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.