Monday, November 9, 2015

Why Indian train travel still leaves a lot to desire

Whereas a flight travel is an anodyne affair, a train journey is always lively and colorful. Through a train window you see a world constantly receding away.  You strike interesting conversations (and even friendships) with people who were strangers a little while earlier and would be strangers again. You frequently eat things keeping your health concern on hold as long as the journey lasts.

The romanticism of the journey gets rudely interrupted when you visit the loo or look at the litter caused by fellow passengers (us) on the tracks and inside the train. This is the worst part of travelling by train.

Partly the blame goes to us who travel and litter, but partly (and substantially) it’s waste management to blame. When you travel by train you feel there is complete absence of an efficient garbage management system. Either there are no bins in compartments or they are so far from the seats, located next to washrooms, that it takes quite an effort going to them and dropping something. Even if you make that effort (at least while on your way back to seat from loos) there is no guarantee that you will be able to drop anything into the bin: mostly they are filled to the brim; their contents are not removed frequently enough.

So people just chuck things on the floor or out of the window. The latter leads to another problem: filth on tracks. This practice is sometimes even encouraged by train cleaning staff who often ask people to just chuck things out of the window and themselves accumulate litter on the passageway between two compartments and push it into the track. The old Indian practices of defecating on train tracks is very much alive. The poor tracks are also recipients of human waste offloaded by trains.

All these make rail lines unsightly and a source of stench. Imagine being stuck interminably long, it’s hot and stuffy inside the train and you are not able to open the window to avoid being hit by a blast of stink!

As far as discharge of human excreta on the rails is concerned, after doing a Google search, I realized it’s a global problem.  An article reported that in the UK there is a concern over train toilet sewage offloaded on tracks which hamper repairs and cause hygiene concerns. Some other countries, in the West, also contend with the same problem. Restroom Association of Singapore, an association which aims to improve toilet behavior in Singapore, ran a campaign called Let's Observe Ourselves (LOO) to educate users about basic things related to public health, hygiene and toilet etiquette.

The UK article says that the solution to trains having to offload their fecal waste on tracks is putting chambers underneath the toilets; but the problem is old trains don’t have enough space between the axels to accommodate a chamber.

That leaves us with litter disposal. One can say cleanliness comes at a price. Travel in an AC coach and you will not find so many cleanliness issues. But that’s not right. The cleaning staff for both AC and non-AC coaches are same: just that they pay less attention to the non-AC ones, but they collect tips from all the compartments nonetheless.


But the good news is the Indian Railways has outsourced cleaning to private parties. So you can see accountability with the cleaners – towards the end of the journey they come and check if things were all right and ask for tips; but as far as the non-AC compartments are concerned, that’s among the one or two times they appear during, say, a one and half day journey. The non-AC travelers, additionally, are approached by hijras (transgenders) at every station – they don’t contribute to the lack of cleanliness, but surely are one of the reasons why travelling by train in India is an unforgettable affair, albeit for the wrong reasons.

But frankly, on a broader scale, trains have improved a lot since the 80s and 90s. You have fewer people without reservation onboard. Some trains, in fact, don't allow anyone on waiting list on board - and go at considerable length to enforce that. The bathrooms may leave a lot to desire but generally they are much cleaner than in the earlier decades. 

There are more train options nowadays. Getting a ticket is easier, much easier, than before, thanks to the fact that they can be purchased online (and although many still prefer buying tickets the old way, the online option really works). And as my mini online research revealed many problems we traditionally complain about are also to be found in other countries. It's only that things could get better. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Quiet, an Insightful Take on Introversion

Have you ever been told it’s all right if while at a party you like to occupy a quiet corner to avoid socializing; that it’s okay to feel troubled by underrated emotions like doubt and fear; that maybe you were overlooked for a promotion because your colleague had the ‘right personality’ for the role; that there is nothing wrong with you if you feel overwhelmed by some social situations and take time to come to terms with them? Susan Cain argues, in Quiet, all this means you are blessed with the personality syndrome that some of the most creative and revolutionary thinkers have (or had): introversion.

Quiet makes a strong case for introversion (or introverts) by passionately arguing that it’s the introverts who were behind some of the greatest achievements of the human race (like the theory of relativity) and equally acerbically ascribing some of the problems in modern times (like the subprime mortgage issue) to our tendency to overlook introverts and place problems that require deeper insights – which are more likely to come, according to Cain, from introverts - at the service of exTaketroverts.

