Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Pankaj Mishra is at it again

Pankaj Mishra who has specialised in the art of blaming almost all, if not all the sins of the world on Indian policy in Kashmir is at it again. Mercifully this time not in the main New York Review of Books but in its newly instituted blog. His point this time is that there is no solution possible in Afghanistan without a solution to the problems in the Kashmir valley. Of course in the very large, super-large universal scheme of things, perhaps all effects are causally interconnected. But Mishraji has no such over-arching view of the world. His point, if I may simplify matters a bit, is that human rights violation by Indian forces in Kashmir (oops, I should say 'India-held Kashmir' the politically correct term) is more or less at the root of all evil and in particular, the evil at work in Afghanistan. In other words, Mishraji, who has specialised over the years in hurling unsubstantiated accusations against the Indian Army in Kashmir and elsewhere, is back to his old tricks.

The pathetic human rights record of Indian forces in Kashmir is not in doubt (though it is fashionable amongst the Mishra ilk to forget why they are there in the first place) but a correct statement of fact does not necessarily causally link it with another correct statement of fact. The problems with this leap of logic is of course beyond Mishraji. Rambling through a litany of Indian sins (which includes apparently the dismembering of Pakistan, conveniently ignoring or forgetting the actions of Yahya Khan's troops that precipitated that action) and some mind boggling connections like Hamid Karzai's education in Himachal Pradesh, his column finally and drearily makes its predictably way to the 'obvious' conclusion -- that the Kashmir problem is what is preventing a solution to the US's imbroglio in Afghanistan.

The issue that completely escapes his notice (after all, one can't think of everything, poor fellow) is the Pakistan Army's support of militants in Kashmir and elsewhere either directly or through the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), its obsession with India as the enemy and finally the Army's desire to keep some of the 'friendly jihadis' in its camp to continue the so-called proxy war in Kashmir with renewed vigour at a later time. The obvious fact that has been underlined often even in the mainstream Pakistani press like the Dawn by its retired Army and Navy commanders that every single war India and Pakistan have fought was initiated by Pakistan (and more specifically the Pakistani Army) has also escaped Mishraji's notice. So the painting of India as the bad boy in the block, seems, to put it mildly, far-fetched, considering that we have been at the receiving end of the terrorist violence for the last two decades. Picking on one incontestible fact -- that of India's human rights record in Kashmir -- Pankaj Mishra has yet again concocted from the recesses of his mind a fantasy world of mischief, war mongering and insurrection, at the heart of which lies the Republic of India.

Friday, November 27, 2009

26/11 -- a year (and a day) later...

The channels and the newspapers are naturally full of reminders of the terrorist attacks on 26 November last year, in Mumbai. Is there anything more to say than what has already been said many times over. The soul searching, the recriminations about poor intelligence continue, hand-wringing over actions not taken to prevent another such attack. The ubiquitous candle lights vigils have taken place. (I don't want to be cynical about such matters but what purpose does a vigil like this serve? Does it make us feel good, to just stand there with a candle in our hands? This is such a mechanical import from the West, I don't recall ever seeing these kinds of vigils in the past; surely we can have something more tangible to show our concern and our feelings. Gandhiji would probably have held a prayer meeting - for the secular liberal elite, that would be a no-no but can there not be something more meaningful, more eloquent than holding a candle?)

I have been wondering what it is about that day that has stayed in my mind. I can remember two events that made an impact (other than, of course, the sheer gruesome nature of the event). One positive, one negative. The story of Tukaram Ombale who pushed a mobile barricade into the street to stop the Skoda carrying Kasab and one other terrorist and taking them on with only his service pistol (I no longer remember if he was even armed). Ombale paid for it with his life but it snared for us the one surviving terrorist who has given us all the proof we need (if indeed it was needed) about Pakistani involvement (state or 'non state') in the plot.

The other news I remember is one of our 'captains' of industry Ratan Tata coming on TV looking exceedingly sour, whinging about poor infrastructure, poor intelligence, poor response, poor governance that led to this carnage. No word for the poorly armed Mumbai police doing the best they can under such circumstances, no word for the NSG. He commiserates with his guests, but spares nary a thought for all those who died at CST, who remain forgotten to this day. Three days later, as an afterthought he says his words should not be taken as a 'lack of appreciation for the various agencies that fought the terrorists'.

I have written about this earlier, but these thoughts come back to me -- how differently each of us reacts in a crisis.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

And some good news

BBC, The Guardian and other news sites report that the LHC is technically up and running, scientists having managed to circulate two stable counter rotating beams of protons in the tunnel.

CERN though seems to be taking it more casually cautiously this time -- there is no media hype that they engineered last year, a few days before the machine suffered a catastrophic failure. The CERN bulletin still blandly reports news from last weekend, that "during the weekend of 7-8 November, CMS also saw its first signals from beams dumped just upstream of the experiment cavern. " Having burnt their fingers once, CERN clearly doesn't want to draw too much attention to the (re)start up unless they are sure of stability and other issues.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sixty hours of terror

Reliving Mumbai 26/11 - a four part account of what happened during those hours...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Is organic food good for you? (aka The Farm Fresh Fetish)

To continue on the theme of the previous post:

It turns out that during the Climate Change meeting next month in Copenhagen (which has already dashed hopes of an agreement after President Obama discounted the possibility of agreeing to definitive caps on emissions) Denmark has promised ecologically friendly fare -- tap water, fair trade tea and coffee and food that will be 65% organic.

Which brings us to the point of this post -- is organic food really the solution to the food problems of this planet? If it means recognising chicken as an animal and not a plastic wrapped package, no squeezable tubes of Go-Gurt, or granola bars 'fortified' with soy protein, omega-3, vitamin D and zinc, then the answer is yes. One doesn't need to get one's daily recommended dose of roughage in our coffee or all four food groups in our snack bars. It's enough to eat just normal 'real food' which includes mostly plants, not necessarily organic foods. Unfortunately, fears of bio-technology interfering with our food and a general distrust of the use of science and technology in agriculture has given rise to a fetish about the benefits of organically grown food. True, organic foods have slightly smaller ecological footprints but because of the present obsession with organic food, these are frequently then trucked to distant places, wiping out their ecological edge. It makes more sense to buy local foods but 'local' is frequently conflated with 'organic'.

Read about this and more here. And find out why there isn't -- and has never been -- anything natural about farming.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Bt brinjal good for you?

The Genetically Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) (can't we have more feliticiously named committees?) has approved the commercial cultivation of the humble brinjal, alias eggplant alias aubergine. Of course it still requires clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (where decisions will be based as much on politics as science -- perhaps more so). But the knives are out already and the habitual pulpit-thundering anti-technology naysayers like Vandana Shiva and others of her ilk, including scores of NGOs have predicted the usual gloom and doom scenario for Indian agriculture, particularly those cultivating this poor unloved vegetable.

Before we get to grips on this issue, let's get some incontrovertible facts out of the way.

  • This is not the first genetically engineered seed to be sanctioned for commercial cultivation. So called Bt cotton was the first (in 2002) which at least superficially has been an unqualified success with 50% better yields and is also grown in US, China, South Africa and Australia. However, since nobody eats cotton, the issues in this regard are different from those of eggplant and have more to do with commercial, social and economic aspects. (For example, the ability of the farmer to harvest the seeds from his own crop for the next planting, rather than buying it again from the market). Consumption of genetically modified foods bring up totally different issues altogether, some of which I will discuss below.
  • India is by no means a trendsetter in this regard. The US has 62.5 million ha under cultivation, Argentina has 21 million ha, Brazil has 15 million ha. India is now fourth in this list with 7.6 million ha, mostly growing cotton, followed by Canada and China. The crops grown are also more diverse -- canola, maize, soyabean, sugar beet, tomato and of course cotton.
  • It is not just professional objectors like Shiva who are against transgenic crops. Even respected molecular biologist P. M. Bhargava has added his voice to this chorus.
As far as I understand, the main reasons for the worry are the following, some of them only relevant in the Indian context.
  • A general belief that fiddling with the genetic structure of any food must have adverse consequences. There is unfortunately no proof of this yet -- it appears more a matter of faith. There have never been any reports of adverse health effects from the consumption of GM foods and by now the numbers of such consumers are significantly large.
  • The clearance by the GEAC was done hurriedly and based on data provided by the company which markets this product -- Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) -- a subsidiary of the (evil?) multinational Monsanto. There was no independent verification of the field trials and even though Indian Governmental organisations like ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and IIVR (Indian Insitute of Vegetable Research) were involved, the tests were superficial, the results rushed out in a hurry, and there was no transparency in the trial methodology. People like P. M. Bhargava have been particularly troubled by these aspects.
  • The whole GM food control, and therefore eventually all of Indian agriculture is coming more and more under the control of multinationals like Monsanto. This is an economic issue though, not a scientific one and in this post I want to address mostly the scientific issues.
So what are these scientific issues? (I am by no means an expert on this issue and most of the information in this post comes from an excellent article by The Harvard zoologist and biologist Richard Lewontin in the New York Review of Books. However that requires a subscription to the magazine though I could send you a copy on an individual basis to avoid copyright problems.)

