Monday, August 29, 2011

Wisdom behind the wheel

Lately, I have been traveling quite a bit. Whenever I am in a new place, I make it a point to strike up a conversation with the cab-driver. The most profound Desi knowledge that I have ever gained, has always come from taxi drivers. In fact, sometimes, that makes me wonder why people spend so much money on shrinks, self-help gurus, or spiritual masters. If you treat the back seat of a cab as a Freudian couch, you can pretty much gain knowledge on anything, absolutely anything, that exists in the universe. The usual disclaimers apply -- the information you get, might be a well made cocktail of truth, fiction and urban legends, shaken, but not stirred. And of course, do not take any of this stuff seriously, will you?

Oh yes, one more thing - all these conversations occurred in the backdrop of India's ongoing struggle against corruption, led by Anna Hazare. Anna recently knocked out the powerful Indian government in round one. And taxi drivers in India, are usually harassed quite a bit by  traffic cops and the like, so, no prizes for guessing whose side they are on. Read on.

A few weeks ago, I was in New Delhi. As usual, I struck up a conversation with the cab-driver, who was driving me to my hotel from the airport. The conversation eventually got to corruption. My driver, who put three kids through school driving a taxi, gave me a quick lecture on corruption. His take on corruption in New Delhi was actually influenced by the occult and the divine -- may be, a healthy mix of both. He told me the story of an ancient sage who had cursed the city of Indraprastha (old name for Delhi). The sage had condemned the people of the city to be corrupt and devoid of morals. For ever. So, the reason many top politicians in India are corrupt, has something to do with this ancient sage. Apparently, Shravan Kumar,  a legendary figure from Indian mythology, who is considered an example of how people should take care of their old parents, was once passing through Indraprastha. He was carrying his old and blind parents in an arrangement known as a kanwar, which is made of two baskets, suspended from a long pole on the shoulder. As they passed through the cursed city, he stopped, and asked his parents for "fare", since he was taking them on a pilgrimage. Since his mother knew the story about the curse, she asked him to wait for a day. Once they got out of the city limits, poor Shravan Kumar, forgot all about the money. According to my taxi-driver, the curse was indeed real. So, I asked him what kept Anna Hazare "clean" while he was in Delhi. According to him, Jantar Mantar (An old Indian astronomical site, which literally means "Instrument and Formulae"), the place where Anna Hazare conducted his original sit-in, has some magic-wagic going on. It protects the upright with a cosmic energy shield. Gene Roddenberry would have been curious, to say the least.

Then, I traveled to the pride of the south -- Chennai. My taxi driver spoke a language that I least expected anyone in Tamilnadu to speak - Hindi! And, in his accented but awesome Hindi, he told me the story of the ex-chief minister of Tamilnadu, Mr. Karunanidhi. The conversation actually started with his assessment of the German car-maker BMW, and how corrupt it is. According to my cab-driver, courtesy a chauffeur friend,  he had recently seen the interior of a BMW, which belonged to a famous film-star. The car was worth a quarter of a million dollars. The BMW had a spare tire. And that, according to the cabbie,  is downright dishonest! A car, that costs that much money, should have indestructible tires. Kind of like a tire that can only be damaged by a pothole full of kryptonite. So, what does that have to do with Mr. K the ex-CM? Well, according to the cabbie, only corrupt people need spares, since they don't trust the original. And hence, Mr. K married thrice, following the spare-tire philosophy. Please don't ask me to clarify -- you just have to find the cabbie. He is usually around in Chennai airport. I think his name is Swamy.

And then, very recently, I was in New Delhi again.  In a cab, of course.The cabbie-conversation eventually got to Anna Hazare. We got into a debate on why Anna wouldn't back down during his fast. My take on the whole thing was, that since Anna is a soldier by training, he does not know how to back down. "That, and the fact that he is like a lion", said my cabbie. And then, he asked me if I knew that male lions sired only one cub during their lifetimes. Although I was pretty sure that he was on to an urban legend, I egged him on, since I wanted to know the Anna connection. So, the cabbie told me.

Apparently, after a male lion is done having sex, unlike other animals, it does not move back, to, ahem, take its instrument out. Instead, it moves forward, since a lion only knows how to move forward. And, in the process, it does irreparable damage to its instrument, not allowing it to sire again. Ever. So, if someone only knows how to move forward, he has to be a lion.

Lately, I have been thinking about visiting a shrink about all my bottled-up, subconscious issues. After my recent experiences, I think I am just going to get into a cab and see what the cabbie has to say. About my issues. Of course, the best way to get this going, is to not give the cabbie a final destination -- to keep the conversation going. So, I will ask the cabbie to keep going forward.

