Twitter is the New Temple

If social networking is the new Religion, then Twitter is the new temple of this last Great Cult. And given the current levels of popularity of this Cult, it seems the atheists would have to give in.

In a world hopelessly fractured by multiple identities, or perhaps the quest for a single identity, Twitter has become the opium of the masses – and the classes. In fact, the emergence of Twitter has meant that there are no classes left.

Twitter has created a world which has trivialized the very basis of modern society – culture. An abstract concept which can only be understood in the subtext of the Rig Veda, the timeless traditions of the Egyptian pyramids, the demise of the Mayan civilization and the white noise of the World Wars, culture has been the worst casualty of the democratization of public discourse. When the least common denominator of a society gets a cost-less voice, the bastardization of culture is complete.

Before the question on the use of ‘cost’ above is raised, let me clarify.   The ‘cost’ here does not mean the ability to express your opinion for a cost measurable in money terms. That notion itself will alienate the human rights, socialist and some sections of the capitalist, brigades. The concept of ‘cost’ as implied by me is in terms of the effort required to form, construct and express a thought or an idea.  Once the medium of expression absolves the person expressing the thought from the responsibility to put an effort in the creation of the expression, the after effects can be imagined.

Granted that not all media is expected to cater to the brutality of rationality or the tyranny of cultural elitism; granted that Twitter and Facebook are not the think-tanks of the world looking for revealed preference in irrational behavior; granted that social networking is not a preserve of the erudite and the scholarly – that does not pardon the basic construct on which these media are based.

In the quest for the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, these and other such media have dug up the whole foundations of civil society. They have not given a voice to the voiceless – they have only made the voices of the uncouth amongst us shriller. The voiceless do not have access to these media, neither the means to express their most basic concerns. Twitter has only made narcissism the prevalent virtue and networking the bane of human existence.

The first step toward ameliorating the hazardous side-effects of these media is to restrict entry via the use of monetary considerations. Like the concept of pay per use public toilets in the European mainland, people should be made to pay for any excreta they choose to litter public spaces with.

There is no other reason, except where the private information of individuals is more valuable than the monetary consideration itself to the medium, that a third party should be the vehicle of our communication and a repository of our daily life. While most people only fantasize about the beauty of a cost-less medium of communication (and I use ‘cost’ in its monetary interpretation here), the significant damage to the core values of a culture serves as a grim reminder – the lowering of language skills, reduced emphasis on civility and a gradual extinction of the ‘gentlemanly’ standards that so characterize British conversations.

When the noblest intents and thoughts find only 140 characters to breathe, there is no way forward but backwards.

(Written in 2010)

 

Evolution, Sanskrit and Microfinance

I have been reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ for a few days now and can’t help but notice the increasingly fundamentalist tone of his writing. From ‘The Selfish Gene’ to ‘The God Delusion’ to this latest book, I feel that he is becoming more and more like the people and principles he stands up against so vehemently.  His resistance to organized religions seems imbued with fanaticism. This, however, does not mean that his writing has ceased to be as compelling as before.

I was particularly intrigued by the notion that humans could have invented computers a century earlier if we had 8 fingers instead of 10. Why? Simple – and the logic is quite tangential – because computers run on the binary system. So?

We use a decimal system largely because we have ten fingers. If we had 8 fingers, we might well have evolved an octal base of counting. Since 8 is a cube of 2, we could have decoded the binary principles of computers earlier. That’s quite a convoluted logic but I found it interesting.

Another interesting thing that I discovered this week was the inherent strengths of Sanskrit as a language. One fundamental advantage of Sanskrit is well known – that it is entirely phonetic in nature – which means it is spoken exactly as it is written. What most of us do not know is that Sanskrit is a ‘tongue and palate’ language, which means that most of the sounds originating in Sanskrit are created through the action of the tongue against the palate and by using soft mouth muscles. This is the reason why Sanskrit and Hindi require a wider opening of the mouth compared to English.

(This also explains why traditionally Indians speak in louder tones – because our language necessitates a wider opening of the mouth.)

Scholars have commented that this is a more scientific way of speaking because the tongue is inherently flexible. English, on the other hand, is a ‘jaw’ language, requiring the movement of the jaw to a large extent. This creates two problems – one, increased expenditure of energy because the jaw is heavier to move and two, loss of clarity in communication because of the narrow opening of the mouth. It is commented that nearly 4 times as much gap is required for speaking Sanskrit as compared to English (or for that matter Greek or Latin).

During a recent visit to Alwar, Rajasthan, I discovered first-hand the impact of micro-finance institutions (MFIs) in rural India and could not help but draw broad parallels with the recent sub-prime crisis. MFIs lend to the marginal sections of society who do not have access to formal banking channels due to lack of collateral, no financial history, small size of potential borrowing and low incomes. The credit for this model goes to Mohd. Yunus of Grameen Bank.

Since the introduction of MFIs in the dairy-dominated culture of the small villages of Alwar, there had been spectacular growth in borrowing. Many households had taken the advantage of an alternative to the traditional moneylender who charged exorbitant rates of interest.

What are the drawbacks of such a system (and they were clear to me after a few interactions with borrowers)? –

  1. The prices of cows had gone up by 50% in two years. This was a classic case of a debt-driven asset bubble creation. As credit rose, more people took loans to buy cows, leading to an increase in the price of cows and hence milk. So, debt fuelled inflation in an otherwise stable economy – Analogous to the growth in real estate assets in the US as credit eased.
  2. As the price of cow milk increased, the population looked for alternative, cheaper sources of milk. This meant that the demand for goat milk started to increase (goat milk is cheaper than cow milk). This pushed up the price of goat milk too.
  3. As goat milk got expensive, the price of goats too started rising (since demand for goats increased due to higher profit margins), to a point where even goats became expensive by more than 50%. This could be likened to the sharp rise in the price of silver as gold starts gaining from a trust deficit in the financial markets. Since the supply of gold is limited, silver gains as an alternative store of value.
  4. The final step was the expression of price. As commodities become expensive, their prices are expressed not in bulk but single unit terms. You would have noticed that earlier mangoes were priced in weight terms and now they are priced in dozen terms. Earlier houses were priced in housing unit terms but now they are priced in square foot terms. Why? Because it hides the larger price impact of inflation.

