Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hands-off Justice Delivery

An earlier post on Disincentives to Bad Litigation.

There are various models of justice dispensation.  India, like many modern states, has adopted the Adversarial System.  If one files a suit or a complaint, the court allows the warring parties to argue and the judge finally decides based on the merits of the arguments.

Unfortunately in India, due to the already strained system of law and other historical-cultural factors (more on this later), the judiciary has misused this principle to epic proportions.  It is the norm, and not the exception, for judges to NOT read the petition or an application and decide on an issue.  The norm is for the courts to ask someone: "So what do you have to say about this?"

If you submit an application, or a complaint, to the court, the court will check it for technical correctness (court fee, the margin being wide enough, double spaced typing, and so on) and issue "notice" to the "respondents".  It will not verify, except if the respondents are biggies, if the petition has any worthwhile content.  The "maintainability" of a petition is in most cases limited to checking its legal maintainability (for example, whether a bail application in the High Court has earlier been filed in the Sessions court), not whether its content makes any sense.

So, here's what happens in Indian courts:  A person is aggrieved.  He wants to petition the court.  For technical and legal correctness (the rules of which are labyrinthine and sometimes even anecdotal, instead of formalized), he has to engage a practicing lawyer.  The lawyer files the petition.  The court "admits" it.  Almost universally, the court then sends "notice" to the respondents named in the petition without so much as looking at what the petition contains.

The respondents then file a reply.  The court then asks the petitioner to file a "rejoinder".  Then, if one is lucky, in a few years the lawyers get a few minutes to convince the judge to read a few choice sentences or paragraphs of the hundreds if not thousands of pages in the case file.  The judge decides the case, and then later writes a judgment in which the large mass of the writing is to paraphrase what each party has argued, and in the end give a one or two line judgment.  Most of the judgments of lower Indian courts end with this statement: "I find no weight in the arguments of the respondent hence the petition is allowed," or "The petition is without merit.  Dismissed.  No order as to costs."

Alas, even this is an ideal scenario.  Most cases get a bunch of intermediary applications (IA) arguing one little technical point or the other.  Again, a notice is issued to the "respondent" to reply to the application.

I think this can justly be called "hand-off justice delivery".  The judges don't read anything on their own.  The judges only sit and listen and read when the lawyer asks them to go to page x, para y.  The lawyer presents the case law (selectively of course).  The judges are sometimes surprised to learn of a certain historical case, but they in no event will thumb the case law themselves to figure out the history or current status.

The judges are not interested, and nor have the time for, reading the petitions and applications.  They do not have the time to go through case law.  That job, and bread-and-butter, is for the lawyer community and the clerks and the typists.

I know an Indian lawyer whose modus operandi is only far too common, unfortunately.  Suppose he is engaged by a defender to respond to a petition.  Before responding to each point, he asks his clerk to type a response denying each and every sentence in the original petition.  "It is wrong and denied that x.  It is wrong and denied that y."  The "x" and "y" are taken verbatim from the original petition.  The substantive rebuttals can wait.

I repeat, the judges don't read the petitions but routinely shift the burden of the work to the respondents.  Even for applications whose illogic or conclusion is obvious, a few months have to pass necessarily because of the to-and-fro between the lawyers: Notice, Time to file reply, Reply, Time to file rejoinder, Rejoinder.

And obviously, there is generally no cost imposed for filing frivolous IAs.  Because "frivolity" is not for the judge to judge.  How can the judge decide on the frivolity of the application if he doesn't even read it?

This kind of charade in the courts suited the British well.  After all, why bother with listening to or reading of the arguments of a slavish and illiterate and smelly and emotional populace?  The judges listened only to the big-shot lawyers, who spoke in British English and usually got their training in London.  It was all good fun.

Judges and Lawyers formed a fraternity in that era.  And that continues to this day in India.

In the Supreme Court of India, I know for a fact that on a "date" when the judge is supposed to give a reasoned order or instruction about the case, thick files dense with documents and arguments are thumped to the other side without so much as a glance at their contents.  Some curt order is given granting more time to the respondents or suchlike.  Hearings on a thick file sometimes last 2 minutes.

The judges do not bother themselves with the details of the case or even of reading through the basic prayers  in the application (prayer = what is being asked for) asked for before issuing "notice".  It is probably too much work for them.  Let the respondents, and the lawyers that they engage, worry about the prayers.

If you get an unassertive lawyer who doesn't know how to outshout his opponent and make the judge read the relevant parts of your supposedly well-reasoned arguments, you will not get justice in India.

In the same vein, if someone counts (for Indian courts) the pages of documents unread by anyone except by the writer, that astronomical number will raise the very Gods from their slumber.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Risk-Averse Indian

Indians are risk averse .  And that is because of the threat of violence in case they don't follow expectations of others.

Our conformity and mediocrity is not an inborn personality trait, it is a survival strategy that has proved viable in an atmosphere of intimidation and oppression.  India suffers from a severely oppressive state machinery which makes sure its citizens always stay docile and grateful for any little freedom that they are allowed.

Let's go over some aspects of our lives and how they are subject to control:

Speech and Freedom of Expression: Not only the society, but the state will come after you with sticks and guns if you say anything which offends someone.  There are strict laws against blasphemy and against saying something objectionable in India.  We have a censor board for movies which is a law unto itself.  Sending an email with a sarcastic cartoon as an attachment can get you sent to jail.

Relationships: Not only the society, but the state will come after you with sticks and guns if you fall in love with the "wrong" person.  The police is too happy to arrest you based on your in-laws' statements.  And you better make sure you get married to the "right" person the first time.  If your wife doesn't like you, well, the police is too happy to arrest you on her complaint.  If you want a divorce, well, good luck with that!  The courts will take decades to decide on your case.

What if you decide to just be on your own and to hell with the family and community?  If you decide not to support your old parents, in many Indian states you can be sent to jail.

If you are in a live-in relationship or are single beyond a "reasonable" age, you may be hard pressed to find a rented accommodation because landlords are a law unto themselves and a tenant cannot ask for non-discrimination.

Dispute Resolution: If you get into a conflict or a dispute with the wrong person, you will be subject to state terror.  The police will arrest your parents on some trumped up charge.  That person will come to your home and threaten you with goons and guns.  So better keep your head down and don't get into even a verbal fight with a guy who looks like he may be "connected".

If you are a businessman, don't hope for contract enforcement from the courts (India ranks pretty much on the bottom in the world on that).  You have to just trust that person and keep him in good humor.  In general, remain in people's good books otherwise they will not honor their obligations to you.  I wonder what that does to your free-thinking spirit.

Food and Drink: If you eat the wrong kind of meat in the wrong place, not only the society but the state will come after you with sticks and guns.  If you want to have a drink, you have to go to state sanctioned shops and watering holes.  You cannot keep more than a few bottles at your home.  You have to close your bar at 11 pm in most locations otherwise the police will come after you.  If you try to party at a place outside the city, the police can arrest you on suspicion of drug use.  You cannot buy eggs and meat in certain cities.

Health:  Public hospitals are dysfunctional and private hospitals are unregulated.  So you better not fall sick in this country.  Since eateries and shops are unregulated when it comes to non-adulteration and hygiene, you better just be safe and cook at home.  That leads to the attitude of not wanting to try out a new food/cuisine.

In general, don't do anything which may be a health risk.  Rock climbing, racing, athletics/sports, swimming are only for the rich.  Chess and Cricket are OK since they don't strain the body so much.  Since emergency response services are non-functional in most areas, don't try any physically risky adventures like gliding, skiing, surfing, skateboarding...

Business and Entrepreneurship: It is notoriously hard to start a business in India due to the multiplicity of regulatory agencies which want to oppress you instead of offering easy processes and guidelines.  So it is much safer to take up a salaried job, especially with the government where YOU make up (or enforce) the policies, and where pension is assured.  And in clear violation of Article 16 of the constitution of India, most state jobs are offered only to a certain age group.  So you better gather your degrees and figure out what kind of salaried job you want to do in your twenties.  After that, you are on your own.  You can't easily take a "risk" with your education and career.


These are just a few examples where our attitude to be "rather safe than sorry" is driven by explicit laws and state policy in India.  We are a subservient and mediocre population because the ruling classes have framed laws and policies which force us to be that way.

