Monday, December 31, 2018

Reading in 2018

This is the year in which I made one key change to my reading habit which was influenced by a post from Tim Urban titled ‘The Tail End’. The gist is the following. I manage to read at roughly the rate of a book a month, and I turned forty recently. So even if I live to be ninety, I’m going to read around 600 books more. Millions of books have been written and catalogued and there are thousands more to come in my lifetime, but the sobering conclusion is that I only have time left to read 600. That insight destroyed an enduring superstition that most booklovers seem to carry, which is to persist with a book once you have started it. This year I abandoned books ruthlessly but here are the ones I managed to complete.

Three remarkable books by three different authors hailing from different parts of the globe.
Though I started this piece with how limited my overall reading time is I still reread two classics for two reasons. First, the key to reading productivity is to read what you like and there’s no better test of likability than to know that you’ve read it once and liked it. Second, there’s always more value left to derive from the truly great classics. I read Slaughterhouse and 2001 nearly a decade after I first read them and it was as refreshing to read them now as I remember feeling back then. One thing to note was how little I remembered of the details in each of these books that I professed to like, and I now realise, the primary aim from good fiction is to be affected by it, and not to remember details.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thoughts on Learning

Some random notes to myself on "Learning"
  • The brain is unlike a vat, or a hard disk, that has finite capacity. A closer metaphor is the Banyan tree, with each of the prop roots representing your grasp of the basics. Those props have to take root to allow you to learn more. In short, the more you learn, the more you can learn.
  • On a related note, effective learning happens when you weave a web of related knowledge. Islands of disconnected pieces of knowledge are less effective and more prone to fading. 
  • When you learn something, test yourself out to increase retention. If you can’t explain a concept in simple terms, you probably haven’t learnt it adequately yet. 
  • Bursts of learning are great (like completing a course, for instance) but don’t ignore the compounded effect of learning a mere 1% more, iteratively and consistently.
  • Success is almost directly attributable to how much you can learn.
P.S: This is not original. Almost all of the above are paraphrased from scattered sources. I just haven't had the discipline to save the links. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cuyabeno, Ecuador

For me, one of the big attractions of Ecuador was a chance to see the Amazonia in all its remoteness. Our lodge was on the river Cuyabeno, a tributary of the Amazon three levels removed; Cuyabeno empties into the Aguarico, which then joins the Napo which finally meets the Amazon. Our journey to the lodge needed us to take a bus to a grimy town called Nueva Loja, and then from there another short bus ride to a jetty on an unmarked stream. A motorized canoe then took us through the bends and curves of the stream to the Cuyabeno. Three hours later as we navigated through some of the densest forests I’ve seen we reached our lodge. For a few hours we forgot that we were tourists buying a package tour and felt like true pioneers entering one of the last wildernesses. At the entrance of the clearing in which the lodge was nestled we had our reminder that there are no truly remote spots left on earth - we were greeted by a Bangladeshi tour guide.

AB, or Bangla as he was called by the rest of the staff, was to give us VIP treatment during our entire stay. He completely excused my broken hindi and insisted on speaking in only that tongue. You could tell that this was his way of communing with his motherland.

I benefited immensely from AB’s attention and knowledge of the ecosystem, not to mention from the excellent explanations of the local flora and fauna from our other guide, Diego, whose Spanish accent made every story more fascinating. There was something new to discover in every inch of this dense jungle. There were the ten species of monkeys which included the aptly named Pocket monkey, which happens to be the smallest primate species on earth. There was the shy Pink River Dolphin that would show up next to our canoe every now and then. There was the iconic Anaconda looking a few degrees less hyperactive than its Hollywood caricature. There was the two-toed sloth that was engaged in a lethargy competition with the Anaconda. Even the trees had their own idiosyncrasies. There was a tree that actually walks (well, over months) looking for clearings in the foliage. There’s another that has evolved highly acidic leaves to eliminate competition around it. The bugs were not to be left behind. There was a species of termite that does not bite, but sprays an insect repellant, as an adaptation to defend its home. You just had to put your hand in this termite’s mound to get a natural bugspray that keeps you safe from the other insects in the forest at least for the next couple of hours. Of course there were the birds, and they deserve a separate post!

Contrary to all the cautions we had received on the way here, we got three days of glorious sunshine. On the fourth day, on our canoe trip back to the base, we learned why this is called the rainforest. As the incessant rain poured down rivulets formed in the jungle floor and emptied into the Cuyabeno everywhere you looked, and the river had tangibly swelled in a matter of hours. You could tell this scene was getting repeated all across the Cuyabeno and the hundred other rivers that form the Amazon system. You could tell that the three dry days we had experienced were the anomaly and the raindrops dropping out of the sky in an endless outpour was business as usual. In a small way you could appreciate why this river system is so important to the health of this planet.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Mindo, Ecuador

All of 3000 people live in the town. There’s exactly one main road. The maximum taxi fare from anywhere to anywhere is 2$ and, I believe, there’s enough margin built in into that fare. Mindo is that kind of small town.

What had brought us here was what lay just outside of the town, though. Mindo is tucked away in a valley in the famous cloud forests of Ecuador which are home to some dizzying number of species of birds. We stayed in a beautiful lodge called the Yellow House, which itself was in an estate that has some famous birding trails within it. The reputation, I realised, is well-deserved. I probably saw more number of species of birds here than in any other 3-day period in my life anywhere else I’ve travelled to. The pièce de résistance in the Yellow House was the breakfast table in the balcony where you could watch hummingbirds hovering metres from you while you have your eggs and coffee in the morning. (See my posts on the birds of Mindo, and one separate one on the hummingbirds I photographed there.)

