Friday, January 29, 2010

God, Haiti, Robertson and all that

If you thought Pat Robertson was over the top (as always) believing the Haitians deserved the earthquake for their pact with the devil, think again. Dawkins in fact thinks that Robertson, if anything, is truer to the Christian faith and theological traditions than all the 'moderate' theologians, priests, preachers and others who are trying to disown him. Classic Dawkins' fire and brimstone. Love it....

Where would Hinduism stand on this....I guess you are just reborn as a cockroach for your sins rather than flattened by an earthquake. Wonder which is worse....

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jyoti Basu -- a mixed legacy

Most newspapers and not just the Hindu have gone overboard in the coverage of Jyoti Basu's life and times, stressing mostly the positive features of his years as Chief Minister. Mr Basu's legacy is clearly mixed. After the initial years of land reforms and Panchayati Raj, the CPI(M) and Mr. Basu seemed to have lost their bearings allowing Bengal to fall into a morass, from which even today it finds it difficult to escape. Industry fled as trade unions became all powerful, infrastructure collapsed, the education system was not just politicised, it took a major hit with the decision to teach only Bengali (resulting in large numbers of students unable to function in a real and active world outside Bengal where Bengali would lead them nowhere). The poor work culture of Bengal today is another legacy of Mr. Basu's years as a Chief Minister. Three articles which try to present another side to his legacy, one very different from the hagiographical sketches that have appeared in the mainstream press:

As a recent settler in Kolkata told me -- Jyoti Babu had competence but no vision, Buddha has vision but no competence, the future Chief Minister has neither -- that is the tragedy of Bengal!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fond memories of a no longer popular writer

I recently chanced upon an article on the English children's writer Enid Blyton, by Amy Rosenberg. And suddenly the floodgates opened and I felt myself scrolling through my childhood years with Blyton. And along with them came memories of the years of growing up in Delhi, my family and friends from school and my vivid memories of devouring Blyton's books, so much so, that my parents warned me they couldn't possibly afford to buy books at that rate. But buy them they did gradually filling up all the space available on my bookhelf. In those days Enid Blyton was available in Armada Paperbacks which would barely last one reading. My father would help me stitch them together again so that I could read them a second time which I frequently did when I didn't have a new one to start on. And I had them with me for well over 30 years till we needed to move them to Chennai and they proved too much for our small Chennai flat.

My childhood memories date from my nursery and kindergarten years and as far back as I remember, my reading habits began with Blyton and her Noddy books, graduating from there to the Famous Five, The Find Outers, the Adventure stories, St. Claire and Mallory Towers (the last two were girl school stories but were devoured equally by boys and girls) to fairy stories involving wizards, fairies and goblins. Not only did the kids in them have a whale of a time, they ate what to me seemed like scrumptious food - scones, toasted muffins, potted meat sandwiches, ham and eggs. It helped of course that I didn't really know about any of these but those kids had so much fun eating. By the time of my senior years in high school I had moved to another fictitious British world -- that of Wodehouse and also of Dickens and many others. But my years of Blyton have always seemed special -- perhaps because it is where I picked up a love of books and a love for reading.

Enid Blyton's reputation, has, in the recent more complicated politically correct world, fallen on hard times. She has been accused of racism (think gollywogs), class consciousness (an unfair charge since most of the kids in her stories belonged squarely in the middle class and often reflected the difficult post war years in Britain), a bias against foreigners (Frank Richards shared this trait with her, a fact for which Orwell once chided him in one of his columns only to have the wind taken out of his sails by being told by Richards that foreigners are funny -- as in weird! ). The present generation has no use for her and her books, while still available, don't sell anywhere like they used to a couple of decades ago. Her books have been psychoanalyzed to death, mostly to their detriment and overall, she no longer has the same fan following.

But for a child growing up in Delhi in the 60s, with the British having left barely 20 years earlier, the terrific adventures of a bunch of spunky kids from the mother country, with no adults to supervise them, were just plain fun and I couldn't get enough of them. And I think this was true of many children of my generation, growing up in a similar milieu.

I can see many of my colleagues, and, I dare say, friends curling their upper lip, sneering at such juvenile reading habits. For them, Reading is for Improving the Mind and Expanding ones' Horizons. Thus they Read Socio-Political History of the Indian Ocean Islands or Contemporary Relevance of Aurobindo Ghosh, or Human Development and the Structure of Language. But while we have all moved on from Blyton to Dickens and thereafter to Marquez and Rushdie all the way to the Ishiguros and Murakamis, the habit of reading and the love of books I owe to a bunch of five plucky kids and a dog who set out with their picnic hamper to solve yet another mystery or get involved in yet another adventure in a far off island.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Partial Solar Eclipse Chennai 15.1.10

On Earth

as it is in Heaven

(Part credit to Sanatan Digal and Vani Vemparala).

