Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Return of Flora Aunty

I don't watch much news on television nowadays. In fact, for the last year or so, I have been getting all my news the old fashioned way -- mostly from the morning newspaper, and sometimes, from Sitamma, the flower lady, Laxman the fruit seller, or Nagaraj, the greengrocer. And, (although I don't feel very good when I say it), the quality of news-reporting is much better, when I get it from the people, who do something else for a living.

Something seems to be terribly wrong with Indian journalism.

A few weeks ago, I woke up to find that all the major newspapers were printing front-page stories about a famous "sting-journalist", who in turn, had been stung by one of his interns -- on sexual harassment charges. I had never heard of Mr. Tarun Tejpal from Tehelka before, and other than the fact that I saw a small alliteration hiding in his identity, I was not amused much with the news. But Indian television channels, when I flipped though them for a minute, seemed to be having a field day. I was glad that I did not watch news on television any more.

Last week, I finally summed up enough courage to switch on the news on TV once again. We just had elections in five states in India, and the results are supposed to be very critical for the national elections that lie ahead. I have always considered election coverage to be a good test of competence, for the various television "anchors", who call themselves journalists. Newspapers simply don't have it in them, to compete with news that streams in, up to the minute, and hot off the teleprinter, when election results are on. On such occasions, I always like to compare three news channels in India -- each with its own "face" of so called television journalism.

Times-now, a television "tabloid" channel, has a gentleman called Arnab Goswami at the helm. I have never seen a more perfect example of what psychiatrists like to call multiple personality disorder. After Mr. Goswami asks a question, and before someone can answer, one of the many voices in his head takes over and interrupts the conversation. Between his own personality and the six or seven others in his sub-conscious, Mr. Goswami, can run an entire news show by himself. I pity the others who have to be on his show, but then, I have a feeling that he probably compensates them well for their time. It goes without saying that I did briefly enjoy the election coverage that was made by Mr. Goswami and the voices in his head.

A study in contrast is Mr. Prannoy Roy, one of the veterans of Television news in India. We don't get to see him much on TV nowadays, as a younger and more brash crowd has taken over his channel, NDTV. But, come election time, one can see Indian television journalism at its best, when Mr. Roy takes the helm. With a calm demeanor, and an old-school style of journalism, that encourages the speaker to finish a line of thought, Mr. Roy is a delight to watch. It's a pity that we get to watch him doing what he does best, only when we go to the polls.

But the third channel that I accidentally flipped to, when I was trying to get a taste of Indian TV journalism, was CNN's Indian avatar, CNN-IBN. And the program I stumbled upon, was a post election analysis of why the Congress party in India is going through its last throes. But before I tell you what I felt about the journalist, Ms. Sagarika Ghose, I have to tell you about Flora Aunty.

During our long exile away from Des, when we used to live in the land of the free, I used to miss the warm and bright colors that define India.  The western world has a very different idea of what colors should look like, which is why, travelers to India are dumbstruck, when they see the bright colors for the first time. If you are a Desi living in the west, you almost go through withdrawal symptoms, when you first see the widespread chromatic reticence which seems to draw from similar levels of reserve in social conduct, that people seem to prefer.

Imagine my surprise then, that after we moved back to India, I saw that the old Indian colors had disappeared, perhaps, because people preferred less exuberance in the clothes they wore, or perhaps, because the "high-end" clothes, made in China, had no way of appealing to the visual palette of Desis.

And then, came Flora Aunty.

Manorama, the "original" Flora Aunty.

Dhanno Ki Amma used to watch a late night serial, called "Is Pyar ko Kya Naam Doon? (What shall I call this love?)" Although she never managed to convince me to watch the serial, I was taken aback, when I watched one of the supporting characters called Mrs. Manorama, for the first time. Florescent in her bright colors, and resplendent in her jewelry, Manorama, was the epitome of what an Indian color palette could achieve. For the first time in decades, I felt that Indian civilization, along with all the bright colors that it had to offer, had not surrendered to the Chinese. My Desi pride was back. 

Since all good things have to come to an end, the unnamed love of "Is Pyar ko Kya Naam Doon", evenually ended as well. And Mrs. Manorama, who we used to refer to as Flora Aunty, disappeared off the airwaves. Our lives were dark and bland again, with all the colors gone -- taken away, by Flora Aunty.

When I saw Ms. Ghose on CNN-IBN for the first time, I gave off a cry of delight. As Dhanno ki Amma joined me, I gleefully pointed to the television, and shouted, "Flora Aunty is back!". The large LCD screen was florescent with the colors Ms. Ghose was wearing. The same colors, that Mrs. Manorama had taken away from us, when she left us in pain.
Ms. Ghose, the "new" Flora Aunty.

Ms. Ghose is actually a delight to listen to, because she seems to combine the pointedness that the new generation of Indian TV journalists seem to use, with the patience and decency of Mr. Prannoy Roy. I was quite impressed with the way she conducted the entire show, asking questions that I would have liked her to ask on my behalf, as a viewer. But her choice of colors had me bowled over, since both Dhanno ki Amma and I, were sorely missing Flora Aunty.

I can tell you that we are going to watch a lot more news on television, now that we have rediscovered our Flora Aunty, albeit, in a completely new Avatar. And in spite of all the brashness and the frequent use of simian projectiles, by the new crop of Indian journalists, I am glad that Flora Aunty is here to stay, as an alternative to them.

And of course, I pray to Shiva, that she does not ever change the person, who is in charge of her wardrobe.  

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Battle for the Ruins

The Indian general elections are coming. And, during such times, I always remember the most spectacular loss that a political party had to endure, during recent times.

