Saturday, December 18, 2010

Embracing Plurality

NOTE : This post was written during the height of the ground zero mosque controversy.

Proponents of Park51 are at pains to expla­­in that the people planning the mosque are very different from those who attacked the world trade center. Once the difference is acknowledged, it should no longer irk the sensitivities of those who suffered from the attack, they hope.

In a previous Op-Ed in the New York Times, William Darlymple describes how Islam, like Christianity has many sects. He also writes:

"Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith."

That the majority of Americans are able to discern the many forms of Christianity, but are blind to those of Islam, must not be dismissed as bigotry. Nor must it be taken as evidence of hypocrisy, or taken to the extreme conclusion that they are not truly secular. Why then, are Americans not able to see these parallels? The reason is likely far less sinister.

It comes down to the way the brain works. It is with experience with members of a category, that we are able to identify differences. Bird lovers readily distinguish ravens and crows while the novice sees them all as black birds. Car experts will identify two models of a car in no more than a glimpse. When we attempt spot-the-differences puzzles, it is not until we look at the pictures long enough, not until our brains have extracted enough information that the differences become apparent; sometimes embarrassingly obvious. Parents of identical twins are often asked if they get confused and almost always the answer is no. Such an ability is not born out of love or a special parental bond. It is simply that constant exposure to these kids has allowed the brain to sample the visual information repeatedly. Parents develop a sophisticated perceptual ability to identify their twins- one that is sensitive to nuance and subtle differences. With experience, we become acutely aware of deeper levels of categorization and are able to identify individuals of a broad category.

Known as the other-race effect, psychologists have long documented the finding that we’re consistently better at distinguishing those of our own race than those of others. With the other-race-effect too, the more the interaction with people from another race, the less similar other-race members will appear. Categorizing people according to the somewhat more abstract basis of religious identity may very well happen the same way. The majority of Americans may be unable to distinguish Muslims of different sects for the simple reason that they are less likely to have mingled with enough people from a minority population and are therefore naïve to the differences among various Muslim ideologies. Minorities of all nations suffer from the same problems in attitude. They’re seen and treated similarly. It should therefore not be surprising that many Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of Park51.

The Taliban and the extremists they support are under the same influence of neural processes. They too lump all of the West in one huge category and label them as evil. The Taliban regime’s vehement insistence on insularity only makes it harder for them to understand Western heterogeneity, and has further justified their passions for terrorism.

Then what are Americans (or anyone) to do?

Thankfully , it is one thing to treat people from an unfamiliar religion as the same because we’re not able to tell them apart. It is another matter, entirely , to pretend that the diversity is non-existent. It is this difference in conscious treatment that should set apart great American Leaders from the Taliban Leaders .

In their lifetimes, most Americans aren't going to be able to live in the several Muslim countries, mingle with people from various sects , to learn to tell them apart. But it does not take much effort to endorse that differences exist even if they are not instinctively sensitized to them.

William Dalrymple, in his Op-Ed succeeds in explaining that the ideology of the Sufi sect of the Cordoba Initiative is in fact at odds with that of the Wahhabi sect of the Talibam. It is a difference one should be mindful of. It can be argued again that not all people of the Sufi sect are similar and not all people of the Wahhabi sect are similar. That too, is well worth taking note of .

Maybe battles are best fought between two individuals instead of groups of stereotypes. Borders, labeling, classification and identity after all sprung from a need for convenience; not for settling matters of life and death. To fall prey to the appeals of broad labels, to treat everyone as a particle of a homogenous moiety is the tactic of the shrewd politician. To cultivate an appreciation for differences is to embrace a layered, fine-grained plurality and is the stamp of a responsible leader.

Monday, November 15, 2010


I am an only child. I have zero brothers and zero sisters . There comes a time when you’ve been acquainted with someone for a significant amount of time when they will ask you how many siblings you have. And I have always wondered what anyone hopes to learn about me by the number and variety of siblings I have. Why are they so curious about precisely one half of my genetic make-up (nothing more, nothing less). And which part is it ? Are they curious about the part of me that’s the same as my siblings, or the part of me that’s not. I find that entire line of questioning mildly offensive.

A kid, I suppose, is interested in whether I have lots of fights and/or boardgames and whether it would be fun to play with me. As a tween, teen or adolescent, I imagine they’re interested in dating my heretofore unknown kin ? As an adult, I suppose they’re largely interested in psychobabble. They feel compelled to know if I was pampered, do I know how to share, am I selfish, did I grow up not knowing what to do with all the time I had on my hands ? They always proceed to tell me whether they had always suspected it. And they're always jubilant whether or not they suspected. "Hey I could totally tell!" or "Really! You don't say!". They promptly proceed to compare me to other people they know who are only kids too. And I never know what I should do with this new information on my hands. Start an only-kids anonymous club (where we'll teach other the 12 steps of adopting each other as siblings)? I’ve never seen anyone say “oh I know x yz. S/he has 1 brother and 2 sisters too”. And often I sense a dilemma – are they to take pity on me for never having had the joys of siblinghood, are they to be mean to me so as to offset the ills of pampering, are they to feel envious of me that I never had to put up with hand-me-downs or fight for the TV remote ?

Apparently, I, and others of my kind are specimens. Outliers in nature’s need to procreate jointly and severally and profusely. So I shall present the requested psychoanalysis as well. For the record, almost all of my cousins are only kids themselves. And apart from the general trend that the females among us are more troublesome than the males, I can see no other marked similarity. As for am I pampered – I wouldn’t know. Present to me a control case, where all other things are held equal, and the only difference is a couple of siblings, and fully define “pampering”. I could then tell you if I was pampered. Am I selfish ? This whole post is about me and my assumed “uniqueness”. In what way can I answer that question and not sound either self-effacing or vain ? Do I know how to share ? I am always willing to partake of anything you have to offer.