So, in the areas of Alwar, the cows and goats were now being priced not in absolute terms but in multiples of their milk yield. The price of a cow was not expressed as say INR 20,000 but as a multiple of its daily milk yield. The current price was roughly INR 3,000 per liter of daily milk yield.

In effect, the MFI system had only created an illusion of purchasing power while impoverishing those people that it set out to help. As with other inflation based ‘growth’ economies, the early borrowers were the gainers and the later borrowers losers. I could visibly see a massive redistribution of wealth in the elegant expression of basic economics.

I dread the impact of the MFIs in a culture where debt was seen as an anathema only till a few decades ago. Indians have traditionally been wary of debt and here I was, witnessing the proliferation of a debt-driven mass consumption culture in the rural heartland of India. In fact, the growth of MFIs has made the rural population callous about debt and its impact – similar to what happened to the borrowers in the US. As an example, the growth of MFIs has actually strengthened moneylenders. How? Here is how-

  1. Most borrowers have irregular incomes. Where a loan has been taken from an MFI and requires weekly or monthly repayments, traditional moneylenders bridge that gap.
  2. Debt refinancing has become a commonplace occurrence. Moneylenders themselves use poor village women to raise loans in their name and then channel that money through themselves to lend to other poor in the village. This means, indirectly, the MFIs are funding the moneylenders.
  3. By creating a culture of callousness towards borrowing, MFIs have created a sense of ease towards borrowing from moneylenders too.

Where is all this heading? The question begs an answer from the policymakers of modern India.

(Written in 2010)

Power, Honor and Buddhism

Why have Islamic nations in Asia and Africa become flashpoints of insurgency and terrorism? Why is South Asia, including India, so prone to falling in a spiral of violence and wanton destruction?

I do not want to get into a religious dissection of the issue, except the fact that high degrees of violence in society are correlated to the proportion of youth in that population.  We know that traditional Islamic societies abhor the concepts of contraception and MTP and that the religious leaders of these societies have failed to evolve Islam’s philosophy with the turn of the times.

Given this, the populations in the Islamic world have risen exponentially. Most of Islamic Africa grows at 2%+ and so does Pakistan, dubbed “the most dangerous place on earth” by sections of the media and the US. The centrality of the argument for violence lies with population growth and for targeted policies to work, the emphasis should be on the growth of the population.

The significant proportion of youth in 19th and early 20th century Europe was a reason which contributed to the flaring of successive wars in the region. Europe ended up destroying itself by 1945 as a result of the testosterone induced youth of its continent. As the relatively older generations took control of the European continent, war moved to the younger areas of the world.

(This theory forms only a small portion of the reason for war. In one of my earlier entries I have touched upon the primary reason behind wars – as a means whereby males declare their primacy in society.)

The young have the added baggage of idealism in their midst and they can afford to see war as a means to bring positive change. The old are more cynical in their attitude towards violence and hence see war as a self-defeating argument. Therefore, the perpetuation of war is achieved through radicalization of the youth.

This brings me to the reason behind a larger youth proportion in the population. Martial societies, or societies under attack by martial societies, will always tend to have laws that are geared to achieve two things – 1) A higher proportion of males in the populace to continue fighting wars and 2) Increasing the population base to ensure higher survivor rates.

The immediate consequence of these goals are two – 1) Males become celebrated in the society for their usefulness in battle – which gives them their power 2) Societies develop the notion of feminine honor – since societies with male dominance create incentives for them to violate feminine honor with broader impunity. Hence, power and honor become the two central balancing forces of a society.

Therefore, all martial races have a very strong notion of honor – whether it’s the Rajputs, the Moghuls or the Pathans. Some Moghuls were infamous for not marrying their daughters at all – lest they become political pawns in the hands of an adversary or potential adversary.

Traditional war has ebbed in recent years, giving way to planned insurgencies and random acts of terrorism. This has significantly reduced the portion of population being decimated in a broad war-like situation. This means that societies are not seeing the weeding out of younger population on as large a scale as before, hence leading to violent pressures building up inside populations.

Maharashtra is littered with the footprints of Buddhism to an extent that I have never witnessed in Northern India. Buddhists were the first to introduce cadre-based religion in India and hence saw stupendous success in India as well as present day Afghanistan, China, Tibet and the Far East. Buddhism motivated the creation of a cadre based movement in Hinduism with the installation of the Shankaracharya in 9th Century AD. Before that, Hinduism did not have the color saffron as its representative.

More surprising than the defeat of Hindu kingdoms at the hands of the Islamic invaders was the complete annihilation of Buddhism from Northern India and present day Pakistan. While Hinduism protected itself in pockets due to the martial components of its population, Buddhism was left with no choice but to retreat to areas where the invasions were not effective or existing. This explains why Buddhist relics still exist in the western and southern regions of India (including Sri Lanka) but are largely absent in North India (The Bamiyan Buddhas were very publicly destroyed by the Taliban in Afghanistan).

Many historians have also commented that long before Islam came to India’s shores, Hinduism itself had forced Buddhism to retreat through aggressive posturing and even destruction of Buddhist sites. The claims, however, are subject to several objections by other historians.

