Thursday, December 25, 2014

How to set up a kitchen garden

If you are a resident of Bangalore here's how you can set up a kitchen garden in your backyard, terrace or balcony.
Step 1. Recycling your wet waste: While you could buy manure from outside, I'd advise setting up your own composting unit. Daily Dump is a good place to start. You can get one of these units to convert your kitchen waste to manure.
Step 2. Set up your garden: Chances are, you don't have a garden area. That shouldn't stop you. You should get yourself one of these beds. If you are from around Koramangala you can pick these up from Agara Lake or near the Shantinagar cemetery. To get started, you may want to buy a bag of red soil and manure as well.
Step 3: Sow the seeds: I buy my seeds from Agro Seeds at Anand Rao Circle but it should be fairly easy to find an outlet near wherever you are. I have experimented with Tomato, Palak, Mint and Brinjal with varying results. If you can find some earthworms drop them into the pots as well.

Step 4: Water the plants regularly: I collect the runoff from my Reverse-Osmosis water purifier so that I can use that water for the kitchen garden.

Step 5: Reap the fruits: Fresh vegetables with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I had heard about the Vipassana meditation course from various people but all I knew about it was that you have to stay silent for 10 days. Without any other knowledge of the course, the restraint on speech had had me entertain thoughts of giving it a try. Sam Harris’s recent book “Waking up” strongly recommended Vipassana as a good entry into meditation and spirituality for the non-believer. His endorsement finally made me register. For the uninitiated, Vipassana is a 11 day residential meditation course that’s offered free of charge and hopes to introduce you to Dhamma (laws of Nature as taught by the Buddha). You have to agree to live like an ascetic - sleeping on a one-inch mattress laid out on a stone bench, eating only two meals a day, and not speaking - actually not even making eye contact - with the co-meditators for the entire duration of the course. Here I try to chronicle my experience as answers to questions I had before I went there. 

Are the days long?
You wake up at 4 AM, meditate on your haunches for a total of 11 hours in the day. In some of those slots you are challenged to not change your posture for a full hour. The last twenty minutes of such a session feel like eons. So yes, the days are awfully long but you get to experience the paradox of long days - although each waking hour feels incredibly drawn out the 10 days seem to just whizz by. 

How hard is it to not speak for 10 days? Why is this restraint there anyway?
One of the conditions of the course is that you observe Noble Silence or Arya mouna. Not only do you not speak with anybody, you avoid all sorts of communication including hand gestures or eye contact. You have to deposit your mobile phone in a safe locker. You are not allowed to even carry reading or writing material with you. The idea is to not let anything distract your mind in the pursuit of the various stages of revelation in this technique. Surprisingly, though, I found this restraint very comfortable (once and for all answering the question whether I am an introvert or an extrovert).

Why is the course free?
Historically, one of the conditions to learn Vipassana was renunciation. Hence, nobody paid to do this course and the center has tried to keep that tradition. But it serves other purposes, for instance, it suspends the sense of entitlement that comes with paying for something. 

Is it compatible with Atheism?
Buddhism is often described as atheistic because Buddha deemed the belief in god irrelevant to the pursuit of enlightenment. So it wasn’t a surprise that this course was free of all mentions of god or any of the modern day proxies for him, such as, “Energy” or “Life force” or “Something greater than us”. 

Do I have to make some uncomfortable leaps of faith?
The course is surprisingly non-sectarian. There’s not an idol of Buddha to be seen anywhere, nor do they insist on any silly rites or rituals. There’s no hero worship of the founder of the center either. However, there are some cringe-worthy explanations for observations you make during your meditation. For instance, the second phase of the meditation involves a heightened state of alertness that makes it effortless to explore the body and mind. The teacher builds some incredulous bridges of “mind-matter interactions” that would make any rational being squirm. 

What’s the teacher like?
On the first day you are asked to sit in the meditating posture and close your eyes, and then you are greeted by a voice from a speaker singing shlokas in Pali, in a tune that seems to have liberated itself from all shackles of scales and rhythm. You later learn that the voice belongs to Sri. S.N Goenka, the founder of the center that runs these courses, Dhamma paphulla. Most of the course is taught by this gentleman through recorded audio. There are even discourses every evening that are video recordings from a past course. This portly, genial, and rather humorous, gentleman is the real teacher of the course. The teacher who guides you in person sticks to merely telling you when to take your breaks. 

What are the takeaways?

