Wednesday, December 23

....and I was killed by dogs!

HT reports about the revelation by a Delhi girl of being burnt to death in her past life...and compares it to Deepika Padukone's character in Om Shanti Om! The girl discovered the reason for her fear of fire and marriage on the show Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka. And it has all to do with her past life!! Another female had a fear of heights and air travel because she died in an air crash in her previous life. And the show's researchers found all the details she gave to be precise. Celina Jaitley was a man and wounded in the war...a wound that hurts even today. Seriously!?!

So now I think the fact that I am scared of dogs has nothing to do with the stray dogs on Indian roads, or that crazy dog my neighbor had. I think it was because I was killed by dogs in my past life.

It is really appalling that a show like this even exists. As if all those saas-bahu dramas were not enough, we now have to get into such mumbojumbo. It makes me look at Sach Ka Samana, Big Boss or Rakhi ka Swayamwar with new respect. At least they are plain stupid. I can understand the economics behind such reality shows. And the networks have every right to sell when people are ready to buy. What baffles me is why people are willing to buy such BS? Does the television industry feel no social responsibility? How can a newspaper like the HT report such things as news? There is not a single word in the report to indicate even a hint of sarcasm. It reads like the writer believes it to be true.

Why does the film, television and news industry have to regress into the realm of antiquated ideas and superstitions to succeed in our modern economy? Why?

Friday, November 13

Bullet proof? Not really

Why does this not surprise me anymore?

Wednesday, November 11

Elephantine move

Looks like all the zoo elephants will be moving out of town. The Central Zoo Authority has asked all zoos and circuses to return the elephants to their natural habitats in nationals parks, tiger reserves and sanctuaries. While this is a positive step, does it mean that kids will now have to go to national parks to get a glimpse of the magnificent animal? Will zoos be as attractive without the elephants? Would it have been better if the zoo elephants were allowed to stay back and their living conditions improved? Are the parks, sanctuaries and reserves sufficiently protected from poachers, or will the elephants face the tigers' fate?

Another thing is that the report says nothing about the commercial ride elephants on city roads. Will they be returned to their natural habitats? Are they not the ones at greater risk of being exploited and harmed? Or do they fall under the Ministry of Environment and Forests and therefore not covered by the CZA circular?

Wednesday, November 4

Tuesday, October 27

Empress: A Novel

One could say that I have become rather adventurous with 'history' books since my encounter with 'The White Mughals.' Recently I came across a fascinating novel by Shan Sa about the Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, or Heavenlight as she is know in the book.

'Empress: A Novel' is the story of the Chinese Empress who rose from a humble background to establish her own dynasty, the Zhou dynasty. Though I was initially skeptical about the monologue format of the book, the uniqueness and historical significance of its central character demands that we understand Heavenlight. A regular novel format could not have given us a proper insight into the mind of such an intelligent and shrewd ruler. Shan Sa's prose-like writing opens up a portal into the mind of Heavenlight and takes us through a journey of a China some 1500 years ago. It is almost a 'Being John Malkovich' feeling. We glide through the highs and lows of Heavenlight's life, her years of servitude and lordship. The insider's view of her intelligence and potential, the hardships of her childhood, the longing of her adolescence help to justify her almost despotic rule. Though she would like us to believe that she never desired power, once she knew she could have it the Empress showed little mercy. She plotted against and killed her family members and could not give up power even in her 70s.

But Shan Sa continuously shows the Empress being apologetic about her actions. There is a undertone of remorse and regret. This works both in favor and against the novel. One can understand that a truthful depiction of a woman in the 600- 700 AD who had numerous lovers and sexual encounters, and who killed her family members requires the apologetic tone. But looking at it as an outsider in the 21C one wishes that the author had done more justice to her courage. It was not only destiny, but also the strength and intelligence of the woman that bestowed upon her the distinction of being the only female monarch of China.

The book is a fictionalization of history and one has to read it as that. It introduces us to a fascinating woman and a gorgeous China all those years ago. As a woman it makes you reflect upon your life and the status of women today. It makes you wonder if we have really come a long way in being equal. Or if a woman like Wu Zetian would have to be apologetic even today.

Thursday, August 27


CBSE kids can rejoice.

Thursday, August 20

TED talk by Ashraf Ghani

A very interesting talk by Ashraf Ghani, currently in race to be Aghanistan's next President.

Wednesday, August 5

How exactly does this help??

People stand in queue for swine flu check up outside a hospital in Pune.
(A picture from the Indian Express)

Aai mala pan fugaaaa

Kasab's desire to have someone tie him a rakhi as reported by the ToI makes him sound like a child who wants something colorful and shiny that the others have.

"He expressed his desire after he saw several people in court sporting colourful 'rakhis' during the day's proceedings," his government-appointed lawyer S.G. Abbas Kazmi told mediapersons."

Tuesday, August 4

Clothelines in the US

Having heard stories of warnings by apartment landlords for hanging clothes to dry in the open, clothesline spotting has become one of my favorite pass-times. My husband never seems to see any, though as the passenger I have spotted quite a few on county roads. When I was new to this country it seemed absurd that people would spend so much time, money and energy drying clothes in a steam dryer that reduces garment life. I took it as one of those things that 'Americans do'. So now this story (and the comments that follow) in NYT only makes me laugh in disbelief.

Monday, August 3

Poor pedestrians

Why does Vivek Moorthy generalize that pedestrians are "poor and illiterate" and so "cannot take legal recourse?" Though the number of vehicles on Indian roads has increased dramatically it does not mean that only the poor walk. Educated, middle class Indians also walk on the same roads and have to face the same hazardous conditions. It seems like he got carried away by his idea of the "walking class" and could not resist attributing an income level to it. I appreciate and support his appeal for better urban planning with safe walking conditions. But making pedestrians seem like some poor and illiterate beings unable to stand up for themselves just kills the piece for me.