In 1989, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, cobbled together an uneasy coalition of partners, with some inside and some outside of his government, to become India's prime minister. This was the second election, in which, the Congress party had to be outside the corridors of power in New Delhi. Although most people viewed these elections as a spectacular victory for V.P. Singh, and his anti-corruption crusade, a lot, including Desi Babu, also appreciated the fact that it was a spectacular loss for the Congress.

Rajiv Gandhi, had led his party to a massive victory in 1984, while the embers of his mother's funeral pyre were still cooling. This "sympathy wave", that gave his Congress party more than a four fifths majority, was completely absent in 1989, and Mr. Gandhi, and his political party, were routed. During those days, I remember someone saying with a lot of authority, that the days of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, were finally over. Mr. Gandhi's party did come back to power in 1991, again, partially riding a sympathy wave, that was present due to the assassination of another "Nehru-Gandhi". This time, unfortunately for Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, it had to be him.

Many wonder, what would have happened to the Congress, had Mr. Gandhi been alive. Desi Babu believes that Mr. Gandhi would have led it to oblivion, as he simply did not have it in him. In death, perhaps, he helped the Congress party much more than he was capable of ever helping it, in life.

Most people in India today are discussing the upcoming electoral victory of Mr. Narendra Modi. Many, are planning his agenda, or his cabinet for him, and the rest, are speculating about the number of seats that he might win. Just like in 1989, Desi Babu is trying to figure out what will happen to India's oldest political party after the upcoming elections.

Never before in the past, has the Congress party gone through such a "life and death" situation.

After the elections, it will become very clear to the Congress mandarins that Mr. Rahul Gandhi is not really someone who can take them to electoral victories. After all, he has tried hard and failed so many times that 2014 will be a mere affirmation of a fact that they already know. They will also come to the realization that the Indian people, specially the young voters, have outgrown the "dynasty". The "family" does not hold a special place in their hearts, and they would really like to move on.

Another rude shock that will await them at that time, will be that the "left of center" political discourse, with a Gandhian flavor,  will no longer be owned by them. The "Aam Aadmi Party", a recent entrant to India's political space, is both left-of-center, and Gandhian. The Congress, being heavily invested in one political family, will be quite sore, when they find that the current heirs are not very competent at running the family business, and that the competition has a better product, which sells well.  The other leaders of the past, that they could possibly lay claims on, will have been usurped by the opposition. The coins of legacy, would have been exhausted.

When a citadel crumbles, first, there are the ruins. And then, there is a battle for the ruins.

Desi Babu believes that after the massive loss that the Congress will go through, there will be a rebellion in the party. Some will leave for greener pastures, and those who stay, will have to assert themselves as alternatives to the "Nehru-Gandhi" family. And Desi Babu also believes that this process has already started.

Mr. Kapil Sibal and Mr. Chidambaram, the two most recognized faces of the Congress party, will start positioning themselves for the leadership of the party in the coming months. As they realize that the Congress is headed for a big loss, and the family is headed into oblivion, they will become more assertive. It is also possible that they will start clandestine talks with people like Mr. Sharad Pawar, Ms. Mamata Banerjee and Mr. Jagan Reddy -- to bring back the prodigal sons and daughters that left -- since the "family" will not matter any more.

In 2014, the right of center, will probably win. It remains to be seen if the Congress will stay the dominant player in the space to the left of center. And if it does, who, outside the Nehru-Gandhi family will make that possible. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bapu Special

It has been more than a couple of years since I started blogging. In my writings, I have made no secret of my admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, or Bapu as we like to call him in India.

In the Indian public discourse, discussions about Bapu are usually sombre and guarded, and reflect the way opinion on famous political personalities is made -- and shared.  A serious, and perhaps academic, piece of writing on Bapu, is always deliberate in being politically correct. To the writer, the experience is often like walking on a tightrope strung between two highrise buildings, lovingly named as Lugubria and Soporifica.

Over the years, I have often written about Bapu, sometimes perhaps, in the jocular vein, but I have always been respectful. Today, since it is Bapu's birthday, I have decided to refer back to some of my posts from the past, that the reader might find interesting.

Perhaps, you remember the time when I had gone out with a bunch of friends on Bapu's birthday, and remembered that we could not buy ourselves a drink. Perhaps, you remember when I was trying to figure out who the Mahatma's reincarnation would have been, according to the Hindu scriptures, only to be told by one of the blog's readers that perhaps, it was Mr. Vijay Mallya, the famous beer bursar from Bangalore.

And of course, there has been a time, when I have written a serious and long piece on the possible libertarian leanings of the Mahatma, only to be reminded by a reader that perhaps libertarianism is not the answer for an already fractured country like ours.

Champion of Liberty -- Libertarian?

My favorite post on The Peanut Express, about the Mahatma, had little to do with my own writings. In that post, I  had reproduced a few lines, verbatim, from one of the columns written by my personal hero, Mr. Khushwant Singh. Mr. Singh, is known for his sharp wit, which is sometimes mixed with mischief -- like whiskey is often mixed with soda. In the end, while intoxicating, it leaves a strange taste in the mouth, and a deep longing for real scotch in the heart.

But then, on Bapu's birthday, perhaps, I should refrain from using such metaphors.

Monday, September 30, 2013

भैंस के आगे बीन

पूछा मैंने भैंस से, क्या अब भरपेट खा पाओगी ?

