December 03, 2011

News Roundup

It's time to perform one of my irregular news roundups as I seem to be coming across a variety of interesting stories.

Here's a sad story about the continuing tragedy of unmarked graves in Kashmir from the BBC. Hopefully, a full investigation will happen and the truth come out.

It's clearly not difficult to imagine the police or the military being involved in certain amount of torture upto and including custodial killings of civilians. Very sad reality in a democracy.

Ok. Have some fun watching this stand up act by an Indian in the UK.

And here's a good, inspirational speech by a young man who was raised by a gay couple.

And here's an old article about the shocking tale of AIDS in Africa.

Life is very strange. Agreed. An obituary.

November 19, 2011

The Web of Science


Think of the spectacular imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope. I continue to marvel at all the wonders of the universe this single scientific instrument has revealed. And I think of the tiny number of humans who work at the Space Telescope Science Institute who’re responsible for this.
A few hundreds of men and women whose work reveals to all seven billion of us humans on this planet the true splendors of the universe far surpassing anything contained in any mythological tales. The world owes a great deal to the Hubble Space Telescope … for opening our eyes, for expanding our horizons, for showing and proving again and again that the zaniest predictions of theoretical astrophysics are commonplace occurrences out there in the cosmos. And Hubble has also revealed phenomena that have left the theorists stunned before they started to contemplate about it and could barely believe that such stuff was really happening.

November 18, 2011

Nehru Killed Gandhi

It isn't as absurd an idea as it might appear at first sight. Which is to say, it would be easy to find folks who might peddle this idea or believe in it.

Of course, you better just listen to such ideas without your jaws hitting the floor and not try to argue or anything.

Others blame Gandhi for the partition of India. I don't know what they wish for ... a Great India encompassing present day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh perhaps. Which would translate to a current population of a cool billion and a half people.

Some people praise the great deed of the great hero Godse. They do not see him as a killer or a murderer. They see him as a great scholar intellectual who had authored Great Books. So, with a few million published books out there to choose from, people seek out Godse's book to read.

November 17, 2011

The Dour Banker And The Swaggering Businessman

Banking in India, still remains a somewhat boring profession. For a generation and more, nationalized banks have offered job security, something poor Indians value a lot.

So, there used to be (and continues to be) a lot of preparation and competition for Bank P.O. exams and Bank Clerical exams. Some got selected and joined their lifelong, drab vocation as a teller or something or the other.

Some, in the executive cadre, become managers and chief general managers, etc. in these PSU banks. They're the Deciders who decide on loans running into thousands of crores.

Sometimes, these gentlemen (almost exclusively men) have been found to be involved in various illegal activities such as lending to persons with rather dubious reputations such as Harshad Mehta or other third-rate businessmen or stock traders or gangsters or mine owners or whatever.

November 12, 2011

The Children That God FORGOT

There's one cruelty, one injustice, which trumps all others in this world — it's the sight of kids having to work.

But we let this endure, don't we? We in India. I've been witness to some cases of child labor.

Luckily (is that even a correct word), I've never been personally responsible for child labor. Which is to say, I've not kept a kid at home on a 24 X 7 X 365 basis like some folks do.

I don't know if that exonerates me entirely though ... for I have surely BENEFITED from child labor.

Let me tell the few stories that I have witnessed and I remember. I hope these are ALL that I've seen. I hope I've n't forgotten any.

October 30, 2011

The Allure of Lying

So we have a real-life slumdog millionaire now. What's the problem with a fiction just remaining in the realm of fiction? It was a good movie.

Oh, BTW, didn't any smart-ass MBA professor type get the idea to use the movie's story to teach some mumbo-jumbo to the bozos? Remember that guy who used Lagaan to teach management? How shameless. But then the MBA business is all about cheating and making money. So, smart cheaters (which is an anagram, interesting enough, for 'teachers') cheat some MBA students who must eventually wise up and realize that it's all about maximizing cheating. Anyway, I digress.

I've a bone to pick. I'm somewhat suspicious of this story being peddled of this commoner guy suddenly showing smarts and winning a million dollars on a game show. I think the show is fixed. Pretty.

October 19, 2011

Living One's Dream

Every Monday morning, there's a universal outpouring of groans — that it's MONDAY again! It's as if everybody's mom-in-law AGAIN was about to come to visit them on Monday. This deafening noise is heard in specific parts of the world. It comes from the office-going class of people. In India, the young generation of IT and other professionals make this noise through all available means such as Facebook and Twitter. I suppose it's the same in the developed world where people have been caught up in this vicious cycle for a generation or more now.

I don't know about rural America or rural Europe, but in rural India, villagers don't start groaning on Monday mornings. There's hardly any difference between Mondays or other days of the week. Their life-cycle is not a weekly one.

Conversely, there's invariably an exuberant outpouring of joy come Friday. It starts in the morning itself and rises to a crescendo by the afternoon by when the youngsters in their office cubicles can hardly contain their joy — this is almost akin to the joy a prisoner might experience on the day of his release after completing a long prison sentence.

October 12, 2011

Confusion Reigns

I am confused. I am perplexed. About many things. I’m confused just thinking whether it’s just me who is like this or everyone else feels some of these emotions as well. I feel confused when I see people going about their daily lives.

I see people being busily busy and I am left bewildered.

