Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hitting that button

"I fell not only into the habits but into the moods of the student day. Every morning I was hopeful, determined, energized by the campanile bells and by the smell of eucalyptus and by the day's projected accomplishments. On the way to breakfast I would walk briskly, breathe deeply, review my "plans" for the day: I would write five pages, return all calls, lunch on raisins and answer ten letters. I would at least read E.H. Gombrich. I would once and for all get the meaning of the word "structuralist". And yet every afternoon by four o'clock, the hour when I met my single class, I was once again dulled, glazed, sunk in an excess of carbohydrates and in my own mediocrity, in my failure - still, after twenty years - to "live up to" the day's possibilities."

- Joan Didion

Do you ever get the feeling that your life is on perpetual snooze? That all you're really doing is buying time, punching the clock that will let you go on the way you are a little longer, that will keep you from having to wake up to the reality of your days? And that death, by extension, would be just a really bad case of oversleeping?

Robert Lowell writes:

The man is killing time - there's nothing else.
No help now from the fifth of Bourbon
chucked helter-skelter into the river,
even its cork sucked under.

Stubbed before-breakfast cigarettes
burn bull's-eyes on the bedside table;
a plastic tumbler of alka seltzer
champagnes in the bathroom.

No help from his body, the whale's
warm-hearted blubber, foundering down
leagues of ocean, gasping whiteness.
The barbed hooks fester. The lines snap tight.

When he looks for neighbours, their names blur in the window,
his distracted eye sees only glass sky.
His despair has the galvanized colour
of the mop and water in the galvanized bucket.

Once she was close to him
as water to the dead metal.

He looks at her engagements inked on her calendar.
A list of indictments.
At the numbers in her thumbed black telephone book.
A quiver full of arrows.

Her absence hisses like steam,
the pipes sing...
even corroded metal somehow functions.
He snores in his iron lung,
and hears the voice of Eve,
beseeching freedom from the Garden's
perfect and ponderous bubble. No voice
outsings the serpent's flawed, euphoric hiss.

The cheese wilts in the rat-trap,
the milk turns to junket in the cornflakes bowl,
car keys and razor blades
shine in an ashtray.

Is he killing time? Out on the street,
two cops on horseback clop through the April rain
to check the parking meter violations -
their oilskins yellow as forsythia.

- Robert Lowell, 'The Drinker'

Sometimes it's fun to just turn over and wallow.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

Baby Pictures / Next time, use the diaper on the other end

Okay, that's it. I swear, the next time some stupid couple sends me a picture of their newly-born I'm opening it in Photo Editor, replacing the head with the image of a pool of blood and sending it back to them with a note saying "Here's a picture of your baby. Headless."

I mean, what is it with these people, anyway? If they want to be that most disgusting sub-species of all - proud parents - let them do it in the privacy of their own homes. Why should they assume that I'm going to appreciate having pictures of their little monsters foisted on me - that too before breakfast (gah!)? I don't go around sending them pictures of disgusting things that come out of my body, do I? Well then.

At any rate, here are the Top Ten Ways to respond when someone sends you pictures of their baby:

1. "Ooh! That looks yummy! Is that marinara sauce? You must send me the recipe!"

2. "Isn't she cute!! I specially love the way she screws up her eyes. That's exactly the way her mother looks just before she reaches orgasm."

3. "That's terrible! I hope you're suing the hospital for malpractise. Let me know if you want me to start a petition or something."

4. "Nice. What breed is it?"

5. "Congratulations!! I took one look at the new bookshelf in the corner of that picture, and I just totally fell in love with it. It's so GORGEOUS! Did you get it from Ikea? How long did delivery take? How much did it weigh?"

6. "ARE YOU CRAZY?! Sending out pictures of your child on the Internet like that - all unprotected and everything! Don't you know how many viruses there are floating around on the Net. What will you do if your baby catches one of them through his picture?" (Hey, they just had a baby, how smart could they be?)

7. "I loved the pictures of your baby. In fact, I loved them so much that I posted them on E-bay for you. You now need to send your baby special delivery to Mr. Elmer Fruitshanks in Boise, Idaho. On the plus side, did you know your baby was worth $ 8.99?"

8. "I don't know. It's cute, but what is it trying to SAY?? Where's the urgency, where's the PASSION?? What happened to the aesthetic rebellion that marked so much of your earlier work? Try again. This time use more blue."

9. "Interesting. Just to put this in perspective, I'm enclosing a picture of a used condom. Which do YOU think is going to be easier to get rid off?"

10. "Thanks for your pictures. They were just the thing I was looking for. By the way, if you happen to be in New York next weekend, I'm giving a talk on the topic "Why Ugly People should not be allowed to Mate". It would be great if you could attend. Feel free to bring the baby."


Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Gathering

One by one, they gather around him, the old masters. The shuffling of their feet in the crowded room like the sound of papers shifting in a thin breeze. Their presence like a stifled cough.

They are all here - the grave and the shrill, the poetic and the profound, the daring and the sincere. Row upon row of them, forming a circle around his chair, enclosing him in their accumulated gravity.

Where have they all come from? Who has brought them here? And why? Or have they perhaps come unsummoned, sensing his need with an instinct for language as strong as a hound's for blood?

He realises there will be no excuse now. No reason he can give, no way to blame his own reluctance on the lack of another. In their assembled faces he sees a judgement that contains both wisdom and sternness. From what these voices have to offer, he knows, there will be no reprieve.

And yet what is it that he is supposed to learn from them, exactly? What is their advice, their message? Do they even have one? Are they not, rather, a crowd of stamping feet, muddying the precious clarity of the still puddle that is his mind? A collection of clear, swift rivers, that, taken together, make one restless sea?

The high brows of the masters frown down upon him. Yes, it is true. This too is an excuse. The truth is he ought to be grateful for their presence, grateful that they are here for him. He tries to listen to what they have to say. As their voices fill his head, he can feel himself being not rewritten, but erased, as though the page of his thought were turning blank, its whiteness taunting him to start anew.

When he is sure that there are enough of them (or as many as he can bear), he stands up from his chair and says "Thank you for coming. I am deeply grateful to have you with me."

People turn to stare at him. The librarian looks outraged, shushes him to silence. The books say nothing, their spines glowing softly in the ripened dusk.

Categories: ,

Random Thought # 461

If there's a Hell, does it have ushers?

"Good evening, madam, may I help you? Ah, yes, let me see now. That would be in the fourth circle, centre section. Walk up these stairs here - it's the 214th row from the back, you'll be next to that gentlemen with the leeches stuck all over his naked body. You're welcome. Have an unpleasant eternity!"



You know that feeling when you're sitting with someone you love on a quiet evening, by a fireplace, and you run your fingers fondly through her hair, feeling the smoothness of it, the familiar shape of the skull underneath, the remembered groove of the skin behind her ear? The way you let your fingers linger on nape of her neck and instant longer than necessary, so that that one moment of touch carries with it a lifetime of longing, of intimacy?

That's how Christoph Eschenbach conducted Beethoven's Sixth tonight - like the caress of an old friend. It was a fascinating performance - one that made up in serenity and languor what it lacked in momentum. Here was no surprise, no sudden lark of a note soaring high into the air, instead there was the sense of great calm that is nature's, the sound of it soothing, almost consoling. As though Eschenbach, knowing full well that everyone in his audience would have heard the Sixth before, decided to bring out the nostalgia in Beethoven's symphony, rounding out its edges, accentuating its curves, and giving it a sweet richness of tone. Tonight's performance of that slow movement ranks among the finest I've heard. And if the other movements seemed tame in comparison, but that's a small price to pay.

All in all, an interesting performance (it's always impressive when you go to listen to a piece that's almost hopelessly familiar, and come back with something, anything, you've not heard before). Plus there was the added bonus of a post-concert concert featuring one of the violinists from the Orchestra performing Beethoven's Second Violin Sonata, complete with its Andante piu tosto Allegretto, a heartbreaking gem of a movement - one of Beethoven's finest.

All in all, an evening well spent.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

Tagging along

There's this bit in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity where someone (finally) asks the narrator what his Top 5 records of all time are. Faced with this question, the narrator, despite having spent pretty much all his adult life creating Top 5 lists of songs / albums and being generally a total music freak, can't for the life of him come up with a ready answer. The problem isn't that he doesn't have a Top 5 list - the problem is that he has too many, so that when the moment finally arrives, there's no way he can fit all the deserving music into one top 5 list. It's a hilarious scene.

That's pretty much how I felt when I saw Shoe-fiend's tag this morning. When you spend half your life thinking about books, it's almost impossible to fit any coherent information about them into one tiny little book tag. It's like those forms where they say 'Tell us about yourself' and give you all of two lines to fill out. That may be okay if you're Paris Hilton, but for any real human being it's almost impossible to know where to start.