Human beings have been genetically modifying organisms since the domestication of plants and animals. The usual way we have been doing it for tens of thousands of years is to selectively breed those variants of a plant which have desirable qualities like better productivity or resistance to pests. These are also only done between closely related species. Moreover, this kind of "mixing" can be a bit of a hit or miss affair and while improving one aspect (say disease resistance) one might also selectively propagate a low yielding variety of the plant. Modern genetic engineering instead selectively removes the DNA corresponding to a particular gene and inserts it into a recipient's cell so that it becomes part of the recipient's genome. The 'source' DNA can belong to a distant species and in that case the resultant variety produced is called a transgenic organism.

One of the most famous cases of genetic engineering (to which nobody seems to have ever objected) is the introduction of the human insulin gene into the genome of bacteria which, subsequently, after being grown in industrial quantities produce industrial quantities of insulin that keep millions of diabetics in good health.

One of the commonest uses of trangenic DNA is to make plants resistant to pests. The Bt protein is a powerful toxin made by the bacterium Bacillus thuringensis (hence Bt) and when the gene coding for this toxin is inserted into plants, they start producing these toxins and insects trying to feed on these plants ingest these and die. The obvious issue that exercises opponents of GM crops is the effect of these toxins on human beings when they eat GM varieties of fruits and vegetables. This, along with two other issues - the disruption of the natural environment of agriculture and the development of resistant pests are the three main problems with transgenic foods. (Incidentally it is a fact not often recognised that adverse toxic health effects can also arise during conventional breeding including crosses between species that normally do not cross in nature -- in fact there are several such examples in the history of agriculture referred to in Lewontin's article).

Large scale testing by independent agencies is the only way out of these problems. Unfortunately not just in India but even in advanced countries like the US, it is often true that the data on which 'safety assessment' is based are produced not by independent federal agencies but by the the very parties who are asking for approval to distribute the new variety. This is precisely what makes the propagation and large scale production of GM foods somewhat of a risky enterprise. Self-policing is hardly calculated to inspire confidence in the minds of the general public towards the safety of transgenic varieties of food. However it is also true that in the last two decades or so, there has not been a single proven case of adverse effects directly attributable to a transgenic crop. (A close call is mentioned in the Lewontin article). Hardened weed varieties are another undesirable by-product of this genetic manipulation.

If these were the only issues on which the GM crop antagonists were fighting the battle, it would be the action of a responsible opposition. Unfortunately the movement has almost taken on the contours of a belief system based on a hardened and pathological dislike for any technological intervention in natural processes. (It's not surprising that most of the opponents of the system are also opponents of the Green revolution in India that finally abolished large scalestarvation and frequent occurrences of famine in the country and allowed India to become self sufficient in food). The poster-person of this movement is of course the well known activist Vandana Shiva. Shiva, who we are told is a former physicist, blots her copybook by making remarks (in her famous book Stolen Harvest) that have nothing to do with science. For example, that seeds and biodiversity are "gifts from nature and their ancestors" and her opposition to genetic engineering is based on "a recognition in the Isho Upanishad that the universe is the creation of the Supreme Power meant for the benefit of all creation". Further on, in the book, she talks of "the smoke from the mustard oil used to light the deepavali lamp acts as an environmental purifier." (I should confess here that I have not read the book though the above are actual quotes from there. Perhaps she is being quoted out of context! And yet, if even her best arguments have to be buttressed by this kind of pseudo scientific mumbo-jumbo, it is not a surprise that people like her do not inspire much confidence amongst most scientists). As Lewontin reports, her book is full of unexplained claims about the nature of the farm economy in India, and how biotechnology destroys it and unanalysed or distorted scientific findings, some of which are explicitly referenced in the review. As Lewontin puts it, Stolen Harvest is an opportunity squandered.

And yet, many serious scientists have questioned the wisdom of hurrying through with the clearance for Bt brinjal in India, without conducting fully independent large scale field tests. GM crops if used appropriately can be of great benefit to poor farmers in countries like India but in order to be able to sell the idea to the people of the country the Government has to do more -- if not anything else, at least to make sure that field tests are not only done fairly but also seen to be so.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ain't kiddin'

All the students at Luolang Elementary School, a yellow-and-orange concrete structure off a winding mountain road in southern China, know the key rules: Do not run in the halls. Take your seat before the bell rings. Raise your hand to ask a question. And oh, yes: Salute every passing car on your way to and from school. And there's more where this came from.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study

The Indian Institute of Advanced Study at Summerhill, Shimla, is housed in what used to be the Vice Regal Lodge - the summer palace of the Viceroy of India. In keeping with its colonial origins, the building is a grand colonial structure, complete with manicured gardens outside, wood panelled walls inside, wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere and a grand staircase which leads to the upper floor where the offices are located.

The Institute is primarily a social sciences institute, set up by the second President of India, Dr S. Radhakrishnan, and has a large number of visiting fellows in disciplines ranging from political science to philosophy who are encouraged to come and use their time there to study and write a book or monograph or treatise. However the present Director is a very charming forward looking person who would like to bring the social sciences and humanities closer to the sciences (remember C. P. Snow's Two Cultures ?) and therefore encourages scientists to organise meetings there. Thus a meeting on Gravity was held last year and we are organising a meeting on Particle Physics Phenomenology during the teeth-chattering cold of December. Our interaction with the Director and staff there was extremely positive and they are keen to provide all the local facilities needed to host a meeting. They prefer if some general talks are given which are understandable by the social sciences Fellows of the institute. With a guest house capacity of about

35, small meetings are easy to arrange.

The place literally oozes history. Thus, one can see the table where the partition papers were signed during the tripartite conference between the Congress, the Muslim League and the British Government. (The table is also in two parts joined together!) An earlier meeting called by Lord Wavell in the same place and attended by Nehru, Patel, Azad, Jinnah, Liaqat Ali Khan and others had ended in failure, making India's partition a certainty and there is the historic conference room where this and many other meetings among the various delegates of the political establishment took place in pre-independence India.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Magnetic Monopoles and Magnetricity

Magnetic monopoles have never been seen in nature which makes Maxwell's equations fundamentally asymmetric between electric and magnetic fields, since there is no magnetic equivalent of a single isolated electric charge.

Recently a Nature article by Bramwell et al. show that in a certain kind of magnetically frustrated material called 'spin ice' one can see evidence of 'magnetricity' - a flow of magnetic charges just like electrical charge flow, and understood in terms of a magnetic analogue of the theory of electrolytes. (The material in which this has been observed is dysprosium titanate pyrochlore). The experimentalists actually observe real magnetic currents and are hence able to measure the magnetic charge ('monopole'). This, I believe, is the first example of a system where there is perfect symmetry between electric and magnetic charges. (The popular press has occasionally reported the existence of flux tubes -- dipoles which move independently in certain magnetic materials -- as equivalent to magnetic monopole quasiparticles but the present effect I believe is different -- I would appreciate some comments on these from experts).