What occurs to me is that there are so many rules of the road about how to live one’s life. And these rules differ from society to society. They vary widely and people in each society follow those implicit rules. Are people undiscerning or is it that those rules make sense to most people?

Individuals tend to have an identity of their own in advanced countries such as the United States/Canada and in the countries of Europe. Old civilizations such as India are still quite old-fashioned. Here, society tends to predominate over the individual. Individuals are supposed or expected to mold themselves as per the long-held and therefore (so it’s claimed) tried-and-true norms of society.

Book banning in India and elsewhere

Nilanjana Roy's excellent blog article persuaded me to write the following response:


A well-written and deeply meaningful essay.

This particular instance of book banning is too obviously silly to merit much discussion.

Oh, BTW, I think interestingly enough, 'universities, publishers, art galleries, and bookshops' are all for-profit businesses and we need not be too surprised if they show a disinclination towards fighting for lofty ideas of intellectual freedom or freedom of thought and expression.

(I think there's really no need to elaborate how running universities might be profitable affairs for the old men so engaged.)

More broadly, now that there are not that many totalitarian political ideologies extant, the business of banning books rests more or less solely with the various defenders of the various faiths.

October 09, 2011

Technology — The Great Leveler

Death is a good thing not merely because, as Mr. Jobs put it, “It’s probably the single best invention of life,” or “it’s life’s change agent,” but also because men of hubris are at last brought down to Earth (and indeed below the Earth) by the phenomenon of death. It’s a fate that no hubristic billionaire can escape … yet.
The ordinary person can look at a hubris-laden individual engaged in some megalomaniacal activity and take some satisfaction out of this knowledge that death will conquer this villain as well just as it has claimed many other villains through history.
What other areas of human activity can you think of where there’s virtual equality between all? Some path breaking inventions of medical science qualify. When a vaccine is available for polio, EVERYONE is suddenly safe from this scourge — street dwellers and penthouse dwellers.
But they are few and far between. Technology seems to be one arena where this occurs more frequently. Consumer devices are at once cutting edge and common place.

September 21, 2011

Bank Uh! India

So how does it 'FEEL' like? What is the typical experience of banking in India? I had an experience today that is considered par for the course in this country. It's instructive as well as funny.

Some things change. Some things remain the same. That's the nature of India. Showrooms (think Suzuki ... or BMW) that have the look of permanence and solidity can disappear when you revisit some old location after a gap of a year or two. But a street vendor selling ice cream or sweets in front of a Pizza Hut is a permanent fixture over five years, perhaps a decade. People who are familiar with Janpath in New Delhi and know where the Hut and Sony are located will understand what I am talking about.

I recall the guy who used to collect old newspapers from our house back in my childhood days. When we moved house once to a new place which was some 15 miles from the old place, I was astonished to see that the paper-collector got to know about our new location and came to our new quarter to collect the old newspapers. I saw the guy grow old in front of my eyes ... get a head full of white hair. I think I saw his son by-and-by replace him as the guy who would travel from house to house on a bicycle to collect old newspapers, magazines, etc. which he would in turn sell to a wholesale scrap dealer.

But it's only a particular instance of a more general case. Individuals' livelihoods can be so precariously balanced in this country. They are riding a tiger and they can't afford to get down.

The PSU banks meanwhile have been affected by winds of change. The interior decor has turned less claustrophobic and more open and airy.

Although the teller/cash counter is still like a bit of a cage, it's much improved compared to the earlier state of affairs where the cashier/teller used to be stationed inside a cage which had some likeness to the cages in which dangerous wild animals are kept in zoos.

The staff of PSU banks.

Ah! That's the teachable moment. Particularly for those who are foreign to India. And I suppose those who grow foreign through the route of becoming an NRI or a green card holder.

So the PSU banks do not necessarily feel that they're in the service industry. They do not feel the need to be excessively helpful to the customer. The culture is not quite 'May I help you?'

So I was directed to a particular officer for my task and he happened to be momentarily absent from his desk and I waited in vain for some 15 minutes.

But the old-time staff are perhaps more committed to their life's calling -- they've reconciled to the fact that this is going to be the job that they're going to hold for the rest of their active life and retire from. They exhorted the front desk lady to help me. This young lady, quite unlike the older staff, appeared to be physically ill (or doing a pretty good job of acting like she was ill) 

She proceeded to take care of the trouble I had brought for her -- of course she committed an error in updating my new mailing address. She forgot to update the PIN Code or ZIP Code. In India, this can be interpreted as both a major and a minor error.

There was this staff whose job it was to update the Pass Book. (BTW, do you know what a Pass Book is? Well a Pass Book is something very familiar to the old timers but the youngsters may not be familiar with it. All the transactions (debit/credit) of an account holder are recorded in this pass book and account holders can update this pass book at any bank branch. This is a legacy from the days before online banking became quite the vogue.) When I made him my request, he made a hand signal which indicated to me that I should wait (it was quite logical as it turned out since he was busy and in the middle of another transaction). When he was free at last, he stretched his hand out to me to indicate that my turn had come. When I handed him my pass book, he did the needful and handed back my pass book to me. And the entire transaction happened without his raising his head to look at me. I'm sure he would have failed to recognize me if he saw me barely five minutes later.

Indian govt. offices are famous for a fixture called the peon. This is a low-end job which mainly involves ferrying files around from one table to the next. This bank also appeared to have two or three of the species. One of them -- clearly the senior-most among them -- was blithely humming a song as he went about his task of going from one desk to another. Quite a free-spirited bird and I suppose someone who won't develop high blood pressure.

