Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Club in times of Swine Flu

Rohit has lovingly chaperoned our book club – Cognition, and now it looks like the club may survive the recession. At one time, we were laying off people, or they were leaving us so fast, that I was afraid that our club may be buried soon. Thankfully we seem to have come through.

This month’s book was “ Smoke and Mirros” by Pallavi Iyer. She is the daughter of Geetanjali Iyer, and those who are from the Doordarshan days, may remember Geetanjali’s sonorous rendition of the news in English. Pallavi spent five years in China, where she managed many assignements as a journalist, and this book comes as a recollection of those times. Fortunately the book is not only a description of China, but also a study in contrast between India and China.

As a typical middle class bigoted Indian I had some very fixed ideas about China. I had heard that the Chinese society is very regimented, unquestioning of authority. They lack indivudual wills, and are easily coerced into making sacrifices for the greater good. They eat all sorts of animals, including dogs. They are willing to undergo extreme personal deprivations to imigrate to to the West. All this makes enables them to have jaw-dropping growth rate and eye-popping stats on manufacturing industry. ( The world’s largest sock maker is in China, who is making gazdillions of socks everyday). Well, after reading the book, all my impressions were confirmed.

Inspite of the economic progress made by China, despite the fact that India has still millions more in poverty, and not withstanding the enormous industrial infrastructure China has put up, one fact stands out starkly. The lack of freedom.

On the other hand I seem to have picked up some clues to living in a Chinese society. Never refuse food when offered in China. Apparantely they find it insulting. So even if Chicken legs make you nauseous, in the interest of the Great Indian- Chinese Friendship, swallow them. Same thing for paying the bill in a restraurant; whoever pays, wins. Pallavi illustrates some pretty devvious ways of paying up first. Actually, if you do not have the money, it might be a better idea to give in gracefully to this one. Oh, by the way, Buddhisim is not all that prevalent in China- another one of my favorite theory laid to rest.

I would defintely recommend this book to anyone interested in that dragon sitting east of us. Or to anybody who votes for CPI(M). Or to anybody who thinks India is a nasty place to live in. Try China.

Odds and Ends

After finishing this book, I picked up the long ignored Granta 105 (thank you, Manisha), and was quickly attracted to Elizabeth Pissani’s memory of events on June 3rd and 4th at Tiananmen Square. Elsizabeth was a highly mis-skilled journalist who happened to be in the right place and the right time. Her visceral recollections of the day stand out in contrast to easy narrative of Pallavi Iyer. The article also recalibrated my impressions of China. The spark of freedom is alive, and the faces of the students in the photograph (loved it) reflects this.

Delhi Chronicle

After looking at the evening smog in Delhi, which seems to be much worse than other years, the events at Copenhagen did interest me. The draft proposal floating around ( see ) is reeking of political statements, diplomatic phrases and fuzzy half unsaid agenda. Jairam Ramesh, the Minister of Enviornment, tells with pride how we managed to get the phrase relating to “respecting sovereignty” into the draft. Big deal. Where is the phrase relating to cutting down carbon emissions?  All that is a fuzzy part of “ recognizing the critical impact of climate change”. We are hiding behind politicians who have difficulty in recognizing anything else but their votes. Guys, wake up. The global temperature rise is proportional to burning hydrocarbons. Simple, ain’t it?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

And Another ThingEoin Colfer. The book was commissioned by the family of the writer Douglas Adams, on the 25th anniversary of the Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy. Living up to a legend was always going to be difficult, admitted Colfer in an interview with the Guardian, but after pondering over this, he did acquiesce.

Reading And Another Thing, and expecting it to be a sequel is a bit misleading. Nothing can live up to the original, and so Colfer tries a different trick. Using the same cast of characters, he totally reinvents the story. The result is a stunning novel, worthy of standing on its own. In fact, being tagged as a sequel, does diminish its brilliance. Colfer hands in a novel which is uniquely his own, and does not attempt to even mimic the original crazy story. Come to think of it, it is impossible to come close to the original, as even Douglas Adam’s subsequent novels prove. ( I picked up So Long And Thanks for all the Fish, which is sitting on my book shelf, just occupying valuable real estate).

The protagonist of this novel is Zyphod Beebelbrox, the ex-President of the galaxy, while Arthur Dent and Ford play a minor role . Dent’s daughter, a Viking god and a brand new alien occupy much of the story. Colfer’s take on gods is brilliant, and in a way thought provokingly central to the book. The immortal alien’s search for death is amazingly well argued , and his redemption as a mortal is a fitting end to the story. I found some uncomfortable likeness in Colfer’s description of his teenager daughter and my daughter of the same age. Looks like delinquency is not patented to teenagers from the planet Earth. The book retains the crazy storytelling style of the original, but comparison is unfair. In summary, the answer is not 42, but damn close to it.

Delhi Chronicles

Vir Sanghvi’s column on Sunday, 15 November 2009, has a decal stating that the views expressed in the column are those of the author’s and not of the newspaper. All I have to say to that is – chicken.

The winter is now settling in nicely. A few days got really messed up as the smog emitted from the Jaipur conflagration managed to settle over Delhi. It was bad, as the stats for people with breathing problems showed a spike. The temperatures are dropping early this year, but Delhi is at its best during the winters.