Thursday, July 23

A letter to Mr Thackeray

Mr. Bal Thackeray,

Really, are you out of your mind completely? You want him to be hanged publicly at the Gateway of India? Though Kasab deserves to die for what he did, the Gateway of India does not deserve to go down in history as the spot where he was hanged. You want it to be a big spectacle with people cheering and the 24 hr news channels telecasting it live for the world to see? You really think that would deter other terrorists from attacking India? Or do you wish to immortalize Kasab's death so that it can be used as fodder for other terrorists-in-training? You known it favors politicians' electoral interests when the country is under attack from external forces? Are you sure you speak only out of a desire for justice?

Just so you know, we are not barbarians. We are a country of decent people who would be outraged by such displays. We are not terrorists. We do not go about killing people because we are told that they have wronged us. We allow the judiciary to determine guilt and provide justice. A fair trial, as is currently underway, is what you need to send a message to the millions of Indians that the state machinery can protect them. The judicial system is capable of bringing terrorists to trial and punishing them without outraging publicly decency. We do not attack lawyers for serving their country. We stand by them. Maybe you could too.

Kasab is a terrorist. He does not need to die a martyr.

Tuesday, July 21

My posts at FPA blogs

I now write for the Foreign Policy Blogs, a production of the Foreign Policy Association. The FPB network has around 50 blogs that discuss global developments across all continents. The Foreign Policy Association is a New York based think-tank established in 1918 to spread awareness and understanding of foreign policy issues.

Check out my posts on Indian foreign policy at their India blog.

Sunday, July 19

Something to cheer about

While Gulam Nabi Azad made us laugh, the latest news on population policy will make you smile. A detailed National Population Policy formulated in the year 2000 set out to achieve a total fertility rate (TFR) of two by the end of 2010. Now the union health ministry reports that 11 states and three union territories have achieved that target of two children per couple two years before the deadline. Most Indians are used to a large number of government projects missing their deadlines. To see these states work efficiently fills my heart with optimism. All we need now is for the good work to continue uninterrupted and become a norm.

The National Population Policy had rightly identified education, women's empowerment, and communication and awareness about the benefits of family planning to be some of the ways of achieving the targets. (Azad should have taken a cue from the policy and made the argument for more televisions as the means of spreading family planning awareness.) Interestingly, the National Family Health Survey (2007) reports the literacy rates for most of the 11 states as being above the Indian average of 67.6 percent. The statewise literacy rates are as follows: Goa (83.3), Himachal Pradesh (81.3), Karnataka(69.3), Kerala (89.9), Maharashtra(77.6), Punjab (74), Sikkim (76.6), Tamil Nadu (74.2), West Bengal (71.6) and Andhra Pradesh (63.7). Either it is sheer coincidence, or higher literacy rates and decreasing FTR seem to be co-related.

Thursday, July 16

'Horn'less drive

The city police have taken up the noble cause of reducing honking. And they have even fined more than a 1000 people by now. However, the drive will continue only for the next few weeks. What happens after that? How has the drive helped if drivers know that they will not be fined in a few weeks time and can continue about business as usual? Maybe there is a serious plan in place here. Probably ToI doesn't think we need to be told about it though.

Saturday, July 11

Televising our way to population control

And I thought 'late night' television could put you in the 'mood'.

Apparently Ghulam Nabi Azad knows otherwise, "When light will reach (villages), 80 percent of population growth can be reduced through TV." That is why the UPA government will take up rapid electrification of villages (not because it is a basic amenity that governments are supposed to provide.) Then the electrified villagers can watch television and not engage in the "process of population growth." Just think of all the years lost believing that awareness and education helped control population. All we needed was to turn people into TV watching zombies.

Wednesday, July 8

Zardari admits to supporting terrorists!

If this story is to be believed, then Zardari might just become India's most loved Pakistani President. However, it seems rather odd that he would admit that "Pakistan nurtured terrorism." So far Pakistan has vehemently rejected supporting terrorists. India shouted itself hoarse, but no one seemed to believe that the Pakistani State had anything to do with terrorism in India. That Pakistan pursued it as a standard foreign policy decision.

While I am skeptical about the story, it does raise various questions. The first being, what is Zardari playing at? Following in Musharraf's footsteps? Or does he have a bigger game up his sleeve, one where admission of sponsoring terrorism is a small price to pay? Does this admission mean that Pakistan will be termed a State sponsor of terrorism? Or is it not an "official" enough admission? Will it mean fewer dollars to help Pakistan "fight the war on terror?" Will Western countries finally see Pakistan for what it is - a sponsor of terrorism? I seriously doubt anything of the sort will happen. At best Zardari will claim ignorance or out of context reporting. And things will go back to being as they were.

While the story was reported by the Indian media, I have been unable to find any traces of it anywhere else other than the Telegraph. Maybe they will pick it up tomorrow. Or maybe they will choose to ignore.

Tuesday, July 7

Baba Ramdev supports Art 377

My attitude towards Baba Ramdev can best be described as apathetic. Not that news surrounding him lacked spice, it just didn't matter enough. However, his decision to challenge the Delhi High Court verdict on gay sex makes me angry. One, because I believe that human sexuality is no religion's business. Two, I hate self-appointed self-righteous guardians of religion and morality. Three, Hinduism seems rather neutral towards the idea and we do not need to drag the religion into a debate it rather not be a part of. And four, Ramdev has a significant following and could undermine the cause of the gay movement in India.

The basis of his petition is that homosexuality is dangerous to "public morality," "public health" and would expose larger sections of the population to HIV/AIDS. Unprotected sex with multiple partners of any gender ups the chances of contracting a STD. Gayness has no direct proven relation with an increase in infection rates. Baba Ramdev also jumps on the protectors of Indian values bandwagon and thinks that the decision will jeopardise the institution of marriage and "offend the Indian value system." BS!

But the real gem is this... "Homosexual relationships, if encouraged, would bring population growth of a country to a halt and may deprive this country of its greatest asset of human resources," he said. As if homosexuality will turn off all the straight ones. As if we do not have too many people already. Why do these people want to perpetuate a lie that Indians are asexual beings? We are a sufficiently horny society like any other normal society. Not talking about it does not change it. Look at any guy on the street, or our films. Or even the Lifestyle section of ToI.

