Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fair and Lovely

In a recent Telugu film Dhada, the comedian Brahmanandam, at a party, goes around the room trying to chat up women - all of them fair skinned - and fails each time. Then, he is approached by a black woman (who I thought was quite pretty), but he rejects her outright, running out of the room to get away from her. 

Discrimination within a system is often difficult to recognise as such without outside perspective, and can remain as a matter of fact, unnoticed, until something happens to highlight it. That is not to say that the discrimination stops once it is in the open, only that thought and debate on the issue begin once it is recognised as an issue. For example, discrimination according to caste, while still prevalent, is not something that can happen unnoticed, as a matter of fact, any more. The issue is in the open, and every new instance of discrimination is catalogued, and debated upon. 

Discrimination based on colour is not one such an issue in India. It happens everyday, all around us, but nobody pays attention to the fact that discrimination is taking place. This discrimination is not against a particular segment of the population, it does not have an agenda. Unlike elsewhere, it does not factor in the economic or political spheres: people don't lose jobs or elections because they are dark skinned. The negative bias restricts itself to considerations of potential sexual partners. 

One possible theory of the origin of this bias goes back to the migration and consequent subjugation of the darker native Indians by the invading fair skinned Aryans - and the later demonisation of the natives by the ruling Aryans. This might have been reinforced by two centuries of British rule: I wonder if while rebelling against foreign rule, Indians developed an inferiority complex which manifests itself as this colour bias. Not to say that Indians desire fair skinned foreigners, no: what they want are fair skinned Indians. Looked at more closely, this discrimination appears not to be a malicious degradation of the other, but a deep dissatisfaction with something within, and an attempt to rid itself of that blemish. 

Whatever the reason maybe, it is a widely accepted in India today that fair skin is more desirable than dark skin. I can't seem to recall even one major actress with dark skin, and even those actresses who are somewhere in the middle are touched up on screen to appear as fair as possible. I remember an ad for the fairness cream Fair and Lovely a few years ago, where it is shown that a girl is rejected for marriage because she is too dark, and after using the cream for a few months she becomes much more desirable to prospective grooms. Jokes on screen about the undesirability of dark skinned men are quite common, especially at the expense of comedians - Sunil and Babu Mohan (of the Telugu film industry) come to mind immediately.

As I said earlier, this discrimination, while ubiquitous, has not gained significance as an issue yet. Biases of other kinds, those based on caste or religion or social status are easier to deal with: while it might still be difficult, education and reason can go a long way. But sexual bias - while still socially conditioned - is far more primal, and cannot be combated with reason. It could take generations to reverse it, if it can even be done. As it is though, I am actually worried that we Indians are going to breed the dark skin right out of our genes: quite sad really, given how much healthier dark skin is for the Indian climate.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Absent institutions

in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be the road to the salvation of a soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

                                          --B.R Ambedkar (closing address to Constituent Assembly)

When I look at the give aways that the recently elected Jayalalitha government is indulging in, I am reminded once again of the populist nature of contemporary Indian democracy. Successive governments have found out that it is easier to appease their wards with freebies (such as a fan, a tv or free electricity) than making an effort to do something positive. Arguably, one source of this populism could be India's vast poor and unaware, and hence, gullible, population. Under the surface however, I think, this populism has more to do with the feeling of helplessness that Indians experience over not having any other viable alternative. In contemporary India the disillusionment of the average Indian goes so far as to consider that if the government does something right, it is incidental, a serendipitous aligning of the personal interests of politicians and civil servants with the interests of the country. Given this, the Indian public at large, I believe, has stopped being willing to sacrifice comforts that a momentarily vulnerable and generous government bestows upon them - if only for votes - even if such a comfort means greater pain somewhere down the line. Because, even if they do sacrifice, they do not trust the government to invest that capital into the country's future. So, they take as much as they can get, even being aware that it is going to be at the cost of the future.

Indian public institutions are for the most part viewed with suspicion. The negative light in which they are usually cast in Indian films give us a taste of the popular sentiment. In the average film, whatever the problem maybe, the protagonist casually deals with it as an individual, outside the law; where an attempt is shown to be made by the protagonist to seek the system's help, the problem is cast aside with disdain by the system, thus forcing the option of a non-legal route on the protagonist. That the means used by the protagonist are in violation of the law of the land is not even an issue, more often than not the violator is considered a saint rather than a criminal; the message in summary comes to this: the triumph of right, of justice, due to the sacrifice of an individual in spite of a callous, uncaring, often corrupt system. The resentment of the public has reached to such levels recently that blatant killing of corrupt officials (Tagore, Telugu, 2003), or the taking over of governance by private individuals (Sivaji, Tamil, 2007) seem perfectly reasonable options to the viewers.

Problematic also is the unhealthy obsession Indians have with 'leaders'. While celebrities and symbols have played an important role in most cultures around the world, I believe that Indians are obsessed  with the idea of a 'leader'. Sometimes I cannot help but think it a wonder that India has not devolved into an autocracy in the time since its independence (though it almost did end up being one under Indira Gandhi). 

That is the contradiction India today has within itself: tired as Indians are of the system governing them, their first instinct is not to deliberate upon the manner in which the system could be reformed, but to look for, or rather, worse than that, helplessly pray for a 'leader' who would deliver them from the system (while doing the best they can, by hook or crook, while under it). It is one of the reasons why, I think, Indians are so easy to stir up to become a mob: at the first hint of a leader providing direction, promising deliverance, they are ready to follow - some times not even caring what the cause is - casting aside concerns of law and order.

India would be a much better place if Indians shed their pessimism, and do what they can to slowly change the cogs of the system - uninspiring work though it is - rather than hoping for a revolution under a 'leader'.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Musings on relics

As a tourist I 'see' places that have been standing for centuries. I often wonder what they mean, these places. Some of them are still used in some form or the other. Others have ended up being just tourist attractions. I wonder about what they were intended for when they were built...and of the subsequent changes they went through, each change transforming their purpose, while banishing that minority of 'users' who still yearned for the place in its previous form....that disowned minority that needed the place in its earlier form...its earlier purpose.