Still, I've never been able to resist the temptation to talk about books, even if only through a random book tag, so here goes:

Total number of books I own

(Ah! That one I can actually tell you. Exactly. One of the benefits of being a hyper-anal control freak is that I've actually counted the precise number of books in my bookshelf back in India, so instead of giving you some general estimate I can actually do this right. Let's see - that would be 618 books in India, plus 102 books here - making it 720 books. There. If you want more granularity, I can even tell you that these include some 178 books of poetry (127 in India, 51 here).

Oh, but wait, my friend R has a dozen or so of my books that I left behind with him when I moved out of Bombay. And I think M still has a couple of my books. And what about books that people have borrowed from me and not returned? Do those count? I have no real hope of ever seeing them again, but that doesn't mean I've renounced my claim of ownership. But adding all of that would make it...Oh, dammit)

Say ~ 725 - 750 books. Not including text-books / management books of course (that's work)

Last book(s) I bought:

Michael Ondaatje: The Cinammon Peeler

(suddenly realised I didn't actually own that! Much trauma)

Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920 - 1954

Last book I read:

Okay, first of all, you have to understand that I often read multiple books in parallel, so which the last book I read is depends on whether you measure by the last book completed, or the last book I started and have managed to complete. To eliminate such technicalities, the books I read over the last three days are:

Amitav Ghosh: Incendiary Circumstances

(See my review here)

Imre Kertesz: Fatelessness

(A glorious book - Kertesz is phenomenal in every sense of the term - except that every time I read him, I'm reminded of this line from a Ramanujan poem that talks about how his mother's taste for bitter gourds reappears in his daughter's craving for Dostoyevsky. That's even truer of Kertesz, I think)

Books I'm currently reading

Cesare Pavese: Disaffections (Complete Poems)

(clearly, it's Italian poet month)

Ismail Kadare: The General of the Dead Army

(I've never read Kadare - so figured it was time)

Joan Didion: After Henry

(Part of my long-term project to read through all of Joan Didion's work over the next year)

Five books that I've really enjoyed or have influenced me

Right. Here's where I just cannot bring myself to pick five books. So I'm going to compromise (i.e. cheat). I'm going to come up with five categories of books. Then I'm going to pick five books in each category. And if you think that's unfair, you should come and see the kind of trauma I went through making these choices. I've spent pretty much the whole day agonising about them. Any more and it would be like Sophie's Choice (ah, one more book sneaked in! No, no, that one doesn't count.) [1]

1. Fiction

Franz Kafka: Complete Stories

(I don't actually own this edition - more's the pity - but have read pretty much all its contents)

Jane Austen: Emma

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

(This edition, unlike mine, has an introduction by Eudora Welty. Oooh!)

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Silmarillion

(I'm tempted to put this in non-fiction, actually)

2. Non-fiction

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

(Nietzsche writes, speaking of the Will to Truth: "We did indeed pause for a long time before the question of the origin of this will - until finally we came to a halt before an even more fundamental question. We asked after the value of this will. Granted we want truth: why not rather untruth?")

Robert Graves: The White Goddess

(have you ever had that experience where you read a book and it tells you what you've always known but never managed to verbalise? This is a book that sends shivers down my spine)

Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

(You knew this one was coming, didn't you?)

Colin Wilson: The Outsider

(Wilson's book figures here only because it dictated so much of my own reading when I was 20 / 21; as a book that influenced my life, it's hard to overlook)

3. Poetry

T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909 - 1962

(one of the five first books of poetry I ever bought. And perhaps the only book where I can recite some 80% of the contents from memory)

Derek Walcott: Omeros

(Walcott is so relentlessly magnificient)

Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems

(I know, I know. Talk about being predictable. But this is Plath, after all)

Rainer Maria Rilke: Ahead of all parting - Selected Poetry

(I never entirely appreciated Stephen Mitchell's translation until I read some other version of Rilke and realised how terrible they were by comparison)

Arun Kolatkar: Jejuri

(Finally, finally, an international edition. Thank you Amit Chaudhuri. If you never read any other Indian poetry in English, you must, simply must, read this one)

4. Plays

William Shakespeare: The Complete Plays

(There is no way I'm going to pick between Shakespeare. I mean okay, so you can safely take out Merry Wives of Windsor and Love's Labour Lost and stuff, but you can't seriously ask me to choose between Lear, Hamlet, Midsummer Night's Dream and the Henry IV plays. I should say, though, that I'm fundamentally opposed to Shakespeare's Complete Works editions and don't actually own one. I believe in buying the plays individually. I don't understand how anyone can read one of these massive monster editions. )

Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie

("I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion". True beauty is always this fragile, this helpless.)

Samuel Beckett: The Dramatic Works

(Again, I can't bring myself to pick one. And besides, with Beckett, you could argue they're not different plays at all, just one play endlessly repeated so that it's different each time)

Sophocles: The Theban Plays

(By rights, this should be in poetry. But whatever)

Oscar Wilde: The Plays

(The genius of being perfectly trivial)

5. Others

Art Spiegelman: Maus

Goscinny and Uderzo: The Asterix Series

(I couldn't skip this one. What if the sky fell on my head?)

Barbara Minto: The Pyramid Principle

(There isn't a day goes by when I don't wish more people had read this book)

Richmal Crompton: The William Series

(How many books can give you the same amount of pleasure whether you read them at 8, 18 or 28?)

Agha Shahid Ali: In Memory of Begum Akhtar

(This one for purely sentimental reasons - I personally think it's one of Shahid's least accomplished books, but it's the one book of poetry we had lying around the house when I was a kid, and it set off a chain reaction that is still going)

Books I plan to buy next

(aka, the contents of my Amazon Wishlist)

Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (the Nabokov translation)

Constantin Cavafy: Collected Works

(I've read this, of course, but think it's important to own them. What if I suddenly get the urge to read Cavafy and the library is shut?)

Donald Justice: Collected Poems

James Merrill: Collected Poems

(I should emphasise, that I tend to buy only poetry now - novels I typically just issue out and read. Mom, Dad - you can go back to breathing now.)

Books that caught my attention but I've never read:

Soren Kierkegaard: Either / Or

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Tycoon

Rabelias: Gargantua and Pantagruel

(A book which I own as of January this year, but haven't read yet)

Turgenev: First Love and other stories

Books I own but have never got around to reading

Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man

James Joyce: Finnegan's Wake

(well, technically, I've read the first four pages some three times. That's about how long my nerve holds out)

Vaslav Nijinsky: The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

John Dryden: Collected Works

Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie

People I'm passing this on to:

No one. (Yes, the buck stops here). If you're reading this and enjoyed it and feel like you want to share your own list, consider yourself tagged. I'm not going to pick on anyone in particular. Though if you got this far, I'd love to read what you come up with, so don't feel shy about adding your own name to the comments section of this post.


[1] Books within each category are in no particular order


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

And the rain it raineth 32.65% every day

What's with all these 'chance of precipitation' percentages you get in weather forecasts nowadays? Remember the good old days when the day was going to be either 'sunny' or have a 'chance of rain' or 'light showers' ? So much more evocative than saying 20% or 30% or 40%. I mean, back then you could stand in your window with your jaw tightly clenched and watch the rain pouring down and take pride in the fact that you were living through an honest to god 'Thunderstorm' - no, really, look, it said so in the paper. Now you're just another in an endless series of statistics - just some poor, lonely 80% stuck inside your apartment.

I mean to begin with, what are these numbers supposed to mean anyway? Is 30% probability high? Is 40%? Look, I'm as good with numbers as the next guy, but do you really think I want to spend precious minutes of my day trying to weigh the actuarial pros and cons of carrying an umbrella?I mean okay, so if I were trying to forecast the yield of rice in Western Punjab or something, I could see how % chance of precipitation would be useful, but I just want to know if there's a chance I could get wet, for crying out loud. What do I need the stupid weather forecast for if I'm going to have make up my own mind anyway? It's the certainty one read weather forecasts for, the blithe arrogance of voice that proclaimed that the day would be sunny, and brooked no dissent. Never mind if it actually turned out to be the rainiest day of the year, and you got caught in a downpour and your favourite coat turned into the pelt of a mangy hyena - at least you had someone else to blame. "But the newspaper said it was going to be sunny", you could plainitively bleat, and the day's scapegoat would be duly slaughtered by those around you.

Now, of course, the decision's left up to you. Oh, you can still claim that the weather forecast gave you misleading information, but that's like saying you thought there were WMD's in Iraq - the responsibility's still yours. This means you have to agonise over it. All those old phrases about pessimists and optimists and glasses full and empty come back to haunt you. Is a 10% probability of rain reason to carry an umbrella? Am I just being paranoid? Maybe I'm obsessive compulsive. Maybe I'm going to end up like Jack Nicholson in that movie. Or worse, like Jack Nicholson in that other movie. Or like Jack Nicholson in that third one. Or like Jack Nicholson in real life! Help!. See - all that trauma just because some snivelling Princeton graduate of a copy editor decided to save 6 characters of type in the weather column. Was it worth it, I ask you?

