Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chana Jor Garam

It was a hot summer afternoon. Around the time of the monsoons. Our extended family had gathered in our ancestral home in a small town in Bihar. I did not grow up in that house. Nor did any of the small horde of cousins, that I was playing street side cricket with. But, my father, and all his siblings grew up in that large and spacious house that my grandfather had built, and decades after his death, once a year, we would still get together, to pray to our family deities, and spend a few happy days with each other. We all would get to bask in the sunshine of the collective wisdom of all my uncles and aunts. And, hear the nostalgic stories of their childhood, which did not seem to be very different from ours at the time.

And, while we were playing, we heard a bell ringing. And then, from the end of the street, emerged a man, who looked very similar to R. K. Laxman's common man. He was dressed in a spotless dhoti and kurta, and wore a neatly pressed Gandhi-cap. He was wearing cheap black shoes, that most of the working class in India wore at that time, but it looked like he took good care of them. And, hanging from his neck, was a square metal box, with a cylindrical opening at the top, covered by a lid. The front of this shining box was made of transparent glass, through which, we could see the mouthwatering contents inside. This man was selling Chana Jor Garam, one of the most popular snacks in India.

To say that Chana Jor Garam is simply pressed black desi gram with a sprinkling of spices, is probably a massive understatement. Chana Jor Garam is a part of the childhood of my generation, and probably even teenage and adulthood. Packed in conical paper bags,  this would be our indispensable companion in the Hindi movies we would watch after skipping classes in the college. I don't think any other north Indian snack combines the crunch of pressed gram with the rich and spicy flavor of garam masala so well. To all that, some people  like to add green chillies, chat masala and lime juice. There are different ways of experiencing heaven on earth, and Chana Jor Garam is definitely on the list.  Years later, as a fresh on board immigrant in the United States, the first thing I did in an Indian grocery store, was to look for Chana Jor Garam in the snack isle.Such is the power that this very Indian snack holds over my life.

So, as we gathered around the man for this mouthwatering snack, and a few of us ran inside the house to ask for some spare change from one of the elders, we got talking to the man. He looked sixty-ish , and very fit. He asked us who we were and why he hadn't seen us before. When he found that we were the children of the house he was standing in front of, he smiled and said, "I have sold Chana Jor Garam to your parents as well, when they were just as young as you." And right then, one of my uncles, who was a rich factory-owner, stepped out of the house. He stood there for a while, just staring at the old man, and then said, "Chacha, kya aapko meri shakl yaad hai?" (Uncle, do you remember my face?) 

The old man smiled and said,"Haan Beta. Aur yeh bhi yaad hai ke tumhe ek-aane ka chana jor garam becha tha, par tumne paisa nahin diya." (Yes son. And, I also remember that I sold you Chana Jor Garam worth one anna, and you never paid me for it.) Without a word, my uncle took out a ten-rupee note from his wallet (It was a lot of money in those days) and handed it over to the old man. The old man raised his hand and touched his forehead as a salaam. By then, the entire household knew about this stranger at our door. My uncles and aunts were gathering around this old man. At a time when their childhood was gone, this man had brought back memories of their happy days. And, the mouthwatering taste of Chana Jor Garam.

One of my other uncles was exchanging little couplets with the old man. Just nonsensical two-line poetry. But, in those days, people who sold Chana Jor Garam, were supposed to have great flair for song and dance, some of which is immortalized in Bollywood songs like this and this one. The mere presence of a neatly dressed old man selling Chana Jor Garam had completely changed that afternoon for us. It was one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.

Decades later, I visited my ancestral home. Old beautiful houses, that dotted the street, were now replaced with tall apartment buildings. At the end of the street, from which the Chana Jor Garam man had stepped into my life, I saw  a modern-style grocery store. Curious to find out what they sold, I stepped inside. In the snack isle, among other things, I located a shining pack of  Chana Jor Garam, from one of the major snack manufacturing companies in India. The grams were probably soaked, fried and pressed in an automated setup, and vacuum-packed in a sterile environment. The packet looked professional, with a shining picture of a plateful of the delicious stuff. I picked it up and proceeded to the checkout line.