When I see old temples for instance, that is what I struggle with: my urge to preserve warring with the notion that if I do try to preserve the place would lose its purpose and become a relic. Why do we like looking at dead things and not the living? The living in all its energy and flux draws the venerable into its flow transforming it into but another instance of the mundane? Only the dead stay still long enough to be looked at, maybe?

At the Sun temple in Konark - dead to its purpose for a few centuries now - my eyes went straight the architecture and the sculpture. There was nothing else in the way. At the Jagannath temple in Puri though, the energy of the crowd, their singularity of purpose, easily decided the primary focus of my eye: not until I had come out of the temple and talked to my mother did I realise that I had not paid much attention to the architecture after all. I went back a few days later: it was as amazing as at Konark, I just didn't notice it before.

The aura that attaches itself to places: my first view of Ajanta or the Palladium (in Rome) overwhelmed me, so many centuries of history brought together in one place, stories still living in a dead place pressing down on me with the weight of the strength of their claim on me - concentrated as it is in one place - as my past. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Erotic sculpture: Bhubaneshwar and Konark

Please click on the pic above for album.

A sample from Bhubaneshwar and Konark. The Jagannath temple at Puri has sculpture of a similar style, and is better preserved; sadly though, photography is not allowed inside the temple complex.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bhubaneshwar, Puri and Konark

Please click on the pic above for album.

Benign indifference

I was in Sikkim for a couple of months earlier this year. While the entire experience was interesting, one thing stood out for me: it was how different the place was from everywhere else in India. Every state I've been to in India has given me a unique experience, but I never doubted any state's compatibility, its place in the Indian Union - however different it was from my own state - because there was a definite Indianness about each of those places. But Sikkim was different. The people looked different, their language was different, their culture was different, and more importantly they seemed distant somehow, almost self-sufficient. Not self-sufficient in the material sense - obviously, given that they are dependent on the road connecting them to Siliguri for most of their basic needs - but in an emotional sense: I did not sense that attachment that Indians have to the idea of India, not to the same extent that it exists elsewhere in any case.

Now, Sikkim interacts heavily with West Bengal economically. So I got to thinking, if Sikkim, with its constant interaction with Bengal (and increasing tourist movement), has so little emotional attachment to India, then what is the case with the rest of the North-East? For the most part only Assam interacts with the rest of India directly, the other North-Eastern states interact with Assam. And that has been the case for over sixty years. Before Independence, movement was much easier, but after East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) came into existence, only a narrow stretch of land connects the North-East to the rest of India, and even that route is not always usable, given the regular landslides that block it. So movement is minimal: I can honestly say that before Sikkim I had never interacted with a person from the North-East.

A recent article on the hunger strike being carried out by Irom Sharmila for over ten years now against human rights abuses in Manipur showcases my point: I didn't know who she was before. No wonder the North-East is emotionally distant, the rest of India isn't that attached to them either, apart from that feeling of possessiveness that overtakes us whenever talk of separation or terrorism arises. India hasn't invested much in the North-East emotionally or financially (the Government has, perhaps, but only for security, given that they  are border states).

Given that the inclusion of this region in the Indian Union was problematic in the first place (Nagaland primarily), and how much trouble it has with some of the states still, I am surprised that the Government hasn't been more proactive in promoting interaction between the North-East and the rest of India. Easier communication makes for easier trade, and trade is the best ice breaker. In any case, the North-East needs to move from the periphery to the mainstream of the Indian consciousness if it is to genuinely feel like a part of India, rather than only in name. Whether it is the Government that does it, or the people of the North-East, or those of the rest of India, it is better if it is done while we still have the chance.  

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Muddling through to...?

We have suffered. With barely sufficient education we toiled to get out of remote villages, to provide for our family. And we have succeeded. We are not rich, but we do not lack either. But our children, they will have a different life. They will not struggle, we will make sure that they end up living comfortably, with no regrets; unlike us.

Engineering and Medicine, that's where the jobs with good salaries are. And to get there the kids need to be good with the sciences, and even then the exams can only be passed after extensive preparation. So, that's what we're going to do: put them in schools that train them from the get go, and get them extra tuitions in the evenings. The loss of play time and such does worry us a little, but it's all for a good cause, it's for the kid's future. They'll thank us one day.

I have struggled, I have toiled...for nearly ten years now. But it's all good. I'm finally here, a reputed Institute, studying Engineering like I've always dreamed of. I'm settled now, my parents are happy. The freedom I now have though, never had it before, it's tempting. But, no, have to study, still have places to go. They tell me I need to write GRE and TOEFL to get into a school abroad. Need good English for that...odd though, I'm learning basic English now, wonder why I didn't when I was in school, can't even form a proper sentence to be honest. And there's CAT too. That needs good speaking skills too, social skills they call it. Hmm, never really had a chance to talk to people before, those self help books might help...they teach you how to engage in a conversation.

The self help books, they tell me I need to know stuff to talk to people, but I don't know stuff...all I know is maths, physics and chemistry. So, I start reading the paper, watch films, read books, go out with people: that's my education now. Education I have missed, I think. But it is really hard. They say all this stuff is easier to learn when one's a kid. Oh well, what's done is done, anything for success. Would have been easier if I had a chance to get a more rounded education though. But success, a comfortable life, that's is what the struggle is for. Can't help wondering sometimes though, if it is all going to feel worth it when I finally get there.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Where history stops

I ordered a couple of books titled 'Modern Indian History' a few weeks ago: I was looking to read about recent developments in India. So, I was surprised and disappointed when I found out that the books dealt with events starting with late Mughal period, the most recent event discussed being the Indian Independence. I went back online, and after some searching, found a book titled 'India After Gandhi': so figuring that I could not go wrong here, given its title, ordered it. Interestingly, the prologue of the book reflects on this very same problem: the seeming end of Indian history with Independence. The author quotes Krishna Kumar who wrote that 'for Indian children history itself comes to an end with Partition and Independence. As a constituent of social studies, and later on as a subject in its own right, history runs right out of content in 1947... All that has happened during the last 55 years may filter through the measly civics syllabus, popular cinema and television; history as formally constituted knowledge of the past does not cover it.'