It is safer for them, too.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Hirsutism as Holiness

So the interwebs are abuzz with the story of the hirsute Sikh woman who was caught on camera, sought to be made fun of, and who then came onto the thread on reddit to defend herself and offer her religious beliefs as an explanation of her looks.

One of the papers covers the story here.

I grew up in a Sikh family, and I know the custom of keeping unshorn hair rather intimately.  My brother faced a lot of resistance when he sought to cut his hair, and I was taken to task when I tried to trim my beard.

I have a few comments about this custom, and a few comments about the response of the hirsute woman, whose name is supposedly Balpreet Kaur.

The custom is archaic and a lot of Sikhs actually resent it.  It usually makes people look ungainly and makes for an uphill battle in personal hygiene.  Sikhs normally wash their hair only once a week, even during hot and humid weather.  Males are supposed to tie their hair in a bun on the top of the head and cover it using a turban.  It is hard to wear spectacles with a turban, and needless to say, the turban inhibits athletic activity, sports and swimming, and even the wearing of a safety helmet.

This custom (of keeping long hair) and headgear was supposedly introduced by the tenth Sikh Guru about three hundred years ago as a martial uniform.  But Sikhs seem to have taken it a bit too far.  Even trimming of one's eyebrows is enough to get you expelled from certain Sikh religious institutions.  Some Sikhs vociferously protest when some hair is to be removed from their bodies during a surgical procedure.  It is quite funny and tragic at the same time.

I believe most Indian religious customs related to the body are less than aesthetically evolved, and sometimes just tasteless.  People, including ladies, who go to certain Hindu ashrams get their heads shaved.  Sikhs are asked to wear long underwear and never remove even a single hair from their bodies.  Jain monks stay naked and cover their mouths with a cloth which continues to get dirty as the day passes.  Many Hindus tie a red thread on their wrists which is not supposed to be taken off.  It has to wear off on its own after many days while it continues to get damp, dirty and laden with bacteria and assorted filth.  We are asked to take a dip in highly polluted pools and rivers as a means of purification.  People even carry the polluted, putrid water, in which thousands of people are bathing, back to their homes in plastic bottles to be sipped as holy water.  Muslims undertake compulsory circumcision for young males.  Some South Indians roll their naked bodies in leftover food of Brahmins.  And so on and so forth.

We perhaps like to believe that the body is merely a vessel for the soul and so the ugliness or ungainliness of the body is of little concern if it is supposed to uplift our souls, thereby making us do better deeds.

I think this is a rather warped and dangerous view which ultimately ends up reflecting in India being one of the ugliest, filthiest places in the whole world.  Deeds of its citizens notwithstanding (whether they are holier or more moral than of other people is matter of grave doubt, by the way).

To be unattractive by birth is unfortunate, but to cultivate un-attractiveness is a symptom of, I don't know, a serious neurosis?  And before I am sought to be convinced that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, please, go through this article and the links contained therein and let's talk afterwards...

For those who don't want to read the above article for lack of time, allow me to guess for you which of the below women you find more attractive.  Answer: It is the second one.

Let's say someone has bad body odor or bad breath.  Would you expect this person to remedy that situation for a social engagement?  Would you expect a person to wear clean clothes (or wear clothes at all) and to not have open, festering wounds on his/her skin?  Would you expect someone you deal with to not loudly burp and fart and pick their nose in your presence?  Would you expect your marital partner to regularly brush their teeth and to take a bath?

What if they did not do as you (and as any normal, socialized human) would expect, and then justified their aberrant behavior by citing some archaic religious belief and by asking you to look instead at their "inner beauty" and their "moral superiority" and their "religious loyalty"?

I would ask you to consider such a person a case for psychiatric intervention, even if they are studying neuroscience.

In this particular case, does Ms Balpreet Kaur not realize that her facial hair is going to be the first thing people notice about her, and it will make them uncomfortable?  That any deed that she does, any interaction that she indulges in, any act of service that she renders, will first have to overcome this artificial barrier that she herself has created?  Is this barrier important, or the deed?  If a great deed that can save a life which requires her to shave her face, will she hesitate?

Now that her identity as a Sikh proud hirsute woman is a matter of public history, she is going to have a rather tough time going back on this stance, say, to get married.  Internet popularity cuts both ways.

Facial hair on women, just like a strong bod odor or halitosis, is a physiological problem which negatively affects people that one interacts with.  It makes people repelled.  If she is unwilling to solve this problem (and there is an extremely easy solution to this costing less than a dollar a week), and instead wants other people to look beyond physical attributes, then she is just being delusional and is expecting too much from society.  Society will not look beyond, it will look "at" and will conclude many things based on that perception.

It is similar to someone not wanting to buy a two dollar body deodorant but instead wanting other people to look beyond their olfactory perception.

Granted, there are certain aspects of one's appearance which may be unattractive and which may be hard to remedy.  In such cases, we do silently ask for others' forbearance, and usually others oblige, again silently.  And visual appearance is something that people can get used to after a while (unlike a bad odor which can continue to suffocate).  But why subject others to this inconvenience, if you can help it?

I consider it rude behavior to not care about one's personal appearance and grooming: it is a lack of care and empathy towards people who one interacts with.  It is to place a constant demand on other people.  They may be able to get used to this demand, but many may not.

If she wishes to live in a setting where her looks are a matter of pride and not of jest, then she should join a Sikh monastery.  In other settings, her looks are a matter of concern, not pride.

I was also amused by her quite effort-ful and intellectual response, pat with an explanation about her t-shirt as well (and she also had to mention that the God of Sikhs is gender-less, for some reason that I find hard to fathom).  She obviously considers her appearance and the reactions it causes in others to be of significance (otherwise why bother with a response?), but instead of becoming more aesthetically normative, she wants others to be more tolerant, nay, even appreciative of her stance of ugliness (and it IS ugliness by all normal standards of human aesthetics).

Ms Balpreet Kaur could be a curious exhibit in a study on narcissism and willful denial of social realities.  I am, however, glad, that it brings to some attention a deeply regrettable facet about the Sikh religion - its archaic customs, that is.  Something which needs far more attention, and criticism, than it has received.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Information Sharing and Stress

Humans like to communicate.  I believe we like to share information, insight and stories, especially with people who we love and trust.

We have better tools than ever to do it, but, there is a flip side to this ease.

I find that more and more, there are pieces of information which one is not supposed to disseminate.  The most striking instance of this restriction is the workplace.  The most important information: that of compensation, is kept a closely guarded secret.  Almost all the communication from within the firm are supposed to remain within the firm.  And of course, there are trade secrets, intellectual property and whatnot, which are closely guarded lest the firm lose its competitive advantage.

I believe that when you know something, and when you know that that information is of interest to the other person, but you withhold it, it causes stress.

I find that more and more, information asymmetries are what are deciding wealth or the lack of it in our knowledge economy.

A salesperson dare not tell the customer about the shortcomings in what he is trying to sell.

A job candidate knows his shortcomings, but tries to suppress that information and and hopes that the interview process doesn't reveal him.

A firm advertises its product, highlighting a small subset of its features which are better than the competition, but not talking about the others.

I believe this pervasive environment of information withholding is a massive source of stress in the modern workplace.  It is even more stressful when it is lying not just by omission (e.g. Bill Clinton's evasive replies during his testimony about the Monica Lewinsky affair), but when the lying is blatant (e.g. Yahoo's CEO lying on his resume, Paul Ryan "mis-remembering" his marathon time, and so on).

Consider also the laws related to insider trading.  If you just go ahead and indulge your human predilection to share information with your friends, and they use that information to their benefit, that is a criminal offense.   It is not hard to understand why it should be an offense.  You received that information because of privileged access, and you are therefore abusing that privilege by sharing the information.

But I cannot but help imagine the stress that must be felt by such a holder of secrets.  The more information you have which you cannot share for fear of consequence, the more stressful your interactions are with your fellow human beings.

In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, the protagonist breaks down due to this very stress of keeping a big, guilty secret within himself.

One of my uncles very astutely and pithily commented - and this was many years back - that people are stressed in the modern world because they have to pretend, lie and put up a facade more than ever in human history.  I agree with him.

