Monday, March 30, 2009

Noodles made by Hakkas

I'm writing from Taichung, Taiwan's third largest city, a couple of hours drive from Taipei. Though the distance is the same as Bombay-Pune, about 180 km, the drive could not be more different -- we simply drove in silence on a highway that runs straight as an arrow until after two hours we could see my hotel on the right side.

Taichung itself won't win any beauty contests but it's a pleasant enough town with a nice park at the centre. There's also a Confucius temple and a jade market, both alas closed on Mondays. But today's highlight was a drive to Sheng Shing. This, apparently, was the highest railway station in Taiwan (at 400 m). The station and railway line became defunct after a bridge collapsed in an earthquake, but the place is utterly charming, a green, forested, quiet escape from town. The railway station is lovingly preserved and one can even walk into the railway tunnel confident that the Virar fast or its equivalent will not mow you down.

Sheng Shing attracts mostly local tourists, and on a Monday this turned out to be mostly elderly couples with their grandchildren. So I was one of the few people there between the ages of 7 and 70! A teaching assistant at Tunghai university, who calls himself George (Taiwanese who speak good English, as George does, typically have a Western/Christian nickname) was kind enough to take me in his car to this place. We conversed on and off during the drive.

George suggested we sample the local cuisine in Sheng Shing or the neighbouring town of Sanyi. It's different from usual Taiwanese food, he said, but not totally bizarre. I said that was a good suggestion, and we drove in silence for a while. Then he said "the local people come from a tribe called the Hakkas. I myself am a Hakka." Another long silence and then he said "they make a special kind of noodle". Some more silence, until my brain which was relaxing in standby mode finally whirred into action, performed a few flops' worth of computation and I said "oh you mean Hakka noodles?". George sounded disappointed. "You already tried them?". "I'm sure they'll be best when made by the Hakka people" I assured him.

In the event, they turned out to be wide flat noodles, similar enough to what we call Hakka noodles in India. But the soup that they came in was mild and pleasant, and very unlike the curry-chilly-soya-oil mix that usually adorns Hakka noodles in India.

When I blog, I often try to learn something about my subject from Wikipedia. And their entry on Hakka cuisine is an eye-opener. Apparently much of Indian Chinese cuisine was originally made by Hakka Chinese and therefore this type of food (the curry-chilly-soya-oil mix I was referring to above) is also known in some quarters as Hakka cuisine. The Wiki entry has a concluding paragraph about this and rather sternly warns you not to confuse it with the real thing! One can imagine a Hakka visitor to Bombay sampling the local Chinese food and fuming (or perhaps steaming, since they are gentle people).

Of course, as my friend Debashis points out, at least Hakka people don't have wanton lifestyles...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Kill the messenger

I recently went through some of my old blog postings, specifically Research Institutes and the "graceful exit" problem and Partial exit from the graceful exit. For those who didn't follow the blog then, or have forgotten the issue, it was about how to get Indian scientists in the many government-funded research institutes (with minimal teaching responsibilities) involved in the greater task of university teaching. I've felt for a long time that the separation is unfair and that while all possible privileges and benefits are heaped upon research institute scientists, university scientists get a rather unfair deal. I therefore proposed that scientists in research institutes be in some way encouraged or even obliged to move to a university at some stage in their careers.

I've since come to know that I was trashed a few times at coffee-table discussions, understandably in research institutes but also, more surprisingly, in universities. My tone and my recommendations were found to be patronising in nature (the word "offensive" was also used) and apparently even my motives were questioned.

The thing that amazes me today, though, is not any of this. It's that the very premise of the discussion was successfully ridiculed, and the issue I raised appears to have faded off the blogosphere entirely. Commenters on my blog at the time argued, or at least insinuated, that the faculty members at research institutions in India really are not better (with a few minor exceptions) than those at universities. It follows that research institutes are not taking away some of the best scientists from universities and I am therefore talking through my hat. This in turn led to a number of quite upsetting ad hominem attacks on me (go read them if you don't believe me), specially after my second posting where I revised my original proposal. Despite a number of sincere commenters who wrote quite rationally and sometimes offered encouragement, I got discouraged and wrote no more about the issue. Some of them offered their own solutions to the problem, but ended up getting no response from my readers.

