Tuesday, December 11, 2012

त्रिशंकु की तरह

ढूंढ रहा था मैं धरती पे जन्नत,
दो बीघा ज़मीन, दो बरगद के पेड़,
कहा लोगों ने, चार क्यों नहीं ढूंढ़ते?

फिर खोजा मैंने, चार पहियों की गाड़ी,
चारों दिशाओं में ख़ुद को पहुँचाने की तरकीबें,
और लोगों ने दी,
सोलह  कलाओं के पीछे भागने की नसीहत।

सोलह से बत्तीस, बत्तीस से चौंसठ,
पता नहीं और कितनी संख्याओं के चक्कर में,
फँस  गया मैं।
सोचता हूँ, ढूंढ रहा था मैं, धरती पे जन्नत,
अब कोशिश करूँ, और ख़ुद  की बना लूं ।
वहाँ  न तो होगा दो का चक्कर
और ना  ही होगी चार की धुनाई
बत्तीस बैठ कर अपनी बत्तीसी दिखाएगा,
और चौंसठ?
वह तो चार साल पहले सठिया चुका होगा।

वहां तो सिर्फ मैं होऊंगा,
और मेरी खुद की दुनिया।
खुद की जन्नत का मैं खुद का शहिनशाह।

छह की जगह नौ को देखता,
धरती और जन्नत के बीच,
उल्टा लटका हुआ, 
त्रिशंकु की तरह। 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cabal Central

A long time ago, I had asked a wise old man if he knew anything about how the world was run.

With a smile, he had quickly replied that it was God who was in charge of that grim task. And then, rather hesitantly, he had added that there were seven, or perhaps nine old men, with long white beards who assisted God in his business of running the world. And then, he had made one more clarification -- that God, had really had enough of this world -- and, that he was looking forward to driving a convertible with its top down, in a colorful straw hat, that screamed the word retirement aloud.

And so, it was all down to the wise old men.  Perhaps seven, or perhaps nine. I am guessing that they too have similar issues with hiring, firing and retention that we do.

Image courtesy: http://zelda.wikia.com

When I first heard the word cabal a long time ago, I had thought that someone had misspelled the word cable. But, the context in which it was used, had nothing to do with messages that the postman brought home, with a grave expression on his face. And so, I had looked it up.

As a libertarian, I have always believed that in most democratic societies, there exists somewhat of a tyranny of the majority. In countries like the United States, where half the population pays an income tax, that tyranny is somewhat mild, or perhaps, medium. In a country like India, where only four percent of the population pays taxes, the tyranny is screaming habanero hot. Almost slavery, for those who pay their taxes. Through a system of giveaways and freebies, the ruling elite keep blowing public money to keep themselves in power -- and the dole recipients in perpetual poverty. And they do all that with a paternalistic halo around their heads, as if, God finally did turn his office key in.

I have long believed that in a society such as ours, where people are quick to trade their vote for a freebie, that democracy is essentially a waste of time. But then, no other system of governance is supposed to be as good as democracy. And, if I believe what my wise old friend had told me, there is no one more competent to run the world than the seven or nine gentlemen with white flowing beards. Then perhaps, the best way to run the world is to let the old men run it, and let people believe that they are in charge of who runs their world.

As a child, when I was barely four, I had thrown a tantrum that I wanted to ride my grandfather's bicycle, which was rather tall for me. But grandpa, had come up with an ingenious solution -- he had held the bike steady with his firm hands -- while I rode it.  I remember turning the handle from left to right, as the pedals mysteriously moved by themselves, while grandpa gently guided the bike around the courtyard.

After the show was over, I had joyfully told everyone I could find that I had ridden grandpa's bike --  all by myself. And grandpa had stood there with a poker face, nodding. After all, there is nothing like a self-sufficient grandson, even if he is four years old, and has legs that are yet to reach the peddles.  

I have always wondered if our small cabal of bearded old men, with the blessings of God almighty, could somehow get us a bike to ride. One, in which our feet didn't quite reach the peddle, but one, that was fun to ride.

In mature democracies around the world, that art of holding the bike has been mastered. In countries like India, we are still coming to terms with the fact that most of us are really a bunch of idiots, who don't know any better. In countries like Egypt, they still don't know what democracy really is.

And that is why when Uncle Sam announces yet another round of "quantitative easing" and our government installs portable "dole" machines for the poor, we can see yet another set of tents in Tahrir square. Perhaps, the Egyptians too, will come to terms with their leaders and their government in their own sweet time. Or perhaps, an old man in a long flowing beard will show them how to. Perhaps. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

The ten heads of Ravana

I know, it has been a while. You could say that I have been taking a break from writing.

Or, you could say that I have been enjoying Festivus. A friend of mine in the land of the free used to love using that word to describe the traveling circus of festivals that arrives around the time of Halloween, and continues to amuse us all, till the new year comes around. Officially, Festivus does exist as a nondenominational festival in its own right -- with its own pole, and an elaborate rigmarole.

Ever since I moved back to Des, to be Desi Babu, I started associating the word Festivus with the good times that come around the time of Navaratri and stay with us till Diwali. And every year, to add more spice to the wonderful curry that India is, a few other religious festivals appear around the same time. This year, we have been blessed with Bakrid -- if you tire of the laddus and jalebis easily, you could try a delicious bowl of sewai. Or, if you want a different taste in your mouth, wait for a couple of months for that delicious Christmas cake.

A few days ago, Dhanno ki Amma and I were admiring a pastry shop on television. Now that we don't watch news any more, we have switched to programs on travel and food. Over the years, we have realized that most cakes and pastries in Des don't taste as well as they look. In the years that I have been back, I haven't managed to find a single decent place to have cheesecake in India, including the hot-shot restaurants in five star hotels, with their fancy chefs in their Festivus hats. So, nowadays, we just prefer to look at pastries on television and sigh -- for the tastes that we know, aren't simply around any more. For whatever reasons that might be.

So, when I saw Dhanno ki Amma shaking her head sadly as the pastry chef described his truffles and blueberries, I couldn't quite resist saying, "You know, we should stick to our core competencies."

As she looked at me quizzically, I explained, "We Indians should finally admit that we are no good at baking this firang pastry stuff. And, we should move on to making jalebis and ladoos."

While the idea might appeal to a Desi, I don't think that Dhanno ki Amma quite  appreciates  the feelings most Desis have for Jalebis.  So, I turned to a friend of mine for support, during these trying times of Festivus.

This friend and I, have been friends for many years, and every time I wish him a happy Dussehra, our focus inevitably turns to cracking a joke or two on Ravana. For those of you who don't know a lot about Indian festivals, Dussehra is the celebration of the victory of good over evil, and it celebrates the slaying of the ten-headed demon king Ravana by Lord Rama. The demon king had abducted Rama's wife Sita with the intention of marrying her, but Rama tracked him down to his magical kingdom hidden in the jungles of Lanka, and defeated him in battle.

Usually, in Dussehra, an effigy of Ravana is burnt in a public place, with a local actor dressed up as the Lord himself, with a bow and an arrow to tug along. And, if you are really in the mood, you are encouraged to crack a joke or two -- on ten headed monsters that could have been Ravana.

Years ago, I had asked this friend of mine if it was possible for a single person to conduct a board meeting, all by himself.  Unless you are into money laundering and Delaware corporations, you can probably guess the answer right away. Of course, it is possible if the chairman of the board happens to be Ravana himself -- ten heads can always make up a company board, can't they?

