Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dying Art of Dialogue

The other day I was casually chatting with a friend about something and as we went along, the casual chit-chat changed in tone into a not-so-casual discussion, which soon became bi-polar, with both of us adopting opposite positions, thus evolving into a debate. The debate continued in our next conversation and raged on, starting to sound like an argument. Being mature adults (though, arguably, also 'Argumentative Indians'), we were able to keep it from crossing the boundaries of 'dispute' into the no-holds-barred territory of 'quarrel'. So, instead of saying "Pistols at dawn?", we agreed to disagree and changed the topic, with the tacit understanding on both sides that we would not bring this up again - at least not in the near future.

That set me thinking ... I am not usually like that - I do confront, but without being confrontational. I don't like dispute. I like dialogue, and I want to stick to dialogue in the Platonic tradition. Dialogue is about achieving clarity, and if we're lucky, obtaining resolution. It is not about winning or losing. It requires humility on part of all participants (of which there could be more than 2, contrary to popular belief), and ruthless honesty with oneself. My natural tendency is to enter into dialogue, but am invariably drawn into debates, if not disputes, arguments or worse still, quarrels. My style is to question a proposition. All right, I could be persuaded to say 'challenge' a proposition. Unfortunately though, my questioning or challenging approach is perceived to be confrontational thanks to our zeitgeist - that of apprehending conflict even where there isn't any. And as a lot of people these days say (unwisely) "Perception is Reality" (the currency and popularity of this belief is another characteristic of our zeitgeist - that of believing that if somebody thinks it, it must be true).

Let me quote a paragraph from the Wikipedia page on dialogue, before I elaborate upon my style of questioning:

"The typical way is for Socrates to probe his partner for further beliefs until a contradiction is reached with the disputed belief or hypothesis by implication. In this way the interlocutor is made to see the impossibility of his hypothesis, and then tries some other hypothesis, which is again subject to the same scrutiny."

And now let me paraphrase that - my questioning aims to probe the participant's line of thought, hoping to lead them to a point where either a contradiction emerges with the original position they adopted, OR they present me with irrefutable facts that I cannot deny or with propositions that are consistent with my own, thereby making me accept their thesis. The key fact is that I am open to it going either way, and will not take that as either a victory or a defeat. It will just enrich and refine my own on-going process of pondering and reflecting on life.

Sadly, my type of questioning is almost always misunderstood. Most discussions these days that I have participated in or have observed closely, do not embody the spirit of dialogue - they evolve very quickly from casual conversations to verbal battles which somebody has got to win, and their 'opponent' lose. Again, yet another characteristic of our zeitgeist - that of every interaction or exchange being a zero-sum game which a 'successful' person simply must win. The whole context of such questioning has become one where the person raising the questions (usually, me) is doing so either because they don't know (the 'teaching' paradigm) or because they are "cross-examining the witness" (the 'inquisition' paradigm).

What to me starts as dialogue, becomes therefore, either a teaching/learning experience, where the other person/s take it upon themselves to educate this impertinent fool (me) who is asking all these silly questions, or an inquisition, where Mr. Know-It-All (me again) is putting us on a stand and hammering away at our defenses to expose our lack of substance. Sorry folks! I question to probe, to clarify, to fully understand what is being said. And in that process, hopefully, get the other participants (including the proponent) to fully understand the proposition on the table. So that then I could offer my perspective, which may be similar or different or similar-yet-different. There is no 'high' or 'low' position when I enter into dialogue. We're all on the same plane - all equals. There is no teacher and there is no inquisitor - though I am always inquisitive and wanting to learn more!

If you, dear reader, and I, ever have the good fortune to enter into dialogue on any subject under the sun (including this one - 'The Dying Art of Dialogue'), we would do well to keep this simple approach in mind. Even if our ambitious, aggressive, competitive, confrontational zeitgeist enters my spirit somewhere along the way and compels me to stray (as I did in the anecdote I narrated at the beginning of this post), I hope you, being the humbler and more mature of the two of us, would lead me back, kindly!

Monday, October 15, 2007

It's Only Words ...

Back when I was a kid we used to play a lot of Scrabble. Those were the days when we had exactly one telephone for the family - a big black heavy instrument with a thick brown cable attached to it. There was no Internet, no mobile telephony, no cable TV (only one Govt. controlled channel that aired in the evenings, with content that mostly focused on the appropriate use of fertilizers). Computers were big expensive things with tapes twitching and turning every few moments in a restricted area with glass walls where it was freezing. And long-distance telecommunications really sucked.

It used to rain (not too heavily, and hardly any flooding except in really low-lying areas) and Mom used to make tea and pakodas in the afternoons. And we used to pull out the Scrabble board and play. No dictionaries were allowed in the regular course of the game - you were supposed to play words whose meaning you already knew. You could be challenged by any other player, and you had to be able to provide the meaning, and if they chose to, they could look up the dictionary to verify it (and they could look up only that word - they could not sneakily look up something else they might have been toying with). My father used to excel at making 7 letter words and sometimes he'd make as many as 3 of them in a single game. I learned a lot; my vocabulary improved and I knew the meaning of each word I played. There were times when I knew a word existed but wasn't sure what it meant, and I would refrain from playing it, for fear of being challenged.

End of flashback. Cut to circa 2007. Between my wife and I we have 4 mobiles and 3 land-lines. I am on-line most of the time - my line of work involves using mail, IM, mobile telephony and teleconferencing extensively. Recently, when I was casually surfing, using a laptop immensely more powerful than most mainframes in those years, sitting in my room in some crummy hotel somewhere in North America with really high-speed broadband access, I discovered Scrabulous - the online version of Scrabble. Since then I've played a few games and won some, lost some. I was horrifed initially, to learn that you could freely reference the dictionary. And the fact that you could make two-letter words like CH, UG, MM and ZA which, in my humble opinion, are abbreviations, not words. This game requires a killer instinct. It appears that most players spend hours (sometimes days) trying out all kinds of combinations with their tiles, for a given board configuration. There probably are tools out there to help you maximize your score for each play - I don't know. Players are happy making words sticking to other words and not opening out the board (they leave this to me I guess). Nobody cares if you make a word whose meaning nobody knows - the 'TWL' or 'SOWPODS' dictionary must allow it. Period.