And finally, did I grow up not knowing what to do with all the time I had on my hands ? As an indirect way of answering that question – I was one of those people that learnt to tell the time quite late. I hid my face behind digital watches before I made the switch to analog for a very long time. I imagine that if I were completely bored to death, waiting, waiting, for time to move, I would’ve learnt to read clocks sooner than most other kids my age. I must have found something else to do ( in fact, a lot of other things to do).

The one word that I have managed to remember from German class is “einzelkind”. Thanks to the language’s love for compound words, “only child” is unified into a single concept. Einzelkind defines me by what I am rather than what I did not have. I am all of my DNA. And I'd love to share ALL of it.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mostly water !!!

On Aug 1st this year, I took up a resolution to eat only home-cooked food. I came to the disconcerting realization that having decided that all of vegetarianism in the US was either leaves, or cheese, I was constantly picking cheese. In turn, my body, totally supportive of that decision, had decided to store it. If my sins got carried over to my next several births, I’d be staring at several interesting possibilities including being a fat bird incapable of flying, a fat snail, which when stamped would result in an overmuch of putrid squish, a fat ant incapable of carrying over hundred times its weight, or a fat leaf leaving its eating to be very undesired. I wish I could post snapshots of my imagined rebirths but I try to keep my posts G rated. Kids and their PB&J sandwiches are welcome!

So I resolved to turn a new (leaf?). Having taken such a resolution, I came to my senses rather quickly. A fat leaf ? Na! I know my biology. Leaves don’t have adipose tissues. I’m saved! And of course, I faltered several times and broke my resolve more than once. I even made the untimely discovery that Panera Bread will serve you sandwiches without the meat. No more of just Mediterranean veggie sandwich ? Hurrah to even varieties of cheese between slices of bread. Down goes my resolution.

Be assured, absolutely nothing on the weighing scale went down. So my real strict resolution is going to start again on September 1st. I shall be including potatoes in my diet now. Potatoes, not being leaves or cheese will give me more variety and are in great abundance in the US of A. (God! I sure hope I am kidding.)
Meanwhile, all I can think of now is real vegetarian food. Indian food. I mean food served on plantain leaves during weddings. I used to detest the entire unholy mess and all the rasam dripping hands and the annoying way in which the servers get stingy with the banana chips and the even more creepy chunks of pumpkin. The wedding-food Gods (there must be one ?) are clearly having their sweet revenge. Would that I could go back to one of those weddings and eat the pumpkin sambar.

And then my mind drifted several times to Shatabdi express’s food. I haven’t been on the Shatabdi often enough. My mom never believed in wasting precious daylight time in a train unless absolutely necessary. It was always madras mail. Board at 10:40 in Bangalore. Land in Chennai at 4:30 am in the morning (by which time the entire city seemed like it was sitting down for lunch. Those guys start their days much earlier compared to Bangalore). And Shatabdi’s food, even back in India, where all kinds of sumptuous vegetarian food was available, was delectable. I have a particular fancy for anything train and train station related (except the restrooms of course!). And now, I am fully convinced that Shatabdi’s food is a cuisine in its own good. So of course, I had to know everything there is to know about Shatabdi food. Who decided to start it ? Who decided the menu? Does that minister or the civil service official have a statue yet ? Could he be coaxed into becoming prime minister? Is the Indian government generous with its budget for Shatabdi food ? Is the catering company up for IPO soon ?

And it was in this delirious mood that I went to Wikipedia fully believing that it would have an entire entry dedicated to Shatabdi food.

And what do I find ?

“Shatabdi Express travelers are provided with snacks, breakfast, meals, coffee or tea, a one-litre water bottle and a glass of canned juice.”
(and it's in the entry for Shatabi; not the entry for Food Service in Shatabdi)

I am pretty sure that falls somewhere in the zip-code of misrepresenting information. That line almost sounds like Shatabdi’s food is completely besides the point and atrocious and that the only thing worth mentioning is the 1 litre water bottle (it may not even come with water in it. Is that what I must make of it?) and a glass of canned juice ? I mean, what about the soup and the breadsticks and the candy and the ice cream and the hot coffee served in flasks and hot rotis and the rice and the yogurt (we call it curds), and the little earthern pot it's set in, and the pickle and the sabji and the dal all wrapped neatly in aluminium foil ?

This happens to be the only time I’ve wanted to edit a Wikipedia entry.

This also makes me feel very much like Arthur Dent(of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who upon realizing that his planet Earth had been demolished, desperately searched the guide for its description, in an attempt to cling on to its memory.

All I can say is that airlines around the world must be described as giving snacks and meals and water bottled and canned juice. In fact, it would be perfectly alright to say that airlines are always in huge supply of ice.

But to relegate Shatabdi’s food to that pedestrian class is a gross injustice.
One that I plan to resolve in the next few weeks!

So long and thanks for nothing!

The Earth.

Visions of it swam sickeningly through his nauseated mind. There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab — the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind — his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.

England no longer existed. He'd got that — somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonalds, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.
He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother.

He jerked himself violently to his feet.


Ford looked up from where he was sitting in a corner humming to himself. He always found the actual travelling-through-space part of space travel rather trying.

"Yeah?" he said.

"If you're a researcher on this book thing and you were on Earth, you must have been gathering material on it."

"Well, I was able to extend the original entry a bit, yes."

"Let me see what it says in this edition then, I've got to see it."

"Yeah OK." He passed it over again.

Arthur grabbed hold of it and tried to stop his hands shaking. He pressed the entry for the relevant page. The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print. Arthur stared at it.

"It doesn't have an entry!" he burst out.

Ford looked over his shoulder.

"Yes it does," he said, "down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just under
Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6."

Arthur followed Ford's finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it still didn't register, then his mind nearly blew up.
"What? Harmless? Is that all it's got to say? Harmless! One word!"

Ford shrugged.

"Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book's microprocessors," he said, "and no one knew much about the Earth of course."

"Well for God's sake I hope you managed to rectify that a bit."

"Oh yes, well I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but it's still an improvement."

"And what does it say now?" asked Arthur.

"Mostly harmless," admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

"Mostly harmless!" shouted Arthur.

"What was that noise?" hissed Ford.

