Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Babbling Lunatics

As a child, I used to take walks in a forested area behind our house, and most of those walks would be quite lonely. Once in while, I would come across people I knew, and we would greet each other. Sometimes, I would come across complete strangers, but there would still be a cursory acknowledgment of the presence of a fellow human being, with a smile. It was as if the other person wanted to say, "Look, this is a forest. There is that bird on the tree, tweeting its life away. There is this big sloth bear I saw a few minutes ago, and am I glad that it ignored me. But, there you are, a fellow human being, and I am smiling at you since I can."

Very often, in the same forest, I would walk by a man, who seemed to be mentally ill. Sometimes, he would sit under a tree talking to himself. On some occasions, I found him sitting on the highest branch of a tree,  singing a melancholy tune. But, there was something very certain about our encounters. He would never acknowledge my presence as a fellow human being. And he would always be talking to himself. 

Today, I was taking a walk in a semi-forested area. And, I came across three people, all of whom were very clearly talking to someone on their cellphones. They walked by me, and none of them acknowledged the presence of a fellow human being. And, they all seemed to be talking to themselves.

Later, in a completely different context, a colleague asked me what I thought was the biggest impact of cellphones on our lives. Almost spontaneously, I said, "Cellphones take perfectly normal human beings and make babbling lunatics out of them."

He seemed surprised, but I hope you understand.

Friday, March 25, 2011

From the Belly of the Fly

Hindi and Urdu have quite a few colorful phrases. My all time favorite is one that describes most of us Indians quite aptly. The phrase "kanjoos-makhichoos" is quite commonly used to describe a miserly person, with the word kanjoos doing a pretty reasonable job. But the second part of the phrase is usually reserved for the super accomplished in the community of tightwads. Simply translated, makhichoos refers to a person, who sucks a fly dry. Perhaps, it needs a little more explanation?

Imagine that you lead the community of tightwads in your city and you sit down for a cup of tea. And suddenly, a fly drops dead in your cup. If you were simply a kanjoos, you would use a teaspoon to scoop the fly out and throw it away before resuming your sippa with the cuppa. But, if you are a makhichoos, you will actually suck the fly dry before throwing it away, because after all, it did drown in your precious tea, did it not?

Why this sudden fascination with the semantics of niggardliness? Well, I just read this story in the New York Times about Warren Buffett's recent trip to India, imploring its rich to give to the poor. In case you don't know, Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, has made arrangements to give away most of his wealth after his death. So have Bill and Melinda Gates of Microsoft fame. And, so have 59 other wealthy American families. So, what was Mr. Buffett exactly doing in India? He had a closed door meeting with an undisclosed group of the super wealthy in India, to convince them to give something back to the society that they got so much from. I cracked up when I read that their identities were not disclosed to the general public, lest they be shamed into giving some of their money away, after the world found out that they attended Mr. Buffett's pep-talk.

Why do people even try to convince the super wealthy in India to do something like that? India has more than a billion people, and most of them are extremely poor. Many belong to the middle class. And, the most random acts of kindness I have come across, are always from these two groups of people. I have never personally witnessed an act of kindness from our super rich, but, I once came close to being run over by a BMW in a big Indian city. The fact that I was spared, was perhaps an act of charity.

Last year, Mr. Buffett's net worth was  about 50 Billion dollars. And, the strength of India's burgeoning middle class is expected to be close to a 100 million people (households with annual incomes in the range of 2 to 10 lakh rupees per year). So, if each middle class person in India contributes 500 dollars, which is about 25,000 rupees to charity, over their life time, we will collectively match Mr. Buffett's record of giving. I am sure that the remaining 900 million poor people in India, would gladly give a dollar each, over their lifetime, to bump the contribution up, so we can actually beat Mr. Buffett on giving. And, I can guarantee that these two categories of people would be glad to give that kind of money, based on what I know of them.