The course promises nothing less than the complete understanding of the law of nature. But my takeaways, much less lofty than pledged, were very satisfying. When you sit through painful stiffness in your limbs and back for hours on end, and train to view them with equanimity (doesn’t happen till the seventh day) the pain miraculously disappears. The mindfulness that you develop before you can reach that stage is exhilarating. Of course, it’s frustrating that you can’t summon that feeling at will, and even when you do, the teacher reminds you not to crave or relish it (equanimity, sigh!). Whether you get the experience of equanimity, or those heightened states of awareness, or those stretches of time when your mind is completely in control, just the 10 days plugged out of civilization is bloody liberating. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Books that stuck

This was a list-tag thingy going on in facebook. Thought I'll copy that over here too, since this blog has seen a dry spell lately.

Selfish Gene: This belongs to the genre "You can never look at the world the same way again". Many other Dawkins's books left impressions of varying sizes on me, but I should mention "The Blind Watchmaker" and "God Delusion"

1984: Gloomy stories seem to stay longer with you than happy ones. Until it was cheapened to peddle a consumer product, this book was the best ad for democracy.

Old Man and the Sea: The power of good fiction to force empathy out of you. I distinctly remember feeling every bit of Santiago's exhaustion by the time he gets to the shore.

Tropic of Cancer: Whether a book stays with you also depends on at what stage in your life you encounter it. Tropic crossed my path when my own opinions were being formed on a variety of topics- censorship, free will, civilization- and made the kind of mark that none of the author's other books or even a re-reading of this one have made since.

Thinking, Fast and Slow: Had got me hooked on thinking about thinking. Immediately after this one, I binge-read Dennett's "Intuition Pumps" and Pinker's "How your mind works".

Slaughterhouse-Five: It's liable to change in the future, but at this moment, all things considered, Vonnegut is probably my favorite writer of fiction and Slaughterhouse-five is right at the top. Honorable mention: Cat's Cradle.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Like Anantha said, HGG is a genre on its own. What sane mind can come up with ideas like ballpoint planets, SEP fields, and an award for the most gratuitous use of the word "Belgium"?

Asterix series: Incomparable humor. I often wonder how special it must be in its original form in French.

Midnight's Children: I read this book in an 18-hr marathon, sitting in a teahouse in Leh. The setting and the book formed such a strong association that I can't think of one without remembering the other.

The Meadow: Hits home how inextricable the Kashmir situation really is through a masterful reporting of an unsolved kidnapping that happened in the valley years ago. A cloud of gloom hung over me for days after.

Carvalho (Poorna Chandra Tejaswi): The token diversity entry in this list. I'm closet-parochial about the Western Ghats, and no book I've read has quite captured that location with the same level of intimacy. And only my mother tongue seems to do that place justice.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Final thoughts on the election - or my way of dealing with the withdrawal symptoms

Modi's win didn't really surprise anyone. Only the extent of the win was mindblowing. Personally, despite being a long-time detractor I do see positives in the outcome. A near-absolute majority should ease the frustrating policy paralysis that we witnessed in the last few years. Mr. Modi, so far, has been saying all the right things. Something tells me that he is keen to leave a positive legacy and that might be a very good thing for all of us. A single party having the simple majority on its own translates to fewer egos in the coalition that need to be massaged. Lastly for a party accused of being old-fashioned they ran one hell of a 21st century campaign. It makes me believe they are capable of bringing that slickness to the functioning of the government too.

There are things I'm sceptical about, though. The looneys that usually side with the BJP, I believe, were under instructions to stay out of sight at least till the election results are declared. Expect them to slowly start crawling out of the woodwork. I'm hoping Modi's famous autocratic methods will keep the extremists on the margins. There are large sections of people that are under-represented in this Lok Sabha. The muslim representation in this parliament is a pathetic 22 out of 543 seats. In a fair world we should have had at least 4 times that number but that's a vagary of the Westminster system. I do hope that the new government will consider itself accountable to every person in the country, even folks who didn't vote for them. The party has some contentious issues on their manifesto and the people that did vote for them will ask for them to be addressed. I do hope that Modi can bury some of those issues (the temple!) and go after the others (uniform civil code) with finesse and restraint.

