Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Secularization of Festivals

Back in the day, different festivals meant different things. Sankranti was about sharing the bounties of your harvest. Ugadi was about reminding yourself to have the equanimity to accept both the sweet and bitter of life. Diwali was about driving to Hosur to buy cheap crackers put together by child labourers in Sivakasi so that you could indulge in a large-scale assault on my right to clean air. Ganesha Habba was about introducing toxic lead paints into all our local water bodies.

Now all festivals mean the same thing. "This XXX, head to your nearest mall to buy things you don't really need for a discount that's not really there". Replace XXX with the festival of your choice - Christmas, Diwali, Eid or Navroz- and you know that that announcement works. Congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, the secularization of our festivals is complete.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Notes (to self, and others) on conservation

Just because you do the following don't mean you are a conservationist
* Watching BBC nature documentaries
* Recycling your waste
* Recognizing and photographing wild birds
* Sporting "Coorg Wildlife Society" bumper stickers (Who is behind that proliferation, anyway!?)
* Going on treks with Bangalore Mountaineering Club

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Recommendation: The Meadow

One of the joys of reading a work of fiction is when you finish the book, you experience a sensation of leaving a world behind. Especially in the case of a tragedy when you feel attached enough with the imaginary world that you feel a cloud of gloom hanging over your head but detached enough that you feel gratified from experiencing that world and at the same time have no problem getting on with real life. When the work is non-fiction, however, and it concerns a land that you've visited and an incident that you were old enough to remember vividly, the sadness won't be compartmentalized anymore.

The Meadow describes the events around the kidnapping of six foreign tourists from the Kashmir valley in 1995. Too many of us are taught to believe that Kashmir is a simplistic case of a neighbour trying to snatch what is rightfully ours. Somehow the whole place is filled with single dimensional innocent cutouts that are caught in a game played by politicians. And perhaps, the blacks and whites of that portrait just have to be inverted to see Pakistan's version. With its thorough research, this account digs deep into many of the characters, and perhaps, that's why left me feeling defeatist about whether it's possible to extricate ourselves out of the mess. Both the people of the valley and the officials who govern them are victims for the most part, but also can be perpetrators in measures that vary with circumstance. The role of the neighbour does not come as a surprise but what's most disappointing is the duplicity of my own country. Everything seems to be set up, on all sides, to win the tactical day-to-day battles even at the risk of dehumanizing everyone in the process. So forget about the border getting decided amicably any time soon. Forget about not worrying about bombs going off in our parliaments and in our trains. Forget about repatriating people who were chased out of their ancestral homes. This mess is here to stay for a while.

I wanted to also add that you should read the book for its extensive research and its effective prose, but, like I said, stepping back and appreciating the aesthetics of a narrative of something so upsetting is hard to do just yet.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Caste Trap

I believe that there is such a thing as a poverty trap and that a good portion of the people born in poor families will die poor too. I also believe that any decent civilized state has a responsibility in creating enough opportunities for poor people to escape their predicament. My country's response to that was caste-based reservation (ok! ok! reservation targets other aspects of social justice than poverty alone, but let's keep it simple here). I'm not as singularly oppposed to reservation as most urban educated middle class folks from my generation are but here's my beef with it. It ends up creating a "self-reinforcing mechanism which causes casteism to persist" (and here i'm borrowing from Costas Azariadis and John Stachurski, "Poverty Traps," Handbook of Economic Growth, 2005) as this little table shows. This is from a public school in a remote village in the Pandavapura Taluka of Mysore district. They proudly show off the number of kids from the lower castes who are enrolled in their schools. They probably have targets to meet too. I'm not grudging the kids their rightful place in that school, but I cringed when I saw this kind of reporting in school after school. While attempting to dismantle the poverty trap, I believe we are creating a robust caste trap.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Whale watching at San Juan Islands

Orca Jump
I wonder what it would be like to get inside the head of an orca. Maybe I'll find that their undulations at the surface are nothing but a part of their regular breathing. Maybe I'll discover that their enthusiastic jumps and splashy landings are nothing but a mundane response to a mundane stimulus that we don't know about. Maybe they are sticking to their groups just because there is safety in numbers. Maybe it's not really as much fun as it appears to be.

