Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lenin and the Indian press

Today a reader posted this comment on my most recent posting about hygiene:

Hi Sunil,

I hope you don't mind if I raise a point unrelated to this blog post. Perhaps you are aware of the fact that Times of India is one of the biggest culprits in the paid news scandal. Here are two links that you may find interesting.

I have seen you referring to ToI articles in multiple blog posts, and this comment was prompted by such an observation. (However, I don't mean to say that we should be boycotting ToI.)


By its own admission this comment is unrelated to hygiene (except quite distantly) but relates to concerns I've raised on this blog in the past and to some thoughts that have been forming in my mind of late. So I thought it's a good idea to quote it here to open the discussion.

The Guardian link above dates from February 2011 and recounts a "sting" operation on the Times of India group. The stinger, posing as the PR person for a private company, asked a company called Medianet owned by Bennett Coleman (who are also the owners of the Times of India) to help him buy coverage of his company's party in the Delhi Times. Medianet agreed to do so for a fee and said it could be dressed up as a news story if celebrities were present. It also offered help with purchasing celebrities.

The other link, from The Hindu, is an article by the respected journalist P. Sainath (about whom I've briefly blogged here in the past). It concerns a different paid news scandal, involving the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, and Marathi newspapers Maharastra Times and Lokmat (the former being the Marathi version of Times of India and therefore belonging again to our friends Bennett Coleman). These worthy journals, among others, carried full pages of articles purporting to be news items that lavished praise on the CM ahead of elections.  Sometimes identical articles appeared in different newspapers. Often the page was entirely free of explicit advertisements, contrary to usual practice.

Now the CM's own financial declarations show no payment having been made to these papers. So either  the press was being generous to the politician from the goodness of its heart (and rival papers were somehow producing identical articles), or else a cozy deal had been reached between the press and politicians. To investigate this question the Press Council of India formed a sub-committee that produced a report from whose preamble I quote:

The reader of the publication ... is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content. By not officially declaring the expenditure incurred on planting "paid news" items, the candidate standing for election violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 ... Finally, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961.

The Election Commission of India tried to probe this case but Mr Chavan fought back with a court case seeking to prevent them. This case was dismissed recently by the Delhi High Court. The Press Council sub-committee's report, by its own admission based on a lot of circumstantial evidence, was sought to be buried by the Council which replaced it with a censored summary of its own. But recently the Central Information Commission has ordered the PCI to publish the full 71-page report of the Sub-Committee and you can find this (along with the shorter censored Council report) on this page. Besides describing the cases I've referred to above, the long report also names certain private companies (Videocon, Kinetic Motors and Gillette among others) that are suspected to have paid newspapers/TV channels to have their products favourably described in a "news" segment. The full report is worth reading though the reliance on circumstantial evidence is something of a disappointment, as they themselves admit:

Though the phenomenon of widespread practice of "paid news" has been verbally confirmed and vindicated by politicians and campaign managers of political parties, there is no recorded documentation that would firmly establish that there has been exchange of money between media houses/advertisement agents/journalists and politicians/political parties. The problem in establishing the practice of "paid news" is simply one of obtaining hard proof or conclusive evidence.

If you take the above story together with past incidents such as the Niira Radia scandal (about which I blogged a year ago) in which the unethical behaviour of major mediapersons Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi was umasked in their own voice in wiretapped telephone recordings, then a rather ugly picture emerges of the Indian press. However clearly it's a very divided house. I'm proud to note that the PCI report mentions the late journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, who was married to my Masi these last many years, as an example of someone who has consistently pushed for better press ethics.

Today Ms Dutt and Mr Sanghvi have received no punishment and are totally rehabilitated, unlike some of the business people and politicians they seem to have facilitated. Companies like Medianet will perhaps continue to sell news pages and celebrities to private companies. At some level I wonder if the readership even cares. Lenin would have been pleased, for he once said: The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses. 

They're doing a good job.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The hygiene challenge

During a recent vacation, which offered time to muse and ponder, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by the subject of good hygiene and its opposite, public filth. It started in Agra where I had to wait over an hour in a queue to enter the grounds of the Taj Mahal, in a narrow lane surrounded by choked sewers, cow dung and flies. A huge goat in a blue sweater (I'm not making this up, see below) stood at the entrance of a jewellery shop the whole time, decorating it with a shower of turd pellets which seemed to bother no one but myself.

By the time I was admitted to the relatively spotless grounds of the Taj, I was in no mood to appreciate the symmetry and tranquillity of Shah Jahan's monument to love. So I started to ponder over root causes. What are the reasons why India is so hygienically challenged? Government or people? Urban or rural? Modern or ancient? Is religion a cause of the problem or does it help? Poverty must be relevant, but exactly to what extent? How do we compare with other countries (or regions of other countries) where the economic situation is comparable?

I recalled that on my return to India about 28 years ago, I was assured by a few eminent members of the chattering classes that India was a "slovenly country" and I was making a mistake coming back to it. From then until today I've heard that type of distanced criticism about India a number of times and it is frustrating, since lots of tongue-clicking is not an answer to any problem. Nor is the standard explanation of the chatterati for every problem in India: that it's somehow down to corrupt or apathetic politicians. I've started to think, more and more, that the most interesting answers lie in other directions, and that the chatterers about whom I'm being so uncharitable are an important part of the problem. But more about that later.

Over the last couple of days I've spent some time surfing the net on the topic of India's hygiene problem. But there seems to be very little available in the nature of information or analysis. The standard search results tend to consist of "reports" making content-free statements like "India is the filthiest country in the world". A good example of what I mean is found in this article. It breathlessly announces that "According to the latest Global Hygiene Home Truths Study 2010, conducted across eight countries, India has topped most of the categories that reveal high contamination levels." It continues with this gem: "Dirt levels of refrigerators for world stood at 46 per cent, while India registered 70 per cent. Kitchen table dirt levels for world were 36 per cent compared to 75 per cent for India".

This seems to be a shining example of bad science. Most Indians don't have refrigerators or kitchen tables, so the "India" here really means middle-class India. Even if you suspend that particular objection, the concepts used and numbers presented are pathetically ill-defined (are they really making the comical claim that Indian kitchen tables are three-quarters dirt, whatever that is, and only one-quarter granite or wood??). So then I tried to head for the website of the Global Hygiene Council, the originators of this weird survey. It turns out that the Council is sponsored by Reckitt Benckiser, better known as the folks who make Dettol and a bunch of household cleaning products. At once it becomes clear why this survey focuses on kitchen tables and has all the makings of a "scare the middle-class" article. The good old profit motive.

A somewhat more informative recent report from the Times of India quotes India's rural development minister Jairam Ramesh on the subject of hygiene. A couple of years ago Mr Ramesh, then the environment minister, had famously said "if there was a Nobel Prize for dirt and filth, India would win it hands down". In the recent report, referring to the figures that 58% of India' s population, as against 4% of China's, practices open defecation, he remarked: "I consider these numbers a matter of great anguish and shame. We must make sanitation a political campaign like Gandhiji did. Kerala, Sikkim, Maharashtra, Haryana and Himachal are doing well but other states have to pick up significantly." He then promises to focus on "nirmal gram abhiyan" (which translates as "clean village campaign") and informs us that it has already worked well in 25,000 villages in India but needs to be extended to the remaining 600,000 villages.

Googling "nirmal gram abhiyan" leads to this page of Guidelines which is quite informative. For the first time I am seeing some analysis and some offered solutions. One of the observations in these Guidelines is that:

"The practice of open defecation is reinforced by traditional behaviour patterns and lack of awareness about the health threats posed by it. At the same time, there is little awareness about the potential health and consequent economic benefits of sanitation facilities... The safe disposal of solid and liquid waste is not accorded priority at either the family or community level. There is no planned effort in rural schools to inculcate good hygienic habits in children."

Then it starts to get a little polemical, and I sort of enjoy that when it comes from the GOI even if I don't agree with all that they say. Here is how it continues:

"One of the principal, though unstated, reasons why people have not come forward to join any sanitation-related movement is because it lacks social prestige (this may be due to caste, age-old beliefs, taboos and practices). The upper strata of society have not concerned themselves with this issue at all. They have preferred involvement in the national-literacy programme; the immunization programme; the family welfare programme; the girl child; the non-conventional energy programme; the welfare of the disabled; afforestation; environmental pollution (not related to sanitation) such as air and river water pollution; and now, the latest craze is to join the awareness campaign on AIDS.

An equally important reason is that the construction of latrines involves a monetary expense. People would prefer to utilize their money to satisfy other felt needs, such as consumer goods.

In the circumstances, there is an urgent need for awareness-creation for felt-need and demand generation for sanitary latrines- the link between sanitation, health and safe drinking water needs to be emphasized, and community participation ensured for the sustainability of the behaviour-change in the community."