I went to Amritsar in the first week of November for a family wedding, which was very nice indeed. Small towns like Amritsar can be a bit of a shock for metro people, but after a while one can be charmed by it. The streets of new Amritsar were unusually wide, and the people unusually warm. I was taken aback when I stopped to ask for an address, and the young people went out of their way to detail the route to me. I doubt in Delhi one can get more than a monosyllable for a similar question asked of a stranger. The food was out of the world. The cocktail party at the wedding had a variety of non-veg guaranteed to make even the staunchest veggie change his mind. The hotel, M.K. International too was “ very decent”, reasonable and I did enjoy my stay there. The high point was a visit to the Golden Temple, and though we were rushed, it was a very humbling experience. I should go again one of the days when we the time to do this lazily. Despite threat of unrest on the 25th anniversary of the Delhi riots, the return journey had a few hiccups, but we made it back home safely.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Machinery from odd places.

I picked up A short history of Tractors in the Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka , with a lot of hope, as the book was Orange prize shortlisted, and was well received by the critics. The story is about a dysfunctional family of immigrants in the U.K., who are coming to terms with the loss of the wife, and mother to two sisters. The elder is divorced with an attitude, while the younger one displays symptoms of child abuse, being bullied about by her sister. The father is the eccentric one, and much to the daughter’s dismay, fell for the oldest trick in the world, ending up married to a treasure hunter from their country of origin, Ukraine. The rest of the story is about how they managed to extricate themselves from this situation.The book would have been funny, pathetic or symbolic, if the author had the skills to make it so.

The chapters roll by, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction at the end of each. The pains and travails of immigrants could have been addressed, the relationship between the sisters could have been explored, the philosophical musing of the father could have taken more meaning or the whole thing could have been a laugh a minute book ; all these potential and admirable goals were initiated, but left unfinished. In the end the book wanted to say something, but could not ; the story line promised much, but delivered very little. The book left many regrets for the characters and the reader.

Mobius Dick

Written by Andrew Crumey, a theoretical physicist, this book is a roller coaster. It is about a physicist ( who else !), John Ringer, who manages to get himself in a tough situation. Some wall street type of guys with criminal mindsets (and don’t we know those) decide to finance a new generation of cell phone technology based on quantum mechanics, and our hero warns them of dire consequences. He is promptly mugged and put into a mental institution, where he is declared mad. So begins his hunt for sanity and keeping him company are some of physics best known stalwarts- Schrodinger and Boltzmann. The story flips between two different time periods, and one has to struggle to maintain a sense of time and place. The constant change in reference can challenge one’s internal gyro, but it is worth the effort. The asylum makes a beautifully sinister backdrop, which sets the scene for some the best chapters.

After a tepid start, which can tempt one to put down the book irretrievably, the story picks up pace in the middle and, in fact, is riveting as the inconsistencies of quantum mechanics start ( not) falling in place. The drama of a mystery novel using quantum mechanics most famous story ( Schrodinger’s cat) is well worth the read . However, the story then tapers off lamely, and one can almost anticipate the finale. The intrigue of the middle chapters just cannot hold up the story line as it collapses to a tame end. Nevertheless, the book does make an interesting read, and will hold the attention of readers of fiction with a scientific bend.

Odds and Ends

After reading the artcile Captal Gains, a not very informed article on Delhi, in Granta, I was prompted to respond. My take is reproduced below.

As a lifelong resident of Delhi, I could immediately identify the “nouveau rich” Dasgupta talks about in this article. It is made out to be a new phenomenon, but we have seen this time and again over the last four decades. Delhi attracts entrepreneurs, and when they succeed, some crass behaviour follows, and is talked about. Delhi-wallahs have learnt to ignore this. Fortunately Delhi still has a substantial majority of people one will love to meet.
Sadly, Dasgupta does not talk about some simple pleasures of Delhi. A visit to the walled city, a stroll through some quaint streets with mouth watering delicacies, charming bookshops and, for a discerning visitor, a sense of history to be read in the old buildings and monuments. Khan Market has some compelling restaurants and the Habitat Centre is ideal for a cultural evening.
The reason some people made lots of money to flash around is because the educated middle class Indians had money to spend. When recession squeezed their spending power, the businesses suffered. The proposed gigantic “Mall of India” in Gurgaon, has not taken off, because of a lack of buyers. So, to conclude that the rich have made money at the expense of the downtrodden is misleading. Everybody gained from the economic boom, some more that others.
The article belabours the infamous BMW case, as an example of judicial inequity. It is undeniable that such inequities- social, political and economic do exist in India. This is no different than any other country at India’s developmental stage. The point is that the schisms are recognised by the society and the government takes steps, albeit sluggishly, to address this.
Notably disappointing was the utter lack of cultural aspects of Delhi. The article dismissed a few Delhi-wallahs interviewed as dinosaurs, ill equipped to handle the feral ferociousness of Delhi’s moneyed. Fortunately this is far from the truth. Delhi hosts a vibrant cultural scene- try the theatre district in central Delhi, the endless painting exhibitions, the exuberant music festivals, and the historic Red Fort/Qutub festivals. I could go on at the risk of making this a tourist advert. Thankfully none of these are the favourite haunts of the upstarts and the vulgar.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hello , this is Sam.