One should realise though that this does not change Maxwell's equations in free space. Magnetic monopoles in free space have not been observed yet, except in one un-replicated experiment by Blas Cabrera in 1982. Thus, electromagnetism text books don't need to be revised any time soon.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Are most Indian drivers retarded?

I deliberately gave a provocative and non PC title, but do read on...and you can conclude for yourself.

The road I take to office daily is dug up, ostensibly to widen it. Nothing new about that in this city, and that is probably the topic of a future post. But, as a consequence, traffic tends to creep along, sometimes slowing down to a halt altogether. At this point, a bunch of vehicles (they range from MTC buses to autos to fancy shiny cars) decide to make a break for it by getting on to the lane for oncoming traffic in order to beat the jam. Not surprisingly, they immediately block the oncoming traffic and who in turn block these vehicles from going further. The result is a complete grid lock with vehicles unable to proceed in either direction.

Now I am certain that since this happens during rush hour, the people using this stretch are the same people who use it every day to go to work. In other words, the consequences of their actions are there for them to see, day after day after day. And yet, they just don't seem to get the message! Most living creatures, presumably from guinea pigs up, learn, by dint of repetition, to avoid getting involved in an inextricable situation. But clearly not so, Indian drivers.

So what are we to conclude from this?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Marathi Asmita and me

A distinguished blogger in a recent post has deplored the attitude of some lumpen parties in Maharashtra like the MNS and Shiv Sena of trying to force-feed Marathi down the throats of unwilling residents of the state, using extra-judicial methods. In a Parthian shot he has accused me of being a fellow traveller and linked this blog to that statement.

When I clicked on that link it took me to my previous post on NCERT textbooks, leaving me totally mystified. Surely I had said nothing offensive in that post? I read it again carefully and could find nothing that would give offense to even the most thin skinned of non Maharashtrians in Maharashtra.

And then the penny dropped! (I have always been rather slow on the uptake, a trait commented on often by many of my friends and relatives...). He was referring to a long ago post of mine, which essentially defended the actions of local governments whether in Maharashtra or in Tamil Nadu, to promote the use of the local language in signage and communication. (Presumably out of laziness, he had just linked to my blog rather than to that particular post). This along with a couple of comments in the distinguished blogger's posts had been construed as defending the use of sticks and stones, fists and knuckles and other extra-judicial methods, (favourite of the above mentioned parties), as a means of forcing local culture and language on the hapless and recalcitrant non locals of the state ("North Indians" in their derogatory phrase). And it was this that had earned me the appellation of a "fellow traveller".

Tendentious reporting and conclusions are common amongst our numerous news channels and newspapers, and more so in the blogosphere, but it now seems to have affected some of our distinguished bloggers too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

NCERT Textbooks

The Times of India, which most of us in recent years have associated with fluff and half naked women, can, when it puts its mind to it, run some wonderful stories -- leaving its nearest rival here, the Hindu panting way behind. On Gandhi Jayanti day, when N. Ram and his cohorts at the Hindu have been obsessing about China's greatness and its military might, the TOI has a far more relevant, topical and interesting story on the new NCERT textbooks.

The new set of books, designed by the NCERT's primary textbook committee, creates a culturally responsive mathematics curriculum, according to the chair of the committee Anita Rampal -- "(We) have looked at math through the prism of everyday life. Instead of teaching through abstractions, the books tell real-life stories of people so that the youngsters can identify with the characters."

Thus living examples of fish, their shapes and sizes, as well as the capacity of fishing boats off Chennai's coast to teach the principles of maths. Similarly, to make the connection of a map to the aerial photo of a place, they used a photograph of India Gate and Rashtrapati Bhavan by the celebrated photographer Raghu Rai who was only too willing to give them permission to print it.

One of those feel good stories when there is so much bemoaning about the state of our education system...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Coming soon to a theatre near you

People who think of Dr. Strangelove as a satirical masterpiece on human folly will soon have another treat in store for them, something that will give Dr Strangelove's pre-eminence a run for its money.

The story goes something like this. In a country far far away, the Supreme Chairman, much loved by his people, decides to mount a celebration of his reign in all the pomp and grandeur that the country is capable of. A massive parade, a show of might is organised in the main square. However, the Supreme Chairman, keeping in mind the welfare of his beloved people decrees that people living on the route of the march should not come out into their balconies and verandahs for 24 hours before the march. They are 'advised' not to use binoculars and cameras during the march. (For good measure, and of course keeping in mind the welfare of his citizens, some houses along the route have been evacuated altogether). Then how will the people participate in this great show, which is meant, after all to symbolise the Republic of the People? Well, on television, of course! Students in large numbers, who love their Supreme Chairman deeply, will take part in the march (after being vetted carefully) but are asked not to post pictures of rehearsals, and not to use text messaging. Naturally, and in national interest, pigeons along the route have been exterminated (perhaps they could be used to carry subversive messages?), sale of knives banned, and beggars and the homeless (not that there are such people in this perfect society) have been, uh, 'cleared'.

The march itself, in its discipline and perfection, will put all other countries to shame. Distance between soldiers' noses have been carefully measured and fixed, and needles (yes, needles) fixed to participants' collars so that if a soldier's chin drops by even as much as half an inch, the jab sends it straight back up again. Nothing much be allowed to come in the way of discipline.

Even nature is to be bombarded into submission. If the rain-gods have the temerity to misbehave, planes are to be used to blast the clouds to disperse them. Our Supreme Chairman has left nothing to chance. And on this day, the image of a perfect society will be enhanced by the refusal of the local governments to grant divorces -- warring couples will be asked to wait another day.

So when is this sure-shot Oscar winning movie to be released? Today, Thursday at and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. For more details regarding show timings and other information, see here, here, even here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Aardvark

This is a service I learnt about from one of David Pogue's columns in the New York Times. You can go read it but here is a description in brief:

If you have a question to ask, the usual step is to throw it at Google or to one of the 'answers' sites like 'Ask Jeeves' or answers.yahoo.com, and hope you get something back. In other words they are not targetted at any particular specialist group (except that you might occasionally send it to only a specialised site). As a result the answers one gets are frequently not quite what you want.

Aardvark works differently. (the site is vark.com and you need to register to use it). It works through Google chat or MSN or some other similar chat program. Once it gets a question (which you can ask through the chat window itself to aardvark) it sends it around instantly to all its registered relevant users who are online at that time. When a person registers with aardvark it asks for your expertise and that is how it makes sure that the 'right' users get the question. As a result, answers come very fast and usually from, if not exactly experts, at least those who know something about the subject. Aardvark claims that on an average it takes less than 5 minutes to get an answer from another on-line user. If you find the answer useful, you can even establish a direct communication with the 'expert' through aardvark for follow up questions.

In my experience, a lot depends on the questions and also the geographical location. Questions pertaining to say, something in the US are answered very fast since there are presumably large numbers of US users logged in at any given time, some of whom are well-informed. More esoteric questions (or exotic questions) take more time or are not answered at all. (At the time I tried it, I asked something about Durrell and Corfu since I was visiting Corfu (see my previous posts!) and never got a reply. However, aardvark did recognise that Corfu was in Greece and tried to send it to 'Greece' experts - presumably there weren't any!)

Similarly, if you stay logged into say gmail as I do, you will occasionally get questions based on your stated expertise through your chat window. You can choose to answer or 'pass'. If you think aardvark is asking you too many questions, you can set the frequency of that to something lower. I once got a question from a guy who asked how to cook a steak without a grill, since he didn't have one, but had an oven. I gave some instructions and later he thanked me (through aardvark) for helping him with his dinner! It's kind of spooky to be thanked by someone anonymous for helping with his dinner, halfway around the world :) But you can ask more serious questions. And hope to get some useful answer...and eventually provide a few too.

The only problem seems to be that aardvark does not keep the questions pending if they have not been answered, to be sent around at a later date or time. They are never sent around again. Their site has a list of unanswered questions but it's just too long to scroll through.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tweets and Taunts

The twittering facebook generation has come down like a ton of bricks on our poor humourless politicians for picking on Shashi Tharoor and his innocent 'cattle class' tweet. Given that most Indians lack the ability to laugh at themselves, why pick on the politicians who are just a mirror of our own selves? Despite that, I am afraid, knowing Tharoor as I do, I find it very difficult to sympathise with him.