It is sad that religions across the world trample upon human dignity and freedom in the name of some archaic "value system." That how you choose to express your love requires religious sanction. The Delhi High Court's verdict based on protection of human rights was a mature way of discussing the issue. I think the Supreme Court of India should appreciate and uphold the ruling, as should the UPA government and scrap Article 377.

McNamara-India-China link

This is something I never knew about McNamara. Though not entirely improbable, it seems rather an extreme stand at a time when India was viewed as being pro-Soviet. But then it was the Cold War!

Thursday, June 25

A chance to change

Nandita Sengupta makes a good argument about the futility of scrapping Class X examinations. I agree with her on the need for greater and better options after Class X. But scrapping the "traumatic" examinations could perhaps be conducive to it.

Simply because we are good at maths and science, or that it helps make more money, does not mean that everyone should be an engineer or a doctor. There could be other applications of these skills (e.g. the neglected pure sciences) that are equally important to the overall well being of the society. Not to forget the importance of Arts and Humanities that are unfortunately looked down upon due to poor monetary returns. In fact, compartmentalizing students at Class XI into Arts, Science and Commerce with very little chance of moving around needs rethinking. I think that Class XI and XII should expose students to all three (and more) areas and let them dabble with varied courses and combinations to their liking before they make up their minds. It would give them time to explore their interests, mature from teenagers to young adults and make better career decisions. It might even help increase respect for the social sciences and humanities.

Anyone who has been through the Class X to XI transition process knows that Class XI choices are mostly dictated by parents. The standard argument being that the kids are too young to know what's good for them anyways. If the choice is postponed to voting age (18 yrs) with a chance to know what they are getting into, the chances of voluntary decisions might increase.

Our education system (from pre-kg to PhD) needs rethinking and adapting to changing needs. And Sibal's plans are ambitious. At the very least he is talking about the right things, instead of catering to caste politics like his predecessor. Even if he succeeds in changing a couple of things, or getting the Right to Education bill implemented, he would have done a big service. And maybe he will.

Look at me!

This is exactly how North Korea's behavior seems. As world attention shifts towards Tehran, Pyongyang's threats to nuke US territory get bigger, and fancier. Maybe they should consider having elections with more than one candidate per constituency to get everyone to look at them.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Welcome to the Jong-il
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Wednesday, June 24

Truck jala, bill ghatava!

I understand outrage against expensive electricity. But how does that demand torching down a truck?

Friday, June 12

Creating false equivalencies

Charles Krauthammer in this Washington Post piece criticizes Obama for "hovering above mere mortals" and "distorting history for political effect." While I agree that maybe Obama could have indulged in little less self-flagellation, considering the intended purpose of the speech it is not impossible to imagine why those words were chosen.

The problem I have is with Krauthammer's comments upon Obama juxtaposing U.S. sponsored government overthrow in Iran, and Iran's role in violence against the U.S.

"A CIA rent-a-mob in a coup 56 years ago does not balance the hostage-takings, throat-slittings, terror bombings and wanton slaughters perpetrated for 30 years by a thug regime in Tehran (and its surrogates) that our own State Department calls the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism." "

For one, I doubt if Obama was trying to call it even. Secondly the "thug regime" that came into being in Iran and perpetuated the violence was in ways enabled by the U.S. coup against the democratically elected leadership of Mosaddegh. Just as the Taliban problem in Afghanistan had to do with U.S. supporting the Mujaheddin to fight the Soviets. It can reasonably be argued that had Mosaddegh been allowed to rule, Iran would have been a favorably different country. So it definitely does not balance things out.

*Disclaimer: I do not condone or support terrorist activities, whether sponsored by Iran or any other country.

Monday, June 8

Musharraf's Spiegel interview

Did he really say that!?! Pervez Musharraf disclosed in an interview that the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and the terrorists who bombed the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008 are connected. That is a huge admission for someone who was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan for a long time. In the Spiegel interview he bashes India and the United States for Pakistan's problems all through history.

Though not surprising, it is definitely telling that Musharraf thinks "nothing can happen to Pakistan as long as the armed forces are intact and strong. Anyone who wants to weaken and destabilize Pakistan just has to weaken the army and our intelligence service, ISI..."No one would deny that the defense mechanism is a crucial aspect in the well-being of any country, but over and above that are strong functional political institutions. (China is a strong and stable country not simply because of its military but because of a strong functioning political system.) Pakistan has been in a perpetual state of crisis since its creation due to the military dominated governments. They had no interest in laying down strong foundations for democracy or other form of civil government. Pakistan's geopolitical importance particularly during the Cold War meant that foreign governments did everything they could to ensure a well-trained and -equipped army, rather than a stable government.

And so ultimately Pakistan mastered the art of exhorting billions in aid money, without any results to show for it. The country is still destabilized and its economy in shambles. It is no surprise that when asked about how they spent the money received over the last eight years, Musharraf replied, "But why do you care about that? Why, for heaven's sake, should I tell you how we spent the money? ... I also told the Americans that it has nothing to do with them. We are not obligated to give out any details. Maybe I should have said at the time: Ok, you want us to support you, give us $20 billion a year and don't ask what we are doing with it." One could think of it as a business transaction, payment for services provided. But in that cases the vendor is expected to deliver. I see a daylight bribery.

Musharraf does tell us that some of the money was a reimbursement for past services. And how it is not possible to segregate the spendings as those on "war on terror" only, because material bought with that money travels with the moving army divisions to the Easter (Indian) border too. In effect the money is being spent to secure its Eastern border and fight India. Of course it is no surprise that he considers that India should not be left out if one is serious about combating terrorism. Read together Musharraf is saying that Pakistan spent all the aid money fighting the "war on terror" against Afghanistan and India. No surprises there.

Wednesday, June 3

Capturing climate change

Another talk on climate change but with some of the most beautiful pictures of its devastating effects.

Look out for more about the movie at website

Tuesday, June 2

Cleaning up our act

This piece in NYT asks a question that almost very Indian has asked in some form; "why do governments that cannot manage the basics of public hygiene think that they can micro-manage an economy?" Edward Glaeser then proceeds to talk about India and Mumbai's urban development and water works management in particular.