My style is very different. I like to play interesting words that result in a reasonably decent score, and I don't like to spend too much time computing scores of each available option ad infinitum. If a word seems nice and I can notch up a good score, I play it. Usually this is within a few minutes after my opponent has played. And then my opponent will respond after several hours. Or a few days.

This game has killed Scrabble, according to me. The skill being tested here is your ability to quickly look up as many tile combinations as you can in the dictionary. Not your word-power. I thought I should keep up with the times and adopted the style that this game requires. I looked up the dictionary. I made those meaningless 2 letter words. I won a few games but it gave me no joy at all.

Give me a rainy afternoon with a real board, real tiles, real people, real cups of tea. And a real dictionary, to be used only when one player wants to challenge another. Some day real Scrabble lovers will beg to go back to that. Till then, let the fast and the furious megaflop generation knock themselves out with this on-line apology for a word game. Playing all the words that TWL / SOWPODS has, that don't take your heart away.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Prayer for the Man from Modena

Ave Maria
Gratia plena
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus fructus ventris
Tui, Jesus

Sancta Maria
Mater Dei
Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae

R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Idyllic Idealism Of An Idle Mind

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence, a few thoughts and observations (all my own work) ...

Like the papers said we're sexy at sixty (by the way - the media also said that about Big B some time back), but chose to ignore the smut around the sexiness. And this is not about censorship of so-called vulgar content on cable TV (ref. my post dealing with the time they shut down most English movie channels). Then what's it about did you say? Go figure! There's way too much to be said about this and if you're not with me already then there's no point in my going into it here and now.

Like we're forever talking about our potential as a global superpower but doing precious little to become one. I guess it's a nice thing to have as a dream but hey - reality's better, for a lot of us. There are abundant opportunities in today's India, for a lot of us to get rich and powerful quickly. But once such people get there, they do nothing other than continue to enhance their own wealth and power. Those who have a vision but not the means don't count (they're not Page 3 gliteratti), and those who can actually make a difference are doing sweet F.A.

Like I can't get over the fact that there's a gutter that overflows every monsoon outside my house and I am told there isn't much that can be done about it. Considering that I live in an upscale part of a tony suburb, I find that hard to digest. Guess I'll have to drop all my other pressing affairs and devote my attention to this and that will be the only way it will get fixed. If ever.

Like how I started out wanting to put back more than I got, to the land that gave me and to its people. I argued several years ago that if good people left this land in favor of a better life, then life in this land will never get better. I stayed back because I wanted to change our world. Still do. But today I'll consider myself lucky if I can get that wretched gutter fixed.

Like how I'd love to participate in a good strong movement with a robust foundation backed by people with vision, resources and integrity to clean up our act and hit the path to progress. If I find one.

And like how much I miss Busybee and his gentle way of making poignant points. Mr. Contractor I salute you and I hope you will excuse the liberties I have taken in imitating your style here though I know I've not got the tone right. And I salute all my other great compatriots - past, present and future, who've dedicated their lives trying to make a difference. I just wish there were more of you and less of the parasites who live off the fruit of your labour.

Vande Mataram!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Political Animal In Me

I came upon this interesting site the other day and, of course, couldn't resist the temptation of taking the test. Go ahead, check it out, get yourself assessed and come back here - this post won't go away. It's anonymous too, and the secret service agents who have you under observation will never find out your political inclinations unless you choose to make them public. Which I am about to do in this blog post, with mine.

I got a -2.50 on the economic left/right scale and a -3.33 on the social libertarian/authoritarian scale. Let me tell you what that means (if you haven't already gone there and figured out how it works). It means I am a bit to the left of centre in my economic ideology and a bit anti-authoritarian with regard to the philosophy of social organisation. It puts me in the same quadrant as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Mohandas Gandhi; diametrically opposite to Adolf Hitler, George Bush and Tony Blair. Now - I didn't need to take this test to tell me that. At 45 I know who and what I am and am happy with that, as I usually say. However, it did bring a smile to my face - I enjoy the company in this quadrant, though I may not be as far left (communist) as, nor as much of a libertarian (anarchist) as some of my other quadrant-mates. I'm happy to be bracketed with some of the great peace-loving, enlightened and spiritually evolved revolutionaries that have walked this earth. The fact that I am closer to the centre also tells me that I may even be a bit more balanced than some of them. Hurray!

I was, however, a bit surprised to find that I was more libertarian (3.33) than I was left of centre (2.50). Even though I thought I'd made my peace with the establishment! If I'd taken this test a couple of decades ago ... well lemme not go there (too much detail - you don't need to know). Maybe as I grow, I will evolve closer to the centre and perhaps one day be a perfect 0. Standing erect like a spinning top - a perfectly balanced revolutionary ...

After spending adequate time gloating over my results and feeling smugly satisfied about my evolutionary path, my attention turned towards the framework itself (I love pondering). It would be natural to put left on the left and right on the right, which would appear like giving minus marks to the economic left and plus marks to the economic right, much to my chagrin (it's the connotation of - and + as a value judgement that I am commenting on here, not the academic semantics, which of course is value neutral on either side). However, why put authoritarian above and libertarian below? That has its connotation too. Both axes seemed to have been calibrated by right-wing capitalists (mild ones perhaps, to give them the benefit of my jumping to conclusions) who would want themselves and others of their ilk to score a + on the x axis (think of all the meanings of the word 'right') and a + on the y axis (think of all the meanings of the word 'above'). Hmm ... like it or not, the academics could not get away from leaving behind a trace of their own political sensibilities in the design of their framework, like some kind of watermark. Of course it would be too much to expect them to put left on the right and right on the left. That would be counter-intuitive if not downright confusing. But ... could they have avoided this by putting the economic left/right on the y axis? Still, one of them would be 'above' the other. Well, too bad for those who think that the top right quadrant is the 'correct' place to be. The way this has been designed right now, they'd have to share their political space with the great leaders of the free world. Some people may actually like that. Good for them!

