Wednesday, June 23, 2010

At the Top of the World

"What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew xvi. 26.)

This is the most depressing thing I have seen in a while.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Samuel Huntington, Hindutva and Fabindia

I finally became curious enough about Huntington's essay The Clash of Civilizaions? that I downloaded it and read it in one sitting. It is quite provocative, and contains a few paragraphs which are jarring for their insight:
In the past, the elites of non-Western societies were usually the people who were most involved with the West, had been educated at Oxford, the Sorbonne or Sandhurst, and had absorbed Western attitudes and values. At the same time, the populace in non-Western countries often remained deeply imbued with the indigenous culture. Now, however, these relationships are being reversed. A de-Westernization and indigenization of elites is occurring in many non-Western countries at the same time that Western, usually American, cultures, styles and habits become more popular among the mass of the people
Now if Nike and Levis is for the masses, then who all is Fabindia for?
The West, they allege, was using a double standard. A world of clashing civilizations, however, is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin-countries and a different standard to others.
I continue to consider immigration barriers (and conversely, visa-free travel for certain nationalities) as the clearest example of cultural and economic bias, globalization notwithstanding.
In an interview on "Good Morning America," Dec. 21, 1990, British Prime Minister John Major referred to the actions "the West" was taking against Saddam Hussein. He quickly corrected himself and subsequently referred to "the world community." He was, however, right when he erred.

... While the elite of Turkey has defined Turkey as a Western society, the elite of the West refuses to accept Turkey and such. Turkey will not become a member of the European Community, and the real reason, as President Ozal said, "is that we are Muslim and they are Christian and they don't say that."

...the processes of economic modernization and social change throughout the world are separating people from longstanding local identities. They also weaken the nation state as a source of identity. In much of the world religion has moved in to fill this gap, often in the form of movements that are labeled "fundamentalist." Such movements are found in Western Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as in Islam. In most countries and most religions the people active in fundamentalist movements are young, college-educated, middle-class technicians, professionals and business persons.


In class and ideological conflicts, the key question was "Which side are you on?" and people could and did choose sides and change sides. In conflicts between civilizations, the question is "What are you?" That is a given that cannot be changed. And as we know, from Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head.

Gossip, etc.

So I came across this rather fantastic news item in The Tribune. Seemingly, a 17-year old had been offered a job at NASA which would pay more than $3000 per day. This is ostensibly in recognition of his path-breaking research to increase human lifespan. I urge you to read the news report in its full glory. By the fifth paragraph, my jaw dropped a mile.

As I consider to be one of the best things on the internet, and given my generally not-naive, not-gullible attitude these days, I came to the conclusion that this was an elaborate fraud.

In a group of people, I am quite the last one to get convinced when it comes to new information which seemingly unseats a solid piece of conventional wisdom. It is not inertia really, but a kind of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs" mentality.

On a digression, one of my uncles once, with good intentions no doubt, advised me that the "1" in a triangle at the bottom of a mineral water bottle was meant to convey that the bottle should not be re-used (e.g. for storing water in a fridge). Now this went against a lot of conventional usage of a plastic bottle, and though I surmised that the plastic bottle may leach chemicals if left in the hot interiors of a car, or in the sun, I was hard-pressed to find a reason why it would be dangerous for storing water in general since it was doing that only ever since it left the factory.

This is the age of Wikipedia, so I quickly found out that the number with a triangle is the Resin identification number for classifying material for recycling. My uncle was quite miffed when I gave him the "bad news". It is never pleasant to be exposed for one's gullibility. So much for the search for truth.

Back to the Tribune story.

The claim itself is laughable. And having lived in the US for a while, I know that chartered flights and immediate job offers are not how a reputed government agency works, not to talk of a million dollar pay packet for a 17-year old. I also searched the Guinness Book for any mention of the record that he seems to be holding. No luck there.

I dismissed the claim as fake, but wondered about the rationale. The NASA and Guinness Book claim is probably a bit hard (no pun intended) to investigate (but it still doesn't excuse the woeful journalist who should probably go back to school), the state educational competition claims would be very hard to fake.

I wondered, if the boy was playing a recognition game, or whether his parents were exaggerating his achievements in order to, um, show down the neighbors who probably had a Merc.

Then I wondered about the various mommy-kissing-top-ranking-son pictures which regularly appear in the results-season in India (it is rarely daddy-kissing-top-ranking-daughter, for obvious, ahem, electral, reasons). Parental pride is quite natural, I think, and if it leads to some harmless exaggeration, what goes of my father, as they say?

But today, I came across this. Poor guy. What a fall.