But is the barrier separating introversion from extroversion so simple? Aren’t we a bit of both? A person who is gregarious while among friends can be reserved among strangers. A person who is generally lighthearted can be surprisingly insightful, in some situations. Haven’t we seen many shy and reserved types excel in professional areas which are considered exclusive domains of extroverts?

Cain doesn’t challenge the theory of Carl Jung who said there is no such person as absolute introvert or extrovert and such a person would have his place only in a mental asylum…She says we share cross traits of introversion and extroversion and your personality type depends on which side of the divide the traits that are intense in you fall. To add nuance to this line of argument, she interviews people belonging to both personality types and also draws from her personal experience as an introvert.

However, Susan doesn’t restrict her research to interviews and personal experience, but delves into the scientific aspect of her subject, too – and establishes beyond doubt that introversion is a biological characteristic we are born with and not something we acquire during our lifetime. Children who are very alive to their environment – high reactive types - turn out to be introverts whereas those with low sensitivity to their environments become extroverts, low reactive types. Although introverts become more outgoing as years go by, they remain introverts at the core.

Courtesy of the high premium we place as a society on extroverted traits, Cain informs, there are many who hide their introversion and masquerade as extroverts only to wake up to their real selves when they meet with a crisis . Not only society at large but even corporations overrate extroverted traits and extroverts are misconstrued as ‘natural leaders’, an error of judgement which caused the subprime crisis where those showing risk taking capabilities (an extroverted trait) where put in positions of leadership and decision making overlooking those less inclined to take risks or prefer taking calculated and thoughtful risks instead of plunging headlong into something they know little about.

Cain interviewed children of migrants coming from eastern cultures and concludes that, unlike in the west, extroversion is not prized so much in the east (especially in Confucian cultures) where silence is considered golden and observation of hierarchies (age-based or social) appreciated. (It reminded me of a Time magazine article which said that one of the reasons democracy doesn’t flourish in Asia is that there is too much insistence on unquestioning respect for people in positions of power - like a teacher, a ruling family or an older person – which runs contrary to the very idea of democracy which bases itself on questioning.)

The introverted children Cain interviewed, in some of the most prestigious American institutions, mostly said they wanted to be extroverts to be more in sync with how their institutes want them to be.

Being an introvert herself and being very proud of being one, Cain sometimes reads a little biased towards introverts. Almost all the introverts she interviewed and mentions in Quiet are either stupendously successful (like Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs etc.) or hold promise for success (like those migrant children) – sometimes reading like a motivational book for introverts rather than an analytical effort on the subject.

Cain looks at cultures other than American but very briefly and broadly – and thus misses a point or two about her subject. For example, in India, as in America, extroverted traits enjoy greater social approval than their introspective counterparts, but the virtues of quiet are not altogether overlooked.

These are the two flaws I found in what is otherwise a spectacular book.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Corruption to stay the issue number one for sometime to come

In the last few years, India has indeed changed. At a very basic level, the retrospective impropriety scandal which hit Vasundhara Raje and Sushma Swaraj as a result of Lalit Modi’s revelations is nothing more than a person misusing his access to a powerful politician. Lalit Modi had access to these ladies which he used to get favours of them – and maybe the ladies received something in return which my or mayn’t be establish-able. In other words, it’s a person misusing his access to power and the powerful obliging.  Isn’t it something we in India have grown up hearing and seeing happen around us?

10 years back no one would have bothered about it. We have always lived with the knowledge that politicians are corrupt, that businessmen bend rules to make it etc. And this general awareness about their impropriety never kicked up a public storm or dented their popularity. In fact, there was admiration for their ability to con and prosper expressed in private quarters. Many said why complain about the means as long as the end is good. No one grudged them their ill-gotten wealth.

Then what has changed us so much in last four to five years? Why are political parties fighting elections with corruption as their central issue? Why are the channels going bonkers over what would have been dismissed as petty corruption issues a few years ago?
Our tolerance about corruption has shrunk in last few years. We have started asking questions about what we had always taken for granted.

Couple of months ago, when BJP’s land bill had just started being discussed in media, one day I saw an elderly man being interviewed on a TV channel. He spoke with the simplicity of a village elder. He blamed the government for forsaking the welfare of the poor. He threatened to start a movement to raise aware around the land bill. It reminded me of the chaos the elderly man had created only four years back.

It’s been some time I saw the interview and nothing of the sort we had witnessed earlier followed. Maybe Anna Hazare held a meeting or two, following that TV interview, but they never created the nation-wide stir his anti-corruption movement had four years ago.
It’s to that movement four years ago, which never reached any conclusion but brought corruption to the center stage of politics, that Congress owes getting an issue which it can firmly wrap its fist around since the formation of the new government. It’s to that movement four years ago that BJP owes its coming to power at the center on the strength of the popular despair it created against Congress’s corrupt rule.

