Wednesday, February 29, 2012

At crossroads? On the mat? But, no "going to the mattresses"

Notice the board about "fine mat weavers" ...?

The mats woven from a local reed/grass is a local specialty.  A traditional handicraft that has been recognized in many ways by many people.

Apparently (I am told,) for Elizabeth's coronation as the queen, in 1953, one of the official gifts from India was a Pattamadai mat.

I am not sure for how much longer this unique local tradition will survive.  Get your mats before the artisans are all gone.  Yes, you can customize it, too, which makes a mat all the more unique.

There is also a religion aspect to this art: The mat weavers are Muslims.  I understand that all of them are Muslims.  Or, at least, most of the leading ones are.  Maybe some day in the future, I will spend some time understanding how this mat-Muslim connection happened.  Perhaps a community of mat weavers converted to Islam quite a few decades ago is my hypothesis.

Measuring unemployment, according to Abbot and Costello. Damn economists!!

The "real" rate of unemployment in the US is ...?  Why "real" you ask?  Here is an Abbot and Costello-style explanation at Greg Mankiw's blog.  (He thanks "U Chicago's Allen Sanderson for sending this along" The grammatical errors bother me; should I complain to Sanderson or Mankiw? ... hehe!)
COSTELLO: I want to talk about the unemployment rate in America.

ABBOTT: Good "subject". Terrible "times". It's about 9%.

COSTELLO: That many people are out of work?

ABBOTT: No, that's 16%.

COSTELLO: You just said 9%.

ABBOTT: 9% Unemployed.

COSTELLO: Right 9% out of work.

ABBOTT: No, that's 16%.

COSTELLO: Okay, so it's 16% unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, that's 9%...

COSTELLO: WAIT A MINUTE. Is it 9% or 16%?

ABBOTT: 9% are unemployed. 16% are out of work.

COSTELLO: If you are out of work you are unemployed.

ABBOTT: No, you can't count the "Out of Work" as the unemployed.  You have to look for work to be unemployed.

COSTELLO: But ... they are out of work!

ABBOTT: No, you miss my point.

COSTELLO: What point?

ABBOTT: Someone who doesn't look for work, can't be counted with those who look for work. It wouldn't be fair.


ABBOTT: The unemployed.

COSTELLO: But they are ALL out of work.

ABBOTT: No, the unemployed are actively looking for work...Those who are out of work stopped looking. They gave up. And, if you give up, you are no longer in the ranks of the unemployed.

COSTELLO: So if you're off the unemployment roles, that would count as less unemployment?

ABBOTT: Unemployment would go down. Absolutely!

COSTELLO: The unemployment just goes down because you don't look for work?

ABBOTT: Absolutely it goes down. That's how you get to 9%. Otherwise it would be 16%.  You don't want to read about 16% unemployment do ya?

COSTELLO: That would be frightening.

ABBOTT: Absolutely.

COSTELLO: Wait, I got a question for you. That means they're two ways to bring down the unemployment number?

ABBOTT: Two ways is correct.

COSTELLO: Unemployment can go down if someone gets a job?

ABBOTT: Correct.

COSTELLO: And unemployment can also go down if you stop looking for a job?

ABBOTT: Bingo.

COSTELLO: So there are two ways to bring unemployment down, and the easier of the two is to just stop looking for work.

ABBOTT: Now you're thinking like an economist.

COSTELLO: I don't even know what the hell I just said!

Graffiti even on plants, because of the old palm-leaf-writing gene in us? WTF!

It was a remote temple, far away from even a small town.  This temple was at a "settlement" of a few shacks and a couple of sturdier structures. 

The settlement itself is located at the base of a range of hills, which was mostly boulders, with a few trees, and a whole lot of desert-vegetation kind of greenery.  (Yes, I am botanically challenged, too!)

While walking around the temple under a blazing sun, I saw graffiti of names of people--kids and youth, I would think. 

The most bizarre aspect of this graffiti was that the scribbles were on the leaves of a real, live, plant.  Yes, you read that correctly--on the plant leaves.  Like the one to the right here.

Whatever prompts such an act!

Here is another "etching" on this live plant:

Even more odd: there was no etching, as far as I noticed, that was in the language local to the area--Tamizh.  Almost every one of those was in English, and I kind of sort of recall a scrawl that was perhaps in Urdu.  So, is it the local kids displaying their knowledge of English, or the visitors leaving their mark behind?  or ...?

A white guy from Gujarat takes photos from a moving train :)

So many of my interests coming together in this: trains, mountains, setting sun, ...

An older guy standing near the door of the train coach that I was in kept looking at me, perhaps wondering why I was so keen on taking photos from the moving train.  Or, perhaps, he too was wondering whether I was a "white guy from Gujarat" :)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The British Raj and I: a love-hate relationship, even at Srivaikuntam

Despite all the traveling I have done over the years, I have never been to the UK.  Not even a stopover at London.  The logistics of transport is one important reason, of course.  A major reason that was.

A minor reason is that I am yet to develop any passion to visit the UK. 

This level of neutrality is a long way from my teenage anger at the imperial masters who sucked India dry.  Those were the young and rebellious years, as opposed to the contemporary old and rebellious years:) 

In this middle-age of mine, I suppose if I had money to spare, I would not be opposed to the idea of visiting London and the UK for a few days.

Traveling around in India always reminds me of my old hate-relationship that has metamorphosed into "meh" feeling about the UK.  The railways, old university and administrative buildings, road names, ... the reminders are everywhere I look.

The strangest reminder was at Srivaikuntam.  Yes, at this sleepy small town way deep down, near the peninsular tip of India. 

A narrow bridge over the Tamrabarani River links to the town to the other side of the riverbank.  One evening, well before the sun set, I walked the mile from my aunt's home to the bridge.  A plaque at the end caught my attention. 

A remnant of the British Raj!

The anicut (river flow regulator) was designed way back in 1853, by a Royal Engineer.  And then a few years to implement the design and construct the anicut, which was completed in 1873.  Back in 1873!

This will yet another example for me to add to the list that I usually provide in classes when I remark that I am thankful it was the British who colonized India, and not the Dutch or the Germans or the French.  If one's fate was to be ruled by a colonial overlord, well, it was better to be under the British because they at least established universities, built anicuts, bridges, and the railways, ...

This anicut/bridge from 1873 serves as a reminder for yet another reason: how much an independent India has failed to build up the infrastructure. 

This narrow bridge has handled people, carts, motorized transport all these years.  As the transport volume grew, there was nothing done to support the much higher traffic. 

Finally, 65 years after independence, a second bridge has been constructed--well, it is nearly complete, and nobody has any idea on when it will be "fully complete" enough for buses and cars to be diverted there.

Perhaps all the more the reason why the hateful attitude towards the British Raj has vaporized over the years, and I am now far more critical of India's government and politics.

If I live long enough to settle into retirement, perhaps then I will even begin to love the UK, eh!

Two student emails reassure me that I am doing ok

Ed Koch, when he was the mayor of New York City, famously walked around asking people, "how am I doing?"  Almost every class, I pretty much ask myself the same question.  Sometimes, I venture to ask students, too.

The formal institution-level evaluation and feedback process is notoriously meaningless at practically every university.  Ours is no exception, which is why I pay only the barely needed bureaucratic attention to it.  Instead, I truly watch out for, and value, the spontaneous feedback I get from students.

Two emails from students this term are even more meaningful because I am on sabbatical and not even on campus.  The following email is from "W," who was in one of my classes a year ago, where one of the readings I had for them was about the Applie iPhone and Foxconn, which has been in the news a lot recently.  "W" writes:
I was in your global trade class last spring and that Foxconn article reminded me of our many discussions -- thought you might be interested. ... It has been fascinating to see all the articles in the news recently -- and empowering to actually have an informed opinion.
Pretty neat, to get such a feedback.  Education is about knowing more about the world around us and then to develop informed opinions.  Mission accomplished with this student, at least.