That's all I had in my hand, and I was waiting for my turn to come. So, I started humming the "Chana Jor Garam" tune (from Kranti), while holding the packet. The gentleman in front of me in the line, had one look at what I had in my hand, and joined me in the humming. Very soon, the checkout clerk was smiling and humming with us. It was nothing like old times, but it is always nice to get company when you are humming an old tune. 

I think the old man, from that summer day, continues to live on in the rest of us. With his shining box of  Chana Jor Garam and the beautiful song that we all seem to sing. Once in a while.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How much money?

Recently, things have been very depressing on national television with all the talk about corruption in every sphere of life in India. And, the fact that Indians have stashed more black money in offshore accounts than the nationals of the next three countries combined! After watching such stories, if you cross a busy intersection in any big city in India, and watch three year old kids begging, you wonder why people steal and what they hope to achieve from it.

So, I decided to do some simple math, because, that is how engineers do their thinking. Let us say that you want to spend a  pretty decent lifestyle in India, or any country for that matter. And you have a family of four. Let us say that you spend a lakh rupees (about two and a half thousand dollars) per day on each person in your family. And, everyone lives to be hundred. Then, the amount of money you really need, to lead this extremely lavish lifestyle, would be,  about three hundred and twenty five million US dollars (about 1463 crore rupees), at today's exchange rate. And mind you, that would lead to an extremely lavish lifestyle, that most of us cannot even dream of. I doubt if you would be able to spend all that money, even if you wanted to. So, what do most black billionaires do with their money?  Is it merely kleptomania all these people are suffering from?

One argument is that the money gives them power over other people. If you are spending a lakh rupees on yourself every day, you would have a lot of power. So, why would you need more than that? The other argument is that you want to save for your descendants. Then, we have to get into generations and how many generations do you really expect your dynasty to last. Even the mighty Moghuls did not cross ten! So, what use is something that does not serve you any purpose, and does not serve any purpose for the people you really care about? So, such individuals are probably like squirrels, they find a nut, steal it, then hide it somewhere, never to find it again.

That brought me to another interesting line of thought. What happens to the money that someone stashes, say in a Swiss bank account. What does the bank do with it? Well, it probably invests it in some place where it gets a good return on investment. In today's global economy, the rage is to invest in countries like India and China. So, some Indian's black money is probably getting invested back in India in building roads, resorts, hospitals and the like. Not bad, really. Except that now, the roads and the hospitals are owned by that individual, who is extremely rich. But, he probably cannot step out on the roads without an army of bodyguards, cannot  go to the resort and enjoy it like everyone else, but uses the hospital pretty often because of all the health problems that come from constantly dodging a lot of bullets. That sounds like a pretty miserable life. After spending a lakh a day on yourself, every single day of your life.

So, I console myself by thinking that corruption will probably get fixed in the long term by itself. Money, does not mean anything when it is sitting in a bank account. Only when it is translated into a real asset, does it mean anything. And so, there is no point in tracking all the people that stole money and stashed it in foreign accounts. The trick is in encouraging them to bring it back and invest it in India, even if it gives them the ownership rights to all the roads, bridges and hospitals in the country. It will generate a lot of employment, and make people prosperous.

Babur once owned all of Hindustan. Well, almost. Do we even know where his family is today? So, let us get the new Moghuls to invest in India. I think it will work out in the end.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Of Pumpkins and Chicken

I was once waiting outside a doctor's chamber in a small town. The doctor sat in a really small room, about six feet by eight in size. The room was next to a pharmacy, as is the case in many small Indian towns. In fact, there was a connecting door, so that the pharmacist could ask questions on the prescriptions as the need arose. And, there was a long bench in front of the office, almost extending to the road, where the patients sat and waited.

The man being examined by the doctor was a farmer, and he didn't look like a person with a lot of money. At the end of the examination, as the doctor was scribbling on his pad, the man ran out to his bicycle, grabbed something from a basket tied to the carrier in the back and ran back to the chamber. All this was very quick, and all I got to see was a brilliant flash of orange as the man walked by. Then, I heard the doctor say, "From next time onwards, the pumpkins are not going to cut it, you need to get me a chicken or two."

Then, it came to me. Like a brilliant flash of lightning. I was witnessing one of the oldest systems of financial transactions known to mankind. One, that almost became extinct and is making a slow comeback. Barter. The doctor had rendered his services to the farmer, and in return, the farmer gave him a pumpkin. The doctor wanted more. So, he asked for a chicken the next time.