Anyway, the network of rock cut temples, monasteries and other architecture left by Buddhists in Maharashtra is formidable and forms a part of the rich history of India – as much as the temples at Khajuraho and the Taj Mahal at Agra. The conception and execution of these monuments, including the Hindu temple of Kailasa at Ellora, are beyond the description of mere words. I do have a dream of following the Buddhist footprints from the foothills of Nepal to Bihar to Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, down to Maharashtra and beyond, all the way to Sri Lanka. It would be an arduous journey and would definitely require the blessings of our current Maoist Gods.

I do have a keen interest in studying the physical effects of religion or religious beliefs on the brain of a person. I know that researchers in Western labs are trying to find if Christian brains differ from Islamic brains in a fundamental way – and the findings would clearly give credence to, or denounce, the Clash of Civilizations theory of Huntington. Till then, and even beyond, we all continue to live with our prejudices.

(Written in 2009)

Vitriol

A large reason behind my dislike for Facebook is the inability to practice my hypocrisy with greater abandon.

Most of us are hypocrites. We behave differently in front of different sets of people. Many within us claim that they behave the same, whatever their audience may be, since they are ‘honest’ and ‘transparent’ people. I can only assume such people to be relatively autistic in their interpretation of the world (without being prejudiced against autistic people, I must add, before I offend some ‘politically correct’ persons).

The way in which I behave with friends from school (not many) is entirely different from how I respond to my B-School classmates (even fewer), which, in turn, is quite removed from my interactions with people I meet in my professional life. I do not see any reason why I should behave in a similar fashion with all these ‘stakeholders’.  And that is a large reason why I dislike Facebook.

It makes it difficult for me to be a hypocrite.

That is one reason why I have nearly entirely removed myself from commenting on people’s change of photographs, status messages or their other inanities of virtual life. Many people, especially women, find ultrasound scans of fetuses ‘cutesy’ but I must express my strong disapproval. I find it extremely repulsive that people are stupid enough to assume that such scans are beautiful, in whatever way possible. Yes, they represent the great ‘fecundity of nature’ and the continuity of ‘the circle of life’ but I really do not think I want a pie of that action.

I find it even more irrational when people create profiles of their newly born children. Why do we want to express our own insecurities of our irrelevance in life by transgressing on the rights of a child to express himself or herself?  Why should a newborn be treated as an additional acquired gadget, on display for the world?

I think most humans are born hideous. We have no facial features to be proud of and look generally animalistic fresh out of the womb. Why people would comment on such photographs, including those of a visibly drained mother, as being the most beautiful in the world is beyond me. Some would comment I would find a newly born child beautiful if it would be mine or one of a close relative/friend.

I disagree.

Such an act would be an exercise in pure selfishness – to deem that anything is worth appreciating only because it somehow ‘belongs’ to me. That in itself can not be reason enough to call a child ‘beautiful’. ‘Miracle of nature’, yes, but ‘beautiful’? No ways. In fact, that is the strain of ‘hypocrisy’ which we should be condemning, if at all.

Yes, I am beginning to sound like a misanthrope. Not true, atleast not entirely.

Most people would retort by saying that why don’t I get off Facebook if I feel needled to that extent? That’s the simplest argument that a Facebooker can come up with anyways and I find that ‘beautiful’ in its own way. The Facebooker is generally a simple creature with a primitive sense of humor, deep ingrained insecurities and the propensity to multiple her own self like a virus in the virtual world.

Well, for starters, I have blocked most of the people I am ‘friends’ with so as to not receive updates of their rather trivial actions. I treat Facebook as a medium of interaction much the same way as email. I do not mail all people in my mail list with news of my daily ablutions. It is only a means of communication, not one of bombarding all known individuals with every inconsequential minutiae of my life.  The trouble with most of us is that we feel insanely happy with all technologies that are free.

The new general rule of Facebook that I have evolved is this – the lesser a person interacts with others, or the more discreetly he interacts with others, the more I respect him. I do not propose that people stop communicating with each other anymore or that they should abandon social networking forever. But I really do not want to see people’s below average humor or pedestrian sense of discrimination forever on display.

And somebody should let Shirdi Sai Baba relax. Haven’t we badgered all our regular gods enough already that we are diluting his peace on a daily basis?

(Written in 2009)

 

The Curse of Existence

And why Hindi movies are the way they are

Sometimes I look out of my apartment’s window and can’t help but feel as a caged animal would.

The manner in which urban life dehumanizes an individual does not perhaps come as a surprise to me, at least not anymore. The glacial, almost precise, process by which modern life lulls you into a state of suspended animation is an act of violence in itself, almost an assisted suicide.

I think the prime purpose of education is to kindle false hopes in gullible children in a world which is driven by cynicism and besotted with contradictions. Education creates a symmetrical notion of the world, a linear interpretation of order that is essential to construct a version of the world which is patently false. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) referred to the human mind as a ‘delusion generator’ (in God’s Debris, a thin but powerful book), a machine which deliberately simplifies concepts and ideas so that humans can be more comfortable with the absolute lack of explanation for their, and this world’s, existence.

The human mind also introduces the notion of one’s central importance in the world he or she inhabits. Most of us, oblivious to the vastness of this universe and the mind-numbing algebra of destinies, assume that somehow our lives are more special than those of others.  Life, of course, has ideas of its own. Through its own cold logic, life extracts its vengeance from individuals who are either exceptionally strong or ridiculously weak, leaving out all the others to whom it does not even reveal itself. Through life’s relentless machinations, the delusion of one’s centrality in the scheme of things gives way to recognition of defeat, and then perhaps acceptance.