But today I ask myself: were the issues that I raised really meaningless? I believe this can be answered using objective criteria, though I'm not going to do that just yet. But I have spent some time at universities during the last year and I also know TIFR a little better than I did last year, despite it being my 25th year here. I am less easily cowed down by the claim that I pontificate without knowing the realities -- I believe the realities are essentially as I wrote in my first posting . Maybe I didn't find a workable, or even in principle appropriate, solution, but then the problem surely still awaits a solution.

And here is where I feel a rather distressing Indian middle-class attitude has come into play. Once something or someone irritates you or provokes your insecurity (e.g. my alleged patronising tone) then you trash the person and the ideas in the hope that the discussion itself will go away. There appears to be no burden on the trashers to answer whether there is a problem, and whether anything can or should be done about it. In all this, there are losers and in the present case they are called "university students".

There is another loser and it is my faith in participatory democracy within academia. I've learned to be on the alert for certain kinds of people: those who vigorously mount opposition to a proposed solution but take no responsibility for solving the problem (a bit like the people who only comment on others' blogs but won't bother to maintain a blog of their own!).

Anyway, to end on a semi-positive note, I predict that many research institutes in India will seriously re-configure themselves within the next decade towards more teaching involvement, both internally and in partnership with universities.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tata to political correctness...

"You really don't want to wait too long for the car, because it is like waiting for a pretty woman - you wait for too long and she becomes fat and old," he said.

-- Mr Ratan Tata at the launch of the Nano, as quoted in today's Hindustan Times.

And fat old women exist just to look after the rest of us, not to have any self-respect of their own, n'est-ce pas?

Diary and remembrance

On the weekend I chanced to see two classic films by the greatest masters of European cinema: "Diary of a chambermaid" by Luis Bunuel and "Amarcord" by Federico Fellini.

The former was something a of a disappointment, despite being filmed beautifully and in very crisp black-and-white. A gorgeous chambermaid, played by Jeanne Moreau (trademark: a very French downturn of the lips, giving her a simultaneously sexy and scornful expression) goes to work for a wealthy lady in the countryside. Quite expectedly the lady's father, husband, horse-carriage driver and neighbour all fall for the maid and pursue her in a variety of mostly repulsive ways. In this situation, and being the star character in the movie, you would expect Ms Moreau to make some kind of statement about herself -- but no, she seems to be a dithering soul fairly willing to take on any and all of the men. Her sneering expression never falters, except when she's allowed to display a tiny spark of emotion over a young orphan girl who is raped and murdered.

"Amarcord" turned out to be something else altogether. I've seen it before, of course, but was not prepared for the impact it would make on me this time. From the chaotic opening scene depicting Italy's version of our "Holika dahan", to the exploits and emotions of a family, to the sexual obsessions of schoolboys, and with an unbearably sad wedding scene in conclusion, this movie masterfully plays out the life and times of a village in Eastern Italy, adding just the bare minimum of bizarre Fellini-esque characters and scenes.

Two hallmarks of the direction struck me powerfully this time: (i) a number of scenes are so short you almost don't believe they happened, like comments or footnotes in a diary, and for this reason they have a profound impact on the viewer, (ii) in some scenes the characters seem to be each in his/her own world even as they interact with each other, the camera following them around and powerfully conveying how much of our lives goes on in our own minds.

The final wedding scene is unique: for what is supposed to be a happy event, it's set in a "shamiana" against a stark, dreary landscape, and the overwhelming feeling is of loss and parting from the people one knows. The scene gradually winds down, becoming more and more stark and depressing, as various characters drift away. The few who linger dance slowly in the twilight as the blind man plays his accordion. Amazing.

I recall the sensation when Amarcord was first screened in Bombay - after some censorship, mainly to edit out the gigantic breasts of the tobacconist. I wasn't allowed to see the movie then, as it was for "Adults only". For some days everyone was talking about it, mostly because of its frequent and sometimes crude references to sex. I remember my parents going to see it, they were cautiously positive when they returned but a lot of others including journalists ranted about how it was boring and slow and there was "no story".