Like a lion.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Congratulations, I guess?

Some time ago, I met a Chinese gentleman at an international conference. After the initial introductions, I was curious to know where he went to school. Once he told me, my first reaction was, "Oh, you are the guys who judge the academic world  with rankings, don't you?!". With an embarrassed smile, he said yes, but added that he was not very proud of this sole claim to fame, that his Alma mater enjoyed. But, he had added that every little bit of publicity helped, since the journey is long, and the destination is never quite in sight. That rather philosophical comment, might have been influenced by Confucius.

The Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has once again done what it is quite good at doing - ranking all the universities in the world using a very objective system. You can find it here.

The more I look at the way these guys keep doing it, year after year, the more I get impressed. There are no surprises here - Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Berkeley and Princeton, vie for the top ten rankings. This year, Harvard got the cake. The highest ranked non-American University is Cambridge at number five, which is impressive. The top ranker from Asia, is the University of Tokyo, at twenty one. Not bad really!

I know, I know. You want me to cut the crap and get to the information you need. Does Desi-land find a mention? Is there a Desi university in the top hundred? Nah. Two hundred? Nahin Saab! Three hundred? Kya baat karte hain Saab?! 

Ok, final call. Is there an Indian university in the top five hundred? Haan Jee!

In the rank 301-400 group, the "crown jewel of research" in India,  the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), does find a mention.  Ranked a notch above Purdue if that makes you happy.

And where are the IITs? Since our Harvard educated HRD minister Kapil Sibbal saab ji, took a personal interest in the IITs, the only ranked IIT from last year, IIT-Kharagpur, has dropped out of the list. Big surprise! I had written a post before, supporting Mr. Jairam Ramesh on his comments about the sorry state of research in IITs. You can find it here. Looks like, Mr. Ramesh and I, were both right. And, I am not really proud to say it. I wonder what else is Mr. Sibbal going to try and fix next.

So, what should I say? Congratulations to the IISc, I guess? For not falling out of the list?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Young Guns

(Note: Recently, I was invited by an online "newspaper" to write a guest column on something relevant to the young people in India. After I sent them this post, which, under the current circumstances, would have been quite relevant, I never heard back from them. So much for old fashioned editorial courtesy  to "invitations"! And so, with a heavy heart, Desi Babu decided to dump the entire article on his faithful blog readers -- lock, stock and barrel (no pun intended). Enjoy!)

I once went skeet-shooting with a group of colleagues, who had taken a liking for someone, who very obviously, did not share their demographics. They were very Caucasian, and very republican. I was neither. But, the fact that in many of my conversations with them, I had exhibited libertarian leanings, must have endeared me to them. And hence, the invitation to come and shoot clay "pigeons" with them. With a nice shotgun, which, among other things, shot pretty well. At the end of the day, we drove to a little mom and pop's place by the interstate, and over a couple of beers and fries, they told me their life's stories. And, many things about the guns they loved.

That was the first time I came to know that the Americans had a guaranteed freedom -- to bear arms. Guaranteed by the second amendment to the American constitution. The National Rifle Association, or the NRA, is a vociferous defender of the people's right to bear arms, and one of the popular NRA bumper stickers you are likely to come across, proudly proclaims, "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!" The famous Hollywood actor, Charlton Heston, who was also the president of the NRA for a while, was quite instrumental in popularizing this phrase. And, on that lazy evening filled with glasses of beer and the smell of spent ammunition, as I was being educated by my colleagues on guns, I learned the guiding philosophy of life from "Smokey" Ryder, a trigger happy guy, with two missing front teeth. When the beer had sufficiently soaked in, Smokey passed on his life's wisdom to me, "It's kinda easy to git a gun, but where will ya'll git the money to pay for the ammo? Life's tough, ain't it?"

Above the din of the crowded restaurant, I had slowly drifted away -- to a small town in North India, that I grew up in. We had just one family in the entire neighborhood that owned a shotgun. And that too, was because the patriarch of the family, was a retired Thanedar, or someone, who was once in charge of a police station. I used to address the old man as Dada-ji, because I used to play with his grandson. Buntee Singh, besides having the most cliched Desi name, was generally a good lad, and fervently shared his grandfather's interest in guns. During lazy afternoons on holidays, the two of us would climb up on top of an old and decrepit water tank, and watch the local teams play cricket. And Buntee, would educate me on the benefits of owning a gun.

