Saturday, December 22, 2012

An eye for an eye

While the US is struggling with the aftermath of a gruesome massacre at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, India deals with a horrific gangrape in a Delhi bus. In both cases, the responses from right-wingers are comparable. In the US, the National Rifle Association wants more guns in response to this violence. Meanwhile right-wing bloggers have tried to argue that guns don't kill people but everything else kills people. Except for a few professional ideologues, the right-wing (anywhere in the world) doesn't have a lot of intellect on its side, as exemplified by the statement of a seriously confused US congressman (posted by my friend Ajit Sanzgiri on Facebook):

Radio host: Congressman, what is the New Testament justification for carrying guns ?
Congressman: Do unto others as you would others do unto you.

This person did not pass any course in basic English or basic Logic.

Meanwhile, the loony right in India wants more violence in response to the rape. There are calls for capital punishment for the rapists. The parliamentarian Sushma Swaraj (never known for her rationality at the best of times) has said : "The 23-year-old girl was with a male friend and it was not too late either. It was 9:30 p.m. And if a woman is not safe even then, then it is a shame. If this girl survives, she will be a living dead. These people should be given capital punishment". This is full of subtext: had she not been with a male friend, or had it been 1 AM... somehow it would be OK??

In a truly thoughtful, and blunt, article in Mid-Day, Shilpa Phadke has exposed much of the subtext and immature thinking that goes into such raucous cries. She makes the point, so often missed, that "more stringent punishment has never meant more conviction". If you consider yourself a thinking Indian, please do read that article and reflect. When this rape case hit the news we all enjoyed shouting that the perpetrators must be hanged. But were we thinking of the future of society, or merely indulging our childish lust for revenge?

If you are unable to gain any perspective, try remembering what Gandhiji said: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind". And if that doesn't help, transfer your attention to the US and imagine schools of the future where every man, woman and child is carrying a gun. In that world, the type of kid with whom you had a friendly scuffle in your childhood would shoot you dead. Or the teacher would shoot you both dead. Or the security guard would shoot both of you, and the teacher, dead.

On these issues, the New Testament and Gandhiji are perfectly convergent and perfectly correct. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you oppose violence, don't support violence.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bigots under the skin

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. By chance, tomorrow I am to visit  Ayutthaya, in Thailand, which is in fact named after the Indian original. There's enough to do on vacation that I normally wouldn't bother to blog. However this fateful day still resonates in my mind after twenty years. Not because I was personally impacted, or anyone I know was personally impacted. But because this is when I saw the appallingly foolish and self-destructive fascist agenda unfurl before my eyes for the first time.

As of that date it suddenly became fashionable, even in a place like TIFR, to whisper (or hint) unpleasant things about Muslims. This is particularly strange because on December 6, 1992 Muslims did nothing at all, except stare in horror at the TV set, as I did along with close friends, while a militant Hindu mob climbed all over the mosque and brought it down even as the police watched and did nothing. This was in pursuance of an agenda promoted by BJP leader L.K. Advani and his followers, according to which Lord Rama was born on the precise spot where the mosque stood, and building a Ram temple on the site (after demolishing the mosque) would somehow make India a great land again.

While withdrawing cash at the TIFR bank one suddenly started hearing strange comments exchanged between bank staff. The same was true in the canteen and I would struggle to find a place to sit where I would not be nauseated by some insinuation about Muslims. The apathetic-progressive atmosphere of academia was not immune to this infection. The day after the demolition a faculty colleague could not suppress his delight and assured me "the structure will never be rebuilt". He was right, as it turned out.

But the single most memorable comment came from a very well-known person at TIFR whom I will not name. While we were collecting used clothes and money to take to the refugees whose homes in Bombay had been plundered and who were cowering in shelters, this person stopped me in the colonnade at the point where Brahmagupta meets Bhaskara (for those who know TIFR). "I think religion is a personal matter" he started. "We should try to keep our views to ourselves". By then I had seen enough to know that this innocent-sounding statement was a prelude to something, and I was right. "Just one thing I've noticed" this gentleman continued. "Whenever there are riots, it's always Hindu women who are raped by Muslim men, never the other way around". I did not have the stomach to confront him with facts or even to continue the discussion. But today reading Bachi Karkaria's blog entry on the occasion, I was struck by her line "People I had known closely turned out to be unmitigated bigots just under their sophisticated skin". It's been exactly the same for me.

These "sophisticated bigots" did not personally bring down the mosque, nor would they ever engage in manifest politics. Their opinions surface only when they feel the atmosphere will tolerate it. Today the agenda of building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, and thereby miraculously converting India into a great country, is in shambles. This agenda has done terrible things to our social fabric but not one good thing for the nation's structure, morality or self-esteem, forget social or economic development (how could it possibly??). So at this time the bigots are hiding their views. But I don't intend to ever forget who they are, or what damage they did by conferring legitimacy on such an aberrant movement in India's history.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happiness is not the absence of problems

The full quote from which I've taken the title of this posting is "Happiness is not the absence of problems, but the ability to deal with them", attributed to Charles Louis de Montesquieu. Hopefully its relevance will emerge below.

It's nearly a month since I moved to the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) here in Pune. Changing jobs and cities at the age of 56 is not totally trivial, in particular much of the effort (unpacking boxes and figuring out what to do with the contents) proved rather exhausting and left me with a dust allergy and consequent sore throat. Now that this phase is over I'm able to ask how I feel about the move. The answer in one word is: happy! I like IISER and I like Pune.

To briefly sum up the latter: the roads are good, the traffic where I live is far lighter than that in the area of Bombay where I used to live, my new apartment has a spectacular view of hills and little else, and the mutton in this town is particularly tasty. As for the weather, a winter made up of mild sunny days and cool nights (13-15 degrees C) makes for an idyllic existence and a sound sleep at night. I am now a concrete example of the well-known aphorism that "the climate of Bombay is such that its inhabitants have to live elsewhere"!

To be sure there are negatives about Pune and I'm sure I will discover more. For the moment I'd highlight the conspicuous `discouraging notices' one sees everywhere: "no couples allowed" (on a park bench), "no bachelors, no alcohol, vegetarian only" (pasted all over a modern block of luxury apartments) and "please don't ask for directions" (at the vegetable market). But I think people here are nicer and more liberal than they would like to pretend to be.

Back to IISER. It's a relatively young institution (currently in its 7th year) in a growth phase. And I can readily identify what I like about it: there is a very concrete and widespread understanding that we have a mission to build a high-quality science university and that we cannot fail. The philosophy is essentially forward-looking and almost everything I hear is based on a win-win ideal. This ideal appears to trickle down from the very top but also has strong roots and therefore diffuses upwards from the base as well, causing an even distribution across all levels. Long may it last.

Of course it would be naive and foolish (I confess to being both on occasion) to pretend that IISER is not going to have problems. In fact one already hears of a few. But I don't worry too much because IISER appears to be a healthy institution, which means we can try our best to deal with the problems.

I've thought a fair amount about the health of institutions (and even blogged about this matter here and here) and come out with the following universal - though maybe over-simplified - observation. In any organisation, there is a goal to be achieved and this goal necessarily brings with it a lot of "external" problems. But these problems do not normally cause unhappiness. Indeed, scientific research itself is nothing but the attempt to solve external problems ("what's going on in the mind of Nature?"). But even less lofty problems ("what is the best design for a new campus?", "will the students like the cafeteria food?" etc) are inevitable and tend to at worst cause some irritation rather than any genuine despondency.

But there is a second category of problems which I will call, for lack of a better word, "unnecessary" problems. These are caused by human beings who are either immature or incompetent or crooked or corrupt or perverse or plain stupid, who have somehow got themselves into powerful positions and are creating difficulties for others. In such an institution, not only does one still have to solve the external problems, but the very attempt to solve them is stifled by human-created internal roadblocks. The frustration caused by this second-order type of problem is potentially infinite, precisely because it is so "unnecessary". In an institution where the leaders are problem-creators rather than problem-solvers, the question is no longer "what's going on in the mind of Nature?" but rather, "what's going on in the mind of the Dean?" (or Director, or Registrar, or whoever). As Montesquieu would astutely point out, this situation pretty much blocks one's ability to deal with the genuine problems and leads to gross unhappiness.

Note that corruption (financial or academic) is not necessarily the motivation of these problem-creators, as I've discussed previously here. The other adjectives I've used above all correspond to different people I've encountered in positions of power for which they were entirely unsuitable.