In the three short days we spent there I got my fill of birds. What I hadn’t bargained for at all was how much I ended up liking the sleepy little town. We kept stumbling from one endearing episode to another but here’s my favorite one. It was the first day of May and we were spending our third day in town. May 1 is presumably a popular holiday and almost all of the restaurants were shut. We walked along the one main road in town looking for any place that would offer us a bite, and ended up at the little cafe in front of the bus stop where we had had lunch the previous afternoon. The hostess recognised us from our last visit and flashed a smile at us. We took that for a welcome and walked in. She said something long in Spanish which my recent short online course hadn’t equipped me to understand. From the non-verbal cues, though, I started to sense that she probably was trying to communicate something important. The hunger had clearly made my wife oblivious to such hints; she had picked up the menu and had started pointing at her picks. The hostess shook her head and started crossing off items on the menu with her finger. This session of charades lasted a while, and finally, looking visibly exasperated, she said “Only Burrito”. We were beggars that afternoon and we said we’ll take it. At this time only one other table was occupied with what looked like family members of the hostess who was serving us. When she came out with a bunch of burritos it finally dawned on us that the restaurant was closed for the day. She had figured it was easier to share the burritos that she had made for her family with us than explain to us that the kitchen was closed. Mindo is that kind of small town.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Farm Diary: The Mango Cultivars

Conventional wisdom says that Mango trees yield a big harvest every other season. I'm not sure what drives that behaviour, but since last summer was thin pickings, we were excited about the current season. Sure enough we had a bounty this time. The frequent rains this year also seem to have helped; the farm is green and fresh almost as it would look like in the early months of monsoon. With the trees still laden with the fruits I got a chance to inventory the various cultivars in our farm. The count is evenly split across the three main varieties.

1. Sindhura: This is the fruit that you are most likely to see in the juice centers across Bangalore. It tends to be smaller in size and the skin is fairly thin. One way to identify this cultivar is by the pinkish/reddish hue on the fruit before it ripens.
2. Raspuri: This is my favorite cultivar. Has a thick skin and is extremely juicy inside. It is pretty messy to eat, and some would say that's what is so much fun about this type.

3. Badami is the poor man's alphonso. The pulp is orangeish and has fewer fibres, so you don't have to floss at the end of a binge. Fetches the highest price in the local markets here.

While 90% of the trees in the farm belong to one of these dominant types there are some interesting oddball varieties.
4. Shiri: We have exactly one tree of this variety, that my caretaker calls Shiri but I can't seem to map it to any known cultivar, although it seems to resemble the Dasheri a little bit. The skin is thick, and the ripe fruit remains green on the outside. This type doesn't get any takers in the mandi, and so we end up taking most of them home. Thankfully, I love the taste so I have no complaints about the lack of demand in the market. 

5. Omelette: We have three or four trees of this variety. The picture doesn't convey a sense of proportion but this is a huge fruit, some individual fruits growing to as much as a kilogram in weight. They are used for making pickles. 

6. Naati: Finally, this one is a plebeian variety and goes unharvested every year. Looks like many of our trees are grafts, and you see this variety showing up on one section of some of the trees. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Turtles of Rushikulya - Mass nesting

Every February some mysterious force brings thousands of Olive Ridley turtles to this beach in Odisha, the very beach on which these turtles hatched some years ago. Last year, at this remote beach just south of where the river Rushikulya enters the Bay of Bengal, we saw the life-affirming sight of a million hatchlings crawl out of their nests in the sand and make it to the sea. This year we wanted to witness the mass nesting and we were lucky that on both nights we visited the beach, we got to witness large arribadas. While the visuals from last year, of the sands teeming with hatchlings, are still fresh in my memory, the sight of the imposing grownups covering the beach is even more dramatic. The mothers came in waves, headed straight to their chosen real estate, worked their rear flippers in surprisingly deft fashion to dig a square hole, dropped a hundred-odd eggs, filled the hole with sand, and patted the area down with their bellies before crawling back to the waters. The odd tourist here and there didn’t seem to deter their sense of purpose. At the risk of anthropomorphising, they almost seemed to be in a trance. I could have watched the scene all day, all week.

That day, on the beach, there was a specimen of another species who also seemed to be in a trance, and whose sense of determination rivalled that of the pregnant turtle mothers. Rabindranath Sahu has been working on the conservation of this turtle population in his area for years now, and you could tell that nights like these are his rapture. The size of the arribadas has been growing in this area, thanks in no small measure to the work of this man. As long as he stays in his trance, I know the turtles here will thrive.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Reading in 2017

Cuckold - Kiran Nagarkar

It baffles me that Kiran Nagarkar doesn’t get the coverage that other Indian authors of English get. For me, Cuckold, is right up there with Midnight’s Children.

“Being in the right has got nothing to do with courage or exceptional bravery. The forces of evil will fight just as enthusiastically or fiercely as the armies of righteousness.”

Everybody Lies - Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (Reading) 

Only 7% of the people who started Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow are believed to have finished it. That number for Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is 3%. How do we know this? Not through surveys, but the number of highlights people make while reading these books on Kindle. Everybody Lies tries to understand the human psyche through a surprisingly rich and revealing source, out collective online behaviour.

The Lost River - Michael Danino

Marking the one time that actual history agreed with most WhatsApp forwards on the topic, Danino comes to the conclusion that Sarasvati was an actual river that flowed through the northern plains, and its drying up could have shaped our destiny in a profound way.

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

Couldn’t get past the first few pages of The Buried Giant but this one was unputdownable.
“I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know - Joseph Romm

In the age of trump and similar bozos ascending everywhere to positions of civilizational influence, I wish I could somehow make this book compulsory for everyone.

