Monday, July 28, 2008

For tam bram eyes only

This post is merely my presentation of an article in The Times of India, 25th Aug 2001 by a Ms. Vandana Parthasarthy.

It is dedicated to blue-blooded tam-brahms everywhere!

"You graduated in literature, right?" asked my young cousin. "No, in economics." I hastily clarified. "Economics honours," I added for good measure. The question coming from anyone else would have been innocuous, but from my cousin who was a third year engineering student, it was almost offending. As a card carrying member of the tamilian brahmin community, or tam brams, as the endearment goes, i knew that in his world—and that included his parents, relatives, colony friends, project group, dorm mates—someone who graduated in literature obviously did so because he or she had a learning disability. the poor thing was a freak who couldn't get admission into an engineering college or even a pitiful, but definitely more acceptable, science course. Or worse, such a specimen was a wasted wanton whose desire to do b.a. was an irresponsible, rebellious act, almost akin to joining a neo-nazi like cult group and living on the edge of civilised society.

In any such conversation with a bonafide tam bram, I find myself fervently hoping, that despite falling under the horrifying category of b.a economics, with its connotations of statistics and analysis of numbers and trends, would redeem me a little in their maths-science obsessed eyes.

For a middle class tam bram family (and that means the whole lot of them for all tam brams qualify as middle class if you take outlook and behaviour as parameters), mathematics and science are not merely subjects in the school curriculum. they are a religion. and the dharma of every tam bram student is to master them and pave his way to the heavenly portal of an IIT, or at least to the ordinary portal of a local engineering college, which the family will eventually reconcile to, in the absence of the 'real thing'.

The first time i seriously understood this was when I was in primary school and on one sunny day was gleefully reading out my final exam results to grandpa who was sitting on the porch and frowning in attention. "English: 90 percent, Hindi: 85 percent, social studies: 87 percent..." i prattled on. "How much in maths?" interrupted grandpa. "Maths: 97 percent," I said grinning widely. "What happened to the remaining marks?" was his unexpected reaction. After which he asked me to fetch the question paper, spent the next two hours going through each problem and figured out where i could have lost the precious three marks. "Nothing less than a centum in maths next time." he said finally.

'Centum' is a word unique to the tam bram world, that a child grows up listening to. It is a figure that even if sometimes elusive, is never lost sight of throughout the academic career. centum, maths, science, brilliant tutorials, engineering, iit,, computer science, usa, financial aid, I-20, student visa, MS, San Jose, California, Oracle, Microsoft, Intel. These words and names are like carefully arranged furniture in the mental landscape of a tam bram boy—and increasingly girl— below the age of 25. Care is taken not to clutter it with anything related to useless stuff like literature, history or art. Show me a tam bram boy who wants to be a fashion designer, vj, historian or air force pilot and I'll show you something wrong in his blood line. For all such are heathen, a blemish on the fair face of the community. Till about 15 years ago, the only heathens were girls who did not sing.

Formidable maamis from the neighborhood would drop in for a casual afternoon gossip session with grandmom and on espying any hapless young girls in the vicinity, would pounce on them with the dreaded entreaty, "oru paatu paadein." (sing a song). A simple three word sentence, you would think, but in maamiland it is a deceptively camouflaged barometer of the girl's cultural grooming and readiness for tam bram society (read marriage market) and her mother's efforts in making her a fine tamilian lady. a tam bram girl's singing talents always have to be on standby, as they could be called upon by anyone no matter what the time of day, nature of the occasion or profile of the audience, by simply uttering the three powerful words, "oru paatu paadein," and woe betide the girl who in shameful ignorance, takes the words at face value, like I once did in the naivete of extreme youth. When the words were uttered by a visiting neighbour, I readily accepted and joyously broke into a popular Hindi film ditty. I had finished the second paragraph when i stopped to check audience response. My mother had a strained, embarrassed smile on her face, grandmom was scowling hard, an aunt hurriedly excused herself and went inside and the venerable neighbour looked so disturbed, I thought she was on the verge of a heart attack. "Well...That was nice, but don't you sing any varnams or keerthanais?" she finally asked, after an awkward silence.