Despite the sudden inclement weather, the 16th annual Luvraj Kumar memorial lecture was held on schedule on the 13th of August, at Trimurti Bhavan, although with a much truncated audience. A number of people I spoke to later, gave up on the event, despite starting on time, but getting stuck in the traffic. This year’s speaker was Sam Pitroda, talking on Access and Aspirations. Sam spoke lucidly and compellingly on how aspirations increase with access to technology. He related his own life story as an example of how his journey to US changed his outlook of the world. His contribution to the Indian telecom revolution is much underplayed. He did say that when the idea of privatisation of telecommunications was floated, there was less resistance to it, as CDOT had already demonstrated the advantages of a cheaper and effective way of doing things. CDOT was a unique concept as it operated within the “system” a.k.a Government of India, but was effectively outside it. If I remember correctly, Sam Pitroda’s role was much criticized by the bureaucrats and the politicians of the time. Looks like all that was totally irrelevant, as much of politicians views are in any case. It was unfortunate that as CDOT wound down, Sam had to return to USA to earn some money to get his children through college. He is now back to head the PM’s technology commission, and looks like he still provides his services gratis. (Unless the system learns to pay well, it will be hard pressed to find people like Sam).

His idea of providing a UID to every citizen of India has led to Nandan Nilekani start on this venture. Only with today’s technology of online finger printing, photographs and communicating with a central data base is this possible. Here is wishing Sam Pitroda all the best of this and other ventures.

Jai Bharat Mata

After much trepidation, I did manage to bolster enough courage to go to the talk on Undressing Political Icons, at The Attic. After all, with an incendiary sounding topic as this, the chances of some loony right wingers turning up with bottles and stones are not too remote. Fortunately they did not get a sniff of this talk, and we managed to gather convivially in CP. The Attic is a small, but a very warm place, which, the photocopied programme for the month told us, holds many such social soirees. For a weekday, we had an almost full house. Arundhati, and her husband Jean, did put together a neat and well synchronised talk on the subject. Relating Maqbool Fida Hussain’s controversial painting , the evolution of the imagery of Bharat Mata, and the European concept of nationhood as a female symbolised in Liberty, Europa, and Marianne was done with éclat. The constant swapping of the two speakers to illustrate the Indian and the Europeon aspects was done surprisingly adroitly. It was quite educating to follow the changes in Bharat Mata across the ages; starting in a painting by Aurobindo Ghosh, through to 2006 Hussain’s work. While Europe’s concept of the female symbol embraces nudity ( but not sexually provocative) as an integral part of the image, India’s attempt at this attracted much censure. This is a bit sad, as Hussain’s painting, once placed in front of the European images, is very tame. There was a smattering of questions from the well informed audience, which were addressed expertly and succinctly. On the whole, a very satisfying evening.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Talk about Town

I had attended Arundhati Virmani’s book launch at the IIC, and now she and her husband, Jean Boutier, are back in Delhi. Jean is a visiting professor at JNU’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and he will be in Delhi till August end; alas too short a time.

They are now doing a talk on “Undressing political icons: Europe and India compared” at the Attic in CP.

The readers of this blog are cordially invited to this talk. The exact time and venue will be confirmed, but if you want more details do leave an e-mail on the blog site, and I will revert back to you.

Arundhati Virmani was Reader in History at Delhi University until 1992, when she moved to France. Today she teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales Marseille. Her publications include an essay in Past and Present, as well as two books: ‘India 1900–1947. Un Britannique au cœur du Raj’ (Paris, Autrement, 2002), and ‘Inde. Une Puissance en mutation’ Her latest book is ‘A National Flag for India. Rituals, Nationalism and the Politics of Sentiment’ was published by Permanent Black last year.

Jean Boutier is a Professor of European History at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Former fellow of the Ecole Francaise de Rome and the European University Institute in Florence he has worked on a comparative history of European societies in the early modern period. His focus is on the cultural patterns of European aristocracies. His recent works include: ‘Un tour de Framce royal 156-1567’ ‘Passe Recompose’’ Les Plans de Paris des origines a 1800’, ‘Florence et la Toscane, X1Ve-X1X siecles’, ‘Les dynamiques d’un Etat Italien’, Les mileux intellectuals Italiens, Naples, Rome, Florence, 17e-18e siecles’.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Raining Cats and Fishes

I managed to finish two Haurki Murakami books this month- Kafka on the Shore and What I talk about when I talk about running- and they could not be more far apart. Running.. is a long, boring, ramble about his reminiscences of, what else but, running, which the author has been indulging in for the last decade or so. Incidentally this guy is a superman. He runs marathons, ultra marathons – eleven (!!!) hours of running, and makes me feel much more unfit than I am. But why this would interest anybody is a mystery. There are some interesting quotes or philosophical statements thrown in now and then, but those do not captivate you . In short, it is a book you wish the writer had not written.

On the other hand, Kafka on the Shore, is a delight. The master stylist is at work here, producing perhaps one of best works of art of our times. His philosophical style finds full range in this fantasy, with story line matching, step for step, the twists and turns of modern man’s dilemmas. An outwardly flimsy story line grabs you as the plot develops, and although one can see it as a guise for author’s thoughts and viewpoints of life, it does not lag.