Acceptance of defeat is a beautiful event in itself as the silent destruction of the mightiest of egos takes place over infinitesimal amounts of time. Egos, nurtured over years, are brought to their inevitable closure, somewhat like a star collapsing on itself to become a black hole towards the end of its life. ‘To Build a Fire’ by Jack London is one of the finest examples of how acceptance of defeat explains the cruelties of life and the mercifulness of death (This short story can now be read at Wikisource).

Moving over to less sour ramblings, has anyone noticed that there is a pattern to all candle-light vigils that our populist media / sections of our ‘enlightened’ populace conjure up? They are always held when temperatures are less than extreme. In cities of Northern India, whatever the cause, a candle-light vigil will never be called for in the searing summers. Our sincere friends factor in the discomfort provided by such weather conditions and call for these events only in more balmy conditions.

I recently started lecturing in Verbal Ability for competitive examinations and was pleasantly surprised at how stimulating the experience was for my brain cells. Long forgotten references, etymologies, cultural and religious concepts, facets of languages and historical minutiae came back to me as torrential rain. It was nice to know that my brain had stored all that knowledge safely in a small compartment of its recesses and had given me immediate access when I needed it.

For example, why do children’s stories employ animals as substitutes for humans in all stories (the technical term for this is anthropomorphism)? This is done because when humans are ascribed names the names in themselves grant a character to that human. For example, if there are two boys in the story named Prashant and Pappu, the children (their minds being complexity reducing machines) would subconsciously ascribe sophistication to Prashant and coarseness to Pappu. It is better to convey conflict and its resolution through the use of animals rather than humans because it can otherwise create false notions in the young hearts of children. A conflict between Singhania and Kumar, whatsoever the story, has strong class underpinnings and authors try to shield the children from such biases.

The Hindi film industry too is a primitive being, catering to an audience which is childish in its tastes and immature in its understanding. That is the reason in the 1970s and 80s movies would use names to signal character traits. A person named Vijay could do no wrong while a smuggler would always have an exotic, fancy title. A Popatlal would invariably be a buffoon and a Monica or Suzy invariably the vamp (largely because we needed to externalize the negative elements from our culture). The film industry failed to recognize that humans were beings independent of the stories that their names told.

This crude understanding of the world also pushed actors to create ‘universal’ screen names. Therefore, Yusuf Khan had to become Dilip Kumar (Kumar is one of the most common surnames or middle names in India, employed both by the richest sections as well as the poorest and Dalits). Dharmendra and Jeetendra had to remove their surnames to appeal to the non-Punjabi speaking audiences in India (The Kapoors, on the other hand, had a very strong pre-partition identity).

To speak to a wider audience, our movies also had to conform to nonsensical stereotypes. To convey our country’s plurality, we had to bring in the kind neighborhood chacha, a pious Muslim who was shown offering namaaz atleast once during the course of the movie. People from any other religion had to be pious but conciliatory – the Sikh’s house would be shown with a prominent photo of Guru Nanak and the Christians would be inevitably seen with their crosses (when they were not getting drunk or stringing their guitars).

And the villain could never be a non-Hindu for fear of stoking communal passions. Either he was a Hindu or a Hindi-speaking guy with a relatively foreign identity who dressed up in sharp suits and smoked expensive cigars (people like Zibisco or Mogambo or Shaakal). Surprising, but these flat characterizations continue to exist in many of our more recent movies because our minds look for simplification and not stimulation.

This brings me to the obsession of modern Indian parents with the names of their children (those who have read my earlier entries would know that I use the word modern with several teaspoonfuls of salt). I have seen couples around me titling their children with the weirdest of names, some with Latin/Greek and probably Aramaic references (of course references from Sanskrit or perhaps Pali are passé). I do not understand why a child should be burdened with a weird name just to convey to others a distorted sense of the relative ‘education’ of its parents.  Given this, I also hope that someday people start naming their children in hieroglyphs or in the script of the Indus Valley Civilization. What can be more avant garde than that?

This rather random post (which is fine given that most of my posts are random) brings me to this season’s end. I touched upon some diverse stuff and I hope that people reading my ramblings have to some extent enjoyed them.

(Written in 2010)

 

The Failure of Civic Society

Primarily, modern formal education is geared to achieve three objectives.

Informing is the principle goal of education.

This includes massive dosages of misinformation in the Indian context. For example, ingraining in us that the day India achieved independence was 15th of August, 1947. Facts prove otherwise – what India gained on that day was only dominion status which means that the British ruled two nations instead of one from that day onwards. I do not think that is the definition of independence, even in the loosest possible sense. The only thing that we got independence from was the vast stretches of Indian territory renamed as Pakistan and a vast number of erstwhile Indians who turned out to be more Muslim and less Indian (the fact may be that only a few hundred thousand were such people and the rest of the teeming millions were bystanders who were swept off in that torrent). If we are celebrating that, well, no harm but we should be clear about it.

Pakistan, on the other hand, could not get independence from the British anyways. 14th August was the day when Pakistan was born as a legal concept and physical reality hence the question of gaining independence is not relevant. It is like saying that a child gained independence from his mother’s womb on 14th August (I know Indians won’t prefer to be called a mother to Pakistan and neither the Pakistanis would refer to Bharat as Mother India). Pakistan gained an identity on that day – when some Muslims thought that they had gained independence from the vast hordes of tyrannical Hindus. The act of gaining an identity is far more crucial than gaining independence anyways. Therefore, when we as Indians celebrate our Independence Day, we are merely being jingoistic about a date and a fact that does not exist in actuality.