The sub-theme of growing fascism enriches both movies, but in "Chambermaid" it's mainly limited to a couple of Nazis plotting their propaganda and making racist remarks about Jews. Instead, in "Amarcord", the personal horror comes alive as Aurelio, the childlike old man with an instinct for what is right, is hounded by the fascist police and made to drink castor oil.

Notwithstanding anything I said above, Bunuel is a brilliant director, though I think I liked his early Spanish-language films better ("Viridiana", "Nazarin"). Fellini is... well, Fellini. What can one even say!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crimes against logic - between us

Dear Mr Pankaj Vohra,

Today's edition of your column "Between Us" in the Hindustan Times is titled "Varun has the right to defend himself". I find myself in complete agreement with this view. But as to the contents of the article, I'll confess I find them lacking both in logic and intellectual honesty.

Please bear with me while I go through the most offensive (to logic and honesty, not to me personally) of your observations, which are about the late Sanjay Gandhi who left us 29 years ago. You describe this gentleman as being "a man far ahead of his times". You declaim that "Had he lived, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that he would have been PM". And you inform us that "Issues like the small family norm, literacy, ecology and discipline he raised are valid even today".

On reading your words, I'm sure Sanjay Gandhi's admirers will feel that tingly warm sensation one gets when one's heroes are praised. I, however, felt that tingly cold sensation I get when logic has been tortured and truth shamed.

Let's start with the man being "far ahead of his times". Never mind that the correct phrase is "ahead of his time" (not "times"), I'd like to point out that the same could be said of a lot of charming people one reads about in history books, but it's not always a compliment. For example, Hitler and Mussolini were ahead of their time in realising that fascist ideology would appeal to large fractions of their population. Osama Bin Laden is ahead of.... oh well, you get my point. I hope.

About there being "no doubt in anyone's mind that he would have been PM" -- this is surely a rhetorical flourish, but let's ignore the liberties you take with the language. Had Sanjay-ji not illegally piloted an aeroplane for which he was unqualified and flown it vertically into the ground, he might indeed have become Prime Minister of the Indian Republic. But I'm pretty sure he would not have retained his designation, or that of the country, for very long. On previous form, it's more than likely he would have renamed himself Supreme Leader and changed India into a totalitarian dictatorship. This would have had some interesting side-effects: for example there would be no liberal newspaper like the Hindustan Times for you to write in today Mr Vohra, and no Election Commission or election campaigns for you to write about. By now Varun might even have taken over from Daddy as Supreme Leader and got busy cutting off the hands of people he doesn't like! Lucky I can type with my feet!!

Let's now get to the "Issues like the small family norm, literacy, ecology and discipline he raised" which as you note with delight, are "valid even today". I'm aware that Sanjay Gandhi had a `five-point programme' that included these laudable objectives. But then he also had a car company whose objective -- very reasonably -- was to produce cars. Should we credit him for "raising" the "valid" idea that cars should be designed and made in India? Or debit him for wasting taxpayer's money that was never applied towards the making of an Indian car (it was the Suzuki company that designed and manufactured the first Marutis).

Should we credit him for raising the "valid" issue that small families are a good thing, or debit him for ensuring this by forced sterilisation including that of unmarried men? The Wikipedia entry on Sanjay Gandhi says of his family-planning programme: "This program is still remembered and criticized in India, and is blamed for creating a public aversion to family planning, which hampered Government programmes for decades." So besides myself, there's at least one more person who sees debit where you see credit.

You appear to credit Sanjay Gandhi with raising the issue of literacy. But Shashi Tharoor, you may have heard of him, has this to say about the man in his book "India: From Midnight to the Millenium": "not even his most committed admirers could have accused him of being a thinking man; earlier, during the Emergency, he admitted in an interview that he read only comics".