"It was me shouting," shouted Arthur.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Peepli Live

There is a scene in Peepli Live. The entire media has descended upon Natha’s house. Politicians and government officials make frequent visits, each offering things other than what Natha’s family needs most. At one particular time, the entire family comes out and regards the scene in front of them. There’s a quizzical look on each character as they look over their courtyard. In that single frame, the entire movie turns over itself and asks you to consider the world as seen through the family’s eyes as opposed to Natha’s family, as seen through the world’s eyes.

Peepli Live manages to make an inanimate character, called the Lal Bahadur come to life and manages to make all of Natha’s life a marketable commodity. The makers shrewdly sold itself as a satire when in fact, it may very well have been a well researched, remarkably executed documentary (the jokes too I believe are probably not too far from the truth). The movie even manages to stay away from both clichéd endings; in the end Natha is neither dead nor alive. There are two crucial deaths, written in to make a rather somber point, and they too are pulled off cleverly that you cannot completely explain it as karma, poetic justice or oh-that-awful-life. Shit happens, as they say (and describe in great detail). Natha’s own family members aren’t beyond manipulation or selfishness. Why then, must we expect anyone else to be ?

Peepli live is a daring take on India’s cold, hard brutal democracy and way of life. There was no happy ending. Yet it makes you laugh. Slumdog Millionaire was a stylized version of dreams coming true magically, even when you’re from cold, hard, democratic India. There was a happy ending and yet it made you cry.

When you're done laughing, it does make you wonder.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Don't go away.
I'm still writing the same ol stuff.

Am trying to give my blog a makeover it truly needs.
I have great dreams for my new template ( a whole day of surfing the net didn't really get me anywhere I might add).

So... my dream has now changed.

I do not promise astonishing results or better user friendliness or anything like that. Think of it as one of those haircuts you simply must get, because its been long, way too long since you had your last one.

Which reminds me, I also need a haircut. But fear not, I shall not blog about it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Besan ftw!

For the past few days, I’ve been consumed by the need to write something about besan (or gram flour) – that yellow powder tucked away in the corner of the kitchen shelf (or pantry). < As an aside. I like the word pantry. Depending on my mood, the word “pantry” can evoke tendencies that hark back to the my childhood days of Enid Blyton. I imagine myself to be one of those boarding school kids devouring pies and puddings stolen from the pantry during midnight feasts. Or it can evoke more memories of real experiences, of 2 day train journeys in India, where the pantry always smells good, regardless of the cheap oil they were using, and the food pretty delicious as well. Indian train food must be given a whole cuisine category. There is a lot to be said about the gluttonous and pleasures of watery, peppery tomato soup, cutlets with so much oil that they soak the paper plates on which they were served, and pulao’s and kurmas and curd rice with little pickle sachets, and bread omelettes. And the tiny cups of tea, coffee and hot milk that come by at regular intervals. But most of all I like the world pantry. I’m one of those people that dream of houses with pantries just so that I can use the word “pantry” legitimately instead of creating elaborate contests in which their usage is justified – such as the one you’re currently reading > < END DETOUR. END INTERESTING PART OF THIS POST>

Now the praise of besan, despite all its value, is even less unsung than train cuisine. It’s the ingredient that is always forgotten on shopping lists. An accommodating sorta fella, besan doesn’t expect to be added to every dish. In fact, he’s not needed at all. I know of a few kitchens that do not even have besan. And it is likely they will remain that way for ages and will manage to satisfy the palates of many that dine there. Besan doesn’t seek to advertise himself unlike the multitude of other flours that seem to embellish themselves with free-flow and what not to enhance their appeal. Besan, the thick, lumpy chap cannot be bothered to change himself. It doesn’t ask for too much attention really. It seems as if producers of the product and nature itself have simply relied on the fact that cooks will serendipitously discover its need, and once they do, they will find it impossible to turn back. Like the use of tobacco without needing advertisements and despite all the statutory warnings. Besan, however is so much more healthier.

To use besan is to go that extra length, to make your food taste from good to “oh my God. What have you added. The taste just lingers and lingers. And it’s awesome”. Besan can make you aware of all your taste buds, and possibly sprout some new ones. Surprisingly, advice columns on women’s magazines ignore besan all the time when they have to reply to questions such as “What can be done when I add too much salt in my food ?”. Now, in my opinion, these people shouldn’t even be given any recourse. That’s the only way they’re going to learn to use a smaller spoon. However, they’re often told to add a potato to the food, which apparently simply absorbs the salt. Do people then go on to eat this potato, I’ve often wondered. No wonder then, that we're battling increasing levels of cholesterol and diabetes. Of course, in many parts of the world, they've decided to simply do away with the initial extra salty cooking and cut right to the potato with lots of salt. We know it as french fries. In my house, one just deals with extra salty food with huge helpings of yogurt on the side (yes yes. Homemade. Organic. Probiotic. Lactobacillus-uberexotica. Traditional. Goodness). Anyway. I wonder why these horrified cooks, couldn’t resort to adding besan. I have tried that, with good success. Of course, the food doesn’t taste the way it was originally intended. But the new taste is rather appealing.

Such is the power of besan. You can never screw it up. It’s one of those things that can make food taste roasted and shallow fried without adding much oil. It gives a certain fullness to the flavor unparalleled to any combination of spices that I have tried. It is the ultimate finisher. It can bind things together. It can give that tiny edge of sweetness that even ardent resistors of those Indian cuisines known for their sweet food, will not be able resist.< The fact that Indian grocery stores stock it in huge packets makes me wonder if this post and my fawning prose for besan is completely premature. But it gives me hope that there so many more uses that I am yet to discover.> For me though, a small amount will do. It just sits, in its corner on the kitchen shelf waiting to be drafted into service. And when it does, boy! does it do its job! The besan, when bought, sits in the *pantry*, serving at the pleasure of the cook forever and ever.

It’s as close to a fairy tale that most of us are ever going to get. Besan is why I decide to keep cooking, much less write about it.