My mother hurriedly explained how in the culturally bereft north we were unable to locate a carnatic music teacher nearby...but hopefully by this summer she would manage to do something about it. that's when I realised that the only music that was expected to pour out of your mellifluous throat where classical carnatic songs. If you didn't know any, you simply shut up and ducked out of sight of visiting maamis. And if like me, you are a non-engineer-non-carnatic-trained loser of a tam bram, you should be drowning yourself in a drum full of idli batter for having wasted this lifetime. And all the best for the next one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

No Smoking? Nose poking!

Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg want India and China to quit smoking. No kidding...forget the all-consuming war in Iraq, the deficit America is suffering from, the money they owe to most countries, the erosion of international goodwill for America, the increasingly elusive universal health care etc.; two of the USA's most influential men feel that the levels of smoking and other tobacco consumption in India and China are appalling.

"A world without tobacco is a world in which people live longer, and have happier lives," Bloomberg, the mayor of New York has said. First of all, this man is the mayor of the city in which I currently reside, and I must say, it is not perfect. So his desperate desire to purge the third world of tobacco says that there is more to this than meets the eye. This extremely rich pair of businessmen is setting its sights on the two fastest developing countries in the world today.

There is one point they make which catches the eye. They say that as more and more Americans are quitting smoking, the tobacco companies are looking towards developing countries as potential markets. When people rail against tobacco companies, they describe them as evil money-making machines which target the innocent people, and avoid printing warning labels in countries where they are not mandatory. This point is often said, and to an extent it is valid.

One small problem: of the two countries being targeted for cleansing, India has statutory warnings on all cigarette packs and in China, the cigarette companies are nationalized. So the govt. controls everything for them. In truth, the image of the tobacco company as the rapacious money guzzling, "spare no health" pure evil cannot be used as a motivator for the current approach that these two philanthropists are taking.

Let us assume for a second that altruism is the only motivation for this undertaking. They are planning to put down $500 million. Aren't there better ways to spend this money? You can use it to improve conditions in the USA. Why must you interfere with other countries?

Smoking is a poisonous habit which will lead to poor health. That is my opinion. I have to admit though, that smoking is a personal choice. Longevity need not be the key to everyone's life. Some people in the world are willing to make the trade-off and lose a few years of their life in exchange for that cigarette. Even if we don't understand it, can we not respect it? And don't give me the nonsense about how second-hand smoke kills. We are living in a polluted world filled with huge hummers pouring carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, while we are driving to Burger Kings, KFCs and other harbingers of cardiac arrest, drinking till we puke, having bottles of coke with 26grams of sugar in them, but god forbid if someone around us lit up a cigarette! Also, let's not forget that these days, smokers are shunned away and pushed into corners at all places. Anyone who chooses to smoke has to consent to being treated like a second-class citizen.

Second-hand smoke is very rare these days because smoking is prohibited in almost all public places. The very idea that smoking and drug consumption are the bane of our society shows how myopic we are as a people. There is ethnic cleansing happening in so many countries where people are killing their own neighbors for being the wrong religion. People are fighting over the regions in India right now, and we have people clamoring for reservations in academic fields.

During this entire hullabaloo, the last thing we need to be blowing money on is curbing smoking. It is bad enough that Anbumani Ramadoss (read attention seeking Dramadoss) keeps taunting some or the other actor for smoking on screen. Now he is going to get international sanction and support. The USA declared a 'war on drugs' which has turned out to be a complete flop. There is no reason for it to work here.

In India, the govt. taxes the tobacco companies, and this makes cigarettes and cigars expensive. That is the best thing. Make it expensive to smoke in the country. The people who are still interested in it will have to shell out more, and with the proper segregated areas for smoking, they can have a good time without hurting other people. Must we make everything complicated? Isn't this one of those things which can be regulated easily and does not need any policing?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Just a small thought

Sometimes I have the nastiest habit of reading too much into things. On one of my "extremely frustrated" days, I went to Manhattan armed with my Nikon Coolpix S550 and decided to just walk around and look around. The thing is, I walk for hours at a stretch. Then I stop at some quiet coffee shop and have a grande whilst writing something, and then off I go again. If I see something worth photographing, I snap. You might expect the same old-same old photos of Times Square, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and the like. But that is a very small part of NYC. Manhattan has so much more to offer that, I feel I will never discover its depths even in many years.