A story of a boy, Kafka Tamura, and an old, feeble minded man Nakata, but who can talk to cats, follow independent paths to a grand finale, where the two paths cross, and yet not. Kafka runs away from home, thinks he has murdered his father, apprehensive that he will fulfil his father’s dark prophecy, and stumbles onto a library, where he finds his love, and is able to come to terms with his devils. Helping him in this quest is Nakata, who metaphysically, is an enabler, a mentor or a counsellor, if you will. He makes things happen, almost magically, and is able to help more than one person, in coming to terms with the contradictions and anxieties of modern life. Murakami makes a strong case against violence in modern society as evidenced by - Best way to stab someone with a bayonet.

“Well, first you stab your bayonet deep into his belly, then you twist it sideways. That rips the guts to ribbons. Then the guy dies a horrible, slow, painful death. But if you just stab without twisting, then your enemy can jump up and rip your guts to shreds. That is the kind of world we were( are!!!- my comments) in”.

What interest me more than the mechanics of bayonet stabbing, is the observation, that if you do not do it, then somebody will do it to you. This to me, is the dark, unfortunate truth of modern man.

A word of warning - this is not a book for the squeamish. Be prepared to be shocked and upset with the man’s morals and values. Keep your homely virtuous principles in a locker if you pick up this book.

Odds and Ends

Books and digital divide

I am sure everybody has heard of the digital divide; the idea that societies who do not keep pace with computer technology will be at a disadvantage. I recently discovered how true this statement is. While pottering away at websites offering free material, I discovered that all the textbooks in my area of expertise are available on the net. If one does not worry too much about not paying for these (anybody who has not pirated, please raise your hand), then one is not at any disadvantage compared to a person in a developed society. Universities offer free video lectures on subjects of your choice on their websites too. So, if you have the lectures, and the material to study, then all you are missing are the exams. That is not much of a loss. This means that a person in sub-Sahara Africa, thousands of miles away from any modern civilisation offering education, will be able to pick up the skills in a subject of his choice with a cheap computer and an internet connection. The digital divide can be a much bigger thing than it is made out to be.

Delhi Chronicles

It has been a slow fortnight in the Capital. We have had monsoons playing truant. Omens of a drought are intermittently drenched with a shower. Just when you think one should start storing away water for the next six months, the rain gods open up, and vanquish the thought. The MCD has been busy cleaning up the storm water sewers, but their (in) efficiency is still to be proven. The umbrellas have been bought, but still await their baptism. The drains have been cleaned and the gargoyles tested, but, so far, the rain has not tested their full potential. One has taken the trouble to get that free monsoon check up for the car, but changing the wiper blades has not yet proven useful. But one lives in eternal hope.

Some excitement has come from the metro guys who are building train lines on pillars of dodgy credentials. I mean if you see a crack in a pillar which is holding up hundreds of tons of concrete, not to speak of trains packed full of people, you do not fool around guessing the strength of the pillar with mirrors. You just tear it down and build another one. To top it all, I find it difficult to imagine that somebody cannot calculate the number of cranes it takes to lift an iron girder, and then build in some safety factor. To have three cranes breaking down catastrophically and the images transmitted all around the world, does not leave me, an Indian engineer, any prouder of our capabilities.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mathematicians and Fishing.

Fermat’s Last Theorm by Simone Singh was an entertaining read, as he was able to simplify maths enough to integrate it with a suspense novel. Reading the book still requires grade seven maths understanding, which is not a problem. The book revolves around a 300 years old maths puzzle, with a price on it’s solution. The puzzle is simple enough and the fact that the prize was left unclaimed over such a long time is interesting. Simon Singh brings vibrancy to the “dull” life of a mathematician, and is able to capture and retain the reader’s attention for the entire duration of this short book. Science writing has its fans, but alas, all too few. A highly recommended read for anybody interested in mathematics.

I also managed to breeze through Paul Torday’s Salmon fishing in Yemen. I like the book for three reasons: a) It is written by an engineer b) Paul has spent considerable time in Oman, where I worked for, alas, too short a time, and c) The book treats people in the Middle East with respect and understanding. A very entertaining read, and a quick book to read through in a couple of sittings. I could appreciate the message in the book, which although vey simple, was relevant for me, a middle aged person. The crisis in the middle aged of marriage and profession was well related with no loose strings. I would recommend for a nothing else to do, rainy day read.

Odds and ends

The race for the oxford professor of poetry turned nasty, what with the favourite candidate , Derek Walcott, withdrawing after allegations of sexual harassment were made anonymously. This now turned into a two horse race with Ruthe Padel winning easily. A few days later she is accused of tipping off journalists on the allegations against Walcott. And then she resigns.

Now what happens? Does the remaining candidate, Arvind Mehrotra, professor at Allahabad University automatically take up the post? Oxford is silent, living up to the highest traditions of English traditions- when in trouble be discreet. Be very discreet.

Anyway Arvind’s poetry is nothing to be scoffed at. Here is

Canticle for My Son

The dog barks and the cat mews,
The moon comes out in the sky,
The birds are mostly settled.
I envy your twelve hours
Of uninterrupted dreaming.