In a lengthy email from "T" were the following sentences:
if you wanted to teach ****** again in the next four terms you should let me know so I can take your class! You are a favorite in our nerdy community and I know others would surely want to join as well and I think you get a lot of liberty with the curriculum so if you wanted to teach a class that let you'd have some freedom it'd be great.
"T" and "W" have provided answers to the question I always have in mind: "how am I doing?"  I am all set for another year, at least.  Thanks to them.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"I thought he was a Gujarati." "Hey, a white man is coming". Me they're talking about?

One of the most profound questions in Hindu philosophy is "who am I?"  The "mahavakyas" provide the path to understanding that question.  (An atheist quoting these is quite an interesting mix, eh!)

It is a good thing that I am not trying to answer that question based on how I am sometimes described by others.

An older gentleman a few years younger than my father came in and conversed with the people there.  A few minutes into the conversation, dad directed his attention to me and said "this is my son. He has come from America."

The gentleman's response was very different from anything I could have expected.  "Oh, really?  I thought he was some Gujarati visiting."


And then it struck me: perhaps he also sees in my face a resemblance to "the one from Gujarat who shall not be named" and, therefore, he thought I was a Gujarati?  I hope not.

A couple of days after this incident, I was, again, off on my own, to explore the nearby areas.  I told the cab driver that once were done with my agenda, he was to take me back home via interesting places. 

As we were driving, he stopped the car by the roadside.  We were looking down a gradient.  "Do you see the sea, sir, at the end"?  I did see a lot of blue at the end of the slope.  In fact, the sea seemed to be at a higher level than somewhere at the middle of the slope.

"When the tsunami came, this is why all these areas got damaged so much, sir.  A lot of people live in this low-lying area, and they were swept away."

What a catastrophe it was!

We then drove over to a nearby beachfront.  Mostly rocky it was, like off the Oregon coast.  Absolutely gorgeous, but miserably hot though.  

The driver stopped at the parking place, and I got off the vehicle.

I was appropriately equipped for the hot and humid conditions: cargo shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses, a hat over my head, and a camera in hand.

As I started descending towards the beach, I spotted a group of young men/boys.  About 25 or 30 of them. 

They could easily be high school students, I thought to myself.  Thirty high school boys all by themselves, in an isolated beach, and me walking there by myself dressed in cargo shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses, a hat, well, I knew this would not go well.

So, I paused by a big boulder's shadow, and quickly came up with a couple of different responses to heckles or comments or even worse.  And then I resumed walking towards the beach.

I suppose they, too, saw me.  I heard one guy yell out to his buddies, "ஏய், வெள்ளைக்காரன் வரான்டா" (Hey, a white man is coming.)

I was glad I had paused to draft a couple of responses, including to this comment.  Pretty sharp, I complimented myself :)

I didn't stop walking even though I saw a group of about ten running towards me. 

"Take photo, sir?" said one, while the other said "group photo sir."

"வேணாம் பா. நான் தமிழ் தான்" (No guys. I am a Tamil) I told them. 

Understandably, they were shocked.  They were confident they were rushing towards a white guy, perhaps to hassle him and get something off him, and now they had to re-calibrate everything.

I kept walking, and could hear them sniggering in the background but couldn't make out the words.

A minute or so later, I came across the last set of boys.  One said, "welcome to India."  I smiled at him and replied "நான் சென்னை பா. தமிழ் ஆளு தான்" (I am from Chennai. I am a Tamil.)  This guy simply froze.  He was way beyond shocked into silence.

I reached a gazebo kind of a structure for shade and some cooler winds.  Obviously, the sabbatical has not clarified for me who I am and what I want do with the rest of my life; apparently I need to first figure out whether I am an American, or a Tamil-Indian, or a Gujarati-Indian, or a white guy.  Philosophy, shmilosophy can wait :)

Photo of the day: birthday cake for a 100-year old. Yes, one hundred!

How often in life do we get to say "happy birthday" to a hundred year old, eh!  A very, very rare event in one's life, I would imagine. I did, earlier this evening ....

Now, this alone is worth a sabbatical, right?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A hermit and his penis. Monkey sex. At a temple :)

The temple at Srivaikuntam is at least 1,100 years old.  But then, it could be older, too.

To the local population, the age of the temple is immaterial--to them, it has always been there.  But, to an insanely curious person like me, this is a simple question for which detailed answers ought to be there on display boards, in printed materials, ... Could this temple be 1,500 years old? 2,000?  You see what I mean?

Of course, as a confirmed atheist, my interest in this is simply for a better understanding of the world around me and not for any religious salvation. Therefore, it is all the more an irony that here I am as an atheist trying to get the simplest of questions answered, while the true believers don't seem to be interested at all.

I was blown away by the complexity of the engineering and art at the temple.  I am one hell of a moron when it comes to anything related to the arts, and even more so when we talk art history.  Yet, yes, mind-blowing!

Lengthy corridors supported by stone columns, each from a single piece. Delicate carving of the stone to produce finely detailed sculptures.

All these done so many years ago.

The temple sculptures have a lot of secular art too--not mere religious ones.

I loved the piece below, which appears to depict a hunter who has returned with a heck of a prize, and perhaps an annoying thorn in the sole of his foot, which the woman is removing.  How neat, right? Simply beautiful.

And then there were art pieces that would make middle school students giggle, and people like me wish that somebody would explain the significance of such wonderful art from so many centuries ago.

In the carving on the left here, there is no doubt about the intention of the bearded male (no, not me!) who seems to be a hermit (no, not me!)

If Pinocchio's nose grew because of lying, well, this hermit's penis appears to reflect his thoughts of sex.

The fingers of the woman's left hand are also strategically placed.

I so wish I had taken art history!

There was a lot more to see, and there is a limit to how much I can take photos too.  If only I had been informed and alert about such fantastic art at temples even when I was way younger :(

It seemed that there has been extensive damage to quite a bit of the art in the areas exposed to the harshness that the sun, wind, and rain over the thousand-plus years.  One piece, up on the rim of a wall caught my attention:

I zoomed in to make sure I wasn't imagining what I thought I saw; you make the call:

One interpretation is that depiction of sex in the art in the outer areas of the temple was to remind the believers to leave their dirty thoughts outside, and enter the holy areas with a mind that was focused only on god.  Maybe.

Another interpretation is that temples were also the local art exhibits where the sculptors displayed their talents. Maybe.

Fascinating fodder for curious minds on sabbaticals :)

What to do when a husband beats up a wife, with the entire street watching?

A little after the sun set and the lights came on, I heard a whole lot of noise.  Yelling and screaming. And some strange "thud" sounds.

Curiosity being my middle name, I stepped out in a territory that is completely alien to me.  Alien in terms of a place that is all new; a culture that I no longer instinctively relate to; and even dialects of Tamil that force me to listen in order to understand. 

But then, it is after all the same curiosity that took me to Ecuador, where I was even more an alien.

So, I did step out and, to use an American idiom, walked half-a-block to figure out what was going on.

Quite a few people were there even before me.  Women carrying infants, topless men, and old women without teeth.  I mean, an entire cross section of the neighborhood, except children.

Turns out that it was one ugly fight between a husband and a wife.  They were cussin' and screamin' and throwing things.

Throughout, the husband was routinely whacking the wife on the back and on her shoulder.