The other thought I had was ... they should have had a z axis too. Something to characterise, let's say, attitudes towards change i.e., liberal (not to be confused with libertarian) / progressive vs. conservative / traditionalist. I wonder where I would have scored on that axis. I have enough going on both sides. Perhaps I would have been a -2 or -3 there as well i.e., leaning towards liberal / progressive evolving towards 0. I have assumed that conservative traditionalism would be a plus, and liberal progressive would be a negative, going by the spirit of the design.

There were some interesting moments as I took the test. I read "It's natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents" and thought of myself and smiled as I answered. Then I read "Marijuana should be legalised", smiled some more and answered. Then I read "The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline" and remembered my answer to "Good parents sometimes have to spank their children". And then I went back and changed a few answers. I would definitely want to spank my kids if I catch them secretly smoking a joint, and they better accept the discipline meted out to them. With me it was different ... (sigh) ... in the good old days. And no, Dad, I never inhaled.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dwelving On Dwelve

The first time I heard someone say 'dwelve', a couple of years ago, my mind momentarily stopped following the conversation and circled around what to my ears was a new combination of syllables, like a hawk around a small furry animal before it disappears into its burrow. The individual who shall in my memory be eternally associated with that word (let's call him A) was senior to me in the firm I was working for at that time and anybody who knew him would be familiar with his tendency to mispronounce words (and then assert that it was the American pronunciation), combine words (not creativity -- ignorance!) and otherwise indulge freely and unabashedly in solecisms and malapropisms (some of which had me in splits). So I didn't pay much attention to this latest in his series of gauche utterances, letting it disappear into the black hole of A's discomfort with the language. And so the hawk in my head continued the futile search for meaty nuggets of sense and meaning in A's long monologue which mainly consisted of him marvelling at his own latest achievements.

Then I heard it again a few weeks later, from a business acquaintance. "Let's not dwelve on it ..." he said, referring to a mishap in the business we were transacting. The Prof. Higgins in me was alert again, and again, I chose to let it go since I didn't have a personal rapport with this guy, and acquaintances don't take too kindly to being corrected by someone who isn't their back-slapping beer buddy. But I did make a mental note of it and when I had some time to myself, looked up 'dwelve' in as many dictionaries as I could, just to be absolutely sure.

A few months ago a dear friend of ours (let's call her M) invited my wife and me to dinner and somewhere in the conversation over a bottle of Grey Goose the word 'dwelve' popped out of her mouth. This time I was not going to let it go. "There's no such word as dwelve" I said quietly, setting my empty glass down so she could pour me some more of that excellent vodka. M is a proud and successful businesswoman -- not one to let someone get an edge over her. But over the years M has learnt to recognize when a battle is not worth fighting. For a moment she stared at me, opening then closing her mouth a few times, and I could see her trying to decide whether to humbly acknowledge this fact or to challenge it, with her characteristic bravura. "There isn't?" she said finally, with that lost child look. "No." I said, "It could be an interesting portmanteau word combining dwell and delve, trying to establish a certain level of currency for itself, but as of now it doesn't exist except in the ersatz lexicon of fast-talking fast-thinking overachieving platinum carders, who through a series of etymological mutations coin such words and phrases that then go forth and multiply like viruses and become common parlance". And then, having run out of breath, went on to enjoy more of her hospitality.

The other day another business contact of mine (let's call her U) used the dreadful word. Now U is very different from A and M: she is not your Type A/ alpha prime/ chest-thumping bull ape. U is convivial even if (and when) she is not on top of things. She is an open, friendly person with a disarming smile and not at all your cutting edge corporate type (though she has a fairly senior position in a large global bank). When someone like U starts using a word of dubious coinage, you know that it has won, in spite of the Hemant Puthlis of this world who tried quite hard to abort its birth. I came away from my meeting with U with a sense of defeat. I realized that its only a matter of time before this wretched non-word finds its way into the dictionary.

So, prudent as I tend to be in such matters, I've decided not to dwelve on it. Notwithstanding this blog entry, of course.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Logic In Ecological Economics

In my early years there were several things about the world and its people that puzzled me. I was a highly curious kid and could not contain my questions till I found some answers. As I grew older I came to understand how things worked, and came to an understanding about the things that I could not understand. As an adult, a few things do puzzle me even now, but there aren't too many things that leave me totally bewildered. One of the few things in the latter category is this whole fuss over saving the world by saving endangered species from extinction, when what we should be panicking about is population explosion. Let me elaborate ...

The fuss over endangered species manifests itself in various missions and movements, has many names, has world-wide reach, and leaps at you in various forms and forums, all aimed at making you feel guilty. The problems they talk about are numerous, but a closer look at each of those problems, and at all of them collectively, reveals that they all essentially point to two things we humans are doing too much of: (a) consuming (in many cases permanently depleting) planet earth's natural resources, and (b) dumping (in many cases non-biodegradable) waste matter, back on to planet earth. Wildlife activists, who campaign with missionary zeal, pull out all kinds of statistics to show you how Man's greed has been pushing many species into extinction. Man should learn to take only what he needs, in small quantities, and when done, recycle the waste matter so as to not disturb the natural scheme of things too much. (I saw a bumper sticker in California that said "Ignore the environment long enough and it will go away".) Operative words - preserve, conserve, save, protect.