So, why is Mr. Buffett wasting his time with the super wealthy in India? As you know, I have my own sources for such privileged information.  I talked to a fly that was sitting on the wall in the closed-door meeting. Mr. Buffett tried to tell our super rich that it is now fashionable to give away one's wealth, just like it was fashionable to own Ferraris and Football teams in the last decade. And just as it was fashionable to build mansions in Beverly Hills the decade before that. Apparently, they didn't buy it.  And, the poor fly also told me that it almost fell into the tea-cup of an Indian multi-millionaire. It was lucky to escape with its life since this one is not known to spare poor flies that fall into his drinks.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Bagpiper Karma

It was one of those golden summer evenings in the hills of Jharkhand. I was enjoying a quiet walk down a narrow path through the dense bushes of Lantana, with bunched blooms of red and white all around. And, I had an aluminum canister in hand, to get our family's daily supply of milk.

In those days, you would be considered a complete fool in rural India, if you trusted the milkman to give you unadulterated milk. You could pretty much trust anyone else in town, but if you left the milkman on his own, he would dilute your milk with water, and blame it on everything under the sun. After our milkman, Kailashnath, blamed the poor quality of the milk on the loudspeakers blaring music at night during Holi, we decided that enough was enough. And thus began my daily trek to the milkman's tabela (cattle shed), where he would milk the cow under my watchful eyes, and I would make sure that no hanky-panky happened between the bucket and the canister, in collusion with the sneaky hand of Kailashnath, the milkman. Of course, the quality of the milk improved dramatically. And we were quite happy for a while.

On this particular evening, I found Kailash sitting on a large piece of rock outside his tabela. He was wiping his forehead with a thin towel. And, he looked quite despondent. When I asked what had happened, he shook his head and said, "Babu, Rampyari gum ho gai hai. (Babu, Rampyari has disappeared.)"

Rampyari was the name of Kailash's latest  addition to the cattle shed. Her bovine influence on our diet was substantial. And if she went missing, I didn't know where the paneer in our next meal would come from. So, Kailash's loss suddenly became my own loss, and I volunteered to help him find Rampyari.

For hours, we looked around in the usual grazing fields, but there was no trace of Rampyari. After we looked at all possibilities, including Kailash's conspiracy theories involving rival cattle shed owners, I just decided to give up and go home. Kailash vowed to keep his search on through the night.

The next morning, Kailash delivered our milk at home. Apparently, Rampyari had come back at night. The milk tasted awful, since Kailash had decided what it should taste like. The same thing happened that evening, and at that point, I was getting suspicious that Kailash was hiding Rampyari from me, so he could bring us diluted milk the next day under one pretext or another. But, the day after, when I was about to blow my top when I didn't see the cow in the shed, Kailash saw me and exclaimed, "Babu, guthhi sulajh gai!" (Babu, I have solved the riddle!). Then he almost dragged me to the field where Rampyari would usually graze.

She was in the middle of a huge field of grass, chomping away at the green bits of nutritious cellulose, that would be appropriately taken care of, in all the four chambers of her stomach. And we decided to wait. In just a few minutes, we heard the strangest sound ever heard in the hills of Jharkhand. It sounded like a bagpipe, and it was coming from the edge of the field, which ended in a little hillock. On top of the hillock, stood a pretty little guest house, where visiting engineers to the local mine from all parts of the world, would be put up. Like us, Rampyari had heard the music. And suddenly, she lifted her tail, and ran towards the source of the music!

We decided to investigate further. We peeped inside the guest house, which, at the time was housing a team of engineers from Britain. And, on the front lawn, we saw a rather unusual sight. A Scotsman, wearing a colorful kilt, was playing a bagpipe. He seemed very happy. Perhaps, this was his way of unwinding from a long day of  work in the mine. And Rampyari had comfortably settled herself on the grass outside the guest house. She seemed to be enjoying the music. Once the music stopped, Rampyari got up, like a dedicated fan of Scottish music, and went back on her way to the tabela, completely ignoring our presence.

The riddle was indeed solved! We decided not to interfere with Rampyari's love of music, and every day, I would just go to the tabela a little later, when she would be back. Then, one day, Kailash was despondent again. Apparently, Rampyari had stopped giving milk completely and a little bit of investigation showed that the Scotsman had left. Without the music, there was deep sadness in her eyes. And neither of us could bear to see it.