तुम्हारा चारा खाने वाले, दो दर्जन या तीन,
बैठ कर जेल में अब काट रहे सजा संगीन|
सोचा था हमने उनको छू भी न पायेगा कोई
किसको पता था कि देख रहा है इलाहे दीन।

मासूम सा मुंह बनाकर, भैंसवती देवी बोली,
सलाखों के पीछे बैठ कर गाने बजाने  से क्या होता है?
जिसको खाना था, वह तो खा कर पचा भी गया,
बाहर जो बैठे हैं,  उनको पता तक नहीं चला|
धरती खिसक गयी पैरों तले से उनकी,
आसमान सरक गया सर के ऊपर से|
पर भनक तक नहीं पड़ी इन बेचारों को

क्योंकि,  ये  भैंस के आगे सिर्फ बजा रहे हैं बीन।

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Soorma Bhopali Redux

Central bankers are boring people. I once heard a speech by Alan Greenspan during the days when a couple of shots of the strongest moonshine wouldn't do a thing for me. A couple of lines by the great tormentor of irrational exuberance were enough to doze me off.

They say that central bankers are required to be boring. In fact, if a highly decorated economist is not boring enough, he can never be a successful central banker. Armed with this information, Dhanno-Ki-Amma and I had once attended a talk by the great  Raghuram Rajan, during the release of his book a few years ago. As we had walked out of the auditorium, I had told my wife that the great doctor was destined for the same levels of greatness that Alan Greenspan had once attained.

A couple of days ago, as Dr. Raguram Rajan took his oath of office as India's top banker, I seriously contemplated a career in soothsaying. But we will talk about that on some other day.

In the last few days, Raghuram Rajan has been projected by the Indian media as a "rock star" economist, who is going to instantly stop the exchange rate slide, elevate the stock indices, eliminate the current account deficit, and fix everything else that is wrong with the Indian economy. Don't get me wrong, I really admire the guy. He is an extremely bright individual, with a sense of purpose, who comes across as someone, who genuinely cares about where the country is headed, when our leaders seem to have bailed on us. But, the last time I checked, rock stars don't fix anything -- they never have.

What came to my mind, when I thought about what the Indian economy really needs, was more of a knight in shining armor. I have no idea why this happens to be, but the word for knight in Desi Babu's favorite languages of Hindi and Urdu, happens to be Soorma. 

Now, hold that thought for a couple of minutes while I tell you about something else. Raghuram Rajan, has been named after the Lord of Ayodhya -- twice, if you care to count. I could not, even in my wildest dreams, imagine that our esteemed right wing, would question his "Indian-ness", but as it turns out, they did. Because, for various reasons, including the fact that he seems to be more devoted to India than many of our politicians do, it was suspected that he was not Indian by birth. Apparently, the matter was quickly settled when Dr. Rajan produced a birth certificate, proving that he was born in the capital of the state, known as Hindustan ka Dil (the heart of India) -- Bhopal.

That makes Raghuram Rajan a Desi! And Desi Babu feels quite elated that a fellow Desi is in charge of the great hoard of national gold, buried deep in some pit, somewhere. But just hold it, right there, because the real interesting part is yet to come.

If Raghuram Rajan is a Soorma, and he is from Bhopal, what does that make him? You got it right -- Soorma Bhopali!

Soorma Bhopali (center) with Jai and Veeru in Sholay

For those of you who don't know, Soorma Bhopali, was an interesting character, played by Jagdeep in the greatest Indian movie of all times, Sholay. Apparently, there was a gentleman in Bhopal, who went by the name of Nahar Singh, who was the inspiration for the character of Soorma Bhopali. And if legend has any truth to it, Mr. Singh was quite the white knight, with a heart of gold. Unfortunately, he passed away in a road accident, leaving behind a pair of large shoes that no one has been able to fill.

And so, perhaps, the best thing that could happen to India during these troubled times, is if someone brought back Soorma Bhopali. If Raghuram Rajan does his job alright, we might finally conclude that the great Soorma is back amongst us.

And for that, our prayers are with Dr. Rajan. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The ones with the Tehzeeb

Dhanno ki Amma does most of our family shopping. And she likes to buy from places that have the best quality of merchandise, without caring much for what she has to shell out.  She buys our weekly supply of fruit from a hole-in-the-wall shop in our neighborhood. Laxman, who owns the shop, is an extremely enterprising young man. However, like most fruit-vendors in India,  he is quite selective in his manners.

When Dhanno ki Amma gets down from her chauffeur-driven car and spends a fortune on mangoes and lychees, without haggling about the price, she gets the royal red carpet treatment from Laxman. Most people, who walk in to buy a couple of guavas or papayas, would be lucky to get a nod from him. So, a few days ago, when my wife asked me to buy some fruit, and my driver was trying to find a parking spot in front of the fruit shop, I walked in with a shabby look, and an equally shabby shopping bag in tow. Laxman looked through me, and didn't even blink an eyelid.

In a few minutes however, as our car slid in to a space in front of his shop and he recognized me as the poor husband of the  rich woman who spends, he rolled out the red carpet to me. He picked my mangoes for me and smelled the bad ones out. He went "inside" to get me a fresh bunch of bananas, and he gave me a lychee to taste -- a privilege reserved for the most "esteemed" of customers. But, the way he offered me the lychee just bowled me over, because that is how fruit vendors would formally offer a lychee for a customer to taste --  in the India that I grew up in.

When a fruit vendor formally offers someone a lychee, it is first half-peeled, with the white flesh in the top part exposed. The peel stays in the part that lies towards the stalk. Then, he offers the lychee holding the unexposed part for "cleanliness". The customer, presumably with clean hands, can grab the fleshy part and enjoy the lychee. This "half-peeled handover maneuver", as some military-folks might call it, is a classic example of well mannered Indian customer service. And to me, it brought back memories of the small-town India of the yester-years, where such things did matter. 

A few lychees, with one ready for sampling.