In principle I am in agreement with this PoV. I'm a softie at heart. It hurts me to watch a cheetah kill a gazelle on Natural Geographic, to hear its desperate bleats as sharp fangs sink into its throat. It makes me want to jump into the TV set, shoo the bad cheetah away and save Bambi. When I was a kid (who was puzzled by a lot of things he didn't understand) I tried to rescue a rat which was being attacked by a crow in our building compound. I managed to drive the crow away but the rat bit me when I tried to pick it up to nurse its wounds. (This was one of the things that puzzled me, by the way -- I was a dumb kid.) So quite often I wonder why people go into the jungles of Africa and film these splendid animals, but don't save prey from predator. After all, these film-makers are sensitive -- which is why they take so much trouble to go to these inhospitable areas, live under hostile conditions and film animals in their natural habitat. Then it dawns on me that gazelles need to die so that cheetahs can live, and the food chain can continue and the cycle of life and death can perpetuate. I also realize then that people who film a kill don't want to disturb the natural order of things, and that this is a mature form of caring: observe, don't participate. However, on the drive back home if they came upon an injured baby wildebeest they would pick it up and take it to a vet. Right? I think so, but am not so sure (wouldn't that disturb the natural order of things?) But I digress.

As I was saying, I'm a softie at heart and I definitely would not want more rhinos or tigers or pandas or whales dead than need to die. But I have trouble when I start thinking about the nitty-gritty. Like -- in the previous sentence -- how many "need to die"? Assuming we could save endangered species from extinction ... would we then allow (or even facilitate) those species to go forth and multiply arbitrarily? ad infinitum? No, we would want to stop their rampant reproduction before their population exceeds ours (and well before that, really). And I believe hunting is permitted in some parts of the civilized world simply because hunting helps in controlling the growth in population of certain species. So, here's my question: do we have the magic number for each species which represents what the 'correct' population of that species should be? In fact, what does this mean? What is meant by the 'correct' number and according to whom? In other words, who are we to save any species from extinction? Isn't any attempt to do so also an attempt to disturb the natural order of things?

Another dilemma -- paper or plastic? There are as many arguments in favor of one over the other as there are in favor of the other over one. I won't go into any of them here. What I will say is that I have a different take on this: NEITHER! Don't buy stuff that requires you to decide between paper and plastic. Start from this statement and go back up the causal chain, till you come to your own existence. Well? Where did it get you? Consider this: Indiscriminate consumption and over-consumption could, with some education, be controlled. But consumption cannot be stopped as long as there are consumers. For consumption to be controlled we need to control the number of consumers. As long as humans exist and have wants and needs, and the means to satisfy them, they will consume (voraciously) and dump (copiously). And that is the natural order of things. What Man is doing to the planet today is as much a part of natural evolution as anything else. In fact changing it ... or reversing it, would be challenging "God".

What does this mean? It means that the humans will eventually destroy the environment, but they have a choice to be smart and let it happen slowly. We can slow down the pace of self-destruction through smart consumption and smart disposal (assuming we can find answers to some of the questions I've posed earlier that continue to confound me, such as 'paper or plastic?'). However, the best way to slow down the pace of self-destruction is to slow down the growth of population. We're talking root cause here. There's this whole body of over 6 billion free agents, expanding in size by the minute, which eats whole forests, sucks out the ozone layer, farts noxious gases into the air and craps tonnes of non-degradable garbage all over land and sea. How much permanent damage to the environment can we avert when we produce more and more of the very same free agents that cause the very same permanent damage, every day of their lives?

It's the people, stupid! Not the fluorocarbons! Save whales if you're fond of them, but if you want to save the world, it would be more effective to spend that same time, energy and money on stopping the next 10 humans from being born. That's what the fuss should be about.

(P.S. I am tempted to shout "Soylent Green is people!" to every wildlife conservationist I meet. That movie makes so much sense to me now.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Thoughts In Transit

You Know You're Heading Home When ...
1. You approach your boarding gate and the unmistakable sights, sounds and smells hit you.
2. You see women in brightly coloured salwar kameez or sarees, wearing Reeboks or Nikes, running after children.
3. Speaking of which, there are lots more of them around, compared to the next gate, and they are far more volatile and noisy than the few kids at the next gate, even on a per capita basis.
4. Men wear mustaches of different size and shapes and styles, and a lot of them use hair oil that leaves smelly stains on back-rests.
5. There are conversations going on in several different languages (other than English) of which you can identify at least 3.
6. There is an all-pervasive smell of B.O. which has managed to escape the feeble disguise of the cheap perfume which has been liberally sprayed-on to cover it.
7. You hear high treble sounds coming out of headphones and the guy believes in enjoying his bollywood (c)rap by grooving hard and shaking the bench you're sitting on.
8. Someone is using their mobile phone to set up an appointment for Friday 10 a.m. in Kandivili (E).
9. Young programmer-types (of which there are several) are comparing salary structures in their respective companies. One of them is already contemplating a switch.
10. While you're trying to decide between a Pinot Noir and a Syrah, everybody else has a bottle of Black Label in a duty-free bag.
11. When boarding is announced, they don't queue up - just stand around in a cluster, each hoping to get in first (regardless of whether their seat number / class has been called out)
12. Finally the airline staff forces a queue, and the guy behind you starts pushing even before the queue starts to move.

To Indians in Frankfurt (or Amsterdam or London or Singapore or ... wherever it is you're taking your last flight home from) feeling homesick, I would recommend spending a few hours at the boarding gate of any flight headed to India. It will give you a good enough dose to last a couple of weeks at least.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

To Be of Use - Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Great Minds Think Alike ...

... they say, and fools seldom differ, they add. As for me, I think what makes great minds great is the fact that they don't have a problem with being called fools. Be that as it may, my point in this post is to bring to your attention the fact that the creator of Dilbert is more or less as sartorially challenged as I am - a fact that gives me some comfort at times when I feel small and overwhelmed by haute couture. Check it out - Maybe my blog is not as funny as his, and maybe I'm not as prolific a blogger (or cartoonist) as he is. After all, I have other ways to make a living and (hopefully) am good at those. But hey - this is uncanny - he says "I rely on my wife to do the heavy lifting, fashion-wise". Somewhere some small part of me felt vindicated when I read that. I am not alone, it seems.