Kailash said, "Babu, maine  Ganga-din sapere ko bhi bulaya tha, lekin uske bajane se kuch nahin hua!" (Babu, I even called Ganga-din the snake-charmer, but his playing did not work at all!"). The snake charmers in north India play an instrument called the Been, which sounds similar to the bagpipe. Kailash did try it seems, but, Rampyari would not budge. Now, it was up to me to see if I could help.

That night, I was listening to the BBC on shortwave and "Andy Kershaw's World of Music" came up. And one of the pieces he played was a Scottish melody, on a bagpipe. I hit the record button on my tape-recorder, just to see if that would work. The next day, I went to the tabela, armed with my tape-recorder. After we played the tune a couple of times, Rampyari looked happy. So, I decided to leave the tape-recorder with Kailash for some long term therapy. The next morning, Kailash was ringing our doorbell excitedly, and we found that Rampyari was back to being normal. Kailash had brought our milk for us. Its  improved quality was perhaps a token of his gratitude.

Since I needed my tape-recorder back, Kailash quickly made arrangements with Ganga-din the snake charmer to play the Scottish melody on his been every evening for Rampyari. And it worked like a charm!

We moved to a different town shortly afterwards, and I often wondered if Rampyari continued to listen to Ganga-din's "Scottish" melody, and continued to give buckets full of milk. But, more than that, I have wondered how a cow would develop a taste for the music from the highlands. And, after much deliberation, all I could say was that Rampyari must have been the reincarnation of a Scottish cow in India, and the Karma of her past life refused to let her go.

Perhaps, this was an open and shut case of Bagpiper Karma.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To write or not to write...

Recently,  I was contacted by the commissioning editor of a major international publishing house, based in the United States, to write a book. Of course, as much as I wish, the book will have nothing to do with the things I write on this blog, the things I enjoy writing about. The book will be on a technical matter that I am supposedly an expert on, and have worked on, for a majority of my career in engineering.

When the initial excitement wore off, I started to think about what I would write in the book. A lot of people make the writing of a book their life's work, and at most, publish a book or two in their whole life. Then, there are people, whose middle name should be prolific, and the fact that they write so many books, does not seem to affect the quality of their writing. I was wondering if I see myself in any of these categories. And, in the end, I decided that I will try to answer that question after I am done with the book.  

Anyone in the technical profession, with a background in research, writes a lot of papers, which only the people well-versed in the field can decipher. Some people file patents as well, which unfortunately, only lawyers can read. I have been blessed with many papers and patents, but when I looked at them over the last few days, I realized that even I cannot recollect the specifics of what I worked on, a decade ago. So, back to the drawing board it is!

At this stage, I am sure about one thing on the book. It is going to be a long project. A very long one. But, I am going to write the book for a wider audience in the technical community. This will indeed make my job more difficult.  But, it will give me an opportunity to be a teacher, something that I usually like to be. And may be, if I can make the book interesting enough, I can write another one in the future about things that I really love writing about.

Like this blog.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

End of the world, Anyone?

Long time ago, in engineering school, I had a professor who would go high on math. Literally. We used to think that he was into smoking pot rolled into sheets full of vector calculus. And, sometimes, while writing a complicated mathematical expression on the board, he would go completely out of control (or open loop as we engineers like to say). And, after writing many lines of complicated math, he would suddenly lose all interest when he would see the last remaining inch of space on the blackboard. At that point, he would stop abruptly and announce to the class, "Well, that is the final answer". Go figure!

Recently, there has been a lot of talk on the world ending in 2012. That's next year in case you need some reminding. Apparently, the Mayan calendar exists only up to the year 2012. While most people tend to believe that the Mayan's had a prophecy to make, I just think that they were smoking the same stuff that my professor was. They simply ran out of space on their calendar. And we just blew that out of proportion.

But, I have been a serious tracker of the doomsday stories, mainly, because I have always been fascinated by alternative "science" and "history". And, with the Internet around, anyone can share the prophecies they have to make. If you search for "nibiru" online, you can find out when a wayward planet(oid) on an elliptical trajectory will destroy our planet. Then, if you dig a little further, you will find that our DNA is really alien DNA that was mixed with that of native apes on the planet by a superior race of extra-terrestrials. Once, on a boring Saturday afternoon, after clicking on fifteen such links from one prophecy site to the other, I came to a site that was selling, you guessed it, pot. Of course, for medicinal purposes only.