The worst part about these percentages is the sense of hope they give you. I mean in the old days it would just say 'Rain' and that was it. You would stay home. You would make yourself some cocoa. You would bring out the little solitaire table and your deck of cards. When the sunshine came beaming through your window you would smile and shake your head. You weren't going to fall into that trap, no sirree, you'd read your weather forecast - they weren't going to get you that easy. When the whole day passed and it didn't rain at all, you'd tell yourself you were being prudent. Why take a risk with your health? Better to save it for a rainy day. Or whatever.

Now, though, it says 80%. Which means (you do the math at your usual lightening speed) that there's a 20% chance that it won't rain. You decide to think positively for a change. You look scornfully at people wandering about with umbrellas - why is everyone so pessimistic these days, you think to yourself. After you've finished changing out of your damp clothes you brood over the injustice of it all. It could have stayed clear and it didn't. This is no longer just about the weather - it's about your personal bad luck. Things never work out for you, do they? You must have done something to deserve it. You feel vaguely guilty for not making that 20% chance come true.

People who like these percentages will argue that it gives you more information. Fair enough. Let's say you really want to build a full-blown economic model to help you decide whether you should wear that raincoat / carry that umbrella. Would just telling you the probability that it will rain be enough? What about the probability that there'll be a gusting wind and the rain will be coming at you horizontally and you'll end up getting drenched anyway? What about the probability that your cheap import of an umbrella will choose the one moment when the rain is pouring down heaviest to get blown away or bent out of shape? What about the probability, that you'll step out of your door and stand there for the next five minutes cursing your umbrella because it won't open. What about the probability that the person you're having dinner with will not bother to bring her raincoat and so you'll have to do the chivalrous thing and give her yours (MR are you listening?)? What about the probability that just as you're getting to office all dry under your umbrella and congratulating yourself on having read and correctly interpreted the 60% chance of rain, some speed demon of a bus will go through a puddle and drench you through and through? If you really want me to figure out whether it's worth carrying an umbrella or not, how about giving me some of the facts I really need, instead of this one piffling number?

The one good thing about these % things (I have to admit) is that they give you hourly forecasts, so you can really plan your life. What you want to go for dinner NOW? Are you kidding me? Didn't you see that the chance of rain just quadrupled from 5% to 20% two minutes ago? I'm not going out in that!


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bhishma Redux

Right, now for a spot of mythological revisionism.

STATUTORY WARNING: If you're one of those people who get all devout and uptight about the Mahabharat and feel that all mythological icons should be respected and worshipped and stuff - DO NOT read this post. Or, rather, read it (it might clear your sinuses) but don't say I didn't warn you.

It has long been a theory of mine, that Bhishma (or Bhishm, I'd rather not put in these irritating a's at the end) was gay [1].

Here's the official version of the Bhishm story (or at least the version as gleaned from Irawati Karve's Yuganta, the TV version of Mahabharat and Amar Chitra Katha) [2]. He's a prince of Hastinapur who discovers that his father has the hots for some fisherwoman, except said fisherwoman won't sleep with him unless he can guarantee that her offspring, and not Bhishm, will become king. Bhishm, hearing of this, not only renounces the throne, but, to put the matter to rest forever, takes a vow of life-long celibacy. So committed is he to this vow that even when the welfare of the Kaurav empire requires that a heir be produced, and Bhishm emerges as the logical sperm donor for this enterprise, he refuses to father a child and safeguard the empire, thereby setting of a chain of events that leads inexorably to the split between the Kauravs and the Pandavs and the great war that was fought between them. In this war, Bhishm is originally the leader of the Kaurav forces, and proves an almost insurmountable opponent to the Pandavs, until they use the fact that Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi to defeat him. Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi, we are told, because Shikhandi used to be a woman and Bhishm does not fight women. How chivalrous! How noble!

If you think about it for a minute, this story doesn't really hold water. First, the bit about Bhishm being this chivalrous old world type is a little hard to buy. I mean, remember, the whole point about the Amba thing was that he went around abducting these women so they could marry what's his name and keep the dynasty going. And then he wouldn't do the square thing by Amba. Hardly what you would call a chivalrous act. If he was willing to drive Amba to suicide when she was a woman, why not be prepared to kill her when she'd been reborn as a man? More importantly, this is the same Bhishm who did nothing, if memory serves, when the whole Draupadi striptease thing was going down. Surely allowing a defenseless young woman to be stripped naked by a hundred horny men is a lot less chivalrous than killing one former woman who's attacking you in battle. At this point, Bhishm apologists will argue that the Shikhandi thing was just an excuse, that Bhishm just chose to die. Or that it was his way of atoning for the one wrong he ever committed. But that just feels too easy.

As for the Bhishm's great vow - even that, when you think about it, seems problematic. Are we really to believe that a young man (a prince no less) would not just give up his rightful throne, he would give up on sex for the rest of his life just so his father could sleep with some woman? And in doing so, give his consent to a request that went against every established precedent of primogeniture? Was such an extreme vow even necessary, you might ask? Could he have bargained for, and got away with less? And why go on with the vow when it clearly made no sense for the empire? When Satyavati actually pleaded with him to renounce it? The traditional version of the story will argue that this was a great and noble thing to do, but it's always struck me as being unbelievably obtuse. It's not just that it was bad policy for the state, it's also that, in refusing to break his vow, Bhishm actually overturned the code of patrilineal succession - neither the Pandavs nor the Kauravs were related by any ties of blood to the original line of the kings of Hastinapur (though they were, of course, related to Satyavati, so that succession, amazingly, had become matrilineal - so much for patriarchy!). Think about the codes that the Kshatriyas lived by and ask yourself if that isn't extreme. Think about the fact that is a man who wouldn't fight a woman after she'd 'turned into a man' but was okay with letting the succession of his kingdom pass out of his father's bloodline.

You could argue that it was a question of personal honour - even though a fairly idiotic type of honour. But notice that to overcome the problems this vow of his caused, Bhishm had to essentially set up a whole bunch of fairly dishonourable acts. There's the whole Amba story, for one. Plus you now have a set-up where someone who's virtually an outsider has to be brought in to impregnate the queens of Hastinapur. So that the kings of Hastinapur are now effectively children born out of wedlock and fathered by a man who was also born out of wedlock. So much for family honour!

Here's what I think is really going on.

Let's start with Bhishm's birth. The first thing we're told about him is that his mother tried to kill him when he was a baby. If that won't guarantee that you're going to grow up having issues with women I don't know what will. The next thing we know, he's back as the prince and heir to the throne of Hastinapur, and pretty much the first thing he does is go and vow to have no children. And remember this is in an age when there's no birth control, so no children pretty much means no sex. How unbelievably hard would that be for a young man to promise (and for what?) - unless he was homosexual, in which case it would be a really convenient way of getting permanently out of all this fathering princes for the kingdom nonsense. It's not even like his father seriously proposed this to him - he went out and found the fisherman in question and pretty much browbeat him into accepting this vow. What an unbelievable masterstroke for him. How he must have laughed his head off - not only does he get out of doing something he doesn't want to do, he becomes a hero for it!

The rest follows easily enough. Every time the situation demands that Bhishm breaks his vow, he falls back on this notion of honour, simply because it's easier to use the vow as an excuse than to make the point that he simply doesn't want to. As for Shikhandi - that's the most obvious bit, isn't it? All this woman turning into man stuff is so much gobbledy-gook. Shikhandi's simply a former lover of Bhishm's, one who, for whatever reasons, has gone over to the Pandav's side and who Bhishm will not attack because he still thinks of him as a 'woman' that is to say, as a beloved.

Obviously, there's no way I can prove this is true (anymore than anyone can prove it was false - if anything, we KNOW that Bhishm never slept with a woman). Nor am I a major Mahabharat scholar. I just think it fits the facts of the case so much better than the traditional explanation that it's at least worth thinking about. For all you know, that might even have been the original version of the story, and it's only centuries of intolerance and silly prudishness that have distorted it to produce the tale we now know.


[1] If you haven't already figured this out from reading my blog, I'm a strong supporter of gay rights and of 'non-traditional' sexual preferences in general. So when I say I think Bhishm was gay, I absolutely DO NOT mean that as being denigrating - if anything it would raise my respect for him considerably. Then he wouldn't be some clueless old fraud, he would be pretty much the smartest person in that whole story.

[2] Obviously there's a lot more to the Bhishm story, but this is the important stuff.