It was just bizarre a sight.  The way the other watchers behaved, I felt as if they had seen such things before, and perhaps even between this very couple.  And that they stepped out because the television shows they were watching were far less interesting.

I had no place in this.  I retreated to my own safe quarters: nobody would beat me, nor would I assault one. 

The question though was whether I had not done the right thing by retreating. 

Maybe I ought to bring this up at "M's" class when I guest-lecture there next term, and have the students worry over it as much as, or even more than, what I am doing now?

A sari-clad Gujarati with a cowgirl hat in Nagerkoil? Not your grandfather's India!

We stepped out through the Padmanabhapuram Palace gates and stopped for tender coconut, when a young couple--perhaps in their late twenties--stood next to me and started what seemed to be a verbal fight.  The man barely said five words for every hundred from the woman.  Her voice kept getting louder.

All these didn't fascinate me as much as the language they were speaking: it was not Tamil or Malayalam, which are the local languages, nor English or Hindi. 

I thought I heard a couple of Bengali words or at least that tone.  Or, was it Oriya, I wondered.

I had to ask them to get this cleared.

But, their fight seemed to be getting more and more intense, but I didn't care. 

"What language are you fighting in?" I asked them. 

Nah!  That is the question I wanted to ask them.  Instead, I was polite.  "What language are you two talking in" I asked them.

The woman glared at me.  I mean, if her eyes were lasers, I would have been annihilated right there.  End of blogging!  Perhaps she was having one heck of an interesting fight, and I butted in.  Worse than coitus interruptus, perhaps, is an interruption in a heated argument :)

The man said, "Bengali."  I thanked them and walked away before the woman could launch any assaults directed at me.

This Bengali-fighting-speaking couple fits the trend that I have been noting throughout this strange secular pilgrimage of mine--Indian tourists are everywhere, far away from the lands of their languages. Unrecognizable sounds all over.  Bengali at practically the southern tip of India is, therefore, not a surprise at all.

What was surprising, however, was to see this woman, in the photo on the right. Let me back up a tad, in order to explain ...

There were tourists by the busloads at this palace.  These tourists from all parts of India often seemed to hurry past, so much so that all I had to do was wait a couple of seconds and then have the exhibit all to myself.

There was one group that was majority-female, all middle-aged and seemingly from Gujarat and Rajasthan.  At least, that is my guess based on their saris.

As I was nearing the exit gate, I spotted this woman wearing a sari, sitting with a whole bunch of women, and wearing this cowgirl hat.  In India!  Off Nagercoil!

Times they are a changin ...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Photo of the day: camel cart cab

To hug or not to hug is the question. A damn tough question :)

All my life in India, until I left for the US, this question never, ever, came up.  Because, in the culture in which I grew up, relationships were non-contact sports.  As kids, we might have clung on to grandmothers or uncles, but as grown ups we maintained our distances.  A shake-hand was the most we ever got to in terms of bodily contact to express anything.

A magazine, I am sure it was Ananda Vikatan, once even featured a short story that was built on this idea of no physical touching of any sort.  In that story, a father visits with his grown up adult son, and is returning home.  The young man accompanies his father to the train station.  The father boards the train, sits by the window while the son stands on the platform.  During the conversation, which itself was not a freely-flowing one and rather awkward, the son places his arm on the window and it accidentally grazes the father's hand.  The son realizes then that it has been years since he even touched his father ....

I don't recall how the story ends, but it effectively captured the non-contact nature of relationships even within the nuclear family.

And then I left for the US, where it is a completely different world when it comes to expressions.  As Elvis put it, a whole lot of shakin' goin' on :)

Every hug became an awkward moment for me.  How do I approach them--from the left or from the right?  And, what if they lean to kiss me on the cheek?  Aah, the endless frustrations!

It took me years to get used to hugs from females of all ages.

And then the hug from men.  Oh boy, that was yet another learning experience all by itself. 

Finally, I reached a stage where it no longer mattered to me if people wanted to hug me, or expected me to hug them.  Life became stress-free.  Contact or no contact did not bother me.

But that was with life in America.

Confusion started all over again every time I visited India. 

Especially as an academic who understands the need for cultural sensitivity, every trip to India becomes all the more a struggle to control myself from the parting goodbye hugs.  Particularly with women--friends and cousins alike.

During this extended trip here, during the first few days, I suppose I was continuing way more with my acquired American habit.  Slowly, as I consciously settled into the Indian way of doing things, the more I re-learnt the non-contact hellos and goodbyes. 

But, sometimes, I find that only a hug really says that I will miss them after we part.  So, I have now worked out a compromise: with my arm over the other person's shoulder, my shoulder squeezes their shoulder that abuts, if you get the picture.  A win-win, it is, at least the way I look at it!

Perhaps I am over-thinking life.  But, stupid is as stupid does :)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Did you know smartphones have built-in display projectors? I did not know that!

Far away from metropolitan Chennai, which is very slowly becoming cosmopolitan in nature, here in the small southern towns near the southern tip of the peninsula, electricity is in severe shortage with about eight hours of power outage every day.  That sudden darkness and the stopping of ceiling fans is yet another reminder of the phenomenally luxurious everyday life that I am lucky enough to lead back in the good ol' US of A.

The night sky is full of stars as soon as the lights go off.  Venus and Jupiter are so bright that they could even cast shadows of us mortals here on earth. 

This brilliantly lit night sky is, however, nothing compared to the diamonds that glittered after nightfall in Pommern, Tanzania, thanks to that village without electricity being a lot more isolated from the rest of the electrified world.

Kids being kids, they seem to have even more fun than they usually do, when the power goes off.  I bet that the first thing that comes up in their minds is that they have a wonderful excuse not to do their homework!

Yesterday, there was a great deal of noise next door, with kids screaming in delight.  I stepped towards them; it turned out that one kid was projecting a movie from a cell phone on to the wall, with the sound blaring from the cell phone.

Back in my childhood, excitement was when we found a couple of negatives and projected that image on to a wall using a flashlight.  That is so, so, so lame compared to these hi-tech kids' excitement.

When I asked them how they were doing it, an older person in the group replied: "It is my phone and I had no idea that it has such a feature.  These kids, they figure out everything.  It cost me 7,500 rupees for the phone, and now they are using it as a cinema projector"

After the show was over--because the power supply was back on--I walked up to the kid and asked him what phone it was.  "G5" he said.  I didn't recognize that brand name.  I asked him whether I could take a look at it.  It was a G'Five "wisepad" model, and it comes with a bright built-in projector light.  How awesome!

In the US, I had never a smartphone with a projector feature.  Perhaps this is one of those features customized for markets like India--similar to how Nokia had introduced a few years ago a cellphone with a flashlight. 

I imagined my students doing presentations in the classroom with their smartphones and projectors.  No need then to even boot up the big time display projector in the classroom.  Or public health officials in developing countries doing their campaigns so easily with these smartphones and built-in projectors.  Just awesome.

I ought to thank the power shortage in India; else, I might never have known about smartphones with projectors.  Things we learn, and the strange ways we learn.  But, hey, something new everyday!

"He is from America, and wanted a photo of my dog"

Somehow, it feels like it was my last hurrah at Sengottai. 

I am so convinced about it that mentally I said goodbye to the town as I walked around earlier this morning.  It was, therefore, quite fitting that I even swung by what was once home where "V's" grandparents lived.

Though "V" and I were not best friends at school in Neyveli, we were more than casual classmates because we also knew well our Sengottai origins.  Our parents interacted as well because of those same geographic affinities and also because the generation even older to them were great pals in the town.

So much so that as a kid visiting grandma for the summer holidays, I have been to V's grandfather's home whenever dad or my great-uncle asked me to accompany them.