Tharoor was a year senior to me in college. He would wander around with a band of hangers-on who, one day in my early days in college, kidnapped me and took me to the presence of the master. After some desultory 'tough' questioning to pretend that he was ragging me, Tharoor turned on the charm and his winning smile, introduced himself and asked me to vote for him in the coming college elections. As a trembling nervous fresher, terrified at the thought of what might befall me if I refused, I hurriedly agreed and was let off with some gracious patronising words. I didn't vote for him (I no longer remember why -- there wasn't much to choose between the various candidates) but he swept the elections with his ever ready wit and perfect turn of phrase for every occasion. In fact Stephen's then (and presumably now) was full of people who could discourse at length but without content, on any topic in the famous Mukherjee memorial debates and elsewhere in debating competitions in the country, where they usually swept the awards precisely for this ability -- form without content. Another 'great' debater was Ramu Damodaran who went on to become P. V. Narasimha Rao's Private Secretary when Rao was the PM. (While on this business of name-dropping, Amitav Ghosh was in my batch, Ram Guha a year later and Upamanyu Chatterji I think was the same batch -- not that I knew any of them personally being a lowly 'science-type'; and now it's too late to pretend to be on first name terms with them!)

Tharoor's felicity with the English language (and fluency in French) stood him in perfect stead in his years in the UN, where you are supposed to look good, speak well and interminably, be diplomatic and never upset the apple cart. I do not recall any particularly distinguished service record in any of the hotspots of the world in all his years as UN High Commissioner of Refugees. It allowed him to write a few books, fiction and non-fiction, which saw a modicum of success. Consequently, he was more visible in various literary festivals and authors' workshops than in any UN relief operations anywhere. However, what might pass muster in the halls and corridors of St. Stephen's College and literary gatherings, and even produce accolades, are not necessarily appropriate emanating from a Minister in the Government of India. Wisecracks are fine in their place and indeed 'cattle class' is more pejorative about the airlines which treat their passengers like cattle than about the class themselves, but it is surely obvious that what is fine for an ordinary member of the public self-consciously proud of his ready wit, is not necessarily fine as a Minister's public pronouncement, (albeit only on Twitter), more so in a overly sensitive self-important country like ours. If Shashi Tharoor still hasn't figured this one out, what's he doing in that position?

Update: Soutik Biswas on BBC refers to Tharoor's tweets as "harmless, constipated takes on cricket, traffic jams in Delhi, Patrick Swayze, Roger Federer...unexceptional, unexciting and largely irrelevant". Exactly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jinnah, Jawaharlal, Patel and others

Revisionist history is now a flourishing industry and any book or article that attempts either to re-interpret past events (usually in the light of 'fresh evidence') or knock down idols from the past is bound to see a print run of tens of thousands if not more. In this category falls Jaswant Singh's recent book on Partition and Jinnah, Nehru and Patel's respective roles in that traumatic event. He may have lost his BJP membership but he is sure to turn a neat profit, if not from India, at least from Pakistan.

One of the issues that Jaswant Singh implicitly refers to but doesn't quite address is whether Jinnah really wanted partition or would have been happy with 'parity'. In a stroke of genius and repeating the allegation of Seervai before him, Jaswant Singh, while not revealing his position on the 'parity' viewpoint, has managed to antagonise both the Congress and the BJP by trying to knock down both Nehru and Patel from their pedestals without really addressing the above issue! For those of us quite confounded by the issue, I would recommend a meticulous and detailed analysis by Anil Nauriya, (a Supreme Court lawyer who has written earlier on this issue) in The Statesman.

And while we are on the subject of Jinnah, it might be interesting to see his views on the Khilafat cause, an issue where Gandhiji came under attack for taking a position on what was considered completely irrelevant to the Indian independence struggle. These accusations have most recently come from the RSS and in a classic case of the Devil quoting the scriptures (or perhaps here the other way around!) they quote Jinnah to prove the irrelevance of the Khilafat cause. These accusations are addressed in an article by Anil Nauriya in The Tribune.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Athens

Athens is not the oldest continuously populated city in the world. That distinction belongs to Damascus, Varanasi, Cholula or any other depending on who or what you consult. However the thing about Athens is that driving or walking around, you find stones, ruins, building, baths, temples strewn all around. You can't throw a stone without it hitting another from the 4th or 5th century B.C.E. Athens is chock-a-block with ruins (the other thing it is chock-a-block with is traffic).

The Temple of Zeus which started off as a Doric structure in the 5th century B.C. finally turned Corinthian with its fluted columns 700 years later. One wonders if local constructions companies in India took some tips on how to delay projects from the ancient Greeks.

There is little to be said of the Acropolis that hasn't already been said. Representing the pinnacle both literally and metaphorically of the ancient Western world it is a structure that diminishes everything else around.

There are beautiful views of the city of Athens from the top.

Just before reaching the top where stands the Parthenon, you pass the Theatre of Dionysus, the womb from which all theatre in the ancient Western world is believed to have originated. Plays by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes were performed here and it is still used for plays and concerts by famous artists.

What is more fascinating, though in a contemporary setting is the New Acropolis museum. Housing all the major finds -- statues, figurines, amphoras, clay tablets with paintings, coins found in excavations in and around Athens, everything that was not taken away by the British to their museums, the whole edifice is built over the in situ ruins of a Greek city dating variously from the 5th century B.C.E. to the 4th century C.E. The floor at ground level is made of glass allowing visitors a peek into this city, complete with the ruins of houses, walls, baths, temples and so on. It's a surreal and ultimately overwhelming feeling to be walking just above the ruins of a once flourishing culture.

Greece is a pleasant mix of the East and the West. It has the infrastructure of the Western world (well, almost) and yet, the people are warmer, friendlier, and just that little bit more chaotic than their Western and Northern European more individualistic cousins. I found them uniformly friendly and helpful, at least in my almost two-week long stay, though like many of our countries, taxi drivers try to fleece you as much as they can get away with. However, with Greece's headlong rush into the European community, I foresee that much that is intrinsic will change, and that will include substantially higher prices for tourists. This happened dramatically when they moved from the drachma to the euro and the trend will continue.

Update: All the Greece pictures are now here

Friday, September 11, 2009

Kanoni and Corfu Town

Kanoni, where we stayed is at the southern end of the town of Corfu. It has a beautiful view of the sea, the mountains and the Albanian coast can be glimpsed in the distance. It also has a view of the Monastery of Vlacherna and Mouse Island, a scene that in all travel brochures seem to symbolise Corfu.

Durrell enthusiasts (yes, this will be a recurring theme) will recall how Theodore Stephanides was fascinated by the seaplanes landing on water, every Thursday evening when he came for tea at the Durrells'. The seaplanes are long gone, but there is still the thrill of watching planes take off and land (many times in the day now) on the narrow strip of runway of Corfu airport that runs parallel along and at the edge of the coast that is clearly visible from Kanoni. The enormous jet liners of today sweep down, barely missing the water and touch down at the edge of the tarmac. Even today it's a fascinating sight.

Corfu Town is a mixture of many different styles, representing the different powers that occupied it over the centuries -- the Venetians, the French, the English -- and evolved around the Old Fortress around the 14th century, though the beginnings date from the fortified Byzantine site of Corfu around the 6th century. In order to protect the town and its harbour from the Ottoman Turks, a New Fortress was built in the 16th century by the Venetians. The area between these two fortresses comprises the old town of Corfu and is a beautiful place to walk, to wander and to sit in a cafe next to the water.

Like many Indian cities, Corfu Town has its own Esplanade or Spianada. shown above, built in the Italian Renaissance style.