The second thing I want to touch upon is the David Davidar "scandal". Some interesting stuff here, here and here.

Briefly, David, a well-known personality in the publishing business, currently stands accused of workplace sexual harassment and was asked to leave his post of President and CEO of Penguin International.

It is all interesting reading. Gossip is quite a pleasant activity, and those who decry it probably are being too moral for their own good. Not only does it lead to having an advantage in the social one-up-man-ship game, but it is educational (just like watching a street fight). One learns what humans do in their bedrooms and in their nightgowns, without having to watch Blue Velvet.

Ashok Banker's posts especially, are anything but simply informative. They are quite prejudicial, quite opposite to what he claims. I don't know whether it is a reaction to having been envious in the past, etc.

After going through the case files (metaphorically speaking), I have a few questions for anyone kind enough to respond:
  1. Why did Ms Rundle (it is an "l" not an "i", you desi morons) allow a man who was obviously dressed to kill to enter her hotel room. Door chains are there for a reason, you know. Perhaps she didn't use the chain for fear of offending Mr Davidar, perhaps.

  2. This is far harder to respond to. How can a man "force his tongue" into an unwilling mouth? Try me sometime, Mr Davidar. Is it so hard to keep one's lips pinched shut when someone is trying to forcibly french-kiss you? I would be convinced if Ms Rundle had simply accused him of "attempting to force his tongue" into her mouth. But sorry, if his tongue is in your mouth, Ms Rundle, you also are not quite as innocent as you claim.

    Inquisitive readers may be interested in reading this news report, which contains the delightful nugget:
    The 1999 ruling overturned the conviction of a 45-year-old driving instructor from Potenza who was accused of raping an 18-year-old client. The view of the appeal court judges that the victim must have collaborated because her jeans were too tight caused uproar among Italian feminists. Women deputies — led by Alessandra Mussolini, the far-right politician and granddaughter of the Italian Fascist dictator, and Stefania Prestigiacomo, now the Environment Minister in the centre-right Government of Silvio Berlusconi — wore jeans to parliament as a protest.

    Yesterday Ms Mussolini said that she was pleased with the latest verdict...
    Yes, Ms Mussolini, indeed.

  3. In a quite revealing comment on this blog, one Raphael says, "Monica, normal workplace behaviour NEVER EVER results in an old creepy guy ramming his tongue down your throat against your will."

    I am forced to ask in this context if it is ok for a young cute guy to ram his tongue down your throat? If not, why even mention the "old creepy guy"?

The subject of "affirmative legal action" (presumption of guilt in sexual harassment or rape or dowry cases, etc.) in the war of sexes is a complex and important one, and I have a few things to say about it. Another time, perhaps.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

43 Things I learned from Rajneeti

(in no particular order)

1. Politicians in India are fond of black Mercedes and white SUVs.

2. Arjun Rampal loves rough sex at his work place but is willing to be celibate for a good looking lass at home.

3. Ranbir Kapoor is doing his PhD on the Subtextual violence in Victorian Poetry in the 19th century in a US university and still doesn't know how to french kiss.

4. When a politician has sex, pregnancy is inevitable, unless the sex is in standing position.

5. Because of a bad romantic decision, Naseeruddin Shah has to continue his tapasya and abandon the poor people whom he is so passionate about.

6. A farewell letter from Naseeruddin Shah quickly turns a woman from being a fiery radical leftist into a happily married kitchen supervisor who knows when to say "jyaeshth putr" to carry on the family name in politics.

7. Katrina Kaif can morph from a party-girl to one who can say things like "voh mujh me apnaa ansh chhod gaye haen."

8. A PhD student from the US can aim his pistol at a moving man 30-yards away and get a bullet through the heart.

9. Ajay Devgun can sure drive a Merc, but when it comes to SUVs, he is unable to handle oncoming traffic.

10. When a big political leader leaves in a drunk state in his SUV for a factory which has impressive broadband internet connectivity, his security folks just stand by doing nothing, and his second-in-command knows exactly where his boss has gone, and he also doesn't bring any security with him.

11. Babu Lal likes to have a massage before he does it.

12. Babu Lal thinks it is better to really piss off his bosses who can murder at will, than be exposed as a closet gay.

13. Babu Lal usually sleeps soundly, very soundly.

14. When you sign on a document saying that you will leave the country for ever and go to the USA and never come back, your cousin brother will just assume you have a green card.

15. 376 IPC is the section for rape and you don't get bail for that even from high court.