This time around, when it was about the time last evening for me to step out for a walk, dad came along.  As we crossed the street, dad said, "shall we go to MS Moopanar's home?"

I was, of course, delighted with the idea, though the old man himself is no more.  I have clear memories of a narrow alley and a passageway, which then opens up into a courtyard and a huge house.

V's uncle was home and recognized us without us introducing ourselves.  "There is nothing like the old friendships" he commented and added, "that kind of love and affection for people doesn't seem to come by anymore.  Times have changed."  They have, indeed.

After tea and a few minutes of chat, we continued our walk.  As is customary in this part of the world, women and girls were cleaning up the homes and the street in front of their respective homes.  Two women were chatting and cleaning and behind one, sitting on the front steps, was a dog.

Well groomed and happy, he looked.

I was blown away, with a second successive sighting of a pet dog in such traditional settings.  And both in two different towns.

I told dad that I wanted to take a photo of the dog, but first wanted to ask for the owner's permission.

Dad being all excited, jumped ahead of me in asking that question and prefaced it with an introduction of sorts about our Sengottai origins, walking from MS Moopanar's home, and that I am from America.  I am not sure which of these three segments of the introduction excited him the most :)

After all that, he asked her, "my son wants to take a photo of your dog.  Will it be ok?"

She seemed to be confused.  Understandable. Strangers we were.  On top of that, there I am with my shorts and camera, looking Indian and yet not looking Indian. And wanting to take a photo of the dog.

She was ok with it, and clarified it was her dog. 

After thanking her, I took a couple of photos of the canine who was enjoying it all, and thanked her again as we started walking.

I heard her in the background telling the other couple of women, "he is from America, and wanted a photo of my dog."

Not only dog ownership in such a traditional setting, but also a pride in that pooch being hers.  I tell ya, India has changed a lot.

I told dad that it was not the photo of the dog itself that I was interested in, as much as it being yet another symbol of changes in social norms in India.

Later in the evening, I heard dad narrate the entire incident to the aunt and uncle, and underscored how this was a symbol of social changes.

I suppose he agreed with my interpretation then.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Even dogs' lives have improved in India!

When I was about eight or nine years old, a puppy strayed into our yard.  Perhaps a six-month old pup.  It ate whatever was thrown out, and seemed to have decided that our yard was his place in life.

One day, when mom gave him--well, tossed to him--something to eat, I remember watching with utmost fascination this puppy seriously digging a hole in the ground, burying this food scrap, and then covering it up.  My first puppy love it was, I suppose :)

In a couple of days, however, it was time for us to travel to Sengottai and Patatmadai for the annual holidays.  That is what we did most summers--we went to grandmas' homes.  We had to board the train at vriddhachalam, which, during my childhood days, felt like a gazillion miles away from Neyveli.

As we started driving, the puppy followed us.  Initially, with the car slowly inching out through the gate and then onto the road, he had no problems keeping up with us.  Then, as the car started accelerating, the pup started racing as fast as he could.  Soon, he fell behind, and was gone from view in no time at all.

For a family that didn't have animals as pets, those couple of days we were a family with a dog.  Every once in a while, during that summer break, I wondered whether the puppy would be waiting for us when we returned.  Of course, that was not the story.

Years later, in the US, I have had dogs at home, but my memory of this first dog has not gotten erased. 

Now, decades after that--almost four decades after that accidental puppy interaction--here I am walking around in some really, really, traditional and old parts of Tamil Nadu.  While stray dogs are everywhere, the kids seem to far too busy with their own lives to even bother the sleeping dogs. 

And then I see this, in an absolutely traditional home in an old street in an old small town of Srivaikuntam:

The door was ajar, and there was a dog happily sitting there watching the comings and goings.  He didn't even bother when I stopped there for a few seconds to take a photo.

If in such a small town, in a traditional part of that town, a dog gets this kind of a treatment, then I can only think that India has changed a lot. For the better.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Roach Express, Air Roach, and Roach Home. Well, coexistence!

For a few years now, I have always opted for an aisle seat in planes primarily because of the need to get away from a psychological feeling of being trapped if I am in the window seat.  Turns out that choosing an aisle seat has another advantage in India--away from the creepy, crawly, ones!

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the plane on my way to Delhi when all of a sudden something seemed strange at the peripheral end of my vision.  I turned my head to my left.  One row ahead of me, on top of the window, was a medium-sized cockroach slowly moving.  I hoped that it would not switch into a reverse gear and come towards the row where I was seated.  Thankfully, it kept going towards the front, and soon it disappeared from my view.

Later, as I narrated this incident, a friend remarked that I ought to be immensely relieved that it was not one of those flying roaches.  Imagine that!  Such a scene would have been hysterically funny in a movie--"Airplane" would have been even more hysterical with a couple of flying roaches--but, in real life, it would have become something like snakes on the plane :)

At home, it seems like I spot a roach on an average of every fifth day.  I grab the can and spray and kill it.  Sometimes, it is a dead roach that I see and am glad something else got to it before I did.

But, neither the dead roach nor the live one seem to cause any discomfort to people as much how I react to them.  I come across, I suppose, as a wimpy American.  So be it; I prefer an existence without such critters saying hello to me.

In the train, it was even more an intense interaction with roaches.  Small and big, they were casually roaming around in the pleasantly air-conditioned coach.  I pointed out a roach that was very near a fellow passenger, and suggested that she kill it.  "No, let it be" she said.

While internally all freaked out, I was trying my best not to jump out of the moving train.  I kept an eye on the roach, which had escaped death.  Unfortunately, in its wanderings, the roach came near me.

I raised my feet without trying to be obvious about it.  Quietly, but surely, my shoe came down on that roach.

One dead roach, yes.  But, I knew there were more in the coach.  I was sure it would be a near-sleepless night.  At least, mine was an upper berth, far from the terrestrial critters, I hoped.

Yet again, evidence for me that India is not for the faint of heart, and I am one big wuss who cannot handle even a small roach!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How do you solve a problem like ... mercury in lightbulbs?

I went to meet with a friend, who teaches at a leading and prestigious university in India.  We walked about the campus, and at one point we were up on the second or third floor when I saw a couple of maintenance folks working.  All of a sudden, one of them walked over to the edge of the walkway and dropped to the ground a fluorescent lamp.

It fell on top of a few other objects, large and small, on the ground and promptly shattered to pieces. 

I suppose my friend noticed my shocked body language, which was more involuntary than a conscious one at the instant.  "Yep, this is how it is done here in India" he remarked with what seemed to be a mix of disappointment and cynicism.

"But, this is a leading university" I said.  If this is how it is done at such an enlightened place, then elsewhere?

The Hindu today has an opinion piece on the very topic of mercury and fluorescent lamps. 
Annually, a large amount of this toxic, complex metal is simply dumped into municipal landfills or released into the air from a “green” source — the millions of fluorescent lamps that are at the forefront of efforts to reduce power demand and carbon emissions. 
Yep, casually tossing them away, and the mercury seeps into the air and land, and water, all around us, as the experience at the university campus showed.

The opinion essay also notes that "the lamps made in India have a higher mercury content than those in the developed world."  Ouch!

What is the way out of this?  Any alternative?
In the case of fluorescent lamps, the solution lies in providing a cash incentive to consumers to hand them over to civic or authorised recycling industry workers, with the recovery paid for by the manufacturers as part of the extended producer responsibility principle. 
Sounds good--especially to make sure that the producers are made to take on some of the responsibility.

When I return to the US, I know I will be that much more responsible when tossing away batteries and CFLs.  Join me in this, will you?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Photo of the day: Presidents Day

Caption at the source: WASHINGTON, D.C.—John F. Kennedy visits Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960.