Between the Esplanade and the Old Fortress, is a garden, a recreational place for Corfiots to walk and relax. This is called the 'Bosketto' and running alongside it, true to Corfu's British heritage, is a cricket ground. The Bosketto was renamed Bosketto Durrell in 2006 commemorating the brothers Gerald and Lawrence Durrell. There is a plaque on the gate with the inscription "Lawrence Durrell and Gerald Durrell writers and Philhellenes lived in Corfu 1935-1939", and inside are two bronze bas-relief busts of the two writers.

There is also a Durrell School of Corfu which according to its web page "seeks to provide a learning experience steeped in the culture and history of the Mediterranean, and drawing on the issues important to the Durrells". I wrote to them and received a polite reply from their administrative head, inviting me to visit them in town and meet their Director. Unfortunately, by the time I got the mail, I had already left Corfu.

We sat for a time in a cafe near the waterfront, facing the old fortress jutting out into the sea. As the sun went down behind the mountains the moon rose over the water, and the fortress turned to gold. Despite being so close to the bustling town nearby, for a moment it was possible to imagine the idyllic world of Gerry's childhood that, though long gone, is immortalised for his readers.

Tailpiece: For those who would like to read a short and somewhat more contemporary account of Durrell's life see here.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Achilleio

Corfu Island, unfortunately is best covered by car. The bus services either don't cover all the tiny little villages with secluded coves and beaches (immortalised by the Durrells) and ancient churches or are very infrequent. Thus my hopes of going in search of the Strawberry-Pink Villa, The Daffodil-Yellow villa or the Snow White villa were dashed.

We made a trip to Achilleio, a palace about 9 km from Corfu town, built at the end of the 19th century by the queen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Elisabeth, known also as Sissy, after whom the Sisi Palace is named. It's a typical palace of a minor royalty of Europe, with beautiful gardens, grand staircases and exquisitely painted ceilings, filled with kitsch inside and a profusion of statues outside. The most notable of these is a wonderfully realistic one of a mortally wounded Achilles trying to wrench the arrow out of his heel.

There is an interesting postscript to this history of the statue. When the German ruler William II, the second owner of the Achilleio took over, he was displeased at this effete image of a dying member of a true Aryan race. He ordered the statue to be removed to a less prominent location, and in its place erected an enormous bronze statue of a 'Triumphant Achilles' in full Teutonic glory, one that he felt was more appropriate as an image of the powerful German race. An inscription celebrating this sentiment was removed by the French during Word War I but the statue remains in its place.

The natural beauty of the island is everywhere, and even though I couldn't visit the places I really wanted to see, this place has a charm all its own.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Notes on Greece - first impressions

At the age of 13, I began reading Gerald Durrell. Since then, one of my abiding dreams has been to visit Corfu, memoralised in that minor classic "My Family and other animals". And so it came to pass that some three decades later, I finally did. The first thing that strikes you on reaching Athens's Eleftherios Venizelos airport (what a dramatic name - though it just the name of a local politician) is seeing the Greek alphabet not in an equation but in actual writing. It also means you can read what is written though you may not understand what it says (unless it's a known thing - like, say, McDonalds...). Corfu airport (which only has signs that say Kerkyra leading me to suspect for a moment that I had taken the wrong flight! ) divvies up the luggage of people coming from EU and non EU countries. Thus, even though I came through Athens, my luggage (which was checked in direct from Chennai) landed up on the international carousel. Since I couldn't find this place, I asked a worker in the airport who shook his head, said 'no English' and then said haltingly "Urdu, 'indi? ". It turned out he was an Afghan working in the airport who had picked up these two languages by watching Hindi movies. He was so pleased to make my acquaintance that he helped me find my luggage, insisted on taking it to the Taxi Stand and got into a fight with a taxi driver for serving some people further down the line, before me. I almost thought I had my Spiro....

The Corfu Holiday Palace is a resort hotel with a dream like location, overlooking the Southern coast of Corfu in an area called Kanoni, home of Theodore Stephanides. My room opened into a balcony that led to a garden which fell steeply down to the sea. (Being the 21st century, the hotel had installed a sloping elevator track to lift people directly up from the beach below to the hotel swimming pool! )

Corfu clearly has changed much since Durrell's days and one doesn't need to belong to Mensa to figure that one out. It's become a highly developed tourist destination, and I mean that in its purely pejorative sense. It's also been a traditionally popular destination for the British, and so most locals speak English. Whether this popularity is derived from Durrell's books or whether from the fact that Corfu was a British colony in the early years of the 20th century I am not certain -- perhaps the latter. The over-developed tourism was epitomised this morning by one of those hideous sights of toy trains that run along the roads in many cities in Europe, giving tourists (mostly American, Europeans prefer to walk) a 'walking tour' of the streets, without needing to use their legs. To make matters worse, this one in particular had a large red banner emblazoned with the words 'McDonalds'. I can't help thinking Gerry would have thought of his unspoilt paradise.

Corfu town is a bustling market town, with cars, public buses and those monstrous tourist buses (from which tourists in air conditioned comfort peer out to look at the local fauna), all jostling for space on narrow streets. To make matter worse, people parallel park on both sides of the roads, reducing the width of the streets even further.

This being Greece, one can't walk anywhere without stumbling across the ruins of a Temple of Artemis or say, a Temple of Hera from around the 4th century B.C.E. In fact, both of these can be seen along the route from the hotel to the conference centre at Mon Repos, a distance of little more than a kilometer. In addition there are numerous other ruins strewn around various places which are not even 'labelled'.

I will eventually put in some photos. Unfortunately I find that I have left the cable that connects my camera to the laptop (no, it's not standard mini-USB) at home. So enthusiastic visitors to this blog - sorry, but you will have to wait till I get back in a few days.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Edward Kennedy 1932 - 2009

"Born of privilege, and yet absorbed with the fate of those in need" -- The Nation.

"He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue" -- The New York Times.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Justice for whom?

The American and British Government are furious that the Scottish Government (is that an independent country?) have decided to release the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi (who actions killed 270 people in a transatlantic airliner), on compassionate grounds. He was released after spending 8 years in jail. One can understand the pain it must cause to the surviving relatives of those who died, particularly as it now turns out, the 'compassionate grounds' were actually linked to lucrative oil deals with Libya. The British and Scottish Governments are busy trying to blame each other for what has turned into a diplomatic fiasco.

Ethical issues such as these are notoriously difficult to settle. Moreover, in most cases, there is no objective solution. Coincidentally at the same time as this release, I noticed a small news item on BBC -- Vietnam massacre soldier 'sorry'. It goes on to say that the the US army officer convicted for his part in the notorious My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War has offered his first public apology. It reports "Calley, 66, was convicted on 22 counts of murder for the 1968 massacre of 500 men, women and children in Vietnam."

And here's the rub.

He was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings in 1971. Then-US President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence to three years' house arrest.
Three years house arrest? For killing 500 people? And now he says he is sorry. Nobody asked the relatives of those 500 killed how they felt. In most cases the massacre was complete -- there were no relatives left to grieve over the dead. The Charlie Company of the US Army made sure they did a complete job. And presumably with a war going on, these men, women and children killed were so much 'collateral damage'. (You can see the details here.)

This post does not want to point fingers either at the Americans, the British or the Libyans. Any death is a tragedy and when hundreds die in a brief apocalyptic moment, it leaves a permanent scar on public consciousness. We still remember the Lockerbie bombing, we still remember (those of us who are old enough) the My Lai massacre. But our reactions are modulated by the affinity we feel for those who have died.

That's human nature.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Apple Care

For sometime now, as most of my friends are aware, I have moved to Apple. My desktop is an Apple iMac, my laptop is a MacBook, my iPod is the Touch, and my car is also (well, ok, no, just getting carried away - it does have an Apple logo though :) ). I have never regretted this shift from Linux because it has given me all the functionalities of Linux, as well as the added luxury of being able to find drivers for peripherals, organise my music and photos (iTunes and iPhoto) and generally a smoother, hacking-free driving experience within the familiar Unix environment. (and with no viruses unlike Windows).