For years I have wondered why our local governments fail to provide basic water and sewer systems, and maintain minimum levels of public hygiene. When my local municipal corporator turned a nala/open toilet into a beautiful jogging park people were immensely surprised and relieved. It transformed some 4 kms of the nala into a stink free, hygienic, serene, aesthetically appealing area. At the same time he also arranged for toilets to be build for those that were now deprived of their space. It was not an innovative undertaking but it was essential for the health of the neighborhood. That there must have been political and monetary payoff is another issue.

One reason for this apathy (I was told) for public hygiene is that we as a society lack a culture of public hygiene. And sometimes when I visit predominately South Asian neighborhoods in the US, or places like Devon Avenue (Chicago) I want to believe it. These places are so unclean you wonder if you are in the same city that has clean roads two blocks away. And I am sure this has nothing to do with discrimination on part of the local authorities. While in India you will find cleanliness fanatics whose houses are spotless, they couldn't care less about the buildings they live in. The same people are so disgusted by the garbage accumulating in their neighborhood that they will fling their garbage bags from a distance, whether it lands inside the bins or not is not their business. Even schools and hospitals cannot maintain clean restrooms. Spitting is a national pass-time that I have still to understand. Even temples make you cringe. With all the sovla/suddhikaran ideas ingrained in Hindu rituals, why is the God's house so dirty? How is that permissible?

I understand that public hygiene and water and sewer maintenance costs a lot of money. And many local governments are perpetually cash strapped. Yet it is not impossible to promote cleanliness and enforce existing laws and policies strictly. Most of the road cleaners can be seen chatting early morning when a lot of work still remains to be done. And then as the traffic increases they have a valid reason to not do their job efficiently. One can walk miles before finding a garbage bin on the road, and people consider this a valid excuse for disposing off their waste anywhere. Public toilets are feasting grounds for diseases. Pet owners do not own the shit, leaving it for people to step on and clean. The list can go on and on.

At the end of the day no matter how many malls we build or how much our average income increases, if the State cannot maintain basic public hygiene it has failed in more than one ways. Of course unless we develop a basic civic sense and responsibility for keeping our neighborhoods clean, no State action can ever be sufficient. There are sufficient decently clean people in India it is just a matter of applying the same principles to public life.

Thursday, May 28

Big-B or Whiz-B?

It seems that the multi-purpose national identity card (MNIC) for Indian citizens will be available by 2011. It is to be a smart card with an unique identification number that will store information about the citizens. This seems like a good project, and should eliminate the need for multiple address/identity proof documents for educational or business purposes. It could also be a useful tool in the electoral process which is still struggling with the voter identification cards. And maybe help its intended purposes of countering terrorism on Indian soil.

However, considering the scope of the project I think it will face the same fate as the voter identification cards. There are way too many people and far less infrastructure in place to create a comprehensive list and distribute cards. But the babus are on it.

The more serious concern however is that of privacy. Would having this smart card mean that the government will know what I do, buy, sell, learn, read...? Will I be required to carry it at all times and produce when requested? That is something one would associate with travelling to a foreign country. Will the government be policing our lives, instead of simply maintaining law and order? How will it ensure that the information is not abused by any government agency? I can definitely imagine a scenario where someone with influence uses it to bribe and tweak information in the database to make life difficult for someone. Can we be sure of the integrity of those with access to such crucial information? What about misuse by political parties like the MNS to determine the number of "outsiders"?

If the government can satisfactorily answer these and numerous other similar questions maybe the MNIC will be a good project. Till then I can think of nothing better than this episode of Yes Minister.

Friday, May 22

Do we have it to lose it?

Today Anand Giridharadas asks if India will lose its "charm" as it becomes 'world class.' Coincidentally I have also been reading about the Indian "heart" in Shantaram as he ponders over how it is the "heart" that really matters in India, and how that 'charm' keeps the billions from killing each other. And each time I read that I wonder if it is only a romanticised version of India, or are we really are as charming.

If you are a Punekar you are well aware of the 'impoliteness' allegations made against us. In fact, Facebook's quiz would categorize you as "overeducated, underemployed, lazy, rude to guests and think customer service is for wimps." (This in spite of the fact that people in Pune are polite, kind and hardworking. ) We are also said to be one of the worst tourists, and neither are we the most courteous of drivers. Indian languages are rich with expletives and we use them rather freely. There are mean high school girls all over India, as there are rude rowdy boys. We don't necessarily respect our minorities, poorer classes and women.

Just like any other society we have our combination of all sorts of good and bad people. So why do books and Western accounts make us seem like some exotic creatures with hearts only of gold? I would love to believe that we are unmatched in our politeness, courteousness, friendliness, dildaari... But with all my love for India and Indianess, and my patriotism I don't think that is true. We know how to love another, we know how to care and be kind, but that is just part of the story.

Friday, May 8

Saudi ban on women drivers

Very few people today can claim to be oblivious to restrictions imposed on freedoms in Middle Eastern countries. And yet sometimes stories like these can take you by surprise. A driving ban! I am no scholar on Islam, but I am sure there is nothing in the holy book that calls for a ban on women driving. I understand that curbing women's mobility is just another way of controlling them, and yet it is difficult to comprehend such laws. We are used to taking so many of our freedoms for granted, that it is difficult to imagine people living under restrictions. I hope the Saudi government realizes what it is doing and lifts the ban soon. In the meanwhile you can support and participate in the discussion at

Wednesday, May 6

Breakfast with TED

Up until a few months ago I was oblivious to the existence of TED. But thanks to my ever curious husband weekend mornings soon became 'Breakfast with TED.' Now everyday I look forward to a new talk, a new idea, a new speaker. The idea of TED is at once simple and profoundly enriching. And I regret not having known about it all these years.