Now all this is at one level quite irritating, the sarkar attempting to malign everyone except itself: Rich people want to work for celebrity-rich issues like AIDS while the poor spend all their money on mobile phones instead of toilets. And so on. But this is no different from the way the "upper strata of society" spends all its time trying to malign the government. And at least unlike the chatterers, the government has a fairly detailed action plan, including a list of target areas in the first phase, that you can read about by following the link above.

Once you get over the irritation, there is some content in the criticisms. While India's very poorest clearly can afford nothing except some occasional food, there is an enormous section of our society that is still quite poor but has a little spending money, who do not consider sanitation worth spending on - for example giving far higher priority to clothes, rituals and marriage celebrations. It is this class and their attitudes that one would like to see compared with, say, comparably poor people in Vietnam or Thailand. I strongly suspect people in the latter two countries perform better than us on hygiene indicators (and spend less on rituals and weddings) and I'm not speaking of capital cities but the hinterland where people are still genuinely poor.

Likewise the Indian urban middle class has tended to shun the hygiene issue as a problem of "other people". While criticising the proliferation of slums in cities as due to "politicians and their vote banks", we have tended to ignore that the people living in slums are after all fellow Indians seeking honest work and deserve a clean place to live. Not to mention the obvious fact that they are indispensable as labour in our homes, where they wash dishes for example. So even if middle-class people had no altruistic feelings, they could have shown some enlightened self-interest in ensuring that the people who work in their homes live in a hygienic environment.

Finally there is the elephant in the room, tangentially alluded to in the Guidelines I quoted above: the role of religion. The caste system has made us, forgive my bluntness, incapable of taking responsibility for our own shit. Or our garbage. Places of worship should convey to their followers a sense of responsibility for personal and social cleanliness, and I suspect that in India they fail miserably in this, particularly the social aspect. The notion of ritual cleanliness, fundamental in our country, makes things worse: people are deluded into believing they are keeping themselves clean when they are not.

If our temples (and schools) taught hygiene and nothing else, they would make a valuable contribution to society and we would not have so many sporadic garbage dumps comfortably sitting in backyards. Unfortunately this photograph, which I took in Jodhpur a few days ago, is not encouraging.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ode to the Delhi Metro

(with apologies to P.B. Shelley etc)

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert
That from Delhi airport, or near it
Makest a rapid start
Amidst profuse strains of beeping alarms.

Faster still and soon,
From the earth thou springest,
Into the smog of Dhaula Kuan;
Through grey surroundings thou wingest,
And gleaming still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

In the silvery lightning
Of the sunken tunnel,
Over which the crowds are frightening,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

Keen as are the blue dots
Above the doors front and rear,
Whose intense lamp tells us
How far on our way we are,
Until we hardly see, we feel that we are there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
Declaiming in Hindi and English
From an unseen cloud
"Watch the gap 'tween train and tracks", indeed we should.

Who thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
Not the squalid subway trains
Of Paris, New York, London
Narrow, decrepit and, on warm days, smelly.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Is the bilingual pleasure
That in your final announcement's found,
Ham is samay New Delhi station pahunch rahe hain!

Teach me half the gladness
That thou, o train, must know;
Such harmonious madness
From my journey shall flow,
The world should travel then, as I am traveling now.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sporting chance?

Sports and religion are two fields of human activity where absurd statements seem to pass unchallenged a lot. Actually there are a few prominent people who challenge statements made on behalf of religion: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are prime examples, quite different from each other too. But when it comes to sports I don't know of any prominent critics, so I'll just have to try my own hand.

The present posting is inspired by this article wherein Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton says he accepts the risks of racing. Commenting on the recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli in racing accidents, he admits this is on the minds of the fraternity as the Grand Prix starts in Delhi and then comes out with the following gem:

"But you have got to do what you do because you love it. It is a sacrifice and a risk that we all take. No one wants to be in those situations but, for me, if I was to pass away, I cannot imagine a better way, personally. I have always said if I was going to go, then in a racing car would be the way to do it. It is what I love."

This statement may not appear absurd to people and it certainly doesn't appear to have invoked a chorus of condemnation. But imagine the same thing said by a modern-day version of Timothy Leary who liked experimenting with mind-altering drugs: "If I was going to go, then high on LSD would be the way to do it. It is what I love". What an outcry there would be!

In fact you don't have to imagine it - music legends Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse died prematurely because of their excessive dependence on drugs (and alcohol in the latter case) and in the popular view their deaths are far from glorified.But if Mr Hamilton's comment is appropriate then we must reconsider. Presumably MJ and AW were doing what they loved. There is plenty of evidence that the success of their art was correlated with their wild abuse of chemicals. Without heroin there would have been no Amy Winehouse album "Back to Black", recently judged the biggest selling album in the UK in the 21st century. I've listened to it a lot and it's a truly brilliant work: depressing and deranged but original, powerful and intelligent. Comparison with a Van Gogh painting would not be out of place.

It's obviously not my point that musicians or other artists are right to fry their brains and die at 27 like Amy or 50 like MJ. But why is it OK, even noble somehow, to get in a machine and spin round a racetrack like a maniac and occasionally collide, spin out of control and die? Wheldon was 33 and Simoncelli a mere 24. Compare their short lives to that of drug guru Timothy Leary who not only experimented with drugs during the heady 1960's but urged others to take them. He was imprisoned and even called "the most dangerous man in America" (by the most dangerous man in America at the time, Richard Nixon). Yet he lived until the ripe age of 76 and even inspired a nice song, "Legend of a Mind", by the Moody Blues. It makes you wonder.

They are like that only

Readers of my blog will know that "profiling" (racial, ethnic and other) is a form of injustice that disturbs me considerably. I blogged about a recent incident here.

Over the years I realised that my strong distaste for profiling was not universally shared. A decade ago I spent a year at Princeton, starting a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and read with dismay as numerous incidents of profiling unfolded, some leading to deaths and others merely to absurd situations like this one (on balance though, I have to say that the number of such incidents was extremely modest in post 9/11 USA compared to say the anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim pogroms in India). But when I sought to raise the issue at the lunch table in Princeton, a very respected physicist shocked me by saying that a few people being wrongly profiled was quite natural and acceptable in the prevailing situation.

Since then I've encountered this sort of "tolerance" of injustice on a surprising number of occasions. What disturbs me is not that it exists but that it can be found among people who are (or believe they are) well-meaning liberals. These people may themselves bear no ill-will toward the community being profiled, but for some reason are willing to express opinions that end up encouraging the biases of others far less liberal than themselves.

Which brings me to the topic. Recently the Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University ended up in a confrontation with students at his university who hail from the North-East of India. According to the reports, it started with a couple of incidents of alcohol-fueled violence on campus, in which some students from the North-East were implicated. Thereupon the VC is said to have convened a meeting of faculty members from the same region and "informed them that the university administration would carry out a series of reform measures to curb consumption of alcohol and drugs on campus and that he would "start" with the northeastern community." (the quote is from this Times of India article). This led to considerable resentment from the students, and accusations of racial profiling. In particular an association of students from the North-East pointed out during their protest that other non-North-Eastern students had been involved in the drinking incidents that provoked the row. They also complained that they themselves were constantly being profiled by students around them ("are you cooking dog meat?" etc) and the VC's action would only make things worse.

I waited several days before blogging about this, hoping that it would all somehow turn out to be a mistake and that the VC, someone I know well and who moreover blogs at this site, had never actually said what he was accused of saying: that he wanted to "start with the northeastern community". But though there has been a creditably profuse apology, which seems to have been accepted by the students concerned, there has in fact been no denial of the original accusation, neither in the press nor on the VC's blog. So I assume that he did decide to address this problem by "starting" with the NE students.

Which leads to a lot of possibilities, all very unsavoury and all taking place anyway. When riots take place or there are bomb attacks, the tendency is to "start with the Muslims". This demonises a whole community, some believe rightfully. The questions that rarely gets prominence are: (i) when placing human beings into categories, are we exercising objective choices or indulging in knee-jerk reactions? (ii) when singling out a category of human beings for reform, what message do we send to those members already completely innocent of the charge?, (iii) what is gained by focusing on entire communities rather than individuals?

To illustrate my points: about (i), one could well argue that terrorist attacks today are motivated by religious fundamentalism, so instead of drawing a bracket around Muslims, one could more appropriately draw it around religious fundamentalists of all hues. This is not to say one should actually do this -- even among religious fundamentalists, only very few are motivated to actually commit violence. The question should in fact be turned around: by bracketing very general categories ("North-Easterners", "Muslims" etc) one includes so many irrelevant people in the net that the real culprits can easily slip out of it. On point (ii), we have for years been seeing the effect of profiling on Kashmiri youth, who find they are all considered "suspected terrorists" and, not at all surprisingly, have reacted with a profound hatred for the Indian state.