[3] N.B. If you want an even more fun hypothesis you can go the Terry Pratchett route and argue that Bhishm was really a woman. But that's a whole other post.

[4] Oh, and what about all that stuff about him lying on a bed of arrows? Talk about phallic symbolism.


Monday, February 20, 2006

The discontent of our winter

Winter arrived yesterday. Like mislaid baggage. Or a schoolbus you were hoping you'd missed. I stepped out of my apartment building and the cold slapped me in the face like an indignant mistress*. Every breath I took was like gargling with razors. Compared to this my refrigerator is a warm, fuzzy dog. Half way down the block I realised that these things gnawing at the side of my face were really my ears - I didn't worry too much about them though - it was clear they'd be falling off soon.

The trouble with my body is that it has a fundamentally imperialist perspective on blood circulation. It recognises that it needs all these distant, foreign parts, all these far-flung colonies of toes and fingers, but it figures you've got to give the natives the minimum possible otherwise they're just going to get uppity. So on even the mildest of winter days my hands will habitually be the kind of temperature that's guaranteed to make marble shiver. Worse, my jaw will freeze up till I have the diction of a neanderthal with too tight braces. "Aw won ko-po-ke-kho" I'll say, pointing desperately at the board, and the helpful lady behind the Starbucks counter will stare at me like I'm speaking Gagauz for a minute or two before the light of realisation dawns in her eyes and she goes and fixes me a Mocha Frappuccino to make me feel better this sub-zero morning. (You should see the hurt in her eyes when I finally manage to explain to her that I want a cappuccino, not a frappuccino - like, how was she supposed to know that I would want HOT coffee when the temperature was just 0 F outside).

But that's not the worst part, of course. The worst part is when you finally get back to your house and pull off gloves-hat-scarf and sink into the warmth of your chair, and your nerves, having watched the action thus far from a numb distance, decide to bestir themselves and join the festivities. So for the next ten minutes you discover what an ice cube must feel like when you drop it into your drink. You thaw. You melt. Your ears feel like they're on loan from an elephant for the sheer radius of the pain. You decide feeling is overrated. What's wrong with having just four senses anyway? You try to tell yourself that the fact that you can feel the pain is a good thing - it means you haven't, as per your earlier hypothesis, got frostbite. This makes you think of amputations with a certain tender fondness. You wonder if you'll still be able to listen to your iPod if your ears really do fall off.

It's just when you've finally got yourself acclimatized to the room that you open the refrigerator to make yourself some hot chocolate and realise that you've forgotten to get the milk.

The thing I really hate about winters in the US is their deceptiveness. I mean, at least back in Delhi** when it gets really cold, the days look appropriately glum. The sky glowers at you, the streets put on their drabbest, most faded colours. Any sunlight that actually puts in an appearance has the decency to look suitably sheepish and abashed - like it's only there because your mother knows its mother. But here you take a look out of the window and it'll be a joyous and cheerful day. The sky will be the most glorious azure. The sunlight will have that blonde, beaming look of hostesses on television quiz shows. You'll stand at the window like some mouse staring at a piece of great, golden cheese. You know it's a trap, but you think to yourself, "just a little nibble of a walk" and you step out of your house and the cold grabs you. Is that fair, I ask you? Shouldn't consumer groups be doing something about this? Shouldn't the surgeon general's office be sending up planes to write warnings across the sky in big white letters. Shouldn't days like yesterday come with a little tag that says 'do not remove under penalty of law'?

What price the sunny side of the street if you've still got wind chill?

Also, forgive me for being anal, but is anyone up there looking at the calendar? I mean, it's February people - the days are supposed to be getting warmer, not plunging towards absolute zero with all the grace of a Russian submarine. I've heard of better late than never but this is just plain ridiculous.

Thanks a lot, weather gods. Next time, use Fed Ex. At least that way we'll get our Winter on time.

*Not that I've ever had an indignant mistress, of course. Apparently you need to be rich enough to buy diamond necklaces and the like to have mistresses. If you're just a poor PhD student and can't afford stuff like that, all you get is the indignation.

** Contrary to popular rumour, there is, of course, no such thing as a Bombay Winter.

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Sometimes I almost wish I were wrong / who's your doggie now?

A couple of weeks ago, in comments to a post about the whole Danish cartoon thing (a comments track that I never managed to keep up with - sorry!) I expressed my horror at discovering that India actually had laws (laws, mind you!) that allowed people to be prosecuted for actions that give offence to religious sensibilities. My argument was that this was absurd, because (among other things) religion was fundamentally illogical (or rather infra-logical) anyway, so there was really no saying what might constitute an offense against it (my comments to that post have a longer discussion of this). You could effectively throw pretty much anyone in prison by arguing that he / she had insulted your religion in some way or the other.

Then today morning I see this post by Uma talking about how a journalist got thrown into prison for submitting a story about the name of a film-star's dog, because some zealot somewhere found the story offensive. Doesn't that sound like something out of a Kundera novel? The scariest part about the whole thing is the way the newspaper report Uma links to tippy-toes around telling us what the article actually said or what the name of the dog was that gave such offense - presumably for fear of having more of their reporters hauled off to prison. So much for freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, if someone does know what the alleged name of the dog was (even if it turned out not to be true - and I wonder if it became not true after the original article got published) would you mind telling me? I don't read the ToI in general, but I'd love to know. And if it offends some random fanatics out there, so much the better.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

His Masters voiced

How many bards gild the lapses of time!
A few of them have ever been the food
Of my delighted fancy,- I could brood
Over their beauties, earthly, or sublime:
And often, when I sit me down to rhyme,
These will in throngs before my mind intrude:
But no confusion, no disturbance rude
Do they occasion; 'tis a pleasing chime.
So the unnumber'd sounds that evening store;
The songs of birds- the whisp'ring of the leaves-
The voice of waters- the great bell that heaves
With solemn sound,- and thousand others more,
That distance of recognizance bereaves,
Make pleasing music, and not wild uproar.

- John Keats

Part I: The Wondering Minstrels: A Rave

If I had to pick my favourite site on the Web, it would be, hands down, Minstrels. The Wondering Minstrels represents, for me, the single greatest act of genius on the World Wide Web. Other people can have their Googles, their Hotmails, I would have died happy if I'd just been the first person to come up with the idea for Minstrels.

Yet, as Keats would put it: "'tis is a gentle luxury to weep / that I have not the cloudy winds to keep / fresh for the opening of the morning's eye". The thing that makes Minstrels so brilliant, in my opinion, is not just the delightful idea of having a poem delivered to your inbox every morning (though there have been days where that poem, and that poem alone has been the thing that made life worth living). It's also the inclusiveness of the enterprise, and the sheer range of poetry that has resulted - so that it's hard to conceive of a richer or more varied collection of poetry anywhere on the Web. Over the years, Minstrels has been responsible for introducing me to a number of exceptional poets I'd never heard of before, and one of my favourite exercises is to spend hours going through their index trying to spot poets they don't have represented. It's a frustrating exercise at times, but also a delightful one.

The other thing that I love about Minstrels is its personality. Plenty of websites will give you a more extensive collection of poetry, but only on Minstrels will the poems come accompanied with commentary that is sometimes insightful, sometimes charming, and always, always, entertaining. There are literally times when the comments attached to the poem (and the discussion that follows on the website) can actually be as rewarding as the poem itself. There is a wide range of comments as well - from long critiques of a particular poem to descriptions of how the poem is personally significant to the person submitting it. It's the closest thing to having a community of literally hundreds of people who care deeply about poetry as I've ever experienced.

Which is why it's a shame, I think, that Minstrels seems to be drying up. The e-groups has been sporadic at best for over six months now, and the last poem currently on the site is dated Jan 19th - which is over a month ago. Surely this couldn't be because submissions are drying up, or because there aren't millions of good poems still left to be included? Any guesses on what's going wrong, anyone?

Part II: A shameless bit of self-promotion (aka the commercial)

In the meantime, in case you don't already know this, Black Mamba, along with Veena, has started a new blog called poitre which features, in addition to the poems themselves, recordings of said poems read aloud (sometimes by professionals, sometimes by people who should be professionals - see the Rivera submissions - and sometimes by rank amateurs who should, and do, know better but can't help themselves) - an endeavour they've been nice enough to include me in (thus undoing, in small part, the irreparable damage caused by my childhood experiences of being excluded from games at my neighbourhood playground). BM's original post describing the idea of the blog can be found here, and comments / suggestions / requests (no, Mister Rick, I will NOT play it again!) / members are always welcome.

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The Judgement

It was the night of the moon festival, and the villagers were all sleeping peacefully in their beds. This was unusual, because sleep, especially sound sleep, was a luxury few could afford in a desert land torn by strife and civil war. Tonight was a night of indulgence: the large flagons of wine earlier in the evening had been just a prelude, it was a good night's rest that was the true intoxicant. Even the village dogs were drunk on it.