While I pride myself at being an avid reader, the sheer variety of subjects that a few TED talks can expose me to is amazing. I have never picked up as diverse a variety of books, and neither can I see myself doing it. But listening to a 20 minute talk on war, and then neuroscience in the next 20 seems like a piece of cake. It is a small investment of time. It is something I can do even as I check my email. Reading a book on neuroscience would be rather time, energy and will-power intensive, and with poor interest rate that would be a rarity. But this is doable.

Not only are the ideas worth spreading and sharing, the speakers are too. Sarah Jones, Ken Robinson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jill Bolte Taylor were wonderful orators with great ideas and messages. But even the not so great orators like Iqbal Quadir with his baldness and paunch is a speaker worth sharing. His work, his ideas and the results are inspiring. It shows a selfless man who could give up a good job in the US to help his country fight poverty. But not one of those blind romantics who forget they need to feed their own families too. People like him make good examples for reformers and entrepreneurs in developing or underdeveloped countries, where grass-root homegrown efforts are crucial to progress.

TED does an applaudable job at enriching minds and I wish it grows stronger and farther in years to come.

Monday, May 4

There is a method to the madness

A very new and interesting analysis of modern war data. The results are surprising and could perhaps even provide clues to ending conflicts like Iraq. As Sean Gourley presents his 'number of attacks - people killed' graphs, they seem to defy logic. How can the number of people killed increase as the frequency of attacks goes down? The remainder of the talk provides a good explanation, and the pattern displayed begins to seem almost obvious.

Tuesday, April 21

Enchanted by the 'White Mughals'

Last evening we watched an episode of Seinfeld where George in this special Georgian way says, "I would like to be a Civil War buff." Absurd as it may be, there couldn't have been a better way of putting what I felt reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India. I am no history buff, but if someone can make history as engrossing and beautiful as Dalrymple does, it would be hard to not be one.

The book could have been a romantic non-fiction about James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa's love story set in 18th C Hyderabad, and still be a good read. But Dalrymple transcends that to make it an exploration of the society of those times, the symbiosis of British and Indian (mostly Islamic) cultures, the inevitable romantic liaisons, the attempts at increasing tolerance and understanding between the two, and the gradual decay of the white mughal era as British dominance spread across India. It paints a vivid picture of that part of history left out of history books, a part that humanizes both sides. At a time when the 'clash of civilizations' rhetoric is dominating policy attitudes and people's mindsets, Dalrymple's book attempts to prove otherwise. The concluding sentences of the book display his belief in the incorrectness of the rhetoric.

"As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again."

Apart from the lessons to be learnt, the book awes us with the depth and breadth of its research. It is not a romanticized version of what might have been, but a factual referenced representation of those days. The numerous footnotes add significantly to the story and provide tit bits that should not be missed. Even for those who have never been to India or Hyderabad, it wouldn't be difficult to picturize the city. His writing does justice to the details he provides and continues to engross all through the 400 odd pages. The chances of falling into a boring account of Indian society in the 18th C are many, and instead he converts them into something exciting. Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa are absent from a large part of the book as Dalrymple talks about the Nizams, other British officials, Calcutta, Poona, Lucknow. But you can always feel their presence. Those descriptions seem essential parts of their story, and as a whole they are important to understanding and appreciating their romance.

Each character, no matter how insignificant is etched out in great detail such that you 'know' everyone. Dalrymple's personal opinion about the character never seems to prejudice his descriptions. Each character is an individual and you are free to form your opinions. He doesn't force you in any particular direction. This I think is a crucial quality in presenting historical accounts. At the same time his admiration for the white mughlas and Indian culture are evident through every sentence. But that admiration is definitely no juvenile infatuation. It is the admiration of a careful observer, a student and researcher. There are numerous books about India by non-Indians that repel with their patronizing and/or condescending tones. And others that blindly romanticise a exotic land. This book does neither.

No matter if you enjoy love stories, history, beautiful language, or simply books, 'White Mughals' is a must read. Even in its tragedy it is a feel good story; in its antiquity, contemporary.

Saturday, April 11

Fine, I have a demented mind.

But can you really help not think about the Akshay-Twinkle fiasco when the first thing you see on TOI screaming at you in bold is...

"It has become a fashion to open fronts: Sonia"

Maybe it is the ongoing "tea bag" drama in the US that is wreaking my brain. That is torture for a tea lover like me. Someone really needs to reconsider and revamp vocabulary, or who knows how many more will go nuts.

Vote for SP!

I was under the impression that our political leaders were over this crap. But of course, considering that it has great men like Sanjay Dutt on board the manifesto seems to be really progressive. My advise to them would be to get Muthalik too. He already has the infrastructure in place to go after the "mall culture." And then maybe Manyata could be their women's wing leader and could lead by example. What a glorious day it would be when they come to power and bring order back to our degrading society!

Friday, April 10

Chappleni marala pahije!

What's with all the shoe hurling in India? [Link] [Link] When that guy threw it at Bush it was funny, or maybe even made a statement for some people. But dear copycats, it doesn't really make any statement. And neither is it cool. Of course the old school teacher is too far advanced in years to care for it, and I doubt if it even came out of his own head. Jindal is definitely not the worst politician he has encountered. There must have been many before him who deserved to be dignified with a similar action.

I can understand that chappal kadhun marane is a very demeaning thing, and you really got to be angry to do that. I have seen construction workers do that to each other on more than one occasion. But a journalist? You have various other means at your disposal to express your anger. PC is a rather decent man. It doesn't really do much to attack someone like that. Try attacking any of the Thackerays instead. Maybe then some might think of you as 'brave.'

Wednesday, April 8

Another traffic management effort

Pune will soon get an Intelligent Traffic Management System (ITMS) that could help bring order to its traffic problems. The projects looks promising and might work too. But unless a good 'traffic culture' can be created in the city I fail to see any hope for any traffic management plans. Of course 24 monitoring could turn out to be the starting point, the fear of punishment method...but aren't the original traffic rules based on the same idea? No one fears punishment for traffic violation, not even embarrassment. They all end up being anecdotes, and learning tools for new drivers passed on from one generation to the next. Driving license is a privilege which we take to be a right. And maybe because other basic rights are violated on a daily basis by governments and leaders, we consider it our duty to violate and abuse this "right" ourselves.