Did JFK tell Eisenhower "I like Ike" ....??? :)

"Delhi was smoggy" is a dog-bites-man story

In preparing for the trip to India, I had packed a couple of long-sleeve t-shirts, two sweaters, and even a beanie, because I knew I would be traveling to places in India that would be a lot cooler than Chennai.

Perhaps even to the Himalayan foothills. Or to the hilly northeast.

I didn't go anywhere near the northeast, and not quite near the Himalayas either.  But, I did end up at places where the overnight low was nine celsius, one of the nights I was in Delhi.  A few days before I was there, and later too, the lows dipped all the way down to 5C (about 40F.)

Those of us who can afford to, well, we wear warm clothes and stay in heated rooms.  But, others who cannot?  Especially the ones who live in slums or out on the streets?

I would imagine that the guy sitting by a smoky fire to warm himself up was not an unusual sight at all.  I saw him at about five in the evening.  Thanks to living in Oregon, I have become so much used to cooler temperatures that I was walking around with a pair of jeans and a short-sleeve t-shirt on, which invited a lot of strange looks.

But, at five in the evening, it felt like the temperature was perhaps about 60F (15C) and this was quite comfy to walk around. By nine, when I stepped out, I had a second layer of a longer-sleeve t-shirt also on.

I can imagine life to be tough for those on the streets as it cools down.  Which is why this older man was sitting by a fire at five in the evening.  The morning earlier, at about eight, as I was walking through the narrow streets towards the Jama Masjid I saw many numbers of men--yes, only men--sitting in groups around fires right by the roadside, holding their palms over the flames.

Everyday life is tough when poor.

With such fires, all the auto exhaust, industrial pollution, ... should we be surprised then the Delhi sky was so smoggy that my throat was always itchy and I had to take anti-histamines?

I was reminded of the inverted "U" curve: the environmental quality seems to deteriorate as a country's economic growth and development takes off, and then begins to improve at a later stage.

So, we can only hope that India, and the poor Indians in particular, will get rich soon.

When Krishna met Daniel ... Only in India :)

Even the street names lend to interesting experiences, here in India. 

In Chennai, I was walking around off the main streets, and I took a chance on a side street.  The board said it was "Krishna Street" and it looked like it was one of those dead-ends.  I walked it anyway, and it turned out that it was an "L" intersection and "Krishna Street" turned into "Daniel Street."

How fascinating, right?  Krishna becomes Daniel or, if you prefer, Daniel becomes Krishna.

Both were short streets, and Daniel ended up in a road that seemed a tad bigger.  I hoped that this would have an Islamic name to make it a holy trifecta.  But, that was not to be.  It was called "Arcot Road."  Well, I can imagine, even if incorrectly, that it refers to the Nawab of Arcot and, therefore, it has a Muslim connection :)

As I turned that corner, I paused to observe a woman learning to manage a scooter, with her husband in the back.  What was even more interesting was that they were all smiles. 

Yes, both were smiling, when the typical story is that a husband teaching a wife how to drive always ends up in a fight!

Maybe both Krishna and Daniel worked their miracles on this couple, eh :)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mildendo ... stirs memories of school days :)

For the sabbatical readings, I had brought along with me works of fiction and serious academic books.  Oddly enough, it was the academic works that I have been able to read.  Am simply unable to relate to contemporary fiction. 

I wondered if the problem was with the type of fiction, and whether old classics will appeal to me.  Turns out that I am enjoying reading Gulliver's Travels, a copy of which I bought here in Chennai for the equivalent of two dollars. 

It has been a long, long time since I read this fantastic work by Swift and, for all purposes, it is almost as if I am reading it for the first time ever.  A few pages into it, I was reminded of the school days when an excerpt was this tale was an assigned reading. 

The English teacher was the same one who was all too familiar with my cheeks!  One of his questions stumped me in class: "what is the capital of Lilliput?"

The question was not during a test, but in class when he was discussing the text with the class.  Wondering why he picked on me, I said "metropolis," which, of course, is incorrect.  He gave me a second chance, and this time I came up with Djibouti.  Yes, Djibouti, of all places!

Such trivial pursuit has never been my idea of education, and even now the tests I have for students is not at all about trivia.  When discussing energy and oil, for instance, I might ask students about the meaning of "petroleum" and then give them clues on how to guess its meaning; that is not trivia, but a simple way to understand how this vital economic resource is found in nature. (hint: think of "petra" as in "petrified" and then "oleum")

Anyway, reading Gulliver's Travels convinces me that the problem is not with my inability to deal with fictional works--I am enjoying this fiction that is almost three hundred years old.  One of the oldest "novels" ever.  Like how I enjoyed reading A farewell to arms or any of the other "classics" that I have been reading recently.  Maybe I ought to simply stick to the classics and not even attempt the newer ones?

Or, perhaps raising such questions will lead to fights similar to those between the big-endians and little-endians in Lilliput? At least, I won't be slapped around anymore :)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I blog about all these .... and that is why I am a "failure?"

As I get older, I seem to get even more amazed at how little I know.  As I joke around with students, the library building on campus serves as a physical reminder that I don't know a damn thing.  At USC, there were libraries all over the campus, and they all served me well in conveying whatever I needed to know and ensuring that I knew that I didn't know.

My innate interests in a whole variety of topics draw me into strange readings and places.  For instance, I was reading a news item at the Christian Science Monitor website, and it had a related link, which was a test on science literacy.  So, of course, I took that test and got a tad disappointed that I got only 44 out of the 50 questions correct.  It should be 45, I thought to myself, because my finger slipped over the touchpad and I clicked an incorrect answer.

My blogging also reflects this curiosity about everything around me.  It also means that sometimes the visitors to the blog are people who have searched for, ... well, like in this list of some of the search words that brought visitors to my site yesterday. 

It is neat to look at this list and think that my interests are so diverse--from half-sarees to ecuador to the armenian genocide! 

There is a serious downside to such a diverse intellectual interest: the half-wit that I am, this means that I "lose out" in the professional world of specialization.  After all, I am not a Freeman Dyson, for instance, to be a specialist in a gazillion things. 

Thus, choosing not to be a specialist in any one topic means that I am not the expert on the productivity of left-handed female labor in farming in Timbuktu.  While this is an exaggerated example, intellectual specialization has become so reductionist that talking to academics has become boring anymore, given that most want to talk about is only a topic or two in which they are "experts."  Intellectual insecurity also seems to preclude most academics from getting out of their comfort zones; it ain't easy, I suppose to say "I don't know" when we have PhDs :)

I am very happy to tell students I don't know a damn thing.  Strangely enough, my admission of ignorance makes most of them convinced that I am putting on a show that I don't know.  One student remarked in class a couple of years ago, "oh, false modesty!  we better be careful with you then."  Students have also told me that this attitude of mine is such a contrast to most faculty they have experienced, who, apparently are so convinced that they know it all that they freely bullshit on topics that are far outside their "expertise." 

I would rather be a failure in the twilight of a mediocre career than pretend to be an expert bullshitter in a medicore career :)

And my blogging on all things that interest me shall continue as well!

The US invented the GPS, but it needs a better one now :(

Andy Borowitz tweets this:
Invaded Afghanistan and bin Laden was in Pakistan. Invaded Iraq and WMD are in Iran. US needs better GPS.
Too damn funny, and too damn awfully sad a commentary on two wars that have sucked blood and money all around.