Yes, our history books in school dealt with the struggle for Independence at great length, but that was where it ended. I find myself lacking anything more than a vague idea of most events after Independence (those that I didn't live through myself, that is), even major ones. Only recently did I look into and find out, say, as to how Goa or Nagaland came to be a part of India or why Indira Gandhi was assassinated. And I find that very odd, primarily when contrasted with the economics or civics syllabus, which deal with events after Independence. The civics texts talk about Indian involvement with the UN and its international policy, and the economics texts talk about India's five year plans and the opening up of its markets in the 90s. So, does the school board think that these nuggets of information gleaned from disparate sources make up for a holistic view of recent Indian history?

But of course, Guha (the author) argues that the problem is not the school boards as such, that in fact there is very little work being done on recent Indian history, and that most of the texts published pertain to India before Independence. Compare this to the US or Europe where new books come out after every major event. Incredibly, most Indian states, some larger than any European country, haven't even had their histories written. 

So, does this have to do with Indians being stuck with the idea of the day of independence as the start of the present? Or maybe it has to do with Indians being bad historians in general: we do have a rather notorious reputation for not writing things down, and being lazy about facts - given that Indians have such a long history, we only find accounts of ancient India in foreign texts (of course, we do find accounts in mythological poetry and prose, but that is not exactly factual history, is it?)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Aihole and Pattadakal

Please click on the pic for album

The structures at Aihole and Pattadakal give us the opportunity to see almost a millennium of evolution of Indian temple architecture all at one place. We have rock cut temples giving way to free standing temples, which further evolve along the two separate styles of the northern Nagara style, and the southern Dravida style, all right next to each other.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Voting to kill democracy

"So, this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause."  - Senator Amidala, Star Wars II

Who has the final say in a constitutional democracy? The people or the constitution? India's Constitution, for example, was drafted and ratified by an indirectly elected Constituent Assembly. However indirectly they elected it, the people of India were the source of legitimacy of the Assembly. But, conversely, India did not become a republic, a democracy, and her people didn't have any of their fundamental rights (including their universal suffrage) until the Constitution was officially ratified. So, without a Constitution conferring voting rights on the people, where from did they derive their power to ratify the Constitution?

This might seem like a useless circular argument, but it serves to make my point that people exercised their right to vote even before the Constitution came into existence. The Constitution serves merely as a written record of what was agreed upon as the core of the law of the land, it need not be enshrined, and it should be remembered that it is not from the Constitution that we derive our power, but ourselves. But, that is not how the Constitution is seen today, it is seen as the immutable foundation for all that we build on.

Attempts to amend what is seen as the 'basic structure' of the Indian Constitution are resisted by the Indian Supreme Court. Some of the amendments that the Congress Government under Indira Gandhi, with its two-thirds majority, tried to push through during the Emergency were invalidated by the Supreme Court subsequently as subversive to the basic structure of the Constitution. So, if a Government with two-thirds majority cannot amend the basic structure of the constitution, then who can? There is no provision for referendum (though referendums have been conducted at a local level on a voluntary basis by the Government) in the Indian Constitution, so does that mean that the 'basic structure' of the Constitution is unalterable? Of course, I am not saying that I agree with the amendments that the Indira Gandhi Government passed: I am merely pointing out that it is odd that there is no apparent way to fundamentally change the Indian Constitution if we want to. 

Contrarily, people (or their representatives, as the case maybe) under extreme circumstances - as is shown beautifully in Star Wars - can be persuaded to voluntarily vote off their fundamental rights. The state of emergency that existed in India from 1975-77 or the one that has existed in Egypt for most of the past fifty years are cases in point. More recently, international observers of Turkey were worried that the AK Party under Mr. Erdogan would unilaterally create a new, more authoritarian constitution (a 2010 referendum voted for creating a new constitution) if they gained the required two-third vote in the 2011 elections, and were relieved when they didn't. 

So, maybe the Indian Supreme Court does have a legitimate reason for its attempts to protect the Indian Constitution from the vagaries of the Indian voters and their representatives. Perhaps new amendments could be made to the Constitution to make it more difficult to amend it (does anyone not see the irony of it?), by putting in more safeguards. But, when that is done, the Court must acknowledge that this is a democracy, and the people, through whatever means, must have a possible way to to amend their Constitution, even fundamentally if they want to. Again, it is possible that they might vote to change the Constitution in a manner that is detrimental to themselves, but that is their choice.


Please click on the pic for album

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Alien within

I watched Cheeni Kum yesterday, and while I enjoyed it, I could not suppress my thoughts on the irony of the whole situation. We are a country with a history of young girls (still children sometimes) being married off to older men for a bride price - something that, even after being outlawed, happens with disturbing regularity in rural India - and here we have an entire film dedicated to the romance between a young woman and a much older man, and the difficulties they face on their way to getting married, with the theme being labelled as 'bold' in the Indian media. 

I am not questioning the relevance of the film, rather who it is relevant to. Given the manner in which the subject was dealt with, and the location where it is set, it is a reasonable assumption to make that it was made with India's diaspora and its urban elite in mind. And they did their job well, the denizens of India's rural landscape would find alien the film's language, moral qualms, the problems of its characters and its so called 'boldness'.

The changes that happened over the last twenty years in India's urban centres happened too fast, and increasingly, the gap between the urban elite and rural population looks too wide for any significant sympathetic understanding and exchange of each other's perspectives to take place. The urban elite constantly live with one foot outside India, and the rural population (I am including recent migrants to cities here), even with the attempts made to increase access to internet, still live in the same small world that they lived in twenty years ago (a few years ago, I was talking to a few of my father's subordinates at their dam site. I told them that I lived in England, two hours from London, so one of them asks me, so you live in Paris then?). The rural population, for the most part, only has access to myths of urban life and the foreign lands that city dwellers concern themselves with. 