There are other forms of profiling not based on ethnicity or religion. Some years ago I had a heated argument with a close friend (and reader of this blog). The issue at hand was an accusation of gender-based discrimination by a female faculty member against the Director of her institution. I had asked my friend if she knew the facts of the case, and my friend responded that though she did not have any hard evidence, she was inclined to believe the accusations because gender-based discrimination in academia was extremely common.

Now on the latter point, I heartily agree with my friend. The problem of gender-based discrimination in Indian academia is huge and its existence is almost totally denied even today (ironically a lot of it is based on profiling, e.g. "why admit girl students for an advanced degree when they'll just get married and stay home in the end"). Nevertheless, using this as "evidence" against the Director in a gender discrimination case amounts to profiling. While it may be good fun to profile Directors, it's not right.

Nor is it right when Directors - and VC's - resort to profiling. Moreover it's not constructive or helpful in any situation. So my advice to VC's is, when you feel the urge to place a community within brackets, Just Say No.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Fine and dreary

There's a BBC weather report that still sticks in my mind though I viewed it at least a decade ago. That year the monsoon was showing signs of failing in and around Bombay. July had been largely sunny with very little precipitation and if it didn't rain soon, the city's water supply would be in a lot of trouble. During that stressful period I turned on my TV to see a cheerful BBC weather-person wave her hands airily (why do they always wave their hands airily?) in the direction of Bombay on the map, and say "the weather in the West of India is fine". I felt like screaming: "it's not fine you dummy!!!".

She was using a word that, in Britain, is synonymous with "sunny". The Oxford English Dictionary offers "bright and clear" as one of the meanings of "fine", but the word originates from Latin via Old French and its original meaning is "of very high quality". It's only British weather that establishes a connection between the two meanings.

What I wonder is, why don't weather-people stick to words that have a well-defined scientific meaning (e.g. "sunny") rather than those which include a value judgement, like "fine" (and while they're taking my advice, could they please stop waving their hands as if they're swatting gigantic Finnish mosquitoes!!).

My memory of the incident above was revived by a new and highly loaded adjective that's started appearing on my Android smartphone of late., from where it loads its weather report, describes Bombay's weather today as "dreary". This offended me instantly. Bombay can be hot and humid, and today it's rather hot and quite humid. That's typical October weather and it comes as a slight relief after all the rain we've been having.

Is it dreary? Look at the photo, taken from my window a few minutes ago, and then at the OED's account of the origin of "dreary":

Old English drēorig ‘gory, cruel’, also ‘melancholy’, from drēor ‘gore’, of Germanic origin; related to German traurig 'sorrowful'

The photo certainly doesn't look melancholy to me, in fact it never gets melancholy around here. As for sorrowful... I can think of sorrowful German and English cities (Potsdam and Durham come to mind right away), but I'm sure their weather reports never say "dreary", even when it is.

Anyhow I expect this problem will go away in the next few decades once India becomes a dominant global power and wrests control of the weather reports. If I'm still alive, I'll be composing this report for Vancouver in mid-summer: "damp and chilly, major risk of depression, travel advisory in effect"...

Monday, October 3, 2011

My trip to the dark side

Like many others of my generation, my computer life first started with DOS. Dave Barry's article about it, which you can read here, still brings back memories and is funny enough to reduce me to tears. I imported an IBM PC for my brother in 1984 and managed to get out of the customs hall at Bombay airport without paying a penny in bribes. Not only that, several customs officers slapped me cordially on the back as I left, saying "it's good that scientists like you are returning to the country". Those really were the days!

It was on another IBM PC running DOS, which Ashoke Sen had imported from the US, that we typed out this humongous paper, processed it in TeX - which took more than an hour (at roughly one minute per page) - and then printed the final version on a dot-matrix printer, which took an entire night. I still have a guilty conscience about the last part, since after the first twenty pages or so I went to bed, around 4 AM, and when I returned at 10 AM my co-authors were still cheerfully watching the printer make noises like a diseased crow and spit out a page every ten minutes.

Thankfully the DOS phase didn't last very long and pretty soon Linux came along (printers got better, too). I was among the first Linux users in India (you can read about this here) and it's shaped my world-view for a couple of decades now. Initially there was all this tension about whether a new installation would work at all and if so, how one could set the screen resolution and colours, get TeX and LaTeX running and install a printer. Ubuntu rendered all that trivial, so for the last few years things have been quite pleasant. I keep a dual-boot laptop with Ubuntu/Windows, the latter primarily so I can make Powerpoint files for popular talks (ppt is by far the best thing Micros**t have ever made).

Talking of laptops, three years ago I bought a Dell XPS 1330, which is a wonderful machine if you can get over its principal shortcoming - it gets hot enough to fry an omelette, and could even burn the little rivulets of melted cheese that usually leak out from my omelettes.That I'm using it even at this moment is due to my wise decision of purchasing a three-year service contract with Dell at the outset. To date, they have replaced the motherboard four times and the screen twice, each time because of overheating and all for free and without complaint. In fact, whenever I'm bored I just phone Dell and they instantly ship me a motherboard and screen (only joking). I think I'll suggest a small fridge instead, it would be cheaper for them.

Before this vaporises, I'd like a new laptop, and it's not going to be a Dell. So what's it going to be then? My requirements are that it should be fairly small (ideally a 13" screen), lightweight, reasonably powerful and have excellent battery life. Price is not a major issue. I expected there would be loads of such machines these days and I could pick and choose, but that isn't the case. Netbooks are light but of course don't do very much. The non-netbook laptops that you see in stores in Bombay are all inexpensive 15 to 17-inchers that weigh a ton. I learned on the net that my preferred category is called "business ultraportables" and visited many dozen websites over the last week. The Sony Vaio S-series, Samsung's new 900 Series and the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 all seemed like interesting possibilities, with Intel i3-i5-i7 processors and 2-4 GB of RAM. All would allow me my favourite Ubuntu/Windows dual-boot configuration. Then there was the Macbook Air, though some years ago it had given me the distinct impression of merely looking pretty and doing nothing much. Anyway I wanted my beloved Ubuntu and have never been attracted to Apple products or Mac OS.

Now as you'll see below, it's one thing to ask how these machines mutually compare, and another to ask how their sales people compare, and yet another to ask how their sales people in India compare! For the machine comparison, some reviews I located on the net said the Samsung 900 series laptops are serious MacBook Air competitors (both 11" and 13" varieties). Other reviews praise the Lenovo Thinkpad X220 to the skies. Yet others believe Sony Vaio's are the best because unlike the other ultraportables they have optical drives. I tried to buy each of these in turn.

I started with the Sony Vaio. My IT team assured me that although these used to have the reputation of being smart but overpriced, their current stuff was cheap and plasticky - and still overpriced, of course. They were able to borrow a brand new S-series model from the School of Mathematics for me to look at, and I have to say that "cheap and plasticky" described its appearance very well. It was also a shade heavy, somewhat over 2 kg. Now, some of the premium S-series laptops are said to be much more elegant (according to international  reviews) but here's the rub - Sony India wouldn't actually show me anything, not even if I travelled to a shop of their choice. I could only get to see a given model if I bought it first.

Next came Samsung. Some reviews claimed it was the best competitor to the MBA in the market, and beautiful too, so I got my IT staff to phone their Bombay office. Turns out they don't visit interested businesses with a demo model - surprising given that their 13-incher carries a stiff price tag of a little over Rs 1,00,000 and is new on the market. Where can we see it then? Their reply was "Croma" - a chain of stores started by the Tatas where you can pay extra-high prices and enjoy rude service. I phoned Croma and was told (rudely! have to admire their predictability!!) that the branch I was asking about didn't carry this model. Where might I find it then? Oops too late, Croma hung up on me. Phoned Samsung. Which Croma branch in Bombay has your machine in stock? They asked for my name and phone number. I asked why this was a pre-condition to getting the desired information. They wouldn't budge. I declined to share my details and we had reached an impasse. So, no Samsung 900-series for me. The reviews did mention a poor battery life of two hours, so I didn't feel very bad.

Now it was Lenovo's turn. Like Sony Vaio, most of the models they market in India are obsolete elsewhere. But they do sell the Thinkpad X220 which is current and rather popular, and has impressive credentials. It has a 12.5" IPS screen (this is a relatively new LCD technology, IPS stands for "In-Plane Switching" and is supposed to be far superior to the TN or Twisted Nematic variety which offers a very narrow viewing angle). The 6-cell battery gives an amazing 8 hours of usage under actual test conditions. With a 9-cell battery and an optional "slice battery" base, this goes up to 23 hours. Clearly this is the laptop to have if you're planning to be shipwrecked! And it weighs just 1.6 kg.