Recently however, my desktop developed a curious problem - I kept getting an error message about a USB port drawing too much current, even though all my ports worked fine. Normally in my earlier avatar, I would have called the local vendor who supplies us the CPU boxes (on which we install Linux or occasionally Windows) and asked him to figure out what was wrong under pain of being blacklisted for ever if he didn't! With Apple, life, I discovered, is different! Apple vendors and service centres do not attend to problems unless their mother ship (i.e the Apple call centre) instructs them to. So, hating the thought of interacting with a call centre, I called Apple Care (that's 1-800-425-0744 if anyone is interested). After the usual mandatory wait of a few minutes during which I was assured numerous times that my call was important for them, I got a human with an American accent. Even though the call centre is in India, Apple still feels the need to employ people who are trained to speak with a fake American accent. The human took me through a procedure to flush the PRAM (boot using Command-Option-P-R) which I did and which seemed to solve the problem.

Unfortunately it did not last. The problem recurred in a couple of days and I had to call the call centre again. Fortunately Apple keeps a full record of each case, so even though I got a fresh new human with a fresh new fake accent (this gentleman had enormous trouble keeping up the accent - I really felt for him and wanted to tell him to let go - I wouldn't think poorly of him, at least not on that count!) who, after consulting a faceless product engineer, declared that I had to do a) a Hardware Test (1 hour) and b) an Archive-Install which essentially boils down to reinstalling the O/S from the original DVD though it preserves the working environment (1 1/2 hours).

Having spent the better part of two hours on this, I found that the problem had not gone away and I was already dreading the next step. This, as I found out on my next call and next conversation with another American accented man, was to do an Erase-Install (you see I had already peeked at the appropriate 'Support' section of the manual). This, as you will have guessed, actually erases everything and re-installs the bare O/S - it other words you are returned to the factory-level defaults. Not a pleasant thought, when you think of all the work you would have to do to set up the system again including accounts, files, environment etc.

Mercifully, I have been using 'Time Machine' ever since I had Leopard and everything I read on the net indicated that Time Machine would restore the system to the state I had just before the 'Erase-Install' and what's more, do it automatically.

And that's exactly how it happened - after cleaning up the machine, and booting with the newly installed pristine version of the O/S it asked me whether I wanted to restore my files from Time Machine (which was an external hard disk which it detected while booting), and it did precisely that. It took a long time (I have no idea how long - I went home and came back the next day but probably something like 3 hours or more) but the machine seems back precisely at the point at which I killed it by erasing it's life-force :) .

So here is what I would tell those who want to use a Mac. You won't regret it -- however be warned that if anytime something goes wrong, you will have to fix it yourself, following instructions from the call centre (and they appear quite reliable though completely mechanical - any question out of the ordinary, like asking which directories would be affected foxes them completely - I don't think they even know what a directory is). Of course this is the system which is followed in the US and most other Western countries, but in India we are used to calling our friendly neighbourhood service centre and hand over the problem to them. This will not happen here, unless the system has totally died or is inoperable and actually needs opening up. You are expected to do things yourself, which other than the time involved is hardly a bad thing - it allows you to get to know your machine better!

As of now, the problem has vanished. However, I have been (finally!) promised a visit by a service engineer next week if the problem recurs.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Keep it Cool

This is a (part) solution to climate change that couldn't be more appropriate to India. In fact the idea is so simple that one wonders what took it so long to catch on.

Most Indians know, to their cost, that having a flat on the top floor means hot, stifling interiors. So what's the solution - a simple physics principle that a white or light coloured roof reflects more radiation than a dark one. In fact a white shiny plasticized cover is even better and this is what is being attempted from California to Dubai to New Delhi. White roofs reduce air conditioning costs by 20% and the consequent lower energy consumption has a direct bearing on global warming.

The numbers are almost unbelievable. Apparently turning all of the world’s roofs “light” over the next 20 years (easier said than done) could save the equivalent of 24 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions. That's the whole world's total emission in a year.

The only downside is that in cold climates, correspondingly heating bills would rise slightly. However, this is an irrelevant issue for tropical countries like India.

Of course there have been white tiled roofs in hot climates for a long time. The idea is to make this catch on all over the world.

Some more information is available here along with some links.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Total Solar Eclipse 22 July 2009

A total solar eclipse was visible in parts of central and northern India on 22nd July 2009. I went to the Harish Chandra Research Institute (HRI), Allahabad to see one for the first time in my life (and perhaps the last!) Even though Allahabad was not on the path of totality, HRI was, though members of the institute has arranged transport to go to the St. John's Academy, Karchhana on the outskirts of Allahabad where totality was to last longer, for about a minute and a half.

The bus to take us there was fixed for 4 AM to catch the start of the eclipse around day break. Needless to say, this being Allahabad, UP, the bus didn't show up. (Apparently it showed up an hour late, the driver had fallen asleep). Fortunately members of the institute took a spirited decision to commandeer the two institute buses and take them to the site. We reached well in time and were greeted by an enormous crowd of students, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, of all ages and all in their uniforms, who had been hoicked out of their beds at 4AM to prepare for the viewing and welcome us -- the 'distinguished guests' who tottered in still rubbing sleep from their eyes.

After a short lecture to explain the phenomena to the kids, we watched the sun go slowly behind, first the clouds, and then the moon. Fortunately the clouds dispersed soon enough and we had a beautiful viewing of the eclipse, the totality and the diamond ring. (No Bailey Beads though). Everyone, irrespective of their age - from 5 to 50 squealed in delight when darkness settled upon us at 6.30 in the morning. As a bonus, both Venus and Jupiter were clearly visible in the morning sky.

A memorable experience and a sight that few people get to see. And all for the purely accidental coincidence of the moon and the sun having almost the same angular diameter.

Some of the pictures I took are on my photos page. Note that there are two pages of photos. (Canon Rebel XT Digital SLR, Canon zoom at 450 mm (300mm 35m equivalent), mylar filter except at totality).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Children of the Space Age

Delhi in the 60s was the only city in India which had television broadcasts and that too for two hours everyday. And we were one of those fortunate families to own a TV. Consequently I recall vividly, grainy black and white pictures of Neil Armstrong and 'Buzz' Aldrin bouncing along on the moon surface with the Eagle in the background, 40 years to this day. It was a moment of great excitement. America was a distant and unknown land at which we looked with awe, at its advanced science and technology, that had managed the unbelievable feat of putting a man on the moon and bringing him safely back.

I can no longer recall when I first decided to do science. However, there is no question in my mind that it was the romance and excitement of the space age, the wonders that science and technology were capable of, that were largely responsible for my decision to make a career in science.

Yuri Gagarin was one of my boyhood heroes. (It didn't hurt that photos of him circulated by the Russian Cultural Centre made him look like a Greek God). Unfamiliar Russian names like Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, the dog Laika were household names in our family. (With animal rights activists far into the future, nobody thought of asking the obvious question - what happened to Laika?) Even my grandfather, a man born towards the closing years of the 19th century, would read me stories about the space faring nations - mainly the USSR, and then gradually the US. Thus, by the time Armstrong walked on the moon, 40 years ago (and fluffed his lines though we didn't know it then), we considered ourselves veterans of the space age. Armstrong and Aldrin's feat merely appeared to be the glorious culmination of an age of technological marvels. Most of us dreamed of being part of this romance of science and of technology, some went into engineering, I took the road to a scientific career.

We, of our generation, are truly children of the space age.

See the full sequence of clips at the New York Times

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What defines Chennai? What defines India?

Deep questions ... but a simple story ... In a recent stroll through Nishat Bagh in Srinagar, we came across a family with a small child wearing traditional pahadi clothes. While asking her grandfather if I could take her picture, we got to talking -- he told me they were visiting from Kargil and how he had had to abandon his house and village and flee when the Pakistanis started shelling his village ten years ago. पाकिस्तान कभी अमन नहीं चाहती was his conclusion. It was just in the last 3 years that he had started rebuilding his house and his life there.

He asked me where we were from. Finding out that we were from Chennai, his face lit up and he looked like he would hug me there and then. "You are from Dhoni's city! He is my favourite cricketer, and Chennai Super Kings is my favourite team". I tried to gently remind him that Dhoni was not quite from Chennai, but he waved it aside as an irrelevant detail. For him Chennai was Dhoni and Dhoni was Chennai.