The urban elite is properly outraged by the farmers' suicides, child marriages, honour killings...that happen in the villages, but this outrage is the same as the one reserved for the civil war in Libya or state suppression in China: it is news yes, but it is not felt as something immediate, not felt as something happening in 'our' society. A migrant worker once told me how he had saved up for a year working in the city, took a sizeable loan, and with a sense of achievement had a bore-well dug on his land back home (he hit water after three attempts). But, a more influential neighbour, now knowing where the water was, dug a deeper bore-well not five feet from his, stealing all his water. Crying, he told me how he had contemplated suicide. I listened, and I sympathised with him, but the problem itself was totally alien to me. 

I am not saying that the urban elite do not encounter poverty and misery - there is plenty of both to go around in Indian cities - but they relate to it as a purely urban problem, they don't associate it with rural poverty. They live in the city, with an eye on the outside world, and rural India is some place else.

I am sure a decade or two from now the situation will be different. Access to information, becoming easier everyday, hopefully, will help bridging the gap between the two. But until then, they will have to live with not really understanding each other. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Selective perception

A year or so ago I was in Thiruvanathapuram with a friend of mine. It was an unplanned trip, we had decided only a couple of days earlier that we would go some place, so we hadn't done any research and were mostly improvising (we started in Kochi and went all the way down to Kanyakumari). The locals enthusiastically recommended the Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple as a 'must see', so we put it on our list. 

I classify temples into two kinds: one, temples which are of artistic and historic importance and are worth seeing even if one is a non-believer. I put the temples in Hampi, Pattadakal (both in Karnataka), Konark, the Jain temples around Mt. Abu, etc., in this category. Two, temples which are, for the most part, popular as abodes of powerful gods, but do not hold much interest for the non-believer apart from the contemporary socio-cultural phenomena that these temples represent. For the non-believer in this case, it is not the temple itself, but the masses that come on pilgrimage, and their faith in the god who resides there, that is significant.  I put the temples at Tirupati, Haridwar, Shirdi, etc., in this category. 

Now, we weren't sure which of these two categories the Padmanabhaswamy temple fit into, and we didn't particularly want to go to a temple where the only thing to do was to get a darshan; so, we arrived at the temple with a fair amount of doubt that this was going to be a complete waste of time. The rules of entry, we found, were strict, and quite conservative: photography wasn't allowed, non-Hindus weren't allowed entry, men weren't allowed to wear anything above the waist, and no one was allowed to wear clothes that display the two legs separately. So, we bared our chests, and wore hired lungis (sarongs) to cover our legs. 

We finally entered the temple and started looking around. It took us some time to register what was different about what we were seeing: sculptures of dancers and such is the norm in temples, so it is no wonder that it took us so long. But these were not merely sculptures of dancers, these were very explicit erotic sculptures, and the temple was full of them; and these weren't tame either, I learnt a few things about sex that I didn't know from them. My friend opined that this probably was done to encourage procreation, and that newly weds might have been taken around the temple. My speculation was more cynical: patrons of devdasis provided for the priests and the temple, and this might have been done to stimulate the patrons. 

In any case, while that was interesting in itself, it wasn't what intrigued us the most: it was the people around us, they didn't look the least bit bothered by the sculptures. Mind you, if this were some European museum, I might have taken a different view, but this was an Indian temple, and these were the same people that are outraged at the smallest hint of sexual explicitness in public, whether in real life, art or even film. But here they were, kids and all, behaving like they would in any other temple. And that's when I realised it: they weren't actually registering anything unusual. They came to the temple to see their god, and that is what they saw. All the other activities that go with a visit to the temple, doing pradakshinas, taking prasad, having a peaceful sit down while eating it and so on were similarly done following the usual routine. They weren't interested in the sculpture, and unless someone specifically pointed it out to them, they wouldn't notice it as anything other than another generic sculpture (Heidegger comes to mind here). Of course I am generalising, I am sure a few people notice it everyday, I am just stating my general perception.

Not sure of my read on the situation, I looked to the internet for information on the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Not one mention of the erotic sculptures: not in the Wikipedia entry, nor in any other popular entries I found. On the other hand, the beautiful idol of lord Vishnu in the sanctum sanctorum is described in great detail in all these entries. Hence my point: the purpose of a temple in contemporary Indian society is set, that is its state of being, and anything pertaining to the temple outside that purpose is not even perceived for it to be written about. And given the restriction on access to only Hindus, and the prohibition of photography, there is no outside perspective to shed light on what is not being perceived (contrast with Konark and Khajuraho where photography as well as non-Hindus are allowed). 


I did consider the alternative where actually everyone is noticing the sculptures, but no one is talking about it. But, the usual reaction in that case, I think, is a feeling of awkwardness (in India, that is), and a general avoidance of the subject all together. But that is not that case here, people recommend the temple quite openly, and talk about its greatness.

My visit to the Jagannath temple at Puri last week (july, 2011) strengthens my claim. Erotic sculpture at Puri is of the same style as of that at Konark. But, as with the Padmanabhaswamy temple, only Hindus are allowed in the temple complex, and photography is not allowed. So, while erotic sculpture at Konark - less than 30 km away from Puri - is discussed in great detail in published books, that at Puri is not even mentioned. All the more surprising given that the Sun temple at Konark is heavily damaged, a lot of the sculpture losing its form, while the sculpture at Puri is in pristine condition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I was looking into India's border disputes a few months ago when I came across the word 'exclave'. I wasn't familiar with the word, so I decided to look into it. What I found was truly bizarre: 'exclave' means territory of one country that is entirely surrounded by the territory of another country (embassies and such are a different case of course); and that there were a 100 odd Indian exclaves in Bangladesh, with a similar number of Bangladeshi exclaves in India. 

Some of these exclaves were created due to a treaty in 1713 between the Mughals and Cooch Behar (now a district in West Bengal), and were added to subsequently due to other botched up treaties between various parties. In any case, the issue was unresolved during the partition in 1947, when Indian exclaves ended up in East Pakistan, or when Cooch Behar joined India in 1949 bringing East Pakistani exclaves with it. The situation would not be so dire, had the relationship between India and Pakistan been friendly. But given the animosity between the two countries, and the subsequent troubled relationship that India has had with Bangladesh, the people in the exclaves on both sides have truly been abandoned. Sometimes I can't help but think that the Brits intentionally left the subcontinent with as much trouble as they possibly could, or that they just didn't care. 