So if I have to sum up what is healthy about IISER, it's the fact that everyone I've met here seems to be actively trying to solve problems. There don't seem to be problem-creating officials around every corner so the problems here end up being of the genuine, "external", kind. It's not always easy to solve these external problems, but at least in this ecosystem one can give them one's best.

My wish for IISER Pune is that it should forever remain an exciting battleground to deal with the real problems, those associated with doing high-level research and teaching and administration anywhere in the world. May it never stoop low enough to create its own unnecessary problems.

This is also my wish for all other institutions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Mahler, Mozart and Ms Jenkins

It started with the announcement that the Symphony Orchestra of India would perform a concert of the German romantics: Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler. Now I can live without this particular Strauss, and I don't know enough about Wagner, but Mahler's Fifth Symphony - which was on the programme - has long been one of my favourite orchestral pieces. It opens with a solo trumpet going:

pa pa pa pa... pa pa pa pa... pa pa pa paaaaaaa...

and after a few rounds of that, the gigantic orchestra announces its presence with:

blam, bang, kaBOOM! kerBLOOIE!! dhiSHOOM!!!

All in all, an excellent piece with which to show off your new music system, as I found when I joined TIFR a mere 28 years ago. I can remember parties held at my place exclusively to listen to this piece, and no, I will not reveal what substances were consumed at those parties. Just remember it was the 1980's.

So a week ago an orchestra that despite its name featured a surprising number of blonde and East Asian members, performed this explosive piece at the J.J. Bhabha Auditorium in Bombay. I sat through it with mouth open and heart pounding (no, just cold coffee). The third movement, the Scherzo, moves away from the explosive stuff and features an airy waltz that, every now and then, appears to trip over itself. It has moments that beautifully evoke the German countryside, possibly because Mahler wrote it while living in this hut. This is followed by the Adagietto, an incredibly sad and moving piece that's often performed on its own and became even more famous after it featured in Visconti's film Death in Venice as an accompaniment to the death of Dirk Bogarde. A relatively cheerful Rondo concludes the symphony. This also concluded the evening at the J.J. Bhabha, upon which I wandered out in a slight daze going pa pa pa paaaaaaa, and (only after I was safely in my car) kaBOOM!!

These encounters always plant something in one's mind, so a few days later I found myself revisiting Mozart's fairy-tale opera Die Zauberflöte or The Magic Flute. I've owned a copy for decades and never quite sat through the whole thing, but after the Mahler experience I found it relatively light and enjoyable and have been listening to it for a whole week. There was one surreal moment last weekend when I drove past a few thousand revellers dancing in the streets and carrying their Ganpatis for immersion, with my windows firmly closed and the car stereo going "Zu Hilfe! Zu Hilfe!" I felt irrationally guilty about this, as though it was blasphemy to be listening to opera while the elephant god was on his final journey of the year.

One of the most fun pieces in the Magic Flute is the aria known as Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen ("hell's vengeance boils in my heart") where the wicked Queen of the Night exhorts her daughter to assassinate her rival Sarrastro. The soprano performing this has to fairly scream her lungs out (maybe I shouldn't have described the opera as "relatively light and enjoyable"!). Mozart wrote this part to be extremely difficult, apparently his sister-in-law was the first to ever perform it and she was an outstanding singer.

While reading about this aria, I stumbled upon the fascinating case of Ms Jenkins and thought my readers would like to know about her. My curiosity was stirred by this casual comment in Wikipedia: "The aria was also a favorite of the famously incompetent singer Florence Foster Jenkins." Famously incompetent? I had to know more! And Wikipedia did not disappoint. Her Wiki page describes her as "an American amateur operatic soprano who was known, and ridiculed, for her lack of rhythm, pitch, tone, aberrant pronunciation of libretti, and overall poor singing ability." It goes on to inform us that "From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she provided."

Whoever wrote this Wikipedia entry apparently managed to control his or her laughter long enough to continue in this vein: "Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness." We learn that "She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way". And she came up with a memorable quote too: "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."

After staring at the Wiki page for a long time and debating if it was wise, I finally summoned up the courage to click on the audio link - and got to hear the famously incompetent lady attempting Der Hölle Rache. It's only 23 seconds long, but it's ghastly beyond words and has made me a lifelong fan of Florence Foster Jenkins.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Permissible inducements

Today's Times of India carries, on an inner page, a fascinating article titled "How Shukla saved Rao govt in '92". Mr V.C. Shukla was parliamentary affairs minister in the Congress government of the early 1990's, and by his own recent admission to the press, he managed to help this government narrowly survive a no-confidence vote. As they were just one vote short of a majority, Mr Shukla located a member of parliament from a different party who could be induced to vote in favour of the ruling party.

His account of the inducement is what makes the story fascinating. "I promised him chairmanship of parliamentary committee, foreign trips. I used permissible inducements [italics mine]... no money was discussed." So that's alright then? I rather think not. A bribe is defined as "money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person". Chairmanship of a high-profile committee, with all the power that brings, as well as foreign trips, certainly count as "valuable consideration". So Mr Shukla bribed an MP on behalf of his party, and he feels this is quite acceptable to admit today just because the bribe was not paid in cash. The journalist breathlessly reporting this tale (Akshaya Mukul by name) also seems unaware of anything morally out of place.

Courts of law in India are fortunately not so literal-minded. When dowry is demanded and paid, it doesn't become OK just because it was paid in motorcycles and TV sets rather than cash. People have gone to jail for just such actions. But then, motorcycles and cash certainly have an interchangeable nature. Foreign trips, and chairmanships, are not saleable or tradeable. Could that be why Mr Shukla considered them permissible inducements?

In this connection I must trot out one more of my "keen" observations about public service, whether rendered by politicians towards their constituents or academics towards their underlings, and the collateral that gets skimmed off without anyone noticing. The following photo helps illustrate my point:

An elected representative has, evidently, sanctioned money from a fund (that originates with the taxpayer) to repair a building in Bombay. Why have the tenants spent their own money to put up a notice thanking him? Does he deserve public thanks in the first place, for doing what he was elected to do and with money that's not his own? It's clear the prominent banner will boost his profile, which may in turn favourably impact him at the next elections. And perhaps that's not a totally bad thing in today's environment, where performance is rarely considered when it comes to re-electing politicians. 

But now let's turn the spotlight a little closer, to the community within which I (and many of my readers) exist: the academic community. I can do no better than quote some lines from a talk I presented a few days ago at an Ethics workshop in Delhi. I spoke of a type of academic, frequently found in administrative positions, who can be described as:

“Mister 10%”: skims off benefit to self in exchange for professional actions, e.g. Head of Department gives a promotion or financial allocation in exchange for loyalty or co-authorship.

I suspect many of my readers are aware how common this is. But I only understood its pervasive and universal nature after I became head of my department two years ago. All of a sudden I found it my pleasant duty to disburse a certain quantum of funds for computational equipment, and conference travel, to the faculty members, post-doctoral fellows and students of my department. All taxpayer's money, of course. I'm sure I haven't done a perfect job, but have tried to follow a sensible combination of rules, procedures and common (including scientific) sense. And more than half the time, I've received such effusive thanks - sometimes a virtual threat of being embraced - that it's led me to wonder. Is there any "cashable value" in such thanks? Can I selectively manipulate the people who are grateful to me in order to serve my own agenda? 

The thought still fascinates me. Now if only I can put together an actual agenda, before my "gratitude miles" expire....

Monday, September 10, 2012

Bizarre attack on constitutional freedom

Rarely have I been so stung by a piece of political idiocy than I have by the arrest and remand to custody of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi this weekend. The Government of India has always specialised in the easygoing, relaxed approach towards people I regard as serious criminals (those responsible for instigating murderous riots, or those who incite hatred towards religious or linguistic communities, or on a much smaller scale those rich kids whose drunk driving takes several lives). But it comes down heavily on those who, however misguided, challenge the prevailing orthodoxy because they are sincere about wanting social change. This includes Indian Maoists for example. However I don't like to rush into print defending Maoists because I have a fundamental problem with their ideology of violence against the state. Perhaps there are some Maoists who don't believe in or practice violence, but with a given person I can't necessarily be sure (Binayak Sen was an exception whose personal non-violence was fairly evident to me).

The case of Aseem Trivedi is a lot simpler. His cartoons are generic sarcastic attacks on politicians, for which reason I find them a shade simplistic. Then again he doesn't work for me, so who am I to approve or not! He works for himself and for various publications and for organisations such as Cartoonists Against Corruption. Under the Indian Constitution he has every right to say what he has been saying and draw what he's been drawing. There is nothing remotely seditious (or even offensive) about what he's drawn, unless it could be argued that making Indian politicians generically look bad is harmful to the country. I would dearly love to read the text of such an argument if it was ever made, and if I could stop laughing while reading it.