I thought maybe I should check with Glenn Greenwald on the Iran war drum beating back in the US.  Bad idea; he writes that the US media are way ahead of the government itself in leading the "bomb, bomb, Iran" chant :(
It’s just remarkable to watch the American media depict Iran as the threatening, aggressive party here. Literally on a daily basis, political and media figures in both the U.S. and Israel openly threaten to attack Iran and debate how the attack should happen with a casualness that most people use to contemplate what to have for lunch. The U.S. has orchestrated devastating and always-escalating sanctions which, by design, are wrecking the Iranian economy, collapsing its currency, and generating serious hardship for its 75 million citizens. The U.S. military has that country almost completely encircled. The U.S. military behemoth, and Israel’s massive nuclear stockpile and sophisticated weaponry, make the Iranian military by comparison look almost as laughable as Saddam’s. Iran’s scientists have been serially murdered on its own soil, their facilities bombarded with sophisticated cyber attacks, and dissident groups devoted to the overthrow of their government (ones even the U.S. designates as Terrorists) have been armed, trained and funded by Israel while leading American politicians openly shill for them in exchange for substantial payments.
Yet the Manichean narrative driving this NBC report is par for the media course: Iran’s aggression must be contained, and it is leaving the U.S. and Israel with no choice but to pre-emptively attack it.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hey, students, "If you got it, flaunt it"

Daniel Jelski, a professor of chemistry at New Paltz and who previously served as dean of New Paltz’s School of Science & Engineering, has the following career advice to today’s students at the end of his commentary:
  • If you passionately like something and are good at it, then do that. STEM, for example, will always have a place for smart, hardworking people. Likewise, good writing can’t be computerized, but you need both talent and passion to be successful.
  • Start work on the 10,000 hours. Your education may help, but very little you do in school contributes to the total. Be it car detailing, truck driving, computer programming, drawing, writing – acquire an expert skill in something. Write a novel.
  • Empathize if you can. Computers can’t do that. Jobs that involve empathy (along with other skills) will always be in demand.
  • If you got it, flaunt it. That’s something else computers can’t do. Beauty has value, especially for women but also for men. This is wonderfully described in Catherine Hakim’s book, Erotic Capital. Even if you don’t got it, take advantage of youth. Acquire a fashion sense, take care of yourself, look as good as you can.
Work hard. Have fun. Get rich.
There is a little bit of exaggeration, especially about the flaunting bit.  But, what use is a commentary without an exaggerated argument, right?

Worried that higher education is "Academically Adrift" ...? Don't read this

I am now well past the midpoint of my stay in India, and my parents are wondering when I will leave.  Nah, they are not; they knew about my departure date even before I landed here :)

As I begin to think about the term ahead, it was nearly automatic for me to start with the usual suspects, like the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Reading that was yet another reminder to me that my academic life would perhaps have been much better if only I hadn't gotten into the 'bad' habit of reading the likes of the Chronicle right from my graduate student days.  Because, all those publications offered me way more than I had ever wanted to know about higher education and that meant thinking more about higher education.  Serious and systematic thinking then led to so much of disagreements with most faculty and administrators who are hell-bent on maintaining the status quo, which works well to their benefit and much to the detriment of students.

Oh yeah, those faculty and administrators so effortlessly do talk about being "student-centered," when they couldn't care less about students, and this pisses me off even more, and I express more disagreements and soon I end up excommunicated.  "Kind of isolated from your colleagues" as one friend recently described his observation of my professional life.  Little does he know that "kind of isolated" is a terrible understatement :)

The chronicle has an opinion piece that adds more clarity to my view of higher education, when the author comments about the much-discussed Academically Adrift:
the most shocking thing about Academically Adrift was not what it revealed about what college students learn. It was that nobody had ever attempted to measure learning
Yep.  Simply awful that the world of higher education did not care enough to understand and measure "learning," when that learning is pretty much the raison d'etre

The author adds:
[The] lack of other credible studies providing alternate perspectives on college learning meant that, in the national higher-education conversation, Academically Adrift became the only game in town.
Last month the authors released new results that should only add to our national worries about higher education. While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years.
Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don't challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they're able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.
The central problem in American higher education today is that most of the people running things in politics, business, and academe come from the first group, but most of the actual students enrolled in college are in the second group. The former cannot see the latter, because they are blinded by their own experience. And so they think the problems of the many don't exist.
Why worry about such issues, right? I should simply cheer the football team on, and donate all my earnings to constructing better gyms on campus!  Student learning and success be damned, eh :(

What business-friendly politics means is ...

I know I am a tad crazy to say "I miss all the American political drama" ...

General Schwarzkopf in New Delhi. Am not kidding!

I was a seasoned graduate student during the 1991 war that was led by papa Bush.  It was the war when we became familiar with "Stormin Norman" Schwarzkopf.  For a couple of years after that, the old general was in the news and then, like all old soldiers do, he too faded away.

I had since forgotten the name Schwarzkopf.  Until my visit to New Delhi!

Yes, all the way on the other side of the planet, I am reminded of the general.  In a very strange context, which had nothing to do with America or war or anything along those lines.

It was a beauty salon sign that was the responsible agent.  Yep, beauty salon :)

I was walking around in a distant suburb of New Delhi, appreciating how well-planned this suburb was compared to most areas that are quite messy because of the incremental nature of the built environment.

There were all kinds of formal stores, and informal hawking.  People, especially youngsters, were out and about, checking on the prices and chatting all the time with one another and on their cell phones.

As I looked up, I saw a board "Schwarzkopf Professional Hair and Beauty Salon."

To some extent, I can imagine an Indian walking around with the name Schwarzkopf.  During my early years in Neyveli, there was a classmate whose name was "John Kennedy" because his father was so impressed with the American president.  There was a ball-boy/tennis assistant at our local club whose name was Franklin Roosevelt.  Maybe somebody was impressed with the general's war success that he named his son Schwarzkopf?

As I often remark in this blog and elsewhere, nothing ever surprises me in India.  Anything is possible in this complex society. 

Like even this interesting juxtaposition of an arty version of the Hindu god, Ganesh, with signs on streetlight posts in the background advertising Apple and Blackberry products.

I spotted this Ganesh in an art studio in the middle of all the commercial and touristy hullabaloo at Connaught Place.  A few steps away from a McDonald's was a stairway with a sign for an art exhibit/studio.

Intrigued, I walked up. 

This Ganesh was one of the many arty paintings and sculpture pieces that I saw there.  It was eerie that I was the only person there, other than a guy who was going over some files.  I don't think he was reviewing General Schwarzkopf's war record!  But then, I can't rule that out either :)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

It was a dark and stormy night ... nah!

Haha; as always, such funny ones are from the New Yorker :)

"You speak good Tamizh, sir. But, slightly like an Anglo-Indian"

I had planned to go to the beach--it has been a few days since I saw those blue waters, and I miss those friendly waves of hello and goodbye.

Turned out that the afternoon was better spent with an even better friend, "S" and family.

"S" called and said we could meet and chat over coffee if I was not doing anything else.  I got the address and directions needed for the autorickshaw ride.

I was barely out the house when I spotted an autorickshaw, and asked the driver how much he would charge me.

"100 rupees, sir" he said.

"Appa told me it would be a maximum of 75" I told him in Tamizh and added that I knew a little bit of the city.

He smiled and said "but, I have to go around, sir. The direct road will be blocked at Gemini flyover."  He wanted 90 rupees.

I sat in, with no idea that a wonderful interaction was coming up.

"Sir, I can tell you are a foreigner.  But, I am so happy you are wearing this shirt, sir" he said.

I was wearing the t-shirt that I had purchased at the Chennai Book Fair.  (A simple post about this became controversial in Facebook!)

The driver was simply too impressed with the t-shirt, and with me wearing it.  "There is no respect for Tamizh and for people who speak the language, sir.  In Bombay and other places, they call us Tamizh people as thieves" he lamented.

