from Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Thereby, homosexual acts between consenting adults are no longer illegal. What's fascinating about the judgement is not simply the one-line consequence, which was long overdue, but the way in which the liberal, humanist nature of the Indian Constitution has been highlighted by the judges.

And now that there is a cause to oppose, various religions in India are finding common ground. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the Muslim Personal Law Board, the Sikh SGPC and Jain and Hindu organisations have come together on a common platform to oppose the recent legalisation of gay sex in India. Of course it isn't only the specific consequence of this specific judgement that that they truly oppose. All of them agree (though they will admit it only to varying degrees) that every liberal, humanist position threatens the stranglehold of their particular religion over its followers, by freeing people up to be themselves and make their own choices rather than be held to ransom by perceived (and usually invented) "social obligations".

I hate to point out the obvious, but no religious group in India would be comfortable if sexual practices between its own male priests were to be investigated, so it's a risky business going down the political road they are now travelling. I believe the reason they are doing it nevertheless has to do with female, rather than male, sexual practices. Any diversity in this sphere poses an obvious threat to the patriarchal system and I expect this threat will be targeted over the next few months.

While the law takes its course, I'd like to end this particular musing by reproducing a quote from the recent Section 377 judgement (the entire 105-page judgement can be read by following a link on the Wikipedia page).

If there is one constitutional tenet that can be said to be underlying theme of the Indian Constitution, it is that of 'inclusiveness'. This Court believes that Indian Constitution reflects this value deeply ingrained in Indian society, nurtured over several generations. The inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone. Those perceived by the majority as “deviants' or 'different' are not on that score excluded or ostracised.

Where society can display inclusiveness and understanding, such persons can be assured of a life of dignity and non-discrimination. This was the 'spirit behind the Resolution' of which Nehru spoke so passionately. In our view, Indian Constitutional law does not permit the statutory criminal law to be held captive by the popular misconceptions of who the LGBTs are. It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.

In these lines the learned judges have laid down a standard and rationale for civil rights of every kind in India, and they have based this on the Indian Constitution. Religious bigots are welcome to fight the constitution, but I believe they will lose.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ancient footprints and modern preprints

"Oh the streets of Rome are filled with rubble,
Ancient footprints are everywhere"

These are the opening lines of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece and, despite having no masterpieces in progress (and no skill at painting), I was haunted by these words all of last week. The occasion was Strings 2009, the annual String Theory conference, held this year at the "Angelicum" whose very impressive full name is "Pontificia Università San Tommaso d'Aquino".

Saint Thomas Aquinas was a famous theologian of the Dominican order, and this university named after him teaches Canon Law, Sacred Theology and Philosophy, so many will consider it perfectly appropriate that a String Theory conference should be held there! The analogy becomes more amusing if one examines the five precepts of St Thomas, which in brief are:

1. God is simple, without composition of parts.
2. God is perfect, lacking nothing.
3. God is infinite.
4. God is immutable, incapable of change on the levels of essence and character.
5. God is one, without diversification.

If I can permit myself a heresy that will offend both devout Catholics and devout String Theorists: take the above list and replace "God" by "String Theory" everywhere, and you get a charming caricature of what string theorists say about their subject, or at least what other people think string theorists say about their subject.

The surroundings at the Angelicum are beautiful - and the slightly uncomfortable seats are clearly part of the divine plan of making us concentrate on the lectures. But there were more elements to this divine plan that unfolded as the conference progressed.

For those who don't know, a scientific conference in this day and age typically consists of a speaker talking to the backs of several hundred laptops behind which members of the audience check their email, write papers, and occasionally chat with each other via Google Talk. Alas, the wi-fi in the hall simply failed to work. The organisers assured us they had paid for the connection but the $%*#@# (Italian curses) phone company simply wasn't doing their job. On the second day things had not changed one bit. Moreover, this being Rome, most hotels did not offer internet or charged heavily for it (judging from the ads, 6 Euros an hour is considered a "cheap" rate, though it's what most Indians pay for an entire month's internet connection!). I was lucky with my hotel, which had free wi-fi though it was very basic in other ways.

By lunchtime on Tuesday the conference wi-fi finally started working. But unknown to anyone, a new element of the divine plan was unfolding. Just as the afternoon session was getting ready to commence at 2:30 PM, the lights went out. For the next half hour people sat obediently in their seats (the wi-fi of course went away along with the power). Around 3 PM the organisers announced that the power could not be restored that day, so the entire afternoon session was cancelled - or rather postponed to Wednesday, which in the original schedule was to have been a half-day.

I know what you, the reader, are thinking at this point. Clearly the Swiss Guard at the Vatican had started shutting off power selectively to different parts of Rome! I tried to convince my colleagues of this -- but sadly, most had not seen, or read, or even heard of, Angels and Demons. So they looked at me very very strangely.