The man stood in the shadow of his doorway listening for the slightest sound that might suggest another waking soul. There was none. He was the only one still awake in the village, the only one who had not partaken of the night's festivities. Oh, there were the sentries, of course, but they were too far away to matter, lost in the dark mystery of the night, in its essential otherness. There were four of them, four lookouts placed at the four corners of the village, watching for any movement across the great plain that might signal the coming of an enemy. Though come to think of it, even they might be dozing on a night like this. Not that it mattered.

Looking out from his doorway, he studied the familiar layout of the village. It wasn't much of a place - just a few dozen houses crowded together haphazardly in the middle of the desert, as though in drawing back from the world the huts had bumped into each other. Four streets crossed through in ragged perpendiculars, one of them traveling an extra quarter of a mile to the covered well that made the inhabitation of this village possible. By day the houses were dusty and sagging, but the night had lent them the magic of silhouettes, and the faint starlight trickled among them like spilled mercury.

Far away, on the other side of the village, the great ash heap that had been the night's bonfire died its slow lonely death. The faint glow of it sparked an explosion of outrage in the man's breast. So they wouldn't let him come to the festival, eh? Called him a brute and a pervert, spat at him on the street? All because he tried to show that pesky little girl from next door a good time - it was just a game, after all, what did she have to go crying to her mother for, the stupid slut? They all thought they were so smart, so superior. Well he'd show them. He was going away tonight - it was the only thing to do - but he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of thinking that they had made him slink away like a beaten dog. No sir. Tonight was the night he paid them back for all the insults of the past year, the beatings they'd given him, the way they'd convinced his wife to leave him. Tonight he'd show them that you can't treat a man like that and get away with it.

Once he was absolutely certain that everyone else in the village was asleep, he stepped out into the street, gesturing for the bandits to follow. There were six of them - dark swarthy men cloaked in blackness and violence, their greed palpable in the clear night air. They had been hidden away in his house for a long time now (as long as three days for the some of them), and their movements were a little stiff from the confinement, but already he could see them taking on the deliberateness of purpose that comes from long practice.

His deal with these bandits was simple. He would give them shelter in his house and lay the village open to them so they could loot and plunder at will. In return, they were to spare his life and allow him to leave unmolested with his possessions. And no one, not a single soul other than himself, was to be left alive in the village. These were strange terms, and the chief of the bandits had stared at the man who had come to offer them with a suspicion that was tinged with disgust. But these were hard times and the chief was not a man to pass up on easy pickings. He had given, reluctantly, his word.

And so it had gone forward. The men had arrived singly, or in twos, some sneaking their way past the sentries in the dead of night (the sentries kept watch for large bands of armed intruders, a man alone could slip past easily), others arriving with the wagons of merchants and staying behind, unnoticed, when the wagons left. Two of them had actually come up to his front door in broad daylight. This had excited some comment in the village, and a delegation of neighbours had come to check who these men might be, but he had told him that they were kin from distant parts, come to visit, and the villagers had been too caught up in their preparations for the holy festival to pay much attention to such trivial matters.

Now the six men fanned out, daggers drawn, swords at the ready. The first order of business was to kill the sentries, but this was easily done, partly because the sentries would hardly be expecting an attack from within the village, and partly because he had told them the exact location of the sentry posts, so that the guards, though hidden, were easily found. With the guards put down, he watched in fascination as the men fanned out, each picking the door of a hut seemingly at random, then stepping swiftly through the door (doors were not locked in the village - crime was unknown here) only to emerge five minutes later with a bundle of valuables clenched in their fists. These bundles they deposited at his feet, leaving them there for safekeeping while they returned to rob another house, then another one. When they came close to him to drop off the loot, he could see the blood staining their hands, smell the death on their clothes. He threw his head back and saw the stars winking at him and he wanted to laugh.

As the men went about their murderous business, careful to let no cry of warning escape from their victims (though here are there there would be the sound of a scuffle, of something falling, of something broken), he sat and thought about what he was going to do when this was all over. There was a camp of the Imperial army some 12 miles off to the east, he knew. He had decided to head for that, figuring that where there was war there was always opportunity. But what would he tell them? How would he explain? His initial thought had been to tell them that his village had been attacked and destroyed by bandits (which was true, after all) and that he had been the only one lucky enough to escape. But would they believe him? Would they not rather suspect him of having conspired with the criminals? And what if they pursued the bandits and caught them, as the army was known to do, and the bandits talked and implicated him as well? No, that would never do.

But what if the men destroying the village were not bandits but angels? Farishtas of destruction sent down to punish the townspeople for their villainy? His heart warmed to this idea, the natural justice of it, the rightness of condemning his accusers, recommending it strongly to his mind. Yes, a judgement had fallen upon his village, and he and he alone had been spared because he was a righteous man and had kept God's covenants. He pictured the scene where the angels gave him this message, and it brought tears to his eyes. Of course, his audience might be a little skeptical of such a miracle, but he would tell them that the angels had also prophesied certain victory to the Imperial Army. That should win the commander to his side.

By now the men were almost done with their slaughter. There were only the last houses left, the ones where the young maidens of the village lived, which he had carefully pointed out to the men earlier in the day. There was little need for secrecy now - everyone else in the village was already dead or dying - and soon the screams of the girls split the silence of the night air. He stood listening to them, picturing in his mind the things that were being done to the girls, rubbing his hands together with glee at the thought of it. That'll show him, he thought. That'll teach them to make fun of me.

When the last screams had all died down and the men had gathered around the plunder, he helped them load the loot onto the horses from the village stable, then took them over to the oil merchant's hut, where they broke open a cask of oil and proceeded to douse the houses with it, carrying it in the big stone jugs they found lying in the merchant's shop. Not that a spark set off among these thatched houses would lack for fuel, of course, it had been a long summer and the roofs were dry and ripe for fire. Still it didn't hurt to make sure. While the men went about this business, he went inside his own house for one last time, and carried out the baggage he had kept packed and ready there. Then he headed out of the village, walking east at a brisk pace, not even turning back to look when the smell of smoke and the crackle of the flame told him that the village had been torched. The glow of the fire danced all around him, lighting him on his path. Shadows flickered on the edges of his consciousness. For a moment he considered what would happen if the bandits decided to turn on him, decided not to let him go as a witness to their actions. He listened for a sound on the path behind him. There was none. The leader of the bandits had kept his word. As the first hint of dawn began to creep into the sky his heart lightened, and he went on his way with a steadier air. Behind him, the houses of Sodom burned to the ground.


Okay, so this is getting a little obsessive. Forgive me. It's just that after yesterday's story, I simply couldn't resist this one. The thing that's always intrigued me about the Sodom and Gomorrah story (Genesis: 18 - 19) is the fact that, since Lot was the only survivor, logically we only have his word for what went on in these towns. Call me a cynic, but you have to be at least a little suspicious, I think, when only one man survives a cataclysmic event and then it turns out he was the noblest, most righteous man of them all. It sounds a little too much like the plot of a M. Night Shyamalan film.


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Crime and Punishment

When the first rumours of this God-person's wrath reached the city of Sodom, no one paid them much attention. Oh, the men discussed it over their cups, of course, and one woman ran naked through the streets shouting 'the end is nigh! the end is nigh!' to the amusement of the general public, but the general consensus was that this God guy was just another of those desert crackpots who go around shouting curses at everyone they meet. Pretty soon, the threat of God's anger was a standing joke in the city - 'it's all God's doing' was a standard refrain for any gambler who got suspiciously lucky at the dice games, and one popular entertainer even had a whole stand-up routine about the God threat ("you smite my back, and I'll smite yours"). It was just one of those things.

When the reports and seriousness of the threat kept multiplying however, a few of the more serious-minded citizens began to pay some attention. Like a man waking up to the queasiness of a hangover that tells him he may have had too much to drink, the city of Sodom began to consider, for the first time, the possibility that there might be some truth to the rumours. That perhaps there was, indeed, some large and alien force that threatened their fair city.

Indignation followed. Who was this God anyway? How dare he presume to judge them, to tell them how to live their lives? Who asked for his opinion? A town meeting was called to discuss the issue. For the first time in living memory, the people of Sodom were entirely sober, and the unaccustomed clarity of this had worn them raw at the edges, so that the crowd that gathered in the public square was growling and bitter. A two day stubble of a crowd, ready to be rubbed the wrong way.

For a while the meeting consisted of little more than a chorus of shouted insults. All forms of violence imaginable were wished upon the absent God, every conceivable assault on his genitalia was loudly proclaimed, and each new cry was met with a cheer of approbation, sprinkled with the odd laugh. When the gathering had got the spleen a little out its system, however, the shouting died down, and a discussion began as to the best way to respond to this unexpected threat.