The ironic part is that even as the worst victims of history we fail to learn from it. That is perhaps why history is deliberately made mundane in our classrooms so that the masses are not able to critically examine the truth from the falsehoods perpetrated by our elite. It is evident that as a system of disseminating objective information, our education infrastructure has utterly failed us. The sadder part is that that is the goal that it has best achieved.

As a secondary goal, formal education is expected to have a civilizing, moderating influence on the blank slates of a nation. By introducing noble concepts and ideas, it attempts to invoke the gentler side of a human being and make him or her fit to function as part of a civilized society. I do not emphasize the cultural role of education – that role is best performed by the social ethos of the prevalent form of society. Creating the culture of a nation can not be the objective of education; however, giving shape to the civic habits of individuals is.

Culture or organized religion does not necessarily differentiate us from other animals. Civic behavior does. The manner in which we form and break our lines, the manner in which we honk and drive, the manner in which our crowds behave and the manner in which we treat the less advantaged amongst us is an indicator of our maturity as a civil society. The saddest part of our education system is a failure to inculcate discipline and respect for civic, community life. Be assured that community life is independent and distinct from the idea of communism or socialism. Community life is a form of civic organization whereby common resources are utilized in a civil and cooperative manner with respect for others’ requirements and reservations.

Space is a common resource in an apartment block. The peace provided by that space is also a common resource. Anybody who vitiates that peace through the blaring of a music system or the visarjan yatra of a God or the holding of a bhajan sandhya – except by explicit consent of every stakeholder – is responsible for a non-civic act of conduct (Other organized religions, or atheists, please input your own specific examples. I’m sure that these are not only Hindu vices). However, our style of functioning does not accord a public space its due respect. That is the reason our homes are antiseptically clean but our public spaces are ruined. It is merely an extension of that principle that our streets are filthy, our drains are clogged, our monuments are scratched with displays of carnal frustration, our parks are hideouts for amorous couples and people do not refrain from talking in elevators.  Clearly, our education system has failed in its objective of providing a civilizing influence on our society.

The third crucial role of education is to enable independent thinking. A society which does not think, a people who are not creative and a generation which is not discriminating are indicators of the abject failure of an education system. A civilized society is a refined society. A refined society does not preclude the existence of poverty; it merely provides mechanisms whereby people can escape poverty in reasonably defined ways through the employment of skill, ability, effort or talent. A refined society is not necessarily high-browed – but it does not accept below average performance from its members.

In this sense, we have failed terribly as a nation and as a culture. We are not a civic society in a true sense of the word therefore we can’t fail at being one.  Merely having a verbose and elegantly expressed Constitution does not make us a civilized nation. A civilized nation is not a crime free nation. It is a nation which provides for the mechanisms which ensure the dispensation of justice in an equitable manner.

We are definitely not discriminating in our choices of the arts anymore – it is clear from the undue amounts of money that we have thrown at the Salman clan for their unabashed marketing of fare which wouldn’t past muster in even a rudimentary form of civilization. The desensitization of our ability to distinguish between the appreciable and the condemnable is a clear slap on our face as Indians. At no point can civil society afford to let the people who lower our standard of thinking and expression flourish. I take strong exception to being made a victim of mass hysteria and propaganda and being forced into believing, merely due to mob frenzy, that an insanely shoddy work of cinema is escapist, and hence innocent, in nature.

Sholay too was escapist but it was not exploitative of a foolish, hysteria driven audience. All movies manipulate the audiences but our education has failed to bestow even the relatively well-off amongst us with a basic appreciation of the visual medium, let alone the more evolved arts. I will not talk about any other form of arts because we do not have either the patience or the finesse to appreciate classical music, paintings or sculpture (except if these events are attended by celebrities).

The recent success of a movie like Dabangg should leave us red-faced as a society. We have no right anymore to condemn the cinema produced by the likes of Mithun and Kanti Shah as low-brow and vulgar. We have no right to berate the comedy of Dada Kondke as obscene and objectionable. We have no right to criticize a man like Shakti Kapoor for being lecherous and exploitative. For those who say its merely harmless entertainment, I can only pity them for their lack of exposure to good, nourishing entertainment and a lack of respect for themselves.

We are failing as a nation, as a people and a culture in more ways than we can imagine. The roots to our ignorance our deep and poisonous – we are ill-informed, uncivil and non-discriminating. It is time India woke up and saw the writing on the wall – our education system has crumbled.

Till that time while we may go about banning Savita Bhabhi, the people will always have Malaika Bhabhi to satiate themselves.

(Written in 2011)

Symphony No. 40

Why do people have children?

Few people know that Jai Ho’s beginning theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z32SCbI4dNU)  is inspired by Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, 1st Movement. A cursory hearing of the latter (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l45DAuXYSIs) is enough to convince the listener of this fact. Still fewer people know that this Symphony served as the basis for another Bollywood song, several decades back – ‘Itna na mujhse tu pyar badha’ by Talat Mehmood, composed by Salil Chowdhary (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGI3rPSPcVA). Of course, it must be kept in mind that getting inspired from a symphony is not the same as ripping off an existing piece of music. Like the ragas, symphonies provide excellent platforms to build new songs and melodies.

The point here is that taking inspiration from Western sources has not been either a near-recent phenomenon or one involving only dubious talents like the man with the golden touch, Bappi Lahiri (One of his most legendary compositions – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7JsIvYvsFA ). An industry as prolific as Indian Cinema needs to borrow several ideas and concepts from outside (and also from within – from folk songs / tribal hymns / South Indian ditties / North Indian beats – pretty much everywhere) to produce the quantum of work this market demands. Quality becomes the victim when the arts are subjected to either the rules of economics or the cruelty of a democratic framework where majorities of barbarians decide what is commercially viable and hence desirable.