 The lychee maneuver reminded me of another example of Indian Tehzeeb (culture) that many people are no longer familiar with. As is the custom, at the end of dinner, if you have to offer your guest a paan (betel leaf), what would be the best way to do it?  Tehzeeb says that the pointed end of the paan, should always be towards you. If it helps, just treat the paan like a sword, and remember that the paan is always mightier than the sword.

The right way to offer a paan.

You might wonder why Desi Babu has this sudden fascination with Tehzeeb?

In the last year or so, I have seen my country go to the dogs. If you tune in to any news channel, or open up the morning newspaper, all you can see are news stories about who else has scammed the government of boatloads of money. All the key economic indicators are down, and the India growth story has been written off as "told". The ordinary people are worried about their future. Things look bleak, very bleak.

In big cities, you can see people in a terrible rush, to get nowhere. People don't seem to have the basic courtesies that you would expect them to have irrespective of the value system they believe in. So, when I see random flashes of a bygone era, in fruit vendors and pan-wallahs who still seem to be preserving our culture, I get happy. Happy enough, to write about it.

There was one thing that was sweeter than the half-peeled lychee maneuver though. The lychee itself. If you don't believe me, go ahead and try one yourself. The first showers have almost come, it is only a matter of time before the lychees go away.   

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Peanuts, Literal and Figurative

I saw him walking towards my car. He looked young and had a face that needed shaving for a while. He had a bandanna tied to his head that had a very prominent "om" written on it. He was wearing spectacles, and had the piercing gaze of an intellectual, fresh out of school, and still without a job. To me, perhaps, he would have qualified as a hippie, or a writer, or perhaps -- both.

But at the moment, he just looked like a homeless guy, looking for a handout.

This was not a good part of town, and I was planning to flee it as soon as the red light turned green. As the man came close to my car, and smiled expectantly at me, I rolled my window down. My wife used to caution me about giving money to homeless people, since they were known to blow it on drugs.

I had a nice large pack of salted peanuts on the front seat. I picked it up and handed it to him. He looked shocked. The conversation that followed was quite interesting.

"But these are peanuts!"


"No man, you see, these are just peanuts!"

"So I see. Perhaps, I should know, since I handed these to you, right?!"

"No, no, you see, you don't understand. When I said that these were peanuts for the first time, I meant literally. When I said it for the second time, I meant figuratively. As in not much stuff, man!"

I always mixed up my literals and figuratives, and so, I smiled at him, and said, "Thanks for the education, I really need to improve my English."

"You might want to start by not trying to hire a monkey for a teacher, man!"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you know! They say that if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! And you sure don't want to learn from a monkey, man."

The light had turned green. I yelled, "Enjoy your peanuts!" and drove away.

After driving for a mile or so, I decided that if I ever wrote seriously and regularly, it would have something to do with peanuts. And, that once in a while, I would bring the monkeys into my writing.

Literally, and figuratively.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The water tweet

I went to a college in the middle of nowhere. And as engineering schools used to be, the student population was unusually skewed in favor of men. There were a few women in our graduating class, and during our days on campus, everyone knew who they were seeing.

On one particular Saturday evening, I went to a restaurant on campus, with a bunch of my friends. And there, as we looked around, all of us got the shock of our lives. On a table for two, a few yards from ours, was sitting the prettiest girl on campus. And opposite her, was sitting a friend of ours, who in these more modern times, would perhaps have been called un-cool. To say the least, that is.

They were engrossed in a conversation. So much, that they didn't even seem to notice the rest of us. In a few days, there was a rumor on campus that the two were in love. A few days later, when I met my friend alone, I asked him about the rumors. And, he gave me a curt  answer.  

"Oh, we were just making conversation in the restaurant. The chair opposite her was empty as I walked in, and all the other tables were taken. So, I sat down with her permission. And then, we talked. What else are you supposed to do when there is a pretty girl sitting opposite you?!"

A few days ago,  I was in a restaurant, waiting for my lunch. In India, in the cheaper restaurants that I seem to like, you don't wait for an unoccupied table, or, for a waiter to seat you. You walk in and find an empty chair. And then, you sit down to eat. It is quite efficient, and works well for most. So, I had walked in, and found an empty chair, which was opposite to a gentleman, who, with his emaciated look and unkempt beard, looked like a farmer. And then, as I looked around, I saw a pretty girl sitting a few tables away. The chair opposite her was empty. In just a few minutes, I saw a very handsome young man walk up to her table. He asked her if the seat was taken, and sat down.

They both looked like college students, and I suddenly remembered the incident from years ago, when a boring friend of mine had struck up an interesting conversation with a pretty girl. These two looked like a handsome pair to me, and so, my ears perked up for any interesting conversation that might float by.

To my disappointment, the young man pulled out a cellphone from his pocket. Then, he plugged in a headset and started listening to music, as he presumably surfed the web. Feeling completely ignored, the young lady looked out the window. If they were a few years older, they would have easily passed for a happily married couple.

Feeling completely let down by the twitter and facebook generation, I turned my attention to the farmer friend of mine, sharing the table. Although I didn't know his language, and his Hindi was passable, we had a pretty nice conversation. His district was going through a drought and he was in town to talk to some important people for help.

In the middle of our conversation, I heard a cellphone ringing. The farmer pulled out a phone from his pocket, and started a long conversation in the local language. From the tone, I could feel that he was joking with someone. And, he sounded very patronizing.

After he put the phone down, he told me that a young man had called him from the agriculture department trying to help him. The man had apparently offered to look at his soil report and using the internet, fix his problems for him with an SMS. The old farmer had asked him, with a twinkle in his eye, if he could SMS him some water. Given, that his district was facing a drought.

And that, was the end of the conversation.