Years later, I met Buntee at a railway station. He was in a hurry, and was carrying a shiny wooden case. I assumed that it had some sort of a musical instrument in it. But, right before Buntee hopped into his train, he told me that he was carrying a gun in the case. It was a licensed firearm, that his family would use to shoot blanks in the air, during a family wedding he was headed to. And, to ensure the protection of his firearm on the generally unsafe train, he was paying a thousand bucks to the brave souls of the railway protection force. As his train left the station, above the cries of the chaiwalas trying to convince people to get one last cup of tea, and the smoke from the Charminar I was blowing, I saw Buntee waving at me from the RPF compartment. One last time.

Recently, the memories of gun toting crusaders came back to me under strange circumstances. With a cup of tea in my hand, I had just found an empty seat in the busy cafeteria of a well known university. Most of my fellow occupants on the long table were young students. They were debating the ongoing anti-corruption struggle in India. They seemed to be the followers of Anna Hazare, and were generally unhappy about the recent treatment meted out to another anti-corruption crusader, Baba Ramdev.

One of them was quite a vocal proponent of Baba Ramdev's assertion that concerned citizens should have the right to raise a private army. But when he started talking about the second amendment of the Americans, the one that gives them the right to bear arms, I decided to join the conversation.

"You know, you already have an army to guarantee your constitutional rights, why do you need to raise your own?" I asked.

He seemed surprised at the sudden question. But, he asked me what recourse does an ordinary citizen in the country have when public figures like Ramdev or Hazare are not given the right to protest. About corruption, that is slowly eating away at whatever good remains in our public institutions. He was quite passionate about what he had to say.

Most young people of his grandfather's generation had probably braved baton-charges from the colonial British, to get India her freedom. And, the young people of his father's generation had probably followed Jayprakash Narayan to prison, to ensure that Indira Gandhi's emergency did not take away their hard won freedom. It was his generation's turn now. To organize meetings against corruption. And debate the pros and cons, of staying peaceful, or resorting to guns. To ensure that India does not turn into a civilization lost to corruption.

He had decided to educate me a little more about his point of view. "You cannot have complete freedom if the state has arms and you don't. Look at the Americans. They have more freedom than us, because their constitution allows them to bear arms. If I need a gun, I have to get a license. And that process, always starts with a bribe. In our system, only the bad guys have guns. And the good guys can't even protest peacefully."

I tried to pull a "Smokey Ryder" on my young friend. "Let's say that you get your gun. But, who is going to pay for the ammo? You know, these things don't come cheap."

I saw that some of his friends had started grinning.

My young friend suddenly started lecturing me on demand and supply. And volume production. He argued, that just like computers became cheap due to mass production, if everyone was allowed to carry guns, the prices were bound to fall. And then, everyone would have ammo.

I didn't want to argue any more, since I had to go somewhere. So, I added, "And when the ammo becomes really cheap, may be, we can all go skeet-shooting. You know, the kind in which you use a shotgun to shoot down clay pigeons."

First, he looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. Then, with a wide grin on his face, he said, "Are you serious? I thought that only crazy people did that sort of stuff. But, I guess we could have some serious fun with that stuff if we could do it here."

He didn't say it, but I am sure that if my young friend ever went skeet-shooting, he would write about it on his Facebook page. And occasionally, tweet about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shut up and go home!

It happens every monsoon, there is nothing new about it, really.  

My roof is leaking. But the town I live in, has a set system for roof repairs. I was given a list of contractors, who are on good terms with the town council, and asked to choose one. I didn't think very highly of any of them -- to be frank with you, some of them seemed like absolute scoundrels. But, I had no choice, my town council forces me to pick one of the contractors from the list. No exceptions are allowed. So - I chose the one, that looked like the benign pirate from the wrecked ship on the Bahamian beach.

In a few days, I found out how wrong I was. Not only did the roof leak more than ever before, I saw that the contractor's men had started stealing my doors and windows. I wanted to fire him, but my town council told me that I couldn't. The contractor was authorized to fix my house for the next five years. It was the law.  There was no process in place for me to express my disappointment to anyone. And, when I tried to, I was told -- "You have selected the contractor yourself, if you don't like it, wait for five years, and then, select another one. So, shut up, and go home!"

I am assuming that you have guessed by now, that I just told you a cock and bull story. And, you probably have guessed what this is all about.

With Anna Hazare's fast in its sixth day, one of the things that countless people have started talking about is, if our parliamentary democracy really represents the people. In spite of the best intentions of our founding fathers, our system neither allows for a referendum, nor does it allow us a right to recall. That means, once we have elected a representative, we can neither participate in the legislative process, nor can we fire rogue representatives. Like the contractor in my story, we are stuck with the pirates we elect. For the next five years.