***

With a lot of my weekends occupied in teaching, I find my other passion – travel – significantly neglected.  Much of my travel has been post 2006 and I am, therefore, a fairly recent convert to the pleasures of a well-thought out itinerary. I can not now imagine a lifestyle which does not allow me to travel fairly occasionally during the year, touching new places, crossing new milestones and breathing in the culture of a new land. The thud of the car door as one steps foot in an unknown territory, the breath of fresh air that greets one as he comes out of a sanitized airport, the bustle of a busy railway station as one climbs onto the platform are all joyous moments for me. Each of my first steps during any of my visits, whether business or personal, is firmly ingrained in my mind. The best part? Nobody can take away those moments in time from me.

For this reason (among others), I do not understand why modern couples choose to bear children. What causes us to want children? What do we intend to gain or achieve from the mere fact of having a child? Is it because a child is evidence of fertility? Is it because we like imagining that our legacies will continue long after we do not exist? Is it the frustration with modern urban life which lulls us into monotonous routines and creates a craving for an extracurricular activity called child-rearing? Or is it merely because it is understood to be a given part of life – like our religions? (To gain some conceptual holding on the topic under discussion – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Childfree)

My biggest concern about religion is that it comes to us without choice. The smart cookies who defined and created the organized religions ensured that membership was open both by birth (autogeny) and by conversion. Religion was neither a qualification for which you needed to study nor a badge of prowess for which you needed to prove physical competency (which explains why there are so many Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Sikhs, and others, who do not profess or follow even a fraction of what their religion dictates). Most religions define themselves as systems of belief and, in a remarkable irony, allow for membership to infants who have no mechanisms to exercise or even understand the concept of belief.  Membership to a certain religion is merely an accident of birth and nothing else. Some may argue that it is their God’s will to cause a soul to be born as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu. Well, if the only God who exists is Muslim, why would there be Christians and Hindus around anyways – and vice versa? And if that God created Christians and Hindus it must be because he wanted them to be born so and not so that they may be converted to Islam or any other religion later in their lives.  I am regularly surprised with all its glaring logical inconsistencies, organized religion continues to have a vice-like grip over us.

Coming back to my earlier point, I believe that the act of conceiving children in modern times is a mere expression of our inability to question the reasoning behind our actions. What are the historical reasons for the conception of children – in any species?

Propagation of life of the species – do humans need more ‘propagation of life’? After we have built a society nearly 7bn in strength which consumes a huge proportion of the planet’s resources? Moot point.

Economic reliance? I fail to understand how children are a medium of economic security in today’s urban societies. With the advent of the Western model of capitalism and concomitant family structures, children are increasingly becoming liabilities to most parents. The excessive debt burden of the US and European countries is a reflection of this simple fact. Modern lifestyles are increasingly out of reach of families of three or four individuals, even with two or more of them earning.

I think most people create children as an expression of their own unfulfilled lives. People expect to live more than one life by having children and participating in their growing up. This explains why parents, especially in the subcontinent, create interminable pressures on their children to perform well in academia or otherwise.  And well, if that is the reason for most of us having children, however subconsciously, I rest my case. It is well documented in Western economies that people with Masters and PhDs are more likely not to bear children – because they understand the futility of the exercise in the modern format of living. It is the same reason why these people will also form a major chunk of the agnostics or atheists of a society.

Organized religion has played its own role in reinforcing the importance of having children. In Hindu customs, only a male child can attend to the rituals of his parents’ death and hence the obsession with children – those too males. Islam, by restricting employment and interaction opportunities for women, creates perverse incentives to have more males for economic reasons. By allowing inheritance as a means to transfer assets and property, most religions and societies encourage child bearing. It is another fact that most organized religions need armies of men to protect their faith and promote their interests through war or diplomacy, therefore promoting the mass production of children – men to fight and women to bear more children.

For most of us, having children is not the question we attempt to answer or even attempt to recognize as existing – when to have children is the question we are more comfortable with. As long as people continue to have children for the wrong reason, we will continue to live more unfulfilled and fractious lives.

For those who have not yet had children, I will recommend going through a few relevant books and reading materials. Its not bad to have children or want to have – having them for no reason at all – or for the wrong reasons – is a dangerous fallacy, a fallacy that has landed us in this Malthusian nightmare.

(I recommend visiting http://www.childfreebychoice.com/. I was introduced to this line of thought a couple of years back when browsing through a book in the British Council. It seems to go well with the libertarian / anarchist side of my mind. Also, try and see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntary_Human_Extinction_Movement. It is an interesting line of thought.)

(Written in 2011)

 

Of Notes and Forts

It is not surprising that our political class endeavors to perpetuate legacies and brand recall by stamping names of its members over monuments, projects and institutions. The Congress has been stupendously successful in building brand recall through the use of the Nehru or Gandhi surname in Indian public life.

While a recent RTI application revealed that more than 450 government schemes were named after the Nehru-Gandhi clan (http://thecandideye.wordpress.com/2009/07/27/government-schemes-and-projects-named-after-nehru-gandhi-family/ – the BJP has cried hoarse over this for several years now), I have, in my private conversations, objected strongly to the use of M K Gandhi’s photo on our currency notes as a much more subliminal, and dangerous, advertisement campaign carried out over the last several decades.

By using Gandhi on the Indian currency note, probably the most widely circulated pamphlet in the history of the world, the Indian National Congress has created a perpetual advertisement campaign, subsidized by the taxpayers of India. By implicit association, Gandhi is made out to be a mascot reserved for the machinations of the Congress to the exclusion of every other political party. My objection is not towards Gandhi as a person or a leader but towards the blatant misuse of his image and towards the misleading association with his ideologies that the Congress attempts to create.