16. A general secretary of a major political party can nominate three people to the core committee on his discretion, and he usually exercises that discretion for a kabaddi player who is allowed to come into the high security meeting room by the security because he seems constipated.

17. When in the morning Ajay Devgun is sitting outside his house, waiting for pressure to build so that he can relieve himself of his constipation, the last thing you want to tell him is to come to momma.

18. When you go to kill a man, his parents will tell you that he is not their real son in the hope that it will make it difficult for you to kill him.

19. Nana Patekar finds it impossible to shoot his sister's son, but has no problem disposing of him as a newborn in a basket in a river, and then egging on his nephew to kill him.

20. PhD students really like to take care of their grieving mothers-in-law in another country after doing a few killings in cold blood in their home country.

21. A horrible head-on accident in an SUV will not put a single scratch on a man even though he is not wearing any seat-belt.

22. Ajay Devgun can carry a man to a major hospital which is walking distance from a narrow bridge.

23. As soon as someone's dad is killed, Katrina Kaif seizes her chance to try and get him to propose to her for marriage.

24. Katrina Kaif likes to slide her arm over a table when she leaves in an upset state.

25. Katrina Kaif who drives a convertible at 200kmph will marry her lover's brother on the advice of her treadmilling dad, even though she hates all three of them.

26. It is perfectly legal and GAAP-compliant to leave the receipts for a donation of 5 crores to your party's fund, when you are actually offered only 5 lakhs and when you think there is a rounding error.

27. Saxeria is a very pragmatic man. He will marry off his daughter not to the chief-minister candidate who is majorly ahead in the opinion polls, but to a man who is a loser and who has an uphill struggle ahead of him.

28. You can hack EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines) remotely and if you do that, it will be such a sophisticated hack that the voter will notice that no matter which button he presses, the vote goes somewhere else.

29. Using a PowerPoint slide show on a wall-mounted LCD television is always a positive sign that your party is going to win.

30. Kingfisher flies to the US.

31. When Arjun Rampal decides not to sleep with his wife, he doesn't go to another bedroom but always sleeps on the couch.

32. After a month or so of sleeping separately, Katrina Kaif recognizes the goodness in her mafioso husband when he is not covered properly.

33. An American girlfriend won't be nice on the phone after her boyfriend's dad has just been killed, but will come to India to be naked in the shower with him.

34. Sweet-nothings in Hindi can really turn on Ranbir Kapoor.

35. In India, you can be a really astute political thinker if you use a macbook pro while you smoke heavily.

36. US university stairwells have big portraits of former US presidents so that you know it really is the US.

37. Farmhouses in Chhatarpur usually have a few baseball bats lying around.

38. In a big political rally in India, it is easy for an opposition party worker to get on to the stage and criticize you from the podium.

39. You can really know India and become very wise by wearing sarees, raising your arm to show off your sweaty armpit, and after you hold a dirty kid in your arms.

40. When a poor driver of a posh Merc owned by his politico bosses parks it in his ghetto, he leaves the keys in it.

41. You can wash off a big sedan, all dusty and dirty, with half a bucket of water thrown over its windshield.

42. All the security guards of a chief ministerial candidate will leave him alone on a highway, to have a dekko at what's blocking the road.

43. Ranbir Kapoor likes to gift smartphones which have his personal number on them, rather than just give his number.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Notes on Fulfilment

Spirituality is the greed of the introverts, and the comfort of those who are unable to find their level of happiness in life reasonable. Life is neither a bed of roses, but nor is it a vale of tears. The spiritualist, being inadequately rooted and being ill-adjusted, idealizes extreme states.

Materialism is not the problem, consumerism is. Out of that emptiness that aches, man seeks fulfillment. Consumerism, Spirituality, Sensation, Distraction, all are inadequate responses to that emptiness.

The Emptiness of man is not the consequence only of his separation, but primarily of the awareness of his separation. This awareness of "me" as an individual is what makes us human, but this awareness also induces an ineffable seeking to be united again. To be human is to bear the burden of our humanness: to be conscious and aware.

One can feel united in moments of bliss. But by its very nature, that bliss is something sub-human, an overwhelming feeling which subdues the aching awareness of being an individual, an infantile joy not unlike imagining oneself in the womb again. When man romanticizes a bird, he curses his own capacity for awareness.

Awareness is a double-edged sword without a hilt. Holding it, you will slay many a thing. But you will bleed too. You will not be able to avoid cutting yourself, and seeing your own blood and entrails.

What man seeks is a state of unawareness. Life, with its joys and sorrows, is time, and in a state of childlike unawareness, time can be forgotten. But as humans, the awareness of time is our greatest tool. Is it any wonder that the truly enlightened, who live timelessly, require life-support?