Personally for me, as a supporter of AAP, this election has been disappointing. I'm left with a lot of what-ifs. Kejriwal hasn't been an easy leader to cheer. While his unreasonableness got him the early gains, the same trait was a handicap in this election. I believe if Kejriwal had been pragmatic, contested in Delhi, and used his time and energy to help his other colleagues win, we would have seen 10-15 AAP MPs. Someone like Yogendra Yadav would have been a fine man to sit in the opposition. I do hope that they continue to grow in strength because there is a need for a party like AAP that is uncompromising on corruption, does not have a phobia of muslims or sexual minorities, and can actually make politics look like a career option for anyone in the land. But I believe there is an existential threat right now for the party. If elections are held in Delhi this moment, my guess is that BJP will wrest some votes back from AAP. If that happens there is a serious threat of AAP getting relegated to the footnotes of history. That would be a real shame.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Spot booking at Tadoba

It's half hour past midnight in Tadoba National Park, Maharashtra. CM, RN and I are at the Mohurli gate of the Park. RN is sleeping on the granite counter of the forest office's registration window curling up and trying to fit himself on a surface that's barely 3 feet across and 2 feet wide. He has covered himself in a white sheet, “borrowed” from the hotel, to keep off the plus-sized mosquitoes that are buzzing about. CN is taking refuge in the car. When he shuts the windows he fogs up the car and suffocates himself, and when he rolls down the glass he becomes victim to the savagery of the mosquitos. I'm sitting on an uneven bench made of bamboo shoots holding a kindle in one hand and fanning the bugs away with the other. At a distance a temple plays a rendition of a mythological story narrated in sing-song style. Every now and then the narration stops, apparently due to a powercut, and that unique sound characteristic to the night forest - din of the cicadas mixed with an all-enveloping silence- takes over the atmosphere, only to be abruptly chased away again by the cacophonous temple story teller. We are here in this odd setting at this odd hour to ensure that we get hold of one of limited spot-booking slots that the forest office gives away if places set aside for VIPs are not claimed.

At three in the morning we are joined by two other guys from Nagpur, who are rather disappointed not to be at the head of the line. Another stretched-out hour later a family shows up and can’t believe that there is a queue built up in front of the window. The booking counter finally opens at a quarter past five, when a lady clerk tells the crowd that this morning they will have only two spot booking slots, chases the remaining folks, and cuts us a ticket, all with an efficiency that is commendable for such an early hour. We are happy we get the ticket but we are too tired now to go on the safari.

To understand why we had to go through the struggle in the morning you have to be familiar with the barriers that the forest department has put up recently. Firstly, they've closed down 80% of the forests to tourists. They've carved out clear zones in the remaining area and introduced a permit system that limits the activities of the tourists to within the zone for which they obtain the pass. The process to obtain a pass is through an amateurishly designed website that makes IRCTC look like a trendsetter in rich internet experiences. We had done all the hard work getting the passes but had realized the previous evening that our entry gate was nearly 70 kms away from our hotel. The other available option was to do what we did that morning. Even with the "tatkal" permit they've set up barriers to ensure that you don't pay your way into the park by getting guides or locals to stand in the queue as proxies for you. We were temporarily dissuaded by these hurdles and we questioned if all this was worth the hassle, but we had driven 2200 kms for the chance to see some of the best parks in Central India. We had driven all the way from Bangalore, visited Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench national parks and had been moderately lucky with the sighting of the big cats. Tadoba was our last stop and the opportunity to see another tiger or two was too hard to resist.

After that episode we didn’t see the tigers on that safari after all, but the forests had so much more to offer. We caught a marsh crocodile basking in the sun, a barking deer scooting across our path, a jackal, with no intent to kill, chasing a herd of chital, several fantastic birds, and so many other sights that we would have hated to miss. CN, RM and I sat through the safari with droopy eyes, but I’m sure we didn’t regret having another story to tell in our long friendship together.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Education and Alienation

MK and I recently had an interesting conversation about education being an alienating factor in India. We were thinking back about our time together in Thanjavur.

Due to the presence of a cluster of social initiatives, Thanjavur attracted a lot of researchers who wanted to be part of the action. There was the post doc from Harvard, the nurse practitioner from Penn state, interns from MIT, researchers from highly rated social work schools. Higher education seemed to have had a liberating effect on all of them. They seemed to be global citizens who would be well adjusted in any part of the world. I remember a New England girl, educated at Harvard, who called Kaushambi her second home (and she wasn’t just trying to be cute while saying this).

I was then wondering why it is almost always the opposite for Indians. There were city educated Indians who came to work in Thanjavur, and with few exceptions, they were maladjusted to living there. The more educated you were the more unsuitable you became to rural India. The more well-traveled I am the bigger a misfit I become in my country.