I take your small palms in mine
And don’t know what
To do with them. Beware, my son,
Of those old clear-headed women

Who never miss a funeral

Delhi Chronicles

Now that the Indian cricket team is safely out of the T20 world cup, a lot of my friends are catching up on their sleep. The IPL and the T20 matches at night kept some of them awake till late hours, with consequences the next day. Fogginess to be dispelled by cups of coffee and tea were the order of the day, besides the hours lost in discussing the details of last night’s match. Too much T.V cricket is not a good idea for an alert mind. Pakistan winning the cup was consolation of sorts; at least the cup is in the general neighbourhood.

This summer has been horrible. The temperature stayed above 40C for days, touching 44 C frequently, and with the electricity and water playing truant, Delhi turned obnoxious. The met is promising rains in the first week of July, but I have no faith in that government body. I do not think they know anything about predicting weather, although they get paid to say they do.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Poet Laureate

Carol Ann Duffy is nominated as the next poet laureate, the first woman to be so, and she stands in honourable company, along with Wordsworth and Tennyson. I discovered this poet in my ramblings in the British Council Library, and in fact had picked up her 1985 T.S. Elliot prize winner “Rapture”, a book of related love poems. Carol writes beautifully and with insight only a poet can pen down. Reading poetry is much different than prose. One can let prose wash over you, and one’s engagement with the book can vary over the course of reading the book. Not so with poetry. Either one is fully into it, or not. I cannot read poetry casually; I need to concentrate and let the poem seep into my soul; else it is like chewing gum. One champs around without getting any sustenance. I quote from the movie “Dead Poets Society”- One does not write poetry to make a living, one lives to write poetry. My favourite poem from the book is reproduced below:


No getting up from the bed in this grand hotel
and getting dressed, like a work of art
rubbing itself out. No lifting the red rose
from the room service tray when you leave
as though you might walk to the lip of a grave
and toss it down. No glass of champagne, left
to go flat in the glow of a bedside lamp,
the frantic bubbles swimming for the light. No white towel
strewn, like a shroud, on the bathroom floor.
No brief steam on the mirror there for a finger
to smudge in a heart, an arrow, a name. No soft soap
rubbed between four hands. No flannel. No future plans.
No black cab, sad hearse, on the rank. No queue there.
No getting away from this. No goodnight kiss. No Cuba.

Odds and ends

I have been reading the poetry workshop every month on the guardian books website, and the last poetry workshop was special for me. I finally had the courage to submit an entry. I do not know if there are any bathroom poets like me, but this is one opportunity for you to submit a poem anonymously like I did. If it gets mentioned in the honours, hey! you may be in business. Go ahead, and try out the one this month – the subject is night.

Delhi Chronicles

Delhi’s summer seems to be settling down well. There are days of hot weather with the temperature touching 44 C, but with squalls on most evenings. This weather pattern had been lost for quite some time, and goes down well with me. During my childhood I remember this pattern coming in at least twice a week, sometimes everyday. The pattern seems to have been lost for a decade or so, but I am not complaining if it comes back. The mango season is not going quite as well. The safeda mango is not as sweet as in other years. For course, the price at Rs 35 per kilo is not helping matters. We persuaded a guy coming in from Ambala over the weekend, to bring in some 15 kilos which we will consume in the office in a “Mango” party. Apparently in Muscat this is done every year on a day where the Ambassador of India inaugurates the affair.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Geek Dad

I just finished two books by Issac Asimov- The Currents of Space and Cleon Emperor. For a change both were good fast reads, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. After reading a ton of literary fiction it is a delight to go back to my childhood novels. I remember I was mesmerised by the Foundation Trilogy, and then by Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey and the Rama series. So, when I am trawling the bookshops, I find a SF novel I have not read, I will invariably pick it up. Maybe, because I am a SF fan, I decided to stick to engineering, rather than change to Finance or Marketing and make obscene amounts of money.

Although Asimov is not a great writer, the sheer originality of his ideas catches one’s imagination. To dream of a galaxy wide empire, and then flesh out the details is laudable. The ability to fire one’s fantasies through sheer power of the ideas is the essence of SF writing. One is not looking for subtleties of literary fiction, but the ability of the writer to think of future (but realistic!) scenarios is much appreciated. Asimov is the original master of this art, and I would recommend the Foundation series for any kid.

Which is exactly what my kid does not want. I tried my best to get her interested in sciences, and Physics in particular by referring her to this excellent course –
Physics for Future Presidents. My daughter took one look at it and dismissed it. When I tried to urge her to at least have a look, I was labelled as a geek- an old one- but a geek nevertheless. I have to re-examine my life now. I am sure I did not start off as a geek, but became one over the years. Question- Can geeks be fifty years old?

Odds and Ends

Watching Aamir Khan on TV urging people to vote is really pissing me off. Now he is using kids to sell his idea, and I find that disgusting. We are suckers for kids pedalling anything; from cell phones to health drinks. I think using kids to sell ANYTHING is despicable, because the kids are not endorsing; it is just their parents who are making a quick buck. As a skeptic, I insist on finding out the truth- not that it is easy to find. So, if Aamir Khan wants to figure out the best candidate in my constituency, he would have a job on his hands. If we sieve out the uneducated, the history sheeters, the schemers, the manipulators, the power brokers, the free loaders, and the extremists, there is nothing left. So, all I have to say about this is – Won’t.