A minor success in my shopping career (and cause for some jubilation) is that recently, after spending long hours at large malls in small obscure towns (side note: in one such large mall in one such small obscure town called Pleasanton in California, I heard someone call out to me by name ... turned out to be a former colleague who moved there "after marriage" - hard evidence that the world is indeed shrinking) and after getting the specifications wrong, going through the returns process etc., I eventually managed to procure perfume and lingerie that my wife actually liked.

And oh - not to mention having to lug a bright pink umbrella (didn't fit into any of my bags) which came free with the Estée Lauder box (side note: how can a perfume be called Beautiful and Love at the same time?) across as many airports as mentioned parenthetically in my last blog post, and the corresponding number of flights. It takes courage for a heterosexual male to nonchalantly carry any object as brightly pink as this, I can assure you. Must confess that I did have a weak moment when I felt compelled to explain to an exec. type who had a puzzled look on his face as I pulled out the object in question from the cabin baggage hold above his head, that it was for my wife. "Yeah right" was his retort.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Three Songs I Sang In My Head Over Last Weekend

HOMEWARD BOUND - Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

I'm sittin' in the railway station (in my case - airport: 6 of them in less than 48 hours)
Got a ticket for my destination
On a tour of one night stands (didn't have any of these, sorry to disappoint)
My suitcase and guitar in hand (didn't pick up the Gibson SJ200 Custom Vine I was drooling over at the web-site, after all)
And every stop is neatly planned
For a poet and a one man band (this is applicable)

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thoughts escaping
Home, where my musics playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

Everyday's an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines
And each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger's face I see
Reminds me that I long to be

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thoughts escaping
Home, where my musics playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

Tonight I'll sing my songs again
I'll play the game and pretend
But all my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony
I need someone to comfort me

Homeward bound
I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home, where my thoughts escaping
Home, where my musics playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me

Silently for me

HOME FIRE - Louis Armstrong (original?)

Pardon the smile on my face my friend
Dreamin' of reachin' my journeys end
I'm headin' straight for my hearts desire
Gee, it's good to know I'm near the home fire

All of the folks that I love are there
I got a date with my favourite chair
With every step every hope grows higher
Didn't know how much I missed the home fire

The noises, the TV, the rusty old pipes
The cat always teasin' my dog
The neighbours, the quarrels, the screaming of kids
For the first time in years I'll sleep like a log

Heaven is waiting for me, my friend
Seven or eight dreams around the bend
And if you're ever in town inquire
We'll be glad to have you share the home fire

BREATHE (Reprise) - Pink Floyd

Home, home again.
I like to be here when I can.
When I come home cold and tired
It's good to warm my bones beside the fire.

Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Cognito Ego Ergo Sum

I have assumed permission (from I know not what authority - perhaps the Rene Descartes school of thinkers) to borrow the (in-?)famous postulate "Cogito Ergo Sum" and modify it with a quick-and-dirty Latin twist (Latin as in the language of ancient Rome; the phrase 'quick-and-dirty Latin twist' is not a reference to the salsa) - my own pseudo-Latin concoction: 'Cognito'. Having put that up-front, I feel less morally burdened and free to proceed with my prosaic pronouncements propounding my profound proposition (which the cognoscenti may find confoundingly contrarian).

So let me present the prose (and you can identify the con's yourself). First let me translate the Cartesian premise which I have liberally re-cast in improvised Latin: "I am cognizant of my ego, therefore, I am". Here, 'ego' is defined as: "the boundary of my being, that which defines me as separate from other things, and which contains me". Having paraphrased it thus, let me proceed with my thesis. I submit that the only true verification of 'my' existence stems from consciousness of the fact that there is a 'me' distinct from the universal continuum of energy, matter and various sentient beings (which I recognize as the rest of the universe - 'I' vs. 'The Other'). It starts with my being aware of the universe (of which, it turns out later, I am an integral part), and then being aware of the awareness of the universe (i.e. of the fact that there exists a being who is aware of the universe), and ends with my awareness of a such being, which I recognize as me. The observer observing the observed, and then the observer observing the observer as the observed.

(Phew! If you've had enough of this mind-bending B.S. you should stop reading this post - NOW! and jump to my post on Paris Hilton which you may find far more interesting.)

I am thus able to draw a line where the rest of the universe stops and I start (going from the outside in) or, seen differently, where I stop and the rest of the universe starts (going from the inside out). That line defines the contours of my being ... of me ... of my ego. The moment I am conscious of my existence as distinct from everything else, I have asserted my self, assumed responsibility for my existence and taken pride in myself. I have broken away from the universe and introduced a discontinuity in the (erstwhile) continuum. I am banished from the Kingdom of God. This is my fall from Grace - separating myself from Him, I have become a stand-alone power to reckon with, albeit not comparable with Him. I'm an outsider struggling with the 'other', such is my existential crisis. I am Science analysing Creation and Nature, trying to understand that which I could have known, being part of it - that which I already knew till I saw myself as being outside of it and wanted to understand objectively, as an object. So, from nothing, we got something, and then along came another thing. We now have a duality of I and the Other.

The beauty about duality is that it gives great pleasure in negating itself to make way for singularity. The joy of recognizing oneself as one removed from the other, and then transcending that to achieve one-ness with the other, again, is tremendous. It is embodied in the fusion of charged bodies, which start out being wholly complete and distinct entities, but for an instant of blissfully ecstatic communion, become one through union. And then become two again, in the harmony of opposites. If they were always one to start with, where would that intense joy come from?

So finally, through the awareness of duality yielding to singularity, we become aware of the duality of: (a) duality and (b) singularity, together, as a singular truism. Consciousness of the I and the Other as being part of the same continuum, the I as distinct from the Other and yet a part of it. With the harmony of opposites, the plane of harmony itself as unity.

This is as good as it gets, from what I know and have learned up until now in my life, about the ontology of existence. If you know more and/or better, I would love to hear about it.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

... Never Having To Say You're Sorry

On my Delta Airlines flight from San Francisco to Atlanta this morning they were playing the movie 'Love Story' - based on the book by Erich Segal, with Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw (not sure if there are other movies since then with that name). Guess it was because it was Valentine's Day.