I felt like cheering for the old farmer. Yes! There were more people like me out there. Those, who had a fair degree of skepticism for social media. SMS, Twitter and Facebook included.

Still elated, I looked at the table of the young and the restless.

The young man was still playing with his phone. The young lady had pulled out her own, and was busily tapping something into it. She had a full plate on the table in front of her. The waiter had forgotten to bring her water.

Perhaps, like my farmer friend, she badly needed some water. And perhaps, she was tweeting that to her friends on facebook, before sending an SMS to the waiter.

We were out of water too, and the waiter was nowhere to be seen. My farmer friend realized that yet another drought was imminent. And so, he reached out to the next table, and grabbed the jug -- to pour us some. If I had a Facebook account, I would have told everyone in the world that I knew, that it was simply brilliant of him to do so.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Too old for this stuff...

This weekend, I was watching a late night movie with Dhanno ki Amma.

The 1993 made  movie, 'In the Line of Fire', is an action thriller about a veteran secret service agent, Frank Horrigan (played by Clint Eastwood), who lost president Kennedy to an assassin in Dallas. Horrigan is tormented by an ex-CIA assassin gone nuts, Mitch Leary (played by John Malkovich). Leary wants to assassinate the president at the time, and Horrigan would do everything humanly possible to stop him.

The movie has a pretty intense scene, where the president hits the campaign trial, and a disguised Leary sits in the audience. At an opportune moment, Leary bursts a few balloons with a contraption he is carrying, driving the security detail into a frenzy. When people realize that it was a false alarm, there is a lot of yelling and cursing, directed at Horrigan. At the end of the long day, Horrigan is shown having a drink with his colleague, Sam Campagna.

Campagna tells Horrigan, "Dammit Frank, you are too old for this shit. You should retire."

At this point in the movie, I already had a couple of drinks, and I was nursing a third one. At the same time, I was looking up some interesting information on the movie on my laptop, which is quite old and moody, to say the least. Since I wasn't having much luck with the computer, I shut its lid down with an audible snap, and said something under my breath, that I probably shouldn't have.

As I placed my laptop next to my wife's, which is also quite old, I swear that I heard it say to mine, "Dammit Frank, you are too old for this shit. You should retire."

Now, I am just trying to figure out who named my laptop Frank.  I always called it Joe. You should know the names of your drinking buddies.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Islands in the ocean

Every year, the last week of January provokes many thoughts. And every year, around this time, I get to collect those thoughts and analyze them, together.

It all starts on the 23rd of January, the birthday of Netaji Subhash, one of the prominent freedom fighters of India, who took a stand opposite to that of Mahatma Gandhi, that freedom could be won by Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (insistence on truth) alone. Netaji went on to raise an army of Indian expatriates, establish a free Indian government in exile, and win Indian territory back from the British in battle. He was lucky to raise the tricolor in free India, a few years before our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru could. Many believe that had he succeeded, Netaji would have become to Indians, what general George Washington became to the Americans -- the general on horseback, who took on the mighty British empire, and chased its redcoats out of his country.

A few days later, on the 26th of January every year, along with millions of my fellow Indians, I celebrate the founding of our republic. It is an extremely important day for us, because we celebrate our constitution, along with the rights and the freedoms that it guarantees. Many believe that it is on the 26th of January 1950, that we truly became independent, with our own president as the head of state.

And, then, just a few days later, along with countless other Indians, I mournfully remember the day that Bapu was assassinated. On January 30, 1948, a Hindu fanatic, Nathuram Godse, shot Mahatma Gandhi during an open prayer meeting. And with that, died the person that Netaji Subhash had called the father of the nation, in spite of the many disagreements that he had with him.  

Bapu and Netaji

At the end of the week, like countless other Indians I try and imagine what India would have been like, if Netaji had won the war, or, if Bapu had been alive a little longer. Unfortunately, neither of them had much say into what India eventually became. In the final days of the second world war, Netaji disappeared without a trace. And Bapu, fell to an assassin's bullets, two years before our constitution came into force.

Many times, when I complain about the tyranny of the majority that India has come to be,  my friends, who know about my libertarian leanings, call me a jackboot sympathizer. I make no secret of my admiration for Netaji Subhash, but I admire him for only one thing. I don't think that anyone in our history has had the amount of selfless love that Netaji had for India -- and no one gave so much for India and got so little in return, like him. But, unlike what most people think of us, libertarians do not believe in "jackboot dictatorships." And, I certainly do not believe that India would have been a better country, if it became a military dictatorship following its liberation under Netaji's command.

Just like libertarians do not believe in the "tyranny of the majority", we do not believe in the "tyranny of the minority" as well. Libertarians like small governments, and they believe in the power of the individual to determine the liberties that they should have. One could say, that some of us are borderline anarchists. But, one should know that anarchy is not necessarily the same as lawlessness, but simply, less power available to a repressive state to implement, what it sees as the law.

And that brings me to Bapu, and what he thought India should have become.

Many believe that Bapu was a libertarian. If you want to take on a mighty empire, and rip it apart, you have to strike where it hurts the most. Bapu's movement had questioned the legitimacy of the British empire to rule by law, when simple law abiding subjects had to face the full brutality of the state for peacefully making a point. Bapu had cleverly put anarchist sentiments in a country, which was never completely unaware of  them. Bapu was against the state that he managed to dismantle -- and so, you could perhaps say, that he was a libertarian.

Bapu wanted an India, which was very different from the India that finally came into being on republic day. He dreamed of a state that was a loose federation of villages and city-states, sharing a common military and foreign policy. Bapu's India would have an executive president, directly elected by the people, and unlike many executive presidents the world over, he or she would have minimal powers.