Many more here and here.

Nice little haul -- a Total Solar Eclipse in July 2009 and a Partial one in January 2010.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Auto drivers and honesty

Living in Chennai one tends to forget that auto drivers and (dis)honesty are not in any way related. Though I have a theory of natural selection which says that auto drivers in Chennai have been over charging for so long that successive generations with specimens who could have been honest could not possibly survive and have got naturally weeded out along with their 'honesty' genes. This kind of genetic selection can of course be social rather than literal.

The unique perfidy of Chennai auto drivers was brought back to me forcefully by two incidents during my recent travels. In Pune I took an auto rickshaw back from Sancheti hospital. At the destination, the driver kept staring at his meter card (in Pune the meter reading needs to be converted to money units) and after some hesitation asked me how much I had paid on the way out. I told him it was Rs. 24 whereupon he said his meter was showing Rs 45 which he noticed was way too high for this distance. Of course in one place he had had to take a detour from the way in because of a one-way street, so we agreed to Rs. 30 and he was very happy.

In Ahmedabad, again recently, I was taking an auto rickshaw to the Physical Research Laboratory and wasn't sure of the way. The driver told me he would prefer if I gave directions, though he could find his way by asking people. However, in that case there was the danger that he wouldn't be taking the shortest route and I would end up paying more than the standard amount. Finally he did find his way and the fare was approximately what it would have been anyway via the shortest route.

In the two decades or so I have been in Chennai, I have encountered exactly two honest auto drivers (yes, two) by which I mean they agreed to go by the meter. This is of course no longer possible since meters have not been calibrated in a long while and most of them don't work anyway. A distance of about a kilometer typically costs anything between Rs. 25-30 which must surely count among the most expensive for this mode of transport. In a gesture of abject helplessness, the police here have now decided that auto rickshaw drivers who recalibrate their meters and use them honestly will carry a red (or was it green) label to signify their existence, in the fond hope that it will shame the others into following suit. How 'fond' can hope be?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Back to the Blog and a Step well

A trip through parts of North India, covering Shimla and Delhi followed by Pune, and then again to Ahmedabad over the last month, coupled with flaky internet connectivity in most of these places has meant a long break from blogging. In any case, I have blogged already about Shimla and the Indian Institute of Advanced Study and there was nothing about Delhi and Humayun's Tomb and Qutb Minar (as part of a guided tour of Delhi that I took some colleagues on) that I could say which had not already been said before. Many of these sites have now become World Heritage Sites which means they are far better preserved and presented than earlier when I was growing up in Delhi. A repeat visit to these sites, if you haven't seen then recently, is worth the time and effort.

This post is therefore about something that is unfamiliar to most Indians except those who have visited and toured Gujarat since it is unique to that part of the country. Temples, mosques, mausoleums, forts are a dime a dozen in India, of every possible variety and ethnicity. However Step Wells or Vav (Baoli in Hindi) are almost unique to Gujarat (very few exist elsewhere) and are an interesting concept.

Step wells are deep tanks that reach down upto the level of the water in the ground, with stairwells to allow people to descend to the bottom of the well. Unlike an ordinary tank, step wells can be of great architectural significance with very complex architectural structures and carvings in the walls leading down to the water table below. It's common is Western India (mainly in Gujarat) but apparently also exist in Pakistan and is typical of dry and arid environments. It allowed the local populace to come down to the level of the water table and complete their washing and bathing rather than exert themselves to lift the water all the way to the top from such great depths.

One of the grandest of the step wells (and which we saw this time) is Rani ki Vav in Patan in Gujarat. This was constructed by Udaymati, queen of Raja Bhimdeva (of the Solanki dynasty) in the 11th century C. E. This is a massive structure 64m by 20m and is 27m deep constructed in a pillared multi storeyed form. The walls are adorned with beautiful sculptures depicting figures from Indian mythology -- the various avatars of Vishnu and other gods, like Ganesha, Surya and Kuber and numerou females figurines in the pose of apsaras and yoginis. It's one of the largest step wells of its kind in India and preserved remarkably well for all its 1000 year history, with not a little help I suppose from the Archaeological Survey of India.

The Adalaj ni Vav at Adalaj near Ahmedabad is another beautiful step well we visited. While much smaller in size that the grand Rani ni Vav it is nonetheless noted for its structure and carvings which are very intricate.