It brought back so many old memories - the visuals, the song, the piano work. It took me back several years - I saw the movie with Dad in a theatre downtown (which probably doesn't exist now). I can't recall where Mom was that afternoon. I remember the last shot with Ryan O'Neal (I think his name was Oliver) sitting on the stands of the hockey stadium with snow all around, and how when they first meet they had a argument which Ali MacGraw (I think her name was Jennifer) ended with something like ".... and I am not going to have coffee with you" to which he said "but I never asked you for coffee ..." and that's how it all started for them.

As I grew older I found the song maudlin, the story a tear-jerker which at times I even called pathetic, and used to make fun of it. Today however, far from home and far from my family ... tears just flowed and I couldn't stop them. I thought of everybody I loved and everbody who loved me, but most of all my Dad, who passed away about 20 years ago and with whom I would give anything to have a long conversation now. Especially about everything he would want to be sorry for, as would I for my misgivings.

I didn't see the whole movie - just the beginning and the end. I didn't buy the headphones they were selling on board and didn't have any of my own. I took a short nap in between, and when I woke up, she was dead and he was getting out of the hospital and his father was telling him how sorry he was, and Oliver utters the famous line that Jennifer had once said to him (I lip-read it) "Love is ... never having to say you're sorry". I reached for my handkerchief and the nice middle-aged lady sitting next to me looked at me, surprised. Yes, ma'am ... real men do cry.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

News That's Fit To Print

Earlier this week, on Monday January 22, the SRE1 launched by the ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation, for those who don't know) twelve days ago, was successfully recovered after being maneuvered to reenter the earth’s atmosphere and descend into Bay of Bengal. The ISRO issued a modest press statement outlining various technical details about the mission. What they did not mention was the fact that this makes India one of the few nations to return from orbit, a spacecraft that it had launched earlier. This is quite characteristic of humble technicians buried deep in research, who do not realize the significance of what they've achieved. I don't blame them one bit, and needless to say, applaud their feat wholeheartedly.

I waited patiently through the week to see what kind of coverage this got from the press. I haven't seen any yet that came out on its own and sought viewer / reader eyeballs in any of the dozen or so TV news channels / dozen or so newspapers. On searching around a bit on the Internet I found some coverage about the launch on Jan 10 but nothing on the recovery.

What I did get a lot of, and which was hard to miss, was coverage on 'Abhi and Ash' and the rest of the Bachchan family visiting temples and doing other family things. And on Navjot Sidhu and the Supreme Court decision on his conviction and sentence several years ago on a road rage case. And various people's opinions on Shilpa Shetty and reality shows. And several other news stories not worth mentioning here (or, frankly, anywhere else either).

It is appalling to see what people who launch campaigns like 'India Poised' focus on and what they don't.

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Phenomenon Called Paris Hilton

My life is divided into two parts: before Paris Hilton and after Paris Hilton. No, I don't know her and I've never met her, but the turning point that I am referring to, is my discovery of the phenomenon that she is - a celebrity celebrated just for being famous. She is the embodiment of what fame means in this highly evolved (socio-culturally speaking) state of human development as evidenced at present. She epitomises everything that someone wanting to be famous would aspire for. She's the zenith of glamour - the ultimate aspiration of all wannabes. Maybe some day, someone may achieve even more Paris Hilton-ness than her, but for now, she is as Paris Hilton as you can get.

Several people may be endowed with wealth and/or positioned within easy reach of celebrity status, right from the time they're born. Some, in fact, achieve it at conception itself (a la TomKat: Tom Cruise - Katie Holmes' baby, who has achieved celebrity status even before birth). However, not all can carry it well and make a lifestyle out of it. Paris Hilton has shown us that this is a serious business. You can fuck it up, or you can take it to new heights. This is not very different from taking a small business your granduncle set-up and making it a huge global conglomerate. Yes, you inherit some assets. But what you do with them is all up to you and you alone. Paris Hilton had the choice of being a nobody. Or of being a somebody. Or of being anybody. But no, she chose to be Paris Hilton - a unique phenomenon that remains unparalleled, unrivalled and unsurpassed.

All form, no content - what an amazingly profound concept! Whatever content there may be, is completely irrelevant at best, and at worst may even spoil the whole show. For instance, if she really had musical talent, she would have been known as a great musician; if she could act well she would have be known as a great actor; if she could write well she would be known for her books (speaking of which - it seems she has released a book titled 'Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose' which guides aspirants with do's and don'ts of living her kind of life); if she was good at modeling she could have become a super-model; if she was a good designer ... etc., but the world would not have been presented with such a superb icon for super-chic fluff - a model non-product extraordinaire. A phenomenon such as this one can only meaningfully exist if meaningful content is non-existent. This concept itself is the hallmark of our times, and that precisely, is where Paris Hilton has contributed to the progress of mankind: she has given that concept a name, a face, a personality, a life. Apparently she will appear in the 2007 Guinness World Records as the world's "most overrated celebrity". Overrated? that sounds like she's not as good as she appears to be. Wrong benchmark used by people who have not understood the concept. Sadly, they're missing the point: she is by no means an overrated celebrity, she is famous for being Paris Hilton - a celebrity debutante, a cause celebre of all dilettantes. And she excels at being that!

Consider this: as Paris Hilton grew up, she could have become a junkie or an alcoholic, and got some nominal press coverage about that, but she would have been one of several thousands of rich folks getting in and out of rehab for substance abuse. She could have turned into an eccentric and got her outrageous antics written about, but then there are so many of those. She could have married a big shot and become his (or her) home-maker, shining in the reflected glory of her spouse / family. Clichéd as hell. She could have been a business woman or a professional and carved out a career all by herself, even larger than her legacy business. (Yawn - how boring!) However, she's done none of the above. This woman is fabulously famous for absolutely no reason at all. All she has is the ability to carry her heiress status in a way that makes people envy her, want her, want to be like her, want to be her. And what an ability that is! Every little thing she does attracts media attention, and she's mastered the art of doing those little things she does, and doing them in the most media-seductive style. This is a very fine art, and some people are born with it and others aren't.