So there I was, walking through Central Park, looking for things to capture, when I saw this amazing view. You can see it in the two amateur photos above. It is a view of a building outside the park, seen from the Park. I was trying to capture this tree stump along with the building in some warped "Nature meets man" way. As you can see in the first pic, the stump is clear, the building is not. I concluded that this was because there was too much light falling on the camera, and placed my hand as a sunshade over the camera. The next pic shows the building clearly but the tree stump takes a beating.

A normal, intelligent person would reach the conclusion that I am truly an amateur and that a professional would have found a way to get both.

I just got another idea. It looked to me like the building was encroaching upon the tree's right to our attention. Only when we starve the building of attention, do we see the tree properly. The way I see it, we have a choice. We can choose whether to blind ourselves by not allowing the light to hit us, just to further the buildings' interest, or we can wake up, embrace the truth, and save nature before we lose it altogether.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The principle at work

The primary argument of any person supporting creationism is that the entire world could not have evolved by chance, or that the principle governing the functioning of living beings cannot be randomness or chance. They have a point. What they ignore is that there is a pattern which determines what has happened and what will happen. The principle is not chance, but is randomness. It is not the randomness that people associate with chance, but that which is associated with probability.

Perhaps a more scientific way of reading this is stability. We all agree that energy is ubiquitous. No one challenges the abundance of energy. Einstein shed light on this matter by saying that the sum of matter and energy in the universe is constant, and all we have is inter-conversion. Consider the case of water in a vessel which is connected to another vessel. The shapes of the two vessels are different, and hence the volumes they can contain are different. Yet, when a liquid is poured into the vessels, it flows between the two vessels such that the height of liquid in one vessel is the same as the other connected vessel. This is not magic, or any miracle, but the property of a liquid governed by pressure due to liquid column as well as gravity, and ultimately the law of conservation of energy.

When you look at the final state of this liquid, the word that comes to mind is stability. It is towards this stability that all forms of matter and energy move. Plants, animals and of course humans cannot escape this fundamental truth. Our evolutionary progress is a spiraling one, which is an ultimate search for stability. Evolutionary biologists use various concepts like natural selection to explain this, but are unable to completely explain the principle behind natural selection. They are on the right track, but cannot give a necessary and sufficient basis for natural selection. Any evolutionary change in a species, or any activity performed by any animal, or any plant is simply not probed enough to deal with why this happens.

Creationists argue that while science can answer the how questions about life, you need a theologian to answer the why questions. To this, the great Richard Dawkins says that why questions are not always legitimate. I do agree, except on this issue. Here, the why question can be answered easily and profoundly by understanding the physical and chemical basis of most phenomena. Consider the second law of thermodynamics: Any spontaneous reaction favors an increase in entropy. This statement is represented to the layperson as "You cannot heat a substance with another substance colder than the first substance." Sounds like a redundant statement, but it is necessary. It implies that there is an inherent need in nature to even things out. Even in case of living beings. There is a tendency to attain an ultimate equilibrium which governs the behavior and changes in most living beings. One question would be, if that is the case, then why don't we reach the equilibrium that we have been threatening to reach for so many years?

I mentioned "spiraling" initially. Now is the time to elaborate. When one event happens and triggers off other adaptive events, there is a spiraling effect as those adaptive events become causes for other events. And so on. Hence, there is no completion of the full circle of cause and effect but an outward spiral which seems to go on increasing. There is a mathematical proof that I will not go into here, which says that the degree of randomness in the universe is forever increasing. Not to be bothered, this does not mean that our universe is haphazard, but in fact, it supports or rather is a bulwark for the theory that this entire firmament is based on natural selection, evening out and processes in search of the ultimate stability.