This Dussehra, when I called up my friend, I felt that it was once again time for a ten-headed demon joke. But, my friend, having turned wiser over the years, gave me some deep philosophical stuff.

"You know, it took one Ravana with ten heads to look lustfully at one Sita. How times have changed! Now, one Ravana with one head looks lustfully at ten Sitas all the time. And sadly, nothing happens to him."

I wanted to cheer him up. So, I told him about Festivus. And how, due to its non-commercial, non-denominational nature, no one would have to worry about Ravanas any more. My friend seemed genuinely excited. But then he paused for a second and asked me the question that reaffirmed my faith in our shared Desi backgrounds.

"I have no problems with Festivus. In fact, it sounds quite festive. However, I am guessing that I am still allowed to celebrate with Jalebis, right?"

I couldn't resist saying it, and so, I just did.

"Of course you are, my friend -- you can have as many Jalebis as you want. And you can eat them with as many heads as you would like. Ten, if you wish."

Friday, September 7, 2012

The crap that matters

If you live in India, the times might seem a little depressing. Every day, you watch or read something in the news that makes you depressed. You worry about the economic health of the country, or about the sanctity of various institutions that you have come to respect over the years. You worry about the government and democracy, that you might think have stopped working for you. And, you worry about the future.

These are indeed difficult times. I have been using the phrase "oh crap" so often in the recent past, that I have stopped wondering if it is the right thing to say in public. And recently, while reading an article about the proliferation of public toilets in developing countries, I came across the name of  Mr.Thomas Crapper. And that,  made me do a little research on crap -- and Mr. Crapper.

Apparently, Mr. Crapper, a plumber by trade, was one of the few enlightened individuals at the turn of the nineteenth century, who dared to look at places that others would not even dream about. He made several improvements to the flush toilet and the plumbing around it, and took out several patents.  He ran a very successful business, creating products that let people enjoy the peace and quiet as they -- you got it right -- crapped.

People believe that Mr. Crapper's name became synonymous with the bodily function we all need to perform. And eventually, he became immortalized in a four letter word, that we all have learned to use -- generally, to avoid using the other ones that raise a few eyebrows. In public.

Strangely, and contrary to popular wisdom, I found that Mr. Crapper's name does not have anything to do with the word crap. Apparently, its origins are in medieval English, as any well versed researcher in the linguistics of crap would tell you. But then, that is an entirely different discussion to have. What matters is the fact that had it not been for the inventions of Mr. Crapper, our cities would look a lot different from what they do today. And every day, you would have to deal with loads of crap that you would rather not.

Courtesy: http://www.pmmag.com

Recently, while I was telling Dhanno ki Amma about the modern marvel of the flush toilet and its plumbing, I  started singing paeans to Mr. Crapper. And she floored me with information about another modern marvel that has saved us from loads of crap. Of a different kind.

I am guessing that you have heard about horse-manure.

I often heard that word from my fifth-grade English teacher when he passed critical judgement on what I had written. But, right around the time that Mr. Thomas Crapper was solving a problem that mattered, there was another on the streets of London and New York, which threatened world peace and stability.

Before the automobile, there were horses. Thousands of them. And when they came out of the stables that housed them, they dirtied the streets of big cities with manure. Things were so bad, that people were knee deep in horse-crap. Literally and figuratively. And the predictors of doom and gloom had predicted their doom and gloom. Apparently, the world was to be submerged in loads of crap. Horse-crap to be precise.

And right from this point of no return,  the automobile industry rescued us. Horses, were replaced by cars galore. And the horse manure went back to where it belonged -- the stable.   

That day, Dhanno ki Amma, in her matter of fact way, gave me an important life lesson by telling me about the horse manure crisis. When we reach a point of crisis, sometimes, of gigantic proportions, we usually innovate our way out of it. So, perhaps Henry Ford and his mass produced model-T, saved the world from as much crap, as Mr. Thomas Crapper did.

While standing knee deep in a lot of crap that I am seeing on a daily basis, I keep wondering, what innovation is going to get us out this time. As I remain optimistic that someone will surely invent something to fix the broken world that we see around us, I keep wondering if we will honor that person by naming a four letter word after him or her. And if we do, I hope that this time around, it will be a word much better than crap.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Satpura Revisited

As I write these lines, I am being attacked by a squadron of mosquitoes, armed to the teeth. No pun intended.  And, they would put the best fighter pilots to shame.

Before I dive inside the mosquito-net and tease them with my infrared-signature that they cannot direct their heat seeking missiles at, I thought that I would share a few lines from a very famous Hindi poem with you. Written by Shri Bhavani Prasad Mishra, "Satpura ke Ghaney Jangal (The dense forests of Satpura)" has become a classic in Hindi literature.

The lines below, talk about the mosquitoes in the forests of Satpura. Among other things that is. The beautiful lines are by Mishra-Ji, and the not-so-beautiful translation is mine.

                      सतपुड़ा के घने जंगल।
                 नींद मे डूबे हुए से
                 ऊँघते अनमने जंगल।

                .... (कुछ पंक्तियों  के बाद)...

                मकड़ियों के जाल मुँह पर,
                और सर के बाल मुँह पर
                मच्छरों के दंश वाले,
                दाग काले-लाल मुँह पर,
                वात- झन्झा वहन करते,
                चलो इतना सहन करते,
                कष्ट से ये सने जंगल,
                नींद मे डूबे हुए से
                ऊँघते अनमने जंगल|

                सतपुड़ा के घने जंगल।

            Dense are the forests of Satpura,
            Deep in sleep, yawning and reluctant.

            (..After a few lines..)

           The cobwebs get in the face
           and so does the hair from the head
           On it, are the bite marks of mosquitoes
           colored black and red

           They sustain the wailing winds
           and tolerate them when they can.
           With pain and sorrow in them,
           deeply they sleep.
           And yawn, with reluctance.

           Dense are the forests of Satpura.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Libertarian Paradise?

Recently, a well meaning reader of this blog sent me a message, in which he asked me why I did not write on national and political issues. Issues, that concern the future of this country.

If I had to give him a short answer, I would say -- I used to.

But then, somewhere down the road, I realized that I did not enjoy writing about politics. And so, I stopped. I still write about national and international issues, which can be called political -- issues, that I strongly feel about. But now, I try and avoid commenting on specific people and parties.

Today, there is a lot of uncertainty about where India is headed. In the last few months, our national growth rate has been projected downwards, and that too, quite a few times. People have lost faith in public institutions. Senior politicians, have openly questioned members of the executive and the judiciary. The legislature has stopped legislating. And the so called "free press" has neither made us proud of its freedom, nor has it started printing or broadcasting anything that provides the reader with a sense of satisfaction.

So, perhaps I should ask the well meaning reader of "The Peanut Express" -- what should I really write about?! 

As a Libertarian, I would say though, that there is one specific thing in these depressing times, that makes me happy. The fact, that people are slowly realizing that a government is generally incapable of doing anything properly. So, the fewer the number of things it is asked to do, the better it is for the country.

(Picture courtesy : bradyreports.com)

In the sixty five years that have passed since we became an independent country, we have dabbled with socialism (the preamble to our constitution still includes the world "socialist"), and a rudimentary free market economy. Sooner or later, each one of our politicians, from the left, right or center, tries to publicly exude confidence in the government's ability to deliver to its people. And, regardless of the political ideology that they follow, they have been quite consistent about their stand that it is the government that needs to deliver.