It’s to that movement four years ago that Delhi owes its unpredictable chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. And many more transformative changes that have taken place in India since that anti-corruption movement spearheaded by the bespectacled elderly man on the TV channel – have their origin in that movement four years ago.   

Whether you think that in an atmosphere where tiniest of misdemeanors by public figures can be orchestrated into an over-blown national hysteria, there is always the possibility of the political establishment misleading us into believing that all scams are same. Or you believe, when it comes to corruption, size or type shouldn’t matter. The politics of propriety as an issue has never had it so good. All earlier movements with a social impact dealt with a bouquet of issues; corruption was just one of them.

So maybe Sushma and Vasundhara will still get away with whatever they have done or not. But corruption as a political issue is not going fall out of favour with the political establishment any time soon. When an opposition dislodges dislodges a ruling party on the basis of corruption charges and after staying in power for some time gets bored of taking about corruption, it’s time for the former ruling party to attack the government on corruption.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Momos Have Come to Rule the Indian Streets

For a few years now, in India, two types of food become popular: those with health benefits and those without health hazards. Momo is a beneficiary of the later. It is not known to offer any health benefit, but the steamed momos containing minced meat or vegetables stuffing hardly can pose any health hazard.

Roughly, momos appeared on mainstream Indian foodscape about 15 to 16 years ago. Since then, they have grown in popularity to become one of the most preferred snacks of urban India. As a result of this phenomenal popularity, today momos are available everywhere, from interesting small joints and street stalls run by guys from the North Eastern states of India (they make the cheapest and best momos) to costly Chinese restaurants.

But what is interesting about this is not so much momos’ success as a restaurant offering but their emergence as a popular street food. Their acceptability as street food is so high that even people who are prude about street foods flock to street momo corners.

There are a few reasons for momos’ success as a street food. Momos are the most transparent food: their simple contents (some meat or vegetables and flour) assure you that there is no scope to adulterate them and get away with it. Momos, at least the steamed ones, are always ready to eat; just pluck them from their pans and serve them with red chili sauce, no preparatory period is involved unless you eat the fried versions. This is a significant advantage as it makes momos something you can eat on the go.  

But the most trust-inspiring thing about momos is that we find it easy to trust anything that is well-heated – and in this respect, momos stand on a very firm ground. They are always being heated in their multi-storey aluminum containers and are served to you piping hot.

So how can you not trust the momos? But are they great to eat?

They can be quite bland without auxiliaries but mop up some sauce and you can’t have enough of them, as with any food with South East Asian provenance.

I bit into momos for the first time in Calcutta where you are served momos with hot soup (the small joints serve chicken stalk even if you order veg momos) and you add sauce separately. But after I moved to Bangalore, I was surprised to find momos served without soup and only with sauce.

It reminded me of what my sister had once told me following a short visit to Gangtok, that, in Gangtok, they couple their momos only with home-made chilli-garlic sauce. The guys running street momo stalls, in Bangalore, mostly come from Darjeeling, which shares cultural similarities with Gangtok.

Driven by an investigative zeal, I quickly went to Wikipedia to find out how momos have changed since they descended from their places of origin and whether ‘what they are served with’ differs from place to place.

I found that momos have traditionally had meat stuffing. Varied animal meats are used depending on local preferences and availability. So the conclusion: veg versions are later attempts at localizations, like Chicken Achari Pizzas.

Wikipedia couldn’t inform me particularly on whether momo accompaniments differ from place to place, but it told that momo is served with soup in Nepal. As for the other places which the momo traces its origin to, there is no consistency of practice.

But frankly, who cares?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Piku - telling a tale with subtlety and grace

There was a time when Bollywood was obsessed with Punjabi culture. Even if a plot was located far off Punjab shores (London, New York etc), it had to have a Punjabi family at its heart. Now, at least this year, that obsession seems to have moved to Bengali culture. Piku is the second big movie this year to have a Bengali setting. But, unlike those Punjabi-oriented movies which were culturally Punjabi but geographically elsewhere (or everywhere), the Bengali-oriented ones are either fully set in Calcutta (Detective Byomkesh Bakshi) or partly but substantially set there.

But that’s not the only thing I liked about Piku. The movie is a refreshing take on a father-daughter relationship. Again, in a departure from filial relationships shown in Hindi movies in earlier decades, the relationship Piku has depicted is realistic with mutual love, concern and respect and without unquestioning reverence. While Piku objects to someone expressing contempt for her father’s senility, she shows understanding and accommodation when someone is genuinely annoyed with Bhaskar Banerji. Sujit Sirkar has skillfully avoided the clich├ęs of parent-child relationship and has caught its nuances beautifully.  

Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), a widower, stays with his daughter, Piku (Deepika Padukone), in a Bengali neighborhood of Delhi. Bhaskar is old and grumpy and suffers from constipation; the daughter is a working girl who takes care of her father and is a little exasperated by his old-age tantrums, just as everybody else inhabiting the world of Banerjis is, domestic helps, family friends, relatives etc.  Apart from constipation, another old-age affliction keeps Bhaskar occupied: his belief that he has some serious health issue, although for a seventy year old he is quite fit and healthy.

The family travels to Calcutta (Bhaskar’s home town) and there, unbeknown to Piku, Bhaskar goes for an extensive nostalgic cycle ride taking the viewer through the narrow alleyways of North Calcutta and such famous landmarks as Dalhousie. The cycle ride gives Bhaskar more than a nostalgic relief; after the ride, he relieves himself to his heart’s content. The next day Bhaskar dies, his last wish fulfilled.

The performances are masterful. Bachchan is excellent playing different shades of the character, his age and crankiness, to perfection…but where he has particularly scored is in emulating Bengali mannerisms. Deepika is very natural as Piku and Irfan has almost made it a habit to be  excellent movie after movie.

Another notable feature of Piku is it maintains a good pace without too many twists and turns in the tale. With a subject like constipation it was easy to resort to front bench slapstick; instead Sujit Sirkar has dealt with the subject gracefully without missing an opportunity to tickle your funny bone reminiscent of the Basu Chatterjee movies of the 70s. And like those Basu Chatterjee movies, Piku has its share of social commentary, concerning women and relationships, made in an understated manner.  

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Tell Tale Brain - Unlocking the Mysteries of the Mind


That our brain works in a complex way is a grand understatement. The labyrinthine of neuroscience can completely overwhelm the ordinary reader. Even after an understanding has crystallized, the ordinary reader may feel a nuanced appreciation has remained elusive. In The Tell Tale Brain, VS Ramachandran has attempted to explain the intricacies (and sometimes absurdities) of how our brain functions to the uninitiated reader.

And although he may not have completely succeeded in doing so, his attempt has surely resulted in a fascinating read - bringing to the average reader such intellectually stimulating things as how art evolved, why does an autistic child draws better than a French master, why does a person feel the presence of a missing limb, why seeing colour is special and what seeing different colours means – and much more.

Theories in neuro science are always evolving with old theories getting reviewed, changed, challenged and sometimes replaced by new ones. Similarly, there is no single theory on anything – scientists disagree almost on everything leading to the existence of multiple theories on everything. Ramachandran has discussed every contemporary and past stream of thought and argument on every issue he has dealt with in The Tell Tale Brain.

The Tell Tale Brain, a title inspired from Edger Allen Poe’s Tell Tale Heart, also explores every angle of a brain problem – discussing not just the technical aspects (with respect to brain functionalities) but also their evolution, evolutionary purpose and how differently something has evolved for non-humans, and thus arriving at what makes us unique among those we share the planet with.

Ramachandran says the ability to copy, among other things, an ability mirror neurons are responsible for, makes humans unique. This ability is not available in animals or at least at a level as sophisticated as in humans. So while a cub can learn from its mother how to hunt, it can never learn subtler skills, like language, from its parents or from other animals. Ramachandran says this ability to learn from others (or copy) is at the heart of accomplishments that are unique to humans, like culture, language (unless you are among those who believe dolphins have a language) etc. And this ability is also responsible for empathy, which again is among the core abilities required for something which is uniquely human – art.

A survey was conducted where the participants were given two sketches of a running horse, one done by an autistic child and the other by a French master without telling the participants which one is sketched by whom. And the majority found the one done by the autistic child better than the one by the French master!

Ramachandran says there are two parts in our brain (broadly), one of them is responsible for artistic output and the other deals with logic-based activities. Since the autistic child’s other side is completely dysfunctional (since autism causes loss of social or any other skill) all his mental energies flow unconsumed into the part that’s concerned with art, unlike in the case of the French master with whom some of the energy is consumed by the non-artistic part of the brain. Read the book for more such insights on how our brain works.

The Tell Tale Brain reads like a thriller V.V Ramachandran’s erudition notwithstanding.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin

If you read Thomas Hardy’s life you will know how the prose overshadows verse. Thomas Hardy’s first love was poetry and he had taken to novel writing only to earn a living. But most of us know him as a novelist, existence of several poetry collections to his credit notwithstanding. Of all the biographies of writers I have read or those I know about Thomas Hardy comes from a most unlikely background for a novelist. 

Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy “The Time Torn Man “ traces the life of the famous British Victorian writer his birth onwards going a little further back in time, in fact, for a snapshot of his parents’ life and their circumstances through his finding of literary fame, his love affairs (most of them one-sided) and the trials and tribulations Hardy had to go through to establish himself as a writer.

Thomas Hardy was born to poor parents in English countryside, in Higher Bockhampton near Dorchester. His mother, Jemima, was a domestic maid with literary inclinations. She had access to the libraries of the educated and read some classics.  She had modest ambitions beyond her station but never achieved them. Understandably, Hardy took his first steps towards literature holding his mother’s hand. Hardy’s father was a stonemason and local builder.

Hardy married the woman he loved and it was a steady marriage, although they didn’t have any kids and despite Hardy’s life-long mental philandering where he had romantic feelings for women both older and younger than him and most of them much married even as he remained loyal to his wife avoiding any mutually acknowledged romantic or physical relationship with any other woman, although failing to hide his mental infidelities from his wife, who, understandably, bitterly detested it but also silently suffered it. Hardy married twice; the second time when he was in his 70s and his wife, mid 20s.

Hardy extended this Jackal and Hyde character to his attitude towards religion. He had fallen off Christian faith as a young man but maintained the outwardly signs of devoutness (he visited church regularly), so that upon his death the local cleric told that Hardy had lived life like a true Christian. Several times his beliefs revealed residues of Christian beliefs.   

It was not until slightly later in life, when he was in early 20s, that Hardy started taking interest in writing, unlike those who wake up to their literary call as children. There is no denying the fact that, though, the seeds were sowed much earlier, only that they took time to sprout up and be seen. The sprouting happened when Hardy worked in London as an architect, a profession he was initiated into by his father and a craft he was not too bad at.

His days in London exposed him to a larger world and a wider range of experience and became a canvas to compare his rural life with. He wrote a book based on this experience but didn’t get a publisher. A few publishers showed some interest only to back out later. Thomas Hardy’s first book, serialized like many others’ in his days and before, was Under the Greenwood Tree.

Among his novels, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, much ahead of its time in terms of the values it dealt with, was closest to Hardy’s heart.

Like the other famous writers of his time, Hardy’s novels were serialized. But unlike his contemporaries and they are equally mammoth-like figures in literature, like Henry James, EM Foster (a little junior to Hardy), Rudyard Kipling etc, Thomas Hardy specialized in rural England,  fact which in proximity to Dickens; both dealt with poverty, one with rural, the other with urban.  The people surrounded by whom Hardy grew up became his characters; the rural scene he had grown up amidst became the landscape of his novels.

Gradually fame came to him and he came to be recognized as a great. Claire Tomalin has said Hardy had a melancholic personality (confirmed by many who saw the writer) but hasn’t drawn any connection between his personality and the melancholic nature of his novels.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Who was Luckier - Lee or Singapore?

Recently, Lee Kuan Yew, the person responsible for making Singapore what it is today, died. We in India, particularly those with scant awareness about foreign affairs, were familiar with Singapore as a place of prosperity and aspiration, lights and glitz, long before we woke up to the global significance of China and the vulnerability of America as a super power.  

In India, various political leaders at different times have told us they would be making our cities like Singapore if brought to power but none have.

But the bigger question is why Asian countries aspire to be like Singapore? It is not just Singapore’s economic success but the fact that it combines all the virtues of a desirable place: cleanliness, discipline and great law and order.  Even the great Western democracies fall foul on some of these counts.

Law and order may be different and even cleanliness is achievable in many places but discipline , as many of us know, may not be easy to bring about in a democratic society, which is by nature chaotic. In fact, the existence of such societies depends on absence of discipline. There is little doubt that Singaporeans had to pay a price for the kind of economic success Singapore achieved, for which you have to both thank Lee Kuan Yew and call him lucky.

Thank Lee for Singapore’s success because after its independence from Britain and following its ouster from Malaysia in 1963, he steered his nation in the direction which was unique in those days, the 60s, and also frowned upon by others. Among the countries that won freedom at the time Singapore did, Singapore was the only one to embrace market-economy, in its most unapologetic form.

Call Lee lucky because even with Lee’s sure-handed capitalism, Singapore would not be possible without Singapore’s advantages – a largely homogeneous society, a city state, etc –quite unique to Singapore.  