Have you ever had the good fortune of bartering anything? Try it. Believe me, you will make a direct connection to the eighty thousand year old soul of humanity. On some days I dream strange dreams. In one of them, a neanderthal walks up to another and says, "Hey drooping-shoulders, here is a mammoth tusk. Can I get your wolfskin in exchange?". "Sure flowing-beard, we have a deal!" 

The modern financial system drives me crazy. Some people call it the fiat currency system, in which, the government prints up large volumes of currency, backed by nothing. In the old days, you would get paid in gold or silver if you were lucky. Copper or bronze, if you were not so lucky. And, chicken and pumpkin, if you lived close to the farms. But, the point was that you got paid in something tangible. Not a piece of paper. Modern money is not even worth the paper it is printed on. And every time the government wants to spend more money, it prints more currency, devaluing the money we already hold. That is when the price of everything goes up, and we complain about money not being worth anything. Inflation of currency, is nothing but an indirect tax by the government, when they run out of the money they collected from us as direct taxes. How that money is spent, is a completely different story. Perhaps, you have better answers than I do.

But one thing that the modern monetary system encourages, is corruption. Let us say that you stole thirty thousand cows and buffaloes, a thousand acres of land, and perhaps, twenty thousand sacks of rice. Where would you hide it? It is a little tough to hide so much ill gotten wealth, isn't it? But, with the help of the modern monetary system, you could convert all that into a high valued currency, say the American dollar, and make a secret account in some country that has liberal banking laws and stash all your cows and bags of rice inside a computer. As a string of numbers. Cool, isn't it? If we still had the barter system, we wouldn't be able to do all that. Of course, I would not be able to go online and order my favorite books on Applied Thermodynamics using a credit card. But not having so much corruption around me, would definitely be a payoff I would be happy with.

And, stealing large amounts of money would be one heck of a problem. And so, corruption would be at a much smaller scale. You could, for example, bribe your local babu with a bag of carrots. And, he would issue you a permit to export the rest of it, that you grew on your farm, to Scotland and Belgium.

And they, in return, would reward you, with their finest whiskey. And their best chocolates. And some people in the customs department would get  a little drunk. But, it would all be small time corruption. On a small scale.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Across the river

I just remembered a beautiful Bhojpuri  movie made in the eighties, called Nadiya ke Paar (roughly translated as Across the River). It was the rage of the Hindi belt for many years, and I still remember the days when going through a small town in Bihar or UP, you could hear the songs from this movie blaring on  main street.

Imagine, sitting in front of a small samosa shop, in UP or Bihar. These places had the kitchen out front, with a huge chulha (stove) on a mound of bricks, on which the Halwai would sit cross-legged. You would sit nearby on a bench, sipping your tea and taking a bite out of the hot samosa, that would come fresh out of the kadahi (frying pan) and numb your tongue for a few seconds. Then, the hot spices in the samosa would perform a full frontal assault on your taste buds. It was literally a blitzkrieg of sorts. If you needed some solace, while trying to make sense of this pleasant but painful sensation, there would be a sweet and sour chutney to cool things down a bit. And then, you would hear a distant loadspeaker blaring "Kaun disha me leke chala re batohia, kaun disha..." (Where are you taking me, oh driver of the bullock cart...), sung by none other than the famous Lata Mangeshkar.

And, a few trucks would speed by on the dusty roads, blowing up the dirt, and making you wonder where they were headed...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Atheist and the Banyan Tree

Ramanarayanan Krishnaswamy had three Hindu gods in his name, courtesy his extremely religious grandmother.  He was from a very religious family of Iyengar Brahmins, who swore by the Gita, were pure vegetarians, and the family never had a member who smoke or drank.

Mr. Krishnaswamy was quite the exception, perhaps the only one in the family, in all the three centuries of its documented history.  He smoked cigars. He drank scotch on a daily basis. He had eaten all kinds of meat in his life, including beef, which was quite taboo, even in liberal Hindu families in India. And, Mr. Krishnaswamy was an atheist. He had never believed in God, and he was quite jealous of the respect and devotion this universally acknowledged entity seemed to enjoy.