And that is where I disagree.

I don't think the government should be in the business of delivering anything. Other than complete freedom from it -- for ordinary people and small businesses. A freedom, that is long overdue.

Somehow, in the last few months, I have found the popularity ratings of our ruling coalition going down, and that of the opposition going up. That, does not surprise me, since India has slowly transitioned to a "two-party" system in the last decade or so. But,  replacing one group of corrupt and inefficient people with another, has never appealed to me. And so, as impending as they might be, elections do not excite me.

During these troubled times, when people have lost faith in most government institutions, perhaps, it is time to let go of some of them. For any political party, on the left or the right, it is time to come out in the open and say that they will start reducing big government and deficit spending.

For some reason, I feel that the current political right in India is a little better positioned to do that than anyone else. To them, I have a small suggestion. It has come out in recent opinion polls that there exists a  perception amongst the people of India that the right-of-center coalition is just as corrupt as the left-of-center coalition that currently rules the country. Clearly, corruption alone, cannot be made the distinguishing factor between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. 

The political right needs to come out in the open and own up to the fact that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we let our government govern us. And so, they need to go after big government, because that is what puts layers of inefficiency between the desire to deliver, and actual delivery.

A long time ago, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with a small time Desi farmer, in one of our small time Desi states. He had not heard of anything that the urban elite took for granted. He did not know what the constitution was, what rights he had and who he could vote for. He still thought of the political leaders of the country as his masters, who he called his maaliks (owners).

But then, he told me in simple terms that he did not care about who ruled him. One thing that impressed him about free India was that generally no one bothered him, no one asked him to pay taxes and everyone, including the government, left him alone. To fend for himself.

I should have told him then, that he was living in a Libertarian paradise. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a few more?!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

"Blessed Saint Leibowitz, keep 'em dreamin' down there" : The last words by Colonel Randy Claggett (commander of Apollo 18) before the lunar module Luna crashed. (from Space, a novel by James A Michener).

Thanks for the dreams Neil. We will keep dreaming.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Poppy, Cannabis, Ephedra

So, what is your favorite poison?

Somehow, I keep going back to a famous statement by a German guy called Karl, that we all keep going back to. Again and again. That religion, is the opiate of the masses. Almost thirty years after the iron curtain came down and the hammer and the sickle went into oblivion, we could perhaps say that again. Even in a country like China, which has all but forsaken communist ideology, the opiate seems to be making a vengeful comeback. China seems to have its fair share of Buddhists and Christians now, and even new age religions like the Bahai faith are taking China by storm.

I keep wondering, what exactly would be the perfect opiate of the masses. Assuming that religion, is not really what it used to be.

If you take a step back and turn around, and take a good look at the world around you today, you would be surprised by what is going on. The land of the free has perhaps gone through the biggest economic crisis in its history (yes, even worse than the great depression) and most people think that it will never recover back to its glory days. Europe, is in shambles, and for many countries there, the sportsmen leaving London summed it up quite accurately, when they said, "The party is over, let's go home!" And Asia, is what we should perhaps talk about, since Asia, is the continent where most of humanity lives.

The Chinese, traditionally, have been quite used to an opiate. Of course, the original one, that kept them down for centuries, was where the word opiate came from. But then came nationalism, communism and all that stuff. National pride and nice looking gun barrels kept them going through Mao and the gang of four, and after Deng Xiaoping opened China up, it has all been about earning money. But now, China seems to be open enough to make its rulers nervous. And so, they need an opiate. To keep the masses occupied.

India has always been good at keeping a large population busy with useless things. It has barely been twenty years or so since the airwaves were opened up to private broadcasters, and even today, they seem to pretty much focus on things that the public wants to hear. Thankfully, India has cricket and Bollywood. Between the two of them, you could keep people intoxicated for years. And if they get too shifty, you could organize a three day nationwide "we hate corruption" -a-thon,  and have every television channel cover it. Once the people get convinced that all is well, and things will be done to make sure that things are done, they will get back to their opiates.

Sure, once in a while, you would have rioters taking over city centers and entire ethnic groups leaving big cities in ways that almost seem biblical, but as most deft government administrators will tell you, these are just temporary glitches. And oh yes, all, is well. 

In my opinion, the biggest problem for most large countries in this decade would have nothing to do with economics or politics. The biggest problem, would be to find a new opiate of the masses. For America, it was always three seasons (sorry Vivaldi) -- football, baseball and basketball. For communist countries, it was always nationalism. For most of the middle east, it was religion. And for India, till very recently, it was Bollywood and cricket. As the world's political leadership looks for the next opiate of the masses, to keep them busy, let me try and give them a small piece of advice.

Thousands of years ago, when the early Aryans were colonizing central Asia, and did not have elaborate codes or rituals to keep people under control, they told them that there was something better than worshiping God. If one was willing, one could see God. And, there was an ancient drink, often mentioned in the Vedas, which supposedly brought one close to God.

For centuries, historians have wondered about the composition of Soma. To most, it seemed like a hallucinogen, but what really went into it? Was it alcoholic? Did it have any of the herbs that we are now familiar with?

As it turns out, from an archaeological dig somewhere in Central Asia, news is slowly emerging. That a pit in which Soma was made, was discovered and the remains of whatever went into the heavenly hallucinogen, were analyzed. The answer, surprised a lot of people, who believed that the Soma was divine.

To the average hippie who attended wood-stock, there was no surprise. The Soma, was a potent cocktail of three herbs that we all know about -- poppy, cannabis and ephedra. Each, loaded with its own stockpile of chemicals, which takes the word opiate to an entirely new level. Together perhaps -- they make the drink of the Gods.

So, to beleaguered governments around the world in search of a solution, I have only one suggestion for an opiate of the masses. Soma. Three potent herbs cannot go wrong, all at the same time.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The giant mosquitoes

"Oh man, these mosquitoes are slowly beginning to look like rats with wings!" Ashutosh complained as he crawled inside the mosquito net. His wife groaned something in her sleep and turned over.

It was about 1 AM, and both Ashutosh and his wife had no idea that the pharmaceutical company, which had a "white-collar" research facility in their neighborhood, had actually made a breakthrough in growth hormone research that evening. They were hoping to market it to cattle ranchers around the world to increase their meat output.

And, the pharmaceutical company had no idea that the freshly prepared barrel of the experimental drug was somehow labelled as "waste". Of course, as pharmas working on low-budgets do, they paid an out-of-work newspaper vendor to pick up the waste every night and dump it in the lake behind Ashutosh's house. So, at 2 AM that night, a barrel of concentrated growth hormone was dumped in a lake, that already produced mosquitoes that looked like rats with wings. And the world, was on its way to being taken over by a mutant specie.

Ashutosh woke up early in the morning, to the sound of what seemed like fighter jets. There was an air force base close by, but he had never seen the jets come so close. As he moved the curtains, he saw a strange sight. His neighbor was being impaled by a buffalo sized giant mosquito. With a proboscis, that looked like a spear.  And the rest of them were flying around, sounding like jets.

The giant mosquitoes were growing in numbers by the hour. People were running for their lives. And, in a few hours, it looked like the entire planet had fallen to the power of a flying insect. No known chemical or mechanical weapon was able to do anything to them.

Ashutosh's turn came eventually. His entire family was hiding in the kitchen, but a giant mosquito had broken the window to get inside the house, and it was slowly making its way to the kitchen. It was crawling, since it was too big to fly inside the house. As it came within a few feet of Ashutosh, he heard a scream.