I don't know why they do things they do, but on this bright, clear, un-Seattle-like, warm evening near San Juan Islands, these whales gamboled, splattered and played and infected us with their apparent joy. For two hours they convinced us that we were in paradise too.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Ankegowda's library

Back in high school our curriculum included an essay about a craftsman from rural Karnataka who earned his living carving hand-made combs from wood. The focus of the essay was on how modernization was flooding the market with cheap plastic combs and in the process taking away our protagonist's livelihood.The pathos in the essay was persuasive and we were convinced that the government had to step in and help this artisan. Decades of Nehru-Gandhi had also ensured that we were sold on the idea of a nanny-state. Just to trigger a debate, our teacher, without letting us in on her own beliefs, had asked us to explain why we think the government had a role to play in this. Didn't the craftsman have the responsibility to adapt?

I had been unable to decide back then. I was in a similar dilemma last weekend when, while traveling around Mysore, we stumbled on one Mr.Ankegowda. The protagonist here used to be an employee with the sugar factory in Pandavapura. During his tenure there Mr.Ankegowda dedicated nearly 80% of his salary to buying books and in the course of time built a personal library of nearly 10,000 books. He lost his full time job at the factory and turned to his library as a full time occupation. Mr Khoday, of Old Monk fame, was so impressed with the collection that he had a library built. After moving in to its new home the library grew to its current size, boasting about 30k volumes. It has taken enormous resourcefulness on the part of the collection's owner. Even on the day I was there, Mr. Ankegowda was excited about Mysore university auctioning off some of the books from its library that didn't see too much circulation.

Now the beast is big enough that it can't sustain itself and Mr. Ankegowda has been persuading the government to step in and do its bit. Personally, I'm not convinced if state revenue should be used to sustain one man's obsession, but I must say that the place has enough charm that I'd be disappointed to see it neglected. When you are near Mysore, be sure to visit and spend some time at this place. The library lends itself better to serendipitous discovery rather than planned browsing so hop from one stack to the other. You are likely to get served tea by Mr. Ankegowda's wife and if you are friendly enough you might even get invited for lunch. Meanwhile, get the shy Mr. Ankegowda to warm up to you and let you into his secret cache- coins, first editions of various magazines, rare gazettes. On your way out be sure to drop a little something into a box labelled 'Hundi'. There are some obsessions worth preserving.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The 10k run - edition 5

Two years ago, I ran the Bengaluru 10k in 55:07 and finished 447th. This time I timed 53:18 and yet finished 459th. One of three things is happening:

  • Semi-serious amateur runners from other cities are starting to participate in this event (I did see a lot of Chennai and Hyderabad tees). 
  • Bangaloreans are training harder. 
  • More and more people are taking up running. 
 Whatever the reason, these stats clearly indicate a speed inflation and are actually quite motivating. Not all stats are that encouraging though. Take this one for its sheer unattainability; a guy from our football gang finished the circuit in 37:12.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Safaris are designed to be frantic so that you increase your exposure to the marquee species of the place. You run from one place to the other alarming some animals and annoying others. They are fun but they are also disingenious in that they misrepresent the forest by turning it into a spectacle it usually is not. For me the truest sense of the rhythms of the Corbett National park came when we were motionless.

The first was on the top of a watch tower where we spent a little over four hours. This was at a distance of less than half a kilometer from where we had earlier spotted a tiger. There were a few dozen deer lazing in the sun and our knowledge of the tiger filled the air with such a sense of anticipation that none of the 20-odd people on the tower dared speak above a whisper for nearly 3 hours. And in that time what happened was what usually happens in a forest, nothing! Some deer moved their ears occassionally and some birds dropped by at the water hole for a drink or two. A couple of bee-eaters would leave their perch excitedly only to return within the same second. Apart from that everything else moved reluctantly. Even time.