The Japan earthquake and the possible radiation leak that followed, seems to have galvanized these doomsday folks into action. They are trolling the web carrying buckets full of I told you so. It is very sad to see human beings gloating over a mass catastrophe. And since I have a very low opinion of such people to begin with, I was not very surprised. Japan is an earthquake prone country on the so called "ring of fire" and as much as it saddens me to see the devastation there, I am very sure that no prophecy is getting fulfilled.

 I have been wondering why, as a civilization, we are always so excited about the "end of days". I remember staying up all night on "Y2K", waiting to see if a wayward computer would destroy the world with a misdirected nuke, while failing to adjust its date from 99 to 00. As it turns out, I am still around, and so are you. I am sure 2012 will come and go as well, and we will find the next doomsday scenario right after that.  We seem to have an almost subconscious wish to "be ended" by a meteorite or a planetoid sent by aliens.

A few decades ago, evil used to be homegrown on planet earth. A Nazi scientist that got away, or a communist dictator that wanted to rule over the world, or sometimes, an unfrozen evil doctor demanding a million dollars to spare the planet. Today, it seems that we are looking at much bigger, more ominous sources of destruction, that would result in the total annihilation of our civilization. And so, 2012 seems to be the next great hope for people, who have given up all hope for homegrown evil.

Of course, I am still going to watch how 2012 turns out. I just have to get that emergency basement of mine loaded with food, medical supplies and beer. And, just in case, the professor from my engineering school days shows up, a few leaves of pot.

Just in case.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The hammer, the sickle, and the big sister

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, the famous visionary freedom fighter of India, and its first education minister, had the uncanny ability to look into the future. He made several predictions about Pakistan's future as a failed state that would move in and out of military rule, and even today, when people look at those predictions, they are in awe of how the Maulana could peer into the future so easily. I remember reading an interview of Maulana Azad about the eastern Indian state of Bengal, in which, he predicted the political future of the Bengalis. And five decades after his death, I am completely awed by the accuracy of his predictions.

The Maulana had predicted that the Bengalis are a fiercely independent culture, and they would never accept an external leadership that was imposed upon them. Many people would have thought him to be wrong, when in the late sixties, ten years after the Maulana's death, the state of West Bengal had a chief minister from the congress party, who more or less obeyed the commands issued from New Delhi.And the erstwhile state of East Bengal, which became East Pakistan, seemed to be generally all right under the rule of West Pakistan. And suddenly, like a tinderbox getting the proverbial spark, these two parts of Bengal exploded.

West Bengal saw a sustained Naxalite movement, and within a decade, the communists threw out the Congress from power, after winning a popular election. The East Bengalis revolted against Pakistan and founded the country of Bangladesh, based on their culture, not their religion. And so, people started agreeing that Bengalis, who gave many tall leaders to India's freedom struggle, could never accept outside leadership. The congress party, with its sycophantic worship of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of coming back to power in Bengal. Ever. And, over the last thirty three years, the Bengalis in India, sustained a love affair with communism, its hammer and its sickle defining how they lived, and died. Over the last few decades, death has more or less come to define the communists, in terms of how they have treated their opponents, business and industry in general. A very prosperous state was literally run aground under their rule, with droves of people leaving the state to pursue opportunities in other places.

And, I am told that all that, is about to change. Since the Bengalis like their own leaders, the congress could not even become a proper second fiddle in the state of West Bengal. And then, from their ranks, rose a woman, Mamata Banerjee, who was too independent to tow the party-line. So, perhaps the best thing she ever did for her political career, was to form an independent political party, with a base in Bengal. And, the Bengalis took notice.

The people of Bengal will go to the polls next month, and around mid-May, it is expected that they will throw out the incumbent government of the communists, after thirty-three years. Anti-incumbency, lack of development and the presence of an alternative Bengali leadership,  supposedly, the three things needed for a change of guard, are all there. Mamata Banerjee, or Didi (Big Sister), as she is popularly known, is busy getting the sparks close to the tinderbox. We have to see if she can really light the fire.