Besan completes my kitchen.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Love All

America is a secular country. Secularism is absolute. It cannot vary in degrees. It cannot vary depending on the circumstance. There is nothing the government can do about the decision of some people to profess their faith, to gather peacefully and to practice their religion. And if those that gather there also attempt to reach out, to explain to others that they come there on good faith, that they’re tolerant, that they mean no harm, the government must simply stand by it. And so there is nothing the government can do about the decision to build an Islamic Centre merely two blocks from Ground Zero, where several people died by a Jihadist attack.

The very idea of an Islamic Centre seems to irk the sensitivities of many people. Perhaps they wonder if their yet-to-heal wounds are being rubbed raw. Perhaps they wonder if they’re being laughed at for putting up with other religions. Or perhaps they do not want to be asked for understanding and forgiving for they are not done grieving. Secularism occupies no place in their heart. Memories of loved ones do. And they cannot find it in themselves to understand, to support other religions again, a support that they offered once freely, a support that they feel was fully misused. And perhaps all they’re asking is for these people to go away for now, to come back later, when they can remember peace-time again. And they’re asking that an exception be made, an exception that takes into account their sensitivity and their vulnerability.

But the constitution does not grant the right to sensitivity, vulnerability or fear. It asks simply that people continue to be strong regardless of circumstance in order to uphold a higher value- that of tolerance. For its founders believed that one can find courage, strength and the will to do what is right under absolutely every single circumstance, no matter how trying.

Perhaps they would rather live somewhere else where everyone professes the same religion that they do. Alternatively, perhaps they would live somewhere where everyone practices their religion in secret so that religion is never questioned. But perhaps it would all of us some good to remember what tolerance feels like in peacetime.

I grew up in India, another secular country albeit Hindu dominated. On my street among a majority of Hindus, are also Muslims and Christians. Every Diwali ( a Hindu festival), my mother asks me to distribute sweets to the neighbours. We distribute them to all our neighbours regardless of religion- regardless of the Christmas Trees in the courtyards or the Quranic verse on the walls. I am certain that this act of distributing sweets is never interpreted as my trumpeting my religion, for I am always welcomed with open arms. Come Christmas, I can expect sweets from my Christian neighbor and come Eid I can expect sweets again from my Muslim neighbor. None of us is afraid of one another. Indeed we have often given them our house keys to help guard our house while we are out of town. We go to our temples, churches and mosques. My Muslim neighbor does not find any ill in asking other neighbours to contribute to the temple because the temple plans to use those funds to build a park. And my Christian neighbor does not refuse to pay the community maintenance fees despite the community leader being a devout Hindu. Nor does the community leader insist that the community consist of solely Hindus. It can be argued that we tolerate each other because we fear our lives. But the honest-to-God or whatever-you-believe-in truth is we tolerate each other simply because we care for each other.

Perhaps those of the Cordoba Initiative are over-reaching and are testing American secularism too much. But the test is so easily passed. If Americans only extend their once steady, now trembling hands, they will realize that what’s waiting for them is a warm, firm grip, a balm that will finally ease the pain.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Much Ado About “Nothing we didn’t already know”

Confidential reports about the state of the war in Afghanistan was recently released by an organization called Wikileaks :- an organization devoted to whistle blowing (collecting and releasing documents that wikileaks feels the public ought to know). It headlined in 3 leading newspapers :- NyTimes, Guardian, Der Spiegel, while every other piece of news including Iran’s sudden “ Oh. Now that you really really really mean to punish me by meting out sanctions, is there somewhere we can sit and discuss this?” was fully submerged. By the end of the day, the documents’ revelations- ISI collusion with the Taliban, civilian casualty, bribe and corruption, the strength of Taliban’s military capability were concluded as “there’s nothing new here. We already knew this.” Yet the manner in which it all came out, the sensational undercover Wikileaks organization, its platinum-blonde, handsome and forthright editor-in-chief & spokesperson Julian Assange and the sheer magnitude of the reports made it meaty media material.

Editorials and opinions swarmed the internet, and again, they concluded that we knew all this already. Perhaps a few things have been distorted. We were lead to believe that American Helicopters were shot down by guns and artillery whereas they were shot down by heat seaking missiles that the Taliban possess. Some of the money going into the war is being used to bribe Afghan officials into doing their job. Afghan civilians are even more scared about the Taliban than we originally thought. But really, these are questions of degree, not of outright lying and purposeful misleading. Terrorism in Afghanistan is real and present. If it isn’t stopped, the rest of the world is going to be attacked. AGAIN.

White house officials for their part got all childish and insisted that it put their troops in risk (because until now the Taliban and the ISI thought that the US had believed their bluff about being nice people ???). They insisted that the person who had passed on these reports be found and prosecuted, only making ordinary people ask “ Why are you so scared that we know the truth. What else are you hiding from us. Did we never land on the moon either ?”. Ultimately however, everyone had to at least revisit their opinion about the war strategy.

For a while now, people have pretended that this war is anything like other wars- where the battlefields are clear, where civilians can wait safely in their houses, risking only those lives that are in the battlezone. And we’ve also pretended that there is a mathematics to it that will let us set an unambiguous deadline for finishing the war and heading home. It seems that the American people must be reminded more frequently that Afghan Terrorism exists today because we sought their help while fighting the commies and then hung them to dry when we’d finished with Russia. We left them in the lurch then. To do that again would be not only foolhardy, not only unfair, but also dangerous. Afghan anger against Americans and allied forces is fully justified. So also is their fear and perhaps even their belief that the Taliban will do them more good as long as they listened and abided by every radical rule that was imposed on them. To earn Afghan loyalty is of prime importance – as rightly and strongly outlined in Gen. Petraeus’s CounterInsurgency Field Manuals. To abandon them, when some of them may at last be seeing hope outside of Taliban’s dictatorship would be ridiculous. Earning trust is not something we can put a timestamp on. Neither is saying “we’ll protect you for the next 3 years. After that we’ll throw you to a pack of wolves”, which is what it must seem like to the Afghans. Thankfully, the US congress finally approved more funds for the war and perhaps president Obama will stop the nonsense about discussing timelines come December.