So I called Lenovo's sales number at 1-800-425-3353 and got a recording in Kannada. Not sure what it said, but it definitely wasn't "swalpa adjust maadi", the only Kannada phrase I know. Twenty tries later I gave up and tried their Bombay office number. This answered with a voice menu that would not accept any inputs from me. Finally I called their Bangalore office and got a charming telephone operator who giggled when I recounted my adventures. She gave me the direct number of someone in Sales at their Bombay office, who I called immediately and - of course - he did not answer. For good measure I tried their customer service and it was consistently busy! Not reassuring.

Today came the final nail in the coffin - Lenovo India (contacted through resellers) reveal that they do not supply the highly rated IPS screen but only the NT. Moreover globally the IPS screen on the X220 turns out to have severe problems with image persistence (as 40 pages of complaints on this forum will attest). And the NT screen in a side-by-side comparison video with the IPS looks washed-out.

All this panicked me. In India there would be no replacement if I didn't like it. If I may permit myself a politically incorrect comment, in India a laptop, like a bride, is seen for the first time on the wedding day and thereafter is supposed to be for keeps!!

Having now run out of possibilities, I am going to take my friend Vishwanath's advice and go over to the dark side. The Macbook Air has the following plus points: (i) the same model is sold in India as everywhere else, (ii) it can be seen and handled at lots of shops, and frankly looks gorgeous, (iii) on the 13" version you can get an Intel i7 processor, 4 GB RAM and a 256 GB solid-state drive, (iv) it is slim bordering on anorexic and weighs just 1.3 kg. So all I have to do, really, is to give up Linux. I may be the first person to have moved over to the "fruit company" not just because of their product's dazzling looks, impressive build quality and clever advertising, but in large measure because of the combined crappiness of Sony Vaio, Samsung and Lenovo, particularly their Indian incarnations.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The price we pay

Over the last few days following the Shoshana Hebshi incident (about which I wrote this blog) I've been musing over what, if anything, it teaches us.

Hebshi's own blog webpage provided a starting point for this train of thought. She has bravely kept her comments section unmoderated and her famous article now has more than 3000 comments. Trawling through them I found that a significant majority of them are fairly brief and say something like "As an American, I'm sorry and ashamed about what's happened". Many attempt to console Shoshana and some advise her to fight a legal case for wrongful detention. Many also point out that the US has changed for the worse since 9/11, becoming more of a police state and thereby handing a win to the terrorists. Some remark that the founding fathers of the United States would be turning over in their graves and quote Benjamin Franklin's resonant observation that "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither".

However a rather significant percentage of comments on her blog (maybe one in four or even more) basically defend what happened, saying that the possibility of wrongful detention is the price everyone has to pay for increased security. Many of these people go on to say something like "America didn't start this, the terrorists started it on 9/11 and our government and security forces have reacted as well as they can". They cite the absence of major incidents in the US since 9/11 as "proof" that the security efforts are working well. Others add their fervent belief that the US only wants peace and has been unwillingly propelled into a warlike situation by evil external forces. These are the relatively polite commentators within this segment. Others are much more blunt and go out of their way to support profiling based on race and appearance, and some of these are explicitly abusive to Ms Hebshi.

So what do we learn at the end of everything? The premise that history started on 9/11 when warlike people attacked the hitherto peace-loving US will make a lot of history buffs gasp. Even the less grandiose theory that security efforts of the type recently undertaken on Shoshana and two nameless Indians make the US safer is rather dubious and can be, I feel, taken apart in a few lines (this kind of security is designed to convince the public that "things are being done" and has almost no relation to any meaningful thing actually being done. It's even been defended by saying this kind of action is "what the public wants to see", particularly surprising because the government is obliged to follow the Constitution rather than what people allegedly "want to see".) And yet, Americans are the most likely, I believe, of any people on earth to put a noble spin on the actions of their government and to ignore (or forget, or never bother to find out about) past history. Some of the most indefensible actions of their government abroad over a century, including military interventions, coups and assassinations, are generously sought to be defended (a professor in Princeton actually assured me that US foreign policy has always been sincerely in the best interests of the world at large!). And now apparently even the shrinking of human rights internally to the country is the "the price we pay" for security.

It's not my point that Americans are somehow dumb. The "idea of America" that has been communicated to its people over a long period, and occasionally modified at will by very clever politicans, is rather intoxicating and engaging. It enunciates the concept of a nation with a noble mission (under the watchful eye of an approving God) offering a dignified but strong and wrathful reply to outsiders bent on undermining this mission. Occasionally this story rings hollow in public (recall that during the Vietnam war a US major famously said 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' (from Communism)) but for the most part it provides imagery that is seductive and easy to buy into.

Now this kind of ideology has been gaining ground in a part of India too for some time, and in the last few days it seems it has finally ripened. Almost exactly like Americans, Gujaratis have been seduced to put a noble spin on what their government and particularly their Chief Minister says and does. He has nourished on behalf of himself and his state the exact sense of nobility combined with victimhood that has made Americans focus on the (very genuine) positive aspects of their culture and society and ignore its occasionally destructive actions. As I've pointed out previously on this blog, Mr Modi is simultaneously a very competent administrator and a person whose credentials in respect to basic human rights are highly suspect (I must mention here that despite his recent attempts to imply the opposite, no court has yet exonerated him of some very serious charges).

One scenario that I think delights some people is that Mr Modi will take over India as a whole, maybe as soon as three years from now. From that day, if it comes, India will no doubt be infused with a seductive idea of its own nobility and unique mission under God. Far from criticising our government, as we now do daily, we will learn to spin its every action into a worthy one. The little sacrifices made by some of its (conveniently selected) citizens will be worth the price.

I can't resist pointing out that once this happens, we won't be entitled to criticise America any more...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Shock and awe

This hasn't been reported too widely in the Indian press, but just a few days ago on September 11, three passengers on a commercial flight in the US (two of whom were apparently of Indian origin) were handcuffed and arrested from their seats upon landing and questioned in jail cells before being released without charges. Apparently this happened because the Indian passengers got up to use the toilets on the plane and a fellow-passenger reported that they were taking a suspiciously long time.

A beautiful blog account by the third arrested passenger, an American of mixed Saudi and Jewish decent called Shoshana Hebshi, describes her ordeal. It's titled "Shock and awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit". You should definitely read it here. The posting has already received over 2000 comments, many of which raise the issue of whether heightened threat-perception justifies what appears to be a constitutional violation (as per Wikipedia, the 4th amendment "guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause").

I simply couldn't read all 2000+ comments but just a few of them were sufficient to highlight the conflict here. Do Americans demand a liberal society and individual freedom and accept the risks this entails, or accept a monitored society with curtailed freedom in order to (possibly) reduce these risks? Opinions are sharply divided. I find it particularly fascinating that right-wingers, allegedly champions of individual liberty and government non-interference, are the ones who most strongly support random arrests and strip-searches as "the price one has to pay" to be secure.

The very same people oppose medical care being provided by the government to the poor and sick. Apparently in this case the "price one has to pay" is not worth paying? A particularly telling comment on this matter can be found in this article and video on the speech of presidential candidate Rick Perry, whose Tea-Party supporters recently cheered the idea that society should just let sick people die if they hadn't - for whatever reason - bought medical insurance.

I lived in the US during an era when right-wing activists were gunning down doctors who performed abortions - supposedly these were "pro-life" activists!! I realise I don't appreciate right-wing philosophy, but isn't it required to at least be internally consistent?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The prophet at home

Yesterday was my father's 35th death anniversary. Time has somehow not managed to erase all the memories, and yesterday I could almost see him thumping the dining table (this happened a lot in his lifetime) and exclaiming "Therefore what??". This would be his usual reaction to any suggestive comment that lacked a clear and precise implication. He detested innuendo, among a lot of other things including humbug, flattery and dishonesty.

In his youth he had annoyed his parents with his characteristic bluntness. When partition was imminent, he had warned his father that the family should plan to liquidate its assets in Hyderabad (Sind) and move to what would become post-partition India. My grandfather reacted badly and failed to follow this advice, resulting in the loss of his property. Years later in 1958, by which time my parents were settled in Bombay and I was two, my father vented his resentment with uncharacteristic subtlety and indirectness in a small article for the Times of India. Disguised as a humour piece, it's titled "The prophet at home". I'm lucky to have the original clipping in my possession, with the date on the right side in my father's own handwriting. A scan is provided below (click to read). It says more about him than I possibly could, and I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. The son referred to in the article is not me but my elder brother.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The show must go on

As today's cute Google Doodle reminds us, it's the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the flamboyant queen of the rock band Queen, a musician who changed the world and whose untimely passing affected me deeply. I'd assumed he had this effect on everyone, but recently I came across a colleague who had never heard of Freddy - so such people do exist! Whether you're one of them or not, you may want to read the Wikipedia entry linked above and then wade through each of the 15 Queen albums spanning over two decades. Or just read on.