Some people were of the opinion that there was no need to do anything at all - this God thing was clearly a hoax and even paying it so much attention as to call a town meeting over it was to give the delinquents who were spreading these stories too much attention. Others argued that they thought God was a lie too, but it was just possible that he might actually exist, and as such it made sense for the city to be ready to defend itself - 'better safe than sorry' was their war-cry. This group argued that immediate defensive measures be introduced - the standing guard forces of the city tripled, a perimeter of defense built around the city, and special provisions made to thoroughly search and question every visitor who entered Sodom, in case he happened to be one of the dreaded 'angels' that this God person was supposed to have working for him. Still others, seeing the prospect of an endless siege against an enemy whose very existence was dubious at best, argued for a counter-strike. Why wait around for this God person to come to us?, they said. Why not put together an army and go after him instead? A few people pointed out that God hadn't actually done anything, and they didn't really know that he was planning to, but their objections were brushed quickly aside - he had threatened to attack, hadn't he? He was generally believed to have powerful and destructive weapons, wasn't he? Well then. Instead, the chief objection to this preemptive strike idea was that no one among the assembled knew where this God person was to be found, or what manner and strength of forces he might possess. Given that, any attempts to engage him in actual battle were deemed impractical.

The discussion having thus come full circle, and leaving the residents of Sodom with a choice between laying in perpetual wait for an enemy who may never come, or going out to engage an enemy they could not find, a man emerged from the back of the crowd, and having circled his way up to the main stage, began to speak.

"Good citizens of Sodom", said he, "I think we are approaching this matter the wrong way. To engage an enemy we know nothing of, whether abroad or at home, is mere foolishness. Let us instead pay closer attention to what this God-person accuses us of, and take due cognizance of his charges."

"Hear me out!" he said, as a murmur rose from the crowd against the suggestion that anything this God was saying be taken seriously. "The thought that occurs to me is this: What, exactly is the nature of crime? What does guilt consist of? Surely in the sense that a crime is something a man can be held responsible for, it must be true that it is something he may choose to do. If a man has no freedom of choice in the matter, if it is the society he inhabits, or the system he lives in, that makes him act the way he does, then he cannot be considered guilty, no matter what you may think of his actions. You may find the sound of breathing noisome, for instance, but you cannot blame a man for making it, because he has no other alternative. It is only the things that we do on our volition that we can be fairly tried or punished for."

"But how is this question of choice to be decided? How can we know when something is a choice that a man makes, rather than a thing he is forced into by the world? Simple. We ask ourselves whether there is any other who lives in the same world, who has undergone more or less the same set of experiences and who still acts differently from the man in question. If there be other men who have acted differently in the same circumstances, then choice is possible, and the man under consideration stands condemned. But if there be no one who has made a choice differently, then we can safely claim that the fault is not in the man but in the things that attend him, and we cannot, in all conscience, punish him for that. Without innocence there is no guilt. This is not simply, indeed, a matter of proof - it is also a question of reciprocal justice - for how can a man accuse another of a crime unless he be first innocent of it himself?

"What's your point?", "That's fine, but how is this helping us?", "What is this guy going on about?", the crowd asked.

The man smiled. "My point is this. We stand accused, by this God person, of all sorts of selfish and depraved acts. But what is to keep us from arguing that the fault for these is not ours but lies instead with something in our surroundings? Perhaps it is the harshness of our climate, we could say, or the thinness of the air we breathe, that makes us the way we are. We are not depraved, fiendish men by nature, it is Sodom that has made us thus. After all, it is not as though these acts that God condemns us for are specific to a few among us, we are all equally implicated in them - and the sin, being general, can safely be assumed to be no sin at all."

"As long, that is, as there are no exceptions. Is there any man in Sodom who does not join in our practices, does not partake of our general pleasures? We all know there is - Lot. This upstart, this solitary living hermit with his fancy ideas and limited understanding, this true pervert who dares to judge us, dares to refute the generalisation of our selves onto the world. He is the truly unnatural one among us, he is the one who deserves to be attacked, to be punished, but instead it is we who are forced to bear him like a thorn in our side, pricking our otherwise perfect certainty in our own righteousness. Is it not mere egoism on his part to claim this superiority over us, to constantly throw his own smug chasteness in our faces?"

"Yes, that's right!" "That bastard Lot! I never did care for him" "Down with Lot! Let's kill him and be done with it!".

The man let the cries die down, then proceeded: "My proposal, then, is this. Let us accuse Lot of stupidity and egoism. Let us force him to admit that he is wrong and his ideas misplaced. Let us force him to apologise to us, then exile him from our city. Once this is done, should any God appear to render judgment over us, we can then safely point to the generality of our failures, and blame them all on the place in which we dwell. Surely no rational being will dare to judge us harshly then. Instead, even God shall have empathy for us then, he shall show us kindness, he shall pity us for having lost the opportunity to be fine, upright men by being forced to live in this place".

And so it was done. The bewildered Lot was dragged out of his home that evening and brought before the townspeople, who ridiculed him and ordered him to repent and apologise. Lot stuck bravely to his guns, of course, arguing with cold logic alone that he was in the right. But these arguments, going so against the grain of the assembled mob, fell on deaf ears. Every argument he made to defend himself was met with howls of abusive protest from the crowd, who then proceeded to accuse him of excessive pride and egoism. Finally, after half the night had passed in this sort of shouting, Lot and his family were exiled from the city of Sodom by unanimous decree, and a posse of town people escorted them to the edge of the city, from where they watched them leave. It is said that Lot and his family were so afraid as they left that they never even turned to look back at their prosecutors, whose jeering cries filled the desert night behind them.

It is done, said the crowd, when it was all over. Now we are justified. Now we are safe.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Once upon a time in the East

Comments to yesterday's post made me all nostalgic about the good old days working for the Firm and made me decide to post a description of one such day that I'd put down a while ago.

The year is 2003. It's the 15th of August. I'm part of a team of consultants working in a manufacturing plant in the little known and even less visited town of J. in Southern Orissa. Flight connections out of this part of the country are scarce, and our usual MO is to get back to Delhi (our home office) is to catch an overnight train from the nearest railway station to Raipur, arriving there at around 7:00 in the morning and catching the 9:00 am flight out to Delhi. A trip home of roughly 16 hours door to door (assuming everything runs on time) which we undertake once every two weeks, alternating it with weekends spent watching the latest trash Hindi movies on the one television set in our entire guest house and a dvd player we managed to rent from a nearby town.

My thanks for this post to dhoomk2, friend, former colleague and fellow traveller on the expedition described here. He's the one who managed to find this mail among his archives.

3:30 am: Wake up on train to Raipur (am supposed to catch 9:00 am flight from Raipur to Delhi) Find train is stopped at station. Go back to sleep

5:30 am: Wake up on train (as above). Find train is stopped at station. Realise station looks familiar. Shake head. Go back to sleep.

5:35 am: Woken up by friendly co-passenger to be told that train has been stopped at station for two hours (bad), but will be moving soon (good) going back in the direction we came (very, very bad) because goods train in front of us has derailed.

5:36 am: Realise that am awake and not dreaming this. Arm hurts from pinch.

5:37 am: Realise that only course to pursue is to get down from train and make way forward by road

5:38 am: Realise minor flaw in plan: Getting down from train is difficult since there is no platform. Manage to jump down, bruising ankle on way.

5:39 am: Realise major flaw in plan: There is no road!

5:55 am: Running madly through field in general direction of thatched huts, led on by rumour of bus at 6:00 am. Feel like overloaded dwarf trailing Orcs through middle-earth.

6:00 am: Find bus. Talk to driver who confirms that he can get us there by 8:00 am (joy and happiness!). Talk to driver and realise that "there" is not Raipur but some place called Nuapada (gloom and despair)

6:00 - 8:00 am: Spend two hours crammed in leaky roofed bus clutching laptop going over semi-metal road while being a) prodded by umbrellas b) poked in the eye by enthu children waving national flags c) having said little children shoved on lap while parents look on suspiciously. Feel nostalgic about Mumbai rail. Vow never to eat sardines again, from sense of empathy.

8:01 am: Am overjoyed to learn that spine is still in one piece and not fragmented into 35690 segments as per earlier hypothesis.

8:02 am: Realise that Nuapada bus terminus is actually big field with a) two buses b) five cows c) three dogs and d) two rickety jeeps.

8:03 am: Thrust money at rickety jeep driver to take us to nearby 'town' of Khariar road as fast as possible. He takes off leaving trail of dust and assorted spare parts. Realise hypothesis on spine breakage could still come true.