But many of these attributes were disadvantages to start with. When Singapore had been dispelled by Malaysia because of racial tensions (Lee its premier was in his early 40s then), it didn’t have any army to defend its borders; it didn’t have any economy to speak of. Its small size – and therefore less significance - would have made it vulnerable to a takeover – or at least an invasion - by a bigger power, particularly one from the Soviet bloc. Fearing it, Lee befriended the US.

To make Singapore militarily strong, Lee sought the help of Israel. He created a police-judiciary to eliminate corruption. To the same end, he raised the salaries of officials to the level of those in high positions in private sector – and said, “If you pay pee nuts, you attract monkeys.” He removed political opposition by reducing Singapore to a single-party polity.
He made spitting on road, littering chewing gums on road etc. punishable offenses. 

(Remember, we heard, in our growing up years, that in Singapore you would be punished for throwing chewing gum on road?) He told Singaporeans to speak good English and develop clean habits.

He completely muzzled the press. Singapore Herald’s license was seized because of a critical article it had carried about Lee’s government and three years later the government amended its constitution to make it mandatory for media houses publishing out of Singapore to renew their license yearly. And publications of foreign media houses critical of the Singapore government but without any production base in Singapore were simply banned.

Although Singapore never saw the likes of Tienanmen Square or Capture Wall Street, winds of change are blowing in the island nation. Living costs are very high in Singapore and the gap between poor and rich has grown over the years.

There is a groundswell for more inclusive policies. It led to a slump in Lee’s party’s (People's Action Party of Singapore) popular vote, following which Lee stepped down making way for his son. Any nation, however successful, yearns for change in a passage of 40 to 50 years. Singapore, however different it may be from the rest, should not be an exception. But Singapore will always consider itself lucky to have had Lee in its formative years and not the other way around. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Absence of India Conservative Intellectuals - By Ramachandra Guha

Caravan has carried a very interesting article by Ramachandra Guha, Where Are India’s Conservative Intellectual? The article addresses what has long worried people who see merit in the economic policies of conservative politics, in India, but at the same time disapprove of their religious agenda.

If you remove the Muslim majority countries from the mix, India is the only major democracy where religion finds an important place in conservative politics. Guha attributes this to the fact that those who espoused this brand of politics in India, mainly in pre-independence era, a time when the conservative voice was quite strong, were affiliates of organizations with a deeply Hindu character.

In a post-independence India, Guha observes, conservatives gradually lost their prominence in Indian politics as mainstream Indian politics gravitated towards the Left – where both the ruling party – the Congress – and its principal opponents – Nehru and his detractors (Jay Prakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia and the Communists) - represented socialist, liberal political orientation.  This left-orientation was also found in academia.

Guha dismisses the current lot of columnists and opinion makers with a soft spot for conservatism on the ground that their body of published work is limited to 300 to 400 word articles. This absence of conservative intellectuals in India, Guha concludes, is responsible for religion being a major part of the conservative thought.

Conversely, he says, the West has always had intellectuals in conservative politics who have always kept religion out of it. Western conservative thinkers, Guha says, base their idea of identity around which conservative politics revolves on cultural and geographical similarities. 

To press his argument that the presence of conservative intellectuals would have helped Indian conservative politics keep religious extremism at a distance, Guha cites the example of Jagdish Bhagwati, the conservative economist who is an economic adviser to the current conservative government in India, for advising the BJP government to reign in the religious fringe if it wanted to carry on with its development agenda.

Guha poses Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari) as a model conservative intellectual. Guha says Rajaji was patriotic who could rise above his personal differences with his political opponents and unite with them in national interest, like he had supported Nehru on the Kashmir problem despite his personal personal differences with Nehru. Rajaji was religious but far from being an orthodox. His economic outlook was conservative in nature and therefore opposed to Nehru’s. Rajai had argued for more openness in economy but Nehru had dismissed his views calling them reactionary and unsuitable for India only to be proved wrong a few decades later.

Guha’s analysis of Western conservatism is mainly theoretical and that’s why it misses an important point. Although theoretically Western conservative parties have kept religion out of their identity mix, the tendency of conservative politics to be majoritarian, even if based on demographics, automatically excludes communities following minority religions in Western societies. Identity and religion are hard to separate, especially due to rising religious radicalism however desirable it may be.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Byomkesh Bakshi - a Detective with a Difference

A detective novel deals with a dual challenge: one is to examine human nature and tie up its tendencies with requirements of an air-tight plot and the second is to simplify it beyond any shred of ambiguity for the reader…who, unlike the reader of a literary novel, will not settle for anything less than complete clarity. In other words, ensure instant intellectual gratification, no slow-seeping comprehension acquired long after the novel is read and shut. This is true of any detective novels.