I was not going to argue this point with him.  But, I went after it another way.  "Tamizh is the oldest living language with a rich literature" I replied.

Of course, our entire conversation was only in Tamizh.  At times, I struggled for Tamizh words to replace in my mind the English words that came naturally.

"Are you a Tamizh professor, sir?"

I told him I teach economics.  In fact, this has become my standard reply to most people.  "Geography" tends to make people wonder what there is to study in geography--the old stereotypes of the wonderful discipline persist in India as much as they do in the US.

The driver wanted to know how long I have been in the US, and was impressed to know that it has been 25 years.

"Sir, even after 25 years you are wearing this shirt about Tamizh language.  I am very happy."  And then he added, "you speak good Tamizh sir.  But, slightly like an Anglo-Indian."

I smiled.  First time ever that somebody has termed my Americanized Tamizh as an Anglo-Indian accent.  I wondered how he would have reacted to my Tamizh if it had been soon after I landed here in Chennai, two whole months ago!

When I return to the US, people would think, and perhaps even comment, that my Indian accent has become stronger after a 100-day stay in the country.  Always with an accent wherever I go :)

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Qutb Minar in Delhi reminded me of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"

I always knew that the Qutb Minar would be a stop for me if and when I were to visit New Delhi.  A fascination for that goes back all the way to my middle school days, which is when we started learning about India's history.  Strange is life that while I have been to so many places on this pale blue dot, it has taken me decades since those middle school days to finally go to New Delhi.

The taxi driver nodded his head when I told him that Qutb Minar was my next destination.  We kept driving for much longer than I had anticipated--based on the map of Delhi that I carried with me.  And then, from afar, I spotted the sight that was so familiar from all the readings; I started clicking right through the car windshield.  "Drive by shooting" as my daughter refers to it :)

I was more excited than how my dogs were whenever they heard the sound of the dog food can being opened :)  I couldn't wait for the taxi to be parked and to rush out.

Rush out, I did.

I had no idea that the Qutb Minar complex was that extensive.  The moment I stepped past the ticket gate, I knew it was a good thing that I had an appointment already lined up, thanks to which I would have to force myself to leave by a certain time.  Else, I could have been there for hours on.

As has become my practice, I first walked around the periphery, far away from the main attraction.  I soon came to the incomplete structure--Alai Minar.  If this itself is so fantastic, then the Qutb Minar would be way, way awesome, I told myself!

Oddly enough, when I stood facing Alai Minar, it didn't trigger any imaginations of life a thousand years ago, but ... of Richard Dreyfuss creating a shape like this in the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and, therefore, my memories of incidents from my life when I got to watch that wonderful movie in Chennai more than thirty years ago.

I had to force myself to keep walking.  It is crazy that life is too damn short, and some days are very, very short!

Eventually, I ended up viewing, and taking photos of, Qutb Minar from so many different angles.  Not once did I get bored with the sights.  My favorite of them all was this one:

I looked at the time in my cell phone; it was time for me to leave,  Was reminded, yet again, of Robert Frost's poem, and I, too, had to tell myself that I had miles to go.

I headed out after one final look at the structure one last time.  All good things do come to an end; such is life :(

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I almost gave berth during a train ride :)

I reached the railway station at Lucknow a couple of minutes before 5:00 in the morning.  Yep, that early in the day, in order to board the train to New Delhi.

No sign of the train--the Gomti Express, which departs from Lucknow.  I double-checked the board, and I was at the correct platform after all.

I wasn't sure whom to ask either, given that I was in an alien territory

I walked up and down the platform, and spotted a young guy of college-going age and, perhaps, his father.  "Gomti Express platform ...?" I asked them.  They nodded yes.

Few more minutes later, the train slowly rolled in.  I entered the coach, and it was obvious that the guy sleeping all wrapped up was not a ticketed passenger.  Fortunately, my seat was across from him.

The paranoid person in me worried that I could be in the wrong coach.  So, stepped out to check for my name in the chart pasted on the outside of the coach.  There it was: "Sriram Khe."  Phew!

A guy about ten years younger than me, wearing a suit-jacket, entered the coupé.  And then a mother and daughter.  We were the four for that coupé, I thought, and wondered when the sleeping giant would be awakened.

It was time for the train to depart, but nothing happened.  Strangely, nobody else seemed to be perturbed by anything, unlike me! 

Finally, after a twenty-minute delay, the train gently moved. 

About five minutes away from the station, a ticket official, a turbaned-Sikh, came by and shook hard the Rip Van Winkle character who was snoring away.  The official asked for his ticket, and the guy seemed shocked that the train was moving, and moving quite fast.  He scampered, while the official and a few other passengers smiled away.  I wonder whatever happened to him.  Did he jump off the moving train, I know not.

Meanwhile, the daughter asked the official if there was a free lower berth for her mother, whose assignment was an upper berth. 

I offered my berth to the daughter for her mother to use.

"Thanks, but I don't want to disturb you."

I wondered if in the Indian cultural settings, I, with my bald and greying head and a grey beard, was also considered an "older" person. Age is relative to cultural contexts, I suppose.  In the US, sixty and seventy year-olds seem to rush around with a lot more energy than what I have. 

Or, was it because I so clearly come across as a foreigner?

The official worked out a solution for them.  I slept away for a long while.  In the berth that was above mine, the daughter slept even longer, almost until the very end.

As we neared New Delhi, the daughter gave me her business card and told me to contact her if I needed any help at all.  Now, that is wonderful hospitality and friendliness, right, especially to this stranger? 

I hope to meet more such friendly people in the couple more train rides that await me before this lengthy India visit comes to an end.

Are you proud of what your great-grandfather did?

As a teenager, when my sociopolitical outlook had various shades of red depending on how pissed off I was that day, almost every historic building came across as nothing but a symbol of oppression in the past.

Palaces were some of the worst ones.  For one, the splendor came at the expense of the poor and the disadvantaged.  And, to make things worse, quite a few of the palaces were also nasty reminders of how the kings managed to keep themselves and their families rich and safe by signing treaties with the British East India Company and the Crown.  In the process, they made sure that those who fought the British would be annihilated as well.

That was the angry and rebellious blood, which most of my high schoolmates never got to know existed underneath the "pappu" face :)

Now, older and (hopefully) wiser, I don't get angry about those issues anymore when I travel in order to visit old palaces, temples, mosques, cathedrals, mausoleums ....  I have come to understand that life was very different then, and I am glad I live now and not a couple of centuries ago, though it worries me, for instance, to think that we can easily cluster bomb the world back to the stone age!

The comments that "S" made reminded me of such a past of mine.  As we drove past the statue of Rani Lakshmi Bai, "S" remarked that the families of those who fought the British perished or ended up being poor, while the royalty who sided with the British continued to live well, even after India became independent. 

The royal family of Gwalior, the Scindias, was one of those who survived the British invasion.  In an independent India, they continued to flourish, exercising significant political influence over their territory.  It is one grand palace in an otherwise relatively poorer part of India:

The rooms and even the corridors in the palace spoke volumes about how well the royalty lived even back then.  My simple camera couldn't quite capture the richness of this one room alone:

Perhaps what pained "U," who was also visiting, and me, was a photo that says a lot:

The royalty and the British proudly stand by the eight tigers they had killed on a single day of hunting.  Eight tigers on one day!

In a way, I am glad that such photos exist--otherwise, one might even be tempted to think that such reports are fables.

I thought then that it will be neat to ask the current title-holder whether he is proud of what his grandparents and those even earlier did.

But then I checked myself: my great-grandparents practiced the caste system.  Within whatever was in their control, well, they too "subjected" people to a treatment that was/is not kosher.