His wife saw the mosquito, and panicked. Then, she picked up whatever she could lay her hands on, and threw it at the mosquito. Suddenly, the room got very red, and Ashutosh started sneezing. It seemed like his wife had tossed a can full of red chili powder.

As the dust cleared, they saw the giant mosquito. It was dead.

Soon, Ashutosh was calling every TV station he could reach. The armed forces moved swiftly. Within a few hours, the sky was red with chilli powder. The roads were red with tomato chili ketchup. And everywhere the eye could see, there were giant mosquitoes, that looked like buffaloes with wings. And they were all dead.

The world was free again, thanks to a toxin in chili powder, that worked only on mutant mosquitoes.


"Nonsense! Absolute Nonsense!!!"

Sharma-ji was yelling. "Gupta, after all these years, how can you possibly write such a stupid story? You want me to make a movie out of this shit? Do you even know how much money people lose in Bollywood when a film flops nowadays?"

Sharma-ji was the producer, and very often, he also sat on the chair that said "director" behind it. In capital letters. Obviously, he couldn't be wrong about these things.

Before he tossed Gupta's file across the room, he was listening to the story with his eyes closed. From time to time, he would open them, only to pick up yet another pakoda from the giant plate in front of him, liberally dab it with tomato-chili sauce, and pop it into his mouth. Sharma-ji loved his chili more than anyone else.

 "But sir, everyone is doing science fiction nowadays. We could become the Spielbergs of India!"

"Let me tell you something Gupta, the people of India neither know science, nor fiction. Just give them the shit that you always gave them. Throw in a few bare-chested hunks and bikini-clad beauties, and deposit your checks in the bank. Yeh science-whince peh time waste mat karo!"  

Gupta picked up his file, looking very glum. Sharma-ji's voice softened a bit, "Are suno yaar.  What was that shit in the tomato sauce you wrote about, you know, the one that killed the mosquitoes? Will that kill humans too?"

Gupta opened his mouth to say no. Then, he saw Sharma-ji pick up his last pakoda to wipe the remaining tomato-chili sauce with it. .Gupta thought, "If Sharma-ji was a giant mosquito, by now, he would be dead."

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Milton Fountain

A few weeks before our wedding, Dhanno-ki-Amma had gifted me a book that I was surprised I had not come across before. The book changed my life in many ways -- it gave me a completely different perspective on what one should believe in.  After I had read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead for the first time, one could say, that it became one of the many first steps that I took, in the direction of becoming a Libertarian. The second, came much later, when I realized that I didn't really know what type of a Libertarian I really was. As they say, there is a unique type of Libertarianism for every unique Libertarian there is.

One such unique libertarian was Milton Friedman. Today is the day when he would have turned hundred. And what a century it has been.

There is perhaps no one in the field of economics that has influenced modern thought like Friedman did. He was called one of the most influential figures of the modern world in the second half of the last century. He was an adviser to many presidents and prime ministers, most notably -- the two that influenced modern conservatism like none other -- Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. And other than the rather ignored fact that he won the Nobel memorial prize in economics, which everyone assumes automatically, he came up with the modern theory of monetarism, which in my Desi-speak means the following -- Any government, should stay the hell out of the people's business of doing anything productive, and if it would really like to have a control valve of sorts over the people it governs, it should be in possession of a slightly leaky faucet, to slowly create money. And then, it should stay the hell out. Of the people's business. Of being productive.

When you read about the man, Friedman does not come across as a crazy rifle wielding, government hating, horse riding, cabbage farming, moo-milking crazy nut-job, that most of us Libertarians are made out to be. He seems very practical about philosophies, to the extent that he was willing to "fine tune" his beliefs if the process gave him clarity. Of course, like many other Libertarians out there, he believed in legalizing drugs and sex, minimizing government and the military, and allowing the free market to flourish. But, unlike many others,  he believed that the federal reserve, given that it existed, should play a limited role. And that, earned him many converts, including the people who run the current monetary system.

It is hard to judge a fountainhead. More so, if the impact of his work takes centuries to reveal, while you live your life barely a decade away from his passing. So, things like these, are best left to historians who look back at things without the confusion that too much information tends to create.

Many years ago, I had asked Kailash the milkman, (who appears in one of my short stories, Bagpiper Karma) why he adulterated milk with water. He had been in a good mood that day, and so, he had told me his secret.

Apparently, as the calf gets older, it gets off the udder. And since the milk is mainly for the calf, the cow produces less, while the number of customers the milkman has, stays the same. So, he sends his cows to the field, hoping that at least one, would hit a bulls-eye. And, to keep his customers happy while the next cow comes home, he puts a little bit of water in the milk. But, he always makes sure that he does not add too much water too quickly, since it is easy to get caught that way.

What Kailash did, was not that bad really, since the alternative is complete chaos. In small town India, where milk comes next after water, people like him keep the peace.

Many years later, as I learned the few things that I know about economics, I learned that the central banks around the world do pretty much the same thing that Kailash did. The number of resources in the world, is finite, while the population keeps increasing, and everyone likes to carry around nice looking wallets. As wads of cash have to be produced at short notice, governments print money. And every time the press turns, inflation is created. After all, if there was no money, there would be complete chaos. So, a little dilution, may not be such a bad thing after all. The trick is to do it in small steps. And that is what Friedman had recommended.

Does that mean that I am going to call Milton Friedman the "Kailash" of the world economy? Perhaps not, since it makes my life really difficult if I have to explain free drugs and sex with a bovine analogy. So, I will let the cows explain all that to you. When they come home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

अलविदा आनंद !

ज़िन्दगी  और  मौत ऊपर  वाले  के  हाथ  हैं  जहाँपना , उसे  नातो  आप  बदल  सकते  हैं न  मैं |  हम  सब  तो  रंग  मंच  की  कठपुतलियाँ   हैं  जिनकी  डोर  ऊपर  वाले  की  ऊँगली  पे  बंधी  हैं | कब  कौन  कैसे  उठेगा  यह  कोई  नहीं  बता  सकता  है |

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Empty cars and wise drivers

Some time ago, I met a gentleman, who is reasonably high up in one of our defense organizations. Being the gentleman he is, he asked me to join him for lunch. He had one of those nice cars, that I have always found very impressive -- with a military license plate, a red beacon on top, and a chauffeur in front.

As the chauffeur drove us through the various gates in the controlled facility, they swung wide open for us, at the mere sight of the car, and there were salutes galore. Now that, was more impressive, let's say, about two times over,  than the car itself.

Later in the day, the gentleman had to send me somewhere quickly, and so, I traveled alone in the back seat of his car, and as usual, there were salutes galore, at every gate that we drove by. As I always like to strike up conversations with drivers and chauffeurs, I asked  the man behind the wheel if he ever got salutes when he drove by with an unoccupied back seat.

"To be frank sir, I sometimes do. But those salutes are mainly at night, when people can't quite make out if someone is in the back."

"So, is it fair to say that the car itself is getting salutes, for being an important looking car?" I asked him with a chuckle.

"That is not very uncommon in life sir," said my driver. "After all, many times, we salute politicians we don't like. But, we do that because we are paying respect to the chair, not the person occupying it. That is what many wise men have told me."

"So, technically, would you perhaps feel a little better saluting an empty chair, that is usually occupied by a politician?" I asked him.

"That will never happen sir, since none of of our politicians ever let a chair be empty. Even for a moment," pat came the reply.