In a related story, the city's Police Commissioner has lashed out at the RTO's license issuing process. And I agree with him. My driving test was just another typical day at the Pune RTO... scared 'kakus' driving with one foot hanging down and my 17 year self scared as hell, scores of 'agents' hovering over the policewala, a dump of a parking lot with tea stalls and ogling creatures...And then my driving test in the US which I partially passed, sweating from nervousness sitting next to a fierce looking policewali who almost killed me with her smirk as I messed up my parallel parking. Of the ten people who came out before me only a couple were smiling and got their licenses. There were no agents, only friends or family members.

While the traffic situations in terms of vehicles, speeds, infrastructure etc. are different for both countries, there is a basic driving etiquette in this country that never fails to impress me. And it saddens me that the same people who drive like nobody's business back home, follow rules and become polite here. This means that these people are capable of decency and traffic discipline in principle. So why not do it back home? I guess it is just a matter of 'when in Pune do as the Puneris do.'

Saturday, March 28

Children as potential terrorists

This is a very scary move not only in terms of individual privacy and freedoms, but the impact on those young minds. The police have compared it to their drug intervention program which identifies children using or susceptible to drug use. No matter how bad drugs might be, that label cannot be compared to the "potential terrorist" label.

How can the police be sure that it won't be used by extremist organizations as evidence of Muslims being targeted? How can they ensure confidentiality of identities of those "identified" as "potential terrorists?" If identities are disclosed what will stop radical organizations from trying to brainwash them completely? Those people are known for extremely secretive operations anyways. How do you ensure that the kids won't become social outcasts due to the potential danger they pose? The psychological impact this would have on them (already vulnerable in their teens) and the long term repercussions? What about the innocent children who happen to know them. How will the police look at them? Will they be guilty by association? Evidently the information would be on the kids "files" forever. So how would they have a normal life?

While I understand the importance of preventing terrorism and terrorists, the operative word in this British operation is "children." How radical can children as young as 13 be? Teenagers are rebellious. So do you keep identifying them as potential this and that, or do you let them live out their childhood? No state intervenes because a child is into extremely violent video games, or excessive porn, and what have you. I do not mean that we should let kids grow up and become terrorists, but identifying and labeling them as "potential terrorists" in their most vulnerable years is definitely not the way to go.

Friday, March 27

New age kirtankars

There are few news that truly surprise you. And there is nothing about yoga and goras that surprises me anymore. But I came across a correction in NYT for an article titled "Yoga Enthusiasts Hear the Call of Kirtan" and I was almost stupefied. I immediately pictured the traditional kirtankars you find in temples across India. The performances might differ according to region, but the basic idea remains the same. Here it was a gora kirtankar singing.

Of course to me the image is that out of a Sant Tukaram film. For years Marathi films had at least one Kirtan sequence. They had some of the best poetry and music, rendered in a soulful voice that can touch even someone as non-religious as me. I remembered a couple of live Kirtans I have attended and their capacity to move you. And my grandfather who began as a kirtankar and they say he was one of the best there was. Today I would give a million dollars to hear my grandfather sing again!

Round 2 for IAEA elections

The IAEA has failed to elect a new Director-General for the agency to take charge after Mohamed ElBaradei's term ends in Nov 2009. According to AP the Board of Directors did not support any of the candidates with the required 2/3rd majority. This means there will have to be a new round of elections with fresh candidates in the coming months.

I personally liked ElBaradei's term during which he proved to be a strong and independent head of a sensitive organization. I have written about him and the elections before. With Iran's nuclear program continuing at full speed and the visible surge in nuclear energy deals since the Indo-US agreement, it is important that the IAEA elects an objective Director-General. The demand for nuclear energy capacity is only going to increase in the coming years and an efficient IAEA is essential to ensure non-proliferation. We need someone who can factually evaluate and report, rather than be a puppet in the hands of either of the nuclear powers.

Monday, March 23


So Nano is finally out. The jellybean with four wheels, as someone described it, could mean great business for Tata, and the fulfillment of many a dreams for numerous Indians. However, I am unable to overcome my skepticism for the car. Its not the carbon footprint I am concerned about, but the safety aspect of it (especially the basic Rs 1 lakh version.) The car has no airbags and is lighter in weight. Not exactly the most comforting thought. I worry about how it will fare on highways. When in an accident, will the lighter and thinner metal sheet affect the intensity of injuries? Not to forget that there are no airbags.

Another concern is our infrastructural capacity. Are our roads ready for a greater influx of cars in terms of the durability of the road and its size? Even 'main roads' in India are on the smaller side, not the mention the lanes and bylanes which form an integral part of the road network. It is impossible to drive and park two-wheelers in big cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, can we fit in more cars there? And then we aren't really known for our traffic discipline, are we?

Of course this does not mean that the 'common man' should not have his car. It is easier to protect your respiratory system from the pollution in a closed car. It is good to be able to drive the entire family comfortably, without precariously balancing four or five on a vehicle for two. The feeling of accomplishment and luxury is well deserved and necessary. There are many more reasons to own a car like Nano. It's just that little voice in my head...

Monday, March 16

More from the pathetic forum

How more pathetic can these people get? Opposing the creation of a Charlie Chaplin statue because he was Christian? A statue that is being built for a film. Since when did comedy and fun start having a religion? The funny man wasn't even religious in the traditional sense,. He was described by some as agnostic. Films and theater were more of a religion to him than Christianity. Earlier in the day Muthalik's ban seemed like a small step in the right direction, and then come this idiotic piece of news!

Anyhow. Here is one of the most famous Charlie Chaplin scenes, ironically enough.