I first heard the music of Queen when I went to the US as a graduate student in 1976. At the time they had a cult following and enjoyed the status of an "alternative" British hard rock band whose lead vocalist was flamboyant, outrageously effeminate and inclined to operatic outbursts. By then Queen had already released their masterwork, Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that successfully blended hard rock with opera, but it was too long and complex for the limited attention span of radio listeners and so remained restricted to connoisseurs. It surfaced every so often on WPLR 99.1 Classic Rock, my constant companion over five years at Stony Brook, which was among the few radio stations that dared to play longer and more complex songs. I came to enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody but it baffled me and I might not then have voted it one of the greatest rock songs ever (as I would today, without hesitation).

The lyrics are memorable, which means I can quote them from memory:

Is this the real life, is this just fantasy, 
caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.

The singer goes on to recount his recent exploits:

Mamma, I just killed a man, 
put a gun against his head, 
pulled my trigger now he's dead, 
Mamma, life had just begun, 
and now I've gone and thrown it all away.... 

But then this storyline turns out to be allegorical: there's a staccato piano interlude and Freddy recites, in his trademark camp, operatic style:

I see a little silhouetto of a man, 
Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the fandango

followed by cries of "Mamma mia", "Galileo", "Figaro" and remarkably "Bismillah, we will not let you go". Then it ends in a defiant blaze of hard rock, followed by a melancholy "nothing really matters to me" and the faint sound of a gong.

This "Bismillah" seems to be one of the few references in Freddie's music to his  Eastern roots: he was an Indian Parsi after all, and studied at - where else - my school, St. Mary's, at Mazgaon in Bombay, before his parents migrated to England. The only other reference to Eastern/Persian roots that I can recall is the opening track, Mustapha, of Queen's 1978 album "Jazz" which mystifyingly begins "Ibrahim, Ibrahim, Allah Allah Allah will pray for you". Apparently the lyrics are a mix of Arabic and Farsi, besides English -- if you know all three languages you can judge for yourself here.

There was a fresh Persian connection after Freddie's death: apparently a compilation of Queen's hit songs was officially released in Iran in 2004. This collection included Bohemian Rhapsody but excluded the love songs (I can't imagine the Iranian censors swaying to the Elvis-like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and forget about "Fat Bottomed Girls"!!). Moreover the package contained Farsi translations of the lyrics, as well as an explanation of Bohemian Rhapsody: it's about a man who has accidentally killed someone and loses his soul to Shaitan (I assume the genuine Satan, not the US government...). Before he is executed he regains his soul from Satan by appealing to God with several "Bismillah"'s. I found it hard to believe this entire story about the release in Iran, but you can read a BBC report about it.

The year after I reached Stony Brook, Queen's status in America changed suddenly with the release of a pair of very short and powerful songs: "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions". The foot-stomping rhythm of the first one quickly propelled it to the status of baseball anthem, and the second song, very moving and lyrical, fitted that theme perfectly... So then Queen became as American as peanut butter. But the songs are eternal and global: just today during a phone call, my friend Vishwanath sang me a short draft of "We Will Rock You" set by him to a Carnatic raga (Shree, apparently) and in my view this works very well too!

It's fair to say the other members of Queen were very important to the music, particularly Brian May about whom let me say a few words. To my knowledge he is the first and only rock guitarist to have a published paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society even before embarking on a stage career. Not only that, he completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Imperial College around the time I was visiting there, three years ago! That's not all that can be said about Brian: his guitar style was supremely original, and within Queen it also became an echo of Freddy's voice: fluid, bubbly, eloquent and occasionally hysterical. I do wish other astrophysicists I know sounded so good :-)

One of the two Queen songs that had the most powerful impact on me personally was "Play The Game":

Open up your mind and let me step inside
Rest your weary head and let your heart decide
It's so easy when you know the rules
It's so easy all you have to do
Is fall in love
Play the game

The other was "The Show Must Go On" which was written and performed when Freddie was seriously ill with AIDS. It has a haunting theme of optimism in the face of tragedy. Thinly disguised as the story of a stage musician putting on a brave face in a time of intense emotional heartbreak, it's obviously something a little different: the courageous, desperate outburst of a dying man. Opening with:

Empty spaces - what are we living for?
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score.
On and on, Does anybody know what we are looking for?

it touchingly reveals the internal turmoil of the singer:

Inside my heart is breaking, 
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on...

and closes with Freddy, our own Farrokh Bulsara, the Parsi kid from St. Mary's school with the protruding teeth, at the end of a short life lived to the full, screaming his lungs out:

I'll top the bill!
I'll overkill!
I have to find the will to carry on!

The show must go on...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

See no politics, hear no politics

Recent developments have strengthened my sense that Anna's movement is making a positive impact in the fight against corruption, even as I continue to have strong reservations about both the anti-democratic tone and the immediate goal (a strong unelected official). In particular I find myself agreeing with Aamir Khan, someone I've always respected, that there's nothing wrong with peaceful protest in a democracy. His suggestion to peacefully picket houses of MP's will also, I believe, cause the latter to appreciate the second word in "elected representatives". In this direction, I'm also strongly supporting the current demands of Team Anna to have a right to recall as well as a right to reject. These are both well within the ambit of democracy. Not surprisingly, the government is squirming at the thought while the opposition senses an opportunity.

Now for my worries. There has been an article circulating to the effect that Anna Hazare's methodology as applied by him in his "model village" Ralegaon Siddhi is heavy handed and undemocratic, as well as excessively tolerant towards caste-based discrimination. (Some of these accusations were also made about Mahatma Gandhi and in both cases they have a ring of truth.)

I'm particularly disturbed by Anna's reported view that it's OK to publicly flog drunkards in the village (according to the report he did the flogging himself) because, in his words "If you want change, it's sometimes necessary to be tough." Many including myself feel tough action is called for when men regularly get drunk and beat their wives and children instead of supporting them. However -- and this is one important way in which Gandhi differs from Hazare -- beating these men back simply cannot be the solution. 

There are two more aspects of the Hazare agitation, more due to his supporters than himself, that worry me today. I think people need to take them seriously. One comes to mind in the light of actor Om Puri's recent rant describing politicians as "ganwars" (loosely translated as "village idiots"). A large proportion of urban India despises the rural base of politicians which they see as the root of the problem. If only we smart city people could run the country, goes the thinking, everything would be fine (in reality, I fear it would only be as fine as Satyam under Ramalinga Raju).

This urban-rural divide has occurred in recent memory in  Thailand and torn it apart, for substantially similar reasons. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was popular with the rural poor and widely reputed to be corrupt, and the country saw violent confrontation on the streets between his supporters and those of businessman Sondhi Limthongkul. In the end elections were held and Shinawatra's daughter (note added later: I meant to say "sister") is in power. The analogy is incomplete because the Shinawatras are not any kind of villagers themselves, unlike the Laloo Prasad types at whom the Om Puri barb was presumably addressed. Clear the real issue is about the rural/urban origin not of the politician but of the people he or she represents. (Om Puri has repented and he's sensitive enough to understand he shouldn't have said it, but I'm sure the statement has already resonated with many).

I'll end by describing the second worrying aspect of the movement. This too is embodied by a superstar, none other than Lata Mangeshkar. Recently, India's current nightingale emitted the following tuneless tweet:  "I don`t understand politics nor do I have an interest in it. But I feel, our country should be free from corruption, so I lend my support to the cause Anna Hazareji is fighting for". Anyone who claims to be uninterested in  politics is deluded or lying -- politics permeates our life. And I wonder why it should be permissible to support a major national movement without understanding the basics of it. Thankfully, this lazy lady is counterbalanced by the energetic Aamir Khan who tells us he studied the different versions of the Lokpal Bill in detail before offering his opinion.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Anna, I will set you free

It's rare for the Indian National Congress party to sing songs made famous by the Beatles, and if they have now suffered this fate they have only themselves to blame. Ignoring personal beauty (this is important) today's Anna perhaps resembles the girl of the Beatles song, who was once captivated by the singer but later asks him to set her free because someone else loves her more. In the present case the new lover corresponds to many millions of Indians who have been totally won over by Anna's charms. But cleverly, Anna doesn't ask to be set free, she simply refuses to eat. The Congress is left with no option but to sing "give back the ring to me and I will set you free" and one guesses they are now collectively wailing the lines of the chorus, which goes "What am I, what am I supposed to do? Oh oh oh oh oh oh".