Such wisdom.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The water cycle

Often, when I am absolutely bored, and I have nothing better to do, I flip through television channels. One after the other. A few days ago, I was doing just that, with just enough time spent in each channel for me to decide if I wanted to take my finger off the remote control.

And then, I came to one of the spiritual channels, which has a guru available every hour, dishing out every kind of philosophy that you can think of. On this one, I simply had to stop flipping. The guru had a piercing stare, and it seemed that he was looking straight at me through the screen. And then, in a deep voice that TV preachers learn to use once the cash starts flowing in, he told me, "..and so, what goes in, must come out..." That was all that I could catch before I caught a glimpse of an upside down sadhu on the next channel, trying to teach me that there are certain yogic positions one must not attempt -- after finishing a nice glass of scotch. 

I flipped through a few more channels that night. And then, I went straight to bed.

If you watch television commercials in India, you will see that currently, there are water wars going on. No, not the kind that are predicted to happen in a decade or so. These wars are between two movie stars from the seventies -- Hema Malini and Shabana Azmi -- who have strangely managed to look pretty through the decades that seem to have taken their toll on the rest of us. And these ladies, through their ads, are now trying to sell water filtration systems.The ads are nice, and I always head to our kitchen after seeing one, to pour myself a fresh glass of the life-giving stuff from our own water filter. I think we have one of the two that these ladies are trying to sell, not that it matters.

It seems rather strange that I tend to ignore this amazing liquid while I talk about Scotch and Lassi incessantly, with everyone I seem to talk to. So, a few days ago, when I had to go without a glass of water for a few hours, on a particularly hot afternoon, I realized how lucky I am, to have access to clean drinking water. Millions in India, are not so lucky, and every summer, in rural areas, things get really bad.

That night, I saw a documentary on the river Ganga, a river that flows very close to my heart. Sadly, it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world today. This majestic river starts in the Himalayas as a stream, straight out of a glacier, and ends up making an arm of what is probably the largest delta in the world. In the one and a half thousand miles of journey in between that this river makes, people wash their clothes and dump their sewage, toss the remains of their dead and wash their newborn in it, and sometimes, people take the water home in little plastic bottles to purify their homes, all around India. It hurts whenever I realize that we never think of  cleaning up the river itself.  Perhaps, to us Indians -- what is holy, does not need to be purified.

I was looking at a particularly gory part of the documentary, about an aspect of Kashi, that we all seem to ignore. Kashi is perhaps the only city in India which promises salvation to the dead, if they are cremated there.  Those that live, have to live with the burden of uncremated human remains in the water that they drink to live. I was beginning to get depressed, but then, I found something that cheered me up. Apparently, biologists are breeding a variety of flesh-eating turtles and releasing them into the Ganga, to clean it up using a sustainable method.

And then, the host of the show made a million-dollar comment,  "Don't you find it strange that the government is using turtles to help it do its work?!" I found that quite amusing in the Indian context, since we probably have the slowest bureaucracy the world.

But that got me thinking about what happens to all the water that does not flow out to the sea through the largest delta in the world. The water, that you and me seem to drink from our classy filtration systems, sold to us by evergreen movie stars from the seventies.

If you have ever been to a government office in India, and a few hours before that, you drank a lot of water bottled by a private company, you wouldn't want to take your privates to a government lavatory. To complete the water cycle that is.

Recently, I heard one of the not-so-rare bean counting stories that we keep hearing. Like Bill Clinton's $500 haircut, Dubya Bush's $600 Pizza, and yada, yada --  taxpayer's money being squandered by a repressive government that taxes us all to death. This one was about India's planning commission. The same organization, that plans our sewerage systems and river clean-up budgets, blew 35 lakh rupees (about $ 63,000) on renovating two toilets in a government building that it owns. Of course, like me, you are probably one of those angry taxpayers who just turned Libertarian. But then, I really had mixed feelings about the entire incident, as I had once attempted to take a leak in a government building in Delhi, in a restroom, that was obviously not renovated by the planning commission. Let me just say that the attempt was unsuccessful. 

So, what did I do to complete my own water cycle, when the repressive government refused to help me out? Let us not get into the details, but let us just say that it is amazing what one can do while breathing clean air, and surrounded by tall green trees in the open, paid for by the taxpayer.

If you ever have to face your own moment of crisis with the water cycle, you should try it. And, if you  feel too guilty and need some spiritual guidance in such situations, you can always remember what the spiritual guru with the piercing stare on TV told me.

I think he was right.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Time for a poor Parsi?

One of the things that I have always been very proud of, is that I have friends from many cultures and nationalities, and when they are not friends, I can at least refer to them as people that I know well. I once had Kenyan coffee with a Nigerian. I have shaken hands with a gentleman who called himself an Eskimo by heritage, and once, I sat next to a Mongolian gentleman from Cuba, on a flight to Germany.

Last week, while I was trying to think of a community in India that I don't have friends or acquaintances from, I suddenly came across a newspaper story about Parsis. The Parsis, who arrived in India from Persia a few centuries ago, due to the persecution of Zoroastrians there, have perhaps given more to India than any other community has, on a per capita basis. By and large, the Parsis are an extremely prosperous group of people, who have worked very hard to build a reputation for themselves over centuries.

The news story was about "poor Parsis". Not many people in India can come up with a sentence which has these two words together. Apparently, the Parsis have many charitable properties in Bombay, that they can rent at a subsidized rate, provided, they can prove that they are poor. So, from time to time, people calculate the "poverty line" for Parsis, and this year, it happens to be an income of rupees 90,000 per month. That is about a thousand and a half dollars a month in a country like India, where, for comparison, a senior bureaucrat in Delhi makes about the same.

Naturally, the first thought that came to my mind was about how many Parsis I know.

Strangely, I don't have any Parsi friends -- not even people that I can call friends of friends. Of friends. But then, many years ago, in the land of the free, I was  interviewed for a job by a Parsi gentleman. Since the engineering group that I had talked to, had only one person from India, after my interview, they had asked him to take me out for lunch. And over lunch, we got talking, about things from India.

Like most Indians, who had spent decades outside of Des, this gentleman got very nostalgic very soon. He told me about his college days in Bombay, and about an old bollywood movie that he had watched after "bunking" college, that I hadn't even heard of -- Satta Bazaar. And then, he had explained to me what Satta was, and how bookies made millions by betting on everything you can find in a farm, including the farm itself.

He had explained to me that in the land of betting, the stronger guy has less money tied to him. So, if you are betting on a guy who has a sure-shot chance of winning, for every hundred bucks you bet on him, you will probably get fifty, or even twenty five. However, if you choose to bet on the weaker horse, with all the odds stacked up on its rickety back, and, in case it wins -- you will make out like a bandit. You will probably make a couple of thousand bucks by betting a hundred. Not bad, really.

I remember ending the conversation with a direct question about what my chances of getting the job were. I had a great interview, and I knew that they were looking for someone with my background.

"For you my friend, for every hundred bucks I bet, I will probably get ten!" That is how my Parsi interviewer had given me hope, for a job that I finally didn't take. But, the entire thought of being the winning horse, was not an entirely unwelcome one.

India, is still trying to choose its candidates for the presidential election. And every Indian, can tell you about a candidate or two that they think should be president. Since India is a parliamentary democracy, the president is a ceremonial figurehead, who is not even directly elected by the people. So, I was surprised that people around me have been really excited about who the next president should be. And then, I found another news story about the Satta Bazaar, where each of the presidential candidates now have a certain number of rupees attached to their names -- for every hundred you are willing to put up. I also found that India's incumbent finance minister, who is the favored candidate, will fetch you much less than hundred. Not that I am betting.