If you're one of those who are born with it, you should try and emulate her: learn, implement, evolve - she's set the benchmark, see if you can even reach that height or die trying. And if you're not one of those who are born with it, keep wishing you were. Loser! Go become famous for something meaningful ... and become just another ordinary garden variety celebrity!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sheepish In The Wolf's Clothing Section

Last weekend my wife and I went shopping for new clothes for me. I should rephrase that as – my wife dragged me to the nearest clothes store, kicking and screaming (in fact ‘bleating’ may be the mot juste here). We don’t go shopping very frequently and the few times we do, it serves to remind us of the fact that we have antipodal views on what, where, when, why, how, how much, and any other possible criteria associated with (a) choice of items and (b) the process of shopping. Long ago (when I was single) in my small and cozy little world, there was not much to think about when it came to buying new clothes, and decisions were fairly easily taken the few times I needed to take them. The most agonizing decisions for me those days revolved around which white shirts I should buy and how many of them I should buy on this shopping expedition (i.e., this year). I used to be happy in that world ... but then in my wife's big wide world of several thousands of choices in matters sartorial, life is not so simple. Apparently, apparel is a complex affair. And according to my wife, I have the dress sense of an aardvark.

We've been married for a decade now, but know each other over two, and have gone shopping together for (my) clothes, several times over that period. Has anything changed over time? Well, yes. I am less reluctant now, to experiment with pinks or with checked patterns, than I used to be. But I draw the line somewhere, and she knows that. Differences are quickly aired and understood. Sometimes even this is redundant – a twitch of my upper lip, when shown a disagreeable sample, is enough, though I may nod with hastily mustered vigor while making some positive-sounding noises. We have learnt to conclude these sessions at the optimal level of happiness averaged out across both of us. We emerge from the store pleased with what we have achieved together as opposed to walking to the parking lot quarreling over my quirkiness. To give you an example of how this works – we settle for the bright red paisley patterned shirt once in 5 years, and that works for both of us.

While getting in and out of trial rooms (the part I hate the most) and at various other times in the shopping ‘experience’ when I'm by myself for small slices of time, I can't help reflecting on yet another truism about men and women: that men aim to be as consistently recognizable as possible at every appearance, while women aspire to present the most vividly unexpected apparition each time. Over the years, I have developed more and more conviction in the belief that I've found the key to this whole gender thing – my own version of 'women are from Venus and men are from Mars' (I hope I got that right). It is about consistency and variety … about the excitement, versus the insecurity, of change.

It is as though men are saying "Look, this is me - the same old me you knew yesterday and the day before that, and the same me that will be with you tomorrow and the day after". Men want to impress upon you the fact that they are consistent and steadfast. They want to provide security through the assurance of no-change, and make you comfortable by making everything about themselves predictable – to the point of being boringly so. Hence they lead structured, orderly lives and their wardrobes are full of white shirts and gray trousers neatly organized in a row. Deviations from normal plain white would be to the extent of cream / light blue / light gray / yellow shirts; some pin-stripes and some different collar styles or cuff styles perhaps, to break the monotony.

Women, on the other hand, seem to be saying "Hey! Guess who this is – it's me! Today's me. Not the woman you knew yesterday, not the one you knew the day before. Which do you prefer? Well it doesn't matter because I can be all of those and more." Women want to enchant you by presenting a variety of expressions. They want to surprise you with a refreshingly different look each time, hinting at the excitement of change. There are two sides to this message if you can read between the subliminal lines: (1) If you don’t recognize me, then good – I can be ‘the other woman’ and in fact be all the other women (2) If you do recognize me, then perhaps I’m looking different because I’ve moved on? You need to woo me all over again! And this is not just about clothes – it is more holistic: it is about the appearance per se. The range of tools available to a woman to do this is ... well almost infinite! I could go ahead and talk about different styles of clothing, make-up, hair styling choices etc. but this would only expose my abysmal ignorance in these areas (I referred to moisturizing lotion as make-up some time back and got an earful) and would confirm my stereotype. I'd rather ’fess up to it in so many words, than indulge fecklessly in malapropisms of a language I do not understand.

To summarize: Men provide an image of consistency and predictability to women because they believe it keeps women secure and comfortable, and women present an image of variety and unpredictability to men because they believe it keeps men excited and in anticipation. If you want to test this out, try telling a woman that she’s predictable to the point of being boring, and a man that he’s inconsistent and unpredictable (caveat: don’t try this at home). Then try the reverse. Tell me what you get.

P.S. In case you’re wondering why we never go shopping for her clothes and you want to tell me what a chauvinist you think I am, let me take that hit up-front and meekly accept all of it, rather than present my (typically male) PoV and hopelessly try to explain why that is an even more challenging experience for me. What I do enjoy is shopping for things for her when I’m traveling, but that’s an entirely different story …

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Great Indian Con - Ideas vs. Myths

Some time back, when I heard that Shashi Tharoor was a candidate for UN Secretary General, I took great pride in the fact that a compatriot of mine had risen to a level where he was being considered for the post. I had neither read his books nor seen the impact of his work, but over the years formed an impression of him that could best be characterized by two parameters: erudition and achievement (and I may be right on both counts). However, I had by extension, also attributed to him additional qualities that should be natural corollaries, such as a keen and sharp mind (that wouldn't easily be fooled by clever sophistry), deep insights into the Indian socio-economic context, and above all the wisdom of a philosopher. In short, I used to think he was an intellectual and I was favorably disposed to accept his views, generally speaking. (Not his fault, really, that I developed this image of him - mea culpa.) And so, when I read his recent article "Looking to the future with Brand IIT" this last New Year's eve in the Times, it was an eye-opener. Check it out:

His article is based on his address to a gathering of IIT alumni from the all over the world at the recent PanIIT 2006 global meet ( Either he felt obliged to say nice things to please his hosts, or he genuinely believes that the IITs are doing a great job. If he felt obliged but didn't have too many nice things to say, he ought to have declined the invitation altogether. But he didn't do that - he came, he talked and he submitted. This is a case of diplomacy over substance if not form over substance. It is one thing to believe that the IITs are doing a great job simply because it is generally believed by all to be true. It is altogether another thing to have dug out facts and figures, thought it through and placed it all together and then to assert firmly and with conviction that they are. And then go beyond that and assert that they hold a lot of promise for India's future. Mr Tharoor has done the latter, which in my opinion is inexcusably foolish for a man of his stature and station. According to me, the IITs have failed to deliver and it is not at all difficult to see why and how.