One example of Aseem's cartoons, which can still be found on his Facebook page, is about the award of an Oscar to the Indian Parliament, in the form of a "Lifetime Achievement Award for a hundred years of सजीव अभिनय " (which I believe translates as "play-acting"). The cartoons that seem to have led to his arrest (as of now, they are easily found on the web) are a little more blunt. One shows the national emblem of India with the three lions replaced by wolves, their fangs dripping blood, and the motto सत्यमेव जयते (the truth alone triumphs) by भ्रष्टमेव जयते (corruption alone triumphs). Another depicts the "gang rape of Mother India" with a politician and a bureaucrat holding her and saying "come on... hurry up..." while a devil figure labelled "Corruption" prepares for the assault. Mother India is fully clothed so there is no case of obscenity in the very literal Indian (i.e. Victorian) sense of nudity. She is also looking extremely angry. All in all there is no insult to the country, even someone with the most distorted literalist mindset can see that.

I'm not quite sure how things are supposed to go now. It's certain that any Indian court above a certain level will let him off and pass strictures against the government, the police and the magistrate who put him behind bars. By that time he will have spent some days in jail and the purpose of this abusive action by the authorities will have been served: to frighten off anyone else who dares to lampoon politicians. My concern is that this sets the bar for what is permissible (to the police/government) very very very low. The three "very" 's are intentional. Some day we supporters of freedom of expression may have to address a case where a very hard-hitting, explicit or even repulsive drawing needs to be defended under the Constitution of India. If Aseem's mild, harmless work is the benchmark then there is no hope.

A final thought: could I also be subjected to a one-week free stay at government expense, just for blogging about this case and linking to relevant material including Aseem's Facebook page? Could you go behind bars for following my links? It's worth thinking about.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Little dictators and academia

Today is the 36th death anniversary of my father and, as I've done before, I'd like to write down some thoughts inspired by him. One thing I learned from him (and also from my mother) was to admire ideas, objects and achievements, but not to overly admire individuals. They both saw individuals, very correctly, as mere instruments in the making of these ideas, objects and achievements. A logical corollary is that both were spiritual people but didn't find it important to bring God into the picture.

In this view, one admires General Relativity rather than Einstein, Rashtrapati Bhavan rather than Lutyens, Gitanjali rather than Tagore. I don't for a moment pretend that my parents were entirely free of admiration towards people, but it was not a fetish for them. In the same way, I've deeply admired the musician Pandit Kumar Gandharva for several decades but my admiration has always been focused more on his works (of which I have an enormous collection) than on himself. And recently I surprised myself by writing on someone's Facebook page that I was tired of hearing stories about Richard Feynman, for whose science I have of course the deepest respect.

In India, at least among the middle class, this approach is uncommon to say the least. For some reason we Indians fawn on people and spend all our time elevating them to absurd heights. Sooner or later they fall from these heights and then we want to trample them in the dirt. It is an anger born from disappointed admiration. This explains, for me, our absurd relationship with politicians. Bring a politician in front of middle-class Indians and they will grovel at his feet. And yet, in private the same people will profess complete contempt for all politicians and for politics itself. Their contempt is the flip side of admiration, and the deeper the admiration, the louder the contempt. This helps me understand why we keep paradoxically voting for the same people and then (but only in private) showering abuse on them.

Despite everything I've said, I did learn from my father that there are a few people worth admiring, and these are people with a wide and well-integrated range of admirable qualities. I also learned that there is one class of person never to be admired: the larger-than-life dictator figure. In our family we all considered fascism to be a total abomination because it went against principles of natural justice, which we greatly respected. Importantly, we understood that the fascist impulse is not confined to the political world. For every globally powerful figure like Hitler or Mussolini, there are thousands of little dictators whom one encounters in one's life: people who are all-powerful within an organisation, a social grouping, a family, an academic institution. And around each such dictator there are dozens or hundreds of fawning admirers for whom the dictator can do no wrong.

I'd like to connect this with some observations from my long experience in academia. Most of my scientist colleagues are vocal in their opposition to dictatorship and fascism, which they rightly view as antithetical to democracy and justice. They support a liberal democratic system for the country, the state, the city in which they live. But shrink the circle further to cover only their academic institution, and a truly surprising love of dictatorship surfaces. It is coupled with a complete distate, even contempt, for democracy of any sort. My antennae quiver when someone in my institute, or elsewhere in academia, says something like: "democracy is no good as a principle for running a scientific institution". That may be true enough if you idiotically imagine democracy to mean gathering everyone and asking them to vote on everything. In fact that would not be democracy but majoritarianism, which is quite different. Democracy is defined by Wikipedia as "a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives". Clearly, a lot hinges on the meaning of "having a say". One can transport this definition to academia (I won't try to actually do it here) by adding words like "participatory", "transparent" etc. In short, democracy is an excellent thing for academia but, like the larger version for a city or country, it can be functional or dysfunctional. That depends on the the quality of the leaders as well as the quality of the people they lead.

So, what about those colleagues who have a distaste for democracy in academia? What is their preferred system? We don't have to look very far to find out. India has a surprising profusion of institutions each associated to a single person. In fact, institutions are often said to be "given" to a person, as in "he got a new institution from the Department of ....". Publicly funded institutions are surely not gifts in a real sense, they are paid for by the taxpayer and belong only to her. But if the leader is a dictator then the distinction is easily blurred. Whenever the head of the institution benevolently allocates some (public) funding to a member, that member must be duly grateful. If the head dislikes someone in their institution, that person's career is effectively over. As with any fascist system, the blame lies as much with supporters falling over themselves to comply. And there is constant fawning: "oh wonderful leader, oh strong leader, show us the way forward in your great wisdom". Two central features of fascism are seen here. As per good old Wikipedia, "fascists seek elevation of their nation based on commitment to an organic national community where its individuals are united together as one people through national identity". And one of their aims is to "promote the rule of people deemed innately superior while seeking to purge society of people deemed innately inferior". Sadly, one is seeing these kinds of principles being de facto approved and followed by people who are leading researchers in science, even as they rail against analogous dictators in national politics.

Unfortunately I can't get to chat about this with my father, but I can easily guess what advice he would have given: others may do what they will, but you should never support dictatorship in any shape or form.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Don't tell anyone

One of my bugbears these days, and really since the beginning of my life, is secrecy. I don't trust people who keep secrets. Of course, if they keep secrets then they don't trust me either. So it's mutual.

Secrecy is not the same as confidentiality. When something is to be kept confidential, it's pretty clear what the harm would be if the information came out. In my professional life, it could be a reference letter in which a scientist evaluates the work of another. In personal matters it could be someone's love life. There is in fact a right to privacy and it needs to be respected.

But secrecy is a way for the powerful to remain powerful, and to protect abuse of power. Secrecy of this kind is for some people a way of life, a culture, a cult. Those who subscribe to it know exactly when to keep their mouths shut, and follow their instinct firmly even when their actions are both morally repugnant and risky. Some of the plainest examples are of priests in the Catholic church who were known to have sexually abused children. On all too many occasions, the first impulse of their seniors in the church was to cover up. The list of such cases is incredibly long and without cover-ups it would have been a lot shorter.

Outside the church, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno covered up repeated acts of molestation by his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. In the end the latter was caught and punished, and the former disgraced in consequence. As the Wikipedia entry points out, "while Paterno did not violate any laws, anyone with knowledge of possible sexual abuse against minors had a "moral responsibility" to notify police. Despite the gravity of allegations against Sandusky, Paterno did not notify state police." And here's the key point: Paterno was not himself a molester. He would have lost nothing, and gained a lot of glory, besides doing the morally correct thing, had he blown the whistle on his assistant as soon as he came to know about it. From this perspective, his action (or rather lack of it) is more inexplicable than that of Sandusky.

At work, I've found myself constantly at war with the culture of secrecy. In the 1980's, as a very junior faculty member in TIFR I was in charge of coordinating graduate courses. But decisions, including those affecting these courses, were taken by the faculty of which I was not a member - because until 2004 (yes that recently!) junior faculty at TIFR could not be called "faculty" or attend faculty meetings. What terrible state secrets would they have stumbled on, one wonders? The result was that as course coordinator I had no input into faculty decisions, and whenever they made a decision that affected my functioning they didn't even have the decency to inform me. This is not a formula for creating a healthy working system, so the system remained dysfunctional for a long time. That however did not seem to bother anyone. The important thing in this case, as in so many others, was that secrecy was more important than a functioning system.