Meanwhile, all is not lost. Media in Afghanistan is ramping up. At least some people are looking at soap operas, of lives lived in foreign lands and are beginning to wonder if they could live like that too. Gossiping about the neighbor, plotting against mother-in-laws may be a luxury that they will soon begin to yearn. At least some people are listening to criticism against the Taliban and are wondering if there may be some truth to it. And at least some of them are looking at images of cities with roads, hospitals and education and are hoping that they too can be like that someday.

And already women are beginning to get enrolled in schools. And people are beginning to talk to each other non-stop on cellphones and landlines. And thanks to US occupation, many of them can at least apply a band-aid on a gash if not have their hip replaced. Some of this is worth fighting a really long time. Even if the peace lasts only a day or two, there will be some kids that will go on to remember what it was like to play in fields of hay and will strive to make that last in turn.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Not another friggin choice!

Disclaimer : As usual, I'm 2 years behind on "what's-up-in-gizmo-land". But what the heck... my emotion is very current.

So I read about these uber smart chaps who want to save the planet (whether they believe in climate change is beside the point), and they've come up with a way to help.

So from now on, instead of having a million receipts in ur hand, you can have them all emailed to you.

This means for some of you, you'll have additional labels and filters in your gmail and everything will be neatly organized. And you can keep track of every starbucks latte you've had. Some of you whack-jobs will then write this tiny program to extract all the starbucks lattes you've had and plot it on a graph to track caffeine intake and probably correlate it with your work productivity/sleep deprivation/food binges/ paranoia. Note: Please factor in all the time it took for you to write this crazy program, instead of you-know, doing real work. And hey, while it doesn't sound like it, trust me, I salute you.

This is what it means for me.
Another choice ?

This means a series of answers at the checking counter.

Cash or card.
Credit or debit.
Swipe a million times coz the credit card machine really likes being polite and certain.
Do you want it in your hand, in a bag, giftwrapped ?
Do u want a paper bag or a plastic bag.
Do you want the receipt in ur hand or in the bag.


would you like the receipt emailed to you ?

Please give me your email address.
Is it right ?

< I don't even want to go into whether there's going to be an additional verification step; perhaps you have to login, click a link, enter a captcha, perhaps set another online shopping account, with secret password questions and hints. I'm sure they'll tell you that if you created an account, you can set the choices such that the store will never have to ask you what your preferred billing method. Pretty soon, there will also be another one of those iphone apps for it. Maybe you just have to wave the iphone across their computer and it'll figure it out >

You know what I don't care. Just do what pleases you.

Coz I am now going to end up with a million receipts in my hand, bag and in my email address that I going to completely lose track of what I'm spending. This is how financial collapses happen. By giving people completely unwarranted freebies.
Luxury of choice, by definition, shouldnt be this affordable.

Congress! Are you listening! I know you love freedom of everything (including the right to bear firearms ???), but could you please curb some of my freedom to make choices ? Can u mandate that every single store, across the board, does exactly one thing ?



Since you love making databases, can u at least let me register my choice once and have all these guys who're so desperate to keep me happy, know what I want, instead of asking me every single time ?

Coz what I really want, is not to make these many decisions.

All I want is my latte.
And the most I'm willing to do... in order for you... to keep me happy... is to tell u I want it non-fat with caramel sauce. That's it.

If that's good enough for me, it had better be good enough for you.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Putting it simply!

For US : The education system

For India : Absolutely everything else!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

the Amnesiac

What did the great sages and scribes have in mind when they sat down and painstakingly chronicled the nature of human folly; when they etched it on papyrus and couched it in so grand a setting that the stories would be told to children for ages to come. Might they have been in awe of the possibility of imagination ? To experience an entire story as if it were he in that story, he in that miserable state, he who is caught in the grips of passion and he who is enduring an ordeal so painful that it ought to have been avoided. And surely showing us the ways in which our ancestors became successful, the ways in which they failed, the things that made them laugh and the things that made them cry, would settle once and for all what each of us must do in our miniscule time on earth- rather like the stars and the galaxies had managed to settle among themselves what they need to do over and over again across millenia.

Yet. We forget. All the time we forget about our errors. And the few times we remember, we convince ourselves that we are now so practiced in erring that we are incapable of making them any longer. And all the time enemies are made for reasons that should've long since stopped surprising us but each time we are caught off-guard. Wars are fought over things we needn't desire and we never stop. And all the time we burn our fingers as though since the last time, we'd grown an entirely new kind of skin. All the time we feel hurt, pain and anguish and we promise ourselves never to let it happen again. For reasons not altogether different, it happens again. And we're shocked. Did the scribes forget man's impressive ability to forget ?

Everyday children attempt to walk after falling over and over again. They forget the pain. And everyday mothers feed their children having forgotten the need for gratitude. And in several corners of the world scientists and artists are experimenting, having forgotten the embarrassment of their last failure. And all over the world peope are learning to love again having forgotten the last time their heart was broken. And several of these children will fall again before they really walk. And mothers will cry quiet tears at night. And scientists will go drinking at bars and new lovers will sometimes never go on to become old lovers.

But when the cavemen drew gory drawings about wolves who steal his kids, we tamed the wolves into dogs. When they drew about the wrongful deaths of their brothers who asked nothing else but their fair share in the day's bounty, we came to create democracy. The scribes told us about the scary world, about the hyena ridden valleys and the cheetah's lair. And we crossed all of that and made it to the moon. And there we saw the stars and the galaxies repeating their lives all the time. But they too are moving further and further, faster and faster, in search of something. They clash, collide and bang their heads against enormous walls and seethe in fury.

Meanwhile, the universe decrees rather simply that we RINSE......

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

All's fair in bargaining and war

It was going to be a full house in Ratham Veedhi , Madurai. Such days were few and far between and Gomathy Patti looked forward to them more than anyone else. She planned on waking up at 4 am in time to prepare an elaborate meal for everybody. She would spend most of the night awake for fear of getting up late. Cooking for several hungry kids, enthusiastic parents and uninvited guests that would be welcome with open arms wasn’t easy. Gomathy Patti took on this daunting task with a large serving of gusto and a huge dollop of pride.