And India moves forward at its own pace — both trying to keep pace with a fast-changing world and forcing the world to adjust itself to the pace at which India moves.

September 19, 2011

A Sane Tax Policy

In any modern nation that has a taxation system, the poor don't pay taxes. In India, more than 90 percent do not pay taxes.

But that makes sense. The poor in India do not use as much of the infrastructure. The poor in India do not use airports. The poor in America do not use private planes.

One should be taxed at a rate commensurate with one's level of income. This is obvious and does not need debating. When the super rich have to pay taxes at a lower rate as Warren Buffett has reiterated so often, it's clearly unfair.

Millionaires need to be taxed at a higher but fair rate. A 90 percent rate of income tax is clearly unfair. But a 30 percent or 35 percent rate of tax seems fair enough.

Those in the 10 million to 50 million bracket can correspondingly be charged at a higher rate than the mere single-digit millionaires.

Those in the 50 million to 100 million bracket need to pay even higher taxes.

The tax rate can increase by 5 percentage points for every tax bracket.

The other brackets should be: 100 - 200 million, 200 - 300, and so on.

I won't mind if the tax rate reaches 90 percent at some point.

What's the harm?

A multi-billionaire is essentially a winner of a lottery. A Bill Gates or Sergey Brin or Buffett or Zuckerberg is not necessarily a 1,000 times or a million times smarter than the average person who might be earning 1,000 times less or a million times less. Same goes for the hedge fund guys and the bank and other CEOs.

Many billionaires (the saner ones) are making their pledges to donate back most of their wealth. What would be different if they were paying a higher rate of tax?

September 16, 2011

The Strangest Thing

What is it that draws us to a news such as the untimely death of a celebrity? Whether it's Diana or Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley and John Lennon and so many others?

Now we have the untimely, tragic death of a teenage son of a cricket star.

It must tell us something about ourselves above all. Are we attracted to these events by any chance because at some level, we somehow prove ourselves to be superior to the dead by having simply outlived them?

After all, one of our most fundamental biological traits must be the desire to stay alive for as long as possible. Whatever else it's that you want to do, you have to be alive in the first place to be able to accomplish that.

Celebrities are celebrities in the first place because we choose to idolize them. This idolization perhaps involves both admiration and envy.

We must envy celebrities as they have surely achieved success in life in any of the myriad ways in which we may choose to define the term.

Thus when celebrities die, and we outlast them, we can have a covert last laugh.

Whereas under normal circumstances, we are nobodies and our demise — whether early, on time or belated — won't be noticed much by the world at large, when celebrities expire, we suddenly see that the tables have been turned.

We can feel sorry for the family of the dead in their season of tragedy and thus be superior.

And I also think of the thoughts that must go through the minds of someone who is critically injured and is on the way to death. This question becomes even more strange and heart-wrenching and perplexing when the person involved is a teenager like the son of Azharuddin who died on this day.

Does a teenager regret that his life is ending so much before its time. Does he feel angry or pity for himself? Does he wish to remain alive so that he may grow old with a loved one? Do teenagers have a philosophical understanding of life? Do they know what they want in life?

Or may be the medications are such that the injured patient is essentially unconscious and unaware of himself. Perhaps he is beyond having awareness of concepts of life and death like we have during our waking hours. Are we not sort of temporarily dead when we are asleep? Will we regret it if without our knowing and before our time, we just happened to slip into death in our sleep? Would we know? If there's no pain or anything involved, then we won't know. So, we won't feel anything about dying. Luckily, the human body is built robustly enough that such things do not happen regularly while we are alive and well and young.

Surely medical doctors would know more about the level of consciousness in the brain of dying patients. But what a journey it must be ... to travel that path that one will travel but only once. EVER. No matter what.

Isn't like a journey into and inside an astronomical black hole and its event horizon? That's the only other journey in the universe that I can think of which is irreversible.

At any rate, at the present moment.

Man-made rituals on the other hand — such as marriage — appear so silly and trite in comparison to this ultimate one way street.

I will end as I began: I am still absolutely perplexed and mystified.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

All I propose to do in this post is collect in one place the book reviews published at various places.

From The Telegraph:


Excerpts:

Every generation tends to look silly to the one after; those beehive hairdos, those chain smokers. Reacting to previous experience, we don’t make progress, necessarily. Vicars have randy daughters and randy daughters give birth to boys who in turn become vicars.

Salman Rushdie told me once that Hitchens was one of the two funniest people he had known (the other was Bruce Chatwin). I was unconvinced until I read in Arguably the following passage: “Is there anything less funny than a woman relating a dream she’s just had? (‘And then Quentin was there somehow. And so were you, in a strange sort of way. And it was all so peaceful.’ Peaceful?).” Of all the beliefs from which he has yet to deviate is the conviction that “the people who must never have power are the humourless”. 


From The New York Times:


Excerpts:

Anyone who occasionally opens one of our more serious periodicals has learned that the byline of Christopher Hitchens is an opportunity to be delighted or maddened — possibly both — but in any case not to be missed. He is our intellectual omnivore, exhilarating and infuriating, if not in equal parts at least with equal wit. He has been rather famously an aggressive critic of God and his followers, after cutting his sacrilegious teeth on Mother Teresa. He wrote a deadpan argument for trying Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, then was branded an apostate by former friends on the left for vigorously supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (He memorably — a lot of what Hitchens has written merits the adverb — shot back that his antiwar critics were “the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”) And he is dying of esophageal cancer, a fact he has faced with exceptional aplomb.