But however homogeneous detective novels may otherwise be, the author endows something unique on every imaginary investigator, in terms of style of investigation, dressing, even background. And while the homogeneity that characterizes mystery novels – a tight plot with the culprit lurking behind a maze of facts and the detective removing them one by one to bring him to the reader – makes you want to read another mystery, you want your mysteries solved by the distinct style of the detective you like.

Ever since the Byomkesh Bakshi bug bit me some time in December, I have been mulling over the uniqueness of Byomkesh Bakshi vis a vis others in his fraternity. What is that I will read a Byomkesh novel for? I watched several episodes of Byomkesh Bakshi serials and then a few weeks back I bought a Puffin Classic, a compilation of three Byomkesh whodunits. And I find myself yearning for more.

The Rhythm of Riddles is about a building full of tenants. The tenant staying on the ground floor suddenly gets murdered. The killer leaves some clues but they together lead, if anything, to confusion. Slowly Byomkesh unravels the mystery discovering threads leading to pre independence Bangladesh and blackmail. In Byomkesh and Barada, Bakshi exposes a man appearing in the guise of ghost to scare away the occupant of a house so that he can get his hands on the diamonds hidden in it.

Dibakar Banerjee the film director whose movie on Byomkesh is going to release shortly has written a very good introduction telling why a certain atmosphere – an uncle’s house located in a small town - is important to enjoy Byomkesh and that he discovered the charms of Boymkesh in a similar setting in the 60s while visiting an uncle’s house and has remained a fan since.

The one I liked the most is the last story in the collection, The Death of Amorto. A complex plot, it is set in the period after world war two. American soldiers, after staying for some time in interiors of Bengal, have left leaving behind their arms and ammunitions which have fallen into the hands of locals to the concern of law-enforcement authorities. A boy, who had ventured into a forest, has been found dead by his friends who had gone into the forest search of him following a gunshot. The death of Amroto is followed by the death of another local, this one a gruesome murder. Byomkesh removes lot of red herrings, details, contradicting facts to demystify matters and shine a light on the killer and his motivations.

One of the things I find unique about Byomkesh is that among all Bengali detectives I know, Byomkesh is most rooted, a complete Bengali middle class without any trace of cosmopolitanism undermining his Bengaliness, unlike Faluda, for whose creator - Ray - Sherlock Homes was a major influence, and Kakababu by Sunil Gangapadhay, who is more obsessed with worlds affairs than the neighborhood murder. 

Feluda and Kakababu had to be made cosmopolitan in keeping with changing taste of audiences in a post-independence India, but Byomkesh, having been written into existence by Saradindu Bandyopadhay many years before independence, didn’t have to meet the requirements of changing taste in a post-independence India.

Another way in which Byomkesh is different from other literary detectives is that Byomkesh is a more rounded character than the average literary detective. We know Byomkesh had once fallen in love and married a lady, Satyabati. Byomkesh’s father was a math teacher and Byomkesh holds a degree in physics, etc. We also know Byomkesh calls himself Satyanweshi, a seeker of truth, and not an investigator or detective.

On the other hand, we know very little about other famous detectives beyond the fact that they have an analytical bent of mind. In fact, Conan Doyle had revealed very little about Sherlock Homes as a person (the pipe-smoking thing is not a personality trait or a circumstantial detail, just a style) in his early novels and not until Doyle matured as a writer, many years later, that he realized that what he had drawn was a mere character sketch and not the entire character – and to make Homes more human he revealed more bits of Homes personality and background in his later Homes novels. (In fact, some critics have observed that the reason why Homes is one of the easiest literary characters to adopt for movies is that Doyle wrote very little about Homes as a person, which allows the film maker to interpret Homes however he wants.)

Similarly, we know very little about Feluda as a person and about many, many more detectives who may dazzle us with their investigative skills and sharp repartees but still be scantly known even if we read their exploits in novel after novel.  

Even after being adopted for several movies and once by Satyajit Ray too,  Byomkesh was largely a parochial affair until Rajit Kapoor made Byomkesh Bakshi a household name by playing the sleuth to perfection in an eponymous tele serial on Doordarshan, Byomkesh Bakshi, in the late 80s and early 90s (before cable TV arrived). Since then although many have enacted the detective on TV, I have not been able to separate Rajit Kapoor from Byomkesh. When I think of one the other automatically springs to mind.   