More and more, we are part of a "market" where the most astute and cunning player wins.  In such an environment, an attitude of transparency, honesty and forthrightness is a sure fire way to lose.

The more you are able to be just "yourself" with someone, the more stress-free that relationship is.  The more you have to be withheld, non-spontaneous, aware, calculative, the less emotionally nourishing the relationship becomes.  If almost all your relationships demand watchfulness and some form of deceit, then it is not surprising that you will find yourself stressed and alienated.

Humaneness and a feeling of kinship makes us want to share interesting information.  But because today there may be valid (and some not so valid) reasons for keeping things bottled up, we cannot but go against our nature if we are to play by the rules.  And this unnatural way of being takes its toll.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Introduction to "Gorges and Demons"

This is my draft, unedited, introduction to my first book that I have started writing.  I hope to finish it by the end of the year.  I am tentatively calling it "Gorges and Demons".


Does Man need to be saved from his Saviors?
Does Man need to be delivered from the desire for deliverance?
The Buddha, in his famous Four Noble Truths, appeals to all of us for whom sorrow and suffering become too much to handle.  He acknowledges our sorrow in the first truth, explains its causation, provides a way to end it, and then points to its end.
Such is the promise of all messiahs, mystics, Gurus, self-help teachers, new age therapists, evangelists, long-time seekers, the enlightened, the delivered, the ones who are One with God, and of all those who, in their compassion, are driven to save others from the pangs of life.
What is suffering?  What does the way entail?  What is “worldly” life and what is the so-called “transcendental” life?  What do men do when they claim to be free of suffering?
Is suffering inevitable?  Can man be free of suffering, without delusion?
Why do some suffer more, and others less?  Why does continued happiness elude almost everybody?  Why does fulfillment seem to require “many lives”?
This book is an exploration of these questions.
Too many people jump into the pursuit of seeking freedom from earthly life, without first understanding what earthly life is, and more importantly, without understanding what that “freedom” looks like.  In the process, they not only spend a rather significant part of their lives in agony and ambiguity, but cause tears of helplessness and heartbreak in the ones who love them.
The state of Nirvana, and the path to that Promised Land, seem mysterious.  Very few say they are in that state, millions say they are making progress, and even more say they are stuck and need guidance.  Nobody says with any clarity what that state is.  Every sect and every cult has a different story, and a different take on why so many are failing to achieve that state, and where the remedy lies!
It is a cliché by now to say that Life is what happens when you are preparing for it.  So many of us spend so many of our years learning to live rightly, that the occasions to live according to our learnings pass us by.  A great tragedy of life, if one may call it that, is that we get but one opportunity and one time to do things rightly.  After that age is gone, we can but look back in regret and nostalgia.  How we treated our children, how we loved (or didn’t love) our parents, how we broke others’ hearts, how we behaved with people whom we will never meet again, how we renounced something which is only available in youth...
Whether we like it or not, our options to shape our lives diminish with age.  In Youth we are infinitely hopeful and life is a boundless spectrum of possibilities.  We want to break the rules, travel in strange lands, find love at the most unexpected of places, we have ideals and principles which we hold with passion, …
In Old Age, we smile ruefully at what could have been, and we convince ourselves to be content with our little comforts and joys and we look with amusement at the hopeful idealism as well as the naiveté of the young.
If you ask people what they want, they may not be able to list things out, but they will unquestionably say that they want to be happy.  What is this “happiness”?  What theories and tomes have been written about it!  We know we were happy at a certain time, and the present appears not a little unsatisfactory.
When I was young and ignorant and idealistic, I used to look at people immersed as if hypnotized at a busy urban crossing, and wondered: Where are they going? What is driving them?  Why do they not stop and reflect on their lives?  They seemed like robots following orders and not stopping for a moment to question what was going on.  How can they go on like this?  Do they not value their time and their years?  I wanted to stop a few of them and look into their eyes and tell them that they need to wake up.
After many decades, I can hesitatingly say that I understand, to a satisfying extent, the "normal" "worldly" people and why they do what they do.  
But, interestingly, now I have the urge to stop and ask the same question to the seekers of exalted states, who cannot give up on their journey and are ceaselessly driven by something that they consider a holy desire to be free.  To be sure, the seekers are usually ready to talk to you about the “deep questions”.  But the fact that they have chosen a way (or so they think) makes it almost impossible for them to recognize that they could be blindly driven by something that they also may not understand. 
I think I have some ideas as to why they may be pursuing these states, and I want to have a word with them, with you.
This book is not a treatise in pessimism, but a look at a few facets of our seeking a state beyond what we consider “the mundane”.  It is true that blind enthusiasm may make one achieve goals hitherto considered unachievable, but most of the time, it pays to know about the risks and the pitfalls.
Humans are not very different from each other.  There are almost seven billion of us.   We share the same DNA, the same morality (more or less), and given a similarity in our social standing, we suffer from similar discontents.
Others like you have sought inner happiness in its very essence, and might have interesting tales to tell of gorges and of the demons they encountered in their journeys.  
This book is dedicated to your capacity of contemplation and reflection; to what is essentially human in you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Why of File Sharing

Many of my friends and relatives have asked me this question: Why do these hackers go to such lengths to share copyrighted stuff on the internet?  It puts them at risk of prosecution and nobody from those they benefit ever gets to know of them as individuals.  So why?

One can understand the existence of BitTorrent tracker sites, subtitles search engines, torrent search engines and aggregators.  These sites are all quite commercial, and indulge in all sorts of sorry tactics to make money: redirecting you to other sites, displaying popup ads, stealthily trying to get you to download some software or toolbar, and so on.

One can also understand the motivations of software cracking groups, as many of them include malware and rootkits in the cracked version, and thereby infect computers of unwitting freeloaders.

But why do hackers and hacker groups go to such lengths to secure an early copy of a film and release it free of charge on the world wide web?  Ripping an audio CD is not too much work, but creating a tight, 700MB rip from a BluRay disc or including telesync audio streams takes a lot of patience, skill and effort.  Also, OCR subtitles!

My explanation for the hackers' motivation is this:

They want to feel the joy of doing an altruistic deed. 

Industrialized society offers very limited avenues to indulge one's altruistic tendencies.  Especially for introverts, who don't like to go out of their homes; to do something altruistic from their computer is a real pleasure for their spirits.  Even if they don't get recognized, just for them to secretly know that they have done something which has brought millions of people all over the world a measure of joy or satisfaction is reward enough.

The more the recording industry and law tries to stop them, the more heroic they feel in doing their altruistic deeds.  Overcoming obstacles to help others, and defeating "big evil corporations" and "devious" DRM technology towards a "noble" end must provide them a deep satisfaction.

I call this the Digital Robinhood principle.

Some of their work might benefit roadside stalls in South Asia and elsewhere selling bootleg DVDs or rips, but I'm guessing that the vast majority of their consumers are individuals who download their stuff on their personal computers.

To stop this "piracy" (as the recording industry, rightly or wrongly, likes to call this phenomenon), one has to provide a remedy for the emotional and social disconnect of a great number of skilled, brainy, computer-savvy individuals.  This disconnect makes them want to do something meaningful: something which can help others.

I believe such a remedy is impossible, and therefore online file-sharing will only grow in extent.

Not finding a channel for their altruism which would use their excellent brains, the hackers turn to spending their days and nights ripping and sharing media and software with anonymous gratefuls around the world.

Atheism, Love and Acceptance

The love and acceptance coming from a (imagined) God is unconditional.  In the absence of this acceptance, there is no choice but to accept humanity as the "animal kingdom" of one-up-man-ship.  A close simile is the love from one's parents when one is an infant.

The conception of God, as a priori infallible, is a means of inspiring us to be more than animals.  It is an ideal to whose qualities we can aspire to.

God offers both an idealized sense of virtue, and an acceptance of one's fallibility.

In the absence of an infallible ideal and in the absence of an unconditional self-acceptance, a neurosis of alienation, nihilism, self-mortifying reflection becomes second nature.

The grace that comes from feeling loved makes one lovable.  A hated or self-hating person becomes hateful.