His family blamed his aberrant behavior on his western education. He, on the other hand, was quite proud of it. It was his western education, and many years of hard work, that had recently made him the director of one of India's prestigious technical institutes. And, he had come back to his country after many years in the west with a single motive, that could have reminded many of the ruthless devotion of the British during the colonial times to a particular cause. Mr. Krishnaswamy had come back to tame the natives. He did not want them to be savages any more.

And, within a few months of his arrival, he became quite the success. The administration had been streamlined. Old professors, who used to frequent the cafes on the campus, were offering new classes and attendance had gone up significantly. In fact, things had started getting pretty boring recently, and it seemed that there weren't enough new problems for Mr. Krishnaswamy to solve. And, on one particular Sunday morning, between his meeting with the dean of academics and a reception in honor of a visiting Nobel laureate, he had a gap in his schedule, for thirty full minutes! He decided to take a stroll around the magnificent administrative building of his institute. While he was admiring the well maintained Roman pillars and the recently repaired cornice with classic engravings, he spotted something that almost made him gasp. In one corner of the building, where two ancient beams joined to form the support structure of the roof, was a little touch of green. It seemed that a small banyan plant was growing from a crack at the joint. And, the maintenance staff had missed it!

Mr. Krishnaswamy abandoned his walk and rushed back to his office.  A quick call to his assistant set the wheels in motion.The small plant would be gone by Tuesday, when he would be back from New Delhi, where he had a very important meeting with the national security adviser.


Something was bothering Mr. Krishnaswamy as the institute's car drove him back to the campus from the airport. He felt that something was amiss, and he needed to check on it. So, he instructed his driver to take him to his office instead of the bungalow, where he wanted to take a quick break before resuming his day. As soon as the car stopped, he almost jumped out and ran towards the corner of the building. He looked up. There, in its full glory, was the little banyan plant. It was not so little any more. And, its leaves were swaying in the wind as if to welcome him back from the short trip. Mr. Krishnaswamy was furious. Heads were going to roll. Both literally and figuratively.

In ten minutes or so, the entire maintenance staff was lined up in front of him. A few people were trembling. They all knew why they were here. And they all knew that this was a director who would fire them without any hesitation. But, they couldn't mess with God! The banyan plant was holy. How could they remove it from where it decided to grow. If they did, it would bring great misfortune to them and their families. On the other hand, a lost job was something they could live with. Probably.

It didn't take Mr. Krishnaswamy long to find out what was going on. And since that god guy was involved, he was determined to make an example of it. He summoned one of the gardeners and asked him to place a tall ladder below the point where the plant was growing. Then, with the agility of a mountain climber, he climbed up the ladder to the point, from which, he could grab the plant and yank it off. But the roots of the plant wouldn't give up so easily, even after Mr. Krishnaswamy  put his entire weight on the pull. And then, something bizarre happened. He lost his foothold, and fell, almost from a height of three stories. And, the ladder fell on him. The last thing he remembered before blanking out, were a bunch of people running towards him.


The doctor told him that he had a fractured leg. And, a cracked skull. There were fifteen stitches on his face. He would need to be in the hospital for at least two weeks for his own good. Any questions?

Yes, what happened to the banyan plant? Is it still there?

Mr. Krishnaswamy knew the answer already. Now, it was war. Between him and the banyan plant. And, he couldn't wait for two weeks. By then, he would have to take on a banyan tree.

He would have made a funny sight to anyone, sneaking out of the hospital at midnight. With so many bandages on his body, and a plaster on the foot, the director looked like a mummy rescued from a museum. But, he summoned a taxi and bravely commanded the driver to lead  him to the battlefield. It was now or never.

The ladder was still there. All he had to do was to heave it up. It was quite the task with so many cracks in his skeletal system. But, Mr. Krishnaswamy was quite strong for his age. He limped his way up the ladder. And tugged on the plant with all his strength. This time, the plant gave up, but it came rushing towards Mr. Krishnaswamy, as if it wanted to hurt him one last time. He lost his balance and fell.  Like Yogi Bera used to say, this time, it was like deja-vu all over again.

The security guard heard a thud and decided to investigate. And, he found the director.


He was sleeping with a content smile on his face. This time, he had three more fractures, but his skull was all right. No further stitches as well.

