Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Flounder in the labyrinth

Of late I have come to admire a columnist called Santosh Desai who writes for the Times of India. His column on Mondays is a general "social commentary" and shows a rare gift of perceptive analysis. He successfully avoids the trap of being too negative and trashing everyone, but occasionally circumstances cry out for widespread trashing and then he doesn't shy away from that either.

Now last Monday, writing on the IPL scandal (there must be more vulgar expansions of IPL than specks of ash in Europe's air these days) Desai had this to say about Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, a key player in the story. If you haven't heard of this gentleman (and/or you don't know what IPL is) then I suggest you skip to my previous blog posting about cucumber soup.

Here's Desai on Tharoor:

"He uses his words as he does his hair; his locks dance and glide sinuously at every camera lens, the charm of hair just that wee bit out of place. Like a too-skilled driver, his words often take him to the wrong places, so fond is he of his own driving. For someone to whom things always came easily, he has got it wrong astonishingly often. Tharoor represents the power of education that resolutely stays skin deep; if it went any deeper, the words would cease to flow so fluidly for they would be tempered with some self-doubt. As it stands, there is no stemming the flow, and he continues to flounder in the labyrinth of his own vocabulary."

In addition to being by far the best prose I've read in a newspaper in recent times, it's a devastatingly accurate depiction of its subject (the rest of the article is equally elegant and devastating). As if on cue, today's TOI reports Netaji Tharoor's latest flounderings in the labyrinth, in a statement to Parliament:

"Madam Speaker, my heart swells with pride for India, and Keralite blood throbs in my veins."

Surely these appalling lines would justify the withdrawal of any literary award he's ever received? But he needn't despair. All that swelling and throbbing could qualify him for the "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" of the Literary Review...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cold cream of cucumber soup

If it's hot where you are (and if you're in India this is very likely), here's a rather effective, if temporary, solution.

(i) Two or three cucumbers, peeled and grated.
(ii) A cup or two of chicken broth (dissolve chicken stock in water, boil, cool). If you're one of... "those", use vegetable stock.
(iii) Two cloves garlic, sprinkled with salt, chopped and then finely mashed with a knife. This is really good fun though it takes time. Salt is the key here.
(iv) A tablespoon of fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped.
(v) 50-100 g. cream, depending on your latest blood-test report.
(vi) A tablespoon of beaten yoghurt.

Mix in a bowl. Add salt and crushed black pepper. Do not add chillies and masala. I don't care if you're Indian, control yourself OK? This is a subtle dish.

Place in fridge for 3-4 hours. Depending on your fridge and the ambient temperature, consider placing in freezer for half an hour before serving. Serve with crunchy toast or crackers. Don't eat anything else. Divine!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New York Times explains it as "psychology"

The NYT is often touted as an example of a "liberal" newspaper. Indeed it is supposedly hated by American right-wingers for its liberal views. Of course the paper has many different journalists and for this reason speaks in many different voices, which is generally a good thing. But on issues where "patriotism" is involved, it has a tendency to put subtle and dangerous spins on the news. An example I recall from the start of the war in Afghanistan (I was in Princeton at the time) was how the accidental bombing of a wedding party by American troops was presented: (i) on the day it happened the news was on the front page, presented as the bombing of dangerous insurgents, with a brief mention at the end - and almost in a tone of ridicule - that local Afghans claimed it was a wedding party, (ii) a week later it was revealed that it had indeed been a wedding party, but this revelation was concealed deep inside the newspaper in small print. And there was no "humanising" of the news, such as presenting names of the deceased or discussing their lives, such as is routinely done when things are the other way.

Today this newspaper has put a shocking and disgraceful spin on the "dead bastards" story about which I blogged a couple of days ago. In an article titled "Psychologists Explain Iraq Airstrike Video", the paper has attempted to "explain" the awful incident in psychological terms. The idea is that this is the way combat training is done, that it's natural for troops in a helicopter to mentally distance themselves and see people as potential threats (and cameras as assault weapons). And that the helicopter crew believed themselves to be in danger of being shot down. You keep reading the article and wait for some line like "of course all this does not justify the awful thing we saw in the video" and then you realise that this line is simply not there. A very dangerous piece of spin has been spun.