My new hero Richard Dawkins said that scientists who say they are religious are religious in a more nebulous way than zealots. They do not believe in an old man in the sky or any junk of that sort, nor do they believe in heaven or hell. They are far too smart and too well equipped with the power of critical thinking to subscribe to such naiveté. They believe that no matter how much they find out about life, the universe and the eternal connection, there will always be an unknown. It is to this unknown that they owe their grudging respect and their obeisance. It is this unknown that they consider supernatural, hitherto unconquered, but never unconquerable.

I know I am ending this abruptly and I apologize. There needs to be more, and I will write more as it comes to me.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Dissimilar grief

Tears were rolling down her eyes. He clasped her hands with one hand, and used the other to wipe her swollen cheeks. Even when she was so patently distraught, he could not help noticing the glistening tears on her perfect eyelashes. No matter what her mood, the eyelashes always seemed happy. The eyes always twinkled. It was inexplicable.

He was lost in her poetic beauty while she continued talking. As his eyes rolled towards her lips, he noticed that they were moving.

He regrouped his thoughts and refocused on the conversation. It was too much for her, she said. She was trying her best to reconcile her guilt for not loving him. She had forced herself to think that she could play this game forever, but now, she could see the truth clearly.

He knew all this. She had explained it all over the phone. He wondered why women needed to reiterate their feelings ad nauseam. It was probably guilt, he thought. Why else would she repeat something exactly as she had said it before?

He could not be blamed, he thought, for being mesmerized by her physical allure. The relationship had lasted a year, and he would miss her physical vitality the most. Maybe men are superficial, but it was the sheer physicality of her affection that had held him on in this monogamous, emotionally unavailable relationship.

The tears seemed to have stopped; she had just made a cynical joke, and laughed mirthlessly at it, while he missed the whole point, or at least the humor of it. Well, at least she was not crying anymore.

He was looking over head at a group of single girls who were good-looking. There was one among them who was definitely eye-candy. He wished for this to be over soon, so that he could resume his single life.

She spotted his roving eye, and scolded him for losing focus during the break-up. She accused him of trivializing the yearlong commitment by window-shopping so obviously.

He, of course, disagreed and desisted. What was the point of putting something on life-support, just to kill it with ceremony? If it was over, it was over. Why couldn't they move on, and not make such a big deal?

She turned beetroot red at this rebuttal. She fished through her purse and threw on the table $30 for her share of the meal. He knew, as did she, that $30 covered the entire tab and a generous tip. Still, after a year of him paying, this was a refreshing change. He did not protest.

She got up and walked out. He did not even watch her leave. He walked over to the table with the single girls. It was going to be an amazing night.

The next morning, he entered his home, with a contented smile on his lips. He switched on the music system and un-wedged his t-shirt from under the chair.

It came loose, along with a red scarf. He lifted it and was mesmerized by the smell. It was hers alright. He sat down and began to sob.

The birds, the bees & evolution

The bees are disappearing. Einstein had plainly said, "If the bee were to disappear, mankind would have only four years of existence." Colony collapse: that's what it's being called.

Entomophily is pollination by insects. Personally, I would give bee-pollination a separate status, maybe Apiphily?

Anyway, bees seem to be chief pollinators for many of the plants in today's existence. These bees, once gone, will leave behind a hash of unpollinated flowers, giving a few 'bee-free' but numbered years to live.

Bees do not fly near cell-phones. The electromagnetic radiation (radio frequency) interferes with their navigation system. We, of course, are not motivated to quit the cell phone despite its implications in various brain tumors. So, convincing people to quit the phone over bees is going to be tough.

There isn't enough research, or there isn't enough publicizing of said research in this field. With people obsessing over flag-lapel pins and pastors, it is hard to convince them of imminent dangers. The victory of gossip over learning and intelligent debate is ubiquitous. There is something about gossip that makes it flow faster from mouth to ear.

It is a translation of the age-old 'work v. play' concept, except people have (notwithstanding their predilection for fun) reacted responsibly when the dangers of their ignorance were explained to them. So, what distinguishes the iPod generation from older ones? Is it the isolation we crave that makes us callous? Are we so hyper-entitled to personal space & private lives that we abhor social thought?

I have always believed in personal goal-setting and motivated meticulousness in pursuit of said goals. Even I shudder to think of the situations which demand that we shed, or at least, suspend dogged selfishness for global or societal benefit.