Let me step back for just one moment, to present the background to my own assertion that the IITs have failed. This is not directly connected with Mr Tharoor and his views, but more of a quick recap of the genesis of the IITs and their original raison d'être. Back in those days, Nehru and his team had a vision of India as a self-sufficient economy. The key to real freedom, they realized, was economic independence, and this could only come about if we were self-reliant as a nation. I have no quarrel with this thesis, in very broad and general terms. Some highlights of this school of thought include the "non-aligned" policy, "mixed economics" (our own brand of socialism), etc., all of which, incidentally, I am certain that Mr Tharoor has studied in far more detail than I have (he's written books about it). The establishment of the IITs needs to be seen in this context: they were created so that India could build our own cadre of engineers who should engage in the noble task of nation building, thus making us self-reliant through not only indigenous technological development but also development of indigenous technologies. These institutions were funded partly through international aid (initially) and on a more sustained basis by Indian tax payers - it seemed logical that tax payers should pay towards building a bigger brighter better India, a stronger India, a richer India. And all this, by achieving self-reliance - particularly in technology, which was clearly the weapon of the future: not mastered, it would threaten India for ever, through the prospect of economic and/or military domination by technologically superior foreign powers.

However over the years, this vision has blurred, become foggy and vanished altogether. Perhaps it is obsolete? In that case we must change it and have the right vision in place for the IITs. Perhaps it is still relevant? In that case we must ensure that everything we do continues to be aligned with it. Alas, we seem to be doing neither. Again, this is Failure. The first failure of the IITs was that of not meeting the objectives they were set up for. The second, of not recognizing and correcting the first failure. And Mr Tharoor's failure? Of missing both! Or perhaps, like I said earlier, he was being the eternal diplomat or the natural yea-sayer (see my post "What part of No don't you understand?" in the archives of this blog), conveniently brushing the bad news under the carpet.

Consider an analysis along the following lines. To keep it simple, let me select one area - let's say, Civil Engineering. First take the Life-To-Date number of IIT graduates in Civil Engineering - the grand total number of Civil Engineers which all the IITs put together have ever produced. Of these, let x be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduating from an IIT, have continued to live in India to work as Civil Engineers. Let y be the number of Civil Engineers who, after graduation, have continued to live in India, but did not / do not work as Civil Engineers. And lastly, let z be the number of Civil Engineering graduates who left India for greener pastures in foreign lands (of this number there could be three components: z1 - those who are still overseas, z2 - those who have returned to India but are not working here as Civil Engineers, and z3 - those who have returned to India and work here as Civil Engineers). I am willing to bet that of all these numbers, x would be far lower than y which would be far lower than z, to the extent that z would come close to equaling the sum of x and y. Further, I would wager that z3 would be lower than z2, which would be lower than z1, and that z1 would be greater than or equal to z2 plus z3. If instead of Life-to-Date one were to take a base of the last, say, 20 years, the results would be even more skewed in favour of the point I am trying to make. Which means the deviation of the outcome from the intent is even more in the last few years. From another perspective, there could be departments where the trend is more pronounced one way or another. However, my point is not about departments; it is about the institution as a whole. If someone has actual real data on this, I would LOVE to see it. I would also LOVE to be proved wrong about this. Quite simply put, the IITs have been contributing more to the technological and economic progress of other countries (such as the US, for which they have been formally recognized - read on) than to India. This is like a poor man who sets out to cook food for himself but because he is such a good cook, ends up cooking for the rich man, only to be left with a few crumbs for himself. If it happens once, it's happenstance, and if it happens twice it's coincidence. But to allow this to happen on a sustained basis, over several years, without doing anything about it and in fact not even recognizing it is as a problem, is downright foolish. And it is outrageously foolish on the part of the poor man's friend, to compliment such behavior with a pat on the back for earning the beneficence and goodwill of the rich man while starving himself to death, almost.

Apparently an IIT alumnus is writing a book on 101 IITians who've made it big, globally. Why doesn't someone make a list of 101 IITians who've made it big in India? A few years ago, someone mailed me a copy of House Resolution 227 of the 1st session of the 109th Congress of the United States of Amercia, which formally acknowledged the role of IITians in building a more robust US economy. Why has nothing like that happened here? We can put it down to the apathy of Indian administrators / bureaucrats / politicians etc. (as we usually do in the case of Indians who become stars abroad and get no recognition at home). But hey .. could the problem be somewhere else? Could it be that someone compiling a list of 101 great IITians who have contributed to the Indian economy may not find more than a dozen or so entries of merit? Could it be that the Indian govt. has not formally recognised the contribution of IITians simply because there hasnt been anything significant that IITians have done for the Indian economy?

Mr Tharoor's point seems to be that IITians have spread their wings, gone all over the world and achieved a lot, and in doing so have acted as brand ambassadors for India. But I ask: was that what the IITs were set-up for - to create brand ambassadors? Here's something Mr Tharoor says in his article: "Nehru's establishment of the IITs (and the spur they provided to other institutions like Birla Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management) have produced many of the finest minds in America's Silicon Valley and Fortune-1000 Corporations." Tell me again, Mr Tharoor, was this Nehru's vision? To create institutions that feed Silicon Valley and Fortune 1000 Corporations? Was that the idea? No, my dear sir - it's a myth. Worse still, a con. I am disappointed that someone like you cannot see it. Someone like you, who is best placed to call the bluff; to let everyone know the truth about the Emperor's new clothes.