Life is a problem when you are discontent. Then you seek fulfillment. But it may pay highly to pinpoint the stage in your life when discontent started boiling in you. I am not asking you to be frugal in happiness. But you may find that at some stage, you could not bear the stress and pain of life.

Gotama is said to have started his search when, after living a sheltered life in a palace, he suddenly saw disease, old age and death. His horror at impermanence scarred him deeply, and his seeking from then on was to find something beyond all this impermanence. But no one has asked whether his horror and scars were reasonable. Why was he horrified? Why could he not accept death?

To die is to be no more. And the spiritual man, being introverted, recoils more than ever at this thought. The spiritual man, being introverted, has a heightened sense of self. His ego, unable to find glory in the world of man, seeks inward glory. And he exalts himself that he is seeking something higher and more noble than the mundane man.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Films Seen Recently

  • Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010): A triumph of atmosphere. The film is enigmatic, and though Scorsese is wading in shallow waters, he sure knows how to do it stylishly. The film is, in a word, gripping. I just hope that DiCaprio doesn't do anything silly in his real life, like Heath Ledger, now that he is routinely playing such intense and psychotic characters on the screen (remember The Departed?). Naturally leads to a comparison with Memento. I wonder which one is a better film. Both have something similar and seemingly profound to say about the human condition and the fallibility of memory.

  • Love Sex aur Dhokha (Dibakar Banerjee, 2010): A film about reality, film and filmed reality, in three parts. A grave socioeconomic commentary on India, packaged as a self-reflexive study on "Reality TV". I didn't quite enjoy the third act, as it didn't feel "real" (the suicide bid in the third act is more a farce, than a tragic event), unlike the first two. I will remember, for a very long time, the face of death staring through the car window, towards the end of the first act. "Trust" is a theme in all three of the acts, and one is led to contemplate at the feelings, stronger than that trust, which lead to betrayal. The depiction of Indian middle class mores is quite nuanced, just like in the director's earlier fare.
Looking forward to: Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman and David Levien, 2010), Everyone Else (Maren Ade, 2009) and Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010).

Sunday, June 06, 2010

On Looking Good

Many people say that they dress well, or like to look well, only to feel good about themselves. That they don't care much about others' opinions, that their wardrobe is not a matter of peer-pressure, and that their appearance is a matter of taste, self-expression, etc.

I find this hopelessly naive.

What they perhaps do not realize is that our looking at ourselves is almost totally to be imagining how others perceive us. Whether others actually perceive us or not, our imagining that if they do, we will not be found wanting, is a source of comfort.

It is quite obvious, but I think it needs to be said that looking in the mirror is to look at ourselves as the "other", through others' eyes. We see ourselves as objects in the mirror, and if we feel happy about what we see, we feel confident about ourselves, we "feel beautiful", and are not depressed.

How we appear is a form of social stress. Unfortunately, the standards are being ratcheted higher and higher by the ceaseless invasion of media and manufactured images. So, even if you don't watch TV, all your friends and acquaintances do, and there is no way you can avoid the cultural landscape and the current standards of what it is to "look good".

Appearance matters, it has mattered since the dawn of civilization. But the crucial shift occurred when from being a determinant of health, it morphed into a determinant of eroticism and fashion. Men and women are spending obscene amounts of money to gym and spa their way into looking more like the images they see on television. More and more expensive and niche beauty products are available on the supermarket shelves, and to just use soap is so 19th century.

It is almost impossible for an urban, socialized human being to not get influenced by the relentless propaganda of what beauty is, and why it matters.

And because it is impossible, and the beamed messages are becoming universally accepted, to not look artificially beautiful is therefore considered ugly.
  • Threading one's eyebrows is now near-universal in urban women. Gotta do it, even if it makes one looks fake and ill.
  • Even a bit of body fat is considered ugly. For women, the ideal is now boniness, for men, it is having sculpted muscles. Keep working on it.
  • White teeth. If everybody else is using whiteners, to have even mildly yellow teeth can be so "stressful".
  • Colored hair. Permed hair. Streaked hair. The daughter cannot but think: "When mom does it, why shouldn't I?"
  • Shaved bodies for men, waxed bodies for women. Hair is the enemy. Skin should be smooth, silky smooth!
  • Nails!
And clothing is becoming less and less functional, and more and more an expression.

Sexiness is a cultural thing. You may think you have "attitude" and "panache", but in reality, you are an unwitting victim of cultural forces. You have internalized the message of "good looks" so much that it actually feels liberating to finally obey.