In the good old days Indian Airlines would carefully hide information from passengers. The departure time of a flight might have long passed but the notice board would stubbornly show "on time". No one was ever told what to expect next. Things are not that much better today, since some genius invented the winning line "the flight is delayed due to late arrival of the incoming aircraft" as though that explains anything at all.

Even within my extended family, secrecy has taken on a primary role these days. Not wanting to reveal family secrets to the public (oh now I'm doing it!) I can only mention that senior people are refusing to part with a simple piece of information even though releasing it would spare themselves from accusations of wrongdoing. The natural presumption in such a situation is that the concerned persons are covering up something. And while they might well be, it's also possible that they're not. Perhaps the reason they won't release information is that they are devout followers of the secrecy cult and they understand that once you start revealing things then, really, there's no end, is there? A guilty conscience is more powerful than actual guilt.

When the Right to Information act was passed in India a mere seven years ago, I was very happy about it and I still feel that way. Despite the comments I hear all the time about its potential for abuse, it is brilliant because it offers every Indian citizen the right to know what public institutions are up to. This has struck deep into the culture of abuse of power in our country. If that culture is not yet dead it's only because it's a monster with many heads and Terminator-like powers of regeneration. So secrecy remains the default. I'm reminded of a joke told about a leading organisation of the Indian government: the head of the institution calls his assistant and whispers "I've received an Office Order from the Central Vigilance Commission that we are required to have a Transparency Officer. But don't tell anyone!"

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Paper is for sad souls

In the early 1990's, I took a bet with the Chairman of my department that by the year 2000, printing on paper would become obsolete and people would take to reading on their computer screens. I lost the bet, but was merely a little ahead of my time. Yesterday it was announced that in the UK, sales of Kindle e-books have overtaken print books: 114 of the former were sold for every 100 of the latter.

Now Kindle is not the only way to read e-books. One can download over 40,000 e-books for free, in pretty much any format you like, from the Project Gutenberg website. For those sad souls (and I know quite a few) who think everything downloaded for free is illegal, these books are all completely legal and are free simply because their copyright has expired. The website maintains a list of the most popular downloads on a daily basis, and my readers will be delighted to know that number four on the list is the Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, where one can pick up fascinating recommendations such as: "At all times when kissing and such like things are begun, the woman should give a reply with a hissing sound."

If you are done with ROTFL, let's go back to Kindle. A lot of people think this is a device you need to buy and carry around, and indeed there's a whole range of these e-readers. They have particularly good screen resolutions so you may want to try one of them if you feel computer screens don't do it for you. I prefer to download and install the free Kindle software on my Macbook Air, my iPad and my Android phone.

Once you're done with that, a wonderful new life awaits you. Assuming you have a free account (and are not one of those sad souls who refuses to use their credit card over the internet) you can register your credit card once and turn on "1-click ordering". Thereafter you browse the online Kindle store, locate a book you want, order it with - as promised - one click, and immediately download it to your device. Kindle books are reasonably priced, I haven't spent more than ten dollars on one so far. What's more, the next time you start up another of your devices you can download the same book there at no extra cost. And now you can do a whole bunch of things that you couldn't even dream of with paper books.

If you're reading a book on an iPad or other tablet, and open the same book later on your phone, it will automatically offer to scroll to the last page you reached on your previous device. So you can seamlessly switch devices. This enables you to continue your reading in a dentist's waiting room instead of browsing his latest issue of "Root Canal Digest". Of course, for all this your Android phone should have an internet connection, a very minimal GPRS that costs 99 rupees a month is more than enough. You can also read your Kindle books on someone else's device or a computer that runs Linux (for which Kindle software is unavailable) by the simple expedient of pointing your browser to the Kindle Cloud and logging in using your details. There are all your books, waiting eagerly to be read. You can carry a hundred or ten thousand books with you on your next trip without worrying about the baggage allowance. Your device will remember how far you got with each book, so no need for bookmarks.

And there's more. If you forget where in your novel a certain character originally appeared, just type the name into the search window and you will be directed to all their previous appearances. If you don't know what a word means, just hold your finger over it and a dictionary definition will pop up. If you don't like small print, increase the size of your font. Kindle re-organises your pages automatically so that each page precisely fills the screen of your device whatever the font size. You can make notes on your book and even (this is weird and I disabled it) view comments made by other readers of the same book. 

Of course you might be one of those ever-present sad souls who says (i) I like the feel of a real book in my hands, (ii) I can't possibly read a book on the small screen of a mobile phone, (iii) I don't have an internet connection, or (iv) I don't want to read books on a "device", the word "device" makes me throw up.

If "such like things" are the case with you then all I can say is, you deserve "a reply with a hissing sound".

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

This Is For Everybody

I've been a fan of Danny Boyle ever since I saw Trainspotting in the mid nineties - an original and moving journey through the dark side of drug addiction. Next, for me, came Slumdog Millionaire which I instantly loved: the colours and flavours (now I sound like a particle physicist) came across so powerfully that I almost failed to notice the plot. But I greatly enjoyed Boyle's head-on approach to poverty and middle-class India's resulting discomfiture with the movie. People emitted the usual whines about the West highlighting only negative aspects of India. And, in an effort to show the world how we can be simultaneously literal and illiterate, someone tried to convince slum dwellers in Bombay that a white man had called them "dogs"!

A couple of months ago I had a chance to see a movie of a theatrical production of Frankenstein staged by Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in London. This movie has had a limited distribution so far, and I got to see it at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Bombay, but it has recently been distributed in theatres across the USA and you can read about it here.  You can also watch the trailer of the movie here, as well as the somewhat better trailer of the play here.

It so happens that I recently downloaded the original novel by Mary Shelley (along with a whole lot of other free literature to read using Kindle on my iPad) and finished reading it around April. In terms of literary style it's repetitive, hackneyed and overdone and came across to me as a little mediocre. But it compensates by the brilliance of its plot and the universal appeal of its horror story: a monster who is physically repulsive to his creator and the rest of mankind, and intelligent enough to appreciate this fact, is emotionally shattered and goes around vengefully killing everyone dear to his creator.

Now most people who haven't read the book think the monster is meant to be disgusting (they also think, incorrectly, that the monster is named "Frankenstein"). But if you read the book, it's not hard to pick up on Mary Shelley's hints that the monster is the hero of the tale, the one who has her sympathies. And in the play Boyle (and to be fair, Nick Dear who wrote the script) take this a step further. The play is largely presented in the monster's voice and devoted to his point of view. It focuses on the justice aspect: is it fair to create someone and then despise and reject him merely because of how he looks? What effect does this have on the person? Can we at least understand, if not completely approve of, the murderous trajectory he follows as a result? And the unspoken corollary: how should we judge the evil deeds of those who have suffered grievous injustice?

The opening scene has no counterpart in the book: we see a monster tumble out of a suspended translucent egg-like object and then wriggle and writhe on the stage for a good ten or fifteen minutes until he learns, all by himself, to use his limbs and walk. I saw this as a metaphor for a lot of things: evolution, physical maturity, emotional growth, intellectual achievement. You can view fragments of this in the trailer of the movie linked above. The entire production was a stunning achievement and kept popping into my head for a week or more after I saw it.

 Then a couple of days ago I watched what's been described as "the best movie that Danny Boyle never made", the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. If you haven't, you should certainly set aside a couple of hours for it. It's been reviewed to death in the media so I won't repeat it here, you can read this nice review in The Guardian.

I'll just highlight two things. One is the sensibility - self-deprecating, light-hearted and inclusive. Lots of children singing, some in their pyjamas, a pastiche depicting the evolution of Britain's landscape from green meadows to ugly chimneys, a review of British music over the decades, some comedy from Mr Bean, a symphony orchestra, a skit of the Queen with James Bond, and a nod to the disabled, to immigrants, to just ordinary people (and a few ordinary cows and sheep too). It's been rightly described as "brilliantly messy" and "bonkers". A Tory MP tweeted his dislike of the multicultural nature of the show and this made me even happier than the negative reception of Slumdog in India! The slogan of the show was "This Is For Everybody" and in today's increasingly mean and narrowing world I found it very refreshing. Here is a nice article by someone else who did, too.