Delhi Chronicles

Now that the humble shoe has been declared a weapon of mass destruction, it has captured people’s imagination in ways unforeseen. Laid-off workers are promising retribution, disgusted voters are threatening action, and fringe elements are contemplating protests. This is not without risks as the original show thrower got jailed for three years. But the risks are dropping as the FM’s assaulter got away with a warning. And not all people getting shoes thrown at are unhappy. I noticed that the FM gave a smug smile after the the incident. After all, joining the club of people who have had the “shoe thrown at”, is pretty impressive. In fact celebrity seekers may be disappointed if nothing comes their way, and may decide that paying for this service is worth while. So, a new career shows up on the horizon – The Shoe Thrower- which will teach a student the right methods and attitude to throw a shoe. The shoe manufacturers are rubbing their hands with glee, as they envisage the profits to be made by this great advertising opportunity. So, we can have branded shoes sponsored by companies selling soaps and potato chips, thrown by disgruntled elements wearing T- shirts, also sponsored by companies selling soaps and T-shirts at celebrities who are endorsed by companies selling soaps and T-shirts. I shudder to think where this form of protest will go.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Á Different Invite

Unlike most wedding cards we receive, this one was different. It included a book of poetry compiled by relatives of the bride. So, for the first time I actually read a wedding card. This duty is normally done by my wife who is promptly blamed for forgetting the wedding day or the venue. I could never forget those trivial but important dates now. I also could not forget Van Morrison’s song included in the invite. I was pleasantly reintroduced to Van Morrison through this device, and I reproduce the song below for your enjoyment.

Days like this

When its not always raining therell be days like this
When theres no one complaining therell be days like this
When everything falls into place like the flick of a switch
Well my mama told me therell be days like this

When you dont need to worry therell be days like this
When no ones in a hurry therell be days like this
When you dont get betrayed by that old judas kiss
Oh my mama told me therell be days like this

When you dont need an answer therell be days like this
When you dont meet a chancer therell be days like this
When all the parts of the puzzle start to look like they f it
Then I must remember therell be days like this

When everyone is up front and theyre not playing tricks
When you dont have no freeloaders out to get their kicks
When its nobodys business the way that you wanna live
I just have to remember therell be days like this

When no one steps on my dreams therell be days like this
When people understand what I mean therell be days like this
When you ring out the changes of how everything is
Well my mama told me therell be days like this

Odds and Ends

Have you noticed the lack of any rancour and adrenalin pumping in-your-face aggression in the current India-New Zealand? I credit this to Daniel Vettori and his team mates, who have refused to be drawn in Aussie-like into alpha-male contests or as they justify- psychological warfare. I always thought Aussie on field behaviour was more to do with being bad losers, rather than any scientific approach to overawing competition. So, all credit to the black caps for keeping the contest clean, and to the men in blue for reciprocating. Let cricket win at the end of the day.

Delhi Chronicles

The spring is here, and so are exam times for the kids. The X and XII class kids are taking their exams, and everyone is freaked out. When the kid has an exam, the whole family accompanies the kid to the exam centre and wait for three hours outside, worrying and fretting. In fact when I refused to accompany my kid to the exam centre on grounds of “When I took the exams I went on a DTC bus, and my parents were barely aware of this momentous event in my life” , I was properly castigated for being a delinquent dad. Examples were thrown at me, on how so-and-so’s dad stood in the sun for the entire three hour duration of the exam. I ignored all such exhortations on the grounds sheer madness – there is no way standing in the sun will help your kid get more marks. Of course, when the results are in, everyone in the extended family and circle of friends want to know the marks, and the parents can be squirming if the results are not in the 90s.

The other effect we note is that the child is now hugely dependent on approval ratings of parents which may be based on system generated numbers. This dependency can, and does, become a handicap when the child has to take control of his destiny- choosing a career or life partner. A middle aged man living with his parents is quite common in India, which may have its positives as far as looking after the aged is concerned, but is it suffocating the man-child? I think we can do better if we let the child decide his future and stop worrying about the system-oriented marking scheme. Unless the child is passionate about the subject he picks up as a life long study, I doubt the child can sustain in his career.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Anger in Mumbai

This is dedicated to Sabina Saigal Sakia, who I knew briefly while in college, and have since followed her career with interest.

Anger in Mumbai
Once there was a girl who loved writing,
meeting people, talking
endlessely on things immaterial,
fascinating others around her.

She went to a party and
talked the editor into hiring her
for a job she always wanted,
to write about food and things on

So her books came out
year after year,
telling people where to eat
drink and make merry.

She went to party,
came back early to bed
to find death
instead of rest

He came uninvited
and violated the silence,
to shoot, kill mindlessly
in the name of god

And the old men watched
And prayed And talked
And condemned And promised

And did nothing.

Odds and Ends

I have been corresponding to people in some charming parts of the world like Siberia. It is quite a change from writing to people in US, Canada or India. While asking about the weather is polite noise in other parts of the world, in Siberia it is a big deal. I have been told that the temperature is -15 C… on a warm day. For a warm bloodied mammal like me, such lows are inconceivable. For instance I do know that good old steel is a material I can use down to -29C, which becomes useless material of construction in Siberia. I wonder what do they use for everyday living- Stainless Steel? Other innocuous topic of conversation like “ Would you like a drink?” is a meaningless question out there. If one does not have Vodka to serve up immediately, it is would considered quite an affront. Although the climate may not suit me, I wonder if they run tours up down to that part of the world? It would be nice to pay DJ my respects in person.