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent - Pranay Lal

This book traces the journey of the Indian tectonic plate from its separation from Gondwana to its current uncomfortable union with the European plate. Lal so intimately brings to life the history of this land that at various points while reading the book I wondered why we haven’t cordoned off the entire subcontinent and declared it one mega museum.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow - Yuval Noah Harari

It may not count as a scholarly work, but I found Homo Deus to be incredibly though-provoking in so many of the disciplines it tackles.

Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor

Wrote a more detailed post on this one.

The Periodic Table - Primo Levi

Last year I fell in love with Primo Levi and the romance continued in 2017. In The Periodic Table Levi combines his musings on science and otherwise in the most delectable manner.

“[T]he chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidotes to Fascism … because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness like the radio and newspapers.”

Aurangzeb: The Man and The Myth - Audrey Truschke

It’s not a coincidence that I’ve read so much Indian history these last two years when there has been such a broadside on historical facts. I almost feel like it’s every liberal’s duty to educate himself to counter the relentless rewriting of history that’s been happening in our country.

“In reality Aurangzeb pursued no overarching agenda vis-à-vis Hindus within his state. ‘Hindus’ of the day often did not even label themselves as such and rather prioritized a medley of regional, sectarian, and caste identities (for example, Rajput, Maratha, Brahmin, Vaishnava). As many scholars have pointed out, the word ‘Hindu’ is Persian, not Sanskrit, and only became commonly used self-referentially during British colonialism.”
Other books that I enjoyed:

...and the one that didn't make much of an impact.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Camping in Yak country

We just returned from a trek to the Goechala pass in the Khangchendzonga national park in Sikkim. In a trek that packed so much goodness - breathtaking views of the Himalayas, exotic birds, an intense football game at 16k ft above sea level, night skies to kill for, fantastic crew and companions, the best camp food I’ve eaten - it would normally be hard to pick a favourite half hour, but strangely, in this one I can.

On the 6th morning of the trek we summited the highest point on the trail and returned to our campsite, Lamuney, which is in a narrow valley sandwiched between near-vertical rock faces on the west and a patch of shrub jungle and mountains on the east. Due north, the world’s third highest peak, Khangchendzonga towers over the campsite. A stream flows from the northern direction through the camp, and a walking trail runs right next to it. Our tents were pitched on either side of the walking path. Just after lunch-time, when most of us were napping in our tents we heard some commotion outside.
The crew were excited about a flock of Himalayan Blue Sheep approaching directly towards us. The reason for these shy animals walking uncharacteristically towards humans was directly behind them. The sheep were making way for a herd of Yaks that were headed in our direction too. When the blue sheep found themselves too close to us they waded off into the shrub jungle, but not before a few moments of indecision.

They started off as details on a magnificent backdrop but soon the herd of Yaks arrived within ten metres of our tents and filled the frame with their imposing bulk. After the initial excitement of getting to photograph them from such close range passed, we realised we were locked in a tie. The yaks were unsure about how to go past us and we had no idea how, or whether, to react. So we stood there staring at each other. The Alpha male in the herd tried to resolve the awkwardness with some territorial displays, such as kicking the earth, and head-bumping some nearby mound. The females were a little more on edge, probably because they were protective of their lone calf, which, oblivious to the inter-species standoff, was running around bullying the blue sheep. A tentative mock charge by one of the females reminded us we were firmly the underdogs in this equation. Only the confidence of our sherpas allowed us to stand there for as long as we did. Eventually we got into our tents trusting that the Yaks would go past our camp. Over the next tense couple of minutes we could sense the half-ton giants saunter past us, mere inches across the thin walls of our tents.

Over dinner that evening we couldn’t stop talking about our conference with the yaks. I guess the staring match had added to the adrenaline already released from that morning’s hike. It’s strange how the unanticipated moments in a travel are the ones that stick the hardest in one’s memory. And as unanticipated moments go, a yak face-off is as absurd as it gets.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Farm Diary - Fauna

Krishna, our caretaker,  had come to the farm to collect mangoes early this morning and had noticed that a string of trees next to our farm had mysteriously shed their mangoes overnight. While surveying the fruits strewn on the ground he had noticed the unmistakable foot prints of elephants. Flustered, he had rushed back home, not wanting to risk a confrontation with the giants if they still happened to be around.

He returned later in the day and could discern paw prints of at least three separate individuals (he explained the difference between the marks but it escaped my untrained eye). The prints suggested that the elephants had come all the way up to our fence, and had turned around.  This was our closest brush with wildlife. A few months ago, on a trek to a mountain behind our farm, my friends and I had seen some carnivore's dung; our best guess was that it was a leopard's. The villagers tell tales of ferocious sloth bears that live in the forests behind. All I had seen were rabbits, mice and the occasional boar. Until today! While walking through the brush this snake slithered past us a mere 2-3 feet away. Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with snakes to identify the species, but my best guess is that it didn't look like any of the poisonous varieties that inhabit our country.

Snakes under our trees and elephants right across the fence. Our next camping trip, I have a feeling, is going to feel a lot more exciting!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Turtles of Rushikulya

Nearly three decades ago, a turtle researcher walked the coasts of Odisha as part of his work on the Olive Ridleys that nest in this region. His travels took him to an obscure village near where the river Rushikulya meets the sea. He recruited a 13-yr old, Rabindranath Sahu, to assist him in his research. The boy had been used to the turtles visiting his home once a year but hadn’t paid much heed to them. In that momentous spring spent with the researcher the lad became aware of the unique role the beaches around him played. In the manner in which destiny is thrust on some people he was to become an unwitting conservationist and, at least in my view, a hero.

