Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Talent-ed Drachma

Many years ago, me and my wife went appliance shopping. We had just purchased a new home, and we were looking for the wonders of technology. To wash our clothes and scrub our pots. And, while walking in a gigantic area inside a Home Depot, lined with the latest marvels of technology, we were pondering over washing machines. What shall it be - front loading or top loading?

I was approached by a tall and thin gentleman, who turned out to be the salesman in charge. And once I got talking to him, I couldn't quite place his accent. So, I asked the question that people in America seem to ask every other person they meet. "Where are you originally from?".  The man said rather mysteriously, "You probably have never heard of it. It is a small country in Europe, called Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Since I had to show off what a history buff I was, I blurted out, "Of course I have heard of your country. You were the folks who started the first world war, and by extension, the second one. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Isn't that true?". He suddenly got very serious and said very gravely, "That is what the history books would tell you. But, we were merely the first domino. In a series of dominoes that toppled."

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country in the Balkans, which was once a part of the mighty Ottoman empire. And the fragmentation of this empire and the subsequent creation of many small states, fighting against each other, resulted in the rather pejorative term, Balkanization. Another country, that is a part of the Balkans, and one that everyone seems to be talking about, is Greece. In a context, that makes people wonder if this country will lead to another round of toppling dominoes and Balkanization. A financial one, this time.

Many of us still remember a romantic side of Europe that others are almost beginning to forget. The Europe of currencies galore -- the Europe before the Euro. Many years ago, while the Germans made their mark with the Mark, the French would frolic with the Franc. While the Italians sang with the lyrical Lira, the Greeks dramatized their fantasies with the Drachma. And then, the new currency of the Europeans, the Euro, swept all of the old ones under the carpet with a wide broom. A new Europe was born, with its own common market and currency -- and the musical names for European money disappeared. Overnight.

At the time of the transition, I had asked a friend of mine, who was very good at economics, what this had in store. Would a common currency ever succeed? And, he gave me a very long answer. In a continent, where people have different attitudes to work, and different levels of efficiency, which is quite ingrained in their respective cultures, a unified economy could not succeed. There would always be disputes over who works the hardest and who parties. And Europe was too diverse and too complicated to unify the currency. So, I assumed that his short answer would have been a no. A resounding one.

It seems that my friend was right. Economists famous and pedestrian, have Greece on their mind nowadays. Greece, the land of Plato and Aristotle, hasn't really made much news in the last few centuries, even during the two world wars that swept over Europe. In my small and insignificant life, the Greeks make an appearance once in every four years. During the Olympics, when they light the torch. Hellenic beauties in beautiful togas conduct the breathtaking ceremony. And almost inevitably, I tell my beautiful wife, how much more pretty she would look in a Grecian hairdo. And her response is also the same. Always. "You have been watching the Olympic opening ceremony again, haven't you?"

So, why is Greece in the news? For the wrong reasons?

It seems that the Greeks have been having a good time for some time. And while, most of that was subsidized in the past with their own debt, their bacchanalian ways are now beginning to pull down the common currency of the Europeans. And their industrious cousins to the north, the ones that survive on sauerkraut and beer, are furious. The national debt of the Greeks has ballooned so much, that the country might go bankrupt. But, the scary part is the domino effect, that is now possible since the global economy is tied together. The other boisterous neighbors of the Greeks -- the Italians, the Portuguese and the Spaniards, are in a similar boat. And if they all collapse, the Euro will be in big trouble. And if that happens, there might be another financial crisis. Worldwide.

Since all of this is beginning in the Balkans, it seems that Balkanization is a logical solution to some. So, the Greeks might have another shot at their own currency, since they are too risky for the Euro. When I heard this news, I suddenly remembered all the lost currencies of the Europeans. Specially the Drachma. Of the Greek.

The Drachma goes way back. In fact, it was in circulation about a thousand years before the birth of Christ. Plato and Aristotle probably paid for their amphorae of wine with Drachmas. And six thousand Drachmas were equal to about nine years of wage for a skilled craftsman in Greece. And that much money, was called one Talent.

Though the classical Greeks never minted a coin equal to one talent, they had a unit of money to quantify it. With the current economic crisis in play, the modern Greeks probably need a lot of talent-ed economists around. And may be, for their services, they will now be paid in Drachmas.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A hole in the skull

I grew up in a small and nondescript town in north India. Most of my teachers held a deep, and almost biblical conviction close to their hearts, which we all have come across, some time or the other in our lives. Spare the rod and spoil the child. And all of them, made ample use of the cane in the classroom. The math teachers were specially dreaded. They held the firm belief that if you were from the land of Aryabhatta and Bhaskaracharya, the land that gave the world the concept of zero, then you deserved nothing but a zero, if you didn't get your sums right. And a sound round of thrashing would usually complement the zero. Followed by the warning that you didn't even have a shot at selling vegetables on the roadside for a career. Since you wouldn't know what to charge your customer when you made the sale. That was always the ultimate insult. 