If you live in India, I am sure that someone or the other must have told you about their favorite candidate in the last few weeks, or they may even have asked you about yours. So, when a friend recently asked me the question, I had an answer ready.

"I think India's next president should be a Parsi, and preferably, a poor one."

While my friend looked at me quizzically, I rambled on.

"You know, we have had presidents from all sorts of communities before, but never a Parsi. So, why not?  As you know, India's growth story is coming to an end, people need a change. And, they need a new constitutional head who represents that change. May be, the poor Parsi that we pick will be a person from a business background, and inspire the rest of us."

"Got any names?" asked my friend, who was looking bored already.

"How about Ratan Tata? He is retiring from his current position at the helm of the Tata empire. He made India proud with the nano. And, during the terrorist attack in Mumbai, when most politicians had disappeared from public view, Mr. Tata stood bravely in front of the burning Taj -- with a promise to resurrect it as soon as the fires were put out. And he did. Plus, I have heard that he lives frugally, so he is a poor Parsi."

My friend, who has been tracking the politics of electing a figurehead quite closely, said, "Desi, you have lost it. Completely. Do you know that even if a majority of politicians came around to the idea of electing Mr. Tata, he would refuse to contest. In case you don't know, he is a very private person."

And then, he asked me a question related to the Satta Bazaar, since I had told him the story about my Parsi interviewer, "Desi, if you were to go and bet a hundred bucks on the most favored candidate today, how much do you think you will get?"

"Twenty, may be?" I said casually.

"And how much will you get for Ratan Tata?"

"I don't know, but I have a feeling that it will be pretty high."

"How high? For your poor Parsi candidate, Desi?"

And suddenly, it came to me. In a flash. And then, with a wide grin on my face, I told him.

"Ninety thousand rupees. For a poor Parsi."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Engineering the entrance

James Bond movies are fun to watch. You can have a few hours of brainless entertainment, and come out feeling pretty good at the end. I have watched so many of these movies so many times, that in my mind's eye, I have a pretty miserable mash of characters and plots, and often, it is very hard for me to remember what happened in which movie.

I remember one such movie, perhaps with Sean Connery playing the lead, in which he was trying to gain entrance into the villain's lair. The door was guarded by a big and burly character, who tried to scare Bond off with a bunch of complicated moves, swishing and cutting the air with a big and mean sword. Bond watched him calmly through the entire swordplay, and, at the end, pulled out a gun, and shot him dead.  Now that -- is what I call an entrance.

The engineering community in India is going though an elaborate discussion right now. On how, they should guard the entrance to our temples of engineering education.

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have long admitted students based on a single entrance examination, conducted at the end of twelve years of school education, in which, the final two impart specialized education to eligible students, in the basic sciences. At the end of these years, a student is expected to know how to calculate the forces inside complicated arrangements of pulleys pulling on blocks of wood  with ropes, or how to synthesize long chain polymers of hydrocarbons from ethyl alcohol, that you and me sometimes call moonshine. It is another story that if you ask these students to put together an actual arrangement of pulleys, as in a block and tackle, or perform some exciting chemistry experiment with dad's stash of moonshine, they will fail. Miserably. And therein, lies the problem with India's engineering education system, and how we pick the future engineers for our country.

The government, which should not be in the business of fixing anything, is trying to fix the problem. But, for a completely wrong set of reasons. They are not trying to fix the entrance process to enable a better selection of future engineers, who, in addition to having the rote requisites to understand the sciences behind the engineering, should have a passion for the subject. Instead, the government believes that the examination is too tough, and so, the new entrance strategy should be based on a mix of academic performance in school, and a new entrance examination, which presumably, will be different. To put things in a language 007 fans like me would understand, they are putting two swordsmen at the entrance now. Perhaps, Mr. Bond, will now need two guns.

So, that begs the question. How should we really pick our future engineers?

Well for starters, we should not pick the people who are going to do something else for a living after the country invests a large amount of money in them. Something else, like a job in the finance industry, setting up derivatives that crash the world's economy. But then, isn't that a pretty difficult thing to do? You can pick a student based on his knowledge of physics or chemistry, but how in the world do you pick someone based on passion for something like engineering.

Since the government is already making major modifications to the entrance, it is perhaps possible to pick a hundred or so students from all over India, who make some kind of basic cut in their high school grades, but participate in a nationwide competition to actually build something useful. This selection procedure could be similar  to the one in the science talent program that has been running in the United States for the last sixty years or so, currently sponsored by Intel, and previously by Westinghouse. And of course, such students, will be exempt from the "pressure cooker" entrance examination -- the one, with the swordsman at the gate.

So, if you pick the "super" hundred kids from India based on their ability to build things with passion, is there a guarantee that they will not take up jobs in finance? Well, there are no guarantees in life, but, for a change, you might be able to attract a few kids to the system who have a passion for building, and have high school grades, that are good enough to sustain them through the academic system at the IITs.  

I would like to believe that this is a revolutionary idea of sorts, that identifies passion for engineering, but I would be terribly wrong. The Indian Institute of Science, considered India's top institute in postgraduate research, recently added an undergraduate program. Although they have decided to select some of their students through the IIT entrance examination, they also select budding scientists through a nationwide science talent program known as the "Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojna" or KVPY. Perhaps, the IITs can pool their resources together and start such a program to select a limited number of budding engineers, who can actually do something with the ropes and pulleys they seem to get entangled with, in their nightmares.

A few months ago, I met an old friend of mine, who shared my passion for engineering in our days at an IIT. Many years have passed since. Although I stuck to a career in engineering, my friend, after working in the field for a few years, decided to get himself a business degree from a big name school. And then, he bade adieu to engineering. For ever.  He now has a high paying job in finance. So, I asked him what it feels like -- to not be associated with a field that he was once so passionate about. 

With a sigh, my friend, who was once a civil engineer, told me, "Are yaar,  pahle sachmuch ke kiley banaya kartha tha, aab to sirf hawai kiley banata  hoon! (My friend, in my old job, I used to build real castles, and now, I just build them in the air!)"

For the hordes of young people in India, contemplating a career in engineering, I hope the new entrance strategy works out. Or, there will be many more castles to build -- in the air.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Amish Libertarianism

"So, I guess I will see you at my place for dinner tonight?"

I was about to sign off with a friend in the land of the free, who had never tasted Indian food, and I had volunteered to cook him a proper Desi dinner.

"Oh, and one last thing -- do you have any dietary restrictions? I am guessing that you are a non-vegetarian, right?"

Now, it was my friend's turn to be confused.

"Non-vegetarian? I am guessing that you just asked me if I am a meat-eater. If that was your question, then yes, I do eat meat. See ya tonight!"

 It took me a few months after I landed in the land of the free to realize that "non-vegetarian" was not an American word. In fact, I doubt if many people outside of India use that word at all, to refer to meat eaters. And, there is a good reason for that. I think that we Indians made up that word because we are predominantly a culture of vegetarians. So, a meat-eater is simply "not us" -- or, a non-vegetarian!