So when you talk of "issues like ... literacy" perhaps you're referring to the issues of Sanjay's comics? Good joke - I almost missed it! Between us.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

An Air-Indian tragedy

In the early 1960's, when I was around 7 or 8, Juhu was a fragrant and distant suburb of Bombay and one occasionally undertook the long ride there with the family to spend Sunday on the beach (today it is no longer distant by the standards of Bombay suburbs, and the fragrance is not exactly a pleasant one!). To get to the beach one took a left turn off the main road, and on that corner was a small park where children could play. The highlight of the park was a cement replica of an Air India Boeing 707. In those days when real aeroplanes were rather inaccessible, I would greatly enjoy scrambling up the crude cement steps into this smelly cement structure and constructing a fantasy aeroplane ride in my mind. Ah the simple joys of life... Both the park and the Air India plane are still there, and in recent years I've experienced intense nostalgia every time I passed by.

Alas, an engine of this cement aircraft fell off yesterday and killed an 8-year-old boy, Pravin, who was playing there.

When I heard this I felt intense sadness for a family I will never know. And rage at the kind of people who don't bother about safety standards in a public children's park (it was maintained by the Raheja Foundation -- if they were too cheap to fix it themselves, couldn't they have at least persuaded Air India to renovate that plane?). Newspaper reports suggest the police are busy trying to blame the boy's family for the accident instead. Poor Pravin, he had the bad luck to be in my place at another time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bharatiya Jhagda Party?

The BJP is not in a happy place at this moment. Its general secretary and party president are not on talking terms, its spiritual allies are busy degrading Hinduism and making tolerant Karnataka into a mini-Afghanistan, its ideologues have succeeded in placing a Ram temple (not governance, health care and education) at the top of its election agenda, and its claims of being tough about terrorism aren't selling to anyone who remembers the Parliament attacks and the Kandahar capitulation. All in all, the party looks rather weak and leaderless.

And now Varun Gandhi has threatened to cut off peoples' hands if they (the people, not the hands) think Hindus are weak and leaderless! What's more, his supporters have supposedly raised the slogan: "Varun nahin yeh aandhi hai, doosra Sanjay Gandhi hai ." I couldn't agree more.

Cleanliness and the North East

Have been away from blogging due to a hectic travel schedule which included 10 days in Guwahati, a city (and area) currently mired in layers of dust. The IIT campus there is charming and beautiful, with ponds, ducks and - inevitably - swarms of mosquitos big enough to carry you away. But it hasn't rained in ages and it really shows. On days when there was a slight breeze, the dust would pile up and visibility would dip. I often felt the crunchy sand in my teeth. Thankfully I don't seem to have a dust allergy, but wonder what happens to those who do.

I was lecturing at the SERC school in Theoretical High Energy Physics, held at IIT Guwahati, and the experience was - as always - stimulating, enjoyable and tiring. So I jumped at the chance to join the excursion to Shillong on a Sunday. We drove through suburbs of Guwahati that were averagely ugly but remarkably dirty. I'm never sure how to calibrate dirt - in India, it always seems infinite. If there is any system of garbage disposal other than throwing everything in the middle of the street and then shitting all over it, it's been too slow coming and has made little visible impact. Sad for a country allegedly poised to be a superpower (on the plus side could we dump our garbage in other countries then??). One doesn't know who to blame: the populace at large or the government. Doesn't the latter stem from the former in a democracy?

I was keen to see Meghalaya, among other things because it has acquired a reputation for cleanliness. The village of Mawlynnong (which we did not visit), 75 km from Shillong, has recently received an award for being the cleanest village in Asia, read about it here. (I've read elsewhere that this award proved to be a mixed blessing, since it caused tourists to visit and mess up the place!). Indeed, on crossing the border from Assam to Meghalaya one sees a definite upward trend in tidiness. Visibly, people seem to care about keeping their villages clean. We drove through the charmingly named towns of Byrnihat, Nong Poh and Umsning, not to mention a village called "Quinine"!