So, there is a very good reason why the Indian people are on the streets. Our representatives, ask us to shut up and go home, as soon as we send them to New Delhi.  And then, they are free to do what they wish to do -- with our money. 

The fight against corruption is only a first step. What we really need is a set of systemic repairs, that allow the people to participate in the legislative process. Gone are the days when elections would be conducted with ballot paper and boxes. The results would be tallied over days and weeks, while India's state-owned news channel, Doordarshan, would keep us entertained through the whole process, with Bollywood heroes chasing heroines around fat tree-trunks in Kashmir. Helvetian backdrops were simply too expensive for Bollywood in those days.  And then came the Electronic Voting Machines, and now it barely takes us hours to know the results, once the counting starts. So, what is the logical next step for the largest democracy in the world?

With the Unique ID process in full swing, Indians are soon going to have unique biometric cards. And all of us, are going to be on a national database of citizens. The technology is already there to take this information, and allow people to vote with their computers and mobile phones. After all, if the State Bank of India allows me to transfer a million rupees per day with an online account, the State of India should have no problems allowing me to vote online, after I have identified myself with biometrics. And, if mobile phones are all that we need to vote, why can't we vote for the crucial issues that concern our future, instead of a handful of people doing it on our behalf?

Very soon, technology will make it possible for us to have a direct say in our legislative process. One wonders, if our representatives will. Although we will be happy with Anna's anti-graft legislation in the short term, I think we should finally start pushing for legislative reforms. Including the right to a referendum, and the right to recall.

I have realized, that under the current situation, I need to fix my leaking roof myself. Cement anyone?

The flute, the peacock feather and the stolen butter

As I have grown older, I have grown less religious, and more spiritual. Religious dogma no longer appeals to me, and rituals seem meaningless. Like scores of people like me, who have been trained in the ways of science, religion has slowly moved from the shrine in the house and the temple in the neighborhood, to the sublime -- right where my scientific understanding stops, and curiosity continues to linger on.

I was brought up as a Shaivite, and to me, Shiva has, and always will, represent the image of God in my mind's eye. But Shiva, like the rest of the Hindu holy trinity,  is a God without birth and death. At a fundamental level, we Hindus like to keep a big distance between us, and our gods. But, the debate has always raged on if God created man in his image, or man created God. I think, the Hindus have a very elegant solution to this problem. When they want a distant and unapproachable God, they put him on top of a snow clad mountain, or at the bottom of a deep ocean, sleeping on a snake, that doubles as a bed. And, when they want God to be close, they invite him over for dinner. As an Avatar.

The followers of Vishnu, have really made an art form of this. They have taken every kind of human emotion you can think of, and associated a reincarnation of Vishnu to them. So, Vishnu, the preserver, was born nine times as a mere mortal, and is expected to come back once more. In the reign of the current Manu, which corresponds to an epoch in Hinduism. Of His reincarnations, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha, are the most revered, and their followers are a religion unto themselves. Strictly speaking, the concept of Avatar does not exist in Shaivism, and so, I have always been fascinated by the Avatars of Vishnu.

Specially Krishna.

Our religious texts say that there are sixteen different types of art forms that a human being can possibly master. And Krishna, was supposedly a master in each one of them. From getting away after being caught stealing butter as a child, to the very effective seduction of beautiful Gopikas, Krishna was really the true  master of the arts. Adorned with a peacock feather in his hair, when he played his flute, the music was supposedly divine.

But, if we leave the myths aside, I am fascinated by an aspect of Krishna, that is attributed to Him, in the Mahabharata, one of the two Hindu religious epics. In the battlefield, he counsels his protege, Arjuna, on the meaning of life. One can go off to a distant monastery or a far-away mountain to try and discover the meaning of life, as Sadhus do all the time. But, as a solider once told me, you get the true meaning of life when you look death in the eye. And a battlefield, is one such place, that gives you the opportunity.

Krishna's sermon to Arjuna -- the Bhagwadgita, or the divine song, is considered the holiest text of the Hindus. I remember, when my father saw me off at a train station, during my first journey to college. He had handed me a pocket-book edition of the Bhagwadgita. His tip, was to read a random verse of the holy book, whenever I was in doubt, of any kind. In all these years, Krishna, and his divine song, have never failed me, during the times of crisis, or otherwise.

Tomorrow, on the day of Janamashtami, countless Hindus around the world will be celebrating the birth of Krishna. As I am not much into rituals, I will perhaps do what I like to do on occasions like this. Open up a random page of the Bhagwadgita. And pay my respects to the Avatar who sang, the song divine.