The need for love is the need for acceptance, as well as a need for one to have a reason to keep on living.  Why live when one's living or dying does not make a difference to someone?

In the absence of an irrational anchor, the neo-cortex, the rational brain, the social identity, is called upon to invent or find a rational anchor.

Unconditional real-world love and acceptance is a very tall order.  It is made almost impossible by the fact that commitment, to survive, requires a perceived narrowing of choices.  If the choices are kept open: at-will employment, at-will divorce, at-will engagement with the wider society, at-will cultural identity, then commitment absolutely requires superhuman will.

Without that commitment from you, and to you, how can there be that emotional security that traditionally was provided by God?

Martin Buber titled his landmark work I and Thou.  In the modern times, one has to struggle to move from regarding others as strangers, to finally recognize someone as "you".  But more significantly, in the absence of a secure ego, one has to first come to terms with "I".

One who is already loved, even by an imagined lover, has a healthier, less desperate "I" than one who is seeking love and acceptance with hungry eyes.

People are all hungry for receiving love, but increasingly unable to recognize the other's need of it.  The crushing aloneness in an increasingly competitive world makes one pine for union and rest.  So in need is one of nourishment in oneself that a relationship demanding anything at all feels a burden.  All seeking love, none to provide.

And any conditional love starts with marketing and manipulation.  The manipulation is unconscious in the better cases.  In either case, the realization of the conditional and stressful nature of love dawns sooner or later.  And again therefore, the blues.

The turn to spirituality, or a Guru, in the modern times of Godlessness, can be understood as a thirst for acceptance and love, for that release from the stress of constant competition and marketing of oneself.

The "spirit" is a thirsty being, an un-loved ego.  The harder it aches and pines for its beloved, the harder will be the path it will be willing to walk to seek that mythic union, an experience of oneness, in this world or beyond.

In this desert of parched souls, give the elixir of your love, kindness and compassion, as a balm on the wounds of orphaned infants.


I remember, from Tennyson's In Memoriam, a verse that I have partly quoted before:

Oh yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;

That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;

That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain.

Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last—far off—at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Debunking the Spiritual

Thanks to "Rajiv", who commented on one of my blog articles about Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, I found this utterly fascinating YouTube video featuring Javed Akhtar saying some hard-hitting words in the very (ahem) divine presence of our very own Sadhguru.

Javed Akhtar's segment is only a few minutes long, and I urge you to listen to him (his segment starts at 6:20).  What a voice of reason!  Unfortunately, the top comments on this YouTube video page are quite vile and uncivil.  If anyone had a doubt about Mr Jaggi Vasudev being a godman, his squirming and impatience (when Mr Akhtar is speaking) betrays the godman's ... human-ness.

Javed Akhtar's remarks about human conceit reminded me of this famous George Carlin performance:

I also could not help but notice the neurotic aggression and arrogance in the body language and intonation of the female anchor, which is, by the way, also supremely present in Deepak Chopra when he debates Sam Harris (among others) in the following video:

Spiritual people are some of the most arrogant when it comes to their beliefs.  They think that anyone critical of them is the devil's messenger, an emissary of mayhem and Maya, and is against love and world peace.  Therefore they feel like they are doing God's work in directing their anger and arrogance at him.

All said, these videos make one ruefully nod at these words by Bertrand Russell:
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Even those of the intelligent who believe that they have a nostrum are too individualistic to combine with other intelligent men from whom they differ on minor points...

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Disincentives to Bad Litigation

Today morning I had an epiphany about the Indian judicial system.  I realized that there is a formidable class of people which is strongly opposed to any reform in the dispensation of justice in this country, and that that is why judicial reforms are at a stand-still and why we are seeing more and more draconian laws (since normal laws are proving ineffectual).

It is common knowledge that the Indian courts are clogged with millions of pending cases, with some trials going on for more than three decades.  Civil suits go on even longer.  There have been many studies and recommendations on how to resolve this mess, and how to make the theoretical "right to speedy trial" a reality in this country, but to little effect.

Having experienced the Indian judicial system at close hands, I find that most judges do not penalize the litigants enough for wasting the time of the court.  If only they started imposing heavy costs and punishments to litigants and their lawyers for obstructing the course of justice through frivolous and mendacious petitions, appeals and affidavits, I am quite sure the number of new cases will come down drastically.  But that doesn't happen.

Contrast this with the speed of trials in United States, and the fact that most judgments do not go through an appeals process.  Litigation in the United States is an expensive proposition, and the courts frequently award litigation costs to the winner of the case, in addition to levying punitive damages on the loser.

There is a difference between fighting a case in good faith, and trying to subvert the administration of justice by filing an appeal on every little decision.  Consider the trial of the Aarushi murder case.  The accused in this case are appealing every little decision of the trial court.  If the trial court summons them, they appeal it.  If a witness is to be cross-examined, they appeal it.  And if nothing else, they appeal to shift the place of trial itself.  All these appeals take time to adjudicate, and the trial languishes.  People who are astute in filing such appeals can delay the final decision for decades.  Till then, injustice continues to thrive, and the other party usually gets exhausted and gives up on the fight.

I think there are three very strong reasons why Indian courts do not impose costs on litigants and lawyers.  And all three reasons are linked.

The first reason is that judges are ex-lawyers, and they generally refrain from criticizing or disciplining their own kind.  Even when there is clear evidence of false affidavits or vexatious litigation, the judges do not pass a stricture against the lawyers.  Lawyers oppose tooth-and-nail any reform in the judicial process if it hurts their business (for example, the non-requirement of a bail application in any offence carrying a maximum sentence of less than seven years), they go on flash strikes and shun work and nary a stricture is passed against such thuggish bar councils by the judges.  (As a digression, professional bodies in India are, in general, not for regulation and ethics, but for protecting their own interests.  As another example, the Medical Council of India (MCI) in its entire history has not dis-affiliated even a single doctor for any malpractice.)

The second reason is that lawyers clearly gain from more and more cases being filed in courts.  Every appeal, every application, every affidavit has a cost for the litigant, and a benefit for the lawyers.  And it is therefore to the lawyers' advantage that the possibility of appeals and revisions be kept alive.  If a decision is to be considered final, then that cuts the cash stream to the lawyers from the future cases.  So, the judiciary (which is friendly to the lawyer community) is loath to reform the process so that appeals and revisions are disallowed.  This also means that the justice administered is mostly shoddy, since the judges know that their mistakes will probably get corrected in the higher courts.  If someone does a study of how many decisions of Indian courts are overturned due to a revision or an appeal, one might be appalled.  Even the decisions of High Courts are routinely criticized by the Supreme Court for failing to apply basic common sense.

If the courts start imposing heavy costs on losing litigants (including on the government, which is perhaps the largest litigant in India and which is only too happy to appeal every judgment that goes against it), I think people will think twice about filing or fighting a case or about appealing a judgment.  Also, an overturned decision (under appeal) must mean a career setback to the original judge.

The test of whether a petition is frivolous, bad in law, or an attempt to delay justice is not easy.  Given that Indian courts routinely contradict each other and their own past judgments, any capable lawyer can find enough grounds to appeal a decision.  I think there needs to be a massive exercise of obtaining consistency in Indian case law.  Till that happens, justice in India is a roll of dice, based on which cases you can cite, how forcefully you argue, and the mood of the judge.

The third reason is that most litigation costs are paid under the table.  Lawyers are champions in taking heavy fees and not paying any taxes on their income.  I haven't heard of any lawyer who routinely issues receipts for his fees.  If one does a study on income tax returns of Indian lawyers vis-a-vis their lifestyles and possessions, one will be quite amused.  Of course, since the authorities need a lawyer to litigate for evasion of income tax against another lawyer, this practice is going to continue.  One solution could be the use of foreign lawyers by the Income Tax department, but foreign lawyers are not allowed in India, to the obvious benefit of the lawyer lobby.

Due to this black economy, the winner's litigation costs on paper are negligible and therefore there is no point to awarding of litigation costs to him.

Due to these reasons, there is every incentive to file/appeal a case in India and no cost/punishment if one fails in one's attempt.  One must look at these perverse incentives, and reverse them, if there is to be efficient justice in this country.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Promise of a Promise

Marriage is a promise to do and not do certain things.  Whether one realizes it or not, by marrying, one implicitly agrees to thousands of regulations and case law about property division, alimony, child custody, maintenance, "conjugal rights", bar on sexual intercourse with anyone else, and so on.