At Nong Poh we stopped for tea at a simple restaurant called, I think, "Sweet Day". It seemed strikingly clean in its category (very inexpensive and serving a variety of chicken, fish and meat dishes). Then I saw the sign behind the cashier: this place was the recipient of an award for "cleanest restaurant in Nong Poh". Given that there are probably just two restaurants in Nong Poh it may not be a huge achievement, but clearly the management and the populace did care about the issue. What I liked especially was that the bathrooms were simple, open to the sky and not fancy at all, but spotlessly clean and entirely smell-free. Yes fellow Indians, it can be done.

This experience built up huge expectations of Shillong in me, which were dashed to the ground when I was decanted into the "famous" Police Bazaar, an ugly winding road dotted with shops and hawkers and offering little space to walk. The road progressively became more and more filthy as I walked on, till I found myself staring at a large pit in the sidewalk that seemed to have been borrowed from the set of Slumdog Millionaire! I'm sure you know the pit I'm talking about.

Well I quickly walked ahead and that was a good decision, for in the brief two hours available to me, I saw other areas of Shillong that changed my view for the better. Chapel Road, in Qualpatty, rises off police bazaar and has churches and graceful homes. The residential area of Mawkhar has little houses whose gardens are so chock full of colourful flowers it can make you weep. I also found, in Mawkhar, a small restaurant that was simple and clean. It had around eight wooden tables and benches, the backs of the latter sporting cheerful red and white checked cloth covers. The same material also featured on the curtains. All this right in the middle of a residential area. For the record, it was called "Blue Heaven" and the few customers all seemed to be local. So I hopped inside and selected "Pork Chow" for lunch (no menu, the waiter reels off the selections). While it wouldn't have received any culinary awards, it was a fairly tasty plate of noodles, low on oil and with no chillies thankfully. The microscopic amount of pork in it tasted fresh. And lunch set me back Rs 50 including a Frooty.

To get back to anywhere, I had to walk through wretched Police Bazaar again. And that ends my ultra-brief Shillong travelogue. Two hours is a little short, after all. But I'll be back, not least to check out the rock music scene - for Shillong is the rock capital of India.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The closing of the Indian window

In recent years, Indian cities have more electric power (even if shortages are still frequent in the hot months). And in an era of rising expectations, air-conditioning is now reasonably common in such places as guest houses in government organisations and seminar rooms in IIT's and universities, where formerly it was reserved for the elite among the elite (i.e. the Director's office was air-conditioned but no one else's was).

A problem I'm beginning to see is that, true to the Indian perception of things, once air-conditioning is supplied it is expected to be used no matter if it's needed or not ("sir, you must not breathe ordinary air, that is only for us natives"). So in places that are extremely pleasant at night, such as Bombay in winter or many Indian cities in the spring, one is still obliged to switch on the AC (that's sometimes noisy as hell) and dive under blankets, deprived of pleasant breezes and birdsong from outside.

Why obliged? For two essential reasons. One is that an open window in India can let in all kinds of beasts from mosquitos and cockroaches to rats and snakes. A simple and cheap solution is to place netting on windows. And I tend to judge the comfort level of a guest house precisely by this. Here at IIT Guwahati, where I'm presently visiting, I have a completely netted window and can sleep in comfort even as mosquitos rage outside. But all too often the choices are to suffocate inside a sealed room, or turn on the AC and freeze, or let in a zoo of living creatures to set up residence on the surface of your skin.

The other essential reason is that, once AC's have been installed in a room, a message goes out to the room cleaners' association saying: Don't clean the window area! This room is air-conditioned so no one is going to ever look behind the curtains! Result: opening the window raises the dust and filth of a decade.

Unless they are seriously enlightened, your hosts anywhere will feel content that they have provided you an AC and you will be hard put to suggest to them that fresh air would have been a better (and more eco-friendly) choice. Recently in two different research Institutes (that I dare not name for fear of offending people), I was given the largest guest room/flat, evidently kept for senior visitors, and sometimes this place would have as many as five air-conditioners - but for reasons outlined above, I could not partake of the pleasant evening breezes and had to sleep with both blankets and earplugs. Let's please be more sensible and save money (and the earth) in the bargain.

Please do not write to me to point out that I'm in charge of the TIFR Guest House and haven't been able to install netting in every room as yet! It's being worked on.