Sunday, March 15

The 62 year old dream

Reading this piece by Einstein makes me think of how even the greatest minds are not immune to the utopian idea of a world government and peaceful no-war existence. The indirect originator of nuclear weapons, urges the United States to adopt a policy of outlawing them before any other country acquires the capability. He like many others during the period argue for a supranational control of the atomic weapons/technology, which might be a safer bet than an arms race. Considering that Cold War did not result in actual war but saw significant proliferation of nuclear weapons, makes it seem plausible retrospectively in terms of non-proliferation, but nevertheless an utopian dream. As Einstein himself points out the problems with getting the Soviet Union on board with a world government, so would it have been with supranational control of atomic weapons. The closest the world got to it was Euratom and perhaps even the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Even today supranational control of fissile material is talked of as an ideal to be achieved. Something that would reduce proliferation and the danger of a nuclear war or nukes falling in terrorist hands, and save the NPT regime. The creation of an 'international fuel bank' particularly with reference to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions is seen as a compromise solution. While I think that having an international fuel bank is a good idea to meet the energy needs without risking nuclear weapon proliferation, I don't think the political will and diplomatic skill exists to make it happen. Issues of sovereignty, impartial and/or equal control of the fuel bank, equitable distribution of fuel are but some of the things that come to mind immediately. What happens to the fuel that countries produce or own individually? Does it automatically become a part of the fuel bank? Since it is a lucrative business with long-term potential, should uranium and fuel be regarded as any other raw material and finished product in the market? If not, why not?

The idea that Einstein hopes for, and many others since continue to hope for need not be an utopian ideal to be achieved in a perfect world. We have come so far in our quest for nuclear weapons and technology (even if only for peaceful purposes) that we need it to happen soon. It is becoming difficult to argue that the current setup has worked well and averted a nuclear war so far, and will continue to do so in the future too. Technology and players may have changed, but the world is no less immune than it was on August 6, 1945.

Saturday, March 14

Computers fined for cutting lanes!

The Indian Express is either invading TOI territory or poaching their editors. Today it reports from Pune,

"Computers in the city are an unhappy lot as they are being fined for cutting ‘invisible’ lanes. They say that though the lanes markings are invisible, the traffic police levy fines from them."

Tuesday, March 10

Symbolically speaking

While the Indian government's quest for a currency symbol is interesting and probably important, I cannot seem to get over the potential problems it could present. The competition guidelines say that the symbol should reflect India's "historical and cultural ethos". This is a huge problem. I don't think there is one particular way of describing or understanding our historical and cultural ethos. So expecting someone to do it through a symbol, not greater in width than a zero and easily adaptable to the digital world, is almost like expecting the impossible. Even if someone were to come close to it, what are the chances that it will not hurt someone's religious, regional, linguistic, caste, racial, gender...sentiments? I will put my money on very high.

If through a miracle we were to surpass that test and a symbol were to be created, how do you incorporate it in everyday life. While computers can be taken care of rather easily, what about the cash floating around. Will the government recall all currency notes and coins and reprint them with the new symbol? How long will that take? How much would it cost? How long before the old notes and coins become invalid? Or would they remain in circulation along with the new ones?

I understand the intention behind this move to have an universal symbol for the Indian Rupee. But to be recognized in global markets would we have to follow the unstated horizontal/vertical line rule?* Do those lines always mean something? For the Euro they mean stability, but I haven't found much about the pound or the dollar. Could having lines then be interpreted and criticised as an attempt to 'fit in'? Or do we let creativity flow and have something really unique? Will that affect how the Indian Rupee is perceived in the global market - someone not integrated enough, a free spirit, a snub at the 'western' economies? Does a symbol really matter in determining the value of a currency?

While I would happily welcome a new symbol for the Rupee, I do think that 'Rs.' is a decent enough way of saying things. It is straightforward, easy to write and type and well-established. Of course five other countries use the same name and symbol. And we would like to stand out. But it would still be called the Indian Rupee. So how does having a symbol change things symbolically?

I don't know how much thought went into announcing the competition, but I would like to trust the government's intentions and abilities. And yet it is hard to not think about the upcoming elections and the bragging rights a new symbol would give the UPA parties, and Congress in particular.

Go ahead, create a really controversy free symbol representing the "historical and cultural ethos" of India in a "Indian National Language Script." I would have, but I am not eligible.

* depicts the Rupee to be symbolized by Rs. with a line running through the R. Does anyone know where this comes from?

Friday, March 6

I wish I were a chemist

The other night we finally watched Casablanca, one of the greatest movies of all times. True to its legend Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart have heartbreaking onscreen chemistry. Something like what you see with Michelle and Barack Obama or Heidi Klum and Seal. A chemistry you wish for in your own life, and that of your loved ones. Something that creates a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart that you cannot define but everyone knows. An universal visual clue for all's well.

And so it is difficult to see that chemistry disappear before your eyes. A few years ago when a friend divorced it was difficult to see the magic fade. As another friend faces troubles it brings back memories and I fear the worst. Makes me wish I were a chemist and could find the philosopher's stone. I wish I could help them recreate that magic, feel that sexual tension and let the world see it too. I don't know if marriage counselors, couple's therapists do that. If it is humanly possible for a third person to rekindle that fire. An outsider can only listen, advise them to have a conversation, do things together to develop camaraderie, bond over common interests...but if they have lost the magic, if that chemical reaction in their brain is missing ingredients, can these "activities" help?

Even as my husband anguished over the fate of our friend's relationship, we began discussing what could have helped them. And over and over again we kept coming back to the centrality of conversation in a relationship. If you can have a dialogue with the other person you should be safe, we thought. It doesn't have to be profound or intellectually stimulating. It only needs to be a dialogue. In a stereotypical situation the women are viewed as the talkers who keep blabbering and nagging the poor man. But that does not amount to a conversation, and does not serve the purpose. Reflecting on our own relationship we know it is strong because no matter how much I nag or blabber, we talk a lot. I think the long-distance relationship we have had for the last four years came handy. Chats and telephones kept us talking, helping to understand each other better. Long-distance relationships falter because conversations are limited. For us it was the only way to enjoy each other's company when chances of living together were bleak.

Of course I do not mean to oversimplify and say that the ability to talk is all it takes. A certain level of attraction is crucial, as are shared interests and values. Personalities do matter. But as a romantic and super-believer in the ability of dialogue to solve problems even of an international nature, I cannot let go of the feeling that if only they could talk more our friends would be happier. If only I were a chemist...