But this is no three-minute song. It's at the same time the most deadly serious and hilariously comical thing to happen to India in decades. Indians very correctly want to be done with corruption, after all these years of being done in by it. But the proposed remedy - creating a "magical" position with virtually unlimited powers - seems to me at first sight to be disastrous. I'm not the only one to think so. A large number of serious people have observed that there is no magic wand to eliminate corruption, and an "ultimate authority" that supercedes the democratically elected sounds suspiciously like a dictator. My cousin Cheeta points out that an all-powerful Lokpal sounds suspiciously like what General Ayub Khan promised to be when martial law was declared in Pakistan in 1958 and he made himself President through a coup. In the beginning he was supposedly disgusted by the level of corruption and promised to cleanse his country of it, but eventually he was himself mired in accusations of corruption and nepotism and ended up rigging the 1965 presidential elections in his own favour.

So when a friend recently called to ask whether I would be joining a protest at Azad Maidan, I replied "I'm not a supporter of Anna Hazare". This friend was shocked at my lack of involvement. I didn't bother to remind him that, not so long ago, he (my friend, not Anna) had paid a bribe to try and get a job in a state-run organisation in Bombay. My pleas to him not to pay the bribe had gone unheeded at the time. This reinforces my concern about the present movement: should it be so easy for people who themselves indulge in corruption at the first opportunity to go around shaking their fists at elected politicians? When the list of people jumping on to this bandwagon includes rather suspicious businessmen and shady politicians (not to mention Varun Gandhi, in a class by himself) I feel this movement, even if its leaders are sincere, is pointing in the wrong direction. An emphasis on personal transformation and incremental change would seem to me more practical and ethically correct.

And yet, after the events of yesterday and today, I find my position a little shaky. Movements cannot be tailor-made, so the one that would be to my liking as I've described above may never happen. It might be more sensible to focus on what is actually happening and see if it has a chance to make some impact. And here I begin to see some rays of hope. The arrogant behaviour of the ruling party's most arrogant leaders has backfired and the Anna Hazare movement has got them on the run (they run mostly in circles, of course). Public enthusiasm and confidence, whose absence was always the main problem, is now growing exponentially. This cannot fail to spread some fear and alarm among corrupt sections of the government, bureaucracy, police and industry. In the prevailing atmosphere, even a small-time cop trying to make 50 rupees from a traffic violator might tremble at the thought of being reported or exposed. Conversely a citizen being forced to pay a bribe for what is rightfully theirs is sure to be more courageous and resist. A few incidents in this direction are already being reported. So I begin to think some good things could come out of this movement whether or not it achieves its stated goal.

Then again, I'm not totally sure. Abundant silliness is not the sole prerogative of the Congress party, but the birthright of all Indians. One wonders what to make of the blogs, emails and texts  going round, most of them indicative of the infantile outlook of my fellow-countrymen even as these historic events play out. Here's one charming example posted in April:

Is relay news channels are supporting Anna Hazares protest and fighting against the Corruption then from tomorrow IPL matches are going to Start so ban publishing the news on this IPL matches because this may effect Nation wide protest and divert the issue of corruption. 

And another:

let us citizens of India start no tax movement & non cooperative movement as gandhiji did. than and only than this government will undeerstnad. also this way our hard earned tax money will be saved.

Who could resist such a noble idea! But the one that finds most favour with me personally is an SMS that reads as follows:

My dear frnds. If all the black money comes back to India then-
Beer 8 Rs
Vodka 20 Rs
Whisky 35 Rs
Soda 1.25 Rs
At least now support ANNA!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Play it again, Shammi

The actor Shammi Kapoor passed away early this morning, marking the end of an era of which I have some interesting memories. When I was four, my parents bought a flat on the third floor of a newly constructed apartment building, Blue Haven, in Bombay's Malabar Hill area. Shammi Kapoor bought flats 1 and 2, which came with an attached garden, on the ground floor of the same building. As a result I saw him quite often in my childhood.

Usually this was when he was about to drive off in one of his many foreign cars. I vividly remember his Ford Thunderbird coupé, which consisted of a few miles of engine followed by a relatively small passenger cabin with two gigantic (or so they seemed to me) beige leather bucket seats. It could barely make the turn up the steep curving driveway of Blue Haven. I never managed to enter this car, but was luckier with his Chevelle Malibu in which I managed to get a ride when his son Micky (as we knew him) drove it to Breach Candy, probably at the age of 15.

My parents were not Bollywood fans and so, paradoxically, though I knew our neighbour was a famous actor I had not actually seen any of his films. I would go to flats 1 and 2 to play with Micky (we are the same age) but never encountered his father except on special occasions like birthdays. Then in 1965 when I was 9, I was out somewhere and I remember my parents receiving some shocking news and taking me home in silence right away. Shammi Kapoor's wife, the charming Geeta Bali, had died of smallpox. Even before we reached home, municipal officers had arrived and we were all vaccinated against smallpox there and then.

The next day, standing on the staircase, I watched the coffin being taken out of the building. Thereafter Micky and his sister vanished for some time, and we heard they had been sent out of town to relatives for a while. Some years later Shammi Kapoor married the charming and elegant Neila Devi who had a brisk no-nonsense air about her and took over the task of rearing the children with evident affection and grace. She came from the princely family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat. I clearly remember once on her return from a foreign trip with her husband, Micky asked her if she had brought him the present she had promised to bring. She replied "I'm a Rajput, I always keep my promises."

Until her marriage Neila had been unconnected to Bollywood and had not seen Shammi Kapoor's movies! Shammi undertook to screen them for her at home on his 8mm projector. The kids in the building were invited, so I had the unique experience of watching such entertaining movies as "Dil Deke Dekho" and "Teesri Manzil" while the character dancing and singing and gyrating his hips on-screen was sitting right behind me. Around the same time Micky played a new song for me on the gramophone at his home, it was "badan pe sitaare lapete hue" from "Prince" and the movie was only released much later. Shammi Kapoor's songs were typically sung by legendary playback singer Mohammed Rafi, and I always associated the latter's voice with the former's face.

Two more memories from the 1970's are worth recounting. One day I answered the phone at home and a rather furious male voice asked for my mother. When I asked who was speaking, he said "Shammi Kapoor". It was unusual for him to call us, but it transpired that a lady living some floors above his flat had flung a bucketful of water onto his garden and drenched his guests. He was relying on my mother, whom he respected greatly, to sort things out. Another memory is of the time he came into the table-tennis room. This was just before he directed "Manoranjan" and he had become rather overweight. He asked if he could play with us and then, bulky as he was, roundly defeated all the kids of the building including myself.

In the early 1990's when I was no longer staying in the building, I learned from the papers that Shammi Kapoor had become an "internet guru". He was the first person I know of in India outside academia who talked so enthusiastically about the social possibilities of this novel phenomenon. It was typical of him to become fascinated with this at a time when others his age (notably including senior faculty members at TIFR!) were desperately trying to find reasons to ignore it.

One Bollywood film that I did manage to see soon after its release, in 1967, was "An Evening in Paris". In an iconic scene Shammi Kapoor, clad in an orange-striped bathrobe, dangles under a helicopter and sings "aasman se aaya farishta" to Sharmila Tagore while she is water-skiing. She responds with "You silly!" and "Don't be silly!", lines that - as some may recall - were a staple for heroines of 1960's Hindi films. Shammi remains undeterred by these accusations and, still singing, winches himself down from the helicopter onto a boat from where he approaches Ms Tagore and eventually bundles her into the helicopter. At this point she undergoes a surprising change of heart and admits that she loves him. Some will say it was the lure of a free helicopter ride, but I believe she had finally noticed that her suitor was "tall, athletic, lively, fair complexioned, green-eyed and with handsome features" (to quote Wikipedia).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Malice and/or incompetence

I'm under some pressure from my brother and cousin to restart blogging, after a gap of around a month. Actually both of them have their own blogs, on which they've never posted anything -- which is a pity because both are eloquent and thoughtful people who love a good debate. So, with a faint hope that they will reciprocate, I'm now back to blogging and hope to be more regular.

Of late I've been fascinated by incompetence. It's hard to get away from this subject, obviously, but -- as a result of some trains of thought sparked off during conversations -- I've had the occasion to think a little about it.

When the 2G spectrum scam started to break, accompanied by the publication of the fascinating Niira Radia tapes, I found myself explaining the situation to non-resident Indian friends/relatives on two separate occasions. When I mentioned that A. Raja was accused of having defrauded the nation of 10 to the power 12 rupees through corruption, each of them independently asked whether it was clear that he was corrupt -- could he not have been just incompetent? They pointed out that when a new technology was involved, as well as a novel procedure such as auctioning spectrum, it was quite possible the the politician in charge simply didn't understand the issues well enough.

Probably without knowing it, these people were following the suggestion of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is supposed to have said "Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence". It's remarkable though that I've never ever heard a resident Indian suggest incompetence may have been involved in the 2G case, or any other. On the contrary, most people I talk to in India (and everyone I don't talk to) is certain that malice aforethought must be at the root of India's corruption scandals. As for the more complex possibility that some money is lost through corruption but a possibly larger amount through incompetence, this level of complexity seems too baffling for people to deal with.

Which is sad, because I think the complex answer is closest to the truth. Incompetence could be a far larger problem in India than corruption. Even if my estimates are false (for example suppose incompetence and corruption cause equal losses to the exchequer) it's critically important to examine the role of incompetence in a developing country like ours, as well as its possible remedies (for that matter, it's important to critically examine the role of corruption and its possible remedies, instead of getting hysterical about it one moment and participating in it the next moment as most middle-class Indians are apt to do).

There are many fascinating points to ponder, but on a working day I don't have time to start pondering them. Let me close this short posting with an observation that obsesses me these days. Incompetence is not a static property of a person. In fact everyone can better their competence level by simply making a conscious decision to do so, and following up on it. Whatever administrative incompetence I see around me (and sadly I see a whole lot) seems to persist for one or more of the following reasons:

(i) competence is not rewarded and incompetence is not objected to,
(ii) labelling someone as incompetent is used as a self-fulfilling prophecy,
(iii) people are neither advised nor helped to improve their competence through training,
(iv) for ego reasons, incompetent people in powerful positions will not accept their limitations or seek help from others.

In this, I believe India differs in a major way from the USA or Japan. Our people are surely just as smart, but theirs are encouraged and even helped to become more competent to the extent possible. In these countries incompetence is not confused for malice, which it isn't. And when an incompetent person becomes more competent by whatever means, the system happily adjusts to the new reality instead of insisting that the old labels remain on the person. In India, by contrast, we look the other way at the incompetence of powerful people (sadly this is often due to the Peter Principle and may not be completely remediable by training, even assuming powerful people would consent to be trained) but the incompetence of the lowly is assumed to be a permanent feature.

I wonder how much these differing world-views originate in religious differences that permeate culture. Interestingly the Wikipedia page on redemption in theology identifies the concept only within Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. How does redemption play out in Hinduism and Islam, and does this affect our attitude towards incompetence in the workplace? That's your homework question.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Greek vignettes

Vignette 1.  I arrive from Bombay via Frankfurt at Eleftherios Venizelos airport in Athens and board a bus to the KTEL terminal in the city centre. No sooner have I placed my suitcase on the rack than I hear a voice call "Sunil!". I look up to see Chara Petridou, possibly my only Greek friend in Greece (other than Costis whose wedding I've come to attend). She has arrived from Thessaloniki to spend a weekend going to the theatre in Athens. I haven't seen her in a year and it's one of the most amazing coincidences that we should meet on the airport bus. It's just as well she recognised me,  since I'm timid about these things and had I seen her first, I'd have simply thought "how similar all these Greeks look" and left it at that.
Vignette 2. A bunch of kids playing on bicycles at the Nafplio seafront. Their conversation goes roughly like this: "diphtheria metaphor parabola thesis antithesis diploma ichthyoid". I'm impressed with their erudition, but it turns out they are actually saying (in a language which is alas Greek to me): "let's ride as fast as we can and try to scare the American tourists!". This they do, with some success, but then one of the teenagers is careless and tumbles off his bike. His friends gather round to jeer at him. Still prone on the pavement, he raises a fist and shouts something very much like: "Eleftherios Venizelos"!

Vignette 3. An intriguing new marinade, perhaps? I'll let the picture speak for itself.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Yankee doodle, desi doodle

Yesterday brought art into focus for me in two very different ways.

A young friend drew my attention to the Google Doodle of the day: a depiction of a guitar that can be strummed by moving your mouse over the strings, which vibrate alarmingly like real strings and acquire the colours of the Google logo. It's one of the neatest and most exciting web animations I've ever seen. On clicking a button you can put the Doodle into keyboard mode and play the strings with your computer keys. And on some versions of the Google site, the button becomes a "record" button and records your keyboard input, after which it gives you a URL to click that plays it back to you.

This Doodle celebrates the 96th birthday of the great Les Paul, musician and pioneer of the electric guitar. Without Les Paul the guitar solo that concludes Stairway to Heaven would never have existed, and I hope you'll take a few seconds off to contemplate that unbearably tragic possibility (for what it's worth, the guitar solo on Voodoo Chile would still have existed, being played on a Fender Stratocaster, so life would not have been entirely hopeless).

Of course the Les Paul Google Doodle is hardly a breakthrough. We've all seen electronic keyboards, as well as software that can convert your computer keyboard into a musical keyboard. The thing that impresses me about the Doodle, though, is how seamlessly it is integrated into one's browsing experience. You don't need to buy or install anything, just wander onto and play a tune. And that's a metaphor for art: it's not necessary to buy it or pay for admission, art is everywhere and you just keep coming across it in your life (this is specially true in Bali!).

Now I want to mention, in the same breath as Google Doodles, the late M.F. Husain. An extraordinary genius, very rightly called "India's Picasso", he passed on yesterday at the age of 95. It's amazing how much news space is being dedicated to him (four entire pages of today's Times of India, though most of it is in the nature of "I once met Husain" articles). Oh and by the way I once met Husain!  Sometime in 2000 I had gone with two colleagues to his Cuffe Parade residence to request him to do a painting for our forthcoming Strings 2001 conference. It was a rather cheeky request on our part (and we had not the slightest idea how to pay him if he asked). Of course he has a well-known attachment to TIFR, which he acknowledged, and in the end he simply agreed to do our painting. And then didn't do it. We tried to pursue him and then gave up. So that was that.

Many people will want to lynch me for saying this, but IMHO Husain was the quintessential doodler and this is why he shares space with Google in this blog posting. His Cuffe Parade residence, poky and unimpressive, had Husain Doodles just over the washbasin! His charcoal sketches, one of which hangs at TIFR, are incredibly tight compositions embodying a sophisticated level of form, structure, motion and symbolism, even as they were probably rendered in a dozen brushstrokes in as many minutes. Of course he also painted the humongous and cheekily Rajasthan-ish mural that hangs over the TIFR lobby, and this was no doodle but a labour of love performing during several barefooted months at TIFR. Still, the profound truth that I glean from Husain's life and work is that art is a natural part of life, not extraneous to it nor intended to be sequestered or shown off as a possession. If he nevertheless sold at astronomical prices and blew the money on a Bugatti, that's just his privilege for being such a genius. Long may he doodle all over the great webpage in the sky.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eat, pray, love, smoke

It's much more fun to make up one's own versions of history, as I've been doing ever since I got to Bali. The real story supposedly has to do with Balinese kings and their courtiers committing puputan -- ritual mass suicide -- in response to a Dutch onslaught (as who wouldn't, if the option was cold milk for lunch and pea soup for dinner?). But I like to imagine that it happened differently.

In version 1, Australians up in Perth were frightfully bored, as the nearest nightlife was over in Sydney. This was a 5-hour flight away, and was in any case full of more Australians. Then the Perthians, or whatever they call themselves, discovered that the fragrant isle of Bali was just 3 1/2 hours away. This island too had no nightlife but it was full of people called "Balinese" who wore flowers over their ears (and those are just the male Balinese!) and could be induced to do just about anything as long as it involved aesthetics and grace. The Balinese agreed to open restaurants and hotels where the hospitality was quiet and gracious, the food divine and the pricing modest. All they wanted in return was sufficient income to live a quiet and graceful life. This suited the Australians just fine. Although Bali soon became a province of Australia, a delicate fiction was maintained whereby it belonged to its nearest neighbour, Indonesia.

Story 2 goes like this. A chunk of India the size of a moderately large island got detached and drifted away. As it drifted, the new islanders took stock of the situation. "We're finally free of India!" exclaimed the first chieftain. "So let's now invent our own lifestyle". "OK", the other chieftains chorused, "where shall we start?". Some suggested abandoning the Hindu religion, but others said no, it had some nifty gods and in any case it was such a flexible religion that pretty much anything could be done under its banner. So they decided to abandon only the things they didn't like. Vegetarianism was the first to go. "Then the nearest available dosa will be in Malaysia" fretted one of them, but the others, who had never liked dosas anyway, promptly silenced him. They decided their diet would consist of rice, seafood, chicken, pork and beef, specially the last two. "Even on religious occasions?" asked the pro-dosa faction. "Specially on religious occasions" the others chorused, "and moreover we'll have a religious occasion every month, on full moon day". And so the national dish of Bali became "Babi Guling".

But the next brilliant idea would transform the island unrecognisably. "Let's give up spitting when we walk and honking when we drive", suggested a chieftain. At this, the others looked blank. "This is possible?" they asked. "Sure" the chieftain replied. "It will make our life infinitely more pleasant. Can you imagine dining by the roadside and being able to hear yourself talk?". The idea soon began to catch on. "If we don't spit, will we be more healthy and therefore able to smoke whenever we like?" another demanded. "Sure" came the answer, though what was actually said was "becik becik" since they now had their own language. Soon Bali was invaded by foreigners from every country, though primarily from the neighbouring ones. "Is your country like India?" the foreigners asked. "Becik becik", the Balinese replied, "except we don't spit anymore. We also don't honk, or cheat visitors, or play 20-20 cricket". "Lovely" said the foreigners and the number of tourists going to Bali per year grew to about one-half the number bound for India, despite the incredible disparity in size.