If there is a God, and he lacks a sense of irony, he will send Hitchens to the hottest precinct of hell. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library. Either way, heaven will be a less interesting place.

The definitive Christopher Hitchens profile:


The New Yorker:


Excerpts:


At a dinner a few months ago in San Francisco with his wife, Carol Blue, and some others, Hitchens wore a pale jacket and a shirt unbuttoned far enough to hint at what one ex-girlfriend has called “the pelt of the Hitch.” Hitchens, who only recently gave up the habit of smoking in the shower, was working through a pack of cigarettes while talking to two women at his end of the table: a Stanford doctor in her early thirties whom he’d met once before, and a friend of hers, a librarian. He spoke with wit and eloquence about Iranian politics and what he saw as the unnecessary handsomeness of Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco.

We were in Hitchens’s home in Washington. His top-floor apartment, with a wide view that includes No. 1 Observatory Circle, the Vice-Presidential residence, is large and handsome: sparely furnished, with a grand piano, books piled on the floor, a few embassy invitations on the mantelpiece, and prints and paintings propped against the walls rather than hung from them; these include an oil painting of Hitchens and Blue (a dark-haired, darkly dressed woman—a young Susan Sontag) with coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes on a table in front of them




Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night. I arrived just after midday, and Hitchens said that it was “time for a cocktail”; he poured a large drink. His hair flopped over his forehead, and he pushed it back using just the tips of his fingers, his hand as unbending as a mannequin’s.


He noted that he never likes going to bed. “I’m not that keen on the idea of being unconscious,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to be unconscious coming up.” In Washington, his socializing usually takes place at home. “I can have some sort of control over who comes, what gets talked about, what gets eaten, what gets drunk, and the ashtrays,” he said. “Call me set in my ways.” (Hitchens’s predominant tone is quietly self-parodying. Even his farewells are ironic: “It’s been real,” “Stay cool.”) Guests at the Hitchens salon include people he first knew in London, who call him “Hitch,” including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and his great friend Martin Amis (“The only blond I have ever really loved,” Hitchens once said); long-standing American friends like Christopher Buckley and Graydon Carter; an international network of dissidents and intellectuals; and, these days, such figures as David Frum, the former Bush Administration speechwriter, and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist. In September, he hosted Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a Deputy Prime Minister of the new Iraqi government. Many guests can report seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.


From The Boston Globe:

September 07, 2011

New Delhi Bomb Blast : 7 September 2011 (a.k.a. 7/9)

Article first published as Delhi Bomb Blast on Technorati.

Life is cheap in India. Deaths from myriad random and unnatural causes are all too commonplace.

Nobody will really be able to give an accurate count of the number of terrorist attacks that have happened over the past few years.

It's fashionable to compare any and all terrorist attacks to the gold standard christened as 9/11. There is no ambiguity about what event it refers to.

But when attacks become all too commonplace, it's a bit tiring to come up with numerical shortcuts to refer to them. Should today's attack be called 7/9? The Mumbai attacks (not 26/11) on the suburban train system is already barely there in the faintest storehouse of our memory bank. The attacks on some crowded markets in Delhi around Diwali time is also but a mere part of the white noise background of my/our subconscious.

At least in New York City, they are coming up with a permanent memorial that will have the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.

In India, there are hardly any permanent memorials of that kind. Life is surely cheap in India.

Will we ever even get to know the names of the 11 individuals who perished today near the Delhi High Court?

I hope the news media will bother to investigate the human stories behind the dead. Did those individuals have any premonitions that this day was going to be the last day of their existence in this universe?

In India, people have a lot of faith in gods and religion. When people start on any important journey, they do not forget to seek the blessings of whatever gods they believe in and whose photographs they tend to keep in their homes in some special place.

Clearly, god failed to protect them this day. Many families must have been permanently devastated today. But even this will be sought to be explained away in religious terms by appealing to the mysterious ways of god.

Hardly anyone will be persuaded to change their religious beliefs in fundamental ways. But if anyone really bothers to reflect about random occurrences of death such as these blasts, there's but one conclusion to reach -- there can not be a benevolent planner behind these events.

It's however surely too much to expect such fundamental shifts in mindsets in Indians. They are mostly illiterate or semi-literate. Their circle of sympathy extends only to their kith and kin. They are mostly untouched by tragedy visiting unknown families.

We are all selfish. I do not know if that's an evolutionary trait that helps us survive. Non-Indians (people in the developed nations of America or Europe) will care little for tragedies visiting poor Indians. We in India are hardly touched by the frequent occurrences of bomb blasts in Iraq and Pakistan.

The benighted citizenry of Africa can hardly be faulted if they are left equally unimpressed by Indian tragedies.

What changed because of 9/11? Statecraft, policies, geopolitics, strategic affairs, war doctrines, etc. Did people change? I do not think any society changed in deep manner. No society became permanently more kinder, gentler, more giving because of 9/11. No society rejected the concept of god as because it finally realized that 9/11 conclusively proved that such concepts are crazy, childish notions.

We seem to have a capacity to fall back into old habits, familiar ways of thinking, our own parochial and tribal mindsets and affiliations and beliefs. We seem to have an immense capacity to consume trivia and dross.