What a strange country we live...and strange are the things that unite us -- cricket? Bollywood? food? perhaps all of these and some more...and I will have something to say about the last in a future post.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Trip to the Valley

Despite much well-intentioned advice, we took a vacation recently in Kashmir. We reached Srinagar on a somewhat warm Sunday afternoon. Srinagar, on first impression, shows few signs of having borne the brunt of the militancy ridden years. The roads are wide, and pot-hole free, with well-proportioned sidewalks (Chennai Corporation, are you listening?) the traffic, like in the rest of India is noisy and bumper to bumper with those pesky SUVs, and tourism is booming again, and particularly now in the Amarnath Yatra season.

Most locals claimed that militancy was now non-existent and most of the violence one reads about are internecine wars between different political groups, trying to create trouble for their opponents (with the separatists trying to muddy the waters even further). There is much truth in these statements as we were to find out. "Kashmir is peaceful" declared Majid-Bhai our houseboat caretaker, and indeed, taking a stroll or shikara ride on Dal Lake, watching other shikaras glide peacefully by, (the peace only shattered by noisy pot-bellied Indian tourists talking loudly to each other or on their mobiles), tourists practicing water skiing, the mountains in the distance, the floating vegetable gardens, India's brutal "war on terror" seems to be happening on a different planet. And yet violence lurks just under the surface, as we discovered. The locals are very friendly as I recall from my visit a quarter century ago, with no hostility, at least visibly, towards India or Indians. People are happy that tourism is picking up and they are able to make a decent living. Srinagar is clearly in much better shape that almost any U.P. town that I have passed through, none of which have known the kind of violence Srinagar has.

The next day we took a long drive to Sonemarg, along mountain roads bordering the river Sindh. The highways are maintained by the army and Border Roads Organisation which meant that they were in excellent condition. One sees frequent outposts of CRPF men carrying automatic rifles but there are no invasive and frequent checks as was the case in the past during the worst years of militancy. We took a pony ride all the way up to the Thajiwas glacier, at the snow line where large numbers of Indian families were trying ineffectually to sled down the snowy slopes.

And so to Gulmarg next day, and up the cable car which takes you up, first to the lower stopping point at Kongdoor at 2699 m and thence (which we did not take) to 3099 m, claimed to be the highest point in the world by cable car.

And then it happened. Next day we had taken the National Highway from Srinagar to Pahalgam, (passing through the beautiful "Green Tunnel") where we intended to stay for a day.

On reaching Pahalgam, we discovered that Srinagar had been 'convulsed' by riots. Our TV channels, never one to let an opportunity go, talked about riots in Srinagar, Kashmir in flames, each account getting more lurid than the next. It was an oft-repeated story. A young boy had been found murdered with severe wounds all over his body. The locals blamed the police for the murder, the police claimed it was a case of kidnapping and murder by persons unknown. The locality had come out in force, there was stone-throwing, burning of a police vehicle but no lethal weapons were used. The J&K police force, which draws its cadre from the ranks of the local populace, has earned the dubious distinction of being as hated and reviled as the 'external' CRPF and the army. There are frequent accusations against them of custodial deaths, torture and rape, as much as against the CRPF.

Pahalgam is a beautiful hill station through which the River Lidder passes. It's a place where one can go for long walks or treks through wooded forests or drive up to the Chandanwadi glacier, or river rafting on the Lidder. Our stay was a trifle spoilt by the worry of having to return to Srinagar in the middle of all these problems. However our driver assured us that this was a daily occurrence in Srinagar and there was nothing to worry. And indeed, so it turned out! We made it back without incident and saw no signs of trouble either outside or even within the city. And in fact we spent the rest of the day wandering through the Mughal gardens along with numerous other tourists from all over, milling around the tourist spots. The only sign of trouble was that all shops were closed. It's only after we returned that we saw this headline which told us that something was amiss.

So this is how it goes, as explained to us by our driver. All the demonstrations and stone throwing happens in the Lal Chowk, Civil Lines and downtown areas. The typical tourist hotspots in and around Dal Lake and Mughal Gardens are usually trouble free and normal, except for downed shutters. Thus, while tourism does take a bit of a hit and there is loss of business when shops are closed, life goes on. The separatists and opposition political parties have figured that disrupting the lucrative tourist business does not win them any plaudits from the local people and have therefore perhaps hit upon this solution! Moreover the days of truly violent demonstrations with separatists coming out on the streets waving machine guns and shouting Azadi seem to be over. The problem now appears to be a purely local one between the different bit players in the valley, with perhaps covert but no overt involvement of external forces. There is a general feeling of hope in the valley, at least from what we could gather from talking to the local people (unless they were all having us on, which I doubt).

A word about Azadi and this is my own two paise worth. India's serious bungling of the Kashmir issue coupled with human rights violations by paramilitary and military forces particularly in the hinterland has (or had) made Azadi a romantic concept for many Kashmiris who felt rightly that they had no future in India. However, looking at it purely pragmatically, shorn of all jingoism and political considerations, I am not quite sure how it would work economically. As an independent entity, Kashmir, a land-locked country which is not self-sufficient, would be surrounded by two hostile neighbours, neither of whom would be particularly well-disposed towards giving it favoured nation status. Tourism, its mainstay would take a severe hit. All the Indians who are now flocking to it in droves again, would hesitate if it involved passports and visas and all that, even if there were simple procedures (how many people visit Bhutan?). Thus, economically Kashmir would suffer if it were independent, since the Central source of funds (of which there is a lot, leading to much heartburn and resentment in Jammu) would dry up and it's not clear that Pakistan would be able to, or even want to make up the deficit. All in all, Azadi does not quite appear to be a viable proposition. Joining Pakistan? Well, perhaps, but then the Taliban are not too far off....

Update: Some more pictures are available at my photo gallery on my home page.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Article 377 and the usual flip flop

After last Sunday's gay and lesbian parades in major cities in India (including our very own conservative Chennai, where I was heartened to find that women in the parade actually didn't mind posing for photographs), a couple of newspapers including the Times of India went to town proclaiming that the Government was all set to repeal the ridiculous and anachronistic Section 377 of the IPC which makes sex between two consenting adults of the same sex a criminal act. It almost appeared as if it would happen any moment now, perhaps within the very next session of Parliament.

'It could not last, the Devil howling Ho!'. By today, some ministers were furiously back pedalling, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Veerappan Moily both calling for building a consensus, another word for infinite procrastination. Meanwhile, a cleric from the Deoband Islamic seminary has denounced the move to repeal the act (claiming it to be against the Sharia), and it's only a matter of time before some Shankaracharya from some Math, or some archbishop from a major city cathedral also add their voices to the obscurantist clamour. There is even talk of religious groups getting together to oppose this movement. It's almost comforting to see how predictably, religions provide a strong bulwark against change, and the perpetuation of the old order. The same groups, whose extremist elements often go round killing each other, are now willing to get together to oppose any hint of progressive action. And our weak-kneed politicians are only too happy to allow the status quo to continue.

One misses the presence of a person of the stature of Jawaharlal Nehru. Pandit Nehru was a well know waffler in many matters but against virulent opposition from his own MPs and the President of the country, Nehru literally barelled through the Hindu Code Bill which included in its ambit the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), Hindu Succession Act (1956), Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956), and Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956). (Alas, he failed to do anything similar for other religions, being overly sensitive to the fact that he had to be particularly careful with minority groups, and with perhaps some justification).

One cannot guess how Nehru would have reacted to the present case, being a product of the early part of the 20th century, but his descendants, who are in power and who never fail to remind us of the grand legacy of the Gandhi-Nehru family, would do well to take a leaf out of their most distinguished forbear in cleaning our legal system of some of the most retrograde remnants of the Raj.

Correction: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code does not mention homosexuality explicitly - it considers "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" whatever that might be, a criminal act. Perhaps it's the vagueness of this statement which has prevented over enthusiastic law enforcement officials from harassing gay and lesbian people. But the very wording of this Section is an absurdity in this day and age.