The people living in these exclaves do not have healthcare, education or electricity, nor do they have representation. The borders of the exclaves on each side are patrolled by the military of the surrounding country, and people inside can only leave to go back to their mother country, and that too with much difficulty. There is no police within the exclaves, so crime rate is high, and more importantly they are vulnerable to unhindered looting and such from citizens of the surrounding country (the military only keeps the residents in, it doesn't protect them). Many simply flee to the mainland leaving their home and land when they decide that the situation is not bearable any more.

Is India so big that it can just abandon tens of thousands of its citizens for over sixty years without care? I do not intend to trivialise the border disputes that India has with its neighbours, but even during war enemies exchange captives: how a country could leave so many of its citizens without protection in a hostile country for so many years is beyond me. 

There finally seems to be some movement on the issue. A straight swap is being considered by the government, with choice being given to residents of each exclave on which country they want to belong to. But, India stands to lose around 10,000 acres in a straight swap (there's more Indian land in Bangladesh), so who knows, a resolution might end up being delayed for a few more decades if India decides that land is more important than people. 


Monday, June 13, 2011

Wolfram Alpha and 42

Yesterday, I read an article (in the Economist) about Stephen Wolfram, his 'new kind of science (NKS)' and Wolfram Alpha. I decided to go check out his computational knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha: that is what he claims, that unlike search engines which merely collate data that already exists, Wolfram Alpha takes existing data and computes original data in response to queries. So, I typed in 'GDP of India vs GDP of China', and yes, it responded with a fairly detailed comparison including graphs; I wasn't convinced, all that information probably existed already. I entered a few more queries, and finally when I typed in International Space Station, the result convinced me: it really was computing in real time, it gave me the position of the ISS with respect to my location, and it changed every time I submitted the query. I typed in 'Warangal to Delhi', and in addition to the distance, it actually gave me the time sound and light would take to travel the distance. I had seen specific computational engines before (like Google Map), but a general computational engine, this was the first time.

I was blown away. I immediately thought of Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy, and the quest of the pan-dimensional beings (mice, that is) to build a computer that could answer the ultimate question. And here was one. So, I typed in 'the answer to life, universe and everything': the answer was 42. I will always remember that as one of most hilarious moments of my life. I do not know if it is a joke by the programmers or if Wolfram Alpha itself arrived on that answer after searching through Douglas Adam's book, but it definitely made my day. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Floo network

I was typing an address into the Chrome address bar when I realised just how much like the Floo Network Chrome is. I start typing an address, and by the time I finish typing I would have gone through ten other websites which were on the way, just getting a glimpse of each before moving on to my final destination. 

There were important differences too though. The glimpses of places one gets on a journey through the Floo are the same for everyone, as long as they are all going from point A to point B. Not so for Chrome: Google has started personalising. The journey Chrome takes one on the way to one's destination is unique to the person using it. A journey that is supposed to be random, still random, but a controlled personalised randomness. More than that, I've realised that even the destination is unique to the person using it when using the search function: this, I came to know from Eli Pariser's talk about 'filter bubbles' on TED.

While I like the idea of not having to sort through the junk that appears when a search is not personalised, I do have to acknowledge the problem Pariser highlights in his talk as a serious one. A filter personalising and editing out information based on our past choices creating a bubble, hence restricting us from getting the information outside it because we didn't seek to access the information in the past. The problem more worrisome in its insidiousness, because we just cannot see the information that's gradually being edited out, and it is hard to complain, because we are being shown exactly we want. 

Of course, the situation is not as bad as it could be yet, but with increasing personalisation everywhere, it might be eventually. 


Collective responsibility

One summer day a few years ago I was walking back from work to my flat on campus (Warwick Uni). It was a nice day, but I was tired and dirty from all the dish washing, so I just wanted to get back home, have a shower and sleep. Something changed my mood though. Three men I had never seen before stopped me and opened with the question: "are you a Hindu?" I am not religious, but they looked South Asian, and Hindu is as much a reference to how you are brought up and how you live your life, as it is to religion, so I said yes; thought I had nothing to lose, maybe make a few more acquaintances. Their reaction shocked me: they started giving me a spiel on Indian atrocities in Kashmir, Indian soldiers raping their women, killing their people. I was scared, they looked angry enough to start getting physical, I expected a gun in my face any second. But I was lucky, they wound up after a few minutes and walked away giving me dirty looks and muttering expletives.

I was shaken. One thought of irony kept coming back, that I had lived almost my entire life in India and I had not run into a single Kashmiri in all those years (of course, I remembered later that Coventry was a settlement zone for refugees, and that there probably were a few of them living in the area). After I had cooled down, I started thinking about the encounter. Short bursts of outrage at being blamed and attacked for something I hadn't done kept bubbling out from me every so often. Every other incidence of a situation where I was blamed for something I hadn't done started surfacing. Through all this a new conclusion surfaced: it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that I hadn't done any of it personally or even remotely.

The human mind associates and categorises, and the fact that I am an Indian and a Hindu was sufficient for them to associate me with the Indian army and the Indian state. I had no clue if the Indian army had done what they said it had or not, but again it did not matter either way: what mattered was that they honestly thought that it had. I am not building up to a sermon on how one should take responsibility for one's community, country, etc. No, what I am building up to is the fact that one is going to be held responsible by association whether one wants the responsibility or not. And this fact works for every possible categorisation, religion, race, profession, nationality, income...it doesn't have an end. One can not even pick and choose, one can not say I love my country and am willing to be held responsible for its every action, but I don't want to be held responsible for, say, all the doctors in the world: no, that doesn't work either.