In my opinion, Hindi, as a language, is much less discriminatory. Vegetarians are called shak-ahari (diet of greens), and non-vegetarians are called mans-ahari (diet of meat). A few days ago, I went to a Bengali restaurant with Dhanno ki Amma, and found two Bengali words on the menu, which are surely discriminatory, but in an exactly opposite way to the convention that the rest of India seems to follow. Bengalis, being voracious carnivores, call themselves Amish (meat-eater in Bengali), and those who disgrace their culture by eating the distasteful green stuff, are called Nir-Amish (not meat-eater). Well, there you go.

And then, I was having a serious conversation over lunch with a friend of mine, who is a committed vegetarian, and has been trying to make me one for a while. This gentleman, is also an avid follower of cultures around the world, specially, the peaceful and vegetarian ones.

"So, do you know what the word Amish means?" I asked him.

"Oh yeah, very nice people. From Pennsylvania. I guess they live simple and peaceful lives, and I have a feeling that they are vegetarians like me. But, why do you ask?"

Darn, I had completely forgotten about the Pennsylvania Amish! How could I, specially, when I had to fork out a substantial sum once, to pay for a piece of Amish furniture. The Amish, are great carpenters, and the expensive stuff they make, sells very well, all across the world.  I did not want to disappoint my friend, but I knew for sure that the Amish are not vegetarians, although, they grow their own food.

Of course, I told him what the word means in Bengali -- and he seemed quite elated to make another new discovery about the known universe of cultures out there.

But I remembered something else that I thought I should let him know. Specially, because my vegetarian friend is a big-time libertarian-baiter, and makes no secret of that fact, when he is around me. He knows that I have a little bit of a soft-corner for Libertarianism, among all the other political philosophies out there.

"Do you know that the Amish people are probably  more Libertarian than anyone else out there? They grow their own food, make their own clothes, build their own houses, and since there is very little commerce with the outside world, and everything inside is based on barter, I doubt if they pay any taxes!"  

I am pretty sure that my erudite friend must have seen the dreamy look in my eyes, and sensed the immediate desire in my heart to move to a libertarian paradise, and grow my very own beard -- somewhere in Pennsylvania. But, he had to ruin it for me, like he always does.

"Amish Libertarians?  Libertarian Amish?  No, No, No! Given what you just told me about the meaning of the word Amish, and that most Bengalis, including your wife, are Amish, I can safely tell you that most Amish are left leaning liberals. Or closet commies."

"Perhaps you are not aware that the Bengalis threw out the communists from their government more than a year ago -- they are not the lefties you think they are!" I said sounding a little indignant.

With a twinkle in his eye, my friend chortled, "Then my friend, the Bengalis are not Amish any more. May be, they have become Nir-Amish.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Blast from the past

Many of you know that I am a big fan of black and white photographs. Specially, from the old times. So, a few days ago, when I read that a set of long lost photographic plates  were rediscovered, I was intrigued to say the least. And then, when I found those photographs online, I sat staring at them for hours. The plates were apparently wrapped in a newspaper which dates back to 1914, and sat  inside a shoebox for the greater part of a century. No one really knows who took the photographs, but they tell many an interesting tale. Provided of course, you know how to read the thousand words that a picture is always worth.

There are pictures of majestic gardens and valleys, of people bathing ceremonially in the many holy rivers of our country, and, of today's old buildings from colonial India, which shine in their new found glory of bricks and mortar, from the times when they were just inaugurated.

And amongst all these pictures from the India of the yesteryear's, which would have fascinated any westerner then and now, I found one that fascinated the Desi in me -- a picture of three Madaris (animal tamers), from those times, and their charges -- two sloth bears, two monkeys and a goat.

Of course, you and I both know that a hundred years have passed since. We know that the Madaris have disappeared from India's streets and today, people in remote villages in India watch Desi television soaps for entertainment, streamed 24/7 to them by satellite television. So, I was wondering what to make of this picture, in our century of entertainment -- by cable, satellite and internet.

And suddenly, another blast from the past came to the fore, and it helped me make some sense of this photograph.

Apparently, in 1949, two years after the British left, and took all their photographic plates hidden in shoe-boxes with them, we were still struggling to get our constitution right. And, India's famous cartoonist, Shankar, depicted the frustration of two of India's great leaders, Nehru and Ambedkar, with the slowness of the entire process. So, in the cartoon, they are shown whipping a snail representing the constituent assembly at that time. This cartoon, with appropriate explanations, is included in some government funded textbooks in India. And so, all of a sudden, our honorable members of parliament decided that this cartoon is derogatory in nature and insults two of India's great leaders, who in their their times, had probably taken a good look at the cartoon, and had a good laugh out of it.

The honorable Indian parliament, in all its wisdom, decided to spend one complete day of a taxpayer funded session, debating why the cartoon deserves to be dropped from government subsidized textbooks. And then, once that was promised, two of the academic advisers responsible for the book, and in my opinion, two of the few men left in our country with testicles, resigned.

The problem with today's India is that we have put the ordinary people of our freedom movement on such high pedestals in the last few decades, that we are willing to sacrifice the things they stood for, for the things that seem to be respectful to their memory. Things, like freedom of speech, that Nehru and Ambedkar would have died for, are now gladly sacrificed for votes, in the system, that has now been called psephocracy,  by some political pundits. What we are seeing today, portend dark times ahead -- for free speech and democracy in India.

When I took a second look at the lost photograph from 1912, I realized that perhaps, in today's India, the three animals in the photograph represent the three classes of the Indian people. The monkeys represent the ruling political class, which is playing around with our sentiments at our expense. The sloth bears represent the lazy bureaucracy, which has completely stopped working in the last  few years, in what has come to be known as "policy paralysis".

But, what about the goat? In case you haven't figured it out, it is the proverbial sacrificial goat, which represents the Indian citizen. Specially the tax payer. You and I, the sacrificial goats, have been restrained at the altar, and are waiting for the axe to fall.

One could argue though that our politicians are merely protecting their interests. They had to play to the gallery on a complete non-issue, as they have to get re-elected. And so, they were afraid of losing votes when they did what they did.

Fair enough. But then, if you look at the madari photograph again, you will see that there is a chicken from a hundred years ago, that I missed. From Caesar to Churchill, all politicians at some stage or the other, have shown great reverence to this much neglected bird. Specially, during times, when they had to dump their values -- for their votes.

So, to all our politicians, inspired by these two blasts from the past,  I have one thing to say in the language that they would surely understand -- cluck

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Chappal Kumar and Shoe Sahib

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a flight at Hyderabad's swanky airport terminal. A couple of "techie-geeks" were sitting opposite me, and you could easily guess who they were, from what they wore -- jeans, T-shirts and sneakers. And right behind them, was a gentleman, pacing up and down the waiting area, with a cellphone stuck to his ear. He was dressed in expensive clothes, wore designer glasses, and spoke words that gave the impression that he dealt in millions of rupees -- of profit and loss.

It was quite obvious that the geeks sitting opposite me were also tuning into the conversation. And, they looked quite impressed.

A little later, at the end of his conversation, the gentleman walked right by us, and we got to see his footwear. He was wearing Indian style leather sandals, known as chappals,  which don't have a closing strap at the back. And, as he got out of earshot, I  heard one of the techies with an amused smile on his face, say to the other, "Chappal Kumar!"

And, in that single moment, I realized that the quick sand-castle of respect that the gentleman had built amongst the young techies, had suddenly been demolished -- under the weight of his own chappals.

