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!)".