Again there is a renewed interest in Byomkesh Bakshi. Many new actors are bringing the sleuth to life on television, in Bengali. I hope they will endear the new generation to Byomkesh. And just as Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered as the creator of Homes, the numerous film-adoptions notwithstanding,   I hope  Saradindu Bandyopadhay will be remembered as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi regardless of how many times Byomkesh is adopted for TV and movies.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Changing English usages

English usage is changing. Some of it is because of ignorance of grammar and some convenience.  Many usages that were severely frowned upon before are perfectly acceptable today.  It is perfectly all right to say reference (noun) when you actually mean refer (verb). Similarly, or equally quizzically, in corporate parlance, value add has replaced value addition.

However, the wrong usages I see most often, made even by people with reasonably good English, are those related to apostrophe and capitalization. In fact, they have become so common (found in office mails, hoardings, banners etc) that I fear the correct usages will be soon forgotten and lost to posterity.

Many now use the apostrophe as a means to pluralize a word.  So the plural form of ball becomes ball’s. This owes itself to  the practice of pluralizing abbreviations by using an apostrophe, to set the ‘s’ apart from the rest of the letters, like URL’s as opposed to URLs; which is all right because one of the legitimate roles of apostrophe is to be used to pluralize a word not established in English orthography. But ball’s as a plural form is certainly inexcusable.

Another grammatical error which has become very commonplace is wrong capitalization. People seem to spare very little thought for what’s a name (a perfect noun) and what’s not. Important words in a sentence are capitalized. A generic noun following a perfect noun is capitalized – The Bluestar Hotel instead of The Bluestar hotel. If the name of the hotel is Bluestar Hotel then it’s all right to capitalize the first letter of hotel, but not when the name of the hotel is only Bluestar and ‘hotel’ is just a modifier.

Honestly, these usages, however widely available, have not made their way into print or television media. Alas, ‘corporate’ the adjective form of ‘corporation’ has. When you use corporate it should be followed by a word for which it would act as an adjective – corporate style, corporate India etc. When used without the following qualifier it should be corporation. 

I find this mistake in The Times of India regularly; maybe it’s the style they consciously follow now, but The Hindu (and its other publications) still uses corporation where corporation should be used and otherwise. Similarly, the semi colon is another chip off the old block which is on its way out; it has been replaced by the comma. 

The list is very long and getting longer all the time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The road to Charminar

I have stayed in and been to many big and small, famed and little known lanes of Indian cities but none like Gulzar Houz, an obscure place which is host to one of the most famous historical towers of India,  Charminar. Recently I visited Hyderabad and my curiosity about Hyderabad Biryani took me to Shabad, a popular biriyani joint located near Gulzar Houz. But before I ate at Shadab I decided to walk to Charminar to knock off an item from my Hyderabad itinerary. On my way to Charminar, I started feeling I had been transported to another time and space.

I was walking through a bazaar which looked commercially active but totally devoid of anything even remotely modern or western. Not a mobile recharge shop (at least nothing that drew my attention), not a computer shop, not a shop selling jeans or any other western clothes. Perfumery shops sell attar, cloth shops, only traditional Muslim outfits. The road was a sea of humanity, only women with black veils and men in traditional Muslim garbs. What should have been a 10 minutes’ walk took me about half an hour to cover.  On either side of this bazaar you have narrow lanes, each one home to a mini market, selling essentially the same stuff as in the main bazaar.

When I looked up, there were old buildings which may not mind the lack of change they have undergone since their construction a few centuries ago but may complain about the lack of maintenance.  I shuddered to think that maybe beyond those rickety wooden balconies and giant doors, people still live. I saw some boards announcing the presence of dawa khanas (health centers).  

Actually, at a time when lanes change the way they look every two to three years, Gulzar Houz’s stubborn resistance to change may be refreshingly different for many but its complete renouncement of modernity may come at a cost to its residents. Hyderabad is going to have its metro in some time. And the residents of Gulzar Houz could have had the metro passing through Gulzar Houz but for the resistance shown to the project by Gulzar Houz locals – who feared that metro construction would spoil the old look of the place and threatened that if the administration went ahead with the project despite their opposition, they would destroy the construction.  


I visited Wikipedia on Gulzar Houz and found this photo. This is how Gulzar Houz looked in 1880.  The Gulzar Houz I saw last week was different only in three ways. It doesn’t have the fountain on the way to Charminar you see in the photo. (In fact, the fountain has completely disappeared and had it not been for Wikipedia I would not know there was ever one – the Wiki article says it’s the fountain and not the place which was called Gulzar Houz). I didn’t see any horse-drawn carriages. And the Gulzar Houz I saw was much, much crowdier.


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