Update: Delhi High Court legalises gay sex

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Hindu's howler ! And how!

Or is it K. Natwar Singh's? I suspect it's a bit of both but before you figure out what I am talking about, you need to read this Opinion piece by a member of the Hindu's stable of writers, K. Natwar Singh.

Natwar Singh talks of Ayatollah Khomeini in the present tense, suggesting that he is still the Supreme Leader (and with his inveterate habit of name dropping, how he met the 'great man' in New Delhi and Harare). Last I heard, Ayatollah (Ruhollah) Khomeini the leader of the famous Islamic Revolution of 1979 has been consorting with the houris for quite some time now. Presumably therefore (and in view of the persistent present tense) Mr Singh is talking of the present Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei whom he could well have met in Delhi and Harare as leader of the Iran delegation.

To compound the confusion the picture accompanying the article is that of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (the original, so to speak), presumably placed there by the Hindu's sub-editors. When incompetence meets the bush-league, the results are obviously disastrous.

I only hope that our Government is better informed about Supreme Leaders than former members of our foreign service.

Update: The Hindu has provided a correction today (and sent me a letter yesterday pointng to this). But it has a mysterious statement which says "The third, 16th and 17th paragraphs also referred to the Ayatollah in the present tense, leaving many readers confused." Excuse me but the readers were not confused, it was their distinguished columnist who was. In fact it could well have been the present Supreme Leader Khamenei, see Rahul Siddharthan's update. Most confusing...why doesn't Natwar Singh just retire gracefully?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Binayak Sen and Gandhi

A grave miscarriage of justice by the Chattisgarh Government was recently overturned by the Supreme Court of India when they ordered the release of Dr. Binayak Sen on bail after two years of incarceration without even a hearing.

Notwithstanding the fact that his long incarceration was a blatantly illegal act of the Chattisgarh Government, I must confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Dr Sen and his pronouncements. His claim to fame seemed to arise more from this illegal act of the Government than from anything he had done which was exceptional - other than being a good doctor serving the poor and needy in these under developed regions of the country and as a human rights activist. (There are many others who would score higher on that count). Recently Binayak Sen gave an interview to Tehelka magazine. The interview is notable for being fairly balanced and non controversial. However, one particular phrase struck me very forcefully. He says he is averse to violence and then immediately adds as a rider that this aversion does not stem from being a "Gandhi romantic (I’ve always been slightly repelled by his bania personality)" . (My emphasis).

Now, I think it is fair to say that the Mahatma was no saint (he never claimed to be one). There were too many unsaintly facets to his character -- his autocratic methods in getting his way in the Congress, his behaviour towards his family, his quirky and eccentric views on sex and celibacy, his extreme views on prohibition...one could go on. Even his most devoted disciple Jawaharlal Nehru chose not to follow all his diktats in independent India. But to call his personality repellent is clearly, in my opinion going overboard, and that too, not for any of the reasons above but for being a bania (a pejorative caste description), shows a somewhat unprepossessing side to Binayak Sen's personality. I am particularly disturbed by this because in the past I have heard some of my CPI(M) friends also describe the Mahatma as 'that bania'.

I do not wish to read more than necessary into what was presumably a casual remark, and he could well have been 'misquoted' or 'quoted out of context'. However, even Binayak Sen's admirers will admit that it does not leave one with a very pleasant taste in the mouth.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Urinals in Schiphol

Warning: This post is not for those who have Victorian mores of propriety

Recently I passed through Dharavi...oops! sorry, I meant Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Contrary to what you may have heard, it's a perfectly modern and sparkling airport, with one difference, from all others. Every urinal has an image of a fly etched into it, near the outlet. All nit-pickers will now want to know whether I went and checked all of them. Well, no, but I did actually check a few, (hopefully when nobody was looking) and indeed they all had it.

Of course, as it turned out, this is not new. The net, as I have found with many other things, even has pictures of these. (Did you check out the site name?) The idea being, in case you haven't guessed it, that it psychologically works to improve the, er, aim. (Or simply put - if a man sees a fly, he aims at it). Authorities at Schiphol claim that the flies etched on the urinals "saves us a lot of money on cleaning" and reduces "spillage" by 80%. I would take the percentages with a grain of salt, but there you have it.

As one of my colleagues recently reminded me, in college we used to have signs which said, "We aim to please, You aim, too". This is merely the graphical version of this admonition.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Name Boards in Tamil !

A recent news item in the Times of India reports that "The Labour department will strictly enforce the rule that names of shops and commercial establishments in the state should be displayed predominantly in Tamil, labour minister T M Anbarasan has said. If traders want other languages on display, then it should be Tamil first, followed by English and an optional language."

So why is this news and why this post? Well, it isn't actually. The Hindu has ignored this news item altogether. Most name boards in TN and in Chennai are in two languages, Tamil and English and the labour department is just reiterating a rule that has always existed and has mostly been followed. Even well known American brand outlets like Levi's, Lee, McDonald, KFC take the trouble to transcribe their names in the Tamil script on their boards. It is taken as the natural order of things that signs and name boards should be in the local language, in addition to perhaps another 'link' language. There has been no hand wringing by non Tamilians about chauvinism, no heart wrenching blog posts have appeared about how the culture of the place is being destroyed by local language and culture chauvinism, in other words, it's a non event.

How refreshingly different from Mumbai! Here is an example. All over a name. And here is another. All over a script and the local language.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Suriname food

Recently, I had my first taste of Suriname food, not in Suriname regrettably, but, as you might guess, in Amsterdam.

Suriname for those of you who didn't major in geography, is a small country in Northern South America. The majority of its population, around 37%, is of East Indian origin (Bihar and Eastern UP) and a majority of the Surinamese who migrated to Holland after Suriname became independent, are of this stock (more than 320,000 as of 2005). As a result Surinamese food, which is only second in popularity to Indonesian food in the Netherlands, is heavily influenced by Indian cuisine - in fact to a certain extent it is Indian food. The Surinamese are very well assimilated into Dutch society (unlike, for example, the Moroccans) and many players in the Dutch soccer team are proud of their Surinamese origins.

The most popular are the Roti platters. which are served with a couple of vegetables (say potato and string beans) and a meat dish, made somewhat in the Indian restaurant style of a fairly spicy and oily masala gravy. The roti is like the Indian one but the ones I had were more like the large and thin Roomali roti, made more like a paratha in oil rather than on a dry tawa. Suriname food has dishes also made of Cassava, owing their existence to the African origins of many Surinamese, but these are less popular than the Indian ones. The food is somewhat rough and ready, not in the nature of the more sophisticated Indonesian restaurants, but it's popular with the locals, the white Dutch as well as Africans, Indians and other ethnic minorities. Interestingly, they provide no cutlery and you are expected to eat with your fingers, scooping up the food with a piece of roti. Predictably, and unlike any European restaurant, there is a sink in the dining area to wash your hand and rinse your mouth.

I have met Surinamese earlier too, in the Netherlands, in buses and trams. They all speak a kind of formalised Hindi at home (learnt from their elders and from Hindi textbooks that are still imported from India and completely comprehensible -- not a pidgin variety). This is remarkable considering that they are all descendants of Indians from UP and Bihar dating from the late 19th century imported as contract labourers. (Some of this migration is described in Amitav Ghosh's recent book Sea of Poppies). In fact the Surinamese of Indian origin in Holland speak Dutch and Hindi as their main languages, and only the well educated speak English. Most of them have never been to India since they obviously have no contacts after almost 150 years. One of the tell-tale signs of their Bihari and generally Eastern Indian origins is something called Phulauri -- similar to the Indian Chatu. Chatu is a very heavy patty made from boiled and mashed yellow split pea, popular in Bihar and amongst the very poor in Eastern India (rickshaw pullers in Kolkata live mainly on chatu - it's cheap and gives then a burst of energy that they need for their back-breaking job). As far as I know, it doesn't exist anywhere outside that belt.

Overall, an interesting sociological and culinary experience. The world is indeed, to use a cliche, such a small place.