Delhi Chronicles

Modern Monuments

After the initial euphoria of the Delhi Metro and its promise to solve Delhi’s horrendous traffic jams is over, the truth is now coming home to roost. The Metro’s ubiquitous reach is after all, now, not so ubiquitous. The trains are well packed, now requiring Japanese style people minders to pack the travellers in. They promised to get rid of the cars and scooters packing the roads under them. Have they? Look for yourself. Now we have considerable part of Delhi’s humanity travelling thirty meters from the ground, while at the bottom an equal number of frustrated commuters struggle with their vehicles negotiating the traffic below. The pillars and the elevated structures made of concrete are now not looking like so good. In fact they are an eye sore. Miles of pillars looking like behemoths supporting the roads on which toy trains run look extremely ugly. The skyline, or whatever remains of it after the buildings obliterate swathes of the sky, is now uglier than ever. So while the progress in mass transport is commendable, all I have to say about the Metro is NMB- Not in my backyard.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Success Re-explained

I just finished Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, a New York Times correspondent, writing his third book. I was not too impressed by his second book, Tipping Point, which I thought was stating the obvious. However, he seems to have matured in his third attempt, and some of his theories found resonance in my experience. A couple of points to illustrate this:

The book starts with the 10,000 hours theory, which states that to be a world class exponent of any art or science, one needs to put in these number of hours. This is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of success. This means that if one puts in 3 hours a day, twenty hours a week, it will take ten years for a person to become adept at his profession. This jells very well, with my theory that it takes ten years of decent work for a person to become a world player in engineering. Of course, he has to take care that he does not repeat his experiences too much, and is willing to grab opportunities, as well as drive himself to work at home to get that extra experience which the office cannot provide. I ran this theory past my colleagues, who agreed with the time frame and the effort level involved reaching a certain stage of faculty.

Besides other interesting points Gladwell makes, another one which piqued my interest was the one on plane crashes. Inability to communicate that he was running out of fuel, an airline pilot crashed his plane. This was attributed to cultural aspect which makes people very reticent when dealing with their perceived social superiors. This aspect is also visible in Indian culture, although not too the extent in some others. This particular peculiarity of Indian culture is a massive hindrance to the way modern organisation run. Although a socially acceptable practice, this illogical deference to superiors needs to be rooted out ruthlessly in professional organisations.

On the whole a well written book, this one throws up a multitude of issues relationg to modern stories of success. I had difficulty in relating to the number of theories, wondering of the author is bit glib on throwing these cards on the table. And then suddenly the chapter on plane crashes turns up, and blows you away.

This book is a strong recommended read for anybody interested in the happenings and causes of events in modern society. It is also up for discussion in our book club, Cognition, which the brave Rohit Marwaha is still organising. I am hoping that the book club continues, but I am pessimistic about it.

Odds and ends

I read with interest the Delhi Bloggers Group heritage walk around Mehrauli, whcich inspired me to visit the Garden of Five Senses (see below). The photos taken by Saad were really good and are up at his blogsite. I must visit Jamali Kamali, a monument recommended to me by my colleague too, and that guy is my guru on places to eat and visit in Delhi.

Delhi Chronicles

The winter has had its truncated say in Delhi this year, and was unusually warm. A cold snap here and there helped us to remind us of its nasty reputation. But now in end January the sun is out, and it is a wonderful time to be going out and visiting the gardens. I decided to visit the Garden of Five Senses at Meharauli. Found it with great difficulty, as the metro construction has despoiled the road leading up to the garden. I lost my cell phone, so obviously the garden did not do enough to awaken my senses. The food at Bauji’s Dhabha was really good, but other than that there was little to write home about. Extended families of mind boggling proportions were out picnicking, and every spot of grass was occupied by people eating away home cooked food transported in huge containers. A dilapidated amphitheatre abuts on a upmarket restaurant, whose clients can roll in their Mercedes into the garden, while the rest of us have to park outside. A “solar bus” powered by solar charged batteries picked up kids from one end, fought its way amongst the cars from the aforementioned restaurant, and then had to have some manual help from a guy with long stick to flip around its electric contactors overhead, to make the trip back. A sad state of affairs. Methinks this garden will soon resemble the ruins it is surrounded by, and will have the honour of reaching the state of dilapidation in one hundredth the time.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Troubled by a book

The White Tiger

This award winner has not been able to rustle up enthusiasm amongst the literati or the critics. I read the book for discussion in a book club, and had to do some speed reading to meet the deadline.

The two big things which I noticed immediately: First, for a Booker award this book reads easy. Amongst the recent winners this is by far the easiest book to read. The narrative is smooth, the storyline captivating and the message apparently simple.

Secondly I am amazed at the authenticity of Delhi life portrayed by the author. For a person who is not a Delhiwallah, the ability to latch on to the nuances of Delhi life is astonishing. A couple of personal instances which mirror the ones in the book are:

I have personally witnessed an incident in which a minor boy driving car causes an accident, and his driver, arriving at the scene some 15 minutes later, promptly takes on the burden of guilt. No kidding- this happened in my colony.