Of course, it's not all bad. Given one's situation quite a few good things could come out of association too. In any case I am not writing to decide on the good or bad of it. I am more interested in how interwoven life is, and how it can surprise even the most aware with new or unthought of connections. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why I like anime

I discovered anime and consequently manga in 2007. I started with Naruto, which is fairly popular worldwide, and gradually moved to more esoteric anime and manga. Cartoons and comics, I had known of since I was a kid, but here was something different. With cartoons (and comics), there is always the perception that they are for kids, and while the perception is not true in some cases, Simpsons and South Park come to mind, it is mostly true. The target audience for most cartoons are kids and young teens at most. Anime (and manga) on the other hand start with young teens and continue on to mature adults as their audience. The themes that they are drawn on are much more varied as well, who would ever think about publishing a comic book about a pianist or a school teacher? But with manga they do that and more in all seriousness. Moreover, even the most generic manga dares to ask troubling, profound questions, and takes time to deal with them: when I first watched it I was astonished to see serious existential questions being debated in Naruto, a manga considered very average by manga esoterics (Naruto is a manga that was made into an anime, I watched the anime first, then read the manga).

Before anime, animation for me was just for entertainment, I did not attach any particular artistic significance to it. But, with anime I started seeing it differently, I realised that it was art in motion. That with animation one could think on things, one could portray things that just can not be captured on film. The human body is inadequate, space and time as we can capture it on film are inadequate to portray the thought, the emotion that asks to be shown: in animation one transcends these boundaries. Metaphors can be made visual, the bleeding heart of the lover shown. I put forward Neon Genesis Evangelion (the anime) as a case in point: the psychological struggle the characters go through can only be depicted through animation; it can be talked about on film, but the psychological turmoil itself can not be captured on film, animation is the right medium for it.


Films that use excessive animation bore me, why not just make a fully animated film instead, what is point of using human beings as props in the midst of all that animation? I am not against using animation in film however, only against using it to the point where the humans artists start to look out of place.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Brain drain

I don't think that Indians should complain about brain drain any more. Not because it has stopped or because it is not an important factor: in fact, I read an article in the Economist recently about how the US is churning out too few doctors for its needs, and that it is a net importer of doctors, quite a few of them from poorer countries which educate the doctors at a huge cost to their meagre finances.

As a side, I often wonder why India has not taken any steps whatsoever to reduce brain drain when it has been perceived quite unanimously as a major problem for decades now. A simple but effective step would have been to ask prospective students to sign a bond committing themselves to work for say five or ten years in India after they graduate before they are given admittance to government run institutions: the government is paying for them after all. This does not get in the way of further education and such of the students, if they so seek to, because a deferment of three or four years on the fulfilment of the bond can always be granted in such situations. The Malaysian government has been doing something similar successfully for years now, in fact they go a step further: the government, and associated public sector companies, contract with students and send them abroad to get an international education, and when they are finished they employ the highly skilled graduates back home. Of course, the students always have the choice to break the contract by paying back the full amount spent on them by the government.

Anyway, getting back to my point, brain drain is happening, yes. But, it is only when it is held up in isolation as one issue that it appears to be so grave a problem. When we look at it as but a small part of the exchanges India as a willing participant of the global market engages in, this particular issue does not look quite so ominous. The issue, in retrospect, should have been a lot more important than it was for pre-1991 India, before we opened ourselves up to the global market. If one thinks about it, the apathy of the policy makers of India pre-1991 to the issue seems absurd: they wanted to run a self-sufficient socialist state, with highly restricted foreign investment and international trade, but they did not think it important to put any checks on valuable human resource nourished and paid for by the government just walking out of the country.

The situation is different now. India engages in international trade more and more freely every day. We gain some, we lose some. India exports water even though we are low on water resources (through products that are water intensive to produce). And India exports valuable human resource even though we are low on it. But we also gain access to technology we had no part in developing, and we gain access to wealth we didn't generate. So, instead of clamouring about our loss on one particular front, and advocating a protectionist policy, it is better to look at the entire picture and draft policies which would result in long term gains as a whole on the global market for the country. Of course, if there were a policy that would save us the loss of human resource, or maybe even gain some, while not affecting the bigger picture adversely (maybe a policy like the one the Malaysian government's following, perhaps), then by all means it would be welcome. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The existence of caste system often announces itself to me in an unwelcome jarring fashion, much like random dissonance wakes me up from the trance I lose myself in when listening to a beautiful symphony. Having been brought up in a home where caste wasn't mentioned much, I grew up mostly unaware of the reality of caste system. Yes, I did read about it in the social science textbooks and such, but it wasn't information I readily connected to my everyday existence.

But, as I said, the issue has a way of announcing itself when I least expect it. I once called a classmate of mine (in 7th standard, I think) 'dharidhruda' (which roughly translated means degenerate) when he cheated me at one game or another. Until that point in the argument I was the wronged party, and had the force of righteous indignation on my side, but as soon as I said the word, he was hitting me with angry blows that caught me by surprise; the issue of cheating was all but forgotten. I could see that he was truly hurt and offended, but I was clueless as to the reason why. It was only after I was home that it was explained to me that it was an offensive word to those of the scheduled castes, and that they react very badly to it: I hadn't even known that he was from a scheduled caste.

Last year my grandmother was dissatisfied with the woman who washed her clothes, so she fired her. Then when she tried to get someone else to do the job for her, she couldn't: she was told that she needed the approval of the previous washerwoman to hire anyone else from the caste to do the job, and that anyone from another caste trying to do the job would be stopped. It took her months to get her washerwoman to agree to be replaced, in addition to a nice severance gift. And I didn't even know until then that there existed a caste for people who washed clothes.

My apathy aside, there is another reason for my lack of societal awareness on this issue. I grew up in an urban environment thinking that caste had become a non-issue, that it was a thing of the past, and given that we all now have the opportunity to do whatever we want it was unimportant. That enquiring after the nuances of the caste system, and identifying people by their caste was not just impolite, but backward and unethical: it just was not fashionable to do it.

It is only recently that I began realising that while legally caste system as a social structure was abolished decades ago, mindsets entrenched for millennia don't just vanish. Insecurity and complacency associated with various castes, camaraderie and kinsmanship shared with people of same caste, and antagonism towards those of other castes, self-perception and perception of identity based on caste, all are probably there to stay for a few more decades. I have realised that it is foolish not to take caste into account just because I wish for a world where it does not exist.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


My great-grandfather was over ninety years old when he died. He had bowed legs and could not walk without a stick, and even then he would take over an hour to walk a kilometre. He had a passion for farming. Everything in his life revolved around farming and the seasons. Illness couldn't keep him away from his farm when there was something to be done. He used to walk the two kilometres to the farm and back on his bowed legs everyday.