The previous night had had a different cadence to it. We were woken up by thunder and lightning threatening to raze our guesthouse down. The winds had slammed our windows so hard that their glass had shattered and the violence had gone on for very long. I can't tell you how long because the experience was just as time-distorting as our stay on the machan but in the other direction.

The most memorable moment was when our guide heard a noise and quickly parked his car, killed the engine and started communicating in sign language. A few seconds later we heard the grunt of a tiger from not more than 300m. Our guide was confident that this was a tigress calling out to her newly independent offsprings and that one or more of them would respond. For an eternity nothing happened. Only the jungle fowl and langur seemed extra chipper. Suddenly, about 50m behind us, a handsome young male crossed our path in the direction of the call. There's nothing quite like seeing a tiger in the wild.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great Living Chola Temples

I've written enough about the Big Temple at Thanjavur, but on my last visit there I got to visit the two lesser known cousins of the great Chola monument. The three temples in the image above are, from left to right, Brihadeeshwara Temple at Thanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram temple and the Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram, all built within 2 centuries of each other by rulers of the Chola dynasty. I've tried to represent them in the actual proportion of their sizes. Clearly the Thanjavaur monument dwarfs the rest, but the two smaller ones more than make up in terms of their sculptural brilliance. The one at Darasuram, especially, is a treat. Even on a Sunday, my wife and I were the only two people inside the fortification that encloses the main temple. Some pictures here.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The perfect insurance against divorce

It took 42 signatures, 6 photographs, 2.5 hrs, 3 witnesses, 14 sheets of paper and lots of overall bureaucratic ill will to get our marriage registered. I didn't think I would say this, but even the cameraman-choreographed reception ceremony at a hindu wedding, where you have to stand on a stage, face harsh flashlights, and farcically smile through an evening, pales in comparison with the pointlessness of all the hoops that you have to jump through at the registrar office. The experience was as nerve-wracking as walking around the fire seven times while my dhoti was slipping away bit by bit. And what's with the denial of courtesy? The officers either had neem leaves for breakfast or they were spiritually offended by the idea of marriage itself because they frowned through the whole rigmarole and refused to even make eye contact. In the end we did celebrate the legal sanction, but on a day like this it's hard not to be libertarian.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Long flights

I'm as guilty as the next guy when it comes to taking the good stuff in life for granted and focusing too much on what's not going well. However, if there's one thing that never stops piquing my sense of wonder it is a take-off. Even in my most ragged states - deprived of sleep and with the circadian rhythm anything but rhythmic- I perk up for just the minute that it takes for liftoff and never fail to feel that momentary "I can't believe that that happened" feeling.

My second favorite thing about flying, and this applies only to long flights and the inevitable waiting in transit lounges, is the time I get to catch up on reading and watching the latest movies. Here's the list from last week's flights
  • Books
    1. Foundation - Isaac Asimov
    2. Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut
  • Movies
    1. Adventures of Tintin
    2. 50/50
    3. Ides of March
    4. Madagascar
    5. One day
    6. Moneyball
The consequence, of course, is to be a zombie for at least a couple of days after the journey. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Auroville Marathon - 2012

The tropical cyclone Thane that hit the east coast in Dec-2011 has taken a toll on the vegetation in Auroville, and the thousands of trees that lay flattened all along the Marathon trail wasn't a pretty sight. That little detail aside, personally for me, everything else was better in this edition compared to the last one. I knocked off more than a minute and a half from my time from last year to finish in 2:07:55. I even recovered quickly enough to take a 16hr flight to the US the very next day without major discomfort.

Thanks to my fancy GPS phone, I could even pace myself well, resisting the temptation to go faster when the legs were fresh.This is how I did in each of the 21 odd kms

The standout memory from this trip was the initiation of several of my ex-colleagues into running, thanks to my friend, Rosie. I will never forgot how Arunski running his first half marathon, cantered across the finish, assumed the Usain 'lightning' Bolt pose, and asked "When's the next Marathon?".