Bapu knew that Indians liked to organize themselves as families, clans and tribes. He understood very well that a pathan from the northwest frontier had nothing in common with a naga from the north eastern frontier. And so, it was futile to try and subject them to a common set of rules along with half a billion other Indians (at that time). It would have been best for people to locally manage their business, with their own cultural identities, religious practices and languages. For whatever reasons that might be, India never went that way.   

In the last sixty or so years of the republic, we have simply tried to become a replica of the west. We started out by adopting a Westminster style democracy, which works well for a few islands in the Atlantic, but miserably fails for a country of  India's size. Then, we turned it into a monarchy of sorts, which maintains all the trappings of a republic -- some say, that this evolution is a close reflection of our feudal mindset. At various times, in various states, we have been ruled by people who believe in a religious theocracy, or in a dictatorship of the proletariat. And, on many occasions, many of us have longed for an American style presidential system, where perhaps, we would be able to elect our very own "emperor" in a country, that seems to need one. Quite badly.

Assuming just for a moment that Bapu's dream of a loosely bound confederation of villages was indeed what modern India became, I keep wondering what things would look like. Perhaps, our villages would be much richer than they are, perhaps our people would be much more involved in the governance of their cities. Perhaps, we would not have separated ourselves into three nations, two of which are at perpetual war with each other. There would not have been a need to separate, as Hindu and Muslim villages would exist side by side with each other, each applying its own justice in the area that it ruled over. Those, who did not like a particular village, would always be at liberty to move to another. The country would simply have too many choices, where something unique existed for everybody.

Perhaps, a libertarian India of Bapu's dream would have been like islands in the ocean, at peace with each other. As many islanders will tell you, there is always plenty of fish to go around, and coconut rum to drink. And at the end of the day, the sunsets are beautiful. Always.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Unidentified Flying Monkeys

Last week was quite eventful for people who work with rockets in Asia.

First, there was news, that the Indian defense research organization, DRDO, successfully launched a submarine based missile. As I understand it, these types of missiles are the most difficult to design, because, as a rocket leaves the undersea environment and enters the atmosphere, there is a dramatic change in the properties of the fluid surrounding it.  If you have ever flown in an aircraft during turbulence, think of what would happen if you experienced a thousand such turbulence events, all at the same time. Making the aircraft stable during such an event, is virtually impossible.

The Indian scientists figured out, how to make a rocket stable during a "thousand turbulences" event, which is specially useful, when the rocket carries a nuke on it. And it again put them in a select list of countries around the world, who know how to launch a missile from a submarine, and make it hit a target in the enemy territory,  thousands of miles away.

Then, there was news from South Korea, that they managed to launch their own civilian rocket for the first time. This is really a big deal for them, as they are having a hard time convincing their cousins to the north, that they too can do things in style. Gangnam style.

But then, the rocket launch that really caught my attention, was the Iranian one. The Iranians launched a rocket, and just to make things more interesting, put a monkey on it. So, Iran now belongs to the select group of nations, that have put a monkey in space.

What gave me heartburn on this one, is that India, having been a space and rocketry power for decades now, and being the country that has sent a probe to the moon, and a country that knows how to launch an undersea missile, never managed to send a monkey into space. Alas, while we have actively looked into sending humans into space, we have never managed to send a monkey to space!

Kyon bhai, yeh kaisi baat hui?

Erudite Indian rocket scientists with long flowing beards might convince you that all that stuff is monkey business, and we only do serious stuff in India. But still, when I recently met a friend of mine, who follows rocket technology very closely, I asked him why we don't launch monkeys into space.

He knows that it is completely futile giving Desi Babu a serious answer to such questions. And so, he gave me the answer that I was looking forward to.

Apparently, before an Indian monkey is launched into space, we have to determine what its caste and religion is. If we do not give it appropriate consideration in such matters, our politicians from all castes and religions will raise a big ruckus, and shut down India's defense and space programs, with the help of  our leaders, who prioritize such matters over everything else, including those of national interest.

Then, there is the fear that a tribe of unidentified flying monkeys will land from space and invade the republic of India, if they feel that their cousin, the space monkey was used as an experimental subject. In such a situation, since monkeys don't talk much, and  they don't like others to talk, they might clamp down on  the freedom of speech in the republic of India.

So, if India is ruled by a tribe of unidentified flying monkeys from space, we the people, will not be able to speak our minds at literary festivals, or make movies about various socially important subjects any more. Our constitutional rights will be suspended -- and the people protesting for those rights in the streets of New Delhi will be beaten with batons and hosed down with cold water in the middle of  the winter. Things would indeed be very terrible if we dare to launch a monkey into space.

And then, my friend paused for a second, thought for a while and said, "What the hell, let me write to the prime minister and ask him to allow ISRO to launch a space monkey. Why worry about the consequences, when you have already faced them!"

I am with him. Are you?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Just let me be

On every republic day, the government of India comes out with a list of honors.

For many years, no one has been awarded India's highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (The jewel of India). However, just down a notch, and a couple of more notches, there are plenty of awards to go around. Known as the Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, and Padma Sri, these awards make up the "next level" of recognition in the eyes of the Indian government. Since all three have the Sanskrit word "padma" (lotus) in them, I like to think of the recipients of these awards as the lotus eaters of India, but that is a completely different discussion to have, on perhaps, another day.

Like it happens every year, some people did not like the fact that they did not get the award, and some, thought that they deserved a better award. The nicest thing about awards, is that you can make people fight over them. Perhaps that is why, governments like to give them out.

And every single year, I wait for someone to take the high moral ground and decline the award, making a statement such as, "I don't  deserve it", or, "There are better people than me, who deserve this award", or  even better still, "The very idea of an award is wrong, so, please do take it back, will you?"