No point throwing stones at the royalty; most of us abuse power and privilege in our own ways; some do it more than others, perhaps.  On my part, I now travel, observe, reflect, blog, and--hopefully--learn without getting pissed off when I see old palaces.

The irony is this: I no longer get pissed off, but am concerned that these historic buildings and arts are not well protected and preserved.  Even the post-hunt photo, for instance.  I had to take the photo at an angle because bright sunlight was streaming in through the window and the photo was reflecting that light.  So, even as I walked to avoid the reflection, I worried that such bright light might destroy the photo, and I hoped that what was on display was a replica and not the original.  No more seeing red :)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Midlife crisis? Read this

Quote of the day, on blogging killing good writing

Occasionally over the years I have attempted to argue that factual accuracy is overrated. I won't bore you with the reasons, but it struck me as a good, solid, counterintuitive belief to lug around and display occasionally. Never did it occur to me, until I read Felix's blog post, that it might be possible, without seeming insane, to argue that all aspects of good writing — accuracy, logic, spelling, graceful turns of phrase, wisdom and insight, puns (only good ones), punctuation, proper grammar and syntax (and what is the difference between those two again?) — are all overrated.
Awesome, right?

That wonderful prose was from Michael Kinsley, who worries about the lack of good quality professional writing.

"America was a rich country. Not now"

Once the taxi driver sniffed out that I am from America, he did not hesitate to share with me his opinions of the country and its recent presidents. 

The driver, Tasleem, came out swinging: "America was a rich country. Not now." Before I could think of reasons, he explained that it was because of wars.  "First Afghanistan. Then Iraq."

If only the US hadn't wasted its own resources on a war in Iraq! To think of the enormous destruction to life and property in Iraq from this war alone is enough of a nightmare. 

Tasleem added about the presidents: "I didn't like Bush and Clinton. Obama makes America better."

I didn't want to ask him what his beef was with Clinton.  Bush is understandable; whoever likes Bush, eh :)

We were nearing my destination, Humayun's Tomb.  Tasleem said, "Obama also came to see Humayun's Tomb.  He was here."

I didn't know until then that Obama had been to this historic site.  I wondered what criteria his staff employed in order to decide on Humayun's Tomb.

I wandered through the outer areas of the tomb complex, which were in various states of disrepair.  The Mughal Empire was a rich and powerful entity once, and now the remnants don't adequately convey the might and grandeur that was once the realm of the Mughals.  I hoped that the US was still far away from losing its premier status in the world, and that the end is nowhere on the horizon.

At a spot among the ruins, I set the camera on auto-timer, and got myself a visual proof of my presence amidst the ruins.

And then I finally walked up to Humayun's Tomb itself.  It was magnificent. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

More on why I hate Facebook

Adding to my notes on my love-hate (increasingly "hate" alone!) relationship with Facebook ...

Being on terra cognita (!) means that I can finally read some interesting stuff, like this James Fallows post, in which he summarizes a couple of essays on how Facebook is rapidly changing the internet, for worse.
- Google's business success depended on a worldwide internet structure as open, untrammeled, and transparent as possible. Therefore most of what Google did for its own corporate interest also advanced those aims -- or at least did not impede them.

- Facebook's business success depends on an internet structure that is increasingly "gated" and segregated into proprietary realms. Therefore most of what Facebook has done is to induce maximum sharing of personal information within its propriety sphere, while erecting barriers to the flow of information from one realm to another.

- The shift of business advantage from the "public" to the "private" model means more than a different subset of people becoming zillionaires. It will also affect the fundamental structure of the Internet and its value to the 99.999% of us who are neither Google nor Facebook IPO-beneficiaries. Already its effects are being seen, as all these pieces argue, with Google's promotion of its "G+" and social-search features. Facebook's ascent leaves Google with no choice but to compete on those terms.
Even during the old, old days, when AOL was my dial-up connection to the internet, post-college, I rarely ever made use of its proprietary services.  I was far more keen on whatever was available in the freer internet and the web.  That AOL world was nothing compared to the ultra-creepy Facebook.

Fallows adds:
It's also a battle with important "externality" effects on the rest of us. For instance: Google's success has depended on people spending as much time within its online ecosystem as possible. Thus it had an incentive to offer, free, services like Google Earth, whose commercial predecessors charged subscribers thousands of dollars per year. Or Google Maps, which is expensive to maintain. Facebook's success mainly depends on having users share more and more of their personal information within the Facebook environment. Its business logic leads to fewer "public goods."

To wax geostrategic for a moment, this argument over the Internet "commons" is very much like debates through the post-World War II era about the conflict between relatively open and relatively closed political and economic systems. Ie, the more a closed or beggar-thy-neighbor regime prospers, the worse behavior it evokes -- for survival reasons -- from all other participants.
Yep, Facebook is forcing everybody into evil ways.  That is not a good development at all.  I am sure somebody will soon figure a way out of this Facebook-imposed business model.  I hope.

Cycle-rickshaws: hiring them means dealing with ethical issues :(

I had made reservations to stay at Hotel Ginger, which was right by the New Delhi train station.  From my two previous experiences with Ginger at two other cities, I was confident that I could count on a clean and spacious room, with clean bathrooms.  All for a price that the budget traveler that I am can afford.

The hotel website said it was a 200 meter walk from the station to the hotel.  I told my friend "S" about it. She was familiar with the hotel, and had a suggestion: "as you exit the station, get a cycle-rickshaw.  He might ask for about 30 rupees.  It will be better than you walking, because you won't be able to drag your suitcase through all that dirt."

It was a wonderful and practical suggestion, I thought.

Until ...

... I had to face the situation at 2:30 in the afternoon after I was swept out of the station by the exiting crowds.

I couldn't think of sitting there while another human pedaled away.  When machines power an autorickshaw or a car, it feels different from when a human powers the transport.

"Holy crap!" I thought to myself.

Meanwhile, my brain also recognizes the numbers of cycle-rickshaws there.  Their livelihood, and perhaps their families' welfare, depends on people like me using their services.

If only I had a 1-800-ethicist to call to sort this out!

Finally, I decided to look strictly from the driver's perspective.  Like somebody digging ditches with his muscle power in order to earn his parathas, a cycle-rickshaw driver trades his muscle power for earnings.  In my job, I try to use my brain power to earn my salary.  So, what if I focused only on the dignity of the labor involved and the laborer?

I approached a driver.  Pointing to the hotel, I told him in my awful Hindi, "humko woh Hotel Ginger jaana.  Kitne rupiah?"

He replied "Ththeese."

"S" was so right on the dot with her thirty rupees.

A little uncomfortably I sat on the seat, and he pedaled away.

When we reached the hotel, he stopped outside the gate.  I figured that the hotel didn't want cycle-rickshaws inside the property, and I didn't want to force any issue there.  I got down and paid him 30 rupees.

Later in the evening, when I was walking back after spending a delightfully refreshing couple of hours at the energetic Connaught Place, cycle-rickshaw drivers tried to get me to ride with them.  One after another approached me.  I kept walking.

And then I remembered another instance from a few years ago when I was traveling with my parents.  As we got off the train, dad looked around for a porter.  I told him that I would easily carry the bags.  Dad said it was his way of helping them out--the porters needed to earn money, he said.  So, we ended up hiring one.

I thought that I needed to spend the little bit of money I had, which will mean a lot to the rickshaw-wallahs.  When the next guy approached me, I told him "Hotel Ginger, station ke paas."  He wanted 50 rupees.

I sat while he pedaled away., and decided that I would ignore my own issues with hiring cycle-rickshaws!  Or, perhaps what I ended up doing is the right way after all.

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