Turtles have been coming to this coast probably longer than humans have inhabited this area, and for as long as they existed together, people and turtles honorably shared the space. Developments in the last century upset the equilibrium and affected every stage of the turtle life cycle: trawlers that replaced traditional boats decimated adult turtles, nylon fishing nets - even discarded ones - trapped a lot of the hatchlings and caused them to die on the beaches, and finally as humans started seeing everything in nature as an economic resource, turtle eggs became fair game too. A lot has improved since Mr Sahu’s initiation into turtle conservation. Trawlers are restricted in breeding and hatching seasons and people no longer dig out turtle eggs. This year, nearly 4 lakh females arrived on these beaches to lay their eggs, a high watermark since some sort of record-keeping started a few decades ago. Of course, not all of the success is attributable to Mr. Sahu, but he has managed something that is, maybe, the hardest part of conservation: he won his people over and made them aware of their special place in this biospheric drama that spans continents.
Yet the balance is still fragile and the turtles face a lot of dangers. Both adults and hatchlings still get caught in fishing nets. Eggs in the loose sand are easy pickings for stray dogs. Turtle hatchlings, which are believed to rely on light from celestial bodies to orient themselves, get thrown off by sources of artificial light that dot the beaches now. Many of the hatchlings spend their reserve energy walking in the direction away from water and end up dying. Habitat loss continues, and there’s always the spectre of mindless “development” that hangs around everywhere in the third world, that could decimate populations.

For now, the scenes on the beach are heart-warming. Sahu and his merry men walk the sands guarding the nests and cleaning the beach of discarded nets and debris. The locals - mostly kids and villagers - participate too, rescuing trapped hatchlings and helping them on their way to the sea. All this is thanks mostly to Mr. Sahu’s proselytising efforts. He carpet bombs his message to the kids in the area, spending a lot of his time and even some of his money in breeding successors for his work. And just like with the species he is protecting, if one in a thousand of his eggs hatch, the beautiful annual drama on these shores will continue.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Our national jester is known to tweet the most inane thoughts. This time was no different.

While still lamenting C-bag’s philistine ways, I was thinking of the answer to the question of “What do historians do?” and it struck me that I know so little about the process of how history is compiled. At the time, I had filed in my mental cupboard somewhere the wish to come back and learn about that process. My curiosity was finally addressed by Charles Allen’s Ashoka.

For someone who now holds such a prominent place in the pantheon of our past rulers, Ashoka was relatively unknown in our mainstream culture till nearly the beginning of the 19th century. Ashoka describes the painstaking incremental process of fitting together discoveries that eventually converged into the view we now have of that complex emperor. This book is as much about Ashoka as the historical process. For me it was fascinating how multi-disciplinary in nature History really is; numismatics, archaeology, theology, linguistics, all come to the fore. Above all, I found the palaeography of Pali to be the most remarkable aspect of the unlocking of Ashoka’s story. As we developed our understanding of Pali (along with the deciphering of the Brahmi script and the Prakrit language) our picture of Ashoka and his ideas kept getting richer. There were all sorts of personalities that played a part; travellers from China, kings of Sri Lanka, monks of Tibet. Above all, our white masters took time out between all the exploitation for the pursuit of knowledge about a foreign country. I’m really grateful they did that.

In a country as big as ours I’m certain there are still pieces of the jigsaw waiting to add details to the stories we know. Think about it; millennia of unbroken civilisation! Every inch of our current land most have a story or dozen to tell. That brings me to the tweet I mentioned at the top of the post. I’m just not sure enough of us are interested in unearthing them, or if enough of our kids even know it is an option to be a historian, and even when they do, if there are avenues to pursue that vocation. We’re all too busy trying to get into IITs or sweating it out in B-schools turning ourselves into anonymous generalists. I do hope that once we get into higher income brackets as a nation we’ll find the inspiration to devote a greater proportion of our resources in learning more about our incredible past.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Scrub Jungles Around Hampi

Our guide on the safari through Daroji sanctuary pointed at this Painted Sandgrouse from just about 3-4 metres away. It still took me a full two minutes to spot this beautiful male.

Once I located it, I couldn't believe I let something this striking escape me. This uncanny camouflage perfected over millenia of natural selection seems to be a primary defence mechanism. This individual was so confident of its ability to blend in that it stayed motionless even though we had got to within an arm's length of him (without we realizing it, of course). Once he -yes, they are sexually dimorphic- did figure out that we had spotted him he used his other defensive technique- he sprang out of his squat and took off at an enormous speed. Before my eyes could focus he had dived in and become one with the earth again.

That seems to be a common trick with terrestrial birds. I've seen Nightjars use that method - trust your camouflage but have a backup plan. More than a handful of times I've been startled by the heavy flight of bushquails who took off from almost near my feet with me having no idea that they were there.

Our trip to Daroji was full of such finds. A painted spurfowl that blended in into the red soil, fledling Eagle owls on the rock face of a canal wall, rock agamas that seemed like extensions of rocks they were sitting on. I remember another not-so-popular protected scrub near Chitradurga, Jogi Matti, that seemed to have a tale to tell in every square metre too. Yet, both these places don't seem to woo enough tourists; in both cases the staff outnumbered the visitors. We seem to have an inherent bias, surely reinforced by marketing, to associate 'Nature' with only places that are evergreen, but these dry environs have their own rich stories. Just like with the Sandgrouse, though, if you're not looking out for them you'll walk past without finding them.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


Was watching the farewell speech, and realised the Obama groupie in me is still alive. I'm going to miss him.

I often wonder about how Obama's legacy will age. He didn't really deserve the Nobel prize. He didn't do as much as the heady days of 2008 promised. Gitmo is still on and troops are still in Afghanistan. A lot of his fragile wins, achieved through executive action, may be rolled back by the strange man that succeeds him.