The second thing I liked, was a little story I read later. Given that rehearsals for this gigantic ceremony must have gone on for many many months, and involved tens of thousands of people, there were almost no leaks until virtually the last moment. How come a video of the rehearsal taken on someone's mobile phone didn't make it to YouTube? Frank Cottrell Boyce, the scriptwriter for the ceremony, had this to say:

`Danny could have asked for camera phones to be banned from the stadium or for people to sign confidentiality agreements. Instead he asked people nicely to save the surprise. "The volunteers are the best of us," he said. "This show belongs to them. This country belongs to them." '

I love this story and I wish that leaders of any sort learn this lesson. When you want people to support your efforts, place your trust in them first.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Kumar Gandharva - King of the Seasons

This article was written at the invitation of the Times of India for their Crest supplement, and a (slightly abbreviated) version appeared there in April 2012 around the time of Kumarji's birth anniversary. I'm posting the full version here, with some hyperlinks, for readers of my blog.

The great Marathi writer Pu.La. Deshpande once impishly remarked that we seem to think Classical music is so named because it is taught to us in class. In a similar vein he also complained that his job as a college professor was to create hatred for the Marathi language instead of a love for it! Both comments revealed his distaste for excessively formal approaches that end up distancing ordinary people. This dislike of formalism and orthodoxy was shared by his close friend, the singer Pandit Kumar Gandharva, who did not express his feelings in witty aphorisms but worked them into his music.

It is perhaps a little ironic that Kumarji is considered an intellectual of Hindustani Music. Of course he was, in the sense that he did not just perform but spent time thinking about music, forming his own ideas, discussing them with people and writing copious notes. Yet in a different and precise sense he was opposed to intellectualism. Neither in his compositions nor in his writings, nor in his body language during his performances, did he ever suggest that some specialised knowledge or ability was required in order to appreciate his music.

Quite the contrary. Kumarji’s legendary gestures – hands intertwined, then arms thrust out at an angle, then a single finger weaving an invisible spiral high above his head – invited the audience to trust their own feelings and access his music at an intuitive level. Just when his music seemed to be getting too abstract, he would often stop to make a joke about whatever he was singing. And once when questioned by critics about his inclusion of the note “pancham” in a composition in Raga Malkauns (from which it is supposed to be rigorously excluded), Kumarji is said to have responded “but it wanted to be there! What could I do?”

These were manifestations of his “people-friendly” ideology, according to which classical music should not be seen as something abstract or remote. Rather, it originates from the ordinary feelings of ordinary people, from emotions that arise out of daily experiences such as hearing the chirping of birds, meeting an old friend, waking up at dawn, preparing for a wedding or witnessing the changing of seasons. From this standpoint it was natural that he would consider raga-based classical music, folk music and bhajans as equally important parts of a single artistic vision. This remains one of the most enduring and unique aspects of his musical legacy.

Kumarji was a methodical person who worked out the broad structure of each performance in meticulous detail, though this in no way detracted from the spontaneity of his actual recitals. While most of his performances were in traditional formats, he enjoyed formulating thematic programmes to communicate specific concepts and created over a dozen of these. For his musically trained followers there were programmes highlighting a single raga or family of ragas, such as Kalyan ke Prakar, Bhairav ke Prakar and Goud Malhar Darshan. For other audiences and occasions he would perform entire programmes of bhajans based on the work of saint-poets like Surdas, Kabir, Meerabai, Tulsidas and Tukaram, or based on Marathi stage music or on “lighter” forms of classical music like thumri, tappa and tarana.

But the most audacious and unique of his programmes were those conceived around the seasons of the subcontinent: Geet Varsha, Geet Hemant and Geet Basant. Here his ideology found its richest expression. Bhajans, folk music from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, and compositions in classical ragas, each had its own place in the programme and they would blend into each other seamlessly. Each piece would be designed to evoke an emotion or memory associated to that season, encompassing both natural occurrences like thunder and lightning, rainfall, cool breezes and bright moonlight, as well as human activities like farming, romance and religious festivals. A listener might initially be attracted to the programme through their own favourite type of music, but would end up appreciating that the differences among musical genres of our tradition are less important than the similarities. In this way Kumarji’s point would be proved.

Geet Varsha opens with a pre-monsoon sense of desperate thirst tinged with hopelessness, expressed through an alaap in Raga Marwa: “ghaam pare re”. But despair is short-lived as “nayo nayo meha” invokes the sighting of clouds for the first time. Once the rains seriously set in, the lyrics abound with references to swollen rivers, thunderstorms, songbirds and croaking frogs. Soon it’s time to settle down to the single “fully classical” segment of the programme, a half hour of Raga Miyan Malhar. This is followed by mid-monsoon romance conveyed in an elaborately fluid Pilu Khamaj tappa, “o dildaara aa jaa re”. The concluding piece is a muted and reflective composition in Raga Jaladhar Basant, beautifully capturing the moment when a spell of heavy rain has ended and we look around in silence at the boundless greenery. The Geet Basant programme (later replaced by Ritu Raj Mehfil) similarly captures the relief of the end of winter and moves rapidly into the wild revelry of Holi. The programme is rich with references to Krishna’s flirtations and the rituals of throwing colour, meeting friends, offering sweets, emptying one’s heart of anger. The philosophical bhajans of Kabir have no place here, but are supplanted with Surdas’s lyrical tales. And as always there is a classical core of exquisite original compositions in Bhoop, Bhimpalasi and Hameer, all set in madhya laya (medium tempo) which enhances the scope of formal development of a raga, but also makes it sound much like a song.

Though Kumarji was not the first in our culture to use seasons as a vehicle for art – after all, Kalidasa wrote Meghaduta over 16 centuries ago – he achieved the unique distinction of capturing the annual life-cycle of a people and a subcontinent in its own authentic musical language.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Higgs unmasked

Today was not like any other day. A historic announcement was made at CERN about the discovery of the Higgs boson, or something very much like it. I joined many others at TIFR in a lecture room to watch the live telecast of the proceedings. I won't review the science of this discovery here in any detail, instead I'd like to share some of the thoughts that went through my head as the lectures unfolded and then later on during the day.

The Higgs mechanism was discovered independently by six researchers in 1964 (only one of whom is called Higgs), based on a physical effect studied two years earlier by Anderson. So the fact that Prof. Higgs alone has become a household name is a shade unfair to the others. But then, you can't expect the press to get all breathless about a Brout-Englert-Higgs-Hagen-Guralnik-Kibble boson! And even if there had been a single discoverer, it's hard to imagine what the corresponding particle would have been called if that discoverer went by a name like Venkatachalapathy, or Klapdor-Kleingrothaus (the latter is a genuine German physicist). Let's just agree that it's good to have a short, snappy name if you want things named after you. Though it's less often highlighted, the other part of the term "Higgs boson" comes from the name of Satyendra Nath Bose whose work described the statistical behaviour of a generic class of particles called bosons. Again, I just couldn't help wondering what would have happened had this Bengali gentleman carried the surname Mukhopadhyay, or Raichaudhuri!

But enough of the flippant stuff. As Feynman put it very well, knowing the name of an object only tells us how human beings refer to it, but nothing about the object itself. What is important about the object under discussion today is that it's a key ingredient of a fairly elegant and simple mathematical theory, the Standard Model of particle physics, that accurately describes the behaviour of everything in the universe.

The last sentence is an over-simplification for essentially two reasons. One is that this theory only describes behaviour not involving the gravitational force. But this is fine as long as one stays away from immense gravitational forces such as those involving black holes or the early universe. Completing the theory to describe gravitational forces is the task of string theory, the field in which I work, but we can leave that story for another day. The second reason why it's an over-simplification is easier to appreciate. Knowing in principle the behaviour of every particle that makes up a jug of water, or a monkey, is almost useless to understand the behaviour of the composite object. This is why research in physics goes in two directions: one is to understand the fundamental constituents, the other is to understand how simple constituents are organised into larger objects that freeze at low temperatures, or bite when provoked, or exhibit some other type of complex behaviour.

Both directions are important. But in practice the "fundamental" and "complex" scientists rather tend to despise each other's preference. The "complex" scientist observes that finding and classifying fundamental particles - like the Higgs boson - is never going to answer questions like "when does water freeze?" or "why do materials superconduct?", let alone the trickiest one: "what is life?" Meanwhile the "fundamental" scientist feels that only by studying the most elementary objects can one aim to find elegant, universal and precise laws. Both sides are perfectly correct.