Anyhow people streamed out of the Angelicum and many went to see the Colosseum which was a short walk away. There, one had the opportunity to stand in a long line (as we had already got used to doing for tea and lunch each day) before entering. Of course once you were inside it was magical, specially if you could succeed in visualising it minus the few thousand tourists. An interesting historical fact about the Colosseum is that half a million humans and a million animals perished within it. Another fact, which I promise I am not making up, is that "Pope Sixtus V (1585–1590) planned to turn the building into a wool factory to provide employment for Rome's prostitutes, though this proposal fell through with his premature death". And a good thing too. How would it have looked if we had all said: "Lectures are cancelled so let's go to the wool factory and look at ex-prostitutes"?

From what I've written so far you may not get the impression that much physics got done, but in fact there were many excellent lectures at Strings 2009. Some of the most impressive ones were about superconductors, QCD, particle scattering and neutron stars. These are important issues for many "earthly" physicists and string theory provides one of the most exciting ways to tackle outstanding problems in these areas. See for example this article. I particularly enjoyed the talks on these subjects by Sean Hartnoll, Ofer Aharony, Juan Maldacena, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Zvi Bern and and Erik Verlinde, the first three of whom had visited my institute in Bombay last year for the Monsoon Workshop on String Theory.

This turn of events is fascinating. Despite the most advertised (and often ridiculed) motivation of String Theory as being a unified theory of all fundamental interactions, the last couple of years have seen an upsurge in its applications to other fields of physics. What's impressive is that the string theorists who work on these applications have taken on a different area of physics and come to know it thoroughly and deeply. For example it's clear that Sean Hartnoll knows superconductivity, conventional and otherwise, extremely well and his presentation was impressive for his simultaneous mastery over that as well as string theory. The same can be said for many others who spoke and yet others who didn't come to Strings 2009.

I begin to feel that if String Theory is like any religion at all, it's not Christianity but Hinduism, which gradually incorporates and ultimately swallows up anything interesting that's going on around it.

I shouldn't fail to mention that there were also many lectures at Strings 2009 on particle phenomenology as related to (or interpreted in) string theory. Clearly the forthcoming experiments at the LHC are on people's minds. I particularly enjoyed Michelangelo Mangano's talk on LHC physics (not relating it to string theory but just updating us on what the likely scenarios are) and found it wonderfully clear, cogent, optimistic and yet balanced.

But back to Rome. As Dylan says, "You can almost think that you're seein' double, On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs". There weren't any cold dark nights, but given that tourists frequently sit on the Spanish Stairs and sing Bob Dylan songs, I can well understand why he was seeing double!

And some people did indeed paint their masterpiece in Rome, many times over. On my last day I got to see the Galleria Borghese, thanks to my dear friend Franco who made the required reservations for both of us. There I discovered (as I've discovered on previous visits to Rome many years ago) what stunning masterpieces had been painted by Caravaggio and Titian, and even more stunning statues sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The latter started sculpting as a teenager and had a bunch of masterpieces done before he was 25, which should make the rest of us feel pretty rotten indeed. By the time I came out, my voice was almost as whiny as Uncle Bob's! But I felt deeply elevated and fortunate to have witnessed this sublime level of art.

Now here's a funny thing. The last verse of Dylan's song goes:

"I left Rome and landed in Brussels,
On a plane ride so bumpy that I almost cried."

And the nice coincidence is that I, your humble (ha ha!) blogger, also left Rome and landed in Brussels. But the plane ride wasn't bumpy in the least. Only, my baggage didn't make it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Endonyms, exonyms, allonyms... what's in a nym?

A comment about my previous posting led me to do a little study about names of cities and countries. I'd like to describe some of what I learned. More details can be found on this Wikipedia entry.

The name by which a city or country is referred to by the local population is called an "endonym" while the name used by others not native to the place is called an "exonym". As an example, "Firenze" is an endonym while "Florence" is an exonym for the same city used by the French and English. Examples of exonyms are abundant in Europe. Among the most interesting for me are two German cities: "München", known in Italy by its exonym "Monaco" (which means "monk") and "Aachen" whose Italian exonym is "Aquisgrana" (which comes from the original Roman name meaning "hot springs"). In both cases, the exonym conveys more accurately the history of the city than does the current endonym.

The city we call by its English exonym "Geneva" has the endonym Genève used by its mainly French-speaking residents. Its other names
, "Genf" in German and "Ginevra" in Italian, might be called exonyms, but then German and Italian are official Swiss languages, so residents of Geneva who speak these languages can legitimately use "Genf" and "Ginevra" as endonyms. Thus a single city can have two or more endonyms. In this case the different endonyms are called "allonyms" of each other.

Another example of allonyms is "Bruxelles" (endonym used by French-speaking locals) and "Brussel" (endonym used by Flemish-speaking locals). Neither is pronounced the same way as "Brussels" which is the English exonym.