This is not a manifesto written in anger. It's merely a statement of fact.

September 03, 2011

Age of Empowerment

The attraction of the Anna movement apart from the topic of anti-corruption which is everyone's favorite whipping boy, was or is the fact that it is empowering.

It is weird to compare this movement to the Arab Spring as that would be like aspiring to scale the economic heights that Bangladesh has climbed.

Over and shrill nationalism is quite scary as it brooks no dissent.

India's core problem is clearly not corruption.

But people are easily swayed by symbolism rather than hard realities.

This happens even in developed economies such as the United States where opportunistic politicians are harnessing superficial problems such as outsourcing, illegal/legal immigration, big government rather than focusing on fundamental shifts in the nature of the global economic structure.

There will be disillusionment at some point. It remains to be seen what happens after that point is reached.

It's as clear and true as the Earth moving around the Sun that India won't become a developed nation.

Sex and Religion

Clearly that brings together two important topics.

Greta Cristina writes wonderfully about a report that has come out that shows how atheists have it better in matters of sex. Good to hear.

But the survey is clearly confined to Western nations with their (already) rather liberal cultures and the three monotheistic religions.

I want to bring a bit of a different perspective to it. Here in India, I have observed an entire generation grow up during the 30 odd years of my own life.

It has been quite bewilderingly disappointing to see the way the younger generation deals with the existing cultural and religious value systems.

To be sure, while growing up, kids in India are incessantly bombarded with the idea that it's important to respect the elderly, that they are great storehouses of knowledge and experience and wisdom.

Clearly, the matter of respecting one's elders would have made sense in agrarian societies where the elderly would really have in fact more knowledge by virtue of their longer life experience. Knowledge used to be passed on from generation to generation.

We do not live in agrarian societies any more and we do not acquire our life skills from our parents. It's time therefore that youngsters in India learned to be a bit more skeptical about whatever their elders told them. Youngsters could learn to question the validity of the statements of their elders rather than just blindly accepting them.

The way it is right now, it is sad to see apparently educated youngsters doing nonsensical things.

Take the matter of marriage. In overwhelming numbers, marriages in India still happen via the arranged route. This is clearly absurd. I am curious if this is because youngsters prefer it to be this way or because this is the only option available to them. I am inclined to bet that it is the latter.

If youngsters had the option of having love affairs available to them, perhaps they would choose the route of exploring one's life partners on one's own. As it happens now, usually the parents fix up a marriage without much input from either the boy or the girl concerned.

It's a wonder that such arranged marriages appear to hold up quite well -- as divorce rates are quite low in India. But appearances can be deceiving. Just because two persons remain married to each other for life does not mean that they necessarily have a happy marriage. It is mostly a marriage of convenience.

Marriages in India are more of a social occurrence rather than a matter for individuals to decide. Therefore, it's difficult for marriages to break-up as there is a negative perception regarding that in traditional society.

Marriages also inevitably lead to babies in India. The responsibility for the upbringing up a baby is clearly divided between the husband and the wife. The husband tends to be the money earner who takes care of all stuff that is outside of the home. This might include going to various offices or bringing groceries and vegetables.

The wife is in charge of the home front. This would include taking care of the baby's needs and cooking and related homework.

This division of labor serves both the parties quite well. So, marriages continue to endure though they might be completely bereft of any emotional or physical content.

Also, people in India are mostly poor and living on the edge of a precipice. People do not have that many choices. They have nowhere else to go. Females are quite dependent on the husband for food since he makes all the money while she makes none. This is a sad reality that is changing only slowly. One of the saddest facts is to see young females even today willing to settle into familiar and traditional roles of a housewife. I find it infinitely baffling how someone can pursue an engineering degree and docilely accept the boring lifestyle of a housewife. Surely, young, educated girls have enough brains to look at their mothers who mostly tend to have been housewives themselves who spend 30 years in cooking and bringing up children. How can young girls not find the revolting that they themselves might spend 30 years doing nothing more than cooking and taking care of a baby or two?

The need or desire to have sex is a biological or evolutionary imperative that goes back millions of years and is much older than recent human cultures and traditions. This explains why absurdities such as arranged marriages can at all occur. In India, arranged marriages might often be the only game in town, the only option available. There is no Plan B, or Option B. So, youngsters might accept the choice as the alternative might be bachelorhood and worse, forced celibacy.

Religion is a strange soup that combines bits of culture, rituals, values, traditions, and morals. Why do youngsters accept their parent's religions so blindly? It's mostly a matter of habit and not the result of any great amount of intellectual reflection or debate.

Although India is a famously diverse nation, in fact, people tend to live in uniform communities. People mostly grow up surrounded by others who have the same sort of beliefs. People grow up worshiping the same gods and having the same sorts of religious celebrations from year to year.

Youngsters growing up are not exposed to any competing religious ideologies or belief systems. Clearly, parents are not smart/stupid enough to expose their kids to competing ideologies. Youngsters are not smart/stupid enough to question hand-me-down philosophies on their own. So the stupid belief systems endure.

Religion is rather deeply intertwined with the ebb and flow of life itself. Religion plays a key part in everything, from when babies are born to when folks marry to when they die.

People naturally have lots of intellectual diversions to keep themselves busy or to entertain themselves and do not necessarily wish to enter into heavy-duty matters such as questioning the validity of religious assumptions.