As someone who has tied his career to the "fundamental" or "reductionist" enterprise, I've seen its fortunes fluctuate quite a lot. It's been very popular through certain periods, while during other periods it has provoked irritation or even fury from scientists in the other camp. There are many possible reasons for this. One is the sheer audacity of the enterprise. Do we really think there can be a "theory of everything"? Another is the expense. Why should the nations of the world pool in a few billion Euros to answer esoteric questions about some particular elementary particle? Yet another is the fact that even the questions we raise, never mind the answers, are very hard for a person to understand without considerable prior knowledge of mathematics and quantum physics. And then there is the apparent indifference to social benefit. Will the Higgs boson cure cancer or mitigate climate change? Our community is seen to respond: "we do not care". Finally, there is the even higher level of grandiosity involved in claims like "particles are merely vibrational modes of strings" given that the strings would have a spatial size that is a million billion times smaller than things we know how to measure.

While all the questions raised above have (defensive) answers, sometimes it's best to let these questions just remain as they are and look at the other side of the picture. And I think today even the skeptics have had a close-up view of that other side, and hopefully have been moved by it. For around six decades, a global community of physicists - divided by everything else but united by their belief in the reductionist enterprise - have collaborated to uncover the secrets of nature. Some have done theoretical work, others experimental, yet others work in the middle ground between the two that's called "phenomenology". Over this period most of these people have never met each other, some have failed to even understand or accept each others' work, many have foolishly pitted theory against experiment (as though either one could ever be sufficient) and engaged in numerous other follies. But enough people gave of their best, and their best has proved good enough. The discipline of the scientific method, plus a collective dedication to the goal, washed out the conflicts and amplified the consensus. And today it's turned out that the whole thing holds together beautifully. It needn't have, but it did - and this for me is the best defence of the entire reductionist enterprise. It works.

So an absurd little particle, postulated for an apparently trifling reason, came to occupy centre stage in our quest and then held out for decades - but in the end it was unmasked by the sustained onslaught of a few thousand people (and, it has to be admitted, billions of Euros). The discovery of the Higgs boson might be the most sustained cooperative enterprise in the history of the human race!

And there's another grandiose statement calculated to annoy people...

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One way ticket

A cousin recently mailed me an image file showing a painting of Henry VIII being beseeched by a woman on her knees, presumably one of the wives he sentenced to death. Below that is the logo of the London Underground and next to it the words: "A return trip to the Tower, and a single for my wife". It turns out this is a genuine ad that was used by the London Underground in 1977 and praised by a member of the House of Commons in these words: "It is that kind of imaginative approach which visitors to London find so interesting." On searching the web I also found a more recent ad, for an exhibition at the Tower of London titled: "Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill".

Of course old Henry did a lot of things both good and bad. He founded Trinity College and I dined for three months under his glowering portrait. But he had two of his six wives beheaded, along with a number of others. During the execution at the Tower of London, in 1541, of a certain Lady Salisbury, the axe failed to fall correctly and the half-beheaded lady sort of ran around the room for a while until they could get her head properly off, for which they had to hack her 11 more times. I was told this story in the room where it happened!

The British love these stories, as you can see from the way Henry VIII features in government-sponsored advertising. Mysteriously his life does not make British culture look barbaric -- while similar stories of barbarism in the history of the Orient tend to rub off on contemporary citizens, who still have to live with the image of being marauding Turks and Afghans for example.

An example is Timur the Lame. Wikipedia tells us he "stood forth in history as the supreme example of soulless and unproductive militarism. On the other hand, Timur is also recognized as a great patron of art and architecture, while he interacted with Muslim intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun and Hafez." But ever since I've heard the name I've only associated it with barbarism (his sweeter side never came across) and I'm pretty sure the Turks don't make jokes about his violent methods. Nor do the Indians find his great-great-grandson Babar particularly funny...

Friday, June 8, 2012

I can't cure you: you must be mad

This comment is prompted by Sukratu's comment on my previous posting. He seems to have concluded from my blog that I suffered from a "psychosomatic illness". I'm not aware that this conclusion can be unambiguously drawn from what happened to me in recent times, but am prepared to consider that it's a possibility. In looking for some information on disorders or illnesses of this type, I came across several somewhat distinct classifications.

Lowest on the scale of respectability is the factitious disorder. This is diagnosed when "a person acts as if he or she has an illness by deliberately producing, feigning, or exaggerating symptoms". In short, the patient is faking the illness.

A somatoform disorder is a physical disorder that is entirely attributable to mental causes. One kind of behaviour that has recently been classified in this way is Munchausen Syndrome, in which "those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention or sympathy to themselves". This looks identical to the definition of factitious disorder above, but for one crucial word: "deliberately". In fact Munchausen used to be considered a factitious disorder and sufferers of this syndrome were contemptuously called "frequent flyers" (because they would be frequently in hospital) but after its reclassification as somatoform, they can take comfort that their problem is "not the result of conscious malingering ... sufferers perceive their plight as real" (from the Wikipedia link above).

Psychosomatic disorders  are higher on the scale of respectability. Wikipedia tells us that "Some physical diseases are believed to have a mental component derived from the stresses and strains of everyday living. This is the case, for example, of lower back pain and high blood pressure, which appear to be partly related to stresses in everyday life. Psychiatry has found it difficult until relatively recently to distinguish somatoform disorders, disorders in which mental factors are the sole cause of a physical illness, from psychosomatic disorders, disorders in which mental factors play a significant role in the development, expression, or resolution of a physical illness."

In other words, if its purely your fault then it's somatoform but if there's already a problem and your attitude is just making it worse, then it's psychosomatic. However it's important to point out that lay people usually understand "psychosomatic" to have the meaning given above to "somatoform", the latter word being quite unknown in common parlance.

Now what bothers me as a scientist is that the categories above are poorly defined, and classifying a patient into one of these categories is also an ill-posed problem. As the Medscape webpage on conversion disorder (a type of somatoform disorder) puts it, such disorders tend to be diagnosed when "symptoms of an organic medical disorder or disturbance in normal neurologic functioning exist that are not referable to an organic medical or neurologic cause". In other words, if we don't know what caused it then it must be mental in origin. Or as Wikipedia in a rare burst of humour puts it, "I can't cure you: you must be mad".

It's perfectly possible that things not currently understood by medical practitioners are not "psycho-" anything, but due to a very specific external cause. A prime example is the peptic ulcer. Long thought to be caused by emotional stress, it turned out to be in fact caused (in 70-90% of cases) by helicobacter pylori, a discovery that won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for Barry Marshall and Robin Warren. In a well-known story, once he was convinced of his theory Marshall actually swallowed the contents of a petri dish containing the bacterium and rapidly started to develop an ulcer. Since helicobacter is quite easily cured by an antibiotic, patients with ulcers are now treated with antibiotics (as was Marshall). Quite a change from what was done to me when I had signs of a developing ulcer in 1984. Then, doctors looked at me strangely and kept asking me to calm down and take it easy. They were pleased to notice that I was irritable (as anyone would be who had a constant nagging pain in the abdomen) since it confirmed the prevalent theory at the time. No one offered an antibiotic, since the result leading to the 2005 Nobel Prize was far in the future.

But the ulcer story doesn't end there. Recent studies still support the notion that "psychological factors do play a significant role" in the development of ulcers. The role is somewhat indirect, as helicobacter thrives in an acidic environment and stress can increase the production of stomach acid. In other words, to get an ulcer it helps to have both (i) helicobacter in your stomach, (ii) acid, possibly due to stress, in your stomach.

So if you scroll up you will see that ulcers remain "psychosomatic" by the definition I gave, namely that there's already a problem and your attitude has made it worse. But even this is rather facile. Emotional stress is not the only way to get excess acid in your stomach. You could be obliged to have irregular meals and/or irregular sleep times due to your job. Or just be starving due to poverty. All these will make you acidic and give any helicobacter inside you a pleasant environment in which to grow. Therefore the correct way to treat an ulcer is first to administer medication and second look into the causes of excess acidity if any.

This could also become the way to treat dystonia, irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis in future. The cause of none of these is known today,  but all have long carried the psychosomatic or even somatoform label. As an example, this research paper from 1950 finds ulcerative colitis to be closely associated with neurosis and this blog article recounts how it was related to schizophrenia! Today, however, genetic and environmental factors are being widely discussed in the context of UC, while both dystonia and IBS are being associated with problems in the basal ganglia of the brain.

So finally, is it your mind or your body or both? The best answer I can give is that it's always both. But telling the patient to calm down is never the first line of therapy.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Back to "tonia"

I hadn't planned to write again about my dystonia, but as you'll see, I'm now obliged to do so.