The doctor was doing his rounds. He had asked for security to be placed outside the room. Director of national institute or not, he didn't want to fix this guy for a third time. "Did the patient wake up while I was gone?" asked the doctor. The nurse nodded. "Did he say anything?". She nodded again. "What?" asked the doctor. She said, "He just muttered one line before he fell asleep again."

Tell those banyan tree lovers that I got the goddamn plant. From now on, I am God.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Chicken Do-Pyaza

"Here, take the knife. Just slice through the neck. Hold on, why is your hand shaking?"

"But Dad, this is a living thing we are talking about. How can I chop its neck off with a steady hand?"

"Living thing? Son, it was you who wanted to have Chicken Do-pyaza. Where do you think the chicken comes from? Does it grow on a tree?"

"Couldn't we just go to a butcher and get some chicken?"

"Son, we are miles from anywhere. There are no butchers here, or a supermarket. You have to butcher your own chicken."

"Couldn't we just ask the village lady who sold us the chicken to butcher it?"

"You nag worse than a woman. And, you want a woman to butcher your chicken because you are afraid? Come on, be a man! Ok. You are afraid to cut the neck. Then, just hold it. I will cut the neck. Now what? Can't you even hold it properly?"

"But Dad, I am still participating in its killing. When it resists being held, I think I am taking its life against its will."

"Are you turning into a vegetarian then? No? Then why have such double standards. You are going to eat the dead bird any way. Then, why the hell can't you help me butcher it. All right, just get lost. I will take care of it. You wimp. City education just destroys your ability to survive in the wild."

A little later...

"Here you go. All chopped up and nicely dressed. I fed the entrails to the dogs. Will be ready for dinner in thirty minutes."

"Thanks dad! Sorry, I was not brave enough to even stand and watch."

"No problem son. The village lady was just walking by. She volunteered to hold the chicken while I would butcher it. Turns out, she is so used to doing this that she just held it with one hand and whacked its head off. I didn't have to do a thing. Of course, I tipped her ten bucks for helping me out!"

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Two Poems, Two Languages


Life? A banjo and three sandals.
A pair for me. A spare for me.
If the journey is long, and the spare wears out.
Play the banjo, make some money.
Buy two more sandals. And a spare.

Life? A toast and an egg.
Make an omelet, bite the slice,
asking for more has never been nice.

Life? An old newspaper.
Same stories. Same people.
Different names. Different games.
When you are done, do recycle.
Wrap a fish or a bunch of peanuts,
or a bundle of magazines,
to cover tomorrow's stories with yesterday's.

And today, is for living life
and playing the banjo, and taking the long walk.
Omelets and toast, with today's newspaper,
and stories, that you have read yesterday
But, they are worth a read, even today.
For things come and go,
while you play the banjo,
And that, is life.

 मैं और मेरी तन्हाई 

 मैं और मेरी तन्हाई
सिर्फ एक दूसरे से बातें करते हैं
जब बातें खत्म हो जाती हैं
तो मैं एक तरफ जाता हूँ
और मेरी तन्हाई दूसरी तरफ जाती है

फिर क्या ? मैं खुद से बातें करता हूँ
लोग समझते हैं कि मैं अपनी तन्हाई से बातें कर रहा हूँ
और मेरी तन्हाई तो कहीं और जा चुकी होती है

फिर डॉक्टर साहब आते हैं
कुछ दवाएं खिलाते हैं
और कहते हैं  कि  मुझे अपनी तन्हाई से बातें नहीं करनी चाहिए
अगर करूँगा, तो वो मुझे कभी अस्पताल से छोड़ नहीं सकते
और फिर, सारी ज़िन्दगी मुझे बितानी पड़ेगी
मेरी तन्हाई के साथ

Friday, January 7, 2011

Allium cepa, the tear giver

A long time ago, in a small town in north India, I came down with a case of bad cold. And, against my wishes, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a "doctor". When you put quotes around a doctor's occupation, what you usually  mean to say is that this person is someone, who is better described with a sound that ducks frequently make. But, you cannot use that word for people who are friends, or family, or as it was in my case, a friend of the family. This man was a homeopath, which typically means that on your first seating, you will have to go through a round of grueling interrogation.  