A nice example of allonyms closer to (my) home is "Mumbai" (Marathi endonym), "Bambai" (Hindi endonym) and "Bombay" (English endonym). While some might claim that the last one is an English exonym, English is one of India's official languages and there is a significant population in the city that uses it as a principal language. Therefore "Bombay" qualifies to be an endonym and is one of at least three allonyms for the city. This is in quite the same sense that Genf and Ginevra qualify as endonyms for Genève.

We spontaneously use exonyms all the time, for example English speakers refer to the country called "Zhōngguó" as China, and the city of "Krung Thep" as Bangkok. In my experience, English speakers tend to be particularly ignorant that they are using exonyms and often try to convince themselves and others that they are using the "correct" names, whatever that means. This is perhaps because of the very widespread (though hardly as overwhelming as some people imagine) use of English in the world today.

While the United Nations has studiously tried to encourage the exclusive use of endonyms, it has by its own admission found this very difficult, you can read about it here. To quote from this document: "Time has, however, shown that initial ambitious attempts to rapidly decrease the number of exonyms were over-optimistic and not possible to realise in the intended way. The reason would appear to be that many exonyms have become common words in a language and can be seen as part of the language’s cultural heritage."

In official situations the use of specific endonyms is sometimes required, but (in a democracy) there cannot be any restrictions on the use of different endonyms or exonyms in informal conversation, blogging, literature, art etc. This is particularly convenient for those contemplating a visit to Baile Átha Cliath!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


The Economist has released one of those predictable surveys ranking cities in the world for their "liveability". I'm amazed how a supposedly scientific magazine can present "liveability" as some sort of objective criterion. It also seems rather pompous to label the report "The Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability survey February 2009" and on top of that they expect online readers to fork out 250 US dollars to access the full report! All I've read, therefore, is the free summary and that tells us the top ten and the bottom ten cities.

India doesn't make it at either end but as today's papers tell us, both Bombay and Delhi are way down there. Now my irritation at the above article and survey is certainly not due to an inflated sense of where my beloved Bombay should lie. But let me say a few words about the winners. Three Canadian cities make it to the top 10: Vancouver (1), Toronto (4) and Calgary (5). Calgary is most easily demolished, it's dull as a garbage heap and ugly to boot (unless you include nearby Banff, but that's another city altogether). In addition to my personal impression, I've known a couple of people who have served time there. Of course someone will say liveability is altogether a different thing from aesthetics and liveliness. But I wonder, I wonder...

Vancouver is better. I've been there a few times and spent a good six weeks living in the very heart of downtown overlooking Coal Harbour (prettier than it sounds) - in an eminently "liveable" glass building where, if you're not careful, your entire personal life can be made into a feature film by the folks next door. The building had a full-size indoor heated swimming pool (there's not much of a market in chilly, rainy Vancouver for open-air pools!), sauna, jacuzzi, gym.. In short, liveable. Problem is, I found it a shade dull. No one there mentioned a museum or an art gallery seriously worth visiting. Bars inevitably consisted of a few despondent people watching TV. There really wasn't much of a buzz on the streets.

And here's the final blow. The supermarkets there sold average Canadian imitations of French cheese! And the "pesto" there is made from cashew nuts instead of pine nuts and generic oil instead of olive oil! Did I say "liveable"??

OK, OK. I have a brother, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a cousin-in-law and four nephews in Vancouver so I have to be careful what I say. It's a lovely city and if I found it a wee bit dull, it's surely my own limitation.

So on to Melbourne which comes in at number 3. And this is where
I begin to seriously wonder. The Economist claims its criteria for liveability are: stability, health care, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Somewhere in this list they must surely evaluate the ability to walk safely home from a train station at night. Good old Bombay comes out shining on that score. But in the last few weeks Melbourne's image has certainly taken a bashing. I'm not referring to the hyped version in the Indian media, who believe that every Aussie wants nothing more in life than to beat up an Indian, and that every Indian in Melbourne is an angel. I'm referring to the moderate Australian response to this situation, as typified by an article titled "Play fair, mate" by Aussie journalist Greg Sheridan reprinted in yesterday's Hindustan Times. Here is an extract, referring to Melbourne:

"All big cities around the world are struggling with a rise in urban violence, especially in the throes of the global recession. While I'm sure there has been a racial element in these attacks, there has also been an element of robbery pure and simple, and of random, big city violence".

Does it bother you that a city so casually described in these terms by a resident scribe ranks No.3 on the Economist's list for "liveability"?

Oh, I'm not convincing you? OK, then here's my next (and final) card. Please read the following excerpt from Wikipedia's article on the current swine flu outbreak:

As of June 6, Australia's second largest city, Melbourne, has been reported as the "swine flu capital of the world", with 1,011 cases in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne.