In fact, a few years ago, when the Nobel committee sprung a surprise by awarding Mr. Barack Obama the Nobel peace prize, I had hoped that Mr. Obama would decline the prize with a "Thanks, but no thanks" statement. No one, including Mr. Obama, had a clue about why he deserved the prize more than a lot of others out there. And no one understood why Mr. Obama decided to just keep it.

Every time these awards are handed out, I think of  the greatest existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Monsieur Sartre, as far as I know, was the only person in the history of the Nobel prize in literature to decline it, with the simple explanation that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution."  I keep wondering how many others were out there,  in the world of literature, who would have trampled over M. Sartre, to see if the prize could instead be awarded to them.

And that, brings me to India's largest literary slug-fest. Of, for and by the people, who write with both ends of their pens -- words -- which seem to come out of both ends of their alimentary canals. The Jaipur literary festival is underway again, and that, primary means that no one has shut them down yet, or, that they have once again managed to attract a large force of gullible "litterateurs". Perhaps both.

A certain sociologist known as Mr. Nandi, who otherwise seems to be a very balanced thinker on late night television shows has become the latest victim to the foot and mouth disease that seems to be plaguing India. He apparently made a remark about corruption and certain castes in India which was apparently taken out of context and given an apparent political twist by the people in power, who thrive on such things, apparently. Yes, I know, I shouldn't be using the word "apparent" so many times in a single sentence, specially, when the great Jaipur literary festival is in session.

But apparently, people can now take me to court for speaking my mind in the democratic republic of India, specially, on republic day.  A day, on which, the constitution which guarantees us freedom of speech, is celebrated with a parade of guns, tanks and missiles, which can protect that fundamental of all rights, that I have come to cherish. Apparently.

Sartre comes to mind, once again. For the simple existential approach to the philosophy of life that he and others tried to put forth. An approach, which among other things, said, "Just let me be, please?"

It seems that in this sixty-third year of the republic, when we keep fighting over awards and words taken out of context, or not, we should perhaps do the best thing that republics and democracies are famous for. Let us leave people alone, and they will figure out the things that really matter to them. And, to the rest of us.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Je pense donc je suis

What do you usually think about when someone in your circle mentions Rene Descartes?

That is, if someone in your circle does mention Rene Descartes. I haven't had any one in my circle mention Rene Descartes in a while. However, since I am an engineer by training, I do hear the people around me using the word "Cartesian" once in a while -- the last time I heard it, was probably a few months ago.

Most people have replaced the expression "Cartesian coordinates" with "x-y coordinates" in the last few decades.  Perhaps, they don't like to sound too formal. Perhaps, they don't know who Rene Descartes was. Or perhaps, as a friend who happens to be a mathematician, once told me, if you use the world "Cartesian", for one type of geometry, then, you are almost obligated to use the word, "Lobachevskian" for another. Who in the world knows how to pronounce Lobachevskian?!!!  So, perhaps.

Usually when I think of Rene Descartes, I also think of a famous phrase of his, which has become a "cornerstone" statement of modern philosophy.

Je pense donc je suis. (I think, therefore I am).

I was reminded of this statement recently, when I read a brilliantly written article in The Economist. Entitled "Is Paris worth a mass?", the article takes a rather humorous look at the way the international standards of weights and measures are maintained. The international standard for the "kilogram" resides in France, but apparently, due to the recent advances in science, the French kilogram risks losing the weight, it is so used to throwing around. While the French may have resigned themselves to the inevitable consequence of Camembert cheese being weighed with a watt-balance using the Planck constant, the author consoles them by reminding them that the predominant co-ordinate system in the world is still Cartesian. And for that, the author starts with a twist on Descartes's original statement, "Je pese donc je suis. (I weigh, therefore I am)".

While all this is indeed very funny, it reminded me of an equally funny incident which happened years ago in Des. In a small country market (haat) in Jharkhand, I was trying to buy some cabbages from an old lady. She looked very poor, and it was clear that she could only afford one balance and one weight, which happened to be a kilogram. So, she had a few cabbages kept aside that represented half a kilogram, and a quarter. For a hundred grams, she was using a few tomatoes, that her daughter was selling in the space next to her's. So, with a combination of properly weighed cabbages and tomatoes, she had figured out how to represent the "non-standard" weights. In case you doubted the veracity of her standards, which traced their lineage all the way to Monsieur kilogram in Pah-eee, she was willing to show you that her weights indeed measured up.

To me, this was quite brilliant. And so, I conveyed it to her that she was quite brilliant to figure this out, all by herself.  She gave me a toothless grin, and then, pointed at her head with her index finger. I have a feeling that she wanted to tell me, in very Cartesian terms, "I think, therefore, I am."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Big mouth's retirement party

I used to love retirement parties. Years ago, when I was a rookie employee on my first job, people of my age group would ignore the messages that announced retirement parties. Initially, I couldn't care either, but one day, I walked right into a retirement party by mistake.

The audience, was mostly made up of old people. In fact, I was probably the only guy there without a strand of grey hair on my head.  They had many things to talk about. First, a bunch of people, who looked like they were getting ready to hang up their own boots, spoke. And then, the man of the hour rose, and said a few words. Everyone looked very gloomy. And then, right when I thought that the world was coming to an end since Joe was retiring, I saw that there was some hope. A sweet old lady stood up, and announced that there was ice cream for everyone.

What?! Free ice cream!!! And here I was, not aware of retiring Joes and free ice cream every now and then. And that too, just a short walk away from my office. If this was not known as hitting pay dirt, then what was?!