I fail to understand what stops the Government of India from introducing not people but places on its currency notes. What stops us from having our most spectacular monuments on display on the notes without any person being represented? Is it because the picture of a person like Gandhi provides legitimacy to a banking system which is inherently inflationary, and hence anti-poor? Is it because Gandhi is perceived as a secular person, not belonging to any particular religion, especially his own? Is it because each of our monuments has a religion?

However, this practice of spray-painting monuments and institutions with brand names is hardly new. It is the same pattern in which places across India were systematically named as Allahabad, Ghaziabad, Faizabad, Azamgarh, Hyderabad and Faridabad; those in the Himachal named as Dalhousie or McLeodganj and those in the West named as Bombay or Goa.

Shahjahan’s greatest achievement was not building the Taj (Some people contest even that, such as http://www.stephen-knapp.com/was_the_taj_mahal_a_vedic_temple.htm – I find their arguments quite ludicrous and superficial) but desensitizing Indians towards administrative misrule to the point where architectural splendor was equated with good governance and prosperity. The Mughal Rule derives a large portion of its legitimacy in the modern Indian’s mind from the grandeur of some of its monuments and the richness of its food. Take away Mughlai food and whole culinary traditions of Punjab and Haryana are threatened (the naan is curiously similar to the sukhari, an Afghan bread).

***

The Ayodhya debate occupies a substantial portion of the modern Indian’s consciousness today. What is interesting is that the solution to a similar debate was found in a unique manner just post the partition of India. The site under question was the Daulatabad Fort at Aurangabad (a must visit Fort – modern day planners could learn from the strategic foresight that the Fort stands for). The fort was initially built by Hindus and passed on to the Muslims by conquest later on in its life (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daulatabad). A mosque, specifically a dome (http://www.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~islamarc/WebPage1/htm_eng/daulatabad/jama1_e.htm), was constructed on the temple in the fort premises (http://www.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~islamarc/WebPage1/htm_eng/daulatabad/jama3_e.htm) and the issue lay dormant for the next couple of centuries. The ornate pillars carrying ancient Indian motifs form a prominent part of the structure.

Immediately post the independence, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was faced with a controversy where there was a dispute regarding the nature of the structure – whether it was a temple or a mosque. In a deft move (probably inspired by the strength of Sardar Patel’s ideals), the ASI installed the idol of a Hindu Goddess in the precincts of the structure and named it Bharat Mata (Mother India)! Only a person presumably unsympathetic to the idea of newly-born India could take offense to such a move and the dispute died a speedy death.

I am not raising a point of justice or fairness in this episode. The only point I wish to make is that the most vexatious issues have workable solutions – all they need is a clear vision to strategize and an iron will to implement. Sadly, both have been lacking in the leaders of modern India.

 

(Written in 2009)

The Triumph of Failure

And why is China not as diverse as India?

Sadness has a nobility that happiness can neither attempt nor conquer; a gravity that joy can neither explain nor escape. Despondence is capable of providing a refuge to its devotees that joviality can neither imagine nor invent.  There is an inexplicable beauty in the sunset, in the drowning of that powerful orb of fire beneath the tranquil waves of a placid sea that the vulgarity of the sunrise can neither fathom nor recreate.

Sadness derives its power, and beauty, from being the default mode of the universe.  The natural state of the creation is not in existing but in its refusal to exist in a manner comprehensible to its decoders.  Light is not the sine qua non of nature, darkness is. Silence is the most vocal language of sadness, the faint twitch of an eyebrow, the slight pursing of the lips its only grammar, though it is most powerful when it is most inexpressive.

I do not know why but I think the only people who can afford to be happy are the ones who are successful at protecting themselves from the true nature of reality. The brutality of memory and the violence of hope become the most destructive forces on earth and man their ceaseless victim.

***

There is no experience, in my opinion, more rewarding than the reading of a well-written book that forces one to think. It never fails to surprise me that people are willing to spend thousands on designer clothes with minimal incremental marginal utility but are unable to convince themselves to buy a book that touches one grand. Well, it’s a free market economy with people entitled to hold their choices and opinions, but it gives an insight into our priorities as modern Indians.  Knowledge is intangible and does not come with a label – hence it is worthless to most.

China’s political and cultural unity has been a subject of intrigue for most historians. For such a large landmass (9.6mn square km), the Chinese are a surprisingly monolithic culture.  Europe has a comparable size (10.1mn square km) but the variety of peoples, languages and cultures it has traditionally housed is staggering with no semblance of political unity over the millennia. India, with 3.2mn square km, is one third the size of China but incredibly diverse on an absolute and per square km basis.

So, what accounts for China’s relatively incredible lack of diversity? Probably the following set of pictures will explain that clearly.

 

The caption of each picture provides you with a hint – the coastline. The respective diversity of language, culture, people and political systems of Europe, India and China is largely a function of the ruggedness or smoothness of their respective coastlines. Absurd? Not at all. ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ by Jared Diamond (one of my favorite books) explains it lucidly.

Each indentation or crease along the coastline changes the geography of the land mass drastically. Incremental changes in geography lead to changes in weather systems and entire ecologies along the breadth of a coastline.

That is the reason why as you move along the Konkan coast, Maharashtra gives way to Karnataka almost imperceptibly and Karnataka gives way to Kerala, with all the differences of language and color. For a long stretch, Maharashtra and Gujarat are indistinguishable with respect to weather and terrain – except for the nature of their coastlines, creating remarkably distinct cultures.