I think I'll settle for Bombay's liveability, or whatever that thing which I like over here is called. Oh, and the mangoes are just fabulous!

Monday, June 8, 2009

BEST, c'est le meilleur!

If you're the owner of a flat that's been given out on rent, what you don't want to receive first thing in the morning is a phone call from the building manager informing you that the electric meter of the flat has burnt out. The call evoked visions of irate tenants, slow repair services and one or more wasted days. But that's not how things turned out at all.

For starters, my French tenant was more than understanding. He volunteered to leave work and return to the flat if that became necessary. His partner, a journalist, found herself trying to meet a deadline for an article without an internet connection and without even a fan in this sweltering weather -- so she went off to an air-conditioned cafe with wi-fi where she quietly got on with her work. And someone from the ever-impressive BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport, with Bombay now replaced by "Brihanmumbai"), showed up at the building, took my mobile number from the manager and phoned to let me know they were working on the problem. By evening they had installed a brand new meter and hesitantly called again to ask if I could come to sign a document acknowledging the work. The man was genuinely sorry I had to leave my office for this! It took me ten minutes to get there, sign the document and slip him a 100-rupee note in gratitude (which he accepted gracefully after telling me it wasn't really necessary).

In another world, my tenants could have started off by screaming at me -- they're paying me so much and now no electricity! And the electric supply company could have been unreachable, then claimed it would take them a week to fix the problem, then gradually drawn me into a situation where a sizable "gift" had to be parted with before they would do anything. Happily, all that happened in a parallel universe unconnected to this one.

Well - this short posting is to publicly thank my tenants as well as the BEST. What can I say but "merci beaucoup, phaar aabhaari aahe!"

Friday, May 29, 2009

So that's why they couldn't find Bin Laden?

I will start by reproducing verbatim a short report that appears in today's Hindustan Times (29 May, Mumbai edition) on page 11, first column. Titled "Into a very far, very big black hole", the report says in its entirety:

"Astronomers have used new data from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton spaceborne observatory, to probe closer than ever to a supermassive black hole deep inside the core of a distant active galaxy. The galaxy - 1H0707-495 - was observed during four 48-hr-long orbits of XMM-Newton around Earth, starting in January 2008. The scientists are confident their work will one day make it possible to help police track down international criminals."

You read it right -- international criminals could be hiding "deep inside the core of a distant active galaxy". No wonder poor George W., a man of limited imagination, couldn't find Osama Bin Laden using his stupid terrestrial searches!

Now most of us have a hard time just getting to the moon. It's a mere 250,000 km away and the last time I tried going there, I got stuck in a traffic jam near Andheri. Getting to the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, would require traversing 8 kiloparsecs, or in more common language, 250000000000000000 km. My poor Maruti Alto simply isn't up to it. And even it were, the centre of our galaxy is NOT where these dastardly "international criminals" are hiding! As per the above article they are in a "distant active galaxy". I don't know the distance involved offhand, but, to use a technical term borrowed from astronomers, it's "really really far".

The only way Osama Bin Laden could possibly have got there is by sitting inside a rocket ship travelling at very close to the speed of light. Of course even then he would currently be on his way there, scheduled to arrive in a million years or so -- always assuming the airport at 1H0707-495 does not, like Mumbai's Santacruz, suffer from phenomena like "traffic congestion" or the more currently fashionable "dog on the runway". What's scary, though, is that after another million years on a return flight he could arrive just as (relatively) youthful and sprightly as when he left, thanks to Special Relativity. So people who are worried about a repeat of 9/11 should watch their step on or around September 11, 2,002,001.

As with so many other mysteries, the one associated to the above article is easily dispelled. The Hindustan Times copy editor was not hallucinating on the latest designer drug. He or she simply forgot a basic rule of word processing: "after you cut, and before you paste, don't lose concentration". For, the article that follows this one is titled "Hair samples could help nab terrorists" and contains the useful information that a new laser tool can "read off", from a sample of hair, just what you've been eating and where you've been travelling. If you move the last sentence above to the end of that article, where it presumably originated, things start to make sense again.

So today, my falling hair probably reveals traces of mango chicken, while strands from Mr O.B. Laden's beard reveal... what? I have no idea, but whatever it is, I doubt it will be the variety of "Peshawari Naan" served at dhabas all over

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mango chicken

I used to eat out a lot, mostly around South Bombay where I live. But in recent years I've become very disappointed with the fare available. The Indian food in this area lacks authenticity as well as imagination -- one can't get a decent dosa in all of South Bombay, Maharashtrian food is scarce here and the few Bengali restaurants are mostly atrocious oil-factories. Gujarati food does make the cut and is typically very good, but I can only wade into ghee (which I adore) so many times a year without totally risking my life. The other kind of food that's usually excellent here is Mangalorean-style seafood (and there's the added benefit that short-haired women, minorities etc are welcome to sample the fare - and even drink a gin and tonic on the side - without being attacked by Hindutva hooligans as they might be back in Mangalore...). One limitation though is that there's very little variation: fried fish, gassi, aapams and neer dosa is pretty much it. And in case your stomach resents being fed a kilo of green chillies in a single evening, as mine does, you can't do this too often either.