How tall was your maternal grandfather? Did your paternal great-grandfather have a deviated nasal septum. When you sleep, do you, ahem, have deviant thoughts in your dreams? What do I mean by deviant thoughts? Ok, let us talk about that some other day...

And, at the end of this, you get a small glass bottle full of little round pills, smelling like alcohol. So much, that the temptation is usually very high to go and buy a good bottle of whiskey afterwards, which will also help a lot in curing your cold. And usually, the medicines have funny names. Conventional medicine has very sinful names for antibiotics, Strepto-my-Sin, Genta-my-Sin, Neo-my-Sin, and so on. Homeopathic remedies, have names that are all over the place, and usually derived from the substances used to make them. Phosphorus, Sulfur, etcetera. In my case, after an hour of interrogation, the homeopath smiled a big smile and delivered the judgement. Allium Cepa. That is what you need. And, you will be fine in no time at all!

Allium Cepa?

I found many years later that Allium Cepa is the scientific name for onion. No big deal really, since homeopaths believe that if a substance produces certain symptoms, then, it can be used to cure a disease that produces the same symptoms. So, since onions produce tears in your eyes, and common cold does too, all right, you get the point.

Somehow, that magnificent vegetable, which has scores of people tearing up all the time, had not drawn my attention for a while. But recently, I saw all the major Indian newspapers and TV channels mentioning the onion. First, I thought that what I always prayed for, had finally happened! When I used to live in the United States, I had certain very pedestrian reading habits. While my wife, the well read left leaning intellectual, would read the New York Times, and one of my cousins, the rich stockbroker from New York, would read the Wall Street Journal, I came to realize very early that I was neither rich, nor an intellectual. So, following the footsteps of millions of mediocre people like me, I would end a long and hardworking day with a read of The Onion, the world's most famous newspaper. You really tear up when you read sad stories like this. Whether you are slicing an onion or not, is immaterial. I always believed that someone from The Onion, would one day, get the Pulitzer, or the Nobel prize in literature. And so, when I saw the news stories, I thought that the day had finally come! Alas, that was not to be.

The newspapers were talking about something else. It seems that the price of onions in the Indian markets has suddenly skyrocketed. And every one's life is greatly affected by it. Of course, we have nonchalant politicians, who just don't care, and every time the price shoots up, they can explain it with demand and supply economics and lowered agricultural production. After all, we have an economist leading the country, how can we go wrong on that. But a domestic issue, with mere economic overtones has now blown into an international crisis. As it turns out, the Pakistanis have refused to export us their onions. Very soon, they will tie it to the Kashmir issue and deny you and me a well deserved meal of chicken do-pyaza, which, sadly enough, requires two onions. And apparently, India could not exploit it's new non-permanent membership of the UN security council to arm-twist the Pakistanis into exporting us their onions. So, I hear that Mr. Krishna, the foreign minister, is soon going to lose his job. No one messes with the onion. Or, the Indian people's love of it.

Once, I went out for lunch with a very conservative friend of mine. I was thinking of ordering my favorite chicken tikka masala and mutton dopyaza, but out of respect for my friend, I asked if he was a vegetarian. "Two hundred percent. In fact, I don't even eat onions and garlic," he proudly mentioned. So, Masala Dosa it was. Not that I mind when good friends are around to give me company.

I met that friend recently. We talked about everything. And, the price of onions. I told him that I was seriously contemplating turning into a two hundred percent vegetarian, like him. And that would ease up my budget quite a bit.

"Good for you," he said. "You will see very soon that your health has improved. And, your general sense of well being. You will become a better human being without onion and garlic. And, you will not get deviant thoughts in your dreams. What do I mean by deviant thoughts? Ok, let us talk about that some other day..."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The communist economist

I am a big fan of black and white photographs. Somehow, for me,  the shades of gray are much more soothing to the soul than colors. And if the photograph has some important historical event connected to it, I can stare at it for hours. Recently, I came across a very intriguing photograph. Of historical importance. And, in black and white.

At first, it might seem like a bunch of ragtag guys in a forest, with a bunch of guns hanging from their shoulders. But, if you look closely, you will see that the man standing in the center, and looking very tall, is none other than Fidel Castro, who brought the communist revolution to the new world and outlived every American president who vowed to overthrow his government. The man kneeling  right in front of Fidel is his younger brother Raul, who became the president of Cuba, after Fidel stepped down. These guerrilla fighters were probably getting ready for a gunfight in the jungles of Cuba, right before their El-Revolucion made and changed history as we know it. But, in the same picture, you can see a rather insignificant looking young man standing close to the edge of the photograph. I put a small arrow next to him, although, it was quite painful defacing a classic photograph like this.