Indians are very judgmental about what people wear. They won't discriminate against you for not being in a suit in a business conference, but being one of the most striated societies in the world, Indians treat people differently for what they choose to wrap around their necks, or strap around their feet. The so called working class dresses a certain way, and anyone who dresses like them, risks being "one of them", when amongst the sahibs.

In my opinion, the most common way that the Desis dress in western clothes, is quite practical for the hot and humid climate of India. The dressing style involves leaving the shirt untucked, and wearing chappals. Both, result in the quick dissipation of body heat, and keep a man cool in summer.   The sahibs, are easy to distinguish, they need to tuck their shirts and wear their shoes. Unless of course, they decide to dress in western-style shorts on a Friday, and wear sandals that close at the back with a strap -- so no-one can call them chappals.

The educated class in India, will almost always place you in a stratum of society, depending on what you have on your feet. Chappals, no matter how finely finished, will place you amongst the working classes, and shoes, will mark you as one of the educated.  Perhaps, the two techies would have continued to look up to the gentleman who walked by, had he worn a pair of shiny shoes, and perhaps, they would have referred to him, as "shoe sahib."

I am not a big fan of shoes, specially,  in the hot and humid climate of India. However, I wear them, whenever I am at work for a completely different reason. In the very first year of engineering school, our professors and their technical helpers drilled it into us that when you are walking amongst heavy machinery, loose pieces of clothing or the lack of shoes on your feet, can result in the loss of limbs and sometimes, even life. That habit, stayed on, even if I don't deal with dangerous equipment, all the time.

All my friends in my undergraduate days, who were "chappal kumars", when they walked into the engineering school, had turned into "shoe sahibs" on convocation day. And, whenever I met them in the years that followed, I never saw them not wearing a shoe, even on the hottest days of the year.

But, leaving the engineers aside, I have always wondered what the rest of India feels about this chappal-shoe divide. I simply don't get the "techie's universal code of footwear" -- after all, I have never seen a software engineer run off to a game of basketball at the end of writing a thousand lines of code. So, why would they need the sneakers, and of course, why would they laugh at Mr. Chappal Kumar, with his millions in profit and loss?!

There are other countries out there, which are not immune to this phenomenon. In the land of the free, the shirt and shoe free culture was apparently brought into the mainstream by pot smoking hippies. And that, resulted in thousands of business establishments, specially supermarkets and restaurants, placing large signs in front, which proclaimed, "No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service."

But, at the same time, I have always admired the Texans for being different. Many of the things that they do in the lone star state are different, because of the things Texas happens to be -- big and hot.  Once, driving on a state highway amongst the boonies of Texas, I saw a roadside sign advertizing a restaurant and a bar, and almost shouting in large Texas-size font -- "No Shirts? No Shoes? No Problem!!!"

Now, when I think of that interesting sign, I wonder what Mr. Chappal Kumar would have done, if he was "passin' through" as they say in Texas. Unless of course, he didn't feel like stopping -- for a shot of Tequila.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tamarind City

Many years ago, when Dhanno was still very small, we went on a long drive through the beautiful forests of the Banff national park in Alberta, Canada. After we crossed over to the land of the free, we drove through a green canopy of pines in northern Idaho and then, the desert in western Oregon. We had stopped at a small gas-station, next to the interstate,  in the middle of nowhere. And then we decided to grab a bite to eat.

While Dhanno-ki-Amma was browsing through the provisions inside the store, I decided to look at a
local map. And, the first thing that caught my attention was the name of a small town, not far from the gas-station, where I was munching on a tasteless hamburger.  "Madras, Oregon" was what the prominent marking on the map proclaimed. And  for some strange reason, I remember craving for Dosas and Sambar -- and the sweet and sour taste of tamarind.

Many years have passed since. Madras, Oregon -- originally named after Madras, India -- still retains its name. Madras, India, decided to rename itself to Chennai a few years ago, and now, there is a new book in town that celebrates the not-so-new city. And a certain funny reference to why the name Chennai may not really celebrate the part of Madras that the people who renamed it to Chennai, wanted to celebrate.

A few days ago, I received a neat package from an online bookseller. Inside, was the second book by one of my favorite writers, Biswanath Ghosh, called Tamarind City. Mr. Ghosh, who has an amazing flair for making people see the extraordinary in the ordinary, has written the masterpiece of a book. It took me three days of leisurely reading to finish it, and I learned a lot of things about this metropolis in India, that has largely avoided any type of publicity in the last few decades. And of course, while I read the book, the tamarind cravings came back,and so did the longings for hot idlis and crispy dosas.

One might wonder, why a Desi, who grew up in the north, would care about a city, whose name once used to be a sobriquet for the entire south. When I was growing up, Madras, represented the the land to the south. And the people who came from there, were Madrasis.  Now that I have spent some time in the South, I know how infuriated a Mr. Pillai from Kerala or a Mr. Reddy from Andhra would be, for being called a Madrasi. But then, we northerners are incorrigible -- and it looks like we shall be --  for quite some time.

Mr. Ghosh takes the reader on an amazing journey through history that is documented in textbooks and history that ordinary people like you and me make on a daily basis. His interviews with the denizens of this city are detailed, and sometimes, in spite of the wide cultural gap between the reader and the read, one begins to empathize. For some strange reason, when I read the life story of the author's Yoga teacher, who happens to be a traditional Tamil lady, I felt that I had tears in my eyes. I had no idea where they had come from, and as I flipped through the pages, they went away very quickly, as one emotion replaced another.

Mr. Ghosh is simply amazing with his words, he will dig out all the emotions that lie buried within you, as you read this book. And what an amazing tour it will be! At the end of my three days with Tamarind City, I feel that I am now better educated about Madras, and since the education came from a fellow Desi, I have a better understanding of what it means to be from Chennai.

 The book is sprinkled with anecdotes from people famous and infamous, and Mr. Ghosh in one place, performs the masterpiece of a comparison between Bapu and Periyar -- I have a completely new found perspective of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamilnadu now, specially, as an outsider. And, in the same book, Mr. Ghosh took me on a guided tour of the Iyer and Iyengar strongholds of Chennai -- and I became an admirer of the Tamil Brahmins, for their perseverance, and resilience.

And oh, one more thing. This is not supposed to be a critique, since I confessed right at the beginning that I am one of the fans. But, our home does have a good number of opinionated people, my wife being one. Since we both took turns reading the book, I found that she was not very happy with Mr. Ghosh's insinuation that Chennai is the city where "modern India began." After all, for a woman who grew up in the city that was once British India's capital, that is a pretty tough pill to swallow.

Also, a few months ago, Dhanno-ki-Amma and I were standing at the Kappad beach in the beautiful state of  Kerala. In case you don't know, that is the beach where Vasco da Gama had landed in India, during times that could be reasonably described as "modern".  That "discovery" of India by Europe, during times that it was just beginning to wake up from centuries of slumber called the "dark ages",  merits the question about when modern times began, and who really brought modernity to India.

For some reason, I still believe that modern India began the day we launched our own satellite launch vehicle, the SLV. It was designed in India, by Indian engineers, and launched from a place called Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, in 1979. When I looked at a map, I realized that Sriharikota is only eighty kilometers north of Chennai, and perhaps, at one time, as Mr. Ghosh will probably tell you, the lands of Sriharikota and Chennai were owned by the same Naidu ruler, after whom, Chennai was named. So, by my definition too, modern India did really begin in Chennai -- the Tamarind City!

Tamarind City is a must read. And, I hope to see many such books by Mr. Ghosh in the days ahead.  Go find your copy before this edition is all sold out!