We cannot waste time debating evolution v. creationism, when we are faced with a threat (albeit distant) of extinction. Extinction is a part of natural selection. Species have, since time immemorial, ceased to exist at some point due to their inability to adapt to various conditions, thus paving the way for newer, improved versions.

We however, are uniquely equipped in this evolutionary chain. We have amazing capacities of observation, which coupled with our ability to reason, gives us the necessary tools to be the difference between extinction and perpetuation.

If we wake up in time, take preventive measures, and thus stave off possible extinction, we would have, in the truest sense (albeit micro-chronic) evolved. If we see a mortal danger as the likely result of our actions, and we suspend those actions, is it not evolution?

If we ignore these warnings, we will move faster and faster towards extinction, and be the victims, (instead of survivors) of natural selection.

It has probably never happened before, that a species on the brink of being endangered was afforded by nature itself, a chance of beating it. (Temporarily)

As I think further, there have been many plants and animals which have survived & existed for a much longer span than we; while I am not comparing their mental faculties to ours, it would not be implausible that, they too (on a much smaller scale) perceived extinction as a likely outcome of their features/behaviors and shed them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Giving in

I opened the door and went in

With a guilt inexplicable within

To get something I knew I wanted

By giving in to temptations undaunted


The old lady saw me and smiled

She knew what I had come for

She knew how much I resisted coming

And yet she knew I would come


There was finality in her glance

As if she knew I had no chance

Of limiting myself, of tethering myself

Or even regulating pleasuring myself


She made an expression of disapproval

Almost as if she hoped I would

Not walk down this path again

She considered me with disdain


I told her what I was looking for

She motioned me to a corner unseen before

I went obediently and stood aside

To let hedonism and control collide

With a clear winner, as always

Favoring pleasure over malaise


I took what I wanted, the heathen pleasure

A satisfaction I felt beyond measure

During my vulgar enjoyment of my fill

I saw no one, remembered nothing, and felt nevermore


When I was done I considered myself

With utter rebuke, and some pity

For self-control and discipline

Were disappearing from my repertoire


I exited the place with anger

Chiding myself for bringing

The inevitable misfortune one must expect

After a meal at Burger King

Things we do that prove we are stupid

  1. We read horoscopes early in the morning newspaper, and proceed on our days trying to match the horoscope with our choices, and then read them again at night, and then marvel at the accuracy of said horoscope.
  2. We check our email to see stupid forwards that we hate anyway but forward them anyway.
  3. We speak loudly to people having hearing-aids.
  4. We speak extra loudly to blind people.
  5. When we are walking on the road, and we get a call on our cell phone, we stop and talk.
  6. When we answer our phone, and we hear no one at the other end, the tone of our "hello" varies from short and normal to long and high pitched, as if the right frequency would squeeze an answer from the other person.
  7. We have personal laptops, iPods and cell phones and complain that people are no longer friendly and approachable.
  8. We watch trendsetting TV shows to learn what to do, and then watch trend spotting shows to see if everyone is doing what we do.
  9. We claim that our privacy is invaded, when we have no problems writing our every thought on blogs.

The other month

Thunderstorms, Dunkin Donuts, and noisy people lead to only one thing - Thought escapism: the method by which we imagine new mundane things just to escape the mundaneness of everyday life.

On one of these expeditions, I was geekily thinking about weeks and months. What if every month had exactly four weeks? Just like February in a non-leap year? I mean, the extra days would pile up. We have four 30-day months, seven 31-day months, which means 8+21=29 days extra. Now, that's a whole month. (Yes, there is one extra day, but bear with me) Surely, this must have been the first thought of the Gregorians. Then they probably noticed that we would have 13 months in a year – which is of course, unacceptable! So, they decided to distribute the extra days in a patternless manner.

Most of us have noticed that in a non-leap year, February and March have identical calendars – simply because 28 is divisible by 7. Can you imagine how boring it would be for every month to look the same? No changing of the calendar. In fact, we wouldn't even need one.

The coffee cup is cooling down, and I turn my attention to it. The thunderstorm (Mumbaikars read as drizzle) has subsided, and I need to pack up and leave!