And yet, on so many issues - global warming, same-sex marriage, race relations, universal healthcare - he was, in my opinion, so far on the right side of history, I predict that even though we'll see an undermining of his impact in the short run, the world will come around to giving him his due. Everything else apart, his effortless charm, humour, decency and kindness do have that timelessnesses about them. He may have made those qualities cool again. That part of the legacy may be safe after all. And that may be the only sort of legacy that matters in the end.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Reading in 2016

The decreased commute time this year that came with moving to an office closer to home had one more benefit; my reading output. World War 2 continued to dominate my reading this year. Each of these books about the subject threw a different light on the crazy war. 

If This Is A Man/The Truce - Primo Levi: The first time I heard of Primo Levi was during a visit to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam. A plaque there carried a quote by Levi 'One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.'. The haunting simplicity of those words had stayed with me, and Levi's name had stayed in my reading wishlist. "If This is a Man/The Truce" lived up to the expectation that those words had created in my head. Bringing a chemist's objectivity to his observations in Auschwitz, Levi manages to make this account heartbreaking even for someone like me who has read dozens on the subject of Holocaust. The Truce, the second part of this twin edition, was a bigger revelation for me. I had always thought of the war as a string of horrors that abruptly ended in 1945. As The Truce reveals, for the survivors, the tragedy continued for the several months more that it took them to find their way back home and to slip into normal (if it could be called that) lives. 
Suite française- Irène Némirovsky: Irene Nemirovsky planned for this to be a 5-part novel. Only the first two were discovered and published by her daughters several years after Nemirovsky's death. The novel's jewish author met her end in a concentration camp.

The next two, one a non-fiction and the other a historical fiction, documented the role of my own country in the world war. Most history that we study in Indian schools tend to be flattened out narratives convenient to whatever party is in power at that moment. These two books are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the subcontinent's role in the wartime period better. 

ಮರಳಿ ಮಣ್ಣಿಗೆ - ಕೋಟ ಶಿವರಾಮ ಕಾರ೦ತ (Marali Mannige - K Shivarama Karantha): Each year I make an attempt to read at least one book in my native tongue. This year I managed an all-time classic. At the risk of sounding parochial, no English writing does justice to the rhythms of this land as the local masters. 

Other top recommendations

The rest that didn't make as much of an impression
From Soup to Superstar: The Story of Sea Turtle Conservation along the Indian Coast - Karthik Shanker (Actually, this one made just enough of an impression to book my travel to the famed turtle hatcheries in Odisha.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

Physical activity in 2016 or the benefits of living close to the workplace

I've always acknowledged the theoretical benefits of staying close to one's place of work, and even enjoyed it a little bit during my year in Thanjavur. This was the first time in Bangalore, though, that I've lived at a distance where commute was a negligible portion of my time in a day. This was also the year when it hit me what a difference it makes to the time and energy you have left at the end of a workday, especially in a city as perpetually gridlocked as mine. The short commute is by far the biggest reason  I finally managed to hit my long-pending goal of running a 1000 kms in a calendar year.

It also helped that Koramangala (as opposed to, say, anywhere near the ring road) was the place of both my work and home. I could afford to bike to work on most days without fearing for my life. So, despite not doing as many long rides as in other years I still managed to hit the goal of a 1000 kms this calendar year. The light yellow is all bike commute.   

When the weather is pleasant, which thankfully is still in a lot of days in a year in this city, the tree-lined trees of Koramangala are perfect for a nice walk. The goal of 300kms was met quite easily.
 And I even managed to squeeze in a bit of swimming.
Next year's goal is to replicate this year's for running, walking and cycling, and add 20 km of swimming to it. 

Best run of 2016: It's a toss up between the 47:30 in this year's TCS 10k and a gorgeous waterfront run at Akaroa in New Zealand.
Best bike ride: The 90 km cycling by the pipeline road that runs along Kanakapura road (why hadn't I discovered that before!!)
Best walk: The bird walk in Te Anau in New Zealand. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gannets of Muriwai

In my family, it’s now an established custom of sorts that most of our travel includes a good share of birding, and my wife has been a good sport about it. The first place we visited in New Zealand was a nesting colony of Australasian Gannets some 40 kms away from Auckland in a beach-side town called Muriwai.

We got our first glimpse of the gannets almost as soon as we stopped the car at the designated area. I’m not proud to admit it but I qualify as someone who is known in birding circles as a “twitcher”, and my first instinct when I see a bird is to get a record shot for my life list. It was a blustery day - we were in the roaring forties after all - and it wasn’t easy to get a respectable photo of the airborne birds as the vortices made them fly unpredictable paths. We walked further up the road, turned a corner, and realised I needn’t have fussed about getting those difficult shots at all. The cliff that was now visible was full of breeding gannets who seemed to scarcely mind the presence of humans.

Birds in New Zealand evolved without the presence of land predators. It’s amusing to see them venture close to humans oblivious to the dangers we could pose them. I’m not sure if that’s the only reason for the Gannets being comfortable with us getting close to them. Taxonomists who classified the Gannets seemed to know about their absurd lack of fear, and put them down in a genus called Morus, which derives its name from the greek word “Moros” meaning “foolish.

We spent a good hour getting a close look at the birds going about their business - preening, mating, flying, frolicking, as I took the occasional photograph, not for the last time in NZ, with my 50mm lens.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Farm Diary - Finding Water. Chapter 1- Science Edition

It’s been said of the area around Ramanagara that the gods played marbles here leading to the dramatic rock formations that you see in this region. Our farm sits nestled among such giant granite rocks. Wherever uncultivated the vegetation is mostly dry-deciduous and these rocks don’t see too much rain. According to the Köppen classification this area falls under the Tropical-Savannah climate which is characterized by pronounced dry seasons. The fully grown mango trees that mostly dot our farm cope with extended dry spells pretty well. In fact, there is a prevailing - but unvalidated - belief that says mangoes turn out sweeter when the pre-summer months are dry. However, the newer saplings that we’ve planted in the last couple of years take a real beating in the dry months. We’ve managed with short term solutions so far, such as bringing in water through tankers but we knew at some point that we had to find a more robust solution. This year we decided to dig a borewell.