I wasn't there when he died, so I only have my mother's account to go by. He broke his leg when he tripped and fell. There was no one to take care of him in the village, so after a few days his son and daughters decided to take him to the city. When he realised that he probably wouldn't be allowed to come back, he fought the decision. He became delirious, he wanted to go to his farm on his broken leg. They tied him to his bed to stop him from getting out of it, he cried and fought against the bonds for a day, then he stopped: he had lost his spirit, he became almost catatonic. He died a few days later. My mother often says that it was his passion for farming that made him will his body to function the last few years. And when he realised that he couldn't any more, there wasn't anything left to keep him here. I do not know how true my mother's account is medically, but I always thought that it was a good story to remember him by.

In my search for passion, and the depression that results from the lack of it, the memory of my grandfather often gives me hope: that for now, a passion to find passion as strong as my grandfather's is enough.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hunger strikes and law making

Democracy as an idea allows a spectrum of political structures for states to base themselves on. We have direct democracy such as practised in California on one end, we have India with its conservative representative democracy on the other. Each manifestation of democracy has its merits and demerits.

Informed and educated people are a necessity for a healthy democracy. Information tells people what is happening, and education helps them understand the information and make a judgement. What a citizen can do to act upon this judgement differs from one type of democracy to another. In one form of direct democracy citizens in sufficient numbers, if they feel the need, can move a bill to be put to vote by the people, and on passing it becomes a law. In a conservative representative democracy like India on the other hand, the only thing citizens can do is to try and convince their representatives to take up their issue, put up a bill in the parliament, and pass it. Or, they can wait till the next election and try to elect representatives that they believe will take up their issue.

People attempt several approaches in their quest to convince their representatives to take up their cause. Of course, simply trying to reason with them is the first avenue. If that fails, the next step in a democracy, whichever route they may take to achieve it, is to gain public attention (actually, in India, bribery is probably the second option). Some choose violence. Others might try to disseminate information about their cause to the public, and hope for gradual increase in public interest. The most effective however (in India anyway), is a hunger strike, a fast unto death.

A genuine hunger strike conveys the protester's seriousness and honesty, it is generally perceived that one does not choose a slow excruciating death facetiously or for malicious interest. What is problematic for me though, is the element of coercion that accompanies a hunger strike. In comparison, for example, a peaceful protest march numbering even hundreds of thousands of people, does not carry with it the same element of coercion. A hunger strike has a finality to it, its own brand of violence, a gun to the head. What is worse, when carried out by revered figures, it also carries a promise of violence to come, if the protester's demands are not met. Even Gandhi must have known, however much he urged the people against it, that his death on a hunger strike would be followed by massive civil unrest and violence.

I accept, as I said before, that it is a very effective tool. It's just that it is a sort of blackmail, with an element of coercion involved. I am not going to condemn it here however. I am not going to condemn someone who is putting their life on the line in an attempt to be heard. If the cause has public support, it'll be taken up by others. If not, well, they'll die fighting. I do propose however that a hunger strike be considered as an option only when all others have been exhausted. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Schools in India

State schooling in India is, for the most part, abysmal. The government has invested far too little in necessary education of the country's children, and what it has invested has been badly managed. There aren't enough teachers; and while the entry requirement for teachers is decent enough, there is no accountability once they get in. Teachers, like other government employees have their jobs secure until they retire. They are not reviewed on what they teach, or if they are maintaining or improving their knowledge and skills over the years. I know of teachers of English who struggle to form a sentence in English. Teachers in state schools have become, for the most part, no more than babysitters for children, just there to keep children occupied during the school day. Parents and the children have no say in anything regarding the school, apart from the choice to not go to the school if they so wish. Private schools are not much better. They give low salaries to teachers, or, sometimes I think the more valid perspective, there are no good teachers available even if they do want to spend money.

The state education boards, trying to look good, choose to lower the standard of exams to get a better pass percentage rather than trying to better the standard of education. We end up with the most ridiculous results: most above average students can get near full marks rendering the system worthless. Indian education system needs a major overhaul, the first focus being on teacher training, and reviewing teachers constantly on their performance.

The RTE act passed in 2009 is a step in the right direction, but I haven't seen any changes yet springing from it. I hope for change in the next few years.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Internet choir

The internet surprises me everyday with the possibilities that it offers. I saw today a video of Eric Whitacre detailing how he came upon the idea of an internet choir. While it was not the first such idea that I came across, when I saw what they had produced, and the process they went through to achieve it, I was astounded. The music was not the best it could have been, but when faced with the idea of so many unrelated people coming together to make their contribution to this whole, it moved me enough to make the imperfections seem irrelevant.  Music can be enjoyed in solitude, and the intimate personal experience of the music when it is just the music and oneself is invaluable. But, the synergy caused by the shared experience of music in communal music forms such as choir music is inimitable in solitude. And what this video displays is communal music on an entirely new level.  


There is always something else

There is always someone else, or something else; or is there? How long before the inertia of a situation catches up, stifling, suffocating, pushing you to change something, anything. Of course, that doesn’t mean that just any situation will be acceptable. A vague but desperate searching, trying to find something that will effortlessly draw you away from the present situation. It has to be that way. You are caught up so thoroughly in the present situation that an uphill effort to achieve something else is not possible. The something needs to be alluring enough to announce itself and lead you away, even against your own resistance due to the inertia. That is what your eye is desperately searching for.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fanfiction, fiction and reality

I am a fan of fanfiction. Whenever I am faced with a new story, whatever the medium it is expressed in maybe, I am aware of the new world that it has brought into existence. The infinity of possible narratives that can spring up from one narrative : interpretations, elaborations, interpolations, extrapolations, modifications... overwhelm me. My discovery of fanfiction in its latest incarnation brought with it the revelation that a narrative is never complete, or definite in any way, for that matter. This was not new idea, I had come into contact with it in one form or the other several times before. But, faced with the deluge of hundreds of thousands of narratives that had sprung up from one book or anime, the idea was forced into the forefront of my consciousness, unlike the gentle nudging that accompanied all my reading before.