The name of the roads in Delhi keep on changing as Lutyen’s Delhi explodes like a monster, and the politicians replace British name with today’s, mostly Europeon, no American, relevant political personalities. As any Delhiwallah knows, the old name lingers on, and only a tourist will use the newly christened monikers.

The inability of Delhi bureaucrats to keep to a simple logic when numbering streets and blocks is evident. I live on Road No 56, and Road No 55 is half a mile away in an unexpected direction.

Aravind has spent many an observational evening in Delhi, and it shows.

I am surprised that book has left many Delhiwallahs untouched. Have we become immune to the poverty and the social injustice, which is evident everywhere? Or is it that Aravind drags these things out of the sewers , much to the discomfort of the middle class literature reading audience who can dish out Rs. 395 for this book? The apathy of the not so unfortunate people is a telling commentary on our times. This begs the question: Are the middle class, for all their protestations, at all interested in social justice? As we climb up the social and wealth ladder, are we capable of looking back and committing to helping the less fortunate? Do we think that if we contribute a measly amount to some fashionable charity or, donate some money at a temple, it will be good enough for our conscious? Are we bothered by our conscious at all?

Aravind leaves nothing to imagination. His story is straight from the guts, painfully visceral, horrifically detailed, and prods the reader’s sleepy conscious wide awake. The incidents he relates in the book, are unfortunately, all too real. This is not Bollywood’s glamorised poverty, but a in your face, take it or puke kind, which is very uncomfortable to read. One needs to keep an arm’s distance to not get upset with the portrayal of the characters.

The writing style leaves much to be desired. It is a straight journalistic verbiage, with attention to detail and authenticity, but with little creativity. Salman Rushdie would be justifiably upset that his book , The Enchantress of Florence, with all its shortcomings, did not even make it to the Booker short list. His is much better crafted book than The White Tiger. The only reason I see this book as a winner is its ability to keep one constantly uncomfortable with the contradictions of a pluralistic society, and the price one pays to climb the ladder in a developing economy.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Going Greene

In my mania to read Graham Greene, I managed to read The Honorary Counsel, This Gun for Hire, A Burnt Out Case, and the Stamboul Train in rapid succession. Is my obsession over? I hope so.

Anyway, I will take up The Honorary Counsel out of the four books. It epitomises Graham Greene at his best, although it may not be his best book.

I am constantly amazed at how simple, yet how profound Greene can make his writing. The dilemma of a man far away from his home, seeking solace in the trivialities of a small, but deadly town, is narrated in agonising detail.

The story belongs to Dr. Plah, a medical doctor of mixed origin- father is an Englishman, while the mother is an Argentinian. The story is set in a small town outside Buenos Aeries, where Dr. Plah bumps into the honorary English Counsel, and with one other English teacher, constitutes the entire English related population of the town. The trouble starts when the Counsel is mistaken for the American ambassador, and kidnapped for exchange of prisoners by childhood friends of Dr. Plah.

The story then revolves around the kidnappers and the Counsel, with Dr. Plah playing a key role. The evolution of relationships between the Counsel, the kidnapper, Dr. Plah and his lover ( the counsel’s wife) take on almost Kafkaesque proportions. The ebb and tide of relations and the tensions of the situation builds up as Dr. Plah confronts his past in the form of the kidnapper, while his guilty conscious forces him to make amateurish attempts to save the Counsel.

Green’s literary style is used effectively to act as the society’s mirror, and his keen observations on man’s dilemmas and anxiety brings one to reflect on one’s lifestyle. He is as relevant today as he was in the last century. It is this enduring quality which spans generations, makes him very relevant today. It is a shame he missed the Nobel Prize. I do wish that his books were not so highly priced by Vintage. He deserves a much wider audience

Odds and Ends

Now that the Olympics in China is behind us, it may interesting to see if we remember anything. I do remember that nobody at home sat through the opening ceremony. It was all jazz and glitter, but without a soul. Controlled societies like China will tend to ignore the human aspect, while in search of materialistic gains. The attempt to fool everybody by having a playback singer for the little girl sticks to one’s mind. Phelps gold medals and a middle aged mother attempting a gold medal in swimming are other notables.

My mother brushed off the whole show as a soap opera, and I cannot say I disagree.

Delhi Chronicles

Now that the winter is truly here, and the warm clothes are out of the boxes smelling of mothballs, one has started enjoying the sun again. Shelling peanuts and struggling to break off pieces of gajak (peanuts embedded in jaggery) from the big cake, and soaking in the sun sitting on a charpoy while reading a book is the thing to do during winters. The sun sets at at about 5:30 p.m. nowadays, so going for THE walk in the dark is cold and troubling. Listening to an audio book is the only thing making this worthwhile. This year the winter seems to be normal, and the temperature did fall a little bit in end November, but has climbed back again to make Delhi the best destination for tourists this side of the Suez canal, the carnage in Mumbai notwithstanding.

The fog is coming in nowadays and that makes the Delhi winters what they are. The air travellers get hit by delays, but hey, the smell of winter, the chillness of the fog, the warmth of that cuppa tea, and the fuzzy good feeling of a Sunday wandering on Janpath is what Delhi winters is all about. Enjoy while it lasts guys.