For the kind of proliferation of borewells that we’ve seen in these parts there’s surprisingly little organised information available about the process of checking a land for the feasibility of groundwater. With a little asking around we narrowed down on Mr. SCK, an elderly gentleman, now retired, who had served as a geologist in various state departments. We fixed an appointment with him one sunny Sunday morning. When we went to pick him up early in the morning Mr. SCK was at the appointed place and hour and had that countenance that told me that he would have been cross if we were even a minute late. He was neatly dressed, tucked in t-shirt and, like any self-respecting south indian male of that age would, had his trousers begin at the belly. He had some large maps in hand. Despite the voluntary nature of this consultation, he was not going to be cavalier about this task. Something told me this was going to be an interesting day.

An hour into the journey, we left the madness of the Mysore highway behind as we took the turn into the country roads that lead to the farm. As man-made constructions thinned out and the rocky features peculiar to this district exposed themselves Mr SCK came into his own. Very soon we realized that this gentleman’s tenure at the various state departments had been no sinecure. He talked about the rocks like they were family. He regaled us with stories of the seismic events that had shaped this land. I learned a great deal about the rocks in our area and it turns out that the gods had not played marbles after all. A granite formation, nearly 400 kms long but only 30km across, known as the Closepet Granites, broke through the deccan plateau nearly 200 million years ago creating the dramatic rocks that you see along the NH4, all the way up to Hospet. As we drove along, he explained how the various alignment of the features in these parts made the river Arkavathy take the course that she does. When we reached the farm he continued the geo-forensics, using the hints on the ground to glean what lay below the soil. Every single thing he noticed - the density of the foliage, the dried up ridges that become streams only during the monsoons, the height of the trees, the nature of the rocks sticking out - served as hints to understand the unseen features below us.

Source: Wikimedia
In the end, he came to the conclusion that our farm is a really a thin layer of top soil sitting on very large rock whose thickness could be hard to determine. He said, rather bluntly, that there would be very little chance of finding water in this place. While pointing out two or three places that may hold some promise, he also cautioned us to get this scientifically tested before we start digging.

Not finding water in this land would severely limit our plans for this farm in the future. At some point we had been planning to live on a little house here, and without a predictable source of water that plan would have to be abandoned. On our drive back there was a pall of gloom in the car as we reconciled with the dashed hopes. Meanwhile, Mr. SCK didn’t help the mood much with his subsequent choice of topics. He was describing all the corruption he had seen during his tenure at the geological society. He attributed our lack of planning, and in cases connivance, to the decline of our storied land. The Arkavathy, for instance, shows up as a blue line on the map not far from our property, but in reality it is a near-dry valley carrying some sewage from the last town it passed through. Stories after stories had the same theme, of how humanity’s short-sightedness was transforming the land faster than is good for us. Yet, it was a strange experience that despite the cynicism in our conversation I was simultaneously fascinated by the intimacy of knowledge and concern that Mr. SCK exuded. We dropped him off at his house, and he signed off with a disclaimer that no person, and not even the most advanced techniques, can guarantee the outcome when it comes to digging a borewell. We can only improve probabilities. Those words didn’t quell my pessimism, but our short time with him had still counted as one of my most memorable experiences. I came off feeling like I understood my own land a little better.

Friday, August 05, 2016


The late 80s, as I recall, was a fairly productive period for Kannada cinema. Every so often there would appear an unmistakable classic - Minchina Ota, Accident, Tabarana Kathe to name a few. Yet, you could already see that, at the time, the film industry was increasingly getting peopled by untalented star kids, and was driven by a sycophantic fandom which had abysmally low standards and zero expectations. The downward spiral into mediocrity was almost too inevitable. There were the odd ones in the industry, like G Kasaravalli, who toiled on and won awards in obscure film festivals, but their work had a perception of inaccessibility that never made them garner mass appeal. The rest of the industry, meanwhile, doled out drivel week after blighted week, in a trend that continues to this day.

Amidst that bleakness comes a movie like Thithi that breaks all the cliches and formulae, both of the commercial and arthouse cinema of this region. It’s about poor people but does not use poverty to invoke pathos. It’s set in a village but does not use the rural setting to imply some imagined purity or innocence. It uses the delightful Mandya and Hubli accents but not just for comic relief. It is realistic (doesn't even employ real actors, for gods' sake) but does not make realism an end in itself. It packs loads of humour but does not need an over-the-top ham actor to invoke cheap laughs. And in Gaddappa it has one truly memorable character. On the surface he is a simple old man addicted to his disposable bottles of cheap liquor. Yet he carries a mysticism of someone who has accessed higher truths. That the director manages that sophistication of character-building with a non-actor is what makes this movie a true master class.

The movie is an experience, but it’s not flawless. The visual finesse (the one thing that Indian cinema seems to be getting right lately) is missing. The subtitles are horrendous. The casting of ordinary people as actors makes some of the performances stilted, but yet the movie gets most other things right. The social commentary is spot on. For instance, it accurately captures how my people are least concerned about the living, but every person and his uncle makes it his business to have a say in how the rites of a dead man have to be conducted. My favourite part, though, were the last few frames. The final scene melts the fourth wall in the most delightful way. Are we watching the movie or are the characters in that movie watching us back?