Soon, I became a regular at all the retirement parties. About fifty old ladies and gentlemen, and one twenty something guy, keeping an eye on the ice-cream in the back, was what you would find, if you walked in. But then, a nasty old man, who didn't seem to like me, discovered the reason I kept showing up. And so, one afternoon, after the twenty minutes of gloom, there was doom. The old man got up and announced that they were not able to arrange the ice cream that day. As I was walking out of the room, I saw him standing next to the door. As I walked past him, he whispered into my ears, "No more free ice cream! Kapeesh?"

The glory days of retiring Joes and free ice cream, were finally over.

Today, I read a strange piece of news. Mr. Big Mouth, the undisputed leader of the Somalian pirates, and the unchallenged ruler of the east African seas, after making his millions, is finally retiring. In case you don't know, yes, there are pirates in this century -- and yes, they too retire. Mr. Mouth, has been wide open in the last decade or so. So wide, that he seems to have gulped down millions in ransom from commercial ships that sail on the East African maritime routes. As shipping companies smartened up, they started relying more on armed guards and patrolling frigates, and less on insurance  companies to cough up the ransom payments. The ransom business dried up, and I am guessing that just when Mr. Mouth's financial adviser gave him the green signal, he decided to retire. A few years from now, if you care to look, you might find him in some Mediterranean paradise in a straw hat, sipping on his gin and tonic.

Just out of sheer Desi curiosity, I looked up Indian pirates. After all, who would not be interested in "Yo ho ho and a bottle of Daaru"? It seems that the glorious Indian pirate, Sumbhajee Angre, who was portrayed as the fearsome foe with the squeaky falsetto, in the famous movie, "The Pirates of the Caribbean", was indeed a historical figure. And so was his father, Kanhoji Angre, who was branded a pirate by the East India Company, and declared the chief of the navy at the same time by the Maratha empire. Strangely enough, about two hundred years ago, the Angre family ruled the same seas that the Somali pirates do today. If you draw a straight line from Mumbai to the gulf of Aden, you will see that as it makes landfall, it hits Mr. Big Mouth's country of origin, Somalia.

Sumbhajee Angre in "The pirates of the Caribbean."

I keep wondering, if our own Desi pirates, the father and son duo of the Angre family, had the tradition of retirement, and the parties that came with it. And, if they served ice cream at the end.   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Alcohol, Tobacco and Old Calcutta Wisdom

During many winters, Dhanno ki Amma likes to drag me to the city of her birth -- the city of joy. I get to enjoy the company of my in-laws, meet her extended family, and get the royal treatment that Bengalis like to extend to their jamai-babus, or sons-in-laws.

This winter, was no exception. Calcutta, was cold. My wife's extended family, was warm. And on a specific evening, I was invited to the house of a very senior member of the family, who is an uncle of Dhanno ki Amma. There, while waiting for a lavish meal of Gulda Chinghri Malai-curry (lobsters in coconut milk), Kosha Mungsho (spice fried mutton), Loochee (puffed, deep fried bread) and Nowlen-gur Paiesh (bengali style rice pudding), I was exposed to the collective wisdom of three Bengali gentlemen, from the Calcutta that once used to be.

My wife's uncle, my father in law, and a friend of theirs -- comfortable in their cushy leather sofas -- surrounded me from all sides. First, they offered me single malt whiskey. The kind, that flows down the throat with ease, like the stream in the Scottish highlands, where it probably came from.  Then, they subjected me to the Bengali inquisition, which is a way of finding out if after all these years, I was treating their girl well. And after that, they showered me with their years of accumulated wisdom, which, in this case had more to do with their recent efforts at breaking the law. After all, what other past-time would a respectable Bengali Bhadralok indulge in?!

First, it was my father in law's turn to educate me on the finer details of welcoming four bottles of "international grade" whiskey to Calcutta, while the law allows you only two. After years of international travel, he has figured out the best way to do it. The trick is to buy two bottles abroad, and pack them nicely in the checked luggage, and after immigration, buy two more bottles at the duty free shop. Apparently, the guys in customs, who X-ray the luggage, don't talk to the guys who examine the duty-free stuff. So, both see only two bottles, while you are bringing in four. It sort of works in a way opposite to how you see the world after a few pegs of whiskey -- you see four, while you should see two.

I could see the admiration in the eyes of my fellow drinkers.

Then, it was the uncle's turn. He told me about the old Calcutta days when he would while away hours, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the likes of Soumitro Chatterjee and Sunil Gangopadhay, in the city's old bastion of intellectuals -- the coffee house. During a recent trip to the place, he sat down with a cup, and took out a cigarette to smoke. Then, he asked the orderly to bring him an ash-tray. The man pointed out the prominent "No Smoking" signs on all the walls. When the old man asked him about all the people around him who were smoking, he said, "Sir, the law says no smoking, so, we can't be party to a crime by supplying ash-trays. But, it is the police's job to stop people from smoking, not ours. If you look down, you will see all the cigarette butts and ash. At the end of the day, we will sweep the floor. Have a nice day!" 

I believe the grand old man had fun lighting up on that day.

I was curious about the rather reticent old gentleman, who was enjoying the conversation. The whiskey bottle was now empty and so was his glass. He suddenly took the bottle of soda and poured it down the empty bottle and gave it a good shake. Then, with a wide, and almost childish grin on his face, he offered us a share of the soda-washed whiskey.  Apparently, he had learned this trick at the bar in the Calcutta Club, another surviving relic of the Calcutta of yore. As we declined his offer, he gulped down the last few drops of the whiskey with the "soda wash".

This act -- of going it alone -- almost reminded me of an old Tagore classic, "Jodi tor dak sune keu na ashe, tobe ekla chalo re (If no one answers your call, then, just go it alone!)".