Of course, the distinctness of cultures is also the product of one more crucial geographical fact – the horizontal or vertical orientation of a landmass. India, being a long peninsula has a much more vertical orientation leading to an almost polar distribution of languages and culture – on a horizontal basis the cultures are much more aligned than on a vertical basis. This explains why the North-South India divide is much more prominent than the East-West divide.  A vertical landmass ensures that the land passes through several latitudes – hence several climate zones – leading to distinct cultural evolution processes.

The remarkably smooth Chinese coastline explains why China may be relatively much more monolithic. As soon as there is an indent, we see the Korean culture coming into existence. A brief look at Europe and we can understand why the land is so fractured politically. There is proliferation of languages and cultures throughout Europe as a result of an indented coastline.

And nothing other than a well-written book could have deconstructed this elegant play of geography.

(Written in 2011)

Identity

In a separate blog entry I had discussed that cities emerged due to ‘economies of scale’ reasons, an explanation which is supported by empirical studies. Economies of scale, among other factors, also necessitated the creation of the family as a unit of human life.

What these two empirical facts must then result into is this – as cities become larger and more specialized (an expression of growing economies of scale), family sizes will tend to decline – simply because with even a smaller ‘unit’ of family, relatively higher standards of living can be achieved, if only in a more material sense.

Put simply, the growth of cities enable even two (or one) individuals to enjoy the benefits of a larger family by outsourcing the functions performed by traditional family members to outsiders. Therefore, the role traditionally played by Indian women was taken over by specialized maids or restaurants as the women moved to the cities. The women were now able to, even compelled, to work to utilize their time better. The emergence of day care centers is only a reflection of the role of grandparents being taken over by enterprises which provide early learning experiences. The role played by a group of brothers in providing safety to the household is taken over by specialized security guards (note that guards are not called ‘safety guards’ but ‘security guards’ – a guard can only provide security but can’t accomplish the provision of ‘safety’ which is a more personal and intimate experience).

I am not commenting on the appropriateness or otherwise of such an evolution – I am merely stating my understanding of facts as I see them.

My definition of a great city is one that enables coincidences. There is no other function that a city is expected to perform. The urban centre must be capable of achieving a degree of specialization that leads people to believe that miracles can occur in that city. That is the reason I think Mumbai is one of the most successful cities in India (I have heard people refer to the city as “the asshole of India” among other things – and to a large extent I agree).

The capability of the city to provide opportunities to people to bump into chance encounters, make new connections and discover new hobbies is what should decide its role in a country’s life. Mumbai, in spite of its grimy underbelly and with an infrastructure belonging to a war-torn countryside, does the job better than any other city in India.

***

However, it is not fair to compare Mumbai with any great city of the world – simply because this city has to house modern Indians (I do not mean ‘modern’ as in advanced but ‘modern’ as in contemporary), a people undisciplined by nature and arbitrary in their pursuit of self-interest.

One of the major reasons why Indians are corrupt, fractured and undisciplined is this – we have not sense of Identity.

We are one of the few ‘great’ states of the world which has not witnessed a civic revolution in the modern age. A civic revolution is an event of great tragedy and purgation – but also of immense reinvention and creativity. No great country has achieved greatness without going through the hellfire of cultural, social and political revolution – neither the US (1776 or the Civil War), nor France (the Reign of Terror) nor Russia (the Bolshevik Revolution). The Renaissance also allowed the Western World to acquire a sense of identity unparalleled in the world.

Again, I am not opining whether the paths that each of these countries followed were morally or politically correct or not. But each of these events created ideas that were much longer lasting than the revolutions that preceded them. The ideas of individual freedom, or Justice, Liberty and Fraternity, or the Marxist ideology, were products of revolutions driven by the intensity of human action and fear.

India, on the other hand, was deprived of the opportunity to wage a battle that was at once personal and vindictive. I think one of the reasons why the Kashmir issue lingers on in the subcontinent is the unquenched thirst for revenge left from the time of Partition. Both sides, India and Pakistan (India to a much larger extent – I’m not saying this because I am an Indian (remember I just called ourselves corrupt in a sweeping generalization in the earlier paragraph)), were unable to whet their appetite for vengeance during their birth pangs.

While Gandhi’s philosophy saved many lives from being destroyed, it also left the Indians without any sense of complete tragedy which entails the creation of a new society – and the forging of a sense of Identity. Events like Jallianwala Bagh or Bhagat Singh’s judicial murder were opportunities to push for the creation of new thinking in not only the nature of the Indian State but also of the Indian People. Who are we? What do we represent as a culture and as a country? Are we a country at all – or only a string of feudal kingdoms related by geography? Are we a religion or many religions?

Again – my point is not that India needed bloodshed and massive violence to achieve a sense of identity; my point is merely that India has not yet achieved a sense of identity. The coexistence of massive corruption in public and private institutions and extreme public apathy can’t be the status quo of an evolved and intelligent society. It merely masks the lack of an identity. Corruption is not an identity of us Indians – it is a symptom of our not having an identity.

Let me explain it lucidly – when a person commits a crime or a mistake, the first reflex is to cover one’s face – that is to escape the tyranny of identity. If nobody knows that you have committed a crime, there is no damage to your sense of identity. Similarly, we as Indians are apathetic towards corruption and misrule because our identity is unaffected – because we have none.

As a simple test, ask a ‘modern’ Indian what would he be willing to change if he had to move to another country to pursue his ambitions. Given a choice – would he be more comfortable in changing his nationality – or his religion? I think most of us know the answer. And therein lies the answer – India has no Identity.

(The above post is quite incomplete – My ideas about the overlap of nationality and religion, impact of multi-cultural societies on personal identity, effects of migration and economics on identity etc. are not captured above. I do not want to come across as a person purely critical of his nation’s shortcomings – as the blog’s disclaimer holds, this is not a complete expression of all my beliefs – or a lack of them).

(Written in 2010)