Most of the time, being an average student who stayed out of trouble, I did not attract much attention. And since I was generally good at math, I usually did not attract attention from the dreadful quarters. But once, when I got everything right in the algebra paper, but made a silly mistake in a problem that my teacher expected me to solve, my name was called, and I was asked to approach the bench.  

Justice, was waiting for me.

I had expected the cane. But the teacher picked up the thick math book on his table and hit me on the head with it, as if, he was throwing the book at me. Figuratively. But, what he said next, hurt a lot, specially, because it was echoed by my classmates for a long time afterwards. He said, "Teri khopdi mein chhed hai kya?" Simply translated, it means, "Do you have a hole in your skull?". But, this statement, often used in the Hindi belt to address the dimwits, is generally open to interpretation.

 I had forgotten all of this, but it came back to me a few days ago, when I read a strange story in The Telegraph. An extract is reproduced below.

(Extract from an original story published in The Telegraph, Calcutta.)

It is a pretty exciting story. It is not an Indiana Jones adventure, but it has history and archaeology, quite a public fight between two intellectuals across continents, and indignant accusations and counter-accusations galore. Who cares if the archaeologists don't jump off from collapsing pillars into boiling pits of mud, while being chased by hordes of cannibals?! Read it, you will still find it interesting.

Before I read this story, I had no idea that a word actually exists for the act of drilling a hole in the skull. Trepanation, as I noted with much trepidation, is the name for that procedure, and apparently, you could be called a brain surgeon, if you knew how to perform it. It was quite surprising that more than four thousand years ago, in the Harappan valley, there was an unknown surgeon, who performed this procedure on a patient. I can almost imagine a dignified looking man with a long flowing beard, probing the skull of his patient from all angles, before gravely pronouncing his judgment.

"Hmmm... Your son looks like he is going to make it, but, in order to ensure that, I need to drill a hole in his skull."   After a pause. "Don't look so alarmed, Trepenation, is a normal surgical procedure, we perform it all the time. My secretary will take your payment information, we accept all major coins, but Mesopotamian coins, unless made of gold, are no longer accepted. Since their civilization collapsed."

But, there could have been a second possibility with the skull, that none of these erudite scholars thought about. Could the hole in the skull have been a congenital defect? Perhaps, earlier that day, the poor man's professor yelled at him in the Harappan academy of mathematics. After he got his algebra problem all wrong. 

"Teri khopdi mein chhed hai kya?" (Originally said in the still undeciphered Harrapan language)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Deficit of Trust

Ronald Reagan, the American president responsible for the beginning of the end of the mighty empire of the Soviets, used to frequently repeat a phrase. That phrase, rather ironically, was also frequently quoted by the communist ideologue, Vladimir Lenin, during his times in politics. "Trust, but verify". And right now, all around the world, there seems to be a serious deficit of trust.

In India, there has been an ongoing battle against corruption for the last few months. A very public one, if one might add. And yesterday, Baba Ramdev, the famous Yoga Guru, took this battle to New Delhi, leading a peaceful sit-in demonstration, that doubled  as a Yoga camp. His initial set of demands was simple, though a lot of people believed that what he was asking for, was a tad too harsh, and quite impossible to achieve, in a democratic setup such as ours. He was asking for the death penalty for corruption, withdrawal of high denomination currency notes, and a declaration from the government that all ill-gotten wealth is national wealth. At the surface, some of these looked quite do-able, except the death penalty law, which the Baba seemed flexible on. Till yesterday evening, senior ministers in the government were negotiating a "deal" with the Baba, and it looked like things were heading towards a logical conclusion.

Then, around 1 AM in the morning, all hell broke loose. Thousands of policemen surrounded the venue of Baba's sit-in, beat up peaceful demonstrators, including women and children and evicted the Baba. They used water cannons and tear-gas shells, and most of the country was watching this event unfold on national television till early morning. On every single news channel. And when day broke, we found out that all the opposition parties were screaming bloody murder. And the government was sending out all its firefighters. To fight a very public fire. 

This is a massive public relations blunder for the government. A few months ago, they were humbled to a surrender by Anna Hazare's movement. And recently, they have been dragging their feet on everything they promised to legislate against corruption. So, one cannot really blame the Baba for refusing to believe their promises, unless an ordinance was promulgated. After all, how could he trust the government, during these times? Of deficit of trust.