We are so stressed to look attractive, to be accepted, to not be judged harshly, that we don't realize that when we are occasionally feeling good about our appearance, it is because finally, we have managed to satisfy the standards which have been drilled into us by advertisers and celebrities.

And sexiness and beauty is becoming an ageless concern. No longer is a woman or man content to move on to the stage where experience and wisdom and contentment are more important than appearance. They are trying to compete with the younger crowd, by coloring their hair, by wearing flashy clothing, and by going in for injections and liposuctions. You think they haven't had enough orgasms? The malaise is deeper than that.

Yes, in a way, it is all for oneself, it leads to good feelings. But what is the structure and causation of those good feelings?

Next time you look in the mirror, and feel good or bad, know that you are, inadvertently of course, doing cultural studies.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

How to Specify Your Telephone Number

This is for readers from India.

Specifying a phone number in writing (email or SMS), or verbally, is an important and an easily learned skill. The aim is to communicate the number effectively, to make it easy to dial and to remember, to enable a successful transfer to a new phonebook, and to not cause confusion.

Following these simple recommendations will save you time, will make communicating the number easy and painless, will enable automation for programs such as Skype and Google Voice, and will encourage consistency.

Pass this article on to your friends, if you like.

In Writing

If you are sending a land-line number via SMS or over email or in any digital written form, use the following notation:
  • +91-11-4344-1234 (for a Delhi number)
  • +91-172-444-2244 (for a Chandigarh number)
  • +91-1652-221344 (for a Mansa number)
Explanation: This notation enables successful dialing of the number from anywhere in the world. It clearly separates the country code (91 for India), the city code, and the phone number. A land-line number in India is almost always 10 digits. If the STD code is two digits, divide the 8-digit phone number in two sets of 4 digits each. If the STD code is three digits, divide the 7-digit phone number in 3+4 digits. If the STD code is four digits or more, i.e. the phone number is six digits or less, specify the number as a single numeral.

Many times, you will store the number in your digital phone book and send it in a vCard format etc. Store it in a consistent way, so that when you have to send the vCard, the number is already in a comprehensible and usable format.

If you are sending a mobile number, it is easy:

Use the notation: +91-92333-12345

Do not store/specify a out-of-circle mobile number with a prefixed 0 or without any prefix at all (both are correct only for certain subscribers, and are wrong for others).

Do not specify the mobile number in a 2-4-4 sequence, or a 3-3-4 sequence, etc. Keep it simple. 5-5. It is easier to remember, takes less time to communicate, and looks elegant.


On the phone, or in person, specify it as follows:

To a foreigner:
  • For +91-11-4344-1234, say: "Country code nine one, area code one one, four three four four, one two three four" (for a Delhi number)
  • For +91-172-444-2244, say: "Country code nine one, area code one seven two, triple four, two two four four" (for a Chandigarh number)
  • For +91-1652-221344, say: "Country code nine one, area code one six five two, double two one three double four" (for a Mansa number)
  • For +91-11-2033-4400, say: "Country code nine one, area code one one, two zero three three, four four double zero" (for a Delhi number containing zeros)
  • For a mobile number, e.g. +91-92333-12345, say: "Country code nine one, no area code, nine two triple three, one two three four five"
Explanation: Clearly specify the country code and the area code. Do not bunch numbers numerically (e.g. don't say forty four), but you may bunch them syntactically (double four, triple four). Do not say "oh" for a zero (many people do not get it), just say Zero for a 0.

Also, many foreigners do not know that mobile numbers in India do not have an area code, so making it explicit saves confusion and counter questions.

To another Indian:
  • For +91-11-4344-1234, say: "STD code one one, four three four four, one two three four" (for a Delhi number)
  • For +91-172-444-2244, say: "STD code one seven two, triple four, two two four four" (for a Chandigarh number)
  • For +91-1652-221344, say: "STD code one six five two, double two one three double four" (for a Mansa number)
  • For +91-11-2033-4400, say: "STD code one one, two zero three three, four four double zero" (for a Delhi number containing zeros)
(instead of saying "STD code", you may also just say "zero", e.g. "zero one one, two zero three three, four four double zero")
  • For a local mobile number, e.g. 92333-12345, say: "nine two triple three, one two three four five"
  • For a non-local mobile number, e.g. 94122-44200, say: "zero, nine four one double two, four four two double zero". You may also say, "nine four one double two, four four two double zero, please prefix a zero when dialing."
(All phone numbers used in this article are random, except for the country code and the STD codes, which are as specified.)