I'll keep this brief. I acquired lingual dystonia in Cambridge between March 5-8. The cause of this disorder is essentially mysterious and the condition is very stubborn, and in my case there was absolutely no improvement for a couple of months, during which I could only mumble. However, now the time-reverse of the original process has occurred. Between May 16-19, in Cambridge again, the dystonia started to go away and by the evening of May 19 (two days ago) my speech had become "normal" again, or very close to it.

I'm delighted and grateful to be able to speak clearly again. Though this is a problem that can in principle recur, I feel I should share the good news right away (specially in view of this old blog posting of mine on the topic of sharing good news!). And I'd like to thank the many caring and supportive readers who communicated their kind words to me during these last few months.

Why did the improvement take place? Not because of the Cambridge weather for sure! It's grey, cold and gloomy now, exactly as it was from March 5-8. And my general health is not better, or worse, and I'm not more cheerful, or less, than at any other time. So the reason is perhaps Clonazepam, or perhaps the passage of time.

But it's best if I just follow my doctor's excellent advice: "never question why you are better".

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Buying drugs

As I've recounted in a previous posting, a couple of months ago while in Cambridge I acquired a neurological disorder called lingual dystonia that affects my speech. On returning to Bombay I was fortunate to get a quick and accurate diagnosis from a leading neurologist. However treatment was a different matter. One cannot treat the disorder but only the symptoms. It took more than a month, and two more neurologists, to get the course of medication right. But at the end, when everything seemed under control, I ran into an unexpected problem which taught me something about the law and its "enforcement" in India, and the impact on medical patients. Read on.

The first neurologist prescribed two medicines, one of which is Clonazepam, an inexpensive (Rs 15 for 10 pills) anti-anxiety medication with few side effects that is considered to be always helpful with dystonia. The other medicine, Trihexyphenidyl, is more expensive and specialised, does not always work, and has awful side effects as I can now testify. I bought both of these medicines from one of the row of medical shops right outside Bombay Hospital. The shopkeeper was friendly and even gave me 5 percent off because I was short of cash and he wanted to save me a trip to the nearby ATM! It was my first day back in India and I was delighted at this affectionate and helpful behaviour after cold, clinical England. I should mention that the shopkeeper carried out his legal obligation by carefully examining the prescription and noting down the doctor's details.

Some weeks later I consulted a different neurologist at Jaslok Hospital, who told me to continue Clonazepam and also switched me from Trihexyphenidyl to Tetrabenazine (which also has side effects including depression, which really wrecked me for several days). I had some Clonazepam but needed to buy more of it, and he gave me a fresh prescription. But I found that in the downtown area of Colaba where I stay, the many dozen pharmacies all stock Trihexyphenidyl and Tetrabenazine but not a single one stocks Clonazepam. So I bought it at the same shop as before, outside Bombay Hospital, about 3 kilometres away. The same shopkeeper was again friendly and again took down the doctor's details, carefully checking the spelling of his name (he also seemed to remember me as the person who had run out of cash on the previous occasion).

That was three weeks ago. On my visit to the doctor last week, he agreed to stop the Tetrabenazine which was not helping. But he felt the Clonazepam was working and I was slightly better. So he gave me a new prescription for it, asking me to continue it for a few months. Since I still had some of it left at home, I didn't bother buying a fresh stock the same day.

Now on Sunday I was to return to Cambridge, so on Saturday evening I went to the Bombay Hospital area with my prescription to buy some more Clonazepam to take with me. I thought it would be as simple as before but was in for a huge surprise. The familiar shopkeeper turned rigid when he saw my prescription, looked the other way and said it was out of stock. He refused to talk to me or advise me where else to look for it, except to "try the next shop". I tried all five shops in that row and in all of them, got the same response: Clonazepam (brand name: Epitril or Rivotril) was out of stock. माल नहीं है ("we don't have the stuff"). Try the next shop. 

More surprising was that everyone would freeze and look away when I even tried to discuss the matter, or ask where then I could get my medicine. In desperation I used my mobile to call my neurologist. He thought maybe the shopkeepers would have Lonazep, a different brand that's equivalent, so he suggested I hand my mobile to them so he could explain this directly to them. But they refused point blank to talk to him. They just kept freezing and looking away more and more, and the atmosphere became rather creepy and hostile so I walked away from the area dejected.

My doctor then suggested I try Saifee Hospital, an impressive new hospital a couple of kilometres away where I've always had a good experience. So I took a cab there and entered their neat and small pharmacy, which had an actual pharmacist in uniform. He took my prescription, solemnly checked the stocks on the computer and confirmed that they had Lonazep in stock. His assistant pulled it out of a drawer. And then, just as I thought my problem was solved, he froze. "The prescription is not dated today", he said. "So what?" I asked. "It's just four days old." He replied that I might have filled it elsewhere and be coming to him for more. So I began to understand the issue. Clonazepam, like all benzodiazepenes,  gives one a pleasant and relaxing feeling and is therefore sometimes abused as a recreational drug.

I explained that I was a legitimate patient and hadn't filled the prescription four days earlier because I already had some of the medicine at home. He repeated his objection and said he would not fill a prescription unless it was dated today. I said I understood the concern, but surely even if it was dated today, someone could fill it elsewhere and then come to him and get some more? So the abuse he was worrying about couldn't actually be stopped just by having today's date?

He froze more and more and then rudely told me not to argue with him. He also refused to talk to my doctor on the phone and disappeared into the back of the shop. One more panic call to my doctor. As he practices at Jaslok Hospital, another 3 km away, he kindly phoned the pharmacist there, revealed his identity and verified they had Lonazep and would fill my prescription. So I took a cab to Jaslok. I thought I saw the pharmacist freeze when he saw the name of the medicine, but he slowly regained some mobility and sold it to me. So that was the end of my troubles that day. After another cab ride home to Colaba, I had spent two hours and 250 rupees in cab fare to get 60 tablets of a medicine, collectively worth 90 rupees. This medicine is the only thing that helps my neurological illness, and I have four prescriptions by three leading neurologists all bound neatly in a file, but despite this while shopping for it I had been looked at and spoken to as if I was some sort of drug addict!

 Why did this happen? The shopkeepers would not even talk about it, as I've indicated. But in the past the police have been known to raid pharmacies to check up on the sale of benzodiazepenes. There must have been a raid that day, or recently. Or maybe there was a rumour that there was going to be one. I admit this is speculation on my part but I've never, ever, encountered this kind of reaction when buying any other prescription drug, such as antibiotics or even the awful Trihexyphenidyl.

I was lucky to have the time, the money for cab fare and the energy to travel all over town in pursuit of my medication. But what would happen to another legitimate patient without some or all of these assets? The utter rudeness of all the shopkeepers indicated they must have been terrifed of the police. Also I have never before been told that a prescription can only be filled on the same day. I suspect this "rule" was simply invented by the pharmacist at Saifee. I would appreciate feedback on this from informed readers, because if such a rule does not exist then I'm afraid he behaved unprofessionally and I'd be inclined to complain to the hospital. Though again, the police could be ultimately to blame for his fears.

In the end, recreational users always find shady sources to access their drug, so it's mostly genuine patients who have to put up with the runaround and stress just to buy what they really need. And funnily, one thing that makes neurological disorders worse is stress! In my view there needs to be some kind of legal protection in place for the patient in such cases. If pharmacies are (correctly) penalised for selling certain medicines without a prescription, they should also be penalised for not selling them when there is a valid prescription. And the police, when checking up on medical shops, should be careful and correct rather than intimidate the shopkeepers. They need to think carefully about the potential consequences of their actions on legitimate patients.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Perverted alchemy

"Resume work or quit": this headline from today's paper may appear to refer to Air India pilots, but it refers instead to teachers of Bombay University. Apparently they have "refused to participate in evaluation work across state universities". A box in the middle of the paper says "City aghast at a great institution's downhill ride".

The situation with Air India is hardly any different. I'm blogging at this moment instead of being somewhere over Dubai on a London-bound flight, only because of the ongoing strike. The striking pilots belong to the international segment of the airline, which is known as "Air India". Their demands are, apparently, that they get exclusive rights to train for the new Dreamliner aircraft, instead of sharing this training with pilots in the domestic wing of the airline, which is confusingly also known as "Air India" (a few years ago it was called "Indian Airlines" and while there was little logic in the naming system, at least people knew what was what).