August 14, 2011

The Article of Independence

For a civilization and a sub-continent, it's not quite clear what the specific import of 1947 is.

I do not know where to place the specific importance in the long history of India of the acts of the British when they creepingly occupied India first and then suddenly left when things became a bit too hot to handle.

Human lives however are measured on the scale of human lifespans. So it matters a lot to people whether the last 50 years have been productive or fruitless years in the story of India.

And the India story over the past half century has been famously a mixed bag.

India started its journey exactly like Nehru said: a great civilization awakened from long years of sleep.

It has mostly been drifting since then. India can't make any singular claims of achievement that it can be proud of as a signature feat of all of humanity.

People of India are mostly interested in trivialities -- such as religion and their petty family lives.

What of the future? More of the same.

August 08, 2011

The Story of India — Salil Tripathi

Here's the link:


Here's the complete text:


In the India in which I grew up, my father burned incense daily at the idol of Ganesha, the elephant-headed one who vanquishes evil, and my mother would keep the municipal water tap turned on at night, so that she would know when water would ‘arrive’ in our flat. Ganesha may or may not ward off evil, but the family needed water, and she would not leave anything to chance. The municipality ostensibly provided water 24 hours, but didn’t tell us that it meant 24 hours in a week, or sometimes, in a fortnight. If she kept the tap on, she would know the moment it would start to whisper and cough, and water would splutter, first as a trickle, then as a waterfall, and those sounds would wake her up, and she’d fill up the pots before others did, to make sure we’d have enough water.

This was when India was the poster child for aid agencies. More Indians probably knew about the US law PL 480, than most Americans: it sent surplus US wheat to India, thus preventing mass starvation. We weren’t badly off; we weren’t well off either. We had a home but no refrigerator, no car, no scooter and no telephone for a long time. We bought our first television some five years after my city had television.

July 25, 2011

Why My Father Hated India by Aatish Taseer from the Wall Street Journal

Ten days before he was assassinated in January, my father, Salman Taseer, sent out a tweet about an Indian rocket that had come down over the Bay of Bengal: "Why does India make fools of themselves messing in space technology? Stick 2 bollywood my advice."


My father was the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, and his tweet, with its taunt at India's misfortune, would have delighted his many thousands of followers. It fed straight into Pakistan's unhealthy obsession with India, the country from which it was carved in 1947.

Though my father's attitude went down well in Pakistan, it had caused considerable tension between us. I am half-Indian, raised in Delhi by my Indian mother: India is a country that I consider my own. When my father was killed by one of his own bodyguards for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, we had not spoken for three years.

July 16, 2011

Beware!

Penis cutting and cutters are in the news again ...

Take precautions men!

Also, if you thought your nice dog will sooner starve than eat your dead body (if you happen to die in your home and no one is around except the dog), well, think again.


July 15, 2011

Last Words: Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins

Here’s the substance and sequence of events as I see it.



• Rebecca Watson had an elevator encounter that she felt uncomfortable with. She talked about it on her blog. She has every right to do so.


• PZ Myers picked it up on his blog. Thus far, this is like a conversation about dating techniques.


• Dawkins decides to get into this debate. He equates Watson’s experience with the great amount of suffering that women face in various countries including threats to their lives. Dawkins trivializes Watson’s experience as ‘zero-bad.’


• On the face of it, it seems like these are two distinct and unrelated issues and there’s no reason for anyone to compare these two experiences. Or is it?


• One is aware of problems such as date rape and various forms of sexual crimes which take place on campuses. Problems that are unique to the so-called advanced nations. Backward nations meanwhile are faced with the age-old issues: everything from killing female fetuses to killing female infants to injustices to young females to forced marriages to dowry harassment to death punishment for adultery, etc. I have clearly left out other forms of cruelty.


• Could it be that there’s something common in the male mindset which enables males to commit the first set of crimes in the rich countries and the second set of crimes in the poorer countries? It seems there’s after all some thread which links these two sets of crimes.


• So, Rebecca Watson’s encounter can be placed in the broader spectrum of persistent male mindsets. And then we can all conclusively agree that the elevator guy was egregiously in error. There’s after all a continuum from innocent offers of coffee to a situation where an acceptance of such an offer is construed to be an invitation to have sex. And when the female later makes it clear that the two matters are distinct, that often leads to misunderstanding, violence, and possibly rape.


• Dawkins erred in looking at it as an isolated incident and ignoring the historical baggage.

July 12, 2011

Privilege and other thoughts -- Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins on my mind

When household robots are around in the future, I wonder how they will be designed.

Suppose, you want to have water. You can get it on your own.

Suppose you are busy and want someone else to bring it for you. You would request someone in your family to bring it -- Johnny, can you get me a glass of water, please?

You will not say -- hey, fucker, why don't you move your ass and get me some freaking water?

I would imagine Johnny won't be so pleased (and worse if it was your wife that you were addressing and not Johnny) if you adopted the second tone.

Now imagine you have that household robot. Would the robot be designed to respond the same way no matter how politely or impolitely you asked it for water? Or, may be, Hitachi or Honda will program it in such a manner that if you ask it for water in an impolite manner, it will coolly bring the water (hot) and splash it on your face.