As the lights came back on in the movie hall, I admit I felt a wee bit of parochial pride as I reminded myself that this was a kannada movie in its fourth week still being watched by a sellout crowd in an upmarket multiplex. The movie was even reviewed by The Economist. I don’t believe that’s ever happened before to a movie from this state! Every slightly watchable movie sparks off talks of a renaissance among us, but it has usually turned out to be a false dawn. This time, though, I'm daring to hope.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

TCS 10K: Edition 9

Couldn't hit the targeted 46, but still recorded a personal best 47:29.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Farm Diary: 1. First Big Summer of Mangoes

Under a blazing afternoon sun, three of us are picking mangoes off the ground, discarding the ones that seem damaged or unfresh, and making a heap out of the others, to be collected later. Every now and then, we skin one of the mangoes we have picked, and take a bite of the pulp. We discard the ones that don’t meet the very highest standard we have set for our collection today. We devour the ones that make the cut. One of the pickers is my dad, who in an unusual eschewal of grace and dignity, has mango juice dripping down his forearms, and has pieces of the fruit sticking to his chin. The other companion is my cousin, who is relishing both the fruit and the abandon with which we are attacking them. At that moment, I can’t help feel that this is the way food has to be eaten.

That yearning of the primitive is one of the factors that made me buy this farm, located off a village called Kavanapura, in the district of Ramanagara. I come from a family of farmers. In fact, my father is one of the few non-farmers in a lineage that goes back several generations on both the maternal and paternal branches of the family tree. Even people who pursued white-collar careers - and that includes both my grandfathers, and several of my uncles- returned to the farmland for their retirements. Having idolised them through childhood, that path now seems like the natural progression of life. The romanticism aside, I do have a dystopian view of the future both for my city, and for the globe. At some point I would like to lead a carbon-neutral existence and I do want to have a place to move to before the whole of Bangalore starts to look like the Outer ring road (which is not far away). Along with those other reasons, my friends, rather uncharitably, also accuse me of picking this sport because I don’t know how else to spend my money.

For the nearly three years that I’ve owned the land, I’ve only involved myself passively. This year I started to participate a little more closely. The picture that you see above is an effort to maintain a log of every tree in the farm and to track their growth and progress. (Hypocrisy alert: for all the “yearning of the primitive” I’m a sucker for data capture, gadgets and tech.) I now know that we have five distinct cultivars growing in this land. Raspuri, my favorite variety, is well represented. Badami, the most profitable of them, grows on a couple of dozen trees too. The third variety is Sindura which is the staple of the Ganesh juice centers that you see around every corner in Bangalore. The fourth variety, used mostly for pickles, is oddly named Omelette. This season I discovered a fifth variety that our lessee calls “Shiri”. I did a little research and can only conclude that this is actually the Dasheri, which is popular in the north of the country. Dasheri is a real juicy treat inside the unappetising cover, which is green and thick even on ripe mangoes. We happen to have just one tree of this kind, and that’s where we spent most of our time this afternoon. Over the last few weeks we’ve repeated the savagery of our picking routines. And for the first time in three years I feel intimately connected with every tree in the property. Since this season was a good one for mangos, the next year is likely to be slim pickings. But we do have plans for this monsoon and I’m hoping to document my experiences religiously. Watch this space.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Vultures of Corbett

Vultures belonging to three separate species - Himalayan, Red-headed & Egyptian - converge on a spotted deer carcass, presumably killed by a tiger the previous night, in Corbett National Park. There used to be a time when this congregation wouldn't have been an unusual sight but in the recent couple of decades a combination of habitat loss and indiscriminate use of diclofenac has driven vultures close to extinction. The Himalayan Vulture is classified as "Near Threatened", the Red-headed Vulture as "Critically Endangered" and the Egyptian as "Endangered". My son may never see scenes as sublime as this. What a shame that would be.

Who says Caste is dead?

As an atheist, hanging around mostly in upper middle class crowds in urban India, it's easy for me to believe that the idea of "caste" is irrelevant and on its way out. But a quick scan on the roads of Bangalore tells me there is still a large section of society for which this identity is important enough to announce it through stickers on their vehicles. Sadly, the caste system is far from its death. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Nicholas Stargardt's The German War

There's a scene in Roman Polanski's The Pianist in which the protagonist, Władysław Szpilman, gets discovered by a Nazi captain, Wilm Hosenfeld, in the ruins of a house in Warsaw in which the former is hiding. After a tense pause in which the viewer is left guessing about the outcome of that encounter the German officer decides to hide the pianist and later even starts to regularly bring him food. Hosenfeld's actions have a certain quality that you don't normally associate with heroism, sneakiness. I remember wondering about what drove him to take such enormous risks keeping the pianist alive through the war. Did he save other jews too? For someone with a conscience how conflicting was it to dispense his duties to such a monstrous regime? I've wondered what it would be like to get into the heads of everyday Germans as they waddled through a war that they had thrust upon the world.

Nicholas Stargardt's "The German War" tries to do that. Quoting letters and diaries written by ordinary Germans through the war, the book offers a glimpse of how everyday citizens interpreted the goings-on. It's easy to think of the second world war as an episode involving wily generals, scheming mad-men, marauding war machines, and ruthless strategies, but underneath it all were a billion little human dramas being played out. The letters chosen in the book provide fascinating answers to questions I have often chewed on. What did the ordinary Germans think about their role in the war? Or about the holocaust? What did the soldiers think about invading Poland? Or later, Russia? What did liberal Germans think about the racial discourse of the time? What was the church's role in all of it? Where were the conscientious objectors?