Marriage is not just a piece of paper, it is a legally enforceable contract with the modern state especially interested in enforcing it.
In most modern cultural settings, before one decides to commit to getting married, there is a period of courtship and "getting to know each other".  
During that period, depending upon the cultural mores, there is a degree of physical intimacy up to and including sexual intercourse.  Sexual compatibility is considered a major factor in deciding to get married to someone.  In US and most parts of Europe, sex is a natural part of dating.  It is becoming so in urban India as well.
The very purpose of dating and courtship is to determine whether a long-term bond is realizable or not.  That long-term bond may eventuate into a state-sanctioned legal contract ("marriage") or it may remain informal (a "live-in").
In recent times in India, there is a growing tendency for grown, literate women (air-hostesses of Mumbai seem to be topping the charts here) to cry "rape" when a man they were involved with refuses to eventually sign the marriage contract.  I call this a travesty.
The Indian High Courts are conflicted on this issue (the Bombay High Court clearly saying it is not rape), and the Supreme Court of India seems to side with the rape interpretation, while the case law is confusing.
Interpreting a "false promise of marriage" as "rape" is just another nail in the coffin of men's rights in India.  Of course, the police is only too happy to register such cases and arrest the accused, as they are scared of the wrath of the feminist NGOs in case they refuse.
In my opinion, it is rape only if the raped person was coerced, intimidated or drugged.  Inducing wistful daydreams, promises of everlasting love, and suchlike, is the very stuff that romance is made of.  A romance not culminating in a contract is NOT a crime, it is a failure of compatibility, an emotional tragedy, a breaking of hearts, but it is NOT a crime.

If a woman alleges damages (loss of reputation, loss of virginity, pregnancy, etc.), then there are two questions to be asked:
1. Assuming the age of consent is not an issue, whether the sex was consensual.
2. Whether the sexual partners knew that the legal contract of marriage had not been signed yet.  That is, there was no misconception that the marriage of some sort (say, at a temple) had already taken place.

If these two conditions are satisfied, then there is neither cheating, nor rape, nor can there be any question of exploitation. If the first condition is not satisfied, it is rape.  If the second condition is not satisfied, then it is cheating.
If the woman is indeed wanting to protect her reputation and virginity, then let her withhold physical intimacy till the man signs the contract.  If she is unwilling to get pregnant, let her use the pill or insist on safe sex.
If she is an adult, she should know the consequences of her actions and the law should not become a white-knight excusing her own culpability in the matter.
On the other hand, if she is not to be treated as an adult, then how can anyone even marry her?  Then, she must be considered developmentally challenged, and treated at an appropriate facility.  If she is an adult, then she, and the concerned police officials, must be tried for harassment and for making a false complaint.
A marriage is a promise.  There cannot be a promise to make a promise.  It is not a breach of contract to not sign a contract.  It is as simple as that.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Sensitive Robot

In the year 2240 AD, robots were in widespread currency.  The most common model was the HS-2122 android.  It was mass produced, and it was a bipedal humanoid.  It had sensors for the usual stimuli, and it also possessed a special sensor for detecting a "tough" situation requiring an amplified energetic response.

Serial number 00F0CD1 of the HS-2122 robot series had been manufactured with a malfunction.  It was too sensitive to "tough" situations and quickly exhausted itself in trying to resolve them or of computing of ways to avoid them.

It was sent to a repair facility for fixing.  The repair facility was curiously named as Android Servicing, Hotfixes, Repairs And Modifications (or in short, ASHRAM).

The facility in-charge was new to his job.  He quickly diagnosed the problem, and inserted a resistor between the input circuits and the tough-situation-handling-module.  The resistor had been designed to make sure no circuits in the HS-2122 series got heated up.

However, the resistor had a strange consequence.

00F0CD1 no longer considered the external situations of any import at all.  It became focused, instead, on the inward module which was processing the inputs.  It continued to process the inputs till the inputs became mere noise and there was nothing left to respond to.  It was very concerned about preserving the health of its circuits.  In fact, that became its sole concern.

00F0CD1 became unfit to operate in general planetary habitations but was instead allocated to live in the Zero Expenditure Nebula (the ZEN nebula, that's what they called it).  In that nebula, very little energy was consumed, and there was no situation which even demanded a heightened response activation.  There were other robots like him in the ZEN nebula and they all possessed excellent, glowing batteries and shiny exteriors.

However, as with the rest of his batch, he was retired at the end of its thirty year life-cycle.  The high-point of 00F0CD1's existence had been its production of a four-line poem, which it called a Systematic Utterance of Truthy Repeatable Assertion (SUTRA, in short):

The Planetary Realm was a mess,
I wanted it less and less;
In ZEN true peace and happiness lie,
It is not important how you live, but how you die!

Mortality, and Pleasure

I have found this parable repeated in many Eastern spiritual traditions, and my erstwhile Guru was also fond of telling this to nirvana-seekers.  People used to nod in understanding, but this is a complex parable.  While it is easy to be self-righteous and condemn the desperate hedonist in this tale, perhaps a more nuanced response is called for.

Here's the parable, as told by Leo Tolstoy in his A Confession:

There is an Eastern fable, told long ago, of a traveller overtaken on a plain by an enraged beast. Escaping from the beast he gets into a dry well, but sees at the bottom of the well a dragon that has opened its jaws to swallow him. And the unfortunate man, not daring to climb out lest he should be destroyed by the enraged beast, and not daring to leap to the bottom of the well lest he should be eaten by the dragon, seizes s twig growing in a crack in the well and clings to it. His hands are growing weaker and he feels he will soon have to resign himself to the destruction that awaits him above or below, but still he clings on. Then he sees that two mice, a black one and a white one, go regularly round and round the stem of the twig to which he is clinging and gnaw at it. And soon the twig itself will snap and he will fall into the dragon's jaws. The traveller sees this and knows that he will inevitably perish; but while still hanging he looks around, sees some drops of honey on the leaves of the twig, reaches them with his tongue and licks them. So I too clung to the twig of life, knowing that the dragon of death was inevitably awaiting me, ready to tear me to pieces; and I could not understand why I had fallen into such torment. I tried to lick the honey which formerly consoled me, but the honey no longer gave me pleasure, and the white and black mice of day and night gnawed at the branch by which I hung. I saw the dragon clearly and the honey no longer tasted sweet. I only saw the unescapable dragon and the mice, and I could not tear my gaze from them. and this is not a fable but the real unanswerable truth intelligible to all. 
The deception of the joys of life which formerly allayed my terror of the dragon now no longer deceived me. No matter how often I may be told, "You cannot understand the meaning of life so do not think about it, but live," I can no longer do it: I have already done it too long. I cannot now help seeing day and night going round and bringing me to death. That is all I see, for that alone is true. All else is false.
The awareness of finitude and mortality is the starting point of many a philosopher.  Knowing that death is the inevitable conclusion of life, how is one to approach pleasure, suffering and meaning?  If it all has to end, and it is all meaningless, then it is very possible that the trials of life can feel excruciatingly intolerable, and the pleasures puny and laughable.

It is easy for Eastern spirituality to deride seeking what is pleasant ("preya") and exhort living for that which is Higher ("shreya").  Inescapably, the Higher gets defined as transcendence and as freedom from the temporal realm.

But rejecting any notion of non-temporal realms or of transcendence or of Nirvana, how should man approach the fact of death and mortality?  Should he become a child, live in the present, and enjoy the occasional sensuality?  Should he be a distraction-chaser and seek to get wound up and then indulge in "unwinding"?  Should he just give up on fulfillment, and live bitterly?  Should he kill himself?  Should he seek to create a better state of affairs for humanity, knowing that death awaits even those oppressed beings, no matter how liberated they might get in the world?

Should one clean a hotel room and keep it tidy, knowing that one is only spending a night there?  Should one care for the future generations, knowing that it is all a game of propagation and competition among some patterns on a small blue planet in a vast universe?