I find the Bengal election very interesting because it represents a long-overdue change of guard, which is essential in any healthy democracy. Whether Ms. Banerjee can provide a competent leadership to the Bengalis, bring the industry back and put the state back on the path of development, remains to be seen. For now, the Bengalis seem to be excited about the impending change of leadership in their state. With their own big sister, ready to take on the might of the hammer, and the sickle.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world. And, as a result, it has many sects, beliefs and schools of thought, that have been in constant transition through the last three millenniums. One of the very popular sects of Hinduism is Shaivism, which involves the worship of Shiva. And today, is Mahashivaratri, or the Night of Shiva, one of the most popular festivals of India.

Most of Hinduism is very ritualistic and involves the worship of deities with much pomp and splendor. Sometimes, multiple priests are involved and people are not really sure if they are inadvertently committing an act of blasphemy, through unintentional omissions, even if their intents are good. With the worship of Shiva, that is generally not the case, since Shiva, the benevolent one, has very little requirement for stricture in worship. And so, thousands of people congregate in temples all across India on Shivaratri, knowing that as long as they show up with devotion, all sins will be forgiven, for Shiva, is a very forgiving God. In fact, in the worship of Shiva, no priests are necessary and so, it is perhaps the only sect of Hinduism that encourages the direct contact of man with God, with no intermediary in between.

When I first started studying Shaivism many years ago, it was a mere curiosity. I was fascinated by the many symbols that are attributed to Shiva, who at the very least, is considered a part of the holy trinity. And some consider him to be the deity, in which the creative, preserving and destructive forces of the universe reside. So, he is the supreme being of a very large number of the followers of Hinduism. People generally see a lot of contradictions in Him, which, in my opinion, sum up the contradictions of the universe. He is the ultimate ascetic, usually shown in a meditative posture, and yet, a family figure with a loving wife, two sons and two daughters. In Hindu mythology, He has saved the universe on several occasions, when other Gods failed, and yet, had to run for his own life when he gave a boon to the demon Bhasmasura, that he could destroy anyone by keeping his hand on the victims head. Of course, the demon started out by trying to make Shiva the first victim!

Most notably, when the primordial oceans were being churned for nectar, poison came out as the inevitable consequence of good being paired with evil. From the brink of destruction, the world was saved, because Shiva easily drank the poison. The moon resides in his long locks of hair and the holy Ganges flows out from them. He carries a trident and a drum, symbolizing his mastery of the martial arts and the many dance forms, the ultimate one of which is Tandava, or the dance of destruction and re-creation of the universe. He is worshiped as Ardhanarishwara,  or the form of God that is both masculine and feminine, since Hindus believe that God has both elements within. He is considered the ultimate Yogi, and the entire philosophy of Yoga, is attributed to Him. And, he is considered the oldest God in the Indus valley civilization, since the Harrapan seals depict him as Pashupatinath, or the lord of all beasts. He is still worshiped in that form in the beautiful Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, which is a sight for sore eyes.

To me, what is most delightful about Shiva is that when he makes an appearance amongst mere mortals, he is usually disguised as someone very ordinary. Mythology has it that the famous warrior Arjuna, was once on a quest for celestial weapons, and came across Shiva disguised as a tribal man in the foothills of the Himalayas. They fought a pitched battle over a wild boar, and the mighty Arjuna was easily defeated by this ordinary looking tribal. Once Arjuna knew who he was fighting, he came to his senses. In Shaivism, when you worship Shiva, you are supposed to leave your ego at home, since that is what interferes with the idea of the universe being more powerful than the individual. Ego is what makes the self more important than the awareness of it. And, the ultimate Yogi, Shiva, is there in Hindu mythology as a reminder to us all, that humility is the most important virtue.

Mahashivaratri is the day when Hindus count their blessings for the divine presence of this deity, whose simplicity has defined their religion over thousands of years. Wish you all a very happy and peaceful Mahashivaratri.