As for what is called "fine dining", this usually translates into "imitative Western or far-Eastern fare at high prices and low freshness levels". Recently at "All Stir Fry" near Regal Cinema I was astonished to find that my Kaukswe (a Burmese coconut curry, divine when made properly) was made from canned coconut milk. I can understand chefs in London having recourse to this shortcut, but in a city where coconuts grow on trees, it makes absolutely no sense. I couldn't find any decent Italian restaurants in South Bombay, and the Middle-Eastern-inspired "Moshe's" has caved in to popular demand so they put chillies in everything (totally unlike what would be done in the Middle East). Seafood in any South Bombay restaurant other than Mangalorean is liable to be stale and arguing with the waiter about that just raises one's blood pressure: "no sir it's absolutely fresh, we have a very good freezer...". Moreover, dinner in any of the "fine-dining" places can easily set you back a thousand rupees per head without drinks.

The solution, of course, is to cook at home. That is limited only by time available. However now the issue becomes, what to do when you've been eating the same or similar stuff for days and want a change?

This morning I had an epiphany of sorts and want to share it with my readers. The thing to do is make use of the freshest local ingredients, particularly whatever's in season. And what's in season in Bombay today is, unmistakably, mangoes. Luscious Alphonso (or "aphoos") mangoes, food of the gods. So I woke up today and said "I shall make mango chicken". Now this is not a completely original thought, I think I've once eaten something by that name many years ago. But I had no idea about a recipe, or even what the dish should look like, so I browsed the net and performed some variations on what I read, ignoring those recipes that called for more than a hundred ingredients and three days in the kitchen (why is it that those are the most common?). Luck was on my side and I've just enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal cooked in a jiffy.

So here comes the recipe.

Mango chicken

1 whole chicken, cut into about 12 pieces
Three tablespoons cornflour
Three tablespoons soy sauce, preferably a fragrant and not-extra-salty one like Kikkoman
About two tablespoons of freshly chopped garlic
Half a cube of chicken stock
Two tablespoons of wine (red or white, I used red today) or sherry or good vinegar.
One large and luscious food-of-the-gods Alphonso mango, ripe or nearly ripe

1. In a bowl, combine the cornflour with some salt and pepper (go easy on the salt as there will be salt in the stock and the soy sauce too). Put in all the chicken and shake till the pieces are coated well.
2. In a wide skillet heat a little vegetable oil, fry the chicken till well-browned on both sides. The chicken need not be cooked through but will have shrunk a bit by losing moisture and fat.
3. The melted fat will mix with the cooking oil forming a liquid called "arteriosclerosis". Invest in your future by pouring off all that oil and fat NOW. It will increase your life expectancy -- just think how many more mango chickens you can make by living longer! If you possess a turkey baster (basically a nose dropper expanded by a factor of 10) you can use that to drain off the fat.
4. Reduce heat, add the chopped garlic and stir. Once garlic has softened, add soy sauce and wine along with the chicken stock. Stir again.
5. Add chunks of luscious Alphonso mango. Chew the leftover skins. This divine mango is not to be wasted in ANY quantity!
6. Add half a cup of water to make a thin gravy. Mix well, cover and simmer gently till chicken is done. The mango will dissolve partially into the gravy but some lumps should remain.

If done right, the result should combine the sweetness of mango with the tart flavour of soy sauce and the totally irresistible flavour of fried chicken. Gorgeous. Eat with mushroom rice, here's a simple recipe:

1. Go to Koh Samui in Thailand, rent a motorbike, drive to Tesco Lotus supermarket and buy dried Shiitake mushrooms. Actually I'm sure they can be found in Crawford Market (in Marathi: "Kraaphoot Markit").
2. Warm a few mushrooms in water till they soften. Slice and mix with half-cooked, drained rice. Add the water in which the mushrooms were warmed, as well as a little vegetable stock. Cook till done.

OK, so let me know how it goes.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Time to gloat

I haven't blogged in a number of days. One reason (not the only one) is that I didn't want to write about the elections, fearing to add myself to the list of fools who apparently can't even predict tomorrow's date correctly...

But now that it's over, I'm savouring every moment. In a few days India will go back to being the mess that I love to complain about, but today it is a country where democracy has triumphed and stability is more or less assured. Moreover, some people have got what they richly deserved and I wish to gloat about their forthcoming political demise.