What is an aware human's response to mortality?  And I would echo many philosophers in saying that this awareness of our mortality and our response to it is what makes us human in the first place.  We have the awareness of time, we see others die, we know we will also die (remember the ancient deductive syllogism: Man is mortal; Socrates is a man, ...).

How can one commit to a harsh life, and not simply idle away, if one realizes oneself to be a mortal individual who will, sooner or later, not remain to reap the rewards of that commitment?  For his children, perhaps?  No, that escape hatch too eludes the philosopher.  One of the curses of the too-aware man is his rejection of the genetic imperative.  He does not respect the dictate of his essential nature to just propagate himself at all costs.  In a way, an intellectual has already transcended his nature.

So, realizing or concluding that there is no "Higher" realm, and being aware enough to throttle the reproductive itch, what now?  There is still hope for the man who wants to serve others, to lessen their pain and drudgery, while not being too concerned about the eventual fate of the Sun.  There is also hope for the man who seeks to create something that will outlast his own body, either through art and literature, or through the creation of some idea or some discovery, or even through a crime.

Someone not possessing special gifts, and someone disinclined towards social work, and someone not inclined to create a monument to himself, though, is in a difficult spot.  That seeker of pleasure, who is also self-aware, will not have it easy.  When the peaks of pleasure pass, and they will pass, for that is the very nature of our brains, he is left in a pit of depression and ennui.

Moreover, in the modern world of cities and technology and industry, the free pleasures are dwindling, and increasingly one needs to be rich to to be carefree and enjoy life.  But to achieve riches takes a hell of a lot of care and stress, and who knows if that stressful journey saps one of the very capacity to enjoy leisure and carefree-ness?  The pleasure seeker can no longer expect to live an easy life.

So what should be one's response when one sees an aware man licking those drops of honey?  And those drops of honey need not be, as alcohol and drugs are, crude addictions to forget oneself.  They can very well be the enjoyment of literature and philosophy, of music and arts, of food and sex, of sights and smells, of conversations and argument, of humor and gossip.

One needs to observe that man's strained, trembling arms holding the twig, his muscles stretched in pain.  One needs to see the effort he makes at reaching for those drops which feel less and less sweet as he gets used to their taste.  One needs to imagine what he must be thinking, for he knows that he can't hang on forever, and the honey too will not last.

For too long, stones have been thrown at that man from the Eastern side of the pit.  He has been spit on.

I believe that that man deserves applause.  Not self-righteous pity, nor jeering ridicule, nor envious condemnation.  But applause.  "What a brave man!  Knowing that only a few moments are left, he still finds it within him to experience joy in the ephemeral!"

For he, like Sisyphus, inwardly laughs at his fate.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Householder by Amitabha Bagchi

Bagchi was my senior at IIT Delhi.  He had this irreverent streak in him, and stories abounded of him being an outspoken critic of pedantry and of unjustified silly tradition.  He was quite sarcastic and was known to be a linguistic bully, with his jokes and sarcasm sometimes remaining un-understood.  I was the target of his sarcasm as well, when he created a tongue-in-cheek "Harman Fan Club", "Harman" being this nerdy hacker who spent his days and nights in the Computer Center doing nothing but tinkering with computer networks, with free software and with devising ways of getting around limitations on internet and mainframe use.

I was pissed at this "fan club" phenomenon, with people composing poems (limericks, rather) and not-so-subtle innuendos about me and my nerdy ways.  Pertinently, Bagchi was a well-read and literate asshole, not easy to retort to.  He was a well-rounded mofo and me and him used to have rounds of jibes and put-downs.  He usually won.  But I was not one to admit defeat easily.  To get back at the "fan club" members, I cracked their passwords and accounts and drained their CPU quotas.  Revenge of the nerd, so to speak.  I think he disbanded the fan club after that.

This essay is not about Bagchi, though, but about his second novel, The Householder, which is anything but sarcastic, and which I recently had the pleasure of reading.  He has been incessantly plugging his book, and that of his missus Ratika Kapur (that one titled Overwinter) on his poor Facebook friends, but what is a little shameless plugging when it is such a good book, eh?

And it is a good book!  I wish a lot of people read it, and that it becomes a bestseller.  It could even be adapted, without much difficulty, to become a screenplay for a movie.

Most IIT and IIM brand novelists write about young adult themes: college, ragging, nerdy romance tales, awkward flirtation and cheating at exams.  IIT and IIM students are the Ivy League folks of India, and like watching a "London Paris New York" kind of masala movie, people buy such novels in a flurry, curious to know the beginnings and college lives of these modern millionaires and entrepreneurs.  3 Idiots, a movie based partly on Chetan Bhagat's "Five Point Someone" was a huge hit in India.  Bagchi's first novel ("Above Average") was of this kind as well, though perhaps a better specimen of this ilk.

Interestingly and quite surprisingly, on the flaps and covers of his second book, he does not mention his IIT background or his present status as a computer science academician at IIT Delhi.  That was the first hint to me that the book might have nothing to do with the usual IIT/IIM bromance or chick-lit, but could be an entirely different kind of novel.

And how different it indeed is!  This is not a novel about young people: it is not about girls and boys and people who have yet to chart their paths, it is about men and women whose trajectories are more or less set in life, and whose predicaments are due to invisible limitations on their thoughts and behavior.  It is a novel which explores fences, divisions, bondage and limitation, not freedom and choice.  And because society and civilization is about limits, this is a novel not about individuals, but about a way of life and about a certain cosmos of tradition and transgression.

Individual characters in this novel serve as reflecting mirrors of social mores and of choices which they make but which are mostly made for them.  Their truly free acts are few and far between, and that is a deep truth about human beings that Bagchi is able to explore here.  We are a bundle of influences, with free will being more of an interesting illusion.  Most of the novel is about conversations and about normal gestures and mannerisms.  But Bagchi effortlessly makes us understand where those are coming from.  It is a study of a society through behavior, with the novelist focusing on the behavior that reveals something significant about that society.

A cup of tea going cold or the reading of the menu of an upscale restaurant is a simple event, so is the averting of one's eyes or the involuntary smirks or clouded eyes.  But Bagchi's skill is in weaving something significant about the narrative through these seeming trifles.  Unlike many authors, he does not merely offer detail for the sake of it.  Like Chekhov, each detail has a meaning.  There is nary a loose strand.  It is a very well-crafted and a rich novel, offering easy delights of interpretation.  Bagchi doesn't complicate things beyond easy comprehension.  You always know what is going on, even if the final outcome remains hidden.  The narrative is sometimes elliptical (Naresh, the protagonist, has memories and hopes, after all) but as a reader, one is never puzzled or confused.

A lot of our decisions and actions spring from somewhere below our conscious reasoning.  Most of our sub-conscious is a somewhat consistent mess of social imprinting, our upbringing and a knowledge of one's place in the social ladder.  The exploration of these social and cultural themes: of marriage and in-laws, of the salaried versus the business class, of male responsibility and female concern, of desire and withholding, of authority and subservience, of patronage and obligation, is perhaps the purest pleasure of this book.

Bagchi does at times use the device of a big-brother talking aloud about the characters and their acts (much like Ashok Kumar did at the end of each episode of "Hum Log") but it doesn't rankle, this "voice-over" blends in with the narrative.

It is too easy to go into a metaphysical or scriptural context of being a householder versus a renunciate (the four traditional Hindu ashrams, or stages, of life), and thankfully Bagchi avoids this easy trap.  However, there is almost no mention of religion, of comfort in a higher power, of karma or of piety and sin when the characters are faced with a social or moral predicament or obstacle.  Perhaps it is because the situation never becomes too hopeless for the characters to turn to these opiates.

That is perhaps my only minor gripe about this novel.  The situations and predicaments are all resolved without too much of a struggle, all almost at the same time.  The denouement feels a bit over-convenient.

I was left hungering for more details about the childhood and youth and parents of Naresh and Arti.  Perhaps the exclusion of those details keeps the novel more focused on the present.  And perhaps, it could be a comment that a middle class Indian adolescence is rather uneventful and canonical, being tightly controlled and regulated.