Now I don’t mean to be judgmental about people who seek brighter pastures and don’t look back at their origins. Every human has a right to the pursuit of happiness. There are also legitimate reasons that make Indians overtly or covertly disown their homeland. Lack of safety (especially for women), ethical compromises forced by a corrupt environment, limits to earning potential imposed by an undeveloped economy are all valid ones, but that can’t be all. I believe there is an alienation forced by education in India. It seems disconnected from real life. To take an illustrative example, there’s no kid from a farmer family who learns to become a kickass farmer, who optimizes his yield with scientific approaches, and uses his academic education to overcome knowledge asymmetries that traditionally work against farmers. Doesn’t happen often enough! You get a degree and you become unfit for your village. If you get a higher degree, chances are you will be a misfit everywhere in your country.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Reading in 2013

I aim to read at the rate of at least one good book per month, and by that measure, 2013 was a satisfactory one.

Top tier recommendations

The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined - Steven Pinker: Anthropology, history and ethics all come nicely together in this book, persuading you to accept a reality that seems counter-intuitive, especially when, while I was reading this, the details of the 2012 Delhi rape were just coming out. Eventually, the mass response to that incident did somewhat prove Pinker's hypothesis that we live in the most peaceful time ever.
Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking - Daniel C. Dennett: The chapter on consciousness was such a delight. You realize even when demystified by Dennett's logical deconstruction, "consciousness" inspires awe.
The Evolution of Cooperation - Robert Axelrod: "Axelrod's tournament" kept getting cited in several books I had read in the recent past, and I had to read this book to satisfy my curiosity. It's intriguing how a vanilla Tit-for-Tat strategy is the most effective one in an iterative prisoner's dilemma game. It's even more fascinating to think that beneath all our complex social behavior our firmware might be as simple as that - tit for tat! (although the author never makes that claim).
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace: A luxury cruise is a good setting for Wallace's dark social commentary. Really funny!
India After Gandhi - Ramachandra Guha: The freedom struggle, the characters in it, and the episodes around (like the Partition, and the Gandhi assassination), by the sheer momentousness probably dwarf all other succeeding events. Somehow, I grew up believing that history ended in the late 40s. Guha chronicles the events after independence. But it's the portraits of the people (Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, JP, Ambedkar etc.) that get the treatment they deserve, restoring them from the distortions dealt by the current popular narratives.
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie: I read this one immediately after India After Gandhi, and it felt like Rushdie borrowed the intricate sets that Guha erected to stage a magical opera of his own. Plus the fact that I read this book by a fire in a kitchen tent in Stok Kangri base camp during the 3 days I spent at 18k ft amsl waiting for the weather to let up made for an other-worldly experience.

Here are other books that I recommend
Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut: My yearly Vonnegut dose.
Satyagraha in South Africa - M.K. Gandhi: A glimpse of how MKG developed his philosophy and political strategies.
Ravan & Eddie - Kiran Nagarkar
D-Day - Anthony Beevor
The Emperor of Lies - Steve Sem-Sandberg
Why Does The World Exist? - Jim Holt: A nice accessible history of ontology and one of the few philosophy books I've read that didn't leave me feeling like an idiot.
Moonwalking with Einstein - Joshua Foer: For days after reading this book I was using the memory palace technique to memorize all sorts of stuff.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity - Katherine Boo
Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese: I probably would have never read this book if my friend hadn't left it back because she didn't want to lug it around for the rest of a backpacking trip she was embarking on. Loved the descriptions of Ethiopia in this one.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Year of the Vader

Each year I try to look back at the highlights and to sum up the more significant milestones. It’s so easy to do that this year because it was all about this little guy. Nothing sums up the experience like that memorable scene in “Lost in translation”

Bob: It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids.
Charlotte: It's scary.
Bob: The most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born.
Charlotte: Nobody ever tells you that.
Bob: Your life, as you know it... is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk... and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.
Charlotte: That's nice.

This year has been as much about embracing the new reality as it has about celebrating the joys and frustrations that parenting has brought. Your life, as you know it, is indeed gone. Yet, I can’t help remember how he sat all engaged staring at the wild asses when we took him in an open jeep for a 4 hour safari in the dusty and chilly Rann of Kutch, and realize that he’s still allowed us to not relinquish everything. He’s definitely been more Siddhartha and less Vader.