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Art of Fielding

There are a gazillion movies based on the theme of an underdog sports team overcoming odds to make it big. Invariably tucked in that narrative is usually an errant protagonist who finds redemption at the very end. I'm a sucker for those plots when it comes to movies, but I never thought I'd fall for it in a book too until I read Chad Harbach's Art of Fielding.

The novel was gripping from start to finish, all along making me reflect on my own sports obsessions. Here's my background; I went from being a sports fanatic who followed Cricket, NBA, Formula 1, EPL and everything in between to one who almost watched no sport in a very short time. I remember I had already tipped over to this conclusion even before I read this bit in Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent " sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view... it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance... keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about." Anyway, I was cured of all sports addiction except the one called Test Cricket. I've wondered often why that one has been so hard to shake off and this little text from Art of Fielding sums up why sports-viewing can be so compelling "The Human Condition being basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty,can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not." While I know nothing of baseball, I could relate several pieces of the book to my own joy of watching cricket. In some oblique way I could also relate it to the travails of three fading stars in our own cricket team; Dravid who seems to have lost his sense of timing, as much in his shot-making as in his retirement planning, Laxman, whose insistence on sticking to his place has finally made it legal to use "unaesthetic" and "Laxman" in the same sentence, and that genius called Tendulkar, who seems to be selling his soul in the pursuit of some arbitrary numbers. I'm not sure if these protagonists will find their redemption and finish on a high, but right now they are effectively de-addicting me from test cricket.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Turtles of Sri Lanka


So in the short time between my last post and now I went and got married, and made a trip to Sri Lanka with my new bride. I don't think I'll get the time to blog about all the places we went to, but I couldn't resist talking about our most wonderful encounter with Green Sea Turtles at the Hikkaduwa beach.

This photo is of one of two turtles we saw at the beach. Both of them are apparently so regular that the locals have given them names, Rosie and Monica. The two seemed so comfortable with humans that they almost behaved like dogs, accepting sea-weed from swimmers, approaching humans and swimming around them. This one swam so close to me that at one point she propelled herself by pushing me with her flipper.

While swimming with the big turtles was beautifully life-affirming, learning about these turtles at a nearby hatchery was sobering. They are still hunted both for their flesh and because there are curious superstitions around them. People believe that eating turtle meat extends their lifespans and makes their skins stronger. However, there are a couple of hatcheries that conserve by competing in this market. They buy out the eggs from the locals and release the hatchlings into the sea. This one is a day-old Olive Ridley Turtle.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Reading in 2011

Here's the roundup of books I read in 2011. First the books that I would strongly recommend. "Brief Interviews..." has the most number of laugh-out-loud moments of any book I've read in recent memory. Cat's Cradle, even making allowance for the fact that I'm a Vonnegut groupie, is a must-read. Sirens of Titan, I thought, is among his most under-rated works. If you are a fan of Douglas Adams you'll enjoy the obvious inspirations for HHGG. If you are remotely interested in healthcare or medicine, you'll enjoy both the non-fiction recommendations at the bottom of this list.

  • Brief Interviews With Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace
  • The Sirens of Titan - Kurt Vonnegut
  • Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut
  • Bad Science - Ben Goldacre
  • The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee
Here are the second tier of recommendations 
  • Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
  • The Price of Civilization - Jeffrey Sachs
  • The Great Stagnation - Tyler Cowen
  • A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
  • The Woman who Walked into Doors - Roddy Doyle
  • How Much Should a Person Consume? - Ramachandra Guha
  • Gandhi the Man - Eknath Easwaran
While last year I deliberately went out of my normal picks to try some science fiction, this year I read my first graphic novel.
  • Batman - The Long Halloween
Then there were books that make too much of an impression
  • The Bad Girl - Mario Vargas Llosa
  • From Yeravda Mandir - M.K. Gandhi
And finally, the books that I, for various reasons, just couldn't finish
  • The Innovator's Prescription - Clayton M. Christensen
  • The Language Instinct - Steven Pinker
  • The First and Last Freedom - J.Krishnamurti
  • The Squeeze: Oil, Money and Greed in the 21st Century - Tom Bower