In case you cannot recognize this face, let me show you another one, which has almost become a fashion symbol around the world, in a strange irony of sorts. It is the same young man, but, with a countenance that the world has come to recognize. Decades after his death, he continues to inspire left leaning wanna-be revolutionaries and fashion designers equally. He is known to the world as Ernesto Che Guevara, or simply as El Che, the ultimate revolutionary. Young people love the face of this long dead man for the simple reason that he was a rebel, a trait that characterizes young people of all generations.

Born in Argentina, Che Guevara was trained as a physician. When he came across abject poverty in Latin American countries, he became convinced that a communist revolution was the only way out. He joined Fidel and Raul Castro to bring the revolution to Cuba and was instrumental in shaping many long term educational, health and agrarian reform policies of that island nation. But, being the rebel he was, he could not stay stuck to power and went back to the jungles with his ragtag guerrillas and was eventually caught and executed by CIA-assisted forces in Bolivia. He was barely thirty nine when he died, which is why the forever young rebel tag goes with El Che more than with anyone else. And even today, he is the dream come true for every marketing genius trying to sell neckties to people under twenty.

If you have grown up in India, at some stage or the other in your life, you have come across a comic-book character called Tintin, who is a an intrepid news reporter. And, many of his adventures have taken him to Latin-American jungles, where he has a friend called General Alcazar. The cigar smoking general is a perpetual revolutionary, always dressed in fatigues and fighting to grab control of an imaginary banana republic called San Theodoros.His arch-rival is another general called Tapioca. Between the two of them, they have brought many revolutions to their small country, and would have continued to do so had Mr. Georges Remi, or Herge, the creator of Tintin been alive. Tintin and the Picaros was Herge's last creation, and in that book, Tintin joins General Alcazar and his ragtag group of fighters in another revolution, with no bloodshed! And, Alcazar and his band of revolutionaries is supposedly modeled on Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. It is another thing that Alcazar is shown as a henpecked husband in this book. I firmly believe that Fidel Castro got his hands on this comic-book and, as a result, vowed to stay a bachelor all his life.
Now, back to El Che. People find it rather ironic that someone who rebelled against a capitalist society has now become a cultural icon, whose face is on all kinds of capitalist products, from T-shirts to handbags. And, even more ironically, these are typically manufactured in communist China, by proletarians,  who are paid lower than acceptable minimum wages in the rest of the world. Strange are the workings of free-market capitalism. I am sure Karl Marx must be turning in his grave.

I once heard a strange story about the early days of the communist government in Cuba. Fidel Castro, was looking for a finance minister. So, in one of his public addresses, he asked, "Is there an economist here?". And, Che Guevara stood up. So, Castro made him the finance minister. Later, in private, Castro asked him, "I thought you were a physician, I did not know you were an economist as well?"

Guevara replied, "Economist? I thought you were looking for a communist, which is why I promptly stood up."  Apparently, just as in English, the two words sound very similar in Spanish.  That is how, the revolutionary communist state of Cuba, got its finance minister. Che Guevara, the communist economist.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Cylinders full of Argon

It was a hot summer afternoon. From a long time ago, when the summers were still proper summers, and no one had heard of global climate change. We were a bunch of undergraduates, standing rather uncomfortably, in an extremely hot shed of a foundry in our engineering college. The idea was to learn something about hands-on engineering, so the ones amongst us, who wanted to build those rocket engines off to the moon, would know how the casting was made. To the rest of us, who had other future plans, the pressing issue was that of India, chasing a target of two hundred runs with five wickets to go. In the post lunch session, on the last day of the match. This is how we got our kicks back then, when there was no twenty-twenty cricket. It goes without saying that we wanted to get done as soon as possible, and run off to find out what was happening on the pitch. Except, that there was one serious problem.

Involving a ghost. In molten aluminum.