Let's start with Mr L.K. Advani. Apparently few people have a clear memory of his divisive and mean-spirited rath yatra in 1990 and the ensuing Babri Masjid campaign that led to the loss of 2000 lives for absolutely no gain to the nation, but a definite electoral gain to the BJP. Even though I assume he didn't kill any of the 2000 people himself, I've always felt that Mr Advani personally was responsible for their deaths. On numerous occasions Mr Advani has placed party and political interest before that of the nation, most notably during the Mumbai 26/11 attacks when he launched a typically vicious verbal attack on the Indian government even as the attacks were taking place instead of having the decency to show some solidarity for the country's sake. I commented about this on my blog at the time. Mr Advani's impending exit is a source of great joy to me, though unfortunately the evil he did will outlive him.

On to Mr Prakash Karat. It's clear to everyone except, perhaps the CPM Politburo (and Mr N. Ram?) that even if his disagreement with Dr Singh on the 1-2-3 deal was genuine, he overplayed it because of a medieval mindset and also personal reasons (i.e. a monstrous ego). He got the Left to pull out from the government hoping that this would destabilise it, and he attacked the deal and the US with all the fervour of an Iranian mullah denouncing the "great Satan". His fears that any deal with the US government would harm India were rooted in the belief that India would always be an inferior partner incapable of defending its own interests. This is a view that an unlikely collection of people, including George W. Bush, Manmohan Singh, Barack Obama and last but not least myself, would disagree with.

One of the many pleasing consequences of yesterday's elections was that former speaker of parliament Somnath Chatterjee, expelled by Karat for refusing to step down when the Left quit the government, has now called for Karat's expulsion. Let's hope it happens. Among other potential leaders of the CPM I think Sitaram Yechury - for all his faults - is a much better person and clearer thinker than Karat, and I hope he will now become more powerful in his party and steer it in a saner direction.

Finally, some minor journalists who in 2004 savaged Sonia Gandhi for having the cheek to lead the Congress will need to take a long vacation, preferably in the Swat valley. The racist and other abuse heaped on her at the time by those people, lapped up by an insecure upper-middle-class, shocked me at the time. I still remember Anil Thakraney reproducing a children's tale in Italian in his daily column to show his contempt for Sonia-ji, as well as Tavleen Singh's venomous personal attack. It led me to hope Sonia would somehow show them up and it's now clear that she's done just that. Of course, if you're one of the people who feels Thakraney or Tavleen should lead the nation, please feel free to contact them in Swat.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Left is left and right is right?

I rarely watch TV, but yesterday I ended up watching an NDTV programme about Rahul Gandhi's latest comments on keeping alliance options open. The programme seemed to have the sole purpose of stirring up excitement over this non-issue: fair enough perhaps, the media need something to occupy themselves with given that election results are still over a week away.

I found it amusing to compare the two veteran newspaper editors whom they interviewed on this programme: Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express and N. Ram of The Hindu. Gupta is politically right-wing in the sense of being strongly pro-capitalist and anti-communist, while N. Ram is politically left-wing in the sense of exchanging pro and anti in the previous phrase. Remarkably they were in complete agreement on the present issue, both concluding that the Congress party is promiscuous and willing to ally with just about anyone except the BJP (of course you didn't need to be a veteran editor to realise this).

What struck me powerfully, though, was the difference in the way they made their point. N. Ram looked dour and sanctimonious and spoke in a venomous whisper -- as if he was the king cobra that a rabbit called Rahul Gandhi had stirred up from his sleep. Shekhar Gupta on the other hand came across as an affable, relaxed and humorous person who could examine politics dispassionately and make insightful observations about it. At the end both editors declared themselves pleasantly surprised that they were actually agreeing with each other, but N. Ram looked as if he had swallowed a bitter lemon while Gupta made his comment with a light-hearted chuckle.

Perhaps Mr Ram lightens up (and even chuckles) only when he goes to China to praise their excellent Tibet policy?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Holidays are for idiots

Once more, Mumbaikars gave a vivid demonstration of their sense of priorities. A holiday was declared on April 30 so we could vote in the General Elections, but more than half of us did not vote. Strangely, the non-voters did not show up at their offices demanding they be allowed to work instead! All in all, it was a wonderful exhibition of the core Mumbaikar philosophy "I don't give a flying f..." (in Marathi: आय डोंट गिव अ फ्लाईंग फ...).

Why do we need to declare a holiday on election day? Wouldn't it be enough to offer employees two hours off on that day on strict condition that they actually vote? This would need to be demonstrated by showing up the next day with the tell-tale ink line on their left middle finger. Employees who claim they were unable to vote as their name did not appear on the voter list could be required to provide a cell-phone video of themselves arguing with an election officer.

Actually some private companies did give just a couple of hours, or adjust shifts, so it was -- as usual -- the sarkari sector that generously awarded the holiday.