Saturday, February 28

Repair and reuse

It is funny how people getting their shoes repaired can be news. I am listening to NPR and a story that people in the US are getting their shoes, luggage, clothes repaired and reusing them due to economic slowdown is amusing to say the least. Of course it says not everyone is being frugal and people are still buying new shoes, with one girl preferring to replace than repair.

When I first came to this country I was amazed at how repair shops are rare and expensive. Back home you just walked over to your corner shoe/purse/luggage repairwala and your shoes could be as good as new in a couple of bucks. I remember my brother getting his school shoes repaired at least twice a month. Or getting those school mandated leather shoes polished from the chappalwala at the start of every new year so they looked brand new. The hundreds of times my dad repaired purse zippers for mom.

In its own weird way the story made me feel at home, very nostalgic and a kid once again.

Saturday, February 21


The Oscars night is almost here, Obama is the new President and a lot is being written about the Pink Chaddi campaign. Three unrelated events that remind me of Milk, one of my favorites for the Oscars this year along with Frost/Nixon.

Reading this piece brought back the conversation I had with my husband as we left Milk. Both of us wondered about the gay situation in India. About how we were clueless of any discussion of the issue beyond the frivolous depictions in Karan Johar movies. How many of them were forced into an arranged marriage? Who has it easier in India, a gay man or a woman? The protests against Fire, and the subtle depiction of lesbians in Jabbar Patel's Umbaratha. Did we know of any LGBT groups in college? Did we know at least one gay Indian personally?

Coming back to the movie, I think Milk is a beautifully made film. It portrays the gay rights movement in the United States through the life of Harvey Milk. It is neither provocative, nor preachy. It is more like a dramatized history lesson that gives you what happened in those last eight years of Harvey Milk's life. But all along the amazing performances not just by Sean Penn and Josh Brolin, but the entire cast, touch your heart and convey the truth that gays are humans. There are no stereotypical characters or oversimplified generalizations about the gay community. Milk's message that if all gays come out of the closet everyone will know at least one gay and realise that gays are normal humans, and deserve basic human rights is both commonsensical and profound.

And Sean Penn. He is simply brilliant. It was difficult to imagine that we were watching the same man from Mystic River we loved the night before. He brings Milk to life through almost impeccable mannerisms and voice. It is an Oscar worthy performance, just like Frank Langella's Nixon is.

But amidst all this the real message is Hope. As I watched Milk give the hope speech in the trailers, I couldn't help but think of Obama. And during the film too. There was a certain familiarity. Even though both men appear different, in different settings and with different issues they speak the language of hope, of optimism. After experiencing the election and the movie the similarity was even more striking. And it made them "normal."

Tuesday, February 17


I have now seen almost all the films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. I have yet to see 'The Reader', but among the other four I think 'Milk' and 'Frost/Nixon' are the real contenders. While I loved 'Slumdog Millionaire' and thought that 'Benjamin Button' could have been shorter, 'Milk' and 'Frost/Nixon' were simply amazing movies. Like my husband said, it is probably because we are more interested in and enjoy political subjects. Maybe.

Since the time I heard about the film when the real David Frost appeared on the Daily Show I had been waiting to see it. Initially I wanted to check out the real interviews, considering that it is based on real life and would have enabled comparison. But now I think it was good that I did not. I went there with an open mind and was completely taken by the film. The performances are amazing, especially Frank Langella. He is a very convincing Nixon, an Oscar worthy performance indeed. Someone pointed out that he did not get the Nixon grin right. But even without it he sent a chill down my spine. While Langella humanized Nixon , neither he nor the film went so far as to generate sympathy for what Nixon did. In spite of having heard and read enough about Watergate before this, I had never fully grasped why he did it. The film brought some perspective. Nixon was apparently a rather petty man. And that again made him human. Even at the peak of power he could not let go of his pettiness.

As for Frost, it was a surprise. I saw him old and imagined him to be either geeky or somber. But he turned out to be a frivolous, at times irritating character. He worked hard on the interviews, but I was left with the impression that he could not imagine or understand the immense significance of the interviews until quite late into the process. And the "confession" seemed more due to Nixon's failing than Frost's strategic victory. But then I guess it must have been rather intimidating to interview that man. Frost was after all an interviewer not an interrogator.

The film's documentary style also works for the story. I don't think a greatly dramatized film version would have been as effective or appealing. The director establishes the main characters very well through the first half of the film, which helps us put the interview in perspective; understand why both of them reacted or did not react as they did. It ends as soon as it has served its purpose, told the story of Frost/Nixon. And you leave amazed and relieved that men in power can have a conscience.

Monday, February 9

Of Chimpanzees and tools

I chanced upon these amazing videos and must say it humbled me. I believe that animals are not just dumb creatures and these simply vindicate the point. The related piece on National Geographic is also very insightful.

"I had not known that chimpanzee yawns are contagious—both among each other and to humans. I had known that chimps laugh, but I did not know that they get upset if someone laughs at them. I knew that captive chimps spit, but I hadn't known that they, like us, seem to consider spitting the most extreme expression of disgust—one reserved, interestingly, for humans. I knew that a captive ape might care for a kitten if you gave one to it, but had not heard of a wild chimpanzee taking one in, as Tia did with a genet kitten. The list goes on. Chimps get up to get snacks in the middle of the night. They lie on their backs and do "the airplane" with their children. They kiss. Shake hands. Pick their scabs before they're ready."

Though Mary Roach warns that "because chimps look and act so much like us, it is easy to misread their actions and expressions, to project humanness where it may not belong," it difficult to not to. I remember watching a Nature episode The Best of Nature: 25 Years on PBS and it is difficult to express the emotions it stirred. The part about the rehabilitated research chimps is extremely touching to say the least. I couldn't find the exact video but it is a must watch.

Here is the other video from BBC which shows the chimpanzees using rocks as an anvil and hammer to break nuts. I remember breaking walnuts like that and most of them usually rolled over or broke into a million pieces, unfit to be eaten!

It amazes to watch the chimpanzees in action. It is beautiful and scary all at once.