She allowed an extra 15 minutes to bargain with the vegetable seller, Chellappan, at the market. While on her way to the market, she spent all those 15 minutes, stopping to tell those she met on her way that all the grandchildren were going to be home that day. To some selected people she confided that she was going to make vendakkai (okra) curry. Her daughter-in-law Kaamatchi stayed at home, cooking other things that Gomathy Patti felt didn’t need an expert. Also, Kaamatchi keenly avoided listening to Chellappan complain about her mother-in-law. She was never sure whom to support. Kaamatchi smartly used Gomathy Patti’s absence in making some extra rice and increasing the quantity of rasam and sambhar by adding more water and some more spices. Later, everyone would exclaim that Patti’s rasam was always especially tasty when there was a large crowd to dine with.

By the time Gomathy Patti made it to the vegetable seller, word had reached him that she was going to buy okra. He huffed readying for the bullfight. He sprayed water on all the vegetables to make them look fresh. He quickly covered one of the baskets with a wet cloth and rope so that he could make it look like the vegetables had just been delivered. He removed all the rotten vegetables he could lay his hands on. He then gulped some water, cleared his throat and clapped his hands. He was ready.

An audience had also gathered. Waiting. Who would win?

Gomathy Patti came in with her nose upturned. She took each vegetable by hand and nodded her head in disapproval. Chellappan paid her not the slightest attention, tending to the banana plantain instead. Gomathy Patti took out a bunch of coriander leaves from beneath the large pile. The ones below were rotten. “Che. What good will such a bunch do to my rasam? This is why I grow my own coriander in the kitchen garden”, she said.

Gomathy Patti had opened with an ace.

15-love to Patti.

“Well, for you maami, I will give this bunch to you for free”, he said removing a fresh bunch from the top and waving at her. ” Even if you discard all my wares as old and rotten.”

15 all

“No. I don’t need anything for free. My son earns a hefty pension and my grandchildren are soon going to be working in fantastic jobs that don’t even need a pension. Why, I might even give you some of my own coriander then”

30 -15

She next went to the beans and drew out the fibre from the sides of the stalk to test their tenderness. She sighed loudly. And as though doing it out of generosity she asked him how much it was, adding that she must be a fool for wanting to buy it at all.

40 - 15

Chellappan played along knowing full well that she did not want the beans. He quoted a particularly expensive rate . He hoped that the lesser price he would eventually quote for the okra would be acceptable in comparison.


She pretended to think for a while, and then, feigning a defeated look, refused it. She now looked around the place vaguely as if her long-hatched plans had been soiled and she hadn’t a clue what her other options were. She sighed loudly again. She now turned to the okra. She took each okra and broke off the tip. The whole time she kept up a constant prattle of disapproval.
“Why are they so hard ? They’re all overripe. Much like you Chellappan. ”

“Maami. These are as tender is my 10 month old baby. Besides, okra is good for any age, for brains of any age, including yours”

He proceeded to pick a particularly tender okra and effortlessly broke off its tip.


Gomathy Patti was not impressed. She proceeded to test the okra some more. It might mean that she would break the stalks of all the okra in the stall. But Chellappan let her. It wasn’t everyday that someone prepared such a feast. He could feel his patience wearing out even as he displayed a smug smile, confident of his goods. Narasimhan, who was also making his way through the market place, was loudly gesturing at his wife Lakshmi “Buy okra from here Lakshmi. The curry you made last week was pretty good” he said.

Advantage Chellappan

Gomathy patti turned to them and snarled. Not missing a beat, she said nonchalantly “True. Chellappan can sometimes be lucky.” And she picked up an overripe okra and showed it to them.


Chellappan now found no humour in this. “Maami. Careful. I respect your age. But think about my age and what I am capable of before you start driving my customers away.”

Advantage Chellappan.

But Gomathy Patti was not that easily stymied. She waved her hand dismissively and said “ Bhagawan (God) will come to the aid of those who tell the truth”. “Anyway”, she said, this time with the look of one who is doing a favour, “now I will give you 30 rs per kilo for this okra and I’ll buy three kilos of it.

Either give it to me or risk losing more customers than just Lakshmi and Narasimhan”


Chellappan knew the math all too well. If Gomathy Patti bought the okra, chances were Lakshmi maami would buy the okra too. If Gomathy Patti didn't, Lakshmi wouldn't dare for fear of having to defend herself against Gomathy Patti's claim that Lakshmi had betrayed her. And so, Chellappan would have wasted all morning for nothing.

“Fine. Now will you please make a move? ”, he said.

Gomathy Patti finally permitted herself to smile. She loaded the okra in the choir basket and counted out the money twice before giving it to Chellappan. As she handed him the money she said “Where’s my coriander bunch you promised me? “

Advantage Gomathy Patti

Chellappan permitted himself a smile this time.

“Maami. I’ve rarely seen a more cunning lady than you”.

And then Gomathy Patti bared her large toothless smile and whispered, “and I’ve rarely seen better Okra than this. Make sure Lakshmi pays you at least 20 annas per kilo.”



Friday, April 30, 2010

Long Live USPS

What does US post office mean to me ?

It means either junk mail (which you should absolutely ignore) and VERY IMPORTANT mail(which you must absolutely not ignore). It's odd that USPS sits so comfortably in this bimodality. To me, it means I have to go through all that junk mail, credit card offers, coupons, random things pretending to be very important, and non-random things completely clueless about their importance in order to spot the "important" mail. I have a large-to-extra-large axe to grind with the "important mail" mailers. Can they make it any harder to notice its importance ? IMPORTANT AND CONFIDENTIAL written in unassuming, regular font,regular font size, black typeset really doesn't do much to get my adrenalin flowing. I suggest coloring the envelopes red. Or use glow-in-the-dark material. Or speckle the envelope with tiny hearts. Maybe use a nice texture. Or a citrus fragrance. Special paper ? Something like special currency paper ? Something ? Anything but white envelopes and black fonts.