Interestingly the spin hasn't fooled a number of readers, including many Americans whom I would like to compliment. I'll quote a few of my favourite comments, the remaining (167 in all) you can read for yourself, and please feel free to add a few.

(i) Well, now that this behavior has been "explained", I'm sure everyone will feel much better about it now. Thank you NYT.

(ii) I am sure when devil goes to see a psychologist, he will get a logically sounding explanation of his mentality. It does not make the devil any less evil though.

(iii) We've been psychoanalyzed to death. Give it a rest. Sometimes a cigar - is just a cigar.

And spin is spin. Shame on NYT.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Look at those dead bastards"

I don't often blog about global politics, not because I'm uninterested or free of opinions but because I don't know what I can add to the discourse already out there. I do care about injustice, but the global scale and systematic nature of it has, at least in recent years, left me staggered and therefore virtually silent. Seven years ago I felt pressed to post an article on my website about the criminal invasion of Iraq by the United States. Although I was right about everything I wrote (you can read it here), the article is little more than an emotional outburst and I don't particularly recommend it. I haven't written anything on the subject since then.

But today I am chilled to the bone by something I just saw on the net and I would like all readers of this blog to see it. Maybe some already have and I hope the major news media in India pick it up (but it's not certain they will). I'm referring to a video taken in 2007 from a US helicopter gunship over a suburb of Baghdad. The crew of the helicopter opened fire, completely unprovoked, on a group of men that included two Reuters employees: a photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and a driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40. They killed everyone except Saeed who was badly wounded. When a van pulled up and two men got out to save Saeed, the helicopter opened fire again, wiping out the men as well as Saeed and injuring two terrified children in the van.

The classified US military video was leaked and released yesterday on the website An article in today's Guardian describes the video. To quote a few lines: "The lead helicopter, using the moniker Crazyhorse, opens fire. `Hahaha. I hit 'em," shouts one of the American crew. Another responds a little later: "Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards." The article goes on to say "The behaviour of the pilots is like a computer game." and that's absolutely true, as you'll see.

I suggest you start by reading the Guardian article, then go straight to and spend a deeply disturbing 17 minutes and 47 seconds watching the video.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Sorry for asking

An experience at an Irani restaurant next to Churchgate station recalled an amusing and somewhat negative side of this city. I wanted a cup of tea, but I dislike the sweet milky concoction one usually gets so I ordered the promising "Black tea (tea bag)" listed on the menu at 10 rupees. Then I asked if I could have a tiny amount of milk on the side, and was told very sternly: "It's black tea. If you want milk, you have to buy a full cup of milk". I decided to enjoy it black, with a twist of the lemon they supplied, but I did feel a teaspoon of milk would hardly have bankrupted them any more than the lemon.

On thinking about it, my first reaction is that this mean-spirited behaviour could not be connected with the Irani roots of the restaurant. I've spent time in Iran and it's hard to imagine a more gracious and hospitable society. So where does it come from? My guess is that this is a British legacy.

A memory begins to surface in support of this hypothesis. The scene: one morning in 1984 at a charming bed-and-breakfast in Brighton, where I was attending a particle physics conference. An American physicist sitting with me was only half-attentive as the suave owner recited the breakfast menu: "Orange juice or cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs or poached eggs, sir?". He responded "Yeah, I'll take the juice, cereal, poached eggs and bacon". The owner froze (or as P.G. Wodehouse memorably wrote in a different context: "Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes"). He bowed coldly and repeated "Orange juice OR cereal and milk, and bacon and fried eggs OR poached eggs, sir", his emphasis placing brackets and converting the menu into a well-formed Boolean expression.

From my position I could observe the kitchen. The wife cooked breakfast while the husband took orders (more accurately, gave orders). She would fry bacon and then eggs in the same pan. But if the order was for poached eggs then a different saucepan came into the picture and bacon could not - would not - be fried. What of the juice? Perhaps they thought it was not good for you to have citrus juice and milk with the same meal. Or they simply wanted to save money. Either way, observe the sheer rigidity of the owner's decisions and his refusal to entertain a customer's request. That's Britain for you, or it was in 1984.

Also in Oliver Twist's time. And presumably at all times in between? Remember Pink Floyd's famous line: "If you don't eat yer meat you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat!".

Indeed. Sorry I asked for a teaspoon of milk.