But, a lot of people are asking another question. On very similar lines. Can we trust the Baba? After all, he represents a lot of people, but doesn't the government represent all of the people? How do we know that he is simply not a demagogue with a hidden agenda? How do we know that we can trust him and his movement?

And so, a lot of Indians are just confused. They look at the government with suspicion. But, they look at these "civil society" movements with suspicion too. As an Indian, I think I have some control over my government, in a constitutional framework, which provides me with certain rights. But, I have absolutely no control over any Yoga guru, since he is not answerable to me. In any particular way.

So, like a lot of Indians, I am a little confused. About who to trust, and who not to. But, we do know that these are times of deficit. Of trust.

But, something that bothers me a lot, in the context of this entire episode, is the violation of my constitutional rights. I may not agree with the Baba, but I will defend his right to say what he wants to say. Because, if his rights are trampled over, by the government, so are mine. After all, he was protesting against a national menace, and fighting for certain rights that sound quite justified. And perhaps, the fact that millions around the country support him, leads some credibility to his cause. And since he had taken permission to use the grounds and had a peaceful sit in, one fails to understand how he suddenly became a security risk. How did the government suddenly have the right to use brute force against people, who were exercising their right to make a statement? In a peaceful way. And so, I am not sure if I can trust the government either. To guarantee my constitutional rights, that I expect them to.

So, now that we all agree, that we cannot trust anyone any more, may be, it is time to invoke Ronald Reagan and Vladimir Lenin -- one more time. Trust, but verify.

At this moment, we cannot verify a thing. We don't know if the Baba has a hidden agenda. Unless someone takes the government to court on this rather unusual use of force, we won't know if what they did, was legal. And unless, the government enacts a law against corruption in the next few months, we won't know if they can be trusted to deal with corruption. 

And, while all of this unravels slowly, I wonder what will happen to the struggle against corruption. Perhaps, we will get somewhere with that. In another sixty three years.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Holy Cows and Power Yoga

In the old days, some of the stereotypical Indian pictures, popular in the western world, were those of a snake charmer playing to an attentive cobra, a magician performing the Indian rope trick, and, a Yogi sitting cross-legged on a bed of nails. Doing yoga, of course. 

But stereotypes have a way of evolving with time. Just like everything else.

Nowadays, one of the most photographed Indian stereotypes that you will probably come across, is that of a cow standing nonchalantly in the middle of busy traffic. Chewing the cud. And traffic, has an amazing way of flowing around these cows. After looking at this heavenly symbiosis of man and beast, one wonders, what else can we accomplish together, when the need of the hour is upon us.   

Perhaps, a cow doing Yoga? In a weight loss program?

(Images by the marketing geniuses at the Swissmilk  company)

The famous Yoga guru, Baba Ramdev, has decided to fast. Against corruption.  And, as much as I respect the Baba, and his mastery of the Yogic skills of Patanjali, for some reason, the first image that came to my mind when I heard this news, was that of an Indian cow standing in the middle of busy traffic. Chewing the cud, of course.

In my mind, this "corruption in the government thing" has now acquired a permanent image -- that of a "cow in busy traffic". Just like the inflexible cow stands and ruminates, the government has decided to do nothing about corruption in the last sixty three years since independence. And, just like traffic flows around these cows, we Indians have decided to live with corruption. Without thinking about the smoother flow of traffic that we could perhaps enjoy, if the cow was to move. Out of the way.

A few months ago, the entire country woke up and realized that there was a cow indeed. And, that it had grown quite a bit. So much, that it was blocking multiple lanes of traffic. And an expert farmer from the village of Ralegaon Siddhi called Anna Hazare, gave a couple of prods to the cow. For a while, it looked like the cow was about to move. But then, animals, that grow large with time, show great reluctance to move.

So, it looks like the next thing that the cow needs to do, is to gain some agility -- to help it move. And we all know, that there is nothing better than Yoga, if agility is a problem. So, from today, Baba Ramdev, the Yoga Guru, is going to start his effort to see if the holy cow will shed some weight, and move out of the way. It is rather ironic that the Yoga Guru is going to starve himself to make the cow lose some weight.

Yesterday, for a second, as I closed my eyes and thought about corruption, the image of the cow in the busy traffic disappeared. And so did the multiple images of the cows doing yoga. In their place, I saw a cow, sitting on a bed of nails -- just like in the old photographs. No yogi. Just the cow and the bed of nails.

I wonder, what is next in India's struggle against corruption. If the yoga does not work.