Jan through April, until I get my W2, I wonder several times if I've missed one of those documents or if I've missed my bills (yes yes... I have heard of autopay and E-bills and I do that meticulously).

But USPS themselves, I think are a fine organization. I say this despite the unfortunate time when my package got lost somewhere in Utah during the snowstorm. USPS very sweetly sent me an "important" mail saying they'd found the cover but not its contents (go figure!) and if I could give them an elaborate description of the contents, they'll try finding it. When I went to USPS however, none of the attendants had even heard of this form. I still strove to send them an elaborate description of the package only to hear that they couldn't find it. I suspect right now, a llama is chewing away at my plaid coat. (Yes. LLama!) The point though, is they bothered to inform me and keep me updated (of course using the very primitive art of envelope camouflage).

They're a fine organization because they're expected to make money solely from selling stamps while the government is off bailing filthy banks (it's hilarious how you can always use that line these days and people will always nod in rage). And so I suppose it is worth pumping money into them and keep them going. I don't mean blogging, reblogging or painting placards (in BOLD RED writing) and parading about Capitol Hill. Just buy their stamps. Some of them are even amusing.
(I especially like the sunday funnies stamp panel).

Sunday, April 25, 2010

world wide waste

A neuroscience professor once told me that the brain is a wonderful thing in that it cleverly managed to ignore much riff raff. And it was important that it did that. Paying attention to too much, storing all the information all the time is a ridiculously inefficient strategy since most information is worthless to the immediate goals of finding food and avoiding predator and the slightly more long term goals of procreating and possibly parenting. Retrieving information within the brain's memory stores then, is worse, much worse, than looking for a needle in a haystack. And the brain smartly decided to only store information that it tended to need, and pay no heed to anything else.

A few apes, a couple of tools, some fire, language, written scripts, a somewhat clumsy wheel, agriculture, animal husbandry, an abacus, an apple, a whirring machine, another apple and etc etc etc later, poof! we get the internet! And suddenly the brain's relieved of its duties to memorize anything. And humans immediately become thirsty and hungry not just for valuable information, but to dwell on any set of words and/or numbers that supposedly form a thought, the thought's coherence notwithstanding.

We've come a long way from Gutenberg's press haven't we ? From having to painstakingly distribute information to those that needed it, we're at a point where we painstakingly plough through the internet, concentrating really hard to ignore alphanumeric sentences that we do not need. Clearly, somewhere in between is a diabetes-worthy sweet spot, and clearly we're too mesmerized to bother finding and holding steadfastly to this sweet spot.

The internet is getting ahead of me way too quickly. It is with almost tearful eyes that I recall the days when I was aware of google and the rest of the world was yet to find out. But now, I barely survived the transition from orkut to facebook. Each time facebook changes its layout I can hear a few more of my neurons committing suicide. I feel unmotivated to open my twitter page despite having an account. And I find it oddly disturbing that weird sounding names are wasting their time following my account, which has no hopes of ever updating a status message. We're now pursuing 0 bytes of information with the same level of gusto that we pursue everything else ?

Each day, I sigh loudly when I realize that there's no way I can keep track of all the stories and blogs and news and gibberish out there. Reddit, digg, delicious, stumbleupon, tumblr just give me internal hemorrhage. A few hours before writing this blog, I sat down to figure all of that out, mistakenly assuming that it would make life easier. Few hours later, I'm moaning and groaning with the realization that all these people are probably doing nothing to nudge humanity forward. We're wasting our time, I, the sour fox, that cannot obtain the sweet grapes, have decided. There's an article somewhere that employees of the SEC are to be blamed for the recession because they spent too much time watching porn. What the rest of the internet-addicted world is doing is hardly more admirable.

It is therefore with some modicum of relief that I accept a lifetime of internet ignorance.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Good night and good luck

Have you ever seen a cat as it prepares to go to sleep? Most cats deem the "self" as the only thing worth any respect, and with jolly good reason.
After stretching forwards and backwards fully, she will drop herself onto the napping area with a "plonk" of exquisite precision. If you have any experience with plonking, and I have plenty- with varying degrees of failure, you will know that the act consists of paying no heed to your weight and dropping your body to the ground. At the very last moment, when the ground is seemingly waiting to prevent you from falling off through the other end of the planet, and of course, while that very ground is readying itself to induce a great deal of pain in order to cure you of your insanity, you must make the ground's task easier, by suddenly taking charge of yourself and landing perfectly. You must not waver. You must show no sign of instability. You must not be shocked. It must be as if you had planned it all, till that very last minute. And in order to win a cat's respect, or in fact any acknowledgment of your presence at all, you must do it without exertion and demonstrate a callous grace. It so happens, that it is humanly impossible to "plonk". And that simply settles the matter for all cats.

After having successfully plonked, a cat will proceed to retract all her limbs. She will draw back her paws underneath her belly. And in a splendidly fluid motion will twirl her tail and tuck it in. And in a final flourish, will droop her ear-lobes. The bundle of fur, the cat, having without a doubt earned a good nap and a great deal of vanity will go to sleep.

Of all those moves and frills, it is the drooping of the ears that I envy the most. I have always wondered what people do with their ears when they sleep at night. Unfortunately, I have never been able to ask this question. I cannot imagine any dinner conversation, any idle chatter, where the question "by the way, what happens to your ear lobes at night?", will appear as a seamless part of the rest of the conversation. As a result, this question continues to remain unasked and unanswered and I am left to deal with my ears. For starters, let me disqualify all those people that sleep flat on their backs from offering any suggestion. I do not understand the point in sleeping, if you're not going to bundle up as much as you can. Because, the creators, the followers and the modifiers of the English language all seem to think that the flat-back-sleepers aren't worth spending too much time on, no one has bothered creating a separate word or a separate category for that alternate and unpleasant form of sleeping. My question is directed to what I would call the "true" sleepers- those that try in vain, to bundle up and generally fold themselves up.

What do you do with your earlobes ?