Foundry is an interesting area of applied science. Those in the field, swear by it. Pretty much everything that is cast with metal or alloys, has to be cast in a foundry. Very simply speaking, you take a vat of molten metal, and pour it down in a hollowed out shape called a mold. Then, you let it cool. And, you are done. There is more to it than this mundane description, but the rest of it is more art than science. That is when you understand why chemists in the medieval times were called alchemists. And why they had bizarre rituals for everything they did. Who wouldn't, if the idea was to turn iron into gold! After many years as a practicing engineer, I have come to believe that only a small part of what we do can be explained by the nicely bound textbooks lining up the shelves. Most of it is just experience and sometimes, plain old superstition. Yes, there is such a thing called Voodoo engineering. It is everywhere.  

Our demonstrator was a lab-technician, in his early sixties. We often used to take bets on if he would kick the bucket first, or retirement. He had eyeglasses with extremely high power, which made the lenses look like ground glass. He was a short and lean guy with salt and pepper hair, and a very noticeable stoop. And, he was one of those rare technicians, who you would always see in overalls. A lot of us actually thought that he was born wearing them.  And, on this particular summer day, he was extremely upset. He had chased all of us to one end of the shed, where we were huddled together, plotting our next course of action. And he was muttering something and going round and round a vat full of molten aluminum. If this was the rainmaker's dance, the monsoons would have come by now.

I am no expert on foundry. But, as far as I know, one of the things you worry about,  is trapped gas in the molten metal. In molten Aluminum, very typically, Hydrogen is the culprit. It can give you a very bad cast if you don't let it escape. And a lot of technicians can tell if the hydrogen is still there. And, sometimes they like to say that a ghost got trapped in the metal. Our man, was one such accomplished maestro. If he was the Zubin Mehta of molten metals, you could say that he was asking us, the orchestra, to fiddle around with the andante and the adagio, while he was getting ready for the crescendo. That's when he would have poured the metal in the cast. And us? We just wanted to get out of the confounded shed, back to the warm breeze under the rickety fans in the hostel, with live cricket on our transistor radios.

Lamboo, who was one of my batch-mates, was getting restless. To this day, I don't know what his real name is. He was an extremely confident character, and we were all sure that he was destined to rule the world someday. And, he was a budding mechanical engineer. So, why would he take all this nonsense about the rainmaker's dance around a vat of Aluminum. Plus, he too had to get back to the cricket. So, he strutted out to the other end of the shed and said to the technician, "Sir, I think I know how to solve your problem. Do you have a cylinder of Argon in the lab somewhere?". As textbook engineers to be, we were learning that you could bubble hydrogen out of molten metal using Argon, which is an inert gas. Obviously, Lamboo was trying to show off.

Our man stopped in his tracks, as if his prayers were interrupted. He went all red in his face. He looked extremely angry. He found his way to the corner of the shed, from where, he picked up an iron rod that looked like a digging post. He picked it up with both hands, and shaking with rage, walked rather menacingly towards Lamboo. Most of us were completely stunned at this point, and no one even thought of moving. I was thinking of what I would write in Lamboo's obituary in the institute's magazine. And, I could see even Lamboo was frozen where he stood, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. We were just waiting for the final moment.

Our man came to within a few steps of Lamboo. He lifted the rod with both his hands and swung it at a large angle. Then, as we were about to close our eyes, we saw that he had turned his attention to the vat and not Lamboo. The rod whacked the vat real hard, and the entire shed shook from the loud noise of the impact. Our man looked satisfied. Apparently, the whack was solid enough to dissuade poor Mister Hydrogen from any thoughts of clinging on to Miss Aluminum. Still seething with anger, he turned to Lamboo and said, "Young man, never show me those cylinders full of Argon, Understand?"

I don't remember who won the test match that day. Years later, I met Lamboo at an airport. He had become the CEO of a large company that he founded. Dealing with all sorts of metallurgical supplies. He was telling me like a proud parent about the things they did. I asked him if they supplied any inert gases. "Oh yes, bottles full of Helium and Neon. And, cylinders full of Argon!"

Putting on a big smile, I said, "Young man, never show me those cylinders full of Argon, Understand?" Lamboo smiled a strange smile, the half-diplomatic, and half are-you-crazy smile.

I don't think he remembers that strange afternoon in the foundry. And, the rainmaker's dance around a vat of molten Aluminum.