8:04 am: Jeep driver stops for 10 minutes to fill petrol. This consists of going to neighbourhood pan shop and picking up jerry can from him. Make mental note to point out unique retailing opportunity to teams working for our Petroleum clients.

8:30 am; Arrive in Khariar road which is 'hayp' town and has choice of jeeps - Marshall, Qualis, Sumo. Pick Sumo. Are now on way to Raipur (finally) on actual tarmac (finally). Feel optimistic about catching 12:00 noon flight to Mumbai from where can travel to Delhi.

8:50 am: 5 km out of Brajbhol find that road has been washed away by annual flood. Look on hopelessly as driver searches for convenient tree under which to spend night.

9:00 am: Convince driver that, Heraclitus notwithstanding, flood will still be as bad t'rrow and we can't wait. Convince him to take other route.

9:10 am: Manage to motivate driver to get us there as fast as possible. Driver gets into spirit of things. Decides to make us feel more at home by playing Vengaboys album. Am now on way to Ibitza apparently

9:15 am: Can't decide what's worse - having an accident because of driving at 120 Km/ hr on semi-metal road or not having an accident and having to listen to Vengaboys.

11:15 am: Reach Raipur airport. Screech of brakes as mud-spattered Sumo comes to halt outside main gate. Quick unloading. Rush to airline counter. Airline counter closed. Mumbai flight cancelled because of Independence day. Next flight at 9:00 am next morning

11:20 am: Get Sumo driver to take us to hotel in Raipur. Realise all this time he was driving at 120 Km / hr wasn't because we were in a hurry. It was just his usual speed.

11:30 am: Check into Hotel Babylon. Try to ignore garish paintings all over walls. Room filled with flies, so spend hour swatting. Then open laptop and get to work.

9:30 pm: Halfway through work decide to take break and have a drink. Call bar. Find 15th August is dry day. Go back to work.

1:30 am (next day) : Finally done with work. Lie in bed feeling character build.

1:31 am (next day): Remember that am quitting in two months to do a PhD. Breathe sigh of relief. Laugh sadistic laugh. Sleep.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fat in the fire

Okay, two rants.

The first against the New York Times and their reports about the Women's Health Initiative studies - all these articles they've been coming out with on how new studies have 'proved' that low fat diets don't lower the risk of heart disease or breast cancer, etc [1].

Let me start by saying that I have a lot of respect for the researchers behind the actual studies - reading through their work I'm more than satisfied with the level of rigour they've brought to the research, and just given the sheer scale of their experimental design, I'm fairly impressed by the experiment they've run. There are some issues with their study: it's not clear how much the manipulation actually works (subjects in the treatment group don't seem to have substantially reduced cholesterol levels when compared to those in the control group, for instance), and because the authors don't seem to have a clear causal mechanism for the link between heart disease and fat intake, one can question whether their test is really theoretically rigorous (could it be particular types of fat that do the damage, for instance?). Still, overall it's a fairly robust and interesting study, and it's hard to imagine how they could have done it much better.

The trouble with the NY Times reporting of it, though, is that while they discuss many of these more nuanced concerns, they almost entirely neglect to mention one fairly pertinent fact: this is a study with a sample of post-menopausal, mostly white women in the age group 50 - 79. So even if we assume that the findings of the study are valid for that population, it's certainly not clear that the results are generalisable to the world at large. All the study is saying (at best) is that if you're a woman and switch to a low fat diet when you're 55 it's not going to lower your risk of dying of a heart attack in any significant way. That doesn't mean that going on a low fat diet at twenty won't help, or even that it's not useful for 50 year old men to go on a low fat diet. The trouble is that just skimming the NY Times articles you wouldn't realise this, and it upsets me to see careful, well-thought through research being mauled in that way by cheap sensationalism.

So. The second rant of the day is against people (like this cretin here hat-tip: Desi Pundit) who go on and on about how MBAs from premier institutions in India (and I mean truly premier institutions, not the Ponytail variety) are entirely selfish and don't contribute back to India's development.

To begin with, there are several interesting ethical questions built into the assumption that MBAs should be held responsible for contributing back to India, but I'm (uncharacteristically) going to ignore them and take it as read that MBAs as a class should contribute back to India's development in some way or the other. The only contention then is whether this is or is not happening.

The first argument usually made by people who want to bemoan the lack of social responsibility among MBAs is that all the graduates from the IIMs end up going abroad and therefore don't contribute to India's development (I used to think that this was an argument only brain-dead politicians like Murli Manohar Joshi made, but I've discovered that a number of otherwise perfectly rational people think this too). Aside from the fact that I think the real extent of this migration is probably overstated (I mean, okay, so a whole bunch of my batchmates ended up in the US - but an equal, if not larger, proportion have stayed in India - some of the brightest people from my batch among them), I think the assumption that the only way to contribute to India's development is by being in India is a patently ridiculous one, simply because it completely ignores the realities of a networked global economy. It's not just that the large proportion of Indians on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley represents a rich source of repatriated income and entrepreneurial talent [2], it's also that, in a world where social networks matter, it's not hard to see how the presence of a large Indian diaspora in corporate America creates a wealth of opportunities both in the US and back in India for Indian human capital. It's hard to believe for instance, that there is no correlation between the amount of young Indian talent in the western corporate world and the popularity of India as an outsourcing destination. Obviously there are issues of national competitive advantage built into that outcome, but to assume that that's all it comes down to is to be excessively naive. The point is that the notion of overturning the established structure of international economic dominance from outside is a foolish and romantic one. Any realistic hope of India's development comes from a tighter (though informed) integration with the realities of the global economy, and young Indian professionals in the West are the critical fulcrum for achieving such leverage.

The other argument you hear a lot from people is that even the MBAs who do stick on in India end up sitting in their airconditioned ivory towers, living a life of conspicuous consumption and therefore not aiding in any way in India's development. Ten seconds worth of consideration will show you how entirely contrary to every theory in economics that argument is. What do these people think MBAs are trained for, if not for running companies? That MBAs do what they do is simply division of labour - would they rather that IIM graduates ran about trying to farm fields while a bunch of illiterate farmers ran India's top companies? What do you think our GDP would grow at then? It's important not to confuse the contribution of an action with its immediate objective (corporate profit) or the intention behind it (career fulfillment). MBAs may act entirely in self-interest, but as long as their actions lead to positive outcomes for corporate India[3], thus helping the economy grow at a rapid rate, they're contributing to development.[4]

The other problem with the 'MBAs don't give back to society' argument is the metric used to measure this contribution. If you're going to argue that a very small proportion of MBAs end up doing anything for society, you have to ask the follow-up question - what percentage of the population in general works selflessly for the good of society? After all, no one's ever claimed that doing an MBA increases your propensity to give back to society - the issue is not (or should not be) whether people are selfish in general but whether MBAs are more selfish than everyone else. Obviously that's a harder effect to measure, but a quick scan of some of the non-government initiatives working on development in India suggests that MBAs from top business schools may not be quite as callous / selfish as they're made out to be. Take your pick of large non-profit initiatives in India - Pratham, CRY, the Give Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Akanksha, the Eklavya Foundation - and you'll find alumni from the top business schools in the country playing critical roles in each one of them. Choose your favourite CSR effort - HLL's Project Shakti, the Azim Premji Foundation, ITC's e-chaupal, ICICI's social development programs - and again, the people working there are typically MBAs from top business schools. I don't have any numbers to prove this (though it would be interesting if we could collect some) but I remain convinced that, as a percentage of the population, MBAs do as much, if not more to support and encourage development efforts in India. Which is not, of course, to suggest that they do anywhere near enough, or that it wouldn't be heartening to see more involvement from MBAs in development. But people who argue that MBAs are all arrogant, selfish people who don't give a damn about India are jumping to a conclusion that's frankly insulting to the dedicated men and women who are actually out there working on development issues. [5] Selfishness is a deep and troubling malaise, but MBAs have no special prerogative on it.

Bottomline: Getting an MBA doesn't change who you are. It only amplifies your personality - gives you the power and the confidence to be who you've always wanted to be in a far more effective way. So if you see someone emerging from an IIM immoral and self-centred - blame the person, not the degree.


[1] I've outlined some of my issues with the study in this comment on Veena's blog. I'm not really saying anything new in this post. I just felt like ranting.

[2] It's always amused me how nationalists like to have it both ways - Indians working abroad is bad because it drains the country of talent, on the other hand, MNCs coming into the country and bringing their technology and jobs with them is also bad, because they'll repatriate all the value back to their own countries.

[3] Of course, one can legitimately question whether the content (or even the process) of what an MBA provides adds genuine value to the student. I'd be the first to agree, for instance, that many of the syllabi taught in the IIMs are woefully outdated and desperately in need of revision. On the whole, though, I'm inclined to believe that the IIMs do add value (in the sense that they help young people do a better job of managing companies), and while I'd be willing to debate that conclusions, it's not what most people seem to be focussing on. Regrettably so.