Bagchi comes out as a humanist.  He does not believe in evil people or in malice.  I don't think I disliked any character in this novel at all.  Even the character of a corrupt corporate middleman (Khanna) or of a quaint mother-in-law is softly sketched and humanized for us to feel that they are not essentially bad people, but are responding in perhaps the only way they know.  This is a novel of kind and simple people, people who are somewhat sensitive and do not act in ways or who blurt out words which they later regret.  I find it a little subtle when it describes the Delhi-wallas' interactions (I find the average Delhi-walla to be quite in-your-face), but that subtlety, even if a tad unrealistic, is quite enjoyable.

As a novel about an Indian middle class family, it does not dwell too much on the burgeoning knowledge economy or the explosion in media presence or of consumerism.  It stays focused on the family, and in a good way.  Naresh, the man of the family, is a natural householder, and only rarely struggles with the existential fact of his responsibilities.  He never wonders or ruminates about the limitations of society or of Indian culture, or even about the philosophy of monogamy or the biological imperative of childbearing, but then, this is not a philosophical novel: it is a social one.

The Householder is a pleasant glimpse into the simple joys and struggles of a family man, and as it ended, it made me faintly smile and bless the protagonist and his family, as well as be grateful to the author for bringing this warm and emotional world to life.  Well done, Mr Bagchi.  Congratulations!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Notes on Beauty and Ugliness

  1. Taste is subjective (to some extent), but that doesn't mean that taste is an illusion.  Things lie somewhere on the spectrum of tastefulness, attractiveness, beauty, ... Their placement is subjective, following an act of perception, but the placement is a fact.

  2. A sense of beauty, attractiveness, charm, exists in other species as well.  Sexual mating is always a race, and attractiveness is one way to signal a higher fitness.

  3. There are standards to evaluate beauty and ugliness in human beings.  Otherwise, for example, advertising, modeling wouldn't work as they indeed do.  There would be no use for cosmetics, surgical interventions, perfumes, skin products, ...

  4. A baby can be ugly, but it is usually impolite to express one's disapproval.  It is helpless, after all.  An adult, on the other hand, can indulge in some camouflage to hide the glaring defects.  We dislike an adult who has a strong body odor AND doesn't do anything about it.  The inaction probably says more about him than the body odor.

  5. Anyone is instantly more attractive when smiling.  The truly beautiful are beautiful even when they are crying or angry.  Most people who are generally considered pretty look horrible when in a bad mood.

  6. Lack of confidence due to a flaw in oneself can be, at times, more repelling than the flaw itself.  To accept oneself is quite an attractive trait.  If you wouldn't accept yourself, how can another accept you, or much further down the path, love you?  Out of pity?

  7. Ugly people are treated bitterly by the world, and they turn bitter in their turn.  An ugly person is usually well aware of their ugliness.  This inner bitterness, and insecurity, makes them bad companions, even if one could live with their ugliness.

  8. Beauty, sensitivity and sensuality go hand in hand.  Sensuality need not be opposed to simplicity.  An otherwise beautiful person diminishes in beauty if they do not know when to speak loudly and when to speak softly.  How to eat, how to walk.  Similarly, an otherwise beautiful person enhances in beauty if they pay close attention to senses other than the visual, say, by using a perfume.

  9. Gracefulness is to move and act with beauty.  It has a lot to do with inner peace, poise and restraint.

  10. You do others a disservice if you make them work too hard to know you.  Say, only via a deep conversation.  Let them know you a little bit by your exterior as well!  Let your being be a continuum which expresses itself in the visible and the hidden.

  11. To be too aware, to be too conscious, to preen oneself too much, while in interaction, is a sign of insecurity about oneself.  It is a fear of being judged and might have deep-rooted causes.  A person whose movements, gait and words seem contrived and artificial is seeking validation: is a taker, not a giver.  It is exhausting to be with someone like that for long.

  12. Good health and a good digestion were always aids to being beautiful.  Similarly, soundness of mind and a not too touchy disposition were always aids to affability.

  13. It is not a sin to be sensual, to look attractive, to pay attention to looking attractive, to pay attention to another's attractiveness, to admire a rose or a rosy cheek, to feel glad about seeing a smooth sand dune or a smooth forehead, to feel something within oneself after seeing a wispy cloud moving across the sky or a heaving bust.  Mere shallow sensuality will not last, a shallow one will exhaust itself and stop being attractive.  Long-lasting attractiveness can perhaps not be achieved without an inner depth.

  14. Media created beauty is unreal.  Only if people knew what enormous efforts and techniques and careful lighting angles and post-processing go into creating a somewhat pretty face on the screen and on the pages of a fashion magazine.

  15. To spend too much effort on one's appearance has the risk of making one little more than a pretty shell housing nothing.  (A great video clip from American Psycho, with Patrick Bateman getting ready in the morning.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Presumption of Guilt

More and more, the Indian state is throwing up its arms on critical executive functions.  It has already given up on infrastructure (private toll roads), electricity (install your own generators), water (install your own water systems), health (public hospitals are in abysmal shape), education (nobody, who can afford not to, sends their kids to government schools), and so on.

But I am appalled to learn that it is giving up on law and order.  The momentum is unmistakable.  With more and more murders, rapes, child abuse cases piling up in the country, and with the bottom-of-the-barrel prosecution ability of government lawyers, the government is increasingly presuming guilt and asking the defendants to prove themselves innocent.

The reasoning probably is: we can't be bothered to build a water-tight case, better ask the defendant to prove that he/she is innocent.

This is nothing but a travesty of human rights.  And as the Indian populace is helpless, frustrated, angry and desirous of quick solutions, they are welcoming this draconian direction in our jurisprudence.  Of course, as long as this direction doesn't hit them personally.

There are genuine problems of increasing crime and corruption.  But to presume guilt based on a mere complaint (which may be mala fide) is a sure recipe for a police state, especially since the act of complaining is a privilege.  Since the police registers your complaint only in exceptional circumstances (based on a bribe or a connection), to enact such laws is to give untold power of harassment to privileged individuals.  If you get into the bad books of an influential person in India, with these laws, not even God can save you.

There already exist a plethora of such laws in India.  The dowry death law, the law against possession or eating of beef (currently enacted in Madhya Pradesh), the various laws about rape, and so on.

The most recent example is the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Bill (2011).  Child sexual abuse is a serious issue and needs to be firmly tackled, but you cannot throw the burden onto the defendant.  It is the state's job to protect its citizens, and if a child is a citizen, so is an accused (until proven guilty).  The state cannot privilege one set of citizens at the cost of others.

The bill was passed by "voice vote" in the Lok Sabha, which makes me believe that many MPs might not even have browsed through the bill.  Of course, it is politically incorrect to rail against a bill which protects "helpless women" or children, but as a concerned citizen pessimistic about the future of human rights in India, I cannot remain quiet.

Section 29 of the bill needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms:

"Where a person is prosecuted for committing or abetting or attempting to commit any offence under sections 3, 5, 7 and section 9 of this Act, the Special Court shall presume, that such person has committed the offence, unless the contrary is proved."

If you think draconian laws are needed in India, then we might as well invite the British back.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Don't eat potatoes, to banish casteism and other ills

Came across this request-for-advice post on Reddit:
"Posting from a throwaway... My gf is (27) , me (28) both working in high end IT jobs in Bangalore. Me a hindu (bengali) she a muslim from kerala.. Both atheists. We have been living together for the past 1 yr (relationship for 3 yrs) While we both love each other very much ,the families are completely against it. We have been fighting to convince my parents for the last 1.5 yrs. (snipped ...)
Edit: my parents are 65+ , have high BP etc so their health is one concern I always have."
The last sentence caught my attention.  Maybe I have seen too many movies, but in a lot of Hindi films, people get into bad marriages, choose bad careers, and give up on their dreams because ... their parents might die of a heart attack if they do anything "shocking".

Indian parents owe it to their children to be shock-resistant during their fifties and sixties, the age during when their children will make important life decisions.  That is, they should have healthy hearts.  And this shock-resistance can be achieved only by changing one's diet and by keeping fit.

That is what this article is really about, in case you were wondering.

I find, to my obvious distress, that lifestyle diseases are gaining epidemic proportions in Indian affluent classes.  An earlier modest proposal has been subject to widespread ridicule from feminists and their bloviating ilk.  Never mind; hopefully my present suggestions will find kinder ears.