July 09, 2011

Ultimate Bucket List

  1. Have one billion babies.
  2. Travel 5 billion light years in every direction starting from Earth. But if you have seen one galaxy, you've seen 'em all.
  3. Become a cheetah, an elephant, and a snake in my reincarnations ... oops, that will require me to die first. But anyway.
  4. Touch the sun and burn my fingers ... oops, it's HOT!
  5. Launch the space shuttle to the Moon with my bare hands ... remember how you launched those paper airplanes as a kid?
  6. Dip my finger gingerly into a black hole ... oops, my finger tip just vanished!
  7. Live to be one billion years old.

June 02, 2011

Mayawati as Prime Minister

I think Mayawati is in many ways the likeliest person to become India's next Prime Minister. I see a fractious mandate being provided by the electorate in the next general election. I expect the regional leaders such as Jayalalitha and Mamta (not to mention Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik, and Omar Farooq) to do well.


I am sure the ladies would love to support a female from the grassroots for the post of Prime Minster. It will be up to the big parties such as Congress and BJP to recognize people's mandate for what it is and perhaps choose to support a coalition of smaller parties at the center from outside.


This will of course reflect the reality of India's diversity where each state will have an individual voice in the running of the entire nation: a truly federal structure.


Mayawati has successfully Uttar Pradesh, one of the most complex Indian states. With this experience, she has shown that she is capable of engaging in the kind of deal-making that is essential to running India.


Let's remember that India is a democracy and not a meritocracy. If inexperienced Obama can get a shot at the U.S. Presidency because of his singular talent of oratory and Sarah Palin can dream of becoming President as well, Mayawati is surely entitled to having a shot at the top job in India. Considering the present occupant of the post, I won 't consider that a disgrace of any sort whatsoever to the office of the PM. 

May 27, 2011

A Confession

Heaven uses an open-source, Linux based email server.


Since Oprah is now over, let me confess on my blog. I've fathered three babies unbeknown to my imaginary wife. My co-conspirators were sequentially: my office intern, a member of my household staff, and inevitably, the proverbial (but quite literal) maid. The inspirations for these acts (and therefore the owners of authorial credit) are messers Clinton, Arnold, and DSK.


So, I'm giving them due acknowledgement. Also, thanking them for not copyrighting or trademarking these techniques. Instead, these are available to all those who seek to enjoy the benefits of democracy combined with atheism under the Creative Commons License.


Anyone can therefore use these techniques and modify them to suit their specific needs and then share the results with the world at large.


There. I've done it! Or is there more? Well, I just remembered a fourth baby that I had with the hot, young TV journo lady. That was inspired by Mr. Edwards. Ok. That's it.


Now I've confessed the great sin of my life. I'm completely CLEAN now. My soul is light as a feather ... or a size-zero model.


Do I need to go to the Ganga now for a holy dip? No. I think I'll skip that. The damn river is too dirty with human excrement ... not to mention rotting corpses of cows and humans.


Should I visit a dingy confession box? Well, my forefathers were not hot about Jesus and neither am I. No need to change a good, old tradition.

May 25, 2011

Conjoined Twins

This is so intriguing, ever fascinating and touching:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/magazine/could-conjoined-twins-share-a-mind.html/

I remember Laleh and Ladan Bijani and their surgery in Singapore and how that happened to go wrong.

May 23, 2011

A River Runs Through It

A movie about fly fishing that somehow manages to make one ponder about what it means to be alive.


A kid who wants to grow up to be a fly fisherman. Another kid who wants to be a boxer.


A preacher who's devoted to his calling of inspiring and soothing his people through the power of words as revealed by his God. The kids grow up. The elder one turns into the responsible one while the younger is more adventurous. Love and a stable career are the ambitions for one. The other aspires to and enjoys taking life on.


But risk taking can exact grim reapings. One can get killed. This is almost inevitable. But perhaps that's precisely part of the allure of this kind of life.


In time, the kid grows old. And reflects on the meaning of it all. The river meanwhile is the one constant. What a wonderful metaphor for life a river is! Always flowing, never stopping. With hidden dangers lurking beneath the surface.


We are responsible for the decisions we make in our lives. The consequences are for us to bear. Life and people's decisions can be inexplicable at times.


But the larger truth to absorb is that we'll all be old. And dead. Some sooner. Some later. Those who die young can be like those bright burning huge stars that have short life spans. It's for those who live to be old to reflect and remember. To persist and persevere.





Follow me on Twitter: @sachi_bbsr

Terms of Endearment

Can a movie make us think about life? Can a movie have anything to teach us about living life? One can pose these questions in relation to this movie. That already shows how much this movie has accomplished.


The movie stars Jack Nicholson as a retired bachelor much attracted to and interested in the opposite sex. It so happens that the character is that of a retired astronaut. Is that so far fetched? I don't know. In terms of physical appearance, there's nothing unusual about Jack that would somehow disqualify him from playing the part of an astronaut.


In fact, Jack takes quite a resemblance to one of the crew members of STS-134, the mission that is currently in space, the boyish looking Michael Fincke. Apart from this, I also think that there's some resemblance between Jack and the legendary Bob Crippen of STS-01.


Then there's Shirley MacLaine. An aging woman who's over-protective of her daughter and suspicious of the world at large, grown somewhat bitter with life with the passing of the years. Basically, she could be your average old lady.


The beautiful Debra Winger is a small town girl with typical family ambitions: get married and start a family. he world may have changed a lot now a days and those sort of ambitions to be a housewife might appear quaint in today's world, but it makes perfect sense in its own frame of reference. And like many impressionable young women, Debra falls in love with a handsome young English teacher who's good with words ... and ladies too. But it turns out that the teacher enjoys the perks of working at a co-ed. Surprise surprise!