For residents of the South Bombay constituency, the number of "idiots" was more than 50 percent, closer to 60 percent in fact. The papers went on and on about how it was a four-day weekend and people would naturally want to go on vacation, as if to suggest that the ones who stayed behind to vote were the true idiots. And I love the way well-meaning social groups pleaded with people to vote in the early morning before leaving for their vacations, as if to acknowledge that vacationing was the main priority and voting a mere side-issue.

There is however one positive outcome from all this. The next time people from Malabar Hill go around lighting candles at the Gateway of India and saying "we will never forget" (and creating traffic jams by parking their Toyotas all over the place), we can perhaps slap a few of them, not very hard but just hard enough to jog their memories.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Adventure sports - where failure was success

All blog postings are ultimately about oneself, but this one will be explicitly so. It deals with my encounters with sports, and specifically adventure sports.

My sporting life at school was not merely a failure, it was nonexistent. I did not like a single game and avoided cricket, football, hockey and any other ghastly activity that the school would occasionally dream up, such as boxing. In Physical Training class a mutual hatred grew up between me and my teachers. It almost felt like a double life, being ridiculed and sometimes publicly humiliated at P.T., only to move on to the Maths (or English or History or any other) class where the teacher would be all sugar and honey to me and often use my example to ridicule the other boys. Well, it wasn't my fault, either way.

At home things were not much better. My uncles and cousins, with whom I would try to play basic lawn cricket, mocked me for my "slow reflexes". When intra-family matches were held, I got accustomed to the look of horror on the face of the captain who discovered I was to be on his team.

With this background, today at the age of 52 plus I look back on the last 15 years and am struck by the fact that, though I have still not attempted to play - or even watch - cricket, football, hockey or tennis (not to mention boxing!), I have tried out many of the major adventure sports, including (but not limited to) para-sailing, scuba diving, skiing, river rafting, volcano-climbing, snorkelling and -- this is the really adventurous one -- riding a 125cc motorbike on Koh Samui. And though this is not an "adventure sport" (is it a sport at all?), I also go to the gym regularly.

There's a lesson in this, perhaps several lessons. The obvious one is that my reflexes aren't that bad and I actually do love physical activity. Apparently I just don't like the ritualistic aspects of "spectator sports" and probably avoided them because I hated being under a spotlight and judged for my poor performance. But it's more complex than that. Despite the impressive list of adventure sports in which I've participated, I actually failed miserably at all of them -- sometimes more than one in a single day, as you'll see below! So, failure-aversion is apparently not the issue. In fact I'm rather "proud" of my failures at adventure sports and I maintain that I enjoyed all of them and would do them all again (except perhaps riding that bike on Koh Samui!!).

If you've read this far then you want to know the details of my failures. Poor you. Here they come.

First, about para-sailing, I lied. There isn't any such thing as success or failure in that particular sport, which - in my case - went by the following route: (i) go to Santa Barbara for a physics workshop, (ii) have a friend induce you to go para-sailing, (iii) pay 20 US dollars, (iv) get strapped into a parachute harness atop a speedboat, (v) watch bemused as the boat accelerates and the parachute starts to rise, obeying laws of physics, (vi) fight a growing feeling of panic at being high in the air with nothing (not even an aeroplane floor) below you. Once you get this far there's not much to do except enjoy it and hope your friend is getting good photos.

So now about scuba diving. This happened in Phuket in 2005. It works as follows: (i) in a foolish moment you ask your hotel to book you on a scuba diving trip, (ii) a jeep collects you in the morning. It's full of tense and generally unfriendly white folks, (iii) you are decanted onto a launch that serves a gigantic breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, fruits and so on, (iv) you are lectured on scuba diving for about an hour, the key point apparently being that you should NOT BREATHE TOO SLOWLY, (v) you suddenly find you are at the edge of a moored boat wearing a 10kg oxygen cylinder on your back, flippers on your feet, a mask through which you can't see much and some plastic stuff between your teeth. You're also wearing a rubber outfit from which four different tubes protrude like tentacles from an octopus (quadrupus??). At this stage you are asked to JUMP IN THE WATER! Which is at least 15 metres deep. (vi) convinced that this is the last thing you'll ever do, you obey, (vii) now you are underwater and seeing groupers, butterfly fish, anemones, squid and star-shaped objects, (viii) however your instructor is unhappy about something and keeps gesturing to you underwater, (ix) after about 15 minutes, i.e. half-way into the dive, he drags you up out of the water and, in the open sea, starts shouting at you. Apparently I was breathing TOO FAST!!