Here's what happens to me. The ear lobe is this strangely convoluted flap that is very good at directing vibrating air into your ear so that you may make sense of all that sound around you. What it is despicably bad at is getting out of the way, when it is not at all required. At night, therefore, when I place my head onto the pillow, my ear-lobes are annoyingly stuck in between. Often, they will fold further, so that, when I get up in the morning, they're really hurting. At the place where they've folded, I will often find a largish red zone. I have tried several cures. For instance, I have tried the obvious- not to lay my head in such a way that them lobes fold. But between my conscious act of lying down to the unconscious act of sleep, clearly, my ear-lobes are managing to dance to the tunes of absolutely nothing, folding and meandering through the depths of darkness, through the silence of the night. So you will not be surprised when I admire, with much pain and heartbreak, the look at a cat, perfectly happy with its drooped ears, and the drooped ears perfectly happy with the way they have gotten themselves out of the way.

Now of course, I have entertained the possibility that we humans have found a way around this. In fact, that big piece of flesh that we call the brain, is right between the ears. They ought to communicate rather well about these kinds of imminent problems. Except, I don't know, and for the aforementioned reasons, cannot ask and not be thought of as a thoroughbred lunatic.

And so, if you please, you can tell me the answer right here.

And perhaps relieve me of my miseries.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Google Care

I slipped and twisted my ankle recently. In 24 years, I’ve never twisted my ankle. I’ve wantonly inserted my ankle into the spokes of my mom’s kinetic Honda once (I was just curious to know what would happen!!!), but never have I ever twisted my ankle. I should have realized the day I started training for the marathon, that an ankle twist was not too far away. As it turns out, I was trying to catch the bus. There was way too much snow everywhere. In my bag, I carried a gallon of milk, some instant coffee powder and a mug. I was going to take all of this, in an ever-continuing attempt to make myself feel at home in my lab, to beat the need to leave the lab when the clock strikes 5 (regardless of how much work I’d gotten done). In my hands, I also had a package that I needed to return. I’m one of those people who orders several things online and returns most of them. I am also one of the few people, whose packages get lost in snow blizzards in Utah, while I’m away in India vacationing in Lakshadweep at a resort with no internet (and therefore cannot track my package). When the bus came, I ran for life, slipped fell, and it hurt like hell. But I will not write about my love-hate relationship with the dead Mr Murphy. Nor do I think I need to groan about the effects of gravity and how it makes you fall down and twist your ankle instead of flying away like a bird and busting no-more than a few feathers. What I do need to groan about is health care.

Getting to a doctor is rather easy in India. There’s usually a nursing home, a clinic or two and several pharmacies every 2 lanes in India. And you could tell by the look of the place whether you should go there to get some cold medicine, some fever medication, to get your sprain looked at or something even more serious. The point is, you could always get to one. There would typically be a pharmacy next door to the clinic and the chap at the pharmacy always has the unique talent of being able to read the doctor’s indecipherable handwriting ( I am told that doctors have bad handwriting because they have to write a lot during the several exams they take at med-school). He will also explain what each medicine is for in layman's terms. A doctor will use obscure terminology to prove to their clients that he in fact did study hard to spell terms at the cost of beautiful penmanship. Such was the luxury that I was accustomed to in my developing, snake-charming, country.

A few months after I moved to Pittsburgh I got blisters on my skin. They’d erupt overnight and itch like hell in the morning. I didn’t know what to do. I did know though, that getting a doctor would not be easy. I did not know who my primary-care-physician was. And I knew that that drug-stores had aisles of medication for all sorts of ailments, almost all of which will contain moisturizers. I do not understand the obsession with moisturizers but I will not be surprised if breakfast cereal came with moisturizers so as to not scratch your tongue. So I went to google images, searched for blisters, and spotted images that looked like mine. Quickly enough, I realized they were bed bug bites. And a few hours later, I knew what bed bugs looked like, what you should and should not do and also that doctors will typically not confirm that it was bed-bug bites unless you could find evidence of bed-bugs. I also learnt that finding bed-bugs was not easy. I was adviced to use anti-histamines to reduce the itching, and wash all your clothes and sheets with really hot water.

Due to what I suspect as being a paranoia-induced-suppression-of-mental-ability, I made my way through the health care system. I made phone call after phone call to primary care physicians whose calendars were blocked for months; to dermatologists who only saw new patients on Fridays and weren’t free for 3 months and to those that only specialized in skin-cancer related blisters, and one that even asked me if the following wednesday would suit me for a skin graft; to family physicians that do not accept new patients, until finally, someone was willing to see me. Right away, I distrusted them because if they were good then they too should’ve been booked. But I had to go see a doctor. On the day of my appointment, I was asked to strip and weigh myself, my temperature was taken, my blood pressure was taken, and I sat there clueless not knowing how any of this related to my “skin condition”. When the doctor did come, he told me nothing conclusive and confirmed nothing. He generally seemed to think that I was right to have applied anti-histamines. Almost the only thing he was sure of was that I should come back if symptoms persisted. I never went back. Google told me everything I needed to know. It charged me no fee, and I am now happily blister- free.

Now fate’s doing a do-over with my ankle. And again, people are asking me if I went to see the doc. I tell them that I won’t see a doc because I doubt he updates his brain as often as google worms and creepy crawls the web. I doubt the doc will tell me anything that google hasn’t already told me. And I have neither the time, the inclination, the energy, or a life threatening skin condition that will convince me to make a million phone calls again only to be told that I can see the orthopaedist sometime after the third coming of Christ.

I hear tell of a rumble in DC about what to do about health-care. I say, let google handle it. They did things in china that DC would have scarce considered. They’re not mired deep in a fiscal deficit. And they, if anyone, know how to organize databases. And while DC has a constitution that no one can understand anymore, Google has a simple credo that everyone does. “Don’t be evil”. Google wants a new business model? I, for one, wouldn’t mind paying a penny or two for every medical page. Maybe the government should simple cure heart disease and HIV. I’d be happy to let google look at my sprain.

Care for google-care anyone ?