There are people of all shades who turn up in the book. There are a few who live in denial, continuing to believe till the end that Germany was the true victim, first of Versailles, then of "World Jewry and Bolshevism" and later of the Allies' attacks. There are those that are downright evil (Goebbel's diary is quoted liberally). There are other willing folks of varying degrees of complicity who approve of the conduct of their country. There are the mere pawns of a vile system who get driven into being hapless accomplices, or as Wiesenthal called them, "desk murderers". There are the supremely lucky ones, such as one Jewish man who manages to take on an Aryan identity through the entire duration of the war. And then there are the understated heroes like Hosenfeld. None of these stories make it easier to understand the war, though. Hosenfeld, the rare hero in a messed up time, for example, lands up in a Soviet PoW camp and dies a dishonorable death, probably during the course of torture by the "good" guys of the war. Reading this book was a strange experience. It made history seem richer. It didn't make the war seem any less absurd. It convinces me that civilization is such a thin veneer, waiting for the next perfect storm or the next great manipulator to peel it off.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Reading in 2015

Top picks for 2015 would be 
  • This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein: COP-21 happened a few weeks after I finished reading this book, and it was truly depressing how far we are from really dealing with climate change with the urgency that it deserves. "History knocked on your door, did you answer?" asks one of the author's friends who appears in the book. The answer for our generation, and I'm as guilty as the next person, is a sad 'No'. 
  • Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition - Nisid Hajari: When it comes to the Indo-pak partition, you can't really trust our history textbooks because the narratives are too busy trying to flatter our side of the story. I suspect that that's the case in Pakistan too. This books is refreshing in that its written by someone who is far enough removed to list down events without taking sides, but close enough that he feels for the subject.
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan: My obligatory WW-II indulgence. An earlier post about the book.  
  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan: As someone who tries to optimize his eating patterns for both a smaller carbon footprint and better long-term health, the pop-sci literature can be confusing as hell. This book was of help. I loved the 7-word thumb-rule that Pollan offers "Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much". 
  • Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy - Mihir Sharma: I almost gave up the book on account of its overly sardonic tone, but I'm glad I didn't. This book makes some good recommendations for an under-performing economy. Also reminds you of the opportunity that Manmohan Singh and PVN missed in 1991. 
Honorable mentions
These two were letdowns
Volume-wise, I managed just about a book a month in 2015 and that was largely due to the books that I abandoned mid-way for various reasons. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Stickiness of Amazon's Values

“Frugality”, indicating the quality of being thrifty or economical, is a word people (at least non-native English speakers) are not likely to have in their active vocabularies. Google Books' usage stats show above also seems to indicate that it's a word gradually losing favor with English speakers. Yet this quaint-ish word survives, and perhaps even thrives, in one place: Amazon, the ecommerce company which happened to be my employer till a couple of months ago. “Frugality” is one of the fourteen phrases, or “Leadership Principles” as they are referred to internally, that are meant to define Amazon’s culture. When I came across those values I remember being impressed by their completeness and brevity. In my time at Amazon I found that the adherence to the principles formed an invisible pact among my colleagues that helped me understand the company’s expectation from me, and shaped what I should expect from my colleagues (and vice versa). In fact, I believe most of these principles are good enough to carry with me even after I’ve left the company. The leadership principles are not what I want to talk about in this post, though. I’m more interested in how Amazon makes them stick.

Every company I’m familiar with makes an attempt to capture its culture in a few pithy phrases. In most companies those words merely serve the purpose of making it easy for the senior managers to pay lip service to some unattainable ideal. Ordinary rank and file would struggle to remember their company’s values. The few companies who are serious about retaining their culture invariably struggle to not dilute it when they scale. And that’s what sets Amazon apart. Talk to anybody at any level in Amazon and you’ll see not only a solid understanding but a remarkable, some would say cultish, adherence to those 14 principles.

So how is Amazon so successful at propagating these principles? Here are a few ways, I believe, they do it:

Leadership Principles Training: This is a straightforward mechanism which involves a seasoned Amazonian (that’s what an employee is called there) introducing the value system to the new hires during their induction into the company.
Hiring and Interviewing: Amazon uses a ‘Bar Raiser’ to vet every hire made, whether they are the junior-most fresher-out-of-campus or a very senior leader. The Bar Raiser typically would have had a long tenure in the company, would have conducted a few hundred interviews and would himself have been vetted by an accomplished bar raiser. While this centralized selection is a good gating mechanism I think the true genius is in how every single interviewer gauges a candidate for culture fitment. Everyone who has to interview at Amazon goes through an orientation session on how to assess for values. While doing the interviews a typical interviewer checks not only for functional expertise (say coding skills or design) but also one or two leadership principles (say, Customer Obsession or Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit). This accomplishes two things, the interviewer is not only selecting for people with the prescribed cultural traits, but with every interview and with the debrief that follows it she is refining her own understanding of the leadership principles. Since Amazon is perpetually hiring, the values are always in the forefront and always getting reinforced.

Rewards and Recognitions: The awards meant to recognise individual or team performance are centred around a leadership principle. The reward for an individual innovating around a difficult hurdle is a Cowboy Hat meant to reinforce ‘Bias for Action’. A thrifty solution to a problem, referring to the value ‘Frugality’,  is recognised by a miniature door desk. The door desk is a reference to a story, part apocryphal I’m certain, about Jeff Bezos saving costs by nailing four legs onto a door to make it a desk during the early days of the company.

Reviews: Apart from receiving a rating for performance Amazon employees are also rated on leadership principles. All the feedback, whether they are from peers or from managers, are structured around the leadership principles. There's simply no hiding from them.

Of course, there are other propaganda material such as posters or tchotchkes around the office that constantly remind you of the values. The true staying power of the values, though, are through a more invisible medium. When a sufficiently large majority has been indoctrinated through the various techniques I listed above, the value system is almost self-propagating, needing only a few lightweight interventions. The tacit social contract does a remarkable job of rewarding the conformists and ejecting the heretic. That’s partly the reason why Amazon is such a polarizing environment; there are those who swear by it and then there are others who are creeped out, with almost nobody in between. I believe this successful mechanism of replicating its culture in an undiluted way is the reason Amazon, despite its size, is still able to function like a startup.