If you're waiting for the story of how I failed twice in one day, here it comes. Venue: Pucón, Chile. The two popular adventure sports here are: climbing the neighbourhood volcano, called Villarica, and going river-rafting. I signed on for volcano climbing. No less an authority than Juan Maldacena had assured me it was an "easy four-hour climb". For him, I'm sure it was easy (as easy as discovering the AdS/CFT correspondence!). For me, the anxiety grew steadily as I was fitted out in some kind of climbing suit, made to wear bulky boots and carry an ice-pick. About three minutes into the trek I realised I was not made for this. At the same moment that the leader of the expedition was yelling at me for lagging behind, I took a decision, namely to call it off. Luckily the friend who was with me felt the same way. We walked away humiliated, and, after a beer at the hotel, signed on for river-rafting the same afternoon.

Now here was a sport, much like para-sailing, where you had to basically do nothing. As long as you stayed on the raft, with your feet anchored behind a safety rope, you were fine. We were given helmets and life jackets. And off we went. Now the photo record shows the following. As the boat successfully negotiated a Class IV rapid, the leader stood up and cheered for our success. BUT I AM NOT IN THE PHOTO! Not that I had exactly fallen out. What happened is that the upper half of my body fell out of the boat. My lower body remained on the boat, with my feet anchored behind the safety rope. So I negotiated the rapids with my head in the water and upside-down, a position that was not just uncomfortable and causing me to inhale water in lieu of oxygen, but downright dangerous as I could have smashed my head on the rocks. That didn't happen, of course.

I'm nearly at the end of the story now. Last week we went snorkelling on the island of Samui in Thailand. The sea was rough and I didn't last more than 15 minutes in the water. Saw about four yellow striped fish.

So now about that bike. You're thinking that riding a bike in Thailand is dangerous because Thai people dart in and out of the road and drive in a generally indisciplined and chaotic way. Bad guess. Maybe you were thinking about Indians! Thai people are very very disciplined for the most part and the roads are perfectly orderly. The problem is that Koh Samui has hills and they are very very very steep. The road leading to my hotel had segments that appeared to be at 45 degrees. So one could make it up the hill only at top speed. Anything less and your bike would slow down to a complete stop. Then you would have to offload your passenger and things would become easier. Except that coming to a complete stop on a 45 degree slope means your bike instantly starts to roll down...

The record is as follows (i) the first time, in broad daylight, we make it all the way up, (ii) the second time, in darkness, and with down-going traffic to avoid, I lurch from side to side, almost come to a stop and then zoom away leaving my passenger on the verge of falling off, his legs in the air..., (iii) the third time we are foiled by a little kid and three dogs. We slow down to avoid this crowd but the hill there is very steep, we slowly come to a halt, fall over sideways... and I have a 3-inch bruise on my leg. My friend got a "Samui Tattoo", a burn from the exhaust pipe of the bike.

I didn't describe my skiing experiences. Maybe another day. I think I've made my point though. Adventure sports are just the greatest fun there is, as long as you don't suffer from any illusions that you will succeed at them. As for reflexes, you should have seen how fast I returned that bike to the rental agency!!

Friday, April 3, 2009

In a blue mood

The thing about KLM aircraft is that they are blue. Not just blue in parts, but solidly, obsessively, Dutchly (if I may) blue. And so are the crew, or at least their clothes.

Nothing wrong with blue per se, it's my favourite colour actually. But flying from Taipei to Bangkok today on an ancient decrepit blue KLM 747 aircraft staffed with ancient decrepit blue KLM staff brought home to me how the world is changing. I've already pointed it out on this blog before, but this put the lid on it. At a bargain-basement price of US $ 225 for the Bangkok-Taipei return ticket one can hardly complain, so this is probably not a complaint. But contrast today's KLM with any Far-Eastern airline (Singapore, Cathay, Malaysian, Thai, China Airlines..) and it's an out and out loser. Where the East has gracious service to go with gleaming equipment, the West increasingly offers surly, hostile crew members on its aging fleet of planes. Even the food looked sort of hostile. The seat cushions were falling off and when I pried under one of them looking for a misplaced spectacle case, I discovered a pair of earphones and a knife from some long bygone meal service lodged in the gaps. And Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (and Taipei and Beijing and Osaka and Hongkong and...) all make the once-famous Schiphol airport look like Dharavi in comparison. (Note how I'm studiously avoiding all mention of Indian airports here!!).

On boarding the geriatric KLM plane I discovered that my "window seat" simply had a wall in place of a window! So I asked the stewardess to tell me when boarding was complete so I could change my seat. Incredibly, she said I should do so only after take-off, since the balance of the plane was important. I looked at her in disbelief. "I could unbalance a Boeing 747?" I asked, but she stuck to her guns and gave me a sort of decrepit, blue, hostile look (I desisted from telling her the joke about a Lot Polish aircraft having too many Poles in the left half-plane! Sorry, this one is only for people who've studied complex analysis!!).

Anyway the fact that I could potentially destabilise a KLM Boeing 747 just by changing my seat suggests that either I'm a lot fatter than I think, or the plane truly is as withered as it looks. I'm just hoping it's the latter.