Life moves on. Babies come along and romances bloom: some likely and some less likely.


Then the unexpected happens. Life turns upside down all of a sudden for these four people whose lives are so intertwined. And crises bring out our true character. The people who truly care ant to stand by you in a time of crisis. The opportunists soon go away.


The movie ends with the ending of a human life and the beginnings of other relationships. People move on. Always. Life moves on.


So this movie is quite like life. Remarkable and touching.



Follow me on Twitter: @sachi_bbsr

Rajneeti: A Stupendous Masterpiece

When a director manages to combine the mythic heritage of the Mahabharata with the cauldron that is contemporary Indian politics, you inevitably get a searing saga.


Unlike the usual Bollywood movie, Rajneeti is painted on a broad canvas and events happen at a fast clip and the movie does not grow stale at any point.


From the start itself when it tells of a romance between an ageing idealist and a young protege, the movie somehow manages to acquire a mythic ambiance.


The movie moves on to scheming politicians and feuding family members, a romance that is one-sided, one brother who's only too trigger happy and the younger brother, who's a cool schemer, and Nana Patkar cool as always.


As we witness one planned murder after another, one is reminded of gangster country. But this is really the reality of life in politics in India and indeed, perhaps, the reality of life itself, in India.


I don't know why the movie did not garner greater accolades. May be, people are not ready to look reality in the eye.

Follow me on Twitter @sachi_bbsr

May 21, 2011

Imagining Immortality

I am thinking of a scheme of how immortality might come to be real in the coming decades.

Perhaps, there will be storage tanks which will house millions upon millions of brains that will be alive and will be connected to a global network of news and everything.

When we are old, our brains will be put there and we will continue to live in a virtual sort of world or a mental world perhaps forever essentially being an observer.

Or, may be, we will have something like fish tanks in our homes where we will have the brains of our ancestors. Perhaps they will continue to live in our drawing rooms observing their progeny lead their daily lives.

How would that be like to have our grannies and granddaddies around? Or, at least, their brains.

Imagine an Alien Earth

I think of a future ... may be a few decades from now ... when we'll discover somewhere in the vastness of our own galaxy a planet eerily like our own.

A planet in the Goldilocks zone with the same kind of temperatures as the Earth and with oceans and land.

I think that would be the most tantalizing prospect of all ... what would happen on such a planet given billions of years? Will life spontaneously evolve inevitably? Or, can a planet remain barren of life for billions of years altogether?

Imagine that life does evolve. Simple unicellular organisms. Then, tiny multicellular organisms. Then, it will be fascinating.

What routes does life take? Will amphibians evolve? Birds? Fish? Trees? Reptiles? Dinosaurs? Mammals?

Just think of the diversity of the history of life on Earth and ponder how much is going to remain the same and how much is going to be different on such a planet.

How fascinating would it be when we detect such an inviting world and send across our robotic explorers for a closer look. How exciting would it be to see from Earth when these robotic explorers send in their videos.

Would we see a planet where animals roam the land? Strange animals and yet animals that we can relate to ... may be 10-legged creatures or something.

Will such a planet have animals of two different sexes for procreation?

I want to live to see the answer to this question.

10 Billion Human Beings

As I observe people living their daily, humdrum existence, I wonder about these prophecies and what the future holds for humanity.


There's clearly no hesitation on my part in sticking my neck out if it means that and saying that I wish the projection said instead that the world's population would reach 2 billion by the end of this century.


What will happen if the planet becomes a planet of plenty like some middle eastern Asian nation with a lot of oil. Will people become lazy and uninnovative?


That's of course unlikely in any case. What is instead likely to happen is a continuation of the present trend.


Think of the competitive nature of life today. Really, there's so much competition happening where everyone is trying to show himself to be smart or make money.


So many smart people working in alternative energy and physics and other sciences like automobiles to space.


There's this extraordinary race which exists where so many have to fail for a few to succeed.


Is that how it has to be for the human race not to become lazy?


Are humans intrinsically designed to have prosaic perspectives and only a few like Carl Sagan or Loren Eiseley are given the cosmic insights ... the ability to enjoy the cosmic beauty of nature?


Look at the average human life. Say, in America. As they lead their daily lives comprising of tours to the gas station, the supermarket or mall, the kids school, beauty parlor, office, highway, paying bills, etc. life has an utterly humdrum quality. Although, if you took a peasant from an Indian village and placed him in the middle of America, he will surely find America to be a land of wonders.


Similarly, the life of a peasant in India takes place at its own humdrum pace. And if an American were to come and witness it, surely he will be appalled at the lack of what he would consider to be basic amenities.


It's easy to sympathize with the story of a Lara Logan when seeing her on 60 Minutes. It's even more easy to sympathize with the kids in Florida who were shown on a recent episode of 60 Minutes.


But the bigger reality is this. At this very moment, and in a quite unremarkable way, thousands of children and millions of children continue to suffer in India.


One has to only go to near a temple on a Tuesday evening here in the North of India, say Delhi, when people's piousness overflows and the street kids gather for food.


One has to only be at any traffic light on a Delhi street to see kids plying their trades, turning tricks or selling books, etc.


I consider this to be a failure of civilization as a whole.


I don't know if I was able to make myself very clear ...

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