[4] One could argue that growing the economy overall doesn't mean that everyone benefits - and I'd be the first to agree. Certainly GDP growth per se is not a sufficient condition for socio-economic development, though it's hard to argue that it's not a necessary one.

[5] My apologies for the slightly over-shrill tone of this part of the post. It's just that too many of these people are friends of mine, so that stupid generalisations on the issue really bug me.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006


That girl at the corner table never orders anything but coffee. I've been watching her for weeks now - every time I come into the diner she's sitting there, on the same chair at the same table, her wristwatch on the sunmica before her, dial facing upward, strap folded neatly below it. Staring out of the window, sipping at her rapidly cooling coffee as the trucks go roaring by on the highway and the diner fills and empties with noise. Never, in what must be a month of staring at her, have I seen her order anything to eat, or indeed make the slightest variation in her routine. Even the way she arranges her hair - tied up at the back with a few strands hanging loose over her nape - never changes. True, she had a magazine with her once, but you could tell by the way she flipped through it that she wasn't really paying attention. And once I heard her speak to the waitress, (how I pricked up my ears then) but it was only because she'd run out of sugar.

There's plenty of speculation about who she is, where she comes from, why she's here. Beth at the counter thinks she's probably had her heart broken and has come here to recover, though I can't see why anyone would pick a town like ours to get over a failed romance, unless it's that the very idea of romance feels faintly ridiculous in a place like this. Jack the delivery boy thinks she's a fugitive from the law, claims he saw her start once when a highway police car pulled into the parking lot. Only I pointed out to him that if that were the case she'd hardly be sitting in a diner where anyone passing could see her, and acting in a way that was calculated to arouse attention - that shut him up. Somebody else said he heard she had cancer and didn't have any family to go to. Only she doesn't look like there's anything wrong with her - she looks perfectly healthy to me. In fact, she looks downright beautiful. Still, you never can tell.

The thing is, all this waiting she's doing is beginning to take its toll on us all. I've been doing the delivery round for three years now, and last month is the first time I've ever been late on a job. And the diner's been deteriorating too - orders are forgotten or misplaced, eggs take longer to boil, coffee longer to brew, the clocks themselves lose a few minutes every day and have to be set right every morning. Plus out on the highway you can hear the cars slowing down to under the speed limit as they cross the diner, then speeding up again. It's as though all the waiting in the world was being drawn magnetically to this place, all the lost time of the world, every misplaced day or dropped second is slowly making its way to our tiny little town and collecting here and making us all a little slower.


Today I decided I'd had enough of the mystery. So after I was done with my pancakes (chocolate chip with tons of whipped cream on top - the way I like them) I marched right over to her table. I'd planned to ease into the conversation gently, but the minute I got to her table and was standing in front of her, I could feel her panic, and I found myself blurting out: "Who or what are you waiting for anyway?"

She looked up at me then. It was the first time I'd really seen her eyes. I'd never realised they were this sad, this frightened.

"I'm waiting to cross the border.", she said, her voice low, modulated. A college voice. No, a scared college voice.

"What border? The one with Mexico?"

She looked away. Then nodded.

"But that's 200 miles from this place. Why stop here if that's where you're headed?"

She looked up at me again, resigned to having this conversation. "Yes, I know it's 200 miles away. That's why I'm waiting for it to come to me."

"You're what? Waiting for it to come to you? Lady, borders don't travel. You have to go to them."

She smiled a little, as though about to deliver the punchline of a familiar joke. "Really? Are you sure? Think about it. Was the border with Mexico always where it is now? Was there always a border there? In fact, if you think about continental drift, was there even a Mexico there to have a border with? Places move, mister, boundaries change. It just takes a little longer than with people, so you need to be patient."

"Let me get this straight. You're planning to wait here until something - some war, some earthquake or something - shifts the border with Mexico 200 miles to the north so you can finally cross it?"

She shrugged. "When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous. But it isn't really. The truth is I'm not that fixated on Mexico anyway. I figure there are plenty of borders out there - sooner or later one of them will come along."

"Plenty of borders? Like what exactly? You're not going to tell me you think Canada is going to extend this far south, are you?"

That half smile again. "No, of course not. But all borders aren't between nations, you know. There are all sorts of borders in the world. Borders between people. Borders between life and death, pain and ecstasy, youth and middle age. There are a dozen of lines you cross every day without even realising it."

By now I'd slipped into the chair across from her and was listening intently, my mouth a little open. "I'm afraid I don't follow."

"Take you, for instance. You've been meaning to talk to me for weeks, haven't you? I've noticed you watching, wondering if you had the nerve. That's a border right there - the border of speaking to me. And in coming over here you brought the border right to me and the minute I answered your first question I crossed over into your world and became a tourist there. By coming over and speaking to me you gave me permission to explore who you are, you granted me a visa, you let me over your border."

All this was very flattering, and also a little disturbing. I mean, no one had ever compared me to a tourist destination before. I was fascinated. There was an air about her of always being on the brink of something, always about to arrive. Plus this close up you could see just how delicate her skin was. I tried to stay focussed on what she was saying.

"Okay, I think I understand now. But tell me, why are you trying to get to these borders of yours anyway? What's the point?"

"To see if they'll let me across, of course."

"And if they don't?"

"Then I'll just stay where I am, on the other side, waiting for the next border to come along."

"And what if none of them will let you cross?"

"I think that's unlikely. Plus, there's always Death. No one ever gets turned away from Death. Not for long, anyway. Sometimes there's a little extra paperwork to do, but eventually they let everyone through."

This alarmed me. "So if nothing else shows up you're planning to kill yourself?" I said this too loud. I could hear people turning to look at us.

"No. Look, it's very unlikely that the other borders won't let me cross. The thing is, if they come to me and then don't let me cross then they can't move ahead either you see - it's a mutual thing. That's why you need to wait for them to come to you. Otherwise you end up getting rejected all the time."

"Fair enough. So what after you've crossed this border of yours. What then?"

"Then you just sit down wherever you find yourself and wait for the next border to show up."

"Just like that? Don't you explore this new place you've got to?" What about all that stuff she just said about exploring my world? Was she just lying about that?

A wan little smile. "Ah, but you don't cross borders to get to. Everyone knows that. You cross borders to get away from."

"And what is it you're trying to get away from?"

"You know. The usual. Everything. Nothing. The past. The future. You escape because you can, not because you have to."

"So you're never planning to go back to where you came from?" Was she planning to stay on here?

"I can't. My home is too far away now. And besides, time is the one border you can't cross back over."

"So you're basically just trying to distract yourself and avoid your life entirely? Is that it? Is that why you've been sitting her talking to me?" This conversation was getting out of hand, I felt. It was time I exerted some control.

"And why have you been sitting here talking to me?" Behind me I heard someone titter. It was slow day at the diner and some of the waitresses had gathered around the table, blatantly listening in on our conversation. I can't say I blamed them - we've all been so curious about this - but still I could feel my irritation rising. I was about to respond when she went on:

"The thing is, I figure there has to be a balance. I mean the world is round, isn't it? So it must be true that every boundary you cross away from yourself must be bringing you closer to home as well. Logically then, if you could cross all the borders in the world you'd end up exactly where you started from."

"And what if you can't cross all the borders? What if there are just too many of them?"

"Then you just go on travelling and it doesn't matter where you end up because everywhere is somewhere else anyway."

This was too much for me. "Look, this is insane", I shouted, shaking my head. "You've got to snap out of this. You need help."

She smiled. "And what do you think sanity is but another boundary? Another border, with cliches waiting along every inch of the line to keep anything that threatens them from getting through."

I realised I wasn't going to win a shouting match with this girl. She was too good with words. I decided to change tack. "Okay, look, fair enough. So you want to get to a border so you can cross it. Fine. I'll take you. I know you said that you mustn't travel to borders otherwise they reject you, but this won't be like that. I'm TAKING you there, you're not going on your own. Think of it as crossing over the border into me, then into my car, then into Mexico." Okay, that sounded obscene. And also kind of exciting.

She shook her head. "It's very kind of you, but I can't."

"Why not?"

"Because I cannot leave this diner."

"What do you mean you can't leave this diner. You go home at night, don't you?"

"Actually, no, I don't. I sleep right here on the floor in my sleeping bag. I use the ladies room at the back as a bathroom. In the last four weeks that I've been here I've never been outside this building. Not once."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I turned around to Beth who was standing right behind me, listening in, and she nodded. So it was true! No one had told me. "But why?"

"It's the threshold, you see."

"The threshold?"

"The line under the door dividing the inside from the outside."

"Yes, I know what a threshold is. But what about it?"

She looked at me sheepishly. "I'm afraid to cross it", she said.