I believe that Indian affluent classes live an unhealthy life.  Our parents' generation (those born before the 1960s) did not, in general, have exercise and a healthy diet as their priorities.  They were more focused on providing a stable and healthy environment for assholes (like yours truly) to grow and become good human beings.  Whether they succeeded in their goal is anybody's guess.

A few points to note:

  • The West did not give us junk food, even though we might like to believe it.  We already had fried nutrition-less food (samosas, pooris, dosas, pakodas, parathas, aloo tikki, halwa, jalebi and so on) which we used to consume with gusto.  An Indian sweets shop (halwaai ki dukaan) is full of junk food, and has nothing but junk food.
  • Food cooked at home is much healthier and has more vegetables in it.  But even there, rotis and rice are a major ingredient.  Salads are generally only a puny, side dish and desserts and fruit at the end of the meal make sure one can do little else but sleep after the meal.
  • Exercising for small-town folks is to take a lumbering walk in the suburbs.  For the 14th floor Gurgaon literati, it is to do "sooksham vyayam" (micro exercises) and some yoga stretching.  Nobody likes to break a sweat or to lose their breath.  
  • We like to think Yoga and Ayurveda are the word of God when it comes to exercise and tonics, but sorry, they are both thoroughly pseudo when it comes to cardiac health.  Yoga Asanas are, beyond the rudimentary stretchy ones, are useless exercises in contortion, and Ayurveda, as my dad likes to say, has just Amla (Indian Gooseberry), a rich source of Vitamin C, in its arsenal.
  • North Indian street food (Dhaba food) is not much better than American fast food.  It is in many cases, worse. Try to find a green vegetable dish in a dhaba menu.  The major dishes are either wheat (parathas, naans), cheese and fat (paneer dishes), potato (aloo matar, dum aloo, etc.), or nutritionally-destroyed and color-added spinach (palak dishes).  Salad usually means a few pieces of cucumber, tomato and onions.  
  • In the south rice is overwhelmingly the main calorie contributor in one's food.  However, south Indian thali (combo meal) is somewhat better than its north Indian counterpart, having yogurt and unfried vegetables, and sambar, chutney and rasam.
  • Indians don't drink, they get drunk. 
After surveying a lot of literature on diets and exercises, I have come to the following conclusions which I consider worthy-of-consideration by my fellow Indians who are sick of their diet and are wanting to have a healthier heart and body:
  • Do not eat out.  If you go to a party, have lemonade and some peanuts for starters, and dal (lentils), a portion of fish or chicken if available and if you eat meat, and some salad for dinner.  Everything else is junk food.
  • If you don't have anything to eat at home, try Subway 97% fat-free sandwiches (without the cheese, please, and no mayo-based sauces in the end).  They are available in almost every town I think.  If you are vegetarian, try the Veg Shammi sub.  For your own sake, please don't go to a fried fast food joint.
  • Give up on sugar, rice, maida, potatoes and soft drinks.  These will make you fat.  If you cannot give up on sweet things and like to have tea or coffee with sugar, switch to using Sucralose (Indian brands: Sugar-Free Natura, Splenda, Relish).
  • Drink lots of water.  A half-liter a half-hour before a meal works wonders.
  • At home, eat meals which are up-to 500 K-calories, having almost no carbohydrates in them, have a lot of raw food (low-sugar fruit, salads, sprouts and nuts), and eat slowly.
  • Lose your breath at least three times a week, for sustained periods.  Brisk walking is a good exercise, but it needs to be really brisk (7km per hour).
  • If you are not fond of gyms, and want to condition your body, do body-weight exercises like squats, push-ups and sit-ups.  Pull ups too, if you can manage.  Surya Namaskar is not really Yoga but is an extremely good exercise.  A western kind-of-equivalent, much harder for a beginner, is the Burpee's.  If you do ten repetitions of Burpee's, I guarantee you will be out of your breath.  If you can do three sets, bravo, your son can finally marry that Ethiopian hottie!
  • Do not drink beer.  Water is really the best drink, but if you have to have alcohol for social reasons, have a drink or two and enjoy the conversation and the social lubrication, not the drinking and the effects of alcohol.
  • Curd/Yogurt is good for you.
  • Be moderate (it is okay to eat the forbidden stuff every once in a while), and be quiet about your diet. Don't bore others.
  • Be regular in your exercise.  After a while, it will become a habit and you will curse the day when you haven't been able to break a sweat.
  • Keep standing a lot.  And up till five floors, always take the stairs.  It takes less time than waiting for the elevator, and you hear interesting stuff (elevators are usually quiet, stairways are usually buzzing with gossip).
I assure you, if you follow most of the above guidelines, you will live to be ninety, and will have multicultural grandchildren!

Of course, if you didn't have any kids, neither will they.  Logical, no?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Ruthlessness, Compassion and Leadership

Many years back, I came across a quote on Leadership which has stuck with me.  It said, to the effect, that the prime ingredient in a leader is ruthlessness.  That sometimes decisions need to be made which end up hurting someone or the other, and someone without the requisite thick skin will get too stressed over that decision.

Consider the role of a military general who knows that there will be casualties, including civilian deaths, in his campaign.  A more humane fellow will act like the emperor Ashoka and give up warfare altogether instead of hurting even a single soul.  Someone like Rommel or Patton will not bat an eyelid and plunge into the bloodbath.

Consider the role of a CEO who has to trim the workforce to remain profitable, and has to therefore dismiss many deserving employees.

Consider the role of a criminal judge, who has to sentence a guilty accused to years of suffering despite seeing tears of remorse on his/her face.

On a much smaller scale, consider a parent who cannot bear to see an infant crying but immediately gives in to its every demand and whim.  A stronger-nerved, less sentimental parent is a more successful parent.

A young person who leaves home in his twenties and enters the "big bad world" quickly learns that sensitivity, transparency and empathy that are the hallmarks of family life and of very small groups is a handicap when it comes to managing large groups and worldly success.

I am guessing that not only does a large group make it impractical for the leader to empathize with everybody, that even if he could, it would be a bad idea for his own psychological health.  He would feel paralyzed, guilty, and regretful at having chosen a course of action which caused suffering for some, even if it was the optimal decision under the circumstances.  His persona would quickly get shattered under this sustained stress of big-decision-making.

This might be considered controversial, but the preponderance of the nurturing and empathetic instincts in the human female might mean that she, as a generalization, has less capability to be ruthless in a sustained manner.

Moreover, I think that the Indian psyche, in particular, is predominantly sentimental, Machiavellian and feminine, unable to take harsh decisions and engage in direct conflict.  Instead of hurting someone else and confronting an injustice, we would much rather bear our pain silently.  Revenge and curative measures, rather than preemptive aggression, seems to run in Indian culture.

The greatest leader we have had in the last century was a man who was deeply religious and peace-loving (even if only as a show), considered meat-eating and sexual intercourse as sins, and whose main tactic was to arouse sympathy and consensus by starving himself.  Is this trait in our culture one of the factors in present India's alarming lack of strong leaders?

Universal compassion, wanting not to hurt anybody at all, giving everybody a chance, and so on, is an un-leader-like trait.  Nature rewards the ambitious and the competitive: just reflect on the fact that the fastest sperm wins the battle for fertilization.

Good leaders try not to make too many enemies, and "manage" the episodes which are painful to others by careful messaging and a show of some (perhaps genuine) empathy.

What do you think?

Monday, May 07, 2012

Two Women, Singers

Exhibit A:

Enya Brennan, an Irish singer and musician, born 1961.  Known for her lilting, soothing music.  Personal and relationship details mostly unknown (she values her privacy), except that she has remained unmarried.

Her music celebrates love, dream-like imagery, nurturing, longing, nature, beauty and joy.

Some songs:

(an interesting musical re-composition here)

Exhibit B:

Sinéad O'Connor, another Irish singer and musician, born 1966.  Known for her shaved head (as a protest against "traditional views of women" (ref Wikipedia)), acerbic and militant views, feminism, failed relationships (her fourth marriage lasted seventeen days) , songs of pain and hurt, public expression of her sexual proclivities, and so on.

Some songs (that I have liked, by the way):