What is also interesting for me are the unspoken rules that evolved, and now accompany fanfiction: a particular fanfic could be judged to follow the canon, while another could be adjudged AU, but still a fanfic of the same piece of fiction. Fanfics are commended for originality, but readers are quick to deride narratives that are too alien, that snap the tenuous link that connects a fanfic to the original.

This brings me to the debate regarding the respective values of various forms of narrative. The realist narrative (word changed from 'tradition' earlier), it is said, mirrors reality, and hence is valuable as an honest chronicle of the state of affairs. Fantasy on the other hand (I include science fiction in this) narrates a story based on imaginary conditions, and hence its value is dubious.

This debate stumped me for a long time. I knew I liked fantasy genre, considered it valuable, but could not explain why. It was the workings of fanfiction that finally shed some light on the issue for me. I realised that fantasy is not baseless imagination. Or more to the point, much like AU fanfics that are too alien (with respect to the canon) are rejected, fantasy that is too alien is rejected.

Realist narrative mirrors (or at least tries to) what is there, there is nothing hidden, no circumspection, a depiction of reality as is. Fantasy moves away from reality, follows a narrative that is unlike any reality, but, it is not baseless, it does not snap the tenuous connection that ties it to reality (as I said earlier, those that are too alien are rejected), it merely engages with it in a circumspect manner. Is there value to be found here?

Sunday, May 29, 2011


The mechanism (or series of events, if 'mechanism' makes it sound more logical, structured, than it really is) that constitutes the formation of geopolitical entities (I'll call them 'states' for simplicity's sake, though it is too narrow a term) intrigues me. I wonder if there would be any states without an interested party seeking control 'uniting' people, or an external threat uniform to all forcing them to unite. At the same time I think about the term 'failed state'.

We are more organised than ever before in human history, the boundaries of our states are more fixed than ever before. At the same time there is more movement across boundaries, both of information and people than ever before. What does this mean for the State?

States need the people inhabiting them to associate 'home' with them for them to function, be secure. In the first instance a state comes into existence only through circumstance, and it is more likely to break down than not very quickly. If the state holds together for a while, usually due the threat of an external power, or a controlling party keeping it together by force, or a moral purpose in the minds of people manifesting itself in the form of the state...then, the state starts accumulating history, and the people inhabiting it associate themselves with that history. It is that sense of history, that feeling of home that is the basic necessity for the continued existence of a state. Failed, dysfunctional or healthy, a state continues to exist as long as there are people in the world who associate it with home: these people will fight for its continued existence in whatever form.

Of course, the feeling of 'home' is very nebulous. In a world with increasingly porous borders home becomes hard to pin down. It becomes harder everyday to accumulate history that is unique to a state, because everything around us, from everyday objects to entertainment to culture, comes from somewhere else.

Another thing that makes identifying with the state more difficult is its increasing complexity and impersonality. Earlier a state used to have a monarch, the physical manifestation of the state, an idol to look up to or curse, alternatively, and humanity loves idols. And what does the state have now? A book of rules? Innumerable departments with their rules and offices...a creature chasing its own tail? What inspires loyalty? Is it the history of the people? The ever changing rules that some of us decide upon? And why is this place home and not some place else?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Normalising the sub-normal

I often find myself surprised by how easy it is to decide on the right direction of change as long as there is a working paradigm to emulate. It is only the occasional internal rupture in the paradigm or a severe impediment in the path of the one 'catching up' that a serious reevaluation takes place, only to be covered up most of the time using a circumstantial explanation, on the way to getting right back into a headlong plunge to achieving the paradigm. Of course, it is even more difficult to resist the lure of the paradigm when it exists as a constant reminder right in one's face. 

This tendency subsists in all conceivable situations where there is a problem and a paradigm available to the ones seeking a solution. This lure might merely owe its existence to human laziness, or being more charitable to ourselves, the difficulty the human mind faces thinking of a problem as separate from an apparent working solution readily available. 

I am not against using pre-existing knowledge: what is history for if not to help us prepare for the future? It is our tendency to adopt models wholesale with only a superficial revamping that worries me. This issue can be brought to focus in its subtle working in various situations, but for now I will quote an obvious example. India upon its independence did not think too deeply on how its state should be organised. It drew from existing models and mixed up a cocktail. I do not deny the fact the changes and concessions were made to account for Indian uniqueness, but was that the best that could be done? Was not a more original system singularly suited to India, drawing up on every aspect of its situation, possible? But, as I stated earlier, the lure of a working paradigm is often too hard to ignore. To battle the lure of the surfeit of appealing political systems backed by their moral philosophies, showcased by 'shining examples' of working states, would have required too much courage.

Friday, May 27, 2011


I have an issue with specialisation. Of course the argument that specialised people become shades of what they could be has been reiterated several times, especially these past two centuries; that the sense of wholeness that came with the specialisation of before is lost now, the simplest of jobs have been broken down into smaller pieces. But that is not what I am talking about here. It has more to do with my issue with specialisation, personally.

I just find it incredibly difficult to stick with one thing long enough to be called a specialist. Not because the subject in question is uninteresting, or unimportant; I simply find it futile trying to ignore all the interesting data pertaining to other subjects, all this knowledge bombarding me relentlessly. It might have been easier a few decades ago where the most accidental information one gets is through a newspaper. But no, that is not the case now, information cries for our attention all the time, everywhere. Of course, for someone who is passionate about one thing, it might be argued that all that information is crystalised automatically, purposefully, to be focussed on the subject of their passion.

But that is not the case with me. I am merely a thinker; and what do I think about: everything and nothing. I have to think about the civil war in Libya, the financial crisis in Greece, the gender disparity in India, the spiraling climate change, the value of society, of life and death...At the same time, I cannot write a substantial paper on the war in Libya, the rise of China, the environment or existentialism, because I am not an expert. I know enough about each of those subjects to draw my own conclusions, to make my own judgement, but not enough to elaborate originally on any of them.

Potential for value is present in everything, but is only realised through recognition by the other. This blog is an attempt to see if there is 'market' for a thinker like me.