So is India full of lazy teachers and selfish pilots? That certainly is the subtext of most newspaper articles and middle-class complaints (how selfish of them to do this in the summer season! who is going to compensate us for the lost vacation! etc etc). A colleague of mine yesterday argued eloquently that the AI pilots are a spoiled lot who want not only their immediate families but parents, in-laws and grandchildren all to have the right to free flights in First Class aboard India's nationally owned jetliners. Apparently this was the source of a previous strike. This colleague gets his facts right, so I don't doubt his word. Likewise, I assume (though I haven't checked) that Bombay University teachers are indeed refusing to participate in the allotted work. A leading retired judge feels this is a sign of a "general decline in our character".

But is that it? The press does point out that political interference has precipitated the decline in both Bombay University and Air India, and most would agree with that. So is it the problem that politicians have hired "sub-standard" pilots and teachers? Or has the political interference somehow turned people lazy, interested only in free flights, selfish about shared training? Is it "genetics" or "environment", to make an analogy?

This is a point that I find important but is rarely raised. A nice anecdote was recounted at the TIFR tea table yesterday. In some institution, a survey found 30% of staff were highly motivated and over-performing, while the rest just did what they were told. But then these 30% were plucked out to form a separate institution, and it was found that 30% of them remained highly motivated while the rest just did what they were told. The probable explanation is that the best ones in a group feel encouraged by their own relative success and are the ones who out-perform, while the rest, discouraged by not being seen as outstanding (and therefore not seeing themselves as outstanding), lapse into mediocre work.

I doubt this story has any factual basis, but it provides a nice model. The same person can be a good performer or a mediocre one or a total slob, it doesn't depend just on what material you are made of, but in what environment you find yourself and more crucially on how it makes you see yourself. Quite possibly, in Bombay University 10% of teachers are highly motivated, 20% do what they are told and 70% refuse to participate in evaluation work. The key reason has to be that poor management at the top, over a long time, has made the teachers see themselves this way. The poor management often comes from political interference, but there are cases all around me where instead it simply comes from - poor management!

So I believe that the problem is not as closely related to politics as it may seem. After all a national airline and a major city university are bound to be political institutions and in every country, politicians take major decisions about such entities. And things go wrong everywhere too because of political interference. Just a couple of months ago over a pint of ale at "The Mitre", an elegant Cambridge pub, I watched my British colleagues fulminate about idiotic politicians (and politicised faculty members) in their country coming up with stupid ideas that, in their view, were harming academia. (As an aside, during my time in the UK the most prominent theme of conversation by far consisted of academics bitching about other academics and politicians!) However a precipitous decline in standards is not a necessary consequence. There is some level of accountability in the UK and other countries, so even the "idiots" are aware that they have a job to do and they have to be seen to be doing it. Moreover the cadres largely have an independent standing based on their work and don't rely for their self-esteem on their bosses.

Our problem is that in India there is no accountability. In addition the standard survival tactic of a senior administrator is to humiliate and lower the self-esteem of everyone else around, and in India this technique works very well because, probably for historical reasons, we tend to have very fragile self-esteem. I've tried to distinguish lack of accountability from political interference because there is a solution to the former, which is the key problem, and I want to propose it here and maybe elaborate on it in the future. As for humiliation and self-esteem, that is also a root cause of the problem and its solution is a part of the big solution.

The solution for non-accountability is called evaluation and election. I would like to see a careful, proper, fair, just, objective (as much as possible) evaluation of people in authority everywhere, and I'd like to see leaders (such as heads of airlines and universities, and for example - at my Institute - Chairpersons, Deans and the Director) elected openly and professionally by a well-defined and sufficiently large category of voters who are an integral part of the system.

Could the Vice Chancellor of Bombay University be elected by the entire faculty? Oh this is absurd, people will say. This would lead to even more politicisation!  And if the entire staff of Air India voted for their CEO, wouldn't it just lead to free travel for every clerk and their auntie? In short, wouldn't the "well-known" problems of Indian democracy now be visited on airlines and universities?

Not so fast. As Mark Twain said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Note that the VC of Cambridge University was recently elected by the entire faculty and all past degree holders, if they bothered to show up (in an entertaining tale that I'll save for another time). The faculty and students thereby see themselves as stakeholders in a system and vote for the person who in their view will perform the best. They may make a wrong choice but they are empowered and their choices can slowly evolve for the better. Contrast this with any state-run Indian institution, and not just universities.The top jobs are rarely advertised, voted for or evaluated. Senior administrators are brought in secretly, they often humiliate people and screw up the system, and then disappear with scarcely a murmur. You can tell them they are screwing up, they can ignore you and continue to do so, the predicted horrors are visited on the system, but they are never held accountable. Compared to that, nothing like open advertisement, open discussion and a free and fair election. At least those who have failed in one place won't get indefinitely renewed or worse, shunted around from place to place - as happens today.

And finally to the humiliation problem. This is a deep psychological problem and has a psychological remedy. A top administrator needs to be a counsellor who can encourage and reassure, who can bring out the best in each person regardless of how that person starts out, and who is committed to influence the so-called 30-70 ratio described above by bringing as many people as possible into the first category. It is possible and it's been done. Some organisations are not 30-70 but 70-30, or even better, and these are the healthy ones. But sadly at least in India this only happens by pure accident. This ability is not considered a positive trait to look for when people are sought for top jobs. In fact a humiliator is somehow seen as a stronger (ergo better) leader, even though such a person is truly the scum of the earth - a perverted alchemist converting human gold into base metal.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A dystonic tonic

It's been almost three months since I last blogged. For once, there is a technical reason. After two very enjoyable months in Cambridge, about which I wrote occasionally on this blog, I woke up one morning in early March to find my tongue swollen, or so I thought. When I spoke, I had a lisp. Not the end of the world, of course, and I thought it would just go away.

To cut a long story short, I had acquired lingual or oromandibular dystonia - a neurological disorder in which the tongue keeps popping out of the mouth when one speaks, causing one to mumble and lisp. The tongue was not swollen at all and the GP in Cambridge (despite helping herself to 60 pounds for each of two 10-minute visits) could not figure it out. So I came back to Bombay and underwent the usual battery of tests. Thankfully these ruled out a number of delightful possibilities ranging across tumours, strokes, multiple sclerosis, motor neuron disease, muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis, Parkinson's etc. When it doesn't arise from these other sources, dystonia by itself is largely harmless - apart from the inconvenience. So here I am, alive and well but mumbling.

Three neurologists and two months later, there's no improvement. The diagnosis can be summarised by saying that either (i) it came on due to stress, physical or mental or both, including viral infections, in which case it should go away on its own on a timescale of months, or (ii) it is a genetic disorder which was expressed late in life, in which case it can be managed by medications that have a 50% success rate (these have been tried and I seem to fall in the wrong 50%) or botox injections, which I haven't yet tried.

The point of this blog is not to whine about my problem but to try and highlight a few things I've learned in the process (other than that a GP in the UK costs 60 pounds for 10 minutes!!). Just about everyone I know - friends, relatives, colleagues - have been extremely supportive. But in the course of accepting their kind words, I've often out of habit asked them back "and how are you"? And in the process, learned that I'd been ignoring, or was merely unaware of, multiple tragedies that were generally much worse than my own. In the aforementioned circle of friends, relatives and colleagues and their own dear ones, I've discovered a rich variety of neurological, cardiac, psychiatric, physiological, you-name-it, disorders. Some I knew about, but perhaps didn't heed carefully enough. Others came as news to me. Many of these problems are crushing, virtually incurable, sometimes they've led to bereavement, and often they have wrecked peoples' family lives and professional activities. People bear them with fortitude and even find the time to phone me and ask how my mumbling is doing.

The above is meant to indicate that I realise how lucky I am, but it also appears to paint an excessively tragic picture of the world. In reality, the same people who are facing all these problems have, in the past, had wonderful times, relationships, experiences, all that. And so indeed have I. So it comes down to the trite observation that we all experience good times and bad times.

A story from the annals of Buddhist philosophy recounts that a young woman goes to a priest, distraught at the loss of her child. He refers her to the Buddha, who asks her to drop in on her various neighbours and find one household that has not been visited by death. On doing this, she is enlightened. Of course she could have insisted that her tragedy was upsetting no matter what was happening to others. But we all know that, as a protagonist in a Buddhist tale, this option was not open to her! These tales always, and quite rightly, have to end with enlightenment.

I haven't managed to be thus enlightened yet, and am handling my problem with my own personal combination of acceptance, gloom, practicality and disappointment. It's nice not to be stuck inside a Buddhist tale with the obligation to achieve instant illumination! And yet... when I get solicitous mails from people I don't know, or get told that my blog is sorely missed, or get a call from someone whose own problems are far worse, I feel I'm being offered a golden opportunity for enlightenment. Sooner or later I intend to take it.