In version 3, Bali started out with a bunch of Balinese who already didn't spit, or honk, or cheat, or swear, or harbour any ambition to dominate the world. Their only ambition, if one can call it that, was to eat tasty, healthy fresh food in a quiet place. And wear flowers above their ears.  Whenever possible they would work, patiently and quietly, emitting gentle smiles if disturbed and lighting up a cigarette every now and then. They prayed in the mornings, making neat little packages out of banana leaf and containing flowers and a little rice -- which was always first offered to a deity before being consumed at home. But then someone advised the disciplined Balinese how they could get rich. Being open-minded, they gradually started to adopt customs from neighbouring countries, such as "malls" and "go-go dancers". This brought in  tourists and made them richer and richer. But they didn't know what to do with money, since they only needed it to eat, pray, love and smoke, and not too much was needed for all that. This led to runaway growth, with the Australians and other friendly neighbours dropping in and staying for months at a time, spending all their money and tiring themselves out by partying on the beach all night. Meanwhile the Balinese just went on eating and smoking and looking more and more relaxed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Frog Porridge

The food in Kuala Lumpur is wonderful, as long as you remember that over here "air" means "water" and "susu" means "milk"... I also saw the following dish advertised -- but did not actually try it!

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A strange order

I'm back to blogging after a hectic month and more. The proximate stimulus for my return is the recent Supreme Court interim judgement on the Babri Masjid case.  The Supreme Court has wisely described the Allahabad High Court judgement of September 2010 as "a strange order".  Blogging about it here on the day after that judgement, I had wondered if my late father -- who had once been a high court judge -- might have raised the following questions about it:

"Should an aggressive action lead to benefit for the aggressor in the form of a compromise? Are religious groupings the appropriate beneficiaries of a title suit when public interest is involved? And can the law opine on the birthplace of a god?"

The learned Supreme Court judges have so far not addressed these questions. All they've found strange about the High Court judgement is its idea of dividing the land into three portions: one to the Nirmohi Akhara (a Hindu group believing in no attachments, other than -- strangely -- to a piece of land where the Babri Masjid stood), one to the Waqf Board (an organisation constituted by Parliament to be in charge of Muslim holy places) and one to Lord Ram himself, in his current reincarnation as a "shapeless and formless" legal entity.

While so many people welcomed it as a "compromise", I had found the Allahabad High Court judgement bizarre from a legal and ethical perspective. The mosque was toppled in 1992 before the very eyes of the nation, following a vicious campaign led by L.K. Advani that collaterally damaged the fabric of this country and propelled the BJP to power. One would expect a judgement on this politically staged catastrophe to redress such a major legal violation, that took place in living memory, by restoring the status quo ante (or, given the warlike nature of the supposedly devout parties concerned, perhaps the status quo ante bellum).

Nothing of the sort was evident in the Allahabad High Court judgement, which on the contrary sought to twist religious sentiment into legal fact and thereby debase India to the level of the many nut-case theocracies  populating the planet. (If you think I'm overstating the issue, please compare the Wikipedia definition of "theocracy": "a form of government in which a state is understood as governed by immediate divine guidance", with Justice Dharam Veer Sharma's description of the disputed land as "It is personified as the spirit of divine worshipped as birthplace of Lord Rama as a child.")

It's now up to the Supreme Court to remedy this. I have always had considerable faith in this court (even though it famously bent just a little to please Indira Gandhi) and I've always believed they would see through the fallacious and apparently motivated Allahabad High Court judgement. Yesterday they took the tiny step of describing the judgement as "strange" but a larger step will come. If, as I expect, they will attempt in some way to restore the status quo ante with respect to December 1992, the land will essentially go back to the Sunni Waqf Board. Then the BJP, which has actually welcomed the recent Supreme Court observation, will find itself all confused and lost, and will presumably have to save face by staging another agitation. Or even another vicious campaign (it's easy to guess who would lead it this time). Will India descend into the loony bin of religious fundamentalism all over again? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dark star

Even as Indians gear up to watch the India-Pakistan match, nobly sacrificing their working day for this purpose, the secondary buzz in the press is about banning a book: "Great Soul", curiously subtitled "Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India" and authored by Joseph Lelyveld. The outrageous content of this book is, supposedly, that Gandhiji had a gay relationship with a German bodybuilder, Hermann Kallenbach, in South Africa.

This controversy raises a number of fascinating points. First, as with any other controversy or event, the Indian press rarely does any research on issues but just keeps parroting what it has been fed, even while a rank amateur (like myself) equipped with nothing more than an internet browser, can unearth a lot more information. The book in question  is not believed to have made the specific allegation above, at least not directly. The hullabaloo has arisen from a rather different direction: an opportunistic review of the book by right-wing historian Andrew Roberts.  A direct quote from the review, which can be found here, is very revealing:

" "Great Soul" also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive ­intellectual, professing his love for ­mankind as a concept while actually ­despising people as individuals." 

In case you missed it, Robertsji is attempting to trash progressive intellectuals in general, and of course Gandhiji in particular. If you re-read the quote above you will note how he is careful to say the Lelyveld book merely provides "information to discern..", an honest admission that the tasteless adjectives "sexual weirdo", "political incompetent" etc are the handiwork of Roberts himself, who has converted his book review into a polemic motivated by his own far-right world-view. In fact the Gandhi-trashing is part of a much larger Robertsian canvas of re-configured history: Indians would have achieved self-rule sooner without Gandhi, who managed to constantly "irritate and frustrate" Jinnah; Gandhi's Quit India campaign was "designed to hinder the war effort" and had it been successful, would have led to Japanese genocide of Indians; ultimately India got independence not because of anything Gandhi did, but because the "near-bankrupt British led by the anti-imperialist Clement Attlee desperately wanted to leave India anyhow".

It is within this luridly Raj-nostalgic repainting of history that Roberts pulls out a bunch of personal material about Gandhi, including -- but not limited to -- the supposed gay relationship. And actually within the tiny portion of the article that actually reviews the book, he accuses Mr. Lelyveld of "making labored excuses for him [Gandhi] at every turn of this nonetheless well-researched and well-written book". So Lelyveld is hardly the villain here.

All the above made me rather more curious about Andrew Roberts and some browsing led me to a fascinating article about him by journalist Johann Hari titled "The Dark Side of Andrew Roberts". Hari tells us that Roberts is a staunch defender not just of the British Raj but of white supremacy in general and specifically of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. The Wikipedia entry on Roberts mentions that he supported the war in Iraq and the war against "Islamofascism", describing the latter as a World War in which yet again "the English-speaking peoples find themselves in the forefront of protecting civilization".

So I, at least, find it rather easy to dismiss Robertsji. But what about Gandhiji? Was he really as Roberts claims, a racist, a fanatical faddist, a sexual weirdo, a "ceaseless self-promoter" and also a bisexual? And here the going gets tricky. Whatever one may think of the accuser, there is something in these comments and the accompanying quotes that makes one ponder. The easiest charge to dispose of is the one about being bi, or gay. Let's assume it's exactly true as claimed -- but then so what? There was no element of coercion in it and the relationship -- whatever it was -- seems to have been consensual and satisfying (there is of course the issue of Gandhi possibly being unfaithful to his spouse, but this is also involved in some of the other "sexual weirdo" charges that I find more worrying). So attempts currently under way -- specially by the Congress party -- to suppress/ban the book on the rationale that the "gay" references are demeaning, are particularly misguided.

 So then here's the worrying part. Did he refer to black South Africans in these terms: "Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized"? Did he say about white rule "We believe as much in the purity of race as we think they do... We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race"? Did he say to his 18-year-old grandniece Manu "We both may be killed by the Muslims, and must put our purity to the ultimate test, so that we know that we are offering the purest of sacrifices, and we should now both start sleeping naked."? And did he later defend this act by saying "If I don't let Manu sleep with me, though I regard it as essential that she should, wouldn't that be a sign of weakness in me?".

If the answer to all these questions is "yes", as I believe it probably is, then the nation must accept that the Great Soul was, in some measure, almost all the things that Roberts claims. Except "political incompetent", which was always the most absurd of the charges, though of course the main one from the point of view of Roberts.

So where does that leave us? I can't say. A great person can have many flaws, one supposes. But  the Government of India will have a hard time saving Gandhiji's reputation from a bunch of unsavoury charges -- unless they decide to ban his own writings.

P.S. As for the book by Lelyveld